Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
Excerpts from the JRL E-Mail Community :: Founded and Edited by David Johnson

The Russia Journal
DECEMBER 21-27, 2001
New Year Wishes

Assessments of Russia have often borne the stamp of either deep pessimism or exuberant enthusiasm, and in virtually no case have these expectations been fulfilled.

Expectations were high at the beginning of the decade. Many in Russia and abroad were laboring under the illusion that dismantling the communist system overnight, freeing Russia from its obligations to fund the other Soviet Republics and imposing shock therapy would, in a twinkling of an eye, transform the country from an authoritarian, lumbering monolith into a peaceful and prosperous democracy a la Sweden.

These hopes were naive in the extreme, as experience has proven to be true in spades.

The old nomenklatura simply switched its rhetoric to appear "democratic" and shifted to brazen instead of hidden looting; the democratic aspirations of the Yeltsin government were quickly shown to be no more than window dressing; and bureaucracy, corruption and the uncompetitiveness of Russian enterprises proved to be too entrenched to be eliminated effectively. Instead of becoming a new European country, Russia appeared to be drifting toward Guatemala.

All this was often ignored in the West. Then came the 1998 financial crisis, the infamous Bank of New York money-laundering scandal and revelations that the International Monetary Fund might better be termed the "International Oligarch-Enrichment Fund."

Once burned, Western commentators discovered what had long since been common knowledge in Russia: The country and its economy had been hijacked by brigands, double-dealers and thieves, not to mention one alcohol-besotted president.

Suddenly, commentators changed their official tune; instead of a success-story-to-be, Russia was now seen as a perennial and irremediable basket case, its future consisting only of a slow and inevitable slide into wretchedness and irrelevance.

It has only been three years, but the West, and much of Russia itself, have once again become enamoured of this country. Like former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and former President Boris Yeltsin, President Vladimir Putin is held by many as possessing the Keys to the Kingdom.

Under Putin, it is said, Russia will finally lay the groundwork for a prosperous economy and (relatively) democratic state.

It is true that Russia under the leadership of Putin has seen great improvements.

Unlike Yeltsin, whose promises seemed never to come true, Putin’s tutelage has seen economic growth unheard-of since the Khrushchev era.

The past two years have also seen a level of political stability that is like a breath of fresh air after the chaos of the past decade. And he appears to be attempting to wind down the incompetently run debacle in Chechnya, which has been the principal stain on his record to date.

It is also true, however, that all this has not been without a downside.

This political stability has been bought with harassment of media hostile to the Kremlin and the transformation of the Duma into a body that does little expect rubber-stamp legislation passed to it from above.

The economy continues to improve, but at a slower rate, and it remains to be seen whether or not the Putin administration can deal with slashed oil prices on international markets. It is also possible that Kremlin-inspired reform projects will just end in an oligarchic feeding frenzy like those Russia saw in the 1990s.

Still, all in all, we have reasons to feel optimistic. We hope that in the coming year these expectations will be fulfilled and that Russia and the Russian people continue moving toward a better future.

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