Russia’s Fragile Power

Russia sent an impressive delegation to the World Economic Forum at Davos this year. After strong representation under Boris Yeltsin, the level of Russia’s participants had slipped since Vladimir Putin became president. This year, however, the Russians sent their “A” team, and a well-attended session focused on “Russia’s More Muscular Foreign Policy.”

With higher energy prices, many Russian officials are enjoying their renewed power. I was asked to comment on United States-Russian relations at a dinner with top officials from the government and Gazprom, the giant energy company. I said that America and Europe had too many illusions about democracy in Russia in the 1990’s, and were now going through a stage of disillusionment. There is concern about Russia’s future, how it will use its newfound power, and how the West should respond.

One view is that Russian politics is like a pendulum. It had swung too far in the direction of chaos under Yeltsin, and has now swung too far in the direction of order and state control under Putin. It has not swung back to Stalinism; Czarism might be a better historical metaphor. Observers debate whether it will eventually reach a new equilibrium.

The optimistic view is that property rights are becoming more deeply anchored than they were in the past, and that Russia’s future will depend on how fast a middle class with a stake in law-based government can be created. But others are not so sure. Sometimes pendulums continue to oscillate wildly unless there is some friction to slow them down, and sometimes they get stuck. Pessimistic observers foresee a continual decline of freedom rather than a liberal equilibrium.