Losing It On Oil

21 October 2012

How can you tell a loser from a winner in Russian politics? Putin wants us to believe that he remains a winner, whatever the ballot box may or may not say. But there is at least one indication not in Putin’s favour. Since the dawn of the twentieth century a radical Russian nationalism has never been a winning ideology for a political leader in Russia. The Soviet leaders, if they sometimes manipulated Russian nationalism, despised it, and suppressed it. Boris Yeltsin, for all his attempts to build up patriotism for the new-born Russian Federation, was ever careful to stress the multi-ethnic character of the Russian state [Rossiya] as distinct from an ethnically defined 'Russian people' [Russky narod]. In the 1990s a radical Russian nationalism became the refuge of defeated politicians. Just as the failed coup plotters of 1991 subsequently took to publishing in the nationalist newspaper Zavtra, so too did Khasbulatov and Rutskoi after the failed 1993 coup. Putin’s turn to an ever more overt Russian nationalism is a sign not of success, but a clear indication of desperation. It marks him as a loser. 

Power, they say, is the greatest narcotic. And like any drug, it divorces the addict from reality. But oil may be an even greater drug, and the two combined – political power and oil - can have the most catastrophic consequences. Imagine a gang of audacious criminals who carry out a daring raid on a bank looking for money and jewellery. They succeed, but along with all the wealth they find, they come across a huge stash of heroin. The temptation is too great, and in a short while they have been destroyed by their addiction. The fate of Putin and his team bears many similarities to this. They aimed at political power, and achieved it at a time when the price of oil went sky high. But addicted to oil, they have been victims of their own 'good fortune'.

Consider how addicts use language. They tend to use it not to communicate, or to describe or understand the world. They tend to adopt a self-serving mendacity which only cuts them off from reality. The Putin regime, from the beginning, was articulate and adept at mustering arguments in support of its policy and dismissing critics, whether domestic or international. But this was not the usual politician’s stock-in-trade ‘way with words’. The regime’s articulacy soon became a glib mastery of lying designed to obfuscate and deceive; backed up on the domestic front by the use of repression to curb opposition and tame the domestic media. Indeed, it has become a rule of thumb that whatever Putin or his spokespeople say must be taken to mean the exact opposite. ‘We are defending freedom of the media’, for example, indicates steps are being taken to reduce media freedom. ‘There is no politics in this judicial process,’ would mean the trial was politically motivated. This Orwellian use of language has meant the regime’s regular diatribes against the alleged ‘dual standards’ of other states can only provoke wry amusement. But as with any drug addict, this abuse of language is intended to deceive others, yet ends in a self-destructive, self-deceiving solipsism.

Elements of this failure of language were built in to Putin’s political project from the start. The regime was two-faced, looking as it did both in a ‘liberal’ direction (e.g. in government rhetoric, institutional formalities, economic policy), and in an authoritarian anti-democratic direction (so far as the real mechanics of power were concerned). In part this was a duality inherited from the Yeltsin years which saw a turbulent mixture of authoritarianism and liberalism, pregnant with possibilities. But from the start, the Putin regime placed its bet on authoritarianism, using liberalism instrumentally to present an ‘acceptable face’ to the outside world, and hold out a promise to the reformist constituency of economic progress. And when the oil drug kicked in, political power soon came to serve the one purpose of seizing and keeping control of the oil. With the price of oil so high, what need of economic reform?

For most of Putin’s first two terms in office the public were not overly concerned about the concentration of political power in the hands of the president and his cronies, no doubt in part because adapting to the market economy was still absorbing all their energies. The ‘two-faced’ model seemed to suit the majority. But economic development brought willy-nilly the rise of a new middle class in the cities, and after the Medvedev caesura this new urban middle class called Putin’s bluff: ‘You say you are liberal, then act like a liberal!’ And we have seen his power challenged at the ballot box and on the streets.

What can the addict do when he is threatened with losing his oil, and the power that maintains access to the drug? Naturally, all liberal pretences have been dropped, and the crude, coercive mechanics of power are laid bare. But even a drug addict in a tight spot needs to say something. And Putin, the oil addict, the desperate solipsist, is turning ever more overtly to Russian nationalism, an ideology that marks him as a loser.