If Andropov had lived, the argument goes, Moscow would have pursued a program of authoritarian modernization, introducing market mechanisms similar to those in China while preserving one-party rule. He would have reformed the economy, kept the Soviet Union together, and avoided the chaos and deprivation of the Perestroika period and the 1990s.
So it is not surprising that on June 15, the 95th anniversary of Andropov's birth, Russia's Channel One aired a nostalgic laudatory film titled "Yury Andropov: 15 Months Of Hope." (The video is available in Russian here. Paul Goble over at Window On Eurasia has an insightful write up about it here)
But was Andropov's path to reform really the road not taken? For nearly a decade, Putin and his team have been systematically working to implement a 21st century version of Andropovism. And when oil prices were soaring near $150 a barrel, it even seemed to be working.
But as Leon Aron shows in an article in the latest issue of "Foreign Policy," reality is finally setting in (the whole piece is well worth a read):
Looking around Russia now, Putin's new critics see only the ruins of unfulfilled promises and wasted wealth...They rue the missed opportunity for a modern and transparent state and for a diversified, entrepreneur-driven economy, the foundation for which could have been laid under the more favorable market conditions of the early 2000s.
Instead of building a modern economy when oil prices were high, Putin built "Sovereign Democracy" and the "Power Vertical." That was the real missed opportunity.
This is the subtext of the criticism now coming from the likes of Igor Yurgens, Yevgeny Gontmakher, and others.
And as Aron correctly points out, the regime's most vocal critics now are "not professional 'dissidents,' long ago marginalized by the Kremlin, but members of the intellectual establishment." Rather than an Andropov revival, Aron argues that Putin's efforts have unintentionally recreated the political climate of the early Perestroika period:
I'm not quite ready to go that far yet. Almost, but not quite. But as I have written here and elsewhere, something important is clearly happening in Russia. If not yet a thaw, I think we are witnessing the early stages of a great awakening among a key part of the intellectual establishment. The scales are falling from people's eyes. The old fear -- while not gone -- is clearly fading. The Kremlin no longer looks all powerful.
In fact, as Aron points out, it is looking more and more vulnerable:
The shattering of the Putin myth, the changing intellectual environment, and the increased willingness of angry Russians to take to the streets is shaping up to be a potentially deadly cocktail for Russia's current rulers.
More than two decades after his death, we are witnessing the logical conclusion of the Andropov legacy.
-- Brian Whitmore