News / Europe

Russian Foreign Policy Reflects Domestic Dysfunction

President Vladimir Putin answers journalists' questions on current situation in Ukraine at the Novo-Ogaryovo presidential residence outside Moscow, March 4, 2014.
President Vladimir Putin answers journalists' questions on current situation in Ukraine at the Novo-Ogaryovo presidential residence outside Moscow, March 4, 2014.
Vladimir Putin appears well on his way to reclaiming the Crimea for Russia, restoring the peninsula to a status forfeited by Nikita Khrushchev’s Soviet Union in 1954.

But this territorial achievement may provide only temporary distraction for Russia’s 140 million people who have seen their quality of life deteriorate dramatically since Putin took power in 1999.

In an important new book “Russians, The People Behind the Power,” former NPR Moscow correspondent Gregory Feifer depicts a society with a thin crony capitalist veneer that is increasingly afflicted by corruption, alcoholism and other social ills. While none of these are new for Russia, what is surprising is that they have gotten so much worse under Putin.

Although Putin is far more disciplined than the man who anointed him -- Boris Yeltsin, a heavy drinker who came to personify Russia’s loss of status following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 -- the system Putin has put in place is, Feifer writes, “far more corrupt and inequitable … than anything seen under Yeltsin.”

While Moscow dazzles with new restaurants, boutiques and nightclubs patronized by a privileged elite, the countryside crumbles and the business environment is increasingly distorted by corruption. According to Feifer, the bribes ordinary businessmen must pay simply to operate have increased more than six-fold from an average $23,000 a year when Putin took office to $135,000. Corrupt officials and oligarchs have spirited much of this cash abroad; Feifer cites figures of between $49 billion and $70 billion in capital flight each year.

Corruption crushes innovation except in the literary world, where Putin’s authoritarianism has sparked new work as Soviet oppression once stimulated  remarkable underground art. Otherwise, the Russian economy is all about taking – exploiting Russia’s still ample natural resources instead of making products that anyone would want to buy.

Most depressingly, rule of law remains as -- if not more -- elusive than in communist or tsarist times. The recent introduction of jury trials means little in a system where those acquitted can be repeatedly retried by the state and anyone who falls afoul of the Kremlin can be jailed on flimsy charges or sent to languish in Siberia.

Watchdogs brave incredible risks and pay the price: a dozen journalists have been killed under Putin’s reign.

Russians are coping as they have historically – dulling their senses with alcohol. While life expectancy for men has improved slightly from 59 after the collapse of communism to 64, that still puts Russia 166 in the world, one rung above Gambia. The World Health Care organization ranks Russian health care at 130, a precipitous slide from the low 20s in the 1970s.

Alcohol kills one out of five men who die in Russia each year; Russian males consume a staggering 35 liters – almost 10 gallons – of pure alcohol a year according to Feifer. Tuberculosis – often contracted in prison -- kills 20,000 people annually compared to only 500 in the US, which has twice the population. HIV-AIDs is the third cause of early death, with at least 700,000 registered cases. Because of the high death toll for men, women outnumber them by more than 10 million. Russian women also suffer disproportionately from domestic violence.

These depressing statistics reflect a society that has failed to rebuild even a tattered social security net despite billions gleaned from oil and natural gas. Of course, much of that revenue lines the pockets of officials close to Putin instead of being put to productive use.

Feifer compares Russia’s president – whose current term runs to 2018 and who may run again, giving him a reign longer than Stalin’s -- to a mafia don who doles out favors and arbitrates between competing henchmen, making sure to target old allies occasionally to keep everyone else off balance.

Unfortunately, what happens in Russia does not stay in Russia but has implications for Russian foreign policy. Feifer reminds readers of how Putin re-asserted control in 2008 over two enclaves once attached to Georgia and why Putin is so resistant to regime change in Syria, Russia’s only remaining ally in the Middle East.

Anti-Americanism is a default position for Putin, once a mid-level KGB operative, and is likely to intensify if the Barack Obama administration imposes severe penalties on Russia for its imminent re-absorption of Crimea.

Feifer’s book helps illuminate the deep insecurity behind Russia’s hardball foreign policy. “Good things rarely come from the feelings of insecurity that go together with those of inferiority,” he writes. “In Russia’s case, those feelings …often prompt defensive posturing and sometimes, as in the war with Georgia, dangerous aggressiveness.”

Feifer, who wrote this book before the latest crisis in the Ukraine, advises the United States to try to integrate Russia into the international community where possible but to “make clear that Western countries will stand up for their values.”

Ironically, it was Russia’s disastrous showing in the Crimean War of the 19th century that ushered in much-needed domestic reforms, such as the abolition of serfdom. It is difficult to see how this latest series of events in Crimea will persuade Russia to act as a constructive actor on the international stage while it becomes increasingly dysfunctional at home.

Barbara Slavin

Barbara Slavin is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and a correspondent for Al-Monitor.com, a website specializing in the Middle East. She is the author of a 2007 book, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the US and the Twisted Path to Confrontation, and is a regular commentator on U.S. foreign policy and Iran on NPR, PBS, C-SPAN and the Voice of America.

You May Like

Tired of Waiting, South Africans Demand Change ‘Now’

With chronic poverty and lack of basic services largely fueling recent xenophobic attacks, many in Rainbow Nation say it’s time for government to act More

Challenges Ahead for China's Development Plans in Pakistan

Planned $46 billion in energy and infrastructure investments in Pakistan are aimed at transforming the country into a regional hub for trade and investment More

Audio 'Forbidden City' Revisits Little Known Era of Asian-American Entertainment

Little-known chapter of entertainment history captured in 80s documentary is revisited in new digitally remastered format and book More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: EstherUghMuffin from: Texas, USA
March 15, 2014 8:52 PM
I agree with everything you said, except. Don't forget the Bear's bite can damage the West. Now, we must consider that Bear will bite, so we have gone from the frying pan into the fire. Thank you.

by: Gennady from: Russia, Volga Region
March 15, 2014 10:25 AM
Actually, Barbara Slavin has presented nothing of her own findings on Russia, just an abstract of aforementioned book written by former NPR Moscow correspondent Gregory Feifer. The original article to write, it would be much better her to be personally familiar with contemporary Russia.

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Study: Insecticide Damaging Wild Bee Populationsi
X
April 24, 2015 10:13 PM
A popular but controversial type of insecticide is damaging important wild bee populations, according to a new study. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.
Video

Video Study: Insecticide Damaging Wild Bee Populations

A popular but controversial type of insecticide is damaging important wild bee populations, according to a new study. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.
Video

Video Data Servers Could Heat Private Homes

As every computer owner knows, when their machines run a complex program they get pretty hot. In fact, cooling the processors can be expensive, especially when you're dealing with huge banks of computer servers. But what if that energy could heat private homes? VOA’s George Putic reports that a Dutch energy firm aims to do just that.
Video

Video Cinema That Crosses Borders Showcased at Tribeca Film Festival

Among the nearly 100 feature length films being shown at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York City are more than 20 documentaries and features with international appeal, from a film about a Congolese businessman in China, to documentaries shot in Pakistan and diaspora communities in the U.S., to a poetic look at disaffected South African youth. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.
Video

Video UN Confronts Threat of Young Radicals

The radicalization and recruitment of young people into Islamist extremist groups has become a growing challenge for governments worldwide. On Thursday, the U.N. Security Council heard from experts on the issue, which has become a potent threat to international peace and security. VOA’s Margaret Besheer reports.
Video

Video Growing Numbers of Turks Discover Armenian Ancestry

In a climate of improved tolerance, growing numbers of people in Turkey are discovering their grandmothers were Armenian. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians escaped the mass deportations and slaughter of the early 1900's by forced conversion to Islam. Or, Armenian children were taken in by Turkish families and assimilated. Now their stories are increasingly being heard. Dorian Jones reports from Istanbul that the revelations are viewed as an important step.
Video

Video Migrants Trek Through Western Balkans to Reach EU

Migrants from Africa and other places are finding different routes into the European Union in search of a better life. The Associated Press followed one clandestine group to document their trek through the western Balkans to Hungary. Zlatica Hoke reports that the migrants started using that route about four years ago. Since then, it has become the second-most popular path into Western Europe, after the option of sailing from North Africa to Italy.
Video

Video TIME Magazine Honors Activists, Pioneers Seen as Influential

TIME Magazine has released its list of celebrities, leaders and activists, whom it deems the world’s “most influential” in 2015. VOA's Ramon Taylor reports from New York.
Video

Video US Businesses See Cuba as New Frontier

The Obama administration's opening toward Cuba is giving U.S. companies hope they'll be able to do business in Cuba despite the continuation of the U.S. economic embargo against the communist nation. Some American companies have been able to export some products to Cuba, but the recent lifting of Cuba's terrorism designation could relax other restrictions. As VOA's Daniela Schrier reports, corporate heavy hitters are lining up to head across the Florida Straits - though experts urge caution.
Video

Video Kenya Launches Police Recruitment Drive After Terror Attacks

Kenya launched a major police recruitment drive this week as part of a large-scale effort to boost security following a recent spate of terror attacks. VOA’s Gabe Joselow reports that allegations of corruption in the process are raising old concerns about the integrity of Kenya’s security forces.
Video

Video Japan, China in Race for Asia High-Speed Rail Projects

A lucrative competition is underway in Asia for billions of dollars in high-speed rail projects. Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia Thailand and Vietnam are among the countries planning to move onto the fast track. They are negotiating with Japan and the upstart Chinese who are locked in a duel to revolutionize transportation across Asia. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman in Bangkok has details.
Video

Video Scientists: Mosquitoes Attracted By Our Genes

Some people always seem to get bitten by mosquitoes more than others. Now, scientists have proved that is really the case - and they say it’s all because of genes. It’s hoped the research might lead to new preventative treatments for diseases like malaria, as Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Bible Museum Coming to Washington DC

Washington is the center of American political power and also home to some of the nation’s most visited museums. A new one that will showcase the Bible has skeptics questioning the motives of its conservative Christian funders. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Armenia and Politics of Word 'Genocide'

A century ago this April, hundreds of thousands of Armenians of the Turkish Ottoman empire were deported and massacred, and their culture erased from their traditional lands. While broadly accepted by the U.N. and at least 20 countries as “genocide”, the United States and Turkey have resisted using that word to describe the atrocities that stretched from 1915 to 1923. But Armenians have never forgotten.
Video

Video Afghan First Lady Pledges No Roll Back on Women's Rights

Afghan First Lady Rula Ghani, named one of Time's 100 Most Influential, says women should take part in talks with Taliban. VOA's Rokhsar Azamee has more from Kabul.
Video

Video New Brain Mapping Techniques Could Ease Chronic Pain

From Boulder, Colorado, Shelley Schlender reports that new methods for mapping pain in the brain are providing validation for chronic pain and might someday guide better treatment.

VOA Blogs