Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
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New York Times
December 23, 2001
Russia's Last Line

MOSCOW—Because of Moscow's exploding middle class, you quickly notice two things driving around this increasingly European city — sushi bars are opening all over (yes, from borscht to Big Macs to California-Kremlin rolls in one decade!) and so many people have cars now that traffic is permanently snarled (imagine Jakarta with snow and ice and you've got today's Moscow). So sitting in gridlock the other day in Pushkin Square, I had plenty of time to ask my Russian friend Viktor a cosmic question: Is your life easier or harder now than it was under Communism?

"Both," he remarked. "It's easier because I don't have to hunt for food every day and wait in lines for everything. Stores are full now. No lines. But it all costs a lot of money. The saying here now is that there is only one line left in Russia — the line for money."

So Karl Marx's theories have finally triumphed in today's Russia: it's all about money. That's the key to understanding President Vladimir Putin, too. He's not a tougher Mikhail Gorbachev, or a more sober Boris Yeltsin. He is Russia's first Deng Xiaoping — Mao's pragmatic successor who first told the Chinese that "to get rich is glorious" and put in place the modernizing reforms to do it.

Abba Eban once said that men and nations will always do the right thing in the end — after they exhaust every other possibility. That is Mr. Putin's basic message to Russians: "For a decade, we've tried every bad idea, from default to devaluation to shock therapy. Now there's only one idea left: passing real reform legislation so we can get real investment to build a real modern economy. Because in this world, without a real economic foundation, you're nothing. So we're going to focus now on the only line that matters — the line for money." This is Putinism: From Das Kapital to DOScapital.

And it explained to me why Mr. Putin rolled over so meekly on President Bush's decision to walk away from the ABM treaty, limiting missile defenses. In 1972, when that treaty was forged, Russian foreign policy was about one thing — geopolitics, the ideologically driven global competition for influence with the U.S., and everything, particularly economics, was subordinated to that. Hence all the food lines. Today, Russian foreign policy is about two things — geopolitics and geoeconomics — and there is a real competition between the two. So if Russia can save money and win Western help by walking away from the ABM treaty, then walk it will.

Don't be fooled, though. Russia's military and foreign policy elite considered Mr. Bush's ABM move "a slap in the face," said the Russian pollster Igor Bunin. If the U.S. doesn't come through now with what Mr. Putin believes he's been promised — a new accord for deep cuts in nuclear weapons, a real Russia-NATO partnership, plus debt relief, W.T.O. membership and Western investment, Mr. Putin will be seen as another Gorbachev — always giving and never receiving. "Then elites could start to form a front against him," added Mr. Bunin. But for now, Mr. Putin is ignoring the whispers because in his view Russia will never again be a player in geopolitics unless it first masters geoeconomics.

What's new in today's Moscow is that there are young capitalists coming of age, and they believe they can get rich the Chinese way, by making things, not the old Russian way, by taking things from the state or from the ground. And without anyone noticing, in 2001 Russia's Parliament quietly passed a lot of the judicial and tax reform legislation that America was beating on it to pass for a decade.

I had lunch the other day in a combination art gallery-restaurant, Ulitsa OGI, which is part of a successful new chain started by Dmitry Jekovich and his partner. "The difference between us and the oligarchs is that we're oriented on creating something new, not just privatizing something that existed before," he explained.

The self-confidence of Russia's new generation that it can actually do this "capitalist thing" has enormous geopolitical significance. One reason that Russia was so zealous about keeping so many nukes, and reflexively opposing the U.S., was because these were the only currency that defined it as a superpower. If Russians believe they can be powerful on the basis of geoeconomics, they aren't going to surrender all their nukes or quest for influence, but the chances of their being real partners with the West will be much, much greater.

So keep rootin' for Putin — and hope that he makes it to the front of Russia's last line.

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