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

Katrina Brought Enduring Changes to New Orleans

The city’s recovery is the result of the people and culture the city is famous for, as well as newcomers and start-up industries More

China to Open Stock Markets to Pension Funds

In unprecedented move, government to soon allow local pension funds to invest up to $94 billion in domestic shares More

1 Billion People Used Facebook on Single Day

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg praised the accomplishment in a posting on the social media site 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.
Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalatesi
X
August 27, 2015 2:08 AM
Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Is China's Economic Data Accurate?

Some investors say China's wild stock market gyrations have been made worse by worries about the reliability of that nation's economic data. And some critics say the reports can mislead investors by painting an unrealistically-strong picture of the economy. A key China scholar says Beijing is not fudging ((manipulating)) the numbers, but that the economy is evolving quickly from smoke-stack industries to services, and the ways of tracking new economic activity are falling behind the change. V
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Shipping Containers Provide Experimental Housing

Housing prices around the San Francisco Bay area are out of reach for many people, so some young entrepreneurs, artists and tech industry workers are creating their own houses using converted shipping containers. But as VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports from Oakland, the effort requires ingenuity and dealing with restrictive local laws.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video Technique May Eliminate Drill-and-Fill Dental Care

Many people dread visiting dentists because they're afraid of drills. Now, however, a technology developed by a British firm promises to eliminate the need for mechanical cleaning of dental cavities by speeding a natural process of tooth repair. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.
Video

Video French Experiment in Integrating Roma Under Threat

Plans to destroy France’s oldest slum have sparked an outcry on the part of its Roma residents. As Lisa Bryant reports from the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, rights groups argue the community is a fledgling experiment on integrating Roma who are often outcasts in many parts of Europe.
Video

Video Kenyans Turn to Agriculture for Business

Each year Kenyan universities continue to churn out graduates for the job market despite the already existing high rate of unemployment among youth in the country. Some of these young men and women have realized that agriculture can be as rewarding as any other business or job, and they are resorting to agribusiness in large numbers as a way of tackling unemployment. Rael Ombuor reports for VOA.
Video

Video First Women Graduate Elite Army Ranger School

Two women are making history for the U.S. Army by proving they are among the toughest of the tough. VOA's Carla Babb reports from Fort Benning, Georgia as 94 men and those two women rise as graduates of the difficult Ranger school.

VOA Blogs