"My Dinner with Vladimir" (of Putinomics fame)

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 12/06/2007 06:28:00 AM
Anatol Lieven over at the Globalist had the opportunity to dine at Vladimir Putin's dacha in the now-swanky Novo-Ogaryovo suburb of Moscow. He has written a two-part series [1, 2] about it and his findings are instructive. Initially, let's take a look at what Putin had to say about Russia's current oil and gas fueled boom over dinner. The narrative here is already well-known, denouncing the nineties as a time when Russia was placed under the thumb of the West and it was falling apart in the absence of strong leadership traditionally required of a Russian head of state. Also interesting to note is the problem of a public wanting to use oil revenues for this and that project a la Hugo Chavez's largesse while Putin's government champions prudent fiscal management to avoid a rehash of the nineties. Rent-seeking is desired the world over:

Putin’s remarks were of a studied moderation. He rejected the term “energy superpower” for Russia, saying that it was an inappropriate reference to the Cold War and had no relevance to the world of mutually beneficial energy deals. A certain steely quality emerged when he insisted that the West could not demand access to sales of Russian property, while barring Russia from buying shares in Russian corporations.

Still more steel came to light when he warned that any moves by the West to grant independence to Kosovo would result in direct consequences in terms of Russia's own policy towards Georgia’s separatist provinces. But in both cases the tone was mild, the steel decently veiled.

Where Putin, and still more his successors, will really need to show “steel” is in an area rarely mentioned in the West, but which he emphasized in his remarks — a continuation of his present determination to maintain rigorous fiscal discipline. In the face of the flood of revenues pouring in from high oil and gas prices, and growing demands from the population that more of this be spent on public services and raising living standards, that will prove to be a real challenge.

Putin and his team seem to be near-obsessed with memories of the 1990s, when hyper-inflation and declining revenues came close to wrecking the state. These events did, for a while, radically undermine its economic and diplomatic independence vis-a-vis the West. Hence the determination to channel the great bulk of the state’s new resources into the stabilization fund and enormous foreign exchange reserves, with investment in restoring infrastructure and services coming a long way behind.

This is a line which attracted the unwilling, but profound admiration of some of the Americans in our group, given the fiscal exuberance of their own present administration. However, for future Russian governments to stick to this strategy in the face of public unrest if energy prices remain high may one day yet again require not just metaphorical but actual steel on the part of Russia’s rulers.

And here is some telling gustatory commentary on the authoritarian nature of dining with Putin. Hospitality aside, there is little doubting who is in charge of the show:

The meal, though, was worthy of a prince, not in its quantity, but in its really superb quality. We shared an Italian meal, cooked by a chef from a famous restaurant in Moscow

In one respect, official dinners with Putin resemble what I seem to recall reading was a feature of the court of Franz Joseph of Austria. The sovereign is, of course, served first. He also eats quickly — and drinks almost nothing. And when he is finished, the staff whisk everybody’s plates away, finished or not.

I was sorely tempted to make a grab for the last tentacle of the octopus carpaccio as it passed me on the way out of the door. But while other hosts might have applauded this as a compliment to their hospitality, I do not think it would have gone down well with Putin.

Finally, what will Putin's legacy amount to? The second article previews Russia's upcoming leadership transfer (at least in name) which you can read about and also this concept of Putin being an "authoritarian reformer," whatever that may be and why it is necessary in a country where progress has been uneven:

What will Putin’s legacy amount to? For starters, let us dispense with a giant "red herring" that too many Western commentators have pursued for far too long. What I am referring to is the question of whether Putin is a “democratic reformer” — or a “Soviet authoritarian.”

The answer, of course, is that Putin is an authoritarian reformer. He is profoundly committed to reforms intended to make Russia into a successful modern state. But at the same time, he is profoundly skeptical of his society’s capacity to undertake such reforms without strong control from above — at least without running a grave risk of flying to pieces in the process.

Whether he is right or wrong on this is open to question. But it is an old Russian position dating back to Peter the Great and even beyond. And it is a stance that was confirmed in Putin's mind and in the minds of a large majority of ordinary Russians by the dreadful experiences of the 1990s…

There are certain milder elements of this in Putin’s own attitudes. In addition to limiting even the long-term growth of real democracy, they may also yet help stifle just the economic dynamism that he genuinely wants to promote — above all through state-directed, partially state-controlled monopolization.

For all the strengthening of the state under Putin, Russia has not wholly shed either the anarchy of the 1990s, or the tradition of “Russian revolts — senseless and merciless,” as Pushkin described them. And they are a reminder of the fact that ruling Russia does require a certain toughness.

During my stay in Russia, bloody anti-Caucasian rioting broke out in the depressed northern town of Kondopoga, a place that epitomizes all the dreary, desperate areas left behind by Russia's contemporary march to prosperity. If that march falters, it is easy to see how such places could be breeding grounds for a far more savage version of Russian chauvinism than anything we have seen under Putin.