Russia’s Dubious Place in the BRICS: A Response to My Critics

putin crossbow

My original post suggesting that Putin’s bogus reelection might be cause to eject Russia from the BRICS got a lot of traffic and comment (both here and on my own site). It’s gotten to the point where it’s just easier to summarize my responses to a general set of critiques. It seems there are three main criticisms: 1. I exaggerated; Russia is still a great power. 2. I didn’t provide enough data and links. 3. I don’t really ‘get’ Russia, or I’m just recycling western propaganda.

(In passing, I find it curious/frustrating as an author that what I think is my more creative and fresh work in the last few months [this or this series] didn’t get nearly so much attention, whereas lamenting Russia’s postimperial decline, which so many have done before me [see all the links below], got an explosion of interest. Not quite sure what to make out of that…)

1. I overshot in saying Russia isn’t a great power anymore.

Ok, but not by much. I’ll agree that it was probably gratuitous to call Russia a ‘joke’ as a great power. But then again, be honest with yourself and tell me you didn’t laugh: when Putin rode around shirtless on horseback, when Putin stage-managed a discovery of ‘antiquities’ while scuba diving, when Putin claimed the State Department and Secretary Clinton were fomenting the Moscow protests, when Zhirinovsky “backed free vodka and the reconquest of Alaska,” when the president fired a minister on live TV (!), the minister refused (!!), and Medvedev responded with farcical lecture on Russia’s globally-regarded ‘constitionalism’ (!!!). Or just read this from Gawker on Putin the crossbow-toting whaler (pic above) and tell me you don’t burst out laughing – over a head of state with superpower pretensions?
These are the sorts of howlers and hijinks we expect from leaders like Qaddafi, with his retinue of female ‘bodyguards,’ or Idi Amin, with so many gold medals on his uniform you could store it in a bank vault. But modern states, desirous of global prestige, seeking to be taken seriously at the highest levels of the game, just don’t do this stuff. Could you imagine Wen Jiabao doing he-man photo-ops? You’d laugh, right? Well… Putin’s become a punchline, regardless of Russia’s other strengths, which is ultimately what motivated the original post.

Here’s Niall Ferguson last December, “Russia—who cares? With its rampant voter fraud and declining population, the country is careening toward irrelevance. …Russia isn’t quite “Upper Volta with missiles”—West German chancellor Helmut Schmidt’s immortal phrase. But it’s certainly a shadow of its former Cold War self. The U.S. economy is 10 times larger than Russia’s. Per capita gross domestic product is not much higher than in Turkey. Male life expectancy is significantly lower: 63, compared with 71 on the other side of the Black Sea. And the population is shrinking. There are nearly 7 million fewer Russians today than there were in 1992. By 2055, the United Nations estimates that the population of Egypt will be larger. Remind me: why did Goldman Sachs group Russia with Brazil, India, and China as the “BRICs,” supposedly the four key economies of the 21st century? Give me Turkey or Indonesia any day.” That’s exactly right (I know people think Ferguson is a neo-victorian apologist for empire, but hold that thought), and it should deeply worry and embarrass Russians that the rest of the planet thinks this way about one of the world’s great cultures. I wrote something similar last fall when Putin announced his re-taking of the presidency, and the whole world shrugged.

Here is more from the Duck of Minerva comment section on the original post:

“My interest was more developmental than realist-theoretical. On re-reading the post, it was a bridge to far to say that Russia isn’t a great power anymore. It still is, by the skin of its teeth. Nukes compensate for other areas of decline, I suppose, as you are suggesting. De Gaulle saw this, as did N Korea.

My real goal was to developmentally differentiate between Russia and the other BRICS. That BRICS moniker is to imply some level of cosmopolitan comfort with the modern world economy and rapid growth to greater weight within that economy (hence my reference to Parag Khanna). The other 4 BRICS capture that upward trend – as do other economies like Turkey, S Korea, Mexico, or Indonesia (hence my preference for Khanna’s term ‘second world’). But Russia really doesn’t. Russia is slipping, not rising and has been, more or less, since the late 1970s. That’s quite a hegemonic decline. Its internal rot is pretty severe now. Its Transparency International score in 2011 is a staggering 143 out of 182, putting it in the company of Nigeria, Belarus, and Togo, and obviously calling into question not just its BRIC credentials, but its great power ones too. And the shirtless one’s return puts off a turn-around for another six to twelve years. Given that China rose to the ‘G-2’ in just 30 years, 20+ long years of Putinism (after 10 years of Yeltsin chaos plus late Soviet stagnation) portends a disaster for Russia. This is the real reason for the Moscow protests. They see this now.

Rotation at the top is just one marker for BRIC normalization, but other obvious red flags include the relentless xenophobia of the Putin regime, the alienation from the WTO, the huge missed opportunities of globalization, the blow-out levels corruption and state capriciousness including the murder of journalists, the third worldish reliance on carbon and weapons exports, the 19th century ‘spheres of influence’ obsession with countering the West in Eurasia, the confiscatory attitude toward private wealth most obvious displayed in the Khodorkovsky case, or Putin’s laughably ridiculous throwback-to-Kaiser-Wilhelm bravado of hunting on TV with a crossbow or fighting stage-managed martial arts contests. Does that sound like a BRIC or Khanna’s ‘second world’? Not really. It sounds like Venezuela or Iran. It sounds like an angry, Weimar-style pseudo-democracy high on petro-dollars with a ‘postimperial hangover,’ as Vice-President Biden once put it. Hence the argument that BRIC/second world is the wrong developmental category for Russia. For more of this, ‘should the R be taken out of the BRICS’ debate, try here and here. For a similar write-up on how Putin’s return will critically aggravate so many of Russia’s outstanding problems, try here.

2. I didn’t provide enough data.

Ok, so here you go. It’s pretty easy to find. Please read the links above and these below. From the earlier commenting:

Actually there’s lots of data on this that’s pretty easy to find with Google. I suppose I should have included more links originally, but I thought a lot of this was common knowledge at this point. Anyway, here you go; all the following links come from the last few years:

a. On demography, I was thinking of Nicolas Eberstadt’s work. He’s been writing on this for a long time now, most recently November 2011 in Foreign Affairs. His title, ‘The Dying Bear,’ is pretty blunt about the population contraction. For more, try this.

b. On corruption so high, it’s probably incommensurate with being a great power, here’s that Transparency International score again.

c. It is downright heroic, if not irresponsible, to suggest that alcoholism is not a huge problem in modern Russia and severely impacting men’s health and mortality: here or here. Just look at those estimates of average male lifespan – around 60! Gorbachev even thought alcoholism imperiled the very existence of the USSR and launched a major government campaign against it.

d. On the brain drain, try here. Note the big listed reason – problems with the Putinist regime – and their profile: “vast majority of those who admitted wanting to leave were under 35 years old, lived in a major city, and spoke a foreign language.”

e. On the economic overreliance on carbon and how weak the economy really is under the hood, try this from the Financial Times just this week. More generally try this and this from the Economist how post-‘reelection’ dysfunctional.

For what it’s worth, this wasn’t intended to be ‘anti-russian gloom and doom.’ I studied in Russia for a bit and spoke it reasonably well once; I’d like to think I am sympathetic. But simply denying Russia’s internal decay is not really a response – as the Moscow protestors themselves understand.”

3. I am not sympathetic enough to Russia’s unique condition/I’m just spinning western propaganda.

Maybe, but I did study there for a bit, and I could speak the language pretty well once. Anyway, none of that really changes how Putin is dragging Russia down.

“On my ‘lack of empathy,’ try this, which I wrote in 2009, long before this flap. I noted how Americans vastly underestimate how much Russia did to win the Second World War and that our Spielbergian self-congratulation leads us to overlook the huge suffering of Russians at the hands of the SS: “I didn’t really realize this much until I went to Russia to learn the language and travelled around. The legacy of the ‘Great Patriotic War’ is everywhere. Everyone lost someone, and frequently in brutal circumstances Americans can’t imagine. Every Russian guide you get will tell you how Americans don’t know much about war, because we were never invaded, occupied, and exterminated. The first time I heard that, I just didn’t know what to say. You can only listen in silent horror as the guides tell you about how the SS massacred everyone with more than a grammar school degree in some village you never heard of before, or how tens of thousands of those Kiev PoWs starved or froze to death because the Wehrmacht was unprepared for such numbers and the Nazi leadership just didn’t care.” Please note that a Russian even graciously commented there about how rare it is for Americans so say stuff like that. I did study in Russia; I did have friends there; I do have some language and culture skills. So I’d like to think of myself as a sympathetic critic. My real concern is that Putin’s awful misgovernment of Russia is pushing it towards irrelevance, per Ferguson above, and as I think the protestors intuit. Putin has become a global laughingstock, and he’s pulling Russia down with it.

I don’t disagree that Russians have deep social energies that we miss by focusing on Putin and the Kremlin, but one could say that about almost any country. Most peoples like to think of themselves as proud, energetic, innovative, unique, etc. Americans love to call themselves exceptional, and Koreans regularly tell me how the ‘miracle on the Han’ proves how Korea is the most awesome, cohesive, energetic, team-work society in the world that can overcome anything. Ironically, the most consequential grassroots/civil society movement in Russia is the anti-Putin protests, which fits my argument.

Finally, you raise an interesting question about whether all the issues I discuss combine into real momentum for decline. I wonder how that could not be the case, unless the leadership changes. Russia’s traditionally been a top-down place. It’s hard to see turn-around coming from below. (Again, this is why the protests are so important; they’re trying to change that.) Russia’s been slipping for three decades now. I agree it hasn’t fallen off a cliff, like, say, the end of the Ming dynasty or something, but a generation’s worth of negative trends is slowly chewing away at Russian power. I have stepped back from the original statement that Russia is not a great power; that was overreach. But the margins are narrowing.”


It’s Time to De-Russianize the BRICS

With Putin’s ‘return’ to the presidency, Russia is now officially a joke as a serious great power state. True, Putin has been ridiculous for awhile, what with those shirtless photo-ops that came across like desperate, bizarre geopolitical ‘ads’ that Russia is still a superpower. But this is different. Not even Chinese elites play the sorts of merry-go-round games at the top that Putin has engineered in the last 6 months. To their great credit, Chinese presidents and premiers serve and go. Russia is now the only one of the BRICS in which power does not rotate. Instead, Putin is starting to look like one of those oil-rich Arab dictators who never leaves, continually gimmicking the the ‘institutions’ and ‘constitution’ to justify how, mirabile dictu, he keeps staying in power. In the meantime, the real power structure morphs into an oil-dependent, rent-seeking, cronyistic despotism. And like those Arab dictators, Putin is facing a local resistance that increasingly realizes that Putinism is taking their country nowhere but nest-feathering. To paraphrase Helmut Schmidt, Russia’s pretty much a petro-state with nukes at this point.

I know a lot of people hate the term BRIC or BRICS. It comes off like a pseudotechnical buzzword for investment banker conference calls. It’s the kind of faux-concept CNN reporters use when they go to Davos and desperate undergrads roll out when term papers are due. But I do think it is a useful colloquialism for something Khanna captures well – rising ‘second world’ states whose sheer, and growing, demographic and economic size will inevitably impact global governance. But in contrast Russia isn’t rising from the second to the first world; it’s falling from the first to the second, and further if it’s not careful. This is what the protestors in Russia now, like the Arab Spring protestors before them, intuit – their badly governed states are stagnating in a world of rapid change and falling behind the exciting world of modernity available in the West and sizeable chunks of Asia and Latin America.

So let’s be honest, Russia isn’t a great power anymore. It’s not rising in any meaningful sense of that word in international relations theory. Its population is contracting at a startling rate. The average lifespan is declining. Alcoholism is a uniquely terrible scourge. Infrastructure is a mess. Its bureaucracy has scarcely budged in 20 years. It has basically missed the globalization boat that has linked in the other BRICS to the US and western economies, and that has allowed them to export their way into the middle class. (Russia’s still not in the WTO, and who wants to invest there now?) It suffers from a terrible brain drain. Consider that those ‘mail-order’ Russian brides represent young, healthy, reasonably educated Russians so desperate to flee that they prefer shot-gun marriages to scarcely-known obese foreign guys, over staying in Putin-land. Holding constant the otherwise very disturbing ethical issues, that actually says a lot about the contemporary state of Russia if you think about it, because ‘bride export’ is common trait of third world states.

And the list goes on: After 250 years, Siberia is still an undeveloped backwater. Russia’s budget is extraordinarily dependent on the price of carbon for a second world ‘riser.’ Off the top of my head, I can’t think of one major Russian manufactured export item, other than weapons. (Yes, I am sure I could dig one up, but the fact that nothing immediately, obviously comes to mind is a red-flag itself.) Unlike the other BRICS, its foreign policy obsesses over ephemeral ‘parity’ with the US and realpolitik ‘spheres of influence’, while the wealth-creating, day-to-day reality of the liberal world economy (the WTO, globalization) passes it by. In short, Russia’s a hugely corrupt, dysfunctional, authoritarian, oil rentier-state, just like so many others we know. Now why would that get lumped in with second risers like the other BRICS, Turkey, Indonesia, etc? It’s more reasonable to compare Russia to OPEC states at this point.

Placing Russia in a developmental category with Brazil, India, China, and South Africa does a disservice to the notions of quickening modernity, rapidly expanding GDP based on global integration and law, growing democratization and liberalization, greater responsibility for global governance, and, for lack of a better word, growing ‘normality’ that the other BRICS have striven so hard to achieve. Putin is going the other way; just go read his victory speech with the usual paranoia of foreign influences and all that. That’s exactly the kind of talk that the BRIC moniker implies is being jettisoned for more comfortable cosmopolitan outlook. Even the Chinese, the most politically closed among the other BRICS, don’t talk like that anymore. Brazil, China, India, and South Africa all have rotations of power at the top. All endorse some basic level of friendly interaction with the US, Western, and global governance institutions. All accept the basic structure of the world economy, even if they complain ceaselessly about US leadership. Russia doesn’t make this cut anymore; ten years ago, when Putin seemed to be bring much-needed order, yes. But not now. ‘Presidency-swapping’ is the kind of the thing the Kims of North Korea or the Assads of Syria do, not one of the rising BRICS whose opinions the rest of us should respect.

Three quick prebuttals:

1. It doesn’t really matter that Russia has nukes. Yes, it looks like it matters. You can always wow people by invoking mushrooms clouds, the scariness of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and your cool submarines and MIRVs. And certainly, with so many other diminishing assets, Russia will waive the nuclear stick to get attention. But what exactly do nukes get Russia now, after the Cold War? Prestige? De Gaulle famously called nukes a short-cut to great-powerdom. Ok, but that is a ‘psychic’ benefit – that little tingle you get from saying ‘Russia is bada–!’ What else do nukes get Russia?

2. Russia’s size doesn’t matter – although it might if Russia could ever get its act together. Yes, Russia is really big and covers 11 time-zones, but again, what real tangible benefit does that capture for it? Siberia’s endemic backwardness is the obvious marker. Despite almost 3 centuries of control, no planner in Moscow has yet figured out how to sustainably access that potential. Anyone who’s anyone still lives in Moscow or St. Petersberg.

3. The UN Security Council veto, from its status as one of the permanent five (P-5) members, is a Soviet legacy prestige asset, not a real institutional one. Yes, the Russians can block R2P stuff at the UN for a little while. But that doesn’t really slow down the West (or China) too much if an issue is genuinely important to them. There is no way the other P-5s would give Russia real veto power like that. Bosnia, Kosovo, and Libya showed that. Even on Syria, Obama has begun entertaining military options, regardless of what Putin thinks.

The only way out of this is for Russia to modernize its bureaucracy and open its economy to foreigners. The first is necessary so that people can trust the law and so feel safe investing and otherwise generating wealth locally. That is, if Russians feel like they’ll keep the fruits of their labor instead of seeing it ripped off by corrupt officials, they’ll start working harder and Russia will see real GDP growth outside of the resource sector. Second, as the other BRICS have shown, this process goes so much faster if foreigners are allowed in.

Remember that this is the stuff Medvedev said he would do and didn’t. Does anyone really believe Putin will, at this point? That answer’s itself, so good luck to the protestors.

Cross-posted on Asian Security Blog.


Power Shift in Global Economic Governance

Has the worm finally turned? Reuters today featured a story on the emerging market economies’ push-back against the status quo of Western-dominated global economic governance. The piece features an explicit demand (and overt exercise of financial leverage) for a power shift in the predominant international financial institutions, specifically in the context of the IMF’s recent request for an additional $600 billion in resources from its member states to help bail out Europe.

Former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki al-Faisal is quoted in the story as saying:”What we can be certain of is that large developing nations will not agree to provide additional funds without a greater say in the IMF, and this applies to all global economic governance organizations.”

Interesting, the story also highlights the fact that emerging market economies, while demanding more voice and influence in the IFIs, are also turning away from existing international institutions in favor of regional alternatives, such as the Arab Monetary Fund and Islamic Development Bank in the Middle East and the Chiang Mai initiative in East Asia. This fact is neither new or shocking, but the tone of such a public speech is remarkable.

Ironically (or pathetically, depending how you look at it), there was also a recent news story that revealed that Obama is considering the nomination of Larry Summers as the next World Bank president when Robert Zoellick’s term expires in May 2012 (note: thanks to Martin Edwards for alerting me to this one). This would, oh so predictably: (1) sustain the stubborn Western tradition of keeping an American at helm of the World Bank (and by corollary, a European at the head of the Fund); (2) uphold the image of the Bretton Woods institutions as being first and foremost accountable to the Wall Street-Treasury complex, and (3) continue to alienate the very countries upon whose financial generosity these institutions will increasingly depend in the coming years.

Martin Edwards and I are conspiring on an op-ed on that little tidbit of information and its implications for the legitimacy and relevance of the World Bank, so stay tuned.


Fun and Games in Delhi

The Commonwealth Games begin tomorrow in Delhi, which offers a good excuse for some thoughts on two neglected topics in contemporary international relations – India and the Commonwealth. With 54 nations involved the Games are a major international sporting event, and were bid for by India as a way of demonstrating their emerging significance in the world, a kind of Olympics in a minor key that would do for the Indian bit of the BRIC nations what the Beijing Olympics did for China. To put it mildly, things have not quite worked out as intended. Some twenty plus firms were involved in the construction of facilities, corruption was near universal, and ten days ago the athlete’s village was still under construction and filthy. A small bridge collapsed injuring dozens. Part of the roof of the weightlifting venue fell down. A heavy Monsoon rain has led to dengue fever being epidemic in Delhi and – you couldn’t make this up – two days ago the Chief Medical Officer for the games went down with suspected typhoid. A plague of frogs is the obvious next step. In the insult to injury category, the Pakistani team have complained about poor security, a complaint that does seem to be justified; an Australian journalist strolled round the village with an imitation bomb in his rucksack without being challenged. A games official managed to make things worse by suggesting that complaints about hygiene and cleanliness reflected western standards which weren’t appropriate, a position that many Africans and Asians found rather offensive – strangely, their athlete’s didn’t appreciate the idea that they were OK with their beds being smeared with doggy-doo.

All this has lead to a stream of press commentary, Indian as well as British, Australian etc, to the effect that this reveals the hollowness of the Indian economic miracle, that first world India co-exists with a very visible third world India, and generally that this sort of thing wouldn’t, indeed didn’t, happen in China. I’d draw a somewhat different message. Yes, third world India is more visible than third world China, but that isn’t because the latter doesn’t exists, it’s because it is hidden up-country, out of the way of western TV cameras. Yes, there is corruption and in China some of the people involved had they dared to have misbehaved would probably have faced a firing squad – but that’s the difference between India and China. For all its many faults, India is a relatively free, pluralistic society. Corruption and incompetence survive because the draconian measures need to end them in a poor country would be unacceptable – and, for that matter, haven’t succeeded in China.

In any event, the games will go ahead and I predict will be successful if, at times, enjoyably chaotic; those stars who have pulled out may regret their decision. The Chief Minister for Delhi, Sheila Dikshit, took personal charge of the project, the village has been cleaned up at high speed by drafting in cleaners from luxury Indian hotels, that is staff who were well aware of the standard required, and the other facilities are, more or less, finished albeit only in the nick of time. The moral is that Indians are excellent improvisers and muddlers-through. My bet is that this quality will serve them well in the years to come. Sooner or later – I’d guess sooner – China will hit a serious political speed bump and the authoritarian regime there will either have to clamp down on the economic miracle, or change dramatically and risk anarchy. India hits political speed bumps approximately once every six weeks (the latest concerns the Mosque/Temple at Ayodhya), but its institutions are resilient and it survives, and will prosper. More power to its arm.

And what of the Commonwealth? It’s a confusing institution to most Americans, and nowadays to most Brits as well – if you want to find an enthusiast, find a Canadian, or perhaps a member of the British royal family. The cynic might say that originally the British Commonwealth, as it then was but nowadays very definitely isn’t, was designed to allow traditionalist Brits to think the Empire was still in existence. But while British no longer care about the loss of Empire, the Commonwealth survives and prospers – indeed it now has new members who weren’t even former British colonies, Mozambique and Rwanda. How did this happen?

Different countries have different reasons for supporting the Commonwealth – in Canada’s case it is to distinguish them from big brother down south, for Rwanda’s political class it is a way of countering French influence, for all the developing countries it is a source of aid and favourable trade with the developed country members. Looked at from a global perspective it is interesting that this is one of the few institutions where national leaders from North and South can relate to one another in an informal context. The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings (CHOGMs) which take place every two years (next meeting 2011 in Australia) under a rotating Chairperson (currently Prime Minister Kamla Persad Bissessar of Trinidad & Tobago) are occasions where leaders from differently parts of the world can talk informally without interpreters and in a kind of family atmosphere, under the benign gaze of the nominal Head of the Commonwealth, Queen Elizabeth. Incidentally, interesting if pointless factoid, because the Queen is the Head of the Commonwealth, members don’t have Embassies to each other, they have High Commissions – even the Republics go along with this fiction.

The Commonwealth has at least a nominal commitment to democratic government, and has suspended from membership (and thus trade and aid privileges) countries where coups have taken place or where there are systematic violations of civil liberties. All in all, it would be difficult to argue that the Commonwealth is a major player on the world stage, but it does make a small contribution towards making the world a more civilised place, and in that task we need all the help we can get.


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