by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Russia retains elements of a kleptocracy based on oligarchic control of natural resources. But we must remember that Putin inherited that kleptocracy. He did not found it. The transfer of Russia’s natural resources into the hands of KGB-connected Communists, who called themselves businessmen, was a tragic moment for Russia. It was also a shameful one for the West. Western political scientists provided the theft with ideological cover, presenting it as a “transition to capitalism.” Western corporations, including banks, provided the financing.
Let me stress the point. The oligarchs who turned Russia into an armed plutocracy within half a decade of the downfall in 1991 of Communism called themselves capitalists. But they were mostly men who had been groomed as the next generation of Communist nomenklatura—people like Boris Berezovsky, Vladimir Gusinsky, and Mikhail Khodorkovsky. They were the people who understood the scope and nature of state assets, and they controlled the privatization programs. They had access to Western financing and they were willing to use violence and intimidation. So they took power just as they had planned to back when they were in Communist cadre school—but now as owners, not as bureaucrats. Since the state had owned everything under Communism, this was quite a payout. Yeltsin’s reign was built on these billionaires’ fortunes, and vice-versa.
The recent conflict in Ukraine demonstrated major differences between American and Russian perspectives.
According to the official United States account, Russia invaded its neighbor after a glorious revolution threw out a plutocracy. Russia then annexed Ukrainian naval bases in the Crimea. According to the Russian view, Ukraine’s democratically elected government was overthrown by an armed uprising backed by the United States. To prevent a hostile NATO from establishing its own naval base in the Black Sea, by this account, Russia had to take Crimea, which in any case is historically Russian territory. Both of these accounts are perfectly correct. It is just that one word can mean something different to Americans than it does to Russians. For instance, we say the Russians don’t believe in democracy. But as the great journalist and historian Walter Laqueur put it, “Most Russians have come to believe that democracy is what happened in their country between 1990 and 2000, and they do not want any more of it.”