Apart from Catherine II and Peter I (“the Greats”), Alexander II (“the Liberator”) and Mikhail Gorbachev, few Russian leaders appear to be respected today by both Russians and the world. Boris Yeltsin demonstrated courage and democratic instincts as the twice freely-elected president of Russia in the 1990s. Most of the world’s democrats would probably say his most serious mistake was resigning his position in 2000 to Vladimir Putin, who would assert five years later that the “collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century.”
Russians have demonstrated for centuries that despotic governance can be transcended by a determined and talented population. In science, music, sports, literature, ballet and other fields, Russians continue to excel.
Unfortunately, prosperity continues to elude most Russians, partly because from 1917 until the 1990s ideologues banned the manufacture of virtually any consumer product foreigners might wish to buy. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) says that the average household net-adjusted disposable income for a Russian family in 2013 was $15,286, placing it at number 30 of the 36 OECD developed-economy nations.
Mr. Putin declared before becoming president that petroleum was central to Russia becoming a great economic power. Since 2000, his economic and political focus has been the oil and gas industry and about 150 oligarchs. Through strong-arming, his government’s share of national oil production increased from a fifth in the early 2000s to 56 per cent today. In 2012, Russia accounted for 12 per cent of global oil output, surpassing Saudi Arabia by pumping almost 10.4 million barrels per day, with over half being exported. Having the world’s largest proven reserves of natural gas, Russia is also the top producer, accounting for about a fifth of the world total.
Keeping Europe short-sightedly dependent on Russian imports in a period of growing international oil/gas abundance and Ukraine relying on deeply discounted prices proved a good strategy. Now that the Ukraine/Crimea crisis is reported to have caused capital outflows from Russia in the first quarter of 2014 alone as large as $70 billion, Russians might realize that European harmony is essential if the wider Russian economy is to improve the lives of the great majority of its citizens.
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Transparency International ranked Russia in its 2013 Corruption Perception Index as 127 out of 177 countries. Mr. Putin refuses to list his personal assets publicly, but there have been many viewings of his opulent lifestyle. His KGB career, which culminated with his appointment as head of Federal Security in 1998, provided years of experience in a murky world. As former U.S. secretary of state Madeleine Albright noted in a recent interview, "Putin has deliberately – or maybe he’s just a victim of his own propaganda – made up a whole set of facts on a series of things."
Serious economic and social issues across Russia continue to be ignored in Moscow. Maureen Orth, the award winning journalist writing in the current issue of Vanity Fair, focuses on two social issues on which the government should be directing full attention and resources:
Twenty-five percent of Russian men still die before the age of 55, many from alcoholism and the violent deaths … it fosters. (Mark) Schrad has recently published Vodka Politics, which analyzes how vodka has been used throughout Russian history, from tzars to dictators, as a means of social control … 77 per cent of kids between the ages of 15 and 17 drink vodka regularly; in rural areas, the percentage can be as high as 90. Russia has more heroin addicts than any other country…
… only 30 per cent of Russian babies are born healthy … many unhealthy Russian babies are ‘discarded’ – sent to government institutions where they often develop cognitive difficulties. Unhealthy children grow up to be unhealthy adults: half of the conscripted Russian army has to be put in limited service because of poor health.
Moscow’s role internationally under Putin has been consistently destructive of basic human rights. For Syria, for example, where the UK-based Syrian Observatory said this week that 150,344 deaths have been documented since the conflict began in March 2011, Mr. Putin has used Russia’s permanent veto at the UN Security Council consistently to assist the Assad regime in its brutal war against many of his own citizens.
Whether Mr. Putin wants 143 million fellow Russians to live better lives or to be further isolated economically and politically by the international community is clearly now in his hands. The real-life game of "chicken" continues. It appears for the moment that Putin might exchange peace with the rest of Ukraine for a Moscow veto over key decisions made by its new government and the successor president to be elected now on May 25.
Yet as Mark MacKinnon wrote this week in the Globe and Mail, at least in respect of joining NATO and the European Union, "the Ukrainians that Mr. Putin is wishing out of the equation just spent three months staring down Mr. Yanukovych’s riot police. They won’t simply back down now.” Indeed!
David Kilgour is co-chair of the Canadian Friends of a Democratic Iran and a director of the Washington-based Council for a Community of Democracies (CCD). He is a former MP for both the Conservative and Liberal Parties in the south-east region of Edmonton and has also served as the Secretary of State for Latin America and Africa, Secretary of State for Asia-Pacific and Deputy Speaker of the House.