Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Power Vertical

Partying Like It's 1977

Leonid Brezhnev in July 1976
Leonid Brezhnev in July 1976
A Russian leader gives a four-hour speech filled with empty platitudes about imaginary accomplishments, promises of a bright future, and dire warnings about dangerous foreign influences. The speech was interrupted 53 times by applause.

Sound familiar?

Several months back, I blogged about the striking similarities between Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. Each replaced a reformist predecessor who was ultimately seen as bumbling, erratic, and ineffective -- Nikita Krushchev in Brezhnev's case, Boris Yeltsin in Putin's. Both ushered in an era of stability and relative prosperity thanks to high oil prices. And both perceived a "golden age" that lasted roughly a decade.

But by the late 1970s, the luster began to wear off Brezhnev's rule as the Soviet economy stagnated, life expectancy plummeted, and social problems like rampant alcoholism, worker absenteeism, and widespread cynicism became endemic.

Vladimir Putin has been in power in one form or another for roughly 12 years now. On the Brezhnev timeline, that places us roughly in 1976 -- just before things started to go south. It was also in that year when Brezhnev, who was then 70 years old, reportedly considered resigning.

Instead he stuck around, collected his third Hero of the Soviet Union medal, took the military rank of marshal, and passed a new constitution. Oh, and as living standards sank and the general social malaise increased, he gave a lot of long and meandering speeches.

In a commentary in "The Moscow Times" today (titled "Vladimir Ilyich Putin") former State Duma Deputy and current opposition figure Vladimir Ryzhkov wrote about how much the prime minister's speech to parliament last week reminded him of Brezhnev:

At an average of four hours each, Putin’s speeches before the State Duma and national television audiences have become just as amorphous and lacking substance. And like Brezhnev’s speeches, Putin’s address to the Duma on Wednesday was interrupted by applause 53 times. Like during Brezhnev’s time, Putin spoke before politicians who were members of his own party.

Ryzhkov noted that in Brezhnev's time "Russians were fed rosy promises of an imminent solution to the food deficits, guaranteed housing for everyone and sustained economic growth, even while it was clear to everyone that their standards of living were only deteriorating with each passing year."

He adds that "we are seeing the same Brezhnev-like stagnation today, including the official silence regarding the country's deep economic and political problems, the manipulation of statistics and rampant alcoholism and drug abuse."

And just like in the late 1970s, there are empty platitudes and outlandish promises:

Putin did not mention any of his failures during his first 10 years in office — a period in which he did not fulfill a single major promise. Remember the famous promise of reaching Portugal’s per capita GDP by 2015? Only four years away, there is clearly no way that Russia will close the gap.

What’s more, during his Duma speech he promised to miraculously double Russia’s per capita GDP to $35,000 by 2020 from its current $15,837 (based on the International Monetary Fund’s purchasing power parity ranking). He also said Russia is bound to become one of the world’s top five economies by 2020. We already heard this promise in 2007; instead, Russia has dropped down to the No. 10 spot.

Putin did not mention that he failed to diversify the Russian economy or to reduce its dependence on exports and imports. Neither did he take any responsibility for corruption having increased tenfold during his rule. And Putin conveniently avoided answering the question of why the Russian economy is in a deep crisis, while the economies of its main BRIC rivals — India, China and Brazil — have shown steady growth.

And just like in speeches past, Putin pledged to "increase life expectancy, modernize infrastructure, make the ruble a world reserve currency, turn Moscow into an international financial center."

Is Putin aware of the Brezhnev parallels? I suspect that he is.

As I have blogged before, Putin understands the lessons of the late 1970s all too well: a stagnant economy and moribund political system can sink a superpower. But he is also very well schooled in the lessons of the late 1980s and early 1990s: that unmanaged economic and political reform can quickly spin out of the Kremlin's control.

And the drama we will witness in the coming year will largely involve how he manages to square this circle.

-- Brian Whitmore

Tags: Vladimir Putin,Leonid Brezhnev,Vladimir Ryzhkov

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: Jack from: US
April 26, 2011 19:32
Not that I would disagree with author about Putin, but to keep the things straight.. Russian economy is not in a crisis, as author claims. It grew by 4.5% just in a first quarter of this year. Probably even China cannot beat that. Also, drawing parallels with US... who can truthfully say that standards of living in US now are better than they were in 1999, i.e. 12 years ago? Talk of stagnation and corruption in US political landscape.
In Response

by: Mike from: Los Angeles, USA
April 27, 2011 10:41
You hit the nail on the head Jack! The Russian economy is doing just fine and continues to improve. It is the American economy which is in serious trouble. It will be a terrible place to live within 3-4 years. The rich and poor!
In Response

by: Anonymous from: USA
April 28, 2011 00:48
@ Mike
Wrong again! Both economies are not fairing well, except the US isn't pretending to be a "developing country" like Russia is.
In Response

by: Anonymous from: USA
April 27, 2011 13:32
@ Jack
It is true that the USA also stagnated in the 1970's...remember stagflation? High inflation, high oil prices, a stagnant economy, etc. (Some would argue that Obama's policies resemble Jimmy Carter's) We didn't disappear then, and we won't disappear now. A combination of austerity measures and innovation got us out of stagflation and similar steps will be needed today. Russia has difficulty with both austerity (unpopular) and innovation (impossible without more political freedom and the freedom of dissent). The Russian economy will only boom when the price of oil is high. Diversification is like the Soviet space is reactionary and won't amount to much except for a few museum pieces.
In Response

by: La Russophobe from: USA
April 28, 2011 07:11
Jack, it's really a shame you can't be more honest. In Soviet times Russians also tried to cover up failure with lies and misdirection, and look what happened to the USSR.

Here's a few facts you might want to consider.

In the last 15 months, Russia has seen $50 billion in capital flight. What do Russian businessmen know about the Russian economy that Jack doesn't know?

FDI in Putin's Russia is today half what it was four years ago. What do foreign businessmen know about Putin's Russia that Jack doesn't know?

The average wage in Putin's Russia is less than $4/hour.

Russia doesn't rank in the top 130 countries on the planet for life expectancy. It ranks in the top 25 for political and business corruption.

Jack, please stop lying about Russia. With "friends" like you, the Russians don't need any enemies.

by: Richard Turnbull from: USA
April 26, 2011 20:37
And when one compares this with the information set forth in "The Sword and the
Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB," it is cause to
wonder if Putin longs for the "good old days" before Glasnost made dealing with
those pesky citizens hoping for some basic human rights and prosperity so much more onerous!

by: Mike from: Los Angeles, USA
April 26, 2011 22:25
Brian, I completely disagree with you about the stagnation that would follow such as that of Brezhnev, if Putin were to return as President in 2012. I do see the strong similarities with both leaders, but in terms of their leadership ability and strong love for their country. Especially against the Bullies in the US government who will manipulate and control Medvedev who is percieved as weak. I think Putin will push Russia forward into the future for many years to come. He is feared in the west because he wants what is best for his country and not whats best for America. He's a true leader who puts his country first. He is liked and admired by many despite the propaganda from the west. I do appreciate your articles despite the disagreement. Keep up the good work.
In Response

by: Anonymous from: USA
April 27, 2011 13:17
@ Mike
You couldn't be more wrong! Putin wants what's best for HIMSELF not what's best for Russia. That's why he has a huge mansion on the Black Sea. He's a cult of personality plain and simple. He pretends to dislike people naming streets after him, but really wants to worshipped just as you appear to be doing. Ask anyone who has studied charismatic leaders, they will place Putin in the same catagory as Qadaffi, Chavez, Castro, Mugabe, etc. Also, what is with this crap about American bully? So Obama is a bully, is that it? I might have agreed if GWB was still our President...but he is not! The U.S. has the right to act in its own interests and do what is best for itself. If Russians don't like it, too bad! Your comments imply self-hatred and misinformation. As I've told other self-haters who comment on this site, you are welcome to leave and go live in Russia, USA will carry on without you.
In Response

by: Ank from: uk
April 28, 2011 03:02
What is wrong with Qadaffi, Chavez, Castro, Mugabe, nothing I say. Before the unrest in Libya everyone in the West loved Qaddafi, as soon as he started to enforce law and order in the his country, he becaome baddy. What a doublstandard and hypocracy. Have you forgeting how Britiah PM Tony Blair cadled and kissed Qaddafi in Libya in 2005.
In Response

by: Slava
April 28, 2011 07:01
Selective mermory patterns, pretty much in line with what the likes of RFE/RL generally prefer to hype.
In Response

by: Anonymous from: USA
April 28, 2011 17:08
@ Ank
The West NEVER loved Qadaffi. He made himself such a pariah in the world that he began to see that it was against Libyan interests. He then began to reach out to Western leaders in order to spur economic activity in his country. Abandoning state-sponsored terrorism was one of the sacrifices he was willing to make. It is the same with Cuba, brother Raul is making some economic reforms because the Cuban state is so bankrupt it can't support its people anymore. Let's not forget that Qadaffi and Castro were not elected. They seized power in 1959 and 1969 and continue to rule today! I feel sorry for you if you think there is nothing wrong military dictatorships.

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17:49 October 24, 2014


From RFE/RL's News Desk:


Russian President Vladimir Putin has accused the United States of escalating conflicts around the world by imposing what he called a "unilateral diktat."

Putin made the remarks in a combative speech to political experts at the Valdai International Discussion Club, in Russia's Black Sea resort of Sochi.

Putin said the United States has been "fighting against the results of its own policy" in Iraq, Libya and Syria.

He said risks of serious conflicts involving major countries have risen, as well as risks of arms treaties being violated.

He also dismissed international sanctions over Russia's actions in Ukraine as a "mistake," saying they aimed at pushing Russia into isolation and would end up "hurting everyone."

We did not start this," he added, referring to rising tensions between Russia and the West.

(Based on reporting by Reuters, AP, Interfax, TASS)


German Chancellor Angela Merkel has urged Russian President Vladimir Putin in a telephone call to push for a quick resolution of the ongoing gas dispute with Ukraine as winter looms.

The call by Merkel to Putin on October 24 comes as representatives of the EU, Russia, and Ukraine are due to meet again next week in EU brokered talks aimed at solving the gas dispute between Kyiv and Moscow.

Merkel also underlined that upcoming elections in areas of eastern Ukraine controlled by Russian-backed separatists must respect Ukrainian national law.

Pro-Russian insurgent leaders are boycotting a parliamentary snap poll on October 26 in Ukraine and are holding their own election in the Lugansk and Donetsk regions, home to nearly three million people, on the same day instead.

(Based on reporting by AFP and Reuters)



The United Nations says the conflict in Ukraine has forced more than 800,000 people from their homes.

Around 95 percent of displaced people come from eastern Ukraine, where government troops have been battling pro-Russian separatists.

UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, told a briefing in Geneva that an estimated 430,000 people were currently displaced within Ukraine -- 170,000 more than at the start of September.

It said at least 387,000 other people have asked for refugee status, temporary asylum, or other forms of residency permits in Russia.

Another 6,600 have applied for asylum in the European Union and 581 in Belarus.

The agency said it was "racing to help some of the most vulnerable displaced people" as winter approaches.

It also said the number of displaced people is expected to rise further due to ongoing fighting in eastern Ukraine.


Three alleged militants have been killed by security forces in Russia's volatile North Caucasus region.

Russia's National Antiterrorism Committee says that two suspects were killed in the village of Charoda in Daghestan on October 24 after they refused to leave an apartment and opened fire at police and security troops.

One police officer was wounded.

Also on October 24, police in another North Caucasus region, Kabardino-Balkaria, killed a suspected militant after he refused to identify himself, threw a grenade towards police, and opened fire with a pistol.

A police officer was wounded in that incident.

Violence is common in Russia's North Caucasus region, which includes the restive republics of Daghestan, Kabardino-Balkaria, Ingushetia, and Chechnya.

Islamic militants and criminal groups routinely target Russian military personnel and local officials.

(Based on reporting by Interfax and TASS)


A lawyer, who represented an alleged victim of the notorious Orekhovo criminal group in Moscow, has been assassinated.

Police in the Russian capital say that Vitaly Moiseyev and his wife were found dead with gunshot wounds in a car near Moscow on October 24.

Moiseyev was representing Sergei Zhurba, an alleged victim of the Orekhovo gang and a key witness in a case against one of the gang's leaders Dmitry Belkin.

Belkin was sentenced to life in prison on October 23 for multiple murders and extortion.

Last month, another of Zhurba's lawyers, Tatyana Akimtseva (eds: a woman), was shot dead by unknown individuals.

The Orekhovo group was one of the most powerful crime gangs of the Moscow region and in Russia in the 1990s. Its members are believed to be responsible for dozens of murders.

(Based on reporting by TASS and Interfax)

17:27 October 24, 2014


17:26 October 24, 2014


17:00 October 24, 2014
08:29 October 24, 2014


From RFE/RL's News Desk:


Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk is warning that Russia could attempt to disrupt Ukraine's parliamentary elections scheduled for October 26.

Yatsenyuk told a meeting of top security officials and election monitors on October 23 that "It is absolutely clear that attempts to destabilize the situation will continue and will be provoked by Russia."

Yatsenyuk said "we are in a state of Russian aggression and we have before us one more challenge -- to hold parliamentary elections."

The prime minister said Ukraine needs the "full mobilization of the entire law-enforcement system to prevent violations of the election process and attempts at terrorist acts during the elections."

Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said authorities have ordered some 82,000 policemen on duty for election day.

He said 4,000 members of a special reaction force would be among those maintaining order during polling hours and would be concentrated in "those precincts where there is a risk of some terrorist acts or aggressive actions by some...candidates."

The warning by Yatsenyuk comes on the heels of three violent attacks on parliamentary candidates in the past week.

The latest, against Volodymyr Borysenko, a member of Yatsenyuk's People's Front Party, occurred on October 20 when Borysenko was shot at and had an explosive thrown at him.

He allegedly survived the attack only because he was wearing body armor due to numerous death threats he had recently received.

Elections to the Verkhovna Rada, the parliament, will be held despite continued fighting in the eastern part of the country between Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russian separatists.

Voting will not take place in 14 districts of eastern Ukraine currently under the control of the separatists.

Those separatist-held areas -- in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions -- are planning on holding their own elections in November.

Additionally, Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea in March means the loss of 12 seats from the 450-seat parliament.

Polls show President Petro Poroshenko's party leading with some 30 percent of respondents saying they would cast their vote for the Petro Poroshenko Bloc.

It that percentage holds on election day it would mean Poroshenko's bloc would have to form a coalition government, likely with nationalist groups who oppose conducting peace talks over fighting in the east.

(Based on reporting by Reuters and Interfax)



Moscow has denied claims of an incursion by a Russian military plane into Estonia's airspace.

A Russian Defense Ministry spokesman told Interfax news agency on October 23 that the Ilyushin-20 took off from Khrabrovo airfield in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad on October 21.

The spokesman said the reconnaissance plane flew "over neutral waters of the Baltic Sea" while on a training flight.

On October 22, Estonia’s Foreign Ministry summoned the Russian ambassador in Tallinn, Yury Merzlakov, after the Estonian military said the Russian plane had entered its air space.

In a statement, NATO said the Ilyushin-20 was first intercepted by Danish jets when it approached Denmark, before flying toward non-NATO member Sweden.

Intercepted by Swedish planes, the alliance said the Ilyushin entered Estonian airspace for “less than one minute” and was escorted out by Portuguese jets.

NATO has stepped up its Baltic air patrols and Moscow has been accused of several recent border violations in the region amid heightened tensions between Russia and the West over the Ukraine conflict.

Last month, Estonia accused Russia of abducting one of its police officers on the border.

Russia claims Eston Kohver was seized inside Russia on September 5, while Estonian officials say he was captured at gunpoint in Estonia near the border and taken to Russia.

The European Union and United States have called for the immediate release of the Estonian security official, who is facing espionage charges in Russia.

Meanwhile, the Swedish Navy has been searching for a suspected submarine sighted six days ago some 50 kilometers from the capital, Stockholm, although it said on October 22 it was pulling back some of its ships.

Swedish officials have not linked any particular country to the suspected intrusion and Moscow has denied involvement.

(With reporting by Interfax, TASS, and the BBC)


A Moscow court postponed to next week a ruling on a move to take control of Bashneft, an oil company from tycoon Vladimir Yevtushenkov.

The judge said on October 23 that the next hearing will take place on October 30 after the prosecution requested more time to prepare its case.

Prosecutors filed the suit in September to regain state ownership of Bashneft, citing alleged violations in the privatization and subsequent sale of the company to AFK Sistema investment group.

Yevtushenkov, the main shareholder of the conglomerate, is under house arrest on suspicion of money laundering during the firm's acquisition in 2009.

Yevtushenkov, 66, was arrested on September 16.

He is ranked Russia's 15th richest man by U.S. magazine Forbes, with an estimated fortune of $9 billion.

(Based on reporting by Reuters and TASS)

11:11 October 23, 2014


According to a report in the pro-Kremlin daily "Izvestia," deputy Kremlin chief of staff Vyacheslav Volodin told a meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club in Sochi that Western politicians "do not understand the essence of Russia."

"Volodin stated the key thesis about the current state of our country: As long as there is Putin there is Russia. If there is no Putin, there is no Russia," Konstantin Kostin, head of the Foundation for the Development of Civil Society, told "Izvestia."

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