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

    Hope Remains for Rio Olympic Games, Despite Woes

    Facing a host of problems, Rio prepares for holding the games but experts say some risks, like Zika, may not be as grave as initially thought

    IS Use of Social Media to Recruit, Radicalize Still a Top Threat to US

    Despite military gains against IS in Iraq and Syria, their internet propaganda still commands an audience; US officials see 'the most complex challenge that the federal government and industry face'

    ‘Time Is Now’ to Save Africa’s Animals From Poachers, Activist Says

    During Zimbabwe visit, African Wildlife Foundation President Kaddu Sebunya says poaching hurts Africa as slave trade once did

    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.
    Ivorian Chocolate Makers Promote Locally-made Chocolatei
    X
    July 29, 2016 4:02 PM
    Ivory Coast is the world's top producer of cocoa but hardly any of it is processed into chocolate there. Instead, the cocoa is sent abroad to chocolate makers in Europe and elsewhere. This is a general problem throughout Africa – massive exports of raw materials but few finished goods. As Emilie Iob reports from Abidjan, several Ivorian entrepreneurs are working to change that formula - 100 percent Ivorian chocolate bar at a time.
    Video

    Video Ivorian Chocolate Makers Promote Locally-made Chocolate

    Ivory Coast is the world's top producer of cocoa but hardly any of it is processed into chocolate there. Instead, the cocoa is sent abroad to chocolate makers in Europe and elsewhere. This is a general problem throughout Africa – massive exports of raw materials but few finished goods. As Emilie Iob reports from Abidjan, several Ivorian entrepreneurs are working to change that formula - 100 percent Ivorian chocolate bar at a time.
    Video

    Video Tesla Opens Battery-Producing Gigafactory

    Two years after starting to produce electric cars, U.S. car maker Tesla Motors has opened the first part of its huge battery manufacturing plant, which will eventually cover more than a square kilometer. Situated close to Reno, Nevada, the so-called Gigafactory will eventually produce more lithium-ion batteries than were made worldwide in 2013. VOA's George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Polio-affected Afghan Student Fulfilling Her Dreams in America

    Afghanistan is one of only two countries in the world where children still get infected by polio. The other is Pakistan. Mahbooba Akhtarzada who is from Afghanistan, was disabled by polio, but has managed to overcome the obstacles caused by this crippling disease. VOA's Zheela Nasari caught up with Akhtarzada and brings us this report narrated by Bronwyn Benito.
    Video

    Video Hillary Clinton Promises to Build a 'Better Tomorrow'

    Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton urged voters Thursday not to give in to the politics of fear. She vowed to unite the country and move it forward if elected in November. Clinton formally accepted the Democratic Party's nomination at its national convention in Philadelphia. VOA national correspondent Jim Malone has more.
    Video

    Video Trump Tones Down Praise for Russia

    Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is toning down his compliments for Russia and Vladimir Putin as such rhetoric got him in trouble recently. After calling on Russia to find 30.000 missing emails from rival Hillary Clinton, Trump told reporters he doesn't know Putin and never called him a great leader, just one who's better than President Barack Obama. Putin has welcomed Trump's overtures, but, as Zlatica Hoke reports, ordinary Russians say they are not putting much faith in Trump.
    Video

    Video Uganda Unveils its First Solar-powered Bus

    A solar-powered bus described by its Ugandan makers as the first in Africa has made its public debut. Kiira Motors' electric bus, Kayoola, displayed recently at a stadium in Uganda's capital. From Kampala, Maurice Magorane filed this report narrated by Salem Solomon.
    Video

    Video Silicon Valley: More Than A Place, It's a Culture

    Silicon Valley is a technology powerhouse and a place that companies such as Google, Facebook and Apple call home. It is a region in northern California that stretches from San Francisco to San Jose. But, more than that, it's known for its startup culture. VOA's Elizabeth Lee went inside one company to find out what it's like to work in a startup.
    Video

    Video Immigrant Delegate Marvels at Democratic Process

    It’s been a bitter and divisive election season – but first time Indian-American delegate Dr. Shashi Gupta headed to the Democratic National Convention with a sense of hope. VOA’s Katherine Gypson followed this immigrant with the love of U.S. politics all the way to Philadelphia.
    Video

    Video Dutch Entrepreneurs Turn Rainwater Into Beer

    June has been recorded as one of the wettest months in more than a century in many parts of Europe. To a group of entrepreneurs in Amsterdam the rain came as a blessing, as they used the extra water to brew beer. Serginho Roosblad has more to the story.
    Video

    Video Commerce Thrives on US-Mexico Border

    At the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia this week, the party’s presumptive presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, is expected to attack proposals made by her opponent, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Last Friday, President Barack Obama hosted his Mexican counterpart, President Enrique Peña Nieto, to underscore the good relations between the two countries. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Tucson.
    Video

    Video Film Helps Save Ethiopian Children Thought to be Cursed

    'Omo Child' looks at effort of African man to stop killings of ‘mingi’ children
    Video

    Video London’s Financial Crown at Risk as Rivals Eye Brexit Opportunities

    By most measures, London rivals New York as the only true global financial center. But Britain’s vote to leave the European Union – so-called ‘Brexit’ – means the city could lose its right to sell services tariff-free across the bloc, risking its position as Europe’s financial headquarters. Already some banks have said they may shift operations to the mainland. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora