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

Video Biden Attends Services at Emanuel AME

Biden said he came to Sunday’s services because he and his family wanted to show solidarity with the families and the church More

Diverse Nation

Here's why minorities could become the US majority sooner than expected More

Rush of Same-Sex Marriages Follows US Supreme Court Ruling

But swift backlash from conservative groups foreshadows battles ahead 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.
US Gay Marriage Ruling Yields Real-life Impacti
X
Michael Bowman
June 28, 2015 10:05 PM
Friday’s landmark Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage throughout the United States is an outcome few thought possible just years ago, and shows a nation that increasingly tolerates and even celebrates the hopes and aspirations of gay people. VOA’s Michael Bowman spoke to a same-sex couple that will benefit from the high court ruling, and to a Christian scholar who is apprehensive about its potential consequences for America’s faith community.
Video

Video US Gay Marriage Ruling Yields Real-life Impact

Friday’s landmark Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage throughout the United States is an outcome few thought possible just years ago, and shows a nation that increasingly tolerates and even celebrates the hopes and aspirations of gay people. VOA’s Michael Bowman spoke to a same-sex couple that will benefit from the high court ruling, and to a Christian scholar who is apprehensive about its potential consequences for America’s faith community.
Video

Video Syrians Flee IS Advance in Hasaka

The Syrian government said Monday it has taken back one of several districts in Hasaka overrun by Islamic State militants. But continued fighting elsewhere in the northern city has forced thousands of civilians from their homes. In this report narrated by Bill Rodgers, VOA Kurdish Service reporter Zana Omer describes the scene in Amouda, where some of the displaced are taking refuge.
Video

Video Rabbi Hits Road to Heal Jewish-Muslim Relations in France

France is on high alert after last week's terrorist attack near the city Lyon, just six months after deadly Paris shootings. The attack have added new tensions to relations between French Jews and Muslims. France’s Jewish and Muslim communities also share a common heritage, though, and as far as one French rabbi is concerned, they are destined to be friends. From the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, Lisa Bryant reports about Rabbi Michel Serfaty and his friendship bus.
Video

Video S. Korea Christians Protest Gay Rights Festival

The U.S. Supreme Court decision mandating marriage equality nationwide has energized gay rights supporters around the world. Gay rights remain a highly contentious issue in a key U.S. ally, South Korea, where police did a deft job Sunday of preventing potential clashes between Christian protesters and gay activists. Kurt Achin reports from Seoul.
Video

Video Saudi Leaks Expose ‘Checkbook Diplomacy’ In Battle With Iran

Saudi Arabia’s willingness to wield its oil money on the global diplomatic stage appears to have been laid bare, after the website WikiLeaks published tens of thousands of leaked cables from Riyadh’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Nubians in Kenya Face Land Challenges

East Africa's ethnic Nubians have a rich cultural history that dates back thousands of years, but in Kenya they are facing hardships, including the loss of lands they have lived on for generations. They say the government has reneged on its pledge to award them title deeds for the plots. VOA's Lenny Ruvaga reports.
Video

Video Syrian Refugees Return to Tal Abyad

Syrian refugees in Turkey confirm they left their hometown of Tal Abyad because of intense fighting and coalition airstrikes, not because Kurdish fighters were engaged in ethnic cleansing, as some Turkish officials charged. VOA Kurdish Service reporter Zana Omer, in Tal Abyad, finds that civilians coming back to the town agree, as we hear in this report narrated by Roger Wilkison.
Video

Video Military Experts Question New Russian Tank Capabilities

Russia has been showing off its new tank design – the Armata T-14. Designers claim it is 20 years ahead of current Western designs - and driving it feels like playing a computer game. But military analysts question those assertions, and warn the cost could be too heavy a burden for Russia’s struggling economy. Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video In Kenya, Police Said to Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

An organization that documents torture and extrajudicial killings says Kenyan police were responsible for 1,252 shooting deaths in five cities, including Nairobi, between 2009 and 2014, representing 67 percent of all gun deaths in the areas reviewed. Gabe Joselow has more from Nairobi.
Video

Video In Syrian Crisis, Social Media Offer Small Comforts

Za’atari, a makeshift city in Jordan, may be the only Syrian refugee camp to tweet its activities, in an effort to keep donors motivated as the war in Syria intensifies and the humanitarian crisis deepens. Inside the camp, families say mobile phone applications help hold together families that are physically torn apart. VOA’s Heather Murdock reports.
Video

Video Chemical-Sniffing Technology Fights Australia's Graffiti Vandals

Cities and towns all over the world spend huge amounts of resources battling graffiti writers who deface buildings, public transport vehicles and even monuments. Authorities in Sydney, Australia, hope a new chemical-sniffing technology finally will stop vandals from scribbling on walls in the passenger areas of commuter trains. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Cambodia Struggling to Curb Child Labor

Earlier this year a United Nations report found 10 percent of Cambodian children aged 7-14 are working – one of the highest rates in the region – and said one in four children in that age bracket are forced to quit school to help their families. Although the child labor rate has dropped over the past decade, Cambodia has a lot more to do – including keeping more children in school. Robert Carmichael reports for VOA from Phnom Penh.

VOA Blogs