We begin by considering an article from September 12, 2011, entitled We introduce to you a new vacation spot for government leaders... which, complete with pictures, documents a nice, new road leading off into nowhere - but which actually leads to a "tourist complex":
The official web page of the Republic of Altai Government says that, in 2009, Gazprom decided to build a tourist complex, Altai Inn, and that the complex would kick-start development of Altai's massive tourist potential. True, Gazprom people told us that the inn was intended for meetings with business partners, corporate events and for hosting foreign guests. So the tourist potential will obviously cater to a very narrow circle of people. Judging from the way we were pushed out of the inn, we were not members of that circle.
Rumours in Altai claim that the circle is, in fact, even narrower: indeed, guest and partner will be one and the same person, the number one person. We were immediately reminded of the unfortunate experience of journalists and archaeologists from the mountainous part of Altai who tried to attract public attention to the villa and the road. At their request, the Prosecutor's Office discovered some irregularities in the builders' operations and even fined the road contractor but, as a result, the initiators of the inspection had some trouble with the law.
We left the grounds ourselves, not waiting to be pushed out. Gazprom is apparently building the Altai Inn with its own money. The official customer is its subsidiary firm, Gazpromneft. The land, as we were told by the regional administration, had been bought from a deer-breeding farm that went bust and that it did not have the status of a nature reserve. The total cost of the complex is about 1.5 billion roubles. The company will decide how to use the tourist facility and it answered all our questions in the same way as the guards did: "This is private property".
But the road is not private property.
The documents in fact do not refer to it as a road but, rather coyly, as a "spur off highway M52”. The customer is the state-owned institution Gorno-Altai Avtodor, which means the republic's administration. We easily discovered the cost on the Internet: four billion roubles, ie, 200 million per kilometre. By comparison, the annual budget of the whole republic is nine billion. But it is not the locals who are paying: at the Prime Minister's special order, the "spur" leading to Gazprom's complex has been financed out of the Federal Budget, ie, with tax payers' money.
Skipping down just a bit:
[A local named Lev] told us that he was breeding and selling horses, that gays held jamborees on the bank of Katun every summer and finally told us the details of how the Prime Minister himself allegedly came to inspect the tourist complex: "We expected him to fly in by chopper but he drove by jeep."
At that point, one of us noted that the grass growing around the house was cannabis. Lev looked a bit embarrassed and said that the locals were not interested in the grass: "Even the locusts don't eat it here; it's only for those who come here every summer."
It seems federal money was used to build a road to a private country getaway (known in Russian as a "dacha") with a very exclusive guestlist: Vladimir Putin. And, by the way, those who accompany Putin may have an interest in smoking pot.
Why does Russia tolerate Putin?
All countries are unique, but Russia is more unique than most other countries. Russia is not European, yet Russia is not Asian. Russia is Russian - but, the definintion of that word "Russian" is what presents the challenge.
So, why does this place and its people tolerate Putin?
Some analysis from Why haven't the 2011 protests hit Russia? from November 21, 2011:
Russia is far from a brutal war or famine. In fact, it lacks many of the social and economic conditions plaguing Arab states and Western liberal democracies. Despite declining polls, Putin and Co. still remain popular. Russia has successfully weathered the global economic crisis, has no sovereign debt problem, no mortgage crisis, and no widespread household debt. According to Rosstat, overall unemployment is low, around six per cent, but joblessness among young people 16-25 years old is quite high, 26.1 per cent, and comparable to that in Arab states and the West.
Yet this has not caused many young people to lose faith in capitalism or the Putin system. "In Russia everyone knows the emperor wears no clothes, even when he's dressed in Armani and Brioni. Yet we don't have 'occupiers'", writes Malor Sturua in Moskovskii komsomolets. "The ideals of our youth are Putin and [the oligarch Roman] Abramovich, power and money. They aren't drawn to occupy Moscow's 'Wall Street'. They prefer to be a part of it."
Moreover, Sturua continues, Russia is "submerged in a pool of social passivity and civic apathy. Civil society has not ripened in it. Authoritarian society has ripened where they chose the Presidents and nominate the Prime Ministers several years before the elections in secret from the people. And the people who do this are a million times less than one per cent of the Russian population. 'Stability' plays the role of progress. And as they explain not long ago, the Brezhnev stagnation was damn good for the Soviet Union."
Now we consider excerpts from Integrating Russia’s Post-Imperium, by Dmitri Trenin, November 2, 2011:
With Russia's 2012 presidential elections effectively over since Vladimir Putin's decision to reclaim his old Kremlin office, it is time to turn from personalities to policies. Putin plans to stay in the Kremlin for two more presidential terms, another 12 years, as he is enabled to do by the recently-amended constitution. So who will be Russia's next president is now a certainty; less obvious is what he hopes to achieve.
One issue, however, has now shot to the top of Russia's political agenda: Eurasian integration. In early October, Putin wrote a newspaper article that proclaimed what appears to be his reigning foreign-policy goal: a Eurasian Union of former Soviet states. Two weeks later, in St. Petersburg, he hosted a meeting of Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) prime ministers, eight of whom signed an agreement establishing a free-trade area among their countries. On January 1, 2012, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia, which now form a customs union, will join a single economic space.
And Putin wants even more: a "Eurasian Schengen" (free movement of people among the three countries, built on the example of the European Union) by 2015, followed by a currency union and, ultimately, full economic integration. Indeed, Putin wants to restructure Russia's relations with the former Soviet states to create not merely a bigger market, but eventually an economic bloc-cum-security alliance.
In his much-quoted newspaper piece, Putin denied that his new integration plans are aimed at restoring the Soviet Union under another name. This is a credible claim, for three basic reasons: the complete evaporation of Russia's imperial élan, its unwillingness to pay other countries' bills, and the new countries' unwillingness to cede too much sovereignty to the former hegemon.
Putin is ambitious, but he is also cautious. He probably sees that only mutual economic interest can do the trick. Creating a new Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON, the Soviet-era trade bloc), or a new Warsaw Pact, is as impossible as a latter-day Soviet Union. Eurasian economic integration, if it stands a chance, must follow a different path.
If all parties concerned join voluntarily, and proceed in a step-by-step manner, as with the EU or the North American Free Trade Agreement, Eurasian integration will benefit all of those involved. Rather than behaving like an empire secretly trying to re-invent itself, Russia has an opportunity to become a regional leader. But Eurasian integration will fail if Russia's partners see the process as Moscow’s attempt at political domination.
In the West, Putin's best-remembered statement about the Soviet Union described its end as the "greatest catastrophe of the twentieth century." But Putin's other comments, less familiar to Western readers, refer to the Soviet system as "unviable." In his ruthless judgment, those who want the USSR back "have no brains."
The picture that emerges is one of Putin presenting himself as a strong, perhaps paternalistic leader, not unlike some of Russia's tsars. A comparison to Stalin is not totally inappropriate, provided one also considers the contrasts. This strong leader guarantees strength and stability to Russia during times of global turmoil, and Russians, who have had three revolutions in the past century, and centuries of troubles at the hand of foreign and domestic powers, are not unattracted by this prospect. Yes, Putin is corrupt, but cynicism would dictate that all leaders are, and at least under Putin, Russians have stability and a chance to work their way into a better life and become "part of it".
Yet, Putin's plan is not to rebuild the USSR, which was founded on ideology and preached a world revolution; rather, Putin is about business, regardless of which side of the law the business is on. This is an economic empire being built - it is everything Soviet ideologues ever accused the United States in particular and capitalists in general of being.
But, instead of a phoenix arising from the ashes of the Soviet Union, Russia's corrupt leadership today is fiddling while Russia burns. From Russia's Dangerous Implosion, November 19, 2011:
Russia is set to experience a debilitating demographic crisis. Its population will sicken and drop by one-third, and its dominant Slavic-Orthodox population will dwindle and be surpassed by its Islamic faction. The consequences of this crisis will, unless the world gets better leadership than the likes of Barack Obama, and soon, have dire and direct and lasting effects for the rest of the world.
According to RIA Novosti, Russia's Kremlin-funded answer to Reuters, between 1950 and 2000 Russia's share of the world population fell by half, from 4% to 2%. And, according to RIA, it will fall by half again before this century is out, dropping to just 1%. That means only one out of every 100 people on the planet will be citizen of the Russian Federation.
If you look at a map of the world in 2100 with boundaries redrawn to reflect share of world population (RIA helpfully draws one for you), Russia is invisible. While the population of the rest of the world has grown, Russia's has fallen back to the level it had in 1950 under Stalin. By 2100, the population if the USA will be more than triple that of Russia.
If we start analyzing the causes of this catastrophe, we make initial note of the fact that Russia has the world's highest rate of abortion. In 2009 Russia exterminated a shocking 1.3 million fetuses, 73 for every 100 babies born. Russia has more abortions each year than the United States, a country with more than double Russia's population. By contrast, Russia's birth rate ranks #166 out of 195 world nations. Hardly any babies are being conceived, and more than 40% of those that are conceived are exterminated before being born.
The fate of babies that are born in Russia is a bleak one. Russia ranks #6 in the world for fatality by suicide. It has the second-highest prevalence of AIDS in Eurasia. It is #7 in the world for cigarette consumption and #5 in the world for alcohol consumption. Its rate of fatality by fire is ten times that of the United States, and it is the most dangerous place in the world to drive a car or get on a plane.
All this leads Russians to a very early grave: Russia's average life expectancy of 65.5 years places it #135 out of 194 world countries. That's the bottom third of the planet.
Russians have given up on the future, seeking desperately to have fun today, and perhaps a better tomorrow; that the day after is doomsday means nothing - or, perhaps, it means everything, and has become the justification.
For whatever reason, Mother Russia is dying.
From Russia: the logic of decline, September 16, 2011:
There are specific factors that precipitate the demise of a system. Above all, it is the ruling team that cannot be replaced. If there is no political competition, there can be no development. How important is it who personifies power? Judge for yourselves: Putin, who is associated with certainty (we know what to expect from him) may accelerate the processes of decay. For his part, Medvedev, with his diffuse position and penchant for mimicry, might slow them down. But what is better for Russia: rapid or slow decay? Putin's regime, relying on security structures and their control of property, is inherently repressive and incapable of modernisation.
Another factor of decline is the obsession of the power apparatus, above all security men, with their personal enrichment. All civilisations perished when their elites started thinking about their own purses. Sparta and the Ottoman Empire were invincible until the Spartans and the Janissaries engaged in trade.
The "Kushchevskaya syndrome", which has been repeated many times all across Russia, i.e. the intertwining of the mob, business, government and repressive bodies, is further proof of degradation of a system that cannot function even according to its own rules.
The Russian ruling class not only deprives society of its viability. It is setting a trap for itself. The most successful mechanism that humanity has developed for self-preservation (including of the elite) is free competition. As soon as the East European elites agreed that they would not cling to power, they guaranteed development for their societies and security for themselves. The fact that the Russian ruling team is trying to secure an infinite monopoly for itself attests to its lack of confidence and inability to run a free society. Monopoly implies the need constantly to protect it and it makes it impossible to relinquish power without fearing for one's life. So far, only Mikhail Gorbachev has managed to break out of this vicious circle without fearing for his personal safety. The fate of Arab rulers who have lost power or are desperately clinging on to it cannot but prompt anxious thoughts in Russian rulers. If they hope they will be able to avoid sharing the fate of other "autocrats" they are in for a disappointment: the last twenty years have not seen a single instance of a happy end to one-man rule.
Everything is beginning to fall apart. The once all-powerful institution of leadership is losing its influence. There is a growing awareness in the midst of the political class that relying on Putin as guarantor of security may soon pose a threat to the very survival of that class. The state and its security structures are perceived by the population as a hostile force. When 73% of respondents believe that the gap between the rich and the poor has widened over the last ten years and 52% that the government has more thieves and corrupt officials than in the 1990s and finally, when more than half the respondents are sure that the coming elections will not be fair - that is a sign of alienation of the population from power.
Moscow is well-lit by power, money, and good times, but all around, dusk is falling on one of the world's great countries, as a great people, which has been through so much, parties its way into a long, dark night.