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:
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:
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