Putinism in Crisis

Intellectual debate in Russia nowadays is dominated by the question of whether the current economic crisis will bring a new wave of liberalization. But, while economic hard times can be endured more easily if accompanied by a feeling of approaching freedom, for the time being, that feeling remains a ghost.

MOSCOW – “Owing to the harsh economic situation, it was decided to cut off the light at the end of the tunnel as a temporary measure.” That is but one of the jokes making the rounds in Russia these days, as the country faces its most severe crisis in a decade.

Having been born in the early 1960’s, my generation remembers two crises. The first, following the collapse of the USSR, was almost cataclysmic – nothing in the shops, the country in bankruptcy, all savings lost. The other affected everyone but was less severe – Russia’s 1998 default, which saw a fourfold devaluation of the ruble. Today’s crisis is acute, but there is no sense of an approaching apocalypse.

Yet the crisis will be severe, not only because prices for the major Russian export commodities – oil, gas, and metal – have plummeted, but also because the government, which believed in its boundless force and wisdom, now seems inadequate to the challenges that Russia faces. Yes, Russia has enormous gold and currency reserves, but they are being depleted fast. They will not last for long while being spent – mostly in defense of the ruble – at the current pace.

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