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NIALL FERGUSON

Reviving the evil empire

May 28, 2007|NIALL FERGUSON

THERE IS NO such thing as the future. There are only futures, plural. Historians are supposed to confine themselves to the study of the past, but by drawing analogies between yesterday and today, they can sometimes suggest plausible tomorrows.

Seven years ago, the economist Brigitte Granville and I published an article in the Journal of Economic History titled "Weimar on the Volga," in which we argued that the experience of 1990s Russia bore many resemblances to the experience of 1920s Germany.

No historical analogy is exact, needless to say. Russia's currency did not collapse as completely as Germany's did in 1923, though the annual inflation rate did come close to 300% in 1992. Our hunch, nevertheless, was that the traumatic economic events of the 1990s would prove as harmful to Russian democracy as hyperinflation had been for German democracy 70 years earlier.

"By discrediting free markets, the rule of law, parliamentary institutions and international economic openness," we concluded, "the Weimar inflation proved the perfect seedbed for national socialism. In Russia, too, the immediate social costs of high inflation may have grave political consequences in the medium term. As in Weimar Germany, the losers may yet become the natural constituency for a political backlash against both foreign creditors and domestic profiteers."

Seven years later, the man who succeeded Boris N. Yeltsin as our article was going to press is doing much to vindicate our analysis.

The rule of law is the keystone of both liberal democracy and international order. Yet, last week, the Russian government showed its contempt for the rule of law by flatly refusing to extradite the man who is the prime suspect in the case of Alexander Litvinenko, poisoned in London in November. The British authorities say they have sufficient evidence to warrant prosecution of Andrei Lugovoy. But the Russians maintain that it would be unconstitutional to hand him over.

It is tempting to regard the spat over Lugovoy's extradition as part of a new Cold War between Russia and the West. The list of strategic bones of contention is a long one: the U.S. invasion of Iraq; Russia's assistance to Iran; U.S. missile defenses in Eastern Europe; Russian pipelines in Kazakhstan.... And the rhetoric is getting colder too. Only three months ago, I heard Russian President Vladimir V. Putin give a speech in Munich in which he bluntly warned that Washington's "hyper use of force" was "plunging the world into an abyss of permanent conflicts."

Yet this is not Cold War II. Unlike in the 1950s and 1960s, Russia is not self-confident but insecure. It is reliant on exports of natural resources, not its own ability to match American technological accomplishments. It is a waning power. The value of the parallel with Weimar Germany is precisely that it captures the dangers of a backlash against such weakness.

As Granville and I anticipated, one of Putin's earliest moves was to launch a campaign against the oligarchs who had been the principal beneficiaries of Yeltsin's (admittedly crooked) privatization, securing the imprisonment of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the destruction of his oil company. Having frightened the other oligarchs into exile or submission, Putin set about renationalizing energy resources through the state-controlled Gazprom and Rosneft.

Foreign investors have also felt the backlash. Having reduced Royal Dutch Shell's stake in the Sakhalin II oil and gas field, Moscow now seems intent on doing the same to BP. As before, the tactic is to accuse the foreign company of violating the terms of its license.

Russia under Putin has remained outwardly a democracy. Yet there is no mistaking the erosion of democracy's foundations. In the name of "sovereign democracy," the direct election of regional governors and presidents was replaced with a centralized presidential nomination system. Opposition groups can no longer operate freely. This month, chess maestro and Putin critic Garry Kasparov and other anti-government activists were prevented from boarding a plane to Samara, where Russian and European Union leaders were meeting.

On Putin's watch there also has been a discernible reduction in the freedom of the press. The three major TV networks are under direct or indirect government control, and reporters who antagonize the authorities no longer feel safe. Last year, investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya was murdered, one of 14 Russian journalists who have been slain since Putin came to power.

Having more or less stifled internal dissent, Russia is now ready to play a more aggressive role on the international stage. Remember, it was Putin who restored the old Soviet national anthem. And it was he who described the collapse of the Soviet Union as a "national tragedy on an enormous scale."

It would be a bigger tragedy if he or his successor tried to restore that evil empire. Unfortunately, that is precisely what the Weimar analogy predicts will happen.

nferguson@latimescolumnists.com

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