Friday, August 26, 2016

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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The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or