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Opinion | Russia on a roll? Not so fast, corruption continues

Published: Monday, December 2, 2013

Updated: Tuesday, December 3, 2013 00:12

Taking in Edward Snowden, brokering a deal on Syria’s chemical weapons, offering to sell weapons to Egypt after the U.S. refused to, and most recently, persuading former Soviet republics Armenia and Ukraine not to sign an integration pact with the EU; Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to be on a roll, all against the backdrop of the upcoming Sochi Olympics. In recognition of his recent successes, last month, Forbes named Putin the most powerful man in the world.

But we shouldn’t be that naïve. Au contraire, we may be witnessing the death throes of the Putin regime.

In fact, some of Moscow’s foreign policy “successes” have come by default as a result of good timing and Western weakness. Take Syria, where the war-weary U.S. were reluctant to get involved in another Middle Eastern conflict, especially after the UK backed down. Moscow capitalized on this after Assad’s regime, which it has supported and armed from day one, murdered over 1,000 Syrians in one chemical weapons attack. The Russians lied to the international community about their knowledge of the attack, giving Assad cover at the UN. What’s more, the deal that Moscow brokered did nothing to stop the suffering there.

Regarding Snowden, the Kremlin benefited when he got stuck in Moscow’s Sheremetevo airport. Russia’s refusal to humiliatingly bow to the U.S. and not extradite him was nothing extraordinary. But, when spy-gate hit, Putin was sitting pretty. And Moscow’s offer to fill the arms-supply vacuum left after the U.S. decided to cut off arms shipments to the Egyptian army was just that. Plus, weapons exports are one of the most important and corrupt sectors of the Russian economy.

The recent decisions of Armenia and Ukraine to pass on Association Agreements (after meetings with Putin) with the EU that promised economic growth, but demanded economic, political, and judicial reform, are merely short-term victories for Moscow. In response, massive protests, verging on revolution, broke out across Ukraine, reflecting the desire of a plurality of Ukrainians to join Europe. Only lowly Armenia agreed to accede to Moscow’s floundering Customs Union, a project ostensibly aimed at the economic reintegration of the former USSR, but in reality, a poorly-disguised Russian attempt to control its neighbors. And only through a combination of bribery and extortion did the Kremlin get its desired result, although it failed to stop Georgia and Moldova from signing their own Association Agreements. Russia threatened trade embargos, higher tariffs, energy price hikes and supply disruptions, expulsion of labor migrants, and most heinously, in the case of Armenia, to arm its rival, neighbor Azerbaijan.

Outside of this, Moscow is increasingly an international pariah because of its antidemocratic and illiberal rhetoric and policies. The Kremlin’s closest, ‘voluntary’ friends are a who’s-who of corrupt, crackpot authoritarian leaders.

At home, the Putin regime’s domestic standing is getting weaker by the day. Extreme intolerance and hatred of the millions of labor migrants, who hail principally from Russia’s internal and external south, are widespread. Meanwhile, the racist police and security services that run and profit from illegal immigration allow racial violence to go on. And because the Kremlin tries to remain in the middle, it is despised by all. In addition, there are alarming levels of xenophobic and homophobic sentiments in the country, egged on by state propaganda. Liberals and all those who espouse “non-traditional” lifestyles have no place in Russian society, according to the Kremlin.

As for the Russian economy, it is in steady decline. Putin has allowed his friends and siloviki, or people of the state security services, to take over and impose their statist economic beliefs. This has encouraged stealing and corruption, already costing the economy an estimated $300 billion a year, trampling the rule of law and stifling needed innovation and investment. It was thus not surprising to hear Russia’s economic minister announce that the economy would grow by only 2.5 percent annually until 2030. Adding insult to injury, demand for and easily extractable supplies of Russian energy are falling, paralleling improvements in energy efficiency and the so-called shale gas revolution Consequently, the Kremlin will have less money to grease the political system and pay for the meager social programs it provides; the previous, unspoken social contract of economic growth in exchange for the masses’ political apathy is all but over. That also means less money to bribe foreign officials and subsidize allies.

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