Does Putin’s Russia resemble the Shah’s Iran?

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Does Putin’s Russia resemble the Shah’s Iran? This is the question Boris Kagarlitsky ponders in his recent column “The Shah’s Iran & Putin’s Russia” on Eurasian Home. His argument runs like this. Like the Shah’s Iran, Putin has successfully created an economy that shows stable growth based on oil and gas exports. However, also like Iran, this formula doesn’t look promising to bring Russia out of its peripheral position in the world economy. In fact, just the opposite. If you listen to world systems theory, Russia will remain peripheral as long as it continues to supply core states—China and the European Union—with the fuels that move their economy only to give it back to Russia in the form of consumer imports. Russia may be able to dictate the terms of trade with raw materials, but to keep its population fat with consumer items; it needs to be cautious in how far it pushes.

Kagarlitsky’s argument goes beyond petrol exports. Putin’s “modernization” also involves in the development of a capitalist class that is adept in the rules of the market and international trade. Modernization is more than an economic project; it is also an ethical project. This has led him to restricting the business elite in general, while allowing a section of it that is loyal to his government flourish. Basically, Putin has traded one set of oligarchs for another. For Kagarlitsky, this has the potential to blow up in Putin’s face. Despite what people may think, holding state power requires two of three things: the military, the elite, and/or the common people. Currently, Putin has the first and a sizable portion of the third, with the second is a bit tenuous. Part of the elite supports him, while another part is probably ready to bolt, that is, if they had someone to bolt to.

According to Kagarlitsky, the “illusion” to Putin’s power lies in the oil prosperity.

The oligarch economy structure also remains unchanged. The market reforms are still in progress. The substitution of one oligarch by another may just make this policy work better. Technology development, national projects and modernization are much spoken about. The middle class should be satisfied by comfortable consumption conditions and well-paid jobs. The system’s work, however, is more of a show rather than of the efficiency. The glamour conceives the undecided problems. The superficiality of the ruling elite will sooner or later become obvious to an impartial observer. The Iranian capitalism under the last Shah, just like the Russian capitalism under Putin, had too narrow social and economic basis, leaving two thirds of the population at nothing. The oil prosperity maintains the illusion of stability. Just illusion, that’s it. As we look closer, we see the clouds in the horizon gathering.

Where would the people go? Certainly not to religious organizations like in Iran. Kagarlitsky thinks that Russian nationalist forces have the best chance of capitalizing on a disgruntled population. There are already signs of this.

[The] increasing number of the nationalist and fascist groups is starting to seriously worry the Kremlin. If our authorities are actually capable of learning at least some lessons from the past, then that would be it. They are doing their best to keep the nationalist bloc from consolidation, limiting its emerging leaders’ ambitions, preventing formation of the solid structures. “Rodina” was shown its place. Orthodox church is not a Shiite mosque, it will not object to the state. Numerous fascist groupings, from the killer skinhead to the Movement Against Illegal Immigration (MAII) are a serious trouble for citizens with “non-Aryan” looks, still not being a political force and are unlikely to become one. Even if the Communist Party turns all of its meetings into propaganda hang-outs for the racist MAII, this is still not enough to make the fascist movement highly influential. However, the authorities got a problem: it is kind of complicated to fight the right extremism and at the same time stand out for the civil society. The war at the two fronts demands considerable efforts, resources and attention, which they just might be too short of. Besides, keeping up appearances is also on the agenda, i.e. avoiding extremes while pursuing policy of repressions or at least having devices at hand to cover it. At the beginning of the 2000s nationalist movements in Russia were in a crisis. Even the Communist Party (which, regardless of its name, is the major nationalist party) was wavering. In the party, especially in its youth sector, communist movements were emerging, modestly trying to appeal to the name and the history of their organization. By mid-decade however, the racist and nationalistic forces in Russia have gotten their second chance. Successful “mop-up” of the civil society created favorable conditions. Putin was doing such a good job pulling the flowers in his garden that had made plenty of room for the weeds.

Such political garden is not needed even to the administration. The state machine is slowly changing fronts. “The fight against fascism” is becoming a popular ideological tune, and the Kremlin is even willing to pay overtime to those ready to sing it. No wonder that the number of struggling with the fascist menace is multiplying. But all of them are not quite right people. If you have been systematically cracking down on the civil society don’t be surprised to see different sorts of crooks being the only ones coming to your call.

This supports my theory that Putin and United Russia has positioned themselves in the political center. They both stand as the defenders of stability by denouncing the left, in the form of liberal parties, and the right, represented by nationalist parties. Putinism, if giving it an “–ism” is even appropriate, is politics through negativity—you are what your opponents aren’t. You brand them as harbingers of instability, thereby making you a partisan of stability without ever having to actually state how you will maintain said stability. The only question that remains is if two thirds of the population remains economically disenfranchised will the center hold? And if so how long? Who will occupy the new political center?