Russia, Ukraine and the Triangle of Mis-rule
Everyone knows of the Bermuda Triangle. Not many know of the mysterious area just off the coast of Ukraine that has also suffered a number of strange activities. Various disappearances have occurred in this area which some call the Black Sea’s Bermuda Triangle.
Others, not so swayed by superstition, also use a similar phrase to describe the politics of the area. In their paper, “the Black Sea and the Frontiers of Freedom”, Ronald Asmus and Bruce Jackson called that region “the Bermuda Triangle of western strategic studies”. It is an area of confusion, forever (or so it seems) bound up with the history of Russia.
Russia’s history is one of suffering and hardship. Its people are hardened by centuries of serfdom, relative poverty and rigid rule from the centre. It is also a history of power and control: from well before the first of the Tsars (Ivan IV) through to the Romanovs, via Lenin and the short-lived Communist regime to the present day. In the West, even after so many years, we misunderstand the core drivers behind the leadership and the people.
Russia changed dramatically after the 1905 Revolution and then the October Revolution of 1917 into the expensive experiment that was Communism. Marxist thought was “developed” through Lenin and Stalin into a model of dictatorship that, whilst a complete political change from before, continued the power to rule from the centre.
The fall of this elite in 1979 under Gorbachev was an opportunity to ally Russia with western thought on democracy and economics but the power of libertarian economics was too much. For a time, the rush for economic power was electrified across Russia as an elite (the Oligarchs) wrested the power of the economy from the State. The new gangster rule – hugely corrupt, murderous and allowing no opposition – took over from the endemically corrupt regimes that began with Stalin and his underlings.
Yeltsin enabled this robbery and corruption by his lethargy and inability to rule a people that prided itself on central control. The West, misunderstanding the rigours of power in Russia, stood by hoping that the new economic opportunities would, somehow, generate a desire for democracy. But, market economics does not need democracy to survive (viz. China) and the Russian economy was not becoming a market economy but a new kind of centrist yet libertarian economy: one that was predominantly corrupt (hugely corrupt) and where individual centres of economic power (whether oligarchs or regional centres) dominated. This new economy was, for a time, the true government of Russia.
The Triangle of Mis-Rule in Russia
Vladimir Putin came on to the scene relatively late but enshrines the old order of (mis) rule. He made his way to the top by promising an end to economic shambles and strong centrism in terms of government. The years of Gorbachev and Yeltsin are seen by him (and many Russians) as a disaster – leading to governmental shambles, a loss of Russian honour and an economy shared out between a few ruthless gangsters.
Putin has worked to centralize government to himself (the new Tsar) while piecing together an economy based on market basics but which remains heavily unbalanced by corruption and key centres of economic power. This Triangle of Tsarist mis-rule, corruption and economic centres of power are not dissimilar to the pre-communist set-up. It is a reversion to the norm in Russia after communism and the Gorbachev-Yeltsin period of chaos. It is a reversion to what Russia knows best and what its people are still willing to accept – knowing that they cannot have any power of thought, that they will be ruled from the centre both in terms of economics and in terms of the way they live; knowing that corruption will endure and that they will be OK as long as they have enough to get by on and keep quiet. It is a world where the Duma has resumed its original status – merely as an organ to assist the ruler – the Tsar (Putin) – rule.
China and Russia – centrism and market economics
The world’s heartbeat of communism pulsed in Russia and China. Both countries suffered tremendously for the experiment of their own type of communism – Lenin-Stalinism or Maoism. Both have now moved towards what we perceive as market-driven economies. We (the West) think that our form of economics has won out in both countries and that democracies will automatically follow.
Unfortunately, both models show how market-driven economics can be developed in different ways and to suit the ruling elites.
China operates as a legalist society whereby the ruling elite sees itself as above the law. This is a blurring of its communist ideology whereby the state is run for the benefit of the ruling ideology. The fact that communism no longer exists means nothing: a ruling elite is considered by itself to be above the law.
Of course, the economy is managed very differently to how it was managed under Mao. Deng changed this to entwine market forces within a rigid centrism – made real by ownership of the banks and finance and of key industries and resources. While most pricing mechanisms are set by the market, it is massively influenced by interest rate manipulation, by endemic corruption and by key units of power in local government – and by the family-focused culture. This is a mix of market economics, centrism and Confucianism that is uniquely Chinese.
This is wholly different to the Russian model which is far more dominated by the strong man culture. In this way, it could be argued that there is more hope for change. The intertwining of Confucianism with the long-term centrism of Emperor rule through to the Communist rule and now the post-Communist legalism makes China’s “Civilisation State” very hard to break down. Economic change was relatively easy as this was only communist for a relatively short period. Governmental change is far harder to crack.
In Russia, this may be true as well but there is no equivalent of Confucianism in Russia and the state apparatus is not as broad in Russia as in China – it was destroyed under Gorbachev and Yeltsin. So, in that short period, the West hoped for real change. Now, Putin has embodied the state apparatus in himself as Tsar.
Ukraine – Catch a falling Tsar
Putin’s aspirations for a renewed Russia have seen him march into the Crimea and undermine Ukraine. Ukraine was for many years just a smaller version of Russia in Russian minds – Ukainians were termed “Little” or “Southern Russians” in the 19th Century and Stalin saw them as a tribute nation (similar to the way that China views its neighbours). The Russification began in the 1860’s and it was only the fact that Kruschev was Ukrainian that gave them a measure of independence (and Crimea) around 40 years ago.
But, Ukraine is similar in other ways, too. It is endemically corrupt from the top down. It is not just IKEA that has found the corruption difficult to penetrate.
Ukraine has seen endemic and high-scale corruption for many years. In 2006, for example, Global Witness (an anti-corruption NGO and this year’s winner of the TED award) published “It’s a Gas” – an expose of the corrupt Turkmenistan – Ukraine gas trade.
The report highlighted the case of former Ukrainian Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko, who, it claimed, syphoned off huge amounts of money from questionable business practices: money that was then funneled into Swiss Bank accounts. Lazarenko (who served time in the USA) recently had substantial assets seized in the US.
The Global Witness report also highlighted the barter economy which anti-corruption experts know as one of the best-known ways to hide massive money transfers illegally.
Yet, Lazarenko was not part of the Government clique that Ukrainians pulled down earlier this year. He was closely linked to the earlier regime of Yulia Tymoshenko (the West’s best friend) – very closely linked as an article in January showed.
Those in power in Ukraine followed the Russian model. Little Russians modeled themselves on Russia in many ways and this was not limited to one party or one clique. The EU desire to bring Ukraine into the EU tent was not necessarily misguided in the way that Nigel Farage would have us believe but the powerful in Ukraine are essentially part of a highly corrupt clique that dominates the country in the same way that Russia is dominated by its own corrupt. They have divided up the nation’s assets between them.
This is one reason why Putin is keen to bring Ukraine back into Russia’s control. The horror of the break-up of the Soviet Union was bad enough but assuaged by the economic benefits that accrued to the Putin elite and the retention of power in the hands of the few. This was mirrored in Ukraine – the home of many Russians. The call to patriotism has been partly a response to the shouts for democracy but underneath is a need for Russian mores to be maintained.
This is the Triangle of Mis-rule: Tsarist centrism, corruption and economic centres of power that Ukraine has witnessed since it was deemed to have left Soviet control – an exact image of big brother Russia. This is why it is so difficult to break down the stranglehold. Ukraine is fixed within the Bermuda Triangle of the Black Sea.
The EU may well have been Tsar Gazing when it simplistically assumed that riots on the streets could topple a government in a bankrupt nation with such a history and such conventions. It appeared not to understand enough about the pull that Russia had on it: Russification going back over 150 years and a model of the economy and government that is a replica of the Russian model.
Breaking this down was bound to be a challenge – but it is not clear that the model is sufficiently understood even now. Many write on the endemic corruption but provide little guidance to solving it. Many write on Russification but have no answers other than a hope that “democracy” will triumph. Others write about Putin’s urge to control without too much understanding of the Russian legacy that goes back to the 15th Century.
Can Ukraine break free?
It is not just one aspect or another that has to be broken in Ukraine. They have the three corners of the Triangle of Mis-rule to break in addition to the large numbers of Russians – patriots to Russia – in their midst and the larger numbers just over the border in Russia itself.
This is a massive challenge and there is no rapid solution.
Ukraine is in a mess – as we know. It has lost the Crimea and may well lose the Eastern half of the country. It is not often stated that this may be the best medium-term solution even if it is not one that appears wholly palatable. A loss to Russia of this scale may appear too much and it is, of course, for Ukraine and others to decide. But, the devil’s triangle that operates in Russia and Ukraine is endemic to the Eastern side of the country in a way that could be shaken off more easily in the West. The unthinkable may have to be thought. Without much effort, Putin could regain the Eastern side of Ukraine and the West of Ukraine would then be welcomed into Europe.
It is highly likely that governments in the West are already planning for this. As ethnic Russians pore into Ukrainian security buildings, it is clear that the fight for Eastern Ukraine is in its early days. The Western half can, through massive economic help by Europe, be purged of corruption, centrist rule and economic stagnation. Without the East and as part of Europe, it can be made good. While it remains affixed to the Russianised East, it is unlikely to do so for many years.
Russia is likely to see eastern Ukraine back in its orbit and remain enclosed with the Triangle of Mis-rule that epitomizes both. What happens after that is something that is also, I am sure, being actively discussed in governments throughout the world.
The problem is that nothing will really have changed – Putin’s Russia is endemically riddled with forms of entwined government and economics that are alien to modern-day Europe and the west in general. Changing this will take a long time and Putin, a fit 61 year-old, is in no mood to give up all that Russia provides to him.
To an extent, the rest of the world will play a waiting game with Putin. In Ukraine, it may have to understand that Plan B (the break-up of Ukraine) is a potential and real outcome. Maybe, over time, Eastern Ukrainians, bordering an economically advancing Western Ukraine, will begin to appreciate the benefits of freedoms brought by the rule of law that is above all (including government), economic freedoms that are not concentrated in the hands of the few and democracy that can (when done properly) do away with bad government. Maybe, over greater time, Russia (and China) will adapt as well and copy not just the basics of market economics but much more.
For the rest of us, understanding the Triangle of Mis-rule would be a good step before the results of misunderstanding are yesterday’s news.