It’s Time to De-Russianize the BRICS — UPDATED (twice): Response to My Critics


UPDATED, March 22, 24: This post got a lot of traffic, due to Andrew Sullivan’s citation of it. Thank you to all those readers coming for the first time; please come again. The criticisms levelled here have been similar to those made at the Duck of Minerva, where I also blog. It seems there are three main critiques, although you may wish to scroll further down to the original post first: 1. I exaggerated; Russia is still a great power. 2. I didn’t provide enough data and links. 3. I don’t really ‘get’ Russia, or I’m just recycling western propaganda.

(In passing, I find it both curious/frustrating as an author that what I think is my more creative and fresh work in the last few months [this or this series] didn’t get nearly so much attention, whereas lamenting Russia’s postimperial decline, which so many have done before me [see all the links below], got an explosion of interest. Not quite sure what to make out of that…)

1. I overshot in saying Russia isn’t a great power anymore.

Ok, but not by much. I’ll agree that it was probably gratuitous to call Russia a ‘joke’ as a great power. But then again, be honest with yourself and tell me you didn’t laugh: when Putin rode around shirtless on horseback, when Putin stage-managed a discovery of ‘antiquities’ while scuba diving, when Putin claimed the State Department and Secretary Clinton were fomenting the Moscow protests, when Zhirinovsky “backed free vodka and the reconquest of Alaska,” when the president fired a minister on live TV (!), the minister refused (!!), and Medvedev responded with farcical lecture on Russia’s globally-regarded ‘constitionalism’ (!!!). Or just read this from Gawker on the Putin the crossbow-toting whaler and tell me you don’t burst out laughing – over a head of state with superpower pretensions?

These are the sorts of howlers and hijinks we expect from leaders like Qaddafi, with his retinue of female ‘bodyguards,’ or Idi Amin, with so many gold medals on his uniform you could store it in a bank vault. But modern states, desirous of global prestige, seeking to be taken seriously at the highest levels of the game, just don’t do this stuff. Could you imagine Wen Jiabao doing he-man photo-ops? You’d laugh, right? Well… Putin’s become a punchline, regardless of Russia’s other strengths, which is ultimately what motivated the original post.

As Niall Ferguson put it last December, “Russia—who cares? With its rampant voter fraud and declining population, the country is careening toward irrelevance. …Russia isn’t quite “Upper Volta with missiles”—West German chancellor Helmut Schmidt’s immortal phrase. But it’s certainly a shadow of its former Cold War self. The U.S. economy is 10 times larger than Russia’s. Per capita gross domestic product is not much higher than in Turkey. Male life expectancy is significantly lower: 63, compared with 71 on the other side of the Black Sea. And the population is shrinking. There are nearly 7 million fewer Russians today than there were in 1992. By 2055, the United Nations estimates that the population of Egypt will be larger. Remind me: why did Goldman Sachs group Russia with Brazil, India, and China as the “BRICs,” supposedly the four key economies of the 21st century? Give me Turkey or Indonesia any day.” That’s exactly right (I know people think Ferguson is a neo-victorian apologist for empire, but hold that thought),  and it should deeply worry and embarass Russians that the rest of the planet thinks this way about one of the world’s great cultures. I wrote something similar last fall when Putin announced his re-taking of the presidency, and the whole world shrugged.

Here is more from the Duck of Minerva comment section:

“My interest was more developmental than realist-theoretical. On re-reading the post, it was a bridge to far to say that Russia isn’t a great power anymore. It still is, by the skin of its teeth. Nukes compensate for other areas of decline, I suppose, as you are suggesting. De Gaulle saw this, as did N Korea.

My real goal was to developmentally differentiate between Russia and the other BRICS. That BRICS moniker is to imply some level of cosmopolitan comfort with the modern world economy and rapid growth to greater weight within that economy (hence my reference to Parag Khanna). The other 4 BRICS capture that upward trend – as do other economies like Turkey, S Korea, Mexico, or Indonesia (hence my preference for Khanna’s term ‘second world’). But Russia really doesn’t. Russia is slipping, not rising and has been, more or less, since the late 1970s. That’s quite a hegemonic decline. Its internal rot is pretty severe now. Its Transparency International score in 2011 is a staggering 143 out of 182, putting it in the company of Nigeria, Belarus, and Togo, and obviously calling into question not just its BRIC credentials, but its great power ones too. And the shirtless one’s return puts off a turn-around for another six to twelve years. Given that China rose to the ‘G-2’ in just 30 years, 20+ long years of Putinism (after 10 years of Yeltsin chaos plus late Soviet stagnation) portends a disaster for Russia. This is the real reason for the Moscow protests. They see this now.

Rotation at the top is just one marker for BRIC normalization, but other obvious red flags include the relentless xenophobia of the Putin regime, the alienation from the WTO, the huge missed opportunities of globalization, the blow-out levels corruption and state capriciousness including the murder of journalists, the third worldish reliance on carbon and weapons exports, the 19th century ‘spheres of influence’ obsession with countering the West in Eurasia, the confiscatory attitude toward private wealth most obvious displayed in the Khodorkovsky case, or Putin’s laughably ridiculous throwback-to-Kaiser-Wilhelm bravado of hunting on TV with a crossbow or fighting stage-managed martial arts contests. Does that sound like a BRIC or Khanna’s ‘second world’? Not really. It sounds like Venezuela or Iran. It sounds like an angry, Weimar-style pseudo-democracy high on petro-dollars with a ‘postimperial hangover,’ as Vice-President Biden once put it. Hence the argument that BRIC/second world is the wrong developmental category for Russia. For more of this, ‘should the R be taken out of the BRICS’ debate, try here and here. For a similar write-up on how Putin’s return will critically aggravate so many of Russia’s outstanding problems, try here.

2. I didn’t provide enough data.

Ok, so here you go. It’s pretty easy to find. Please read the links above and these below. From the Duck:

Actually there’s lots of data on this that’s pretty easy to find with Google. I suppose I should have included more links orignally, but I thought a lot of this was common knowledge at this point. But here you go; all the following links come from the last few years:

a. On demography, I was thinking of Nicolas Eberstadt’s work. He’s been writing on this for a long time now, most recently November 2011 in Foreign Affairs. His title, ‘The Dying Bear,’ is pretty blunt about the population contraction. For more, try this.

b. On corruption so high, it’s incommensurate with being a great power, here’s that Transparency International score again.

c. It is downright heroic, if not irresponsible, to suggest that alcoholism is not a huge problem in modern Russia and severely impacting men’s health and mortality: here or here. Just look at those estimates of average male lifespan – around 60! Gorbachev even thought alcoholism imperiled the very existence of the USSR and launched a major government campaign against it.

d. On the brain drain, try here.  Note the big listed reason – problems with the Putinist regime – and their profile: “vast majority of those who admitted wanting to leave were under 35 years old, lived in a major city, and spoke a foreign language.”

e. On the economic overreliance on carbon and how weak the economy really is under the hood, try this from the Financial Times just today. More generally try this and this from the Economist how post-‘reelection’ dysfunctional.

For what it’s worth, this wasn’t intended to be ‘anti-russian gloom and doom.’ I studied in Russia for a bit and spoke it reasonably well once; I’d like to think I am sympathetic. But simply denying Russia’s internal decay is not really a response – as the Moscow protestors themselves understand.”

3. I am not sympathetic enough to Russia’s unique condition/I’m just spinning western propaganda.

Maybe, but I did study there for a bit, and I could speak the language pretty well once. And none of that really changes how Putin is dragging Russia down.

From the Duck:

“On my empathy, try this, which I wrote in 2009, long before this flap. I noted how Americans vastly underestimate how much Russia did to win the Second World War and that our Spielbergian self-congratulation leads us to overlook the huge suffering of Russians at the hands of the SS: “I didn’t really realize this much until I went to Russia to learn the language and travelled around. The legacy of the ‘Great Patriotic War’ is everywhere. Everyone lost someone, and frequently in brutal circumstances Americans can’t imagine. Every Russian guide you get will tell you how Americans don’t know much about war, because we were never invaded, occupied, and exterminated. The first time I heard that, I just didn’t know what to say. You can only listen in silent horror as the guides tell you about how the SS massacred everyone with more than a grammar school degree in some village you never heard of before, or how tens of thousands of those Kiev PoWs starved or froze to death because the Wehrmacht was unprepared for such numbers and the Nazi leadership just didn’t care.” Please note that a Russian even graciously commented there about how rare it is for Americans so say stuff like that. I did study in Russia; I did have friends there; I do have some language and culture skills. So I’d like to think of myself as a sympathetic critic. My real concern is that Putin’s awful misgovernment of Russia is pushing it towards irrelevance, per Ferguson above, and as I think the protestors intuit. Putin has become a global laughingstock, and he’s pulling Russia down with it.

I don’t disagree that Russians have deep social energies that we miss by focusing on Putin and the Kremlin, but one could say that about almost any country. Most peoples like to think of themselves as proud, energetic, innovative, unique, etc. Americans love to call themselves exceptional, and Koreans regularly tell me how the ‘miracle on the Han’ proves how Korea is the most awesome, cohesive, energetic, team-work society in the world that can overcome anything. Ironically, the most consequential grassroots/civil society movement in Russia is the anti-Putin protests, which fits my argument.

Finally, you raise an interesting question about whether all the issues I discuss combine into real momentum for decline. I wonder how that could not be the case, unless the leadership changes. Russia’s traditionally been a top-down place. It’s hard to see turn-around coming from below. (Again, this is why the protests are so important; they’re trying to change that.) Russia’s been slipping for three decades now. I agree it hasn’t fallen off a cliff, like, say, the end of the Ming dynasty or something, but a generation’s worth of negative trends is slowly chewing away at Russian power. I have stepped back from the original statement that Russia is not a great power; that was overreach. But the margins are narrowing.”

———————–  ORIGINAL POST ——————————————-

With Putin’s ‘return’ to the presidency, Russia is now officially a joke as a serious great power state. True, Putin has been ridiculous for awhile, what with those shirtless photo-ops that came across like desperate, bizarre geopolitical ‘ads’ that Russia is still a superpower. But this is different. Not even Chinese elites play the sorts of merry-go-round games at the top that Putin has engineered in the last 6 months. To their great credit, Chinese presidents and premiers serve and go. Russia is now the only one of the BRICS in which power does not rotate. Instead, Putin is starting to look like one of those oil-rich Arab dictators who never leaves, continually gimmicking the the ‘institutions’ and ‘constitution’ to justify how, mirabile dictu, he keeps staying in power. In the meantime, the real power structure morphs into an oil-dependent, rent-seeking, cronyistic despotism. And like those Arab dictators, Putin is facing a local resistance that increasingly realizes that Putinism is taking their country nowhere but nest-feathering. To paraphrase Helmut Schmidt, Russia’s pretty much a petro-state with nukes at this point.

I know a lot of people hate the term BRIC or BRICS. It comes off like a pseudotechnical buzzword for investment banker conference calls. It’s the kind of faux-concept CNN reporters use when they go to Davos and desperate undergrads roll out when term papers are due. But I do think it is a useful colloquialism for something Khanna captures well – rising ‘second world’ states whose sheer, and growing, demographic and economic size will inevitably impact global governance. But in contrast Russia isn’t rising from the second to the first world; it’s falling from the first to the second, and further if it’s not careful. This is what the protestors in Russia now, like the Arab Spring protestors before them, intuit – their badly governed states are stagnating in a world of rapid change and falling behind the exciting world of modernity available in the West and sizeable chunks of Asia and Latin America.

So let’s be honest, Russia isn’t a great power anymore. It’s not rising in any meaningful sense of that word in international relations theory. Its population is contracting at a startling rate. The average lifespan is declining. Alcoholism is a uniquely terrible scourge. Infrastructure is a mess. Its bureaucracy has scarcely budged in 20 years. It has basically missed the globalization boat that has linked in the other BRICS to the US and western economies, and that has allowed them to export their way into the middle class. (Russia’s still not in the WTO, and who wants to invest there now?) It suffers from a terrible brain drain. Consider that those ‘mail-order’ Russian brides represent young, healthy, reasonably educated Russians so desperate to flee that they prefer shot-gun marriages to scarcely-known obese foreign guys, over staying in Putin-land. Holding constant the otherwise very disturbing ethical issues, that actually says a lot about the contemporary state of Russia if you think about it, because ‘bride export’ is common trait of third world states.

And the list goes on: After 250 years, Siberia is still an undeveloped backwater. Russia’s budget is extraordinarily dependent on the price of carbon for a second world ‘riser.’ Off the top of my head, I can’t think of one major Russian manufactured export item, other than weapons. (Yes, I am sure I could dig one up, but the fact that nothing immediately, obviously comes to mind is a red-flag itself.) Unlike the other BRICS, its foreign policy obsesses over ephemeral ‘parity’ with the US and realpolitik ‘spheres of influence’, while the wealth-creating, day-to-day reality of the liberal world economy (the WTO, globalization) passes it by. In short, Russia’s a hugely corrupt, dysfunctional, authoritarian, oil rentier-state, just like so many others we know. Now why would that get lumped in with second risers like the other BRICS, Turkey, Indonesia, etc? It’s more reasonable to compare Russia to OPEC states at this point.

Placing Russia in a developmental category with Brazil, India, China, and South Africa does a disservice to the notions of quickening modernity, rapidly expanding GDP based on global integration and law, growing democratization and liberalization, greater responsibility for global governance, and, for lack of a better word, growing ‘normality’ that the other BRICS have striven so hard to achieve. Putin is going the other way; just go read his victory speech with the usual paranoia of foreign influences and all that. That’s exactly the kind of talk that the BRIC moniker implies is being jettisoned for more comfortable cosmopolitan outlook. Even the Chinese, the most politically closed among the other BRICS, don’t talk like that anymore. Brazil, China, India, and South Africa all have rotations of power at the top. All endorse some basic level of friendly interaction with the US, Western, and global governance institutions. All accept the basic structure of the world economy, even if they complain ceaselessly about US leadership. Russia doesn’t make this cut anymore; ten years ago, when Putin seemed to be bring much-needed order, yes. But not now. ‘Presidency-swapping’ is the kind of the thing the Kims of North Korea or the Assads of Syria do, not one of the rising BRICS whose opinions the rest of us should respect.

Three quick prebuttals:

1. It doesn’t really matter than Russia has nukes. Yes, it looks like it matters. You can always wow people by invoking mushrooms clouds, the scariness of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and your cool submarines and MIRVs. And certainly, with so many other diminishing assets, Russia will waive the nuclear stick to get attention. But what exactly do nukes get Russia now, after the Cold War? Prestige? De Gaulle famously called nukes a short-cut to great-powerdom. Ok, but that is a ‘psychic’ benefit – that little tingle you get from saying ‘Russia is bada–!’ What else do nukes get Russia?

2. Russia’s size doesn’t matter – although it might if Russia could ever get its act together. Yes, Russia is really big and covers 11 time-zones, but again, what real tangible benefit does that capture for it? Siberia’s endemic backwardness is the obvious marker. Despite almost 3 centuries of control, no planner in Moscow has yet figured out how to sustainably access that potential. Anyone who’s anyone still lives in Moscow or St. Petersberg.

3. The UN Security Council veto, from its status as one of the permanent five (P-5) members, is a Soviet legacy prestige asset, not a real institutional one. Yes, the Russians can block R2P stuff at the UN for a little while. But that doesn’t really slow down the West (or China) too much if an issue is genuinely important to them. There is no way the other P-5s would give Russia real veto power like that. Bosnia, Kosovo, and Libya showed that. Even on Syria, Obama has begun entertaining military options, regardless of what Putin thinks.

The only way out of this is for Russia to modernize its bureaucracy and open its economy to foreigners. The first is necessary so that people can trust the law and so feel safe investing and otherwise generating wealth locally. That is, if Russians feel like they’ll keep the fruits of their labor instead of seeing it ripped off by corrupt officials, they’ll start working harder and Russia will see real GDP growth outside of the resource sector. Second, as the other BRICS have shown, this process goes so much faster if foreigners are allowed in.

Remember that this is the stuff Medvedev said he would do and didn’t. Does anyone really believe Putin will, at this point? That answer’s itself, so good luck to the protestors.

Cross-posted on Duck of Minerva.

—————  UPDATE REPOSTED BELOW ——————————-

UPDATED, March 22/24: This post got a lot of traffic, due to Andrew Sullivan’s citation of it. Thank you to all those readers coming for the first time; please come again. The criticisms levelled here have been similar to those made at the Duck of Minerva, where I also blog. It seems there are three main critiques: 1. I exaggerated; Russia is still a great power. 2. I didn’t provide enough data and links. 3. I don’t really ‘get’ Russia, or I’m just recycling western propaganda.

(In passing, I find it curious/frustrating as an author that what I think is my more creative and fresh work in the last few months [this or this series] didn’t get nearly so much attention, whereas lamenting Russia’s postimperial decline, which so many have done before me [see all the links below], got an explosion of interest. Not quite sure what to make out of that…)

1. I overshot in saying Russia isn’t a great power anymore.

Ok, but not by much. I’ll agree that it was probably gratuitous to call Russia a ‘joke’ as a great power. But then again, be honest with yourself and tell me you didn’t laugh: when Putin rode around shirtless on horseback, when Putin stage-managed a discovery of ‘antiquities’ while scuba diving, when Putin claimed the State Department and Secretary Clinton were fomenting the Moscow protests, when Zhirinovsky “backed free vodka and the reconquest of Alaska,” when the president fired a minister on live TV (!), the minister refused (!!), and Medvedev responded with farcical lecture on Russia’s globally-regarded ‘constitionalism’ (!!!). Or just read this from Gawker on Putin the crossbow-toting whaler and tell me you don’t burst out laughing – over a head of state with superpower pretensions?

These are the sorts of howlers and hijinks we expect from leaders like Qaddafi, with his retinue of female ‘bodyguards,’ or Idi Amin, with so many gold medals on his uniform you could store it in a bank vault. But modern states, desirous of global prestige, seeking to be taken seriously at the highest levels of the game, just don’t do this stuff. Putin’s become a punchline, regardless of Russia’s other strengths, which is ultimately what motivated the original post.

As Niall Ferguson put it last December, “Russia—who cares? With its rampant voter fraud and declining population, the country is careening toward irrelevance. …Russia isn’t quite “Upper Volta with missiles”—West German chancellor Helmut Schmidt’s immortal phrase. But it’s certainly a shadow of its former Cold War self. The U.S. economy is 10 times larger than Russia’s. Per capita gross domestic product is not much higher than in Turkey. Male life expectancy is significantly lower: 63, compared with 71 on the other side of the Black Sea. And the population is shrinking. There are nearly 7 million fewer Russians today than there were in 1992. By 2055, the United Nations estimates that the population of Egypt will be larger. Remind me: why did Goldman Sachs group Russia with Brazil, India, and China as the “BRICs,” supposedly the four key economies of the 21st century? Give me Turkey or Indonesia any day.” That’s exactly right (I know people think Ferguson is a neo-victorian apologist for empire, but hold that thought), and it should deeply worry and embarass Russians that the rest of the planet thinks this way about one of the world’s great cultures. I wrote something similar last fall when Putin announced his re-taking of the presidency, and the whole world shrugged.

Here is more from the Duck of Minerva comment section:

“My interest was more developmental than realist-theoretical. On re-reading the post, it was a bridge to far to say that Russia isn’t a great power anymore. It still is, by the skin of its teeth. Nukes compensate for other areas of decline, I suppose, as you are suggesting. De Gaulle saw this, as did N Korea.

My real goal was to developmentally differentiate between Russia and the other BRICS. That BRICS moniker is to imply some level of cosmopolitan comfort with the modern world economy and rapid growth to greater weight within that economy (hence my reference to Parag Khanna). The other 4 BRICS capture that upward trend – as do other economies like Turkey, S Korea, Mexico, or Indonesia (hence my preference for Khanna’s term ‘second world’). But Russia really doesn’t. Russia is slipping, not rising and has been, more or less, since the late 1970s. That’s quite a hegemonic decline. Its internal rot is pretty severe now. Its Transparency International score in 2011 is a staggering 143 out of 182, putting it in the company of Nigeria, Belarus, and Togo, and obviously calling into question not just its BRIC credentials, but its great power ones too. And the shirtless one’s return puts off a turn-around for another six to twelve years. Given that China rose to the ‘G-2’ in just 30 years, 20+ long years of Putinism (after 10 years of Yeltsin chaos plus late Soviet stagnation) portends a disaster for Russia. This is the real reason for the Moscow protests. They see this now.

Rotation at the top is just one marker for BRIC normalization, but other obvious red flags include the relentless xenophobia of the Putin regime, the alienation from the WTO, the huge missed opportunities of globalization, the blow-out levels corruption and state capriciousness including the murder of journalists, the third worldish reliance on carbon and weapons exports, the 19th century ‘spheres of influence’ obsession with countering the West in Eurasia, the confiscatory attitude toward private wealth most obvious displayed in the Khodorkovsky case, or Putin’s laughably ridiculous throwback-to-Kaiser-Wilhelm bravado of hunting on TV with a crossbow or fighting stage-managed martial arts contests. Does that sound like a BRIC or Khanna’s ‘second world’? Not really. It sounds like Venezuela or Iran. It sounds like an angry, Weimar-style pseudo-democracy high on petro-dollars with a ‘postimperial hangover,’ as Vice-President Biden once put it. Hence the argument that BRIC/second world is the wrong developmental category for Russia. For more of this, ‘should the R be taken out of the BRICS’ debate, try here and here. For a similar write-up on how Putin’s return will critically aggravate so many of Russia’s outstanding problems, try here.

2. I didn’t provide enough data.

Ok, so here you go. It’s pretty easy to find. Please read the links above and these below. From the Duck:

Actually there’s lots of data on this that’s pretty easy to find with Google. I suppose I should have included more links orignally, but I thought a lot of this was common knowledge at this point. But here you go; all the following links come from the last few years:

a. On demography, I was thinking of Nicolas Eberstadt’s work. He’s been writing on this for a long time now, most recently November 2011 in Foreign Affairs. His title, ‘The Dying Bear,’ is pretty blunt about the population contraction. For more, try this.

b. On corruption so high, it’s incommensurate with being a great power, here’s that Transparency International score again.

c. It is downright heroic, if not irresponsible, to suggest that alcoholism is not a huge problem in modern Russia and severely impacting men’s health and mortality: here or here. Just look at those estimates of average male lifespan – around 60! Gorbachev even thought alcoholism imperiled the very existence of the USSR and launched a major government campaign against it.

d. On the brain drain, try here.  Note the big listed reason – problems with the Putinist regime – and their profile: “vast majority of those who admitted wanting to leave were under 35 years old, lived in a major city, and spoke a foreign language.”

e. On the economic overreliance on carbon and how weak the economy really is under the hood, try this from the Financial Times just today.

For what it’s worth, this wasn’t intended to be ‘anti-russian gloom and doom.’ I studied in Russia for a bit and spoke it reasonably well once; I’d like to think I am sympathetic. But simply denying Russia’s internal decay is not really a response – as the Moscow protestors themselves understand.”

3. I am not sympathetic enough to Russia’s unique condition/I’m just spinning western propaganda.

Maybe, but I did study there for a bit, and I could speak the language pretty well once. And none of that really changes how Putin is dragging Russia down.

From the Duck:

“On my empathy, try this, which I wrote in 2009, long before this flap. I noted how Americans vastly underestimate how much Russia did to win the Second World War and that our Spielbergian self-congratulation leads us to overlook the huge suffering of Russians at the hands of the SS: “I didn’t really realize this much until I went to Russia to learn the language and travelled around. The legacy of the ‘Great Patriotic War’ is everywhere. Everyone lost someone, and frequently in brutal circumstances Americans can’t imagine. Every Russian guide you get will tell you how Americans don’t know much about war, because we were never invaded, occupied, and exterminated. The first time I heard that, I just didn’t know what to say. You can only listen in silent horror as the guides tell you about how the SS massacred everyone with more than a grammar school degree in some village you never heard of before, or how tens of thousands of those Kiev PoWs starved or froze to death because the Wehrmacht was unprepared for such numbers and the Nazi leadership just didn’t care.” Please note that a Russian even graciously commented there about how rare it is for Americans so say stuff like that. I did study in Russia; I did have friends there; I do have some language and culture skills. So I’d like to think of myself as a sympathetic critic. My real concern is that Putin’s awful misgovernment of Russia is pushing it towards irrelevance, per Ferguson above, and as I think the protestors intuit. Putin has become a global laughingstock, and he’s pulling Russia down with it.

I don’t disagree that Russians have deep social energies that we miss by focusing on Putin and the Kremlin, but one could say that about almost any country. Most peoples like to think of themselves as proud, energetic, innovative, unique, etc. Americans love to call themselves exceptional, and Koreans regularly tell me how the ‘miracle on the Han’ proves how Korea is the most awesome, cohesive, energetic, team-work society in the world that can overcome anything. Ironically, the most consequential grassroots/civil society movement in Russia is the anti-Putin protests, which fits my argument.

Finally, you raise an interesting question about whether all the issues I discuss combine into real momentum for decline. I wonder how that could not be the case, unless the leadership changes. Russia’s traditionally been a top-down place. It’s hard to see turn-around coming from below. (Again, this is why the protests are so important; they’re trying to change that.) Russia’s been slipping for three decades now. I agree it hasn’t fallen off a cliff, like, say, the end of the Ming dynasty or something, but a generation’s worth of negative trends is slowly chewing away at Russian power. I have stepped back from the original statement that Russia is not a great power; that was overreach. But the margins are narrowing.”

25 thoughts on “It’s Time to De-Russianize the BRICS — UPDATED (twice): Response to My Critics

  1. Robert,

    Wonderful write-up, and apt analysis. Quickly: Should the backslide continue — and, as you point, there’s no reason to think it won’t — at what point for the former Soviet states, namely those in Central Asia, divest themselves of Russian influence? At what point do they pivot toward Chinese protectionism, or enter a greater Middle East/greater Asian sphere? Or is a shared Soviet legacy, outside of the Baltics and Georgia, simply too much to overcome, and they’re latched come whatever?

  2. Wow, wrong on so many parts it’s hard to know where to start. It would be instructive to look at actual recent data and facts instead of echoing the ill-informed and empty Western conventional wisdom on this part of the world.
    1) Russia’s population is actually growing, life expectancy is increasing (http://www.sublimeoblivion.com/2011/10/24/russia-demographic-update-7/). Emigration rates are way down; the US is less picky on issuing visas to Russians now as visa overstay isn’t much of a problem. Russia has the 2nd highest number of immigrants worldwide after the US.
    2) Moscow & Petersburg are definitely the focus of wealth growth, but other second-tier cities are growing quickly as well — real income growth continues in most every region.
    3) World population growing/emerging economies expanding….Siberia’s raw material wealth is going to be in heavy demand. See also the new opportunities that will emerge from new Arctic sea routes. http://blogs.ft.com/beyond-brics/2011/11/28/jim-oneill-russia-could-still-surprise-the-world/#axzz1plXTM8ND
    4)’But in contrast Russia isn’t rising from the second to the first world; it’s falling from the first to the second, and further if it’s not careful.’
    …because average incomes have steadily grown, quality of life has improved, etc?
    5) ‘wealth-creating, day-to-day reality of the liberal world economy (the WTO, globalization) passes it by’
    – have you actually been to any cities in Russia (not just Moscow/St. Petersburg)? It’s a different world compard with 5-7 years ago. Yes, the wealth may not be equally spread, but is that true in your shining examples of Brazil, China, Turkey, SA etc? Again, yes the economy is heavily resource-dependent, but some of the biggest companies are telecom (MTS), retail (X5, Magnit), technology (Mail.ru), finance (VTB and Sberbank, which have been acquiring European banks) etc. Also, Russia *is* joining the WTO…furthermore, what liberal world economy are you talking about? Europe and the US? China? India? What are the growth rates for these countries for 2011? which ones are ‘liberal’ again?
    6) ‘ Putin is going the other way; just go read his victory speech with the usual paranoia of foreign influences and all that. That’s exactly the kind of talk that the BRIC moniker implies is being jettisoned for more comfortable cosmopolitan outlook.’
    — Have you heard what US presidential candidates are saying about foreign policy? Do you think, just *maybe*, this speech was aimed for domestic consumption?

    Yes, the country has real political and economic problems (managing its resource wealth, encouraging innovation, encouraging investment, political liberalization etc), and there are many valid criticism to make of the current structure, but this sort of oversimplistic writing focuses on the sort of ‘Putin=bad guy’ ‘Russia=withering state’ triumphalist ideas that are at odds with reality and overlook the massive potential that exists in the country.

  3. Pingback: Where is Russia headed? « Roundup Rawhide

  4. Please yourself. But you’d be eliminating the element of the BRICs that came first in every category but one, and in that it came second.

    http://www.bne.eu/story2536/Best_of_the_Bric_bunch

    I didn’t rate “number of consumers” as a category, because of course none of the other BRICs can compete with China there, and it isn’t really an economic indicator so much as a demographic.

    If that’s the sort of slash-and-burn operation you’re running, you might as well just eliminate ALL the BRIC’s, and go your merry way with countries you like better, like Turkey and Egypt. I hear there’s a lot of room for improvement there – perhaps if you invest all your money you’ll be way out ahead of the crowd on an emerging economy before it, you know, emerges. I’d love to hear how it comes out.

    Others have already pointed out that the declining population story is…what’s the word I’m looking for…oh, a lie. Many of the links you have cited are opinion sites rather than databases or repositories of facts. Nicholas Eberstadt probably knows as much about Indonesian folk dancing as he does demographics – the population of Russia actually rose the very year he said it was in an irreversible decline. I’ll bet his invitation to the next Demographer’s Dinner and Wild Night Out gets, umm…. lost in the mail.

    And if you’re going to contrast its economy against that of the USA, you should factor in national debt as well. America might have a vastly bigger economy, but its debt is almost beyond human ability to comprehend, while Russia’s is the lowest in the G20. Russia also has the world’s third-largest cash reserves.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_public_debt

    Although this is drawn from Wikipedia – not my favourite reference – Wikipedia in turn got its numbers from Eurostat, the IMF and the CIA World Factbook: none of whom are likely to cut Russia extra slack just because they love it. Russia’s debt as a percentage of GDP was 11.75% in 2010 according to the IMF, and is estimated at 8.7% in 2011 according to the CIA Factbook and Eurostat. The USA’s debt as a percentage of GDP was 94.36% in 2010 according to the IMF, and is estimated at 102% in 2011 according to the CIA Factbook and Eurostat. So you can kind of see that Russia’s debt is getting smaller while America’s is getting larger, if you have any kind of a head for mathematics.

    Transparency International formulates its ratings on “the opinions of businessmen on ease of doing business in the country, corruption perceptions, etc…” The ratings are completely subjective, and do not even specify that the businessmen are native to the country rated. That could result, for example, in American businessmen rating Russia for how easy it is for THEM to do business in Russia. If you’re fond of irony, the organization in Georgia that conducts the polling for Transparency International ratings is actually run by the Georgian government, which selects the businesses that will be polled. That’s probably how Georgia manages to pull off stellar ratings for corruption and ease of doing business although the bottom has fallen out of its FDI and no meaningful effort has been undertaken to address national poverty.

  5. I think russia as a bric is completely over underestimated, first of all china is a second world country like russia was during the cold war since they were communist while brazil and india where neutral and so third world countries. Thats the original meaning of the 3 worlds.

    second of all the growth is only counted in real not in dollar (nominal) growth by all these economist but on the other hand they only count in dollar values if they talk about the size of the economy this gives russia a stupid position.
    They say russia has only 4% growth for example but these growth means the ppp value
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_GDP_(PPP)

    so you can see by that data russia has even a higher gdp than brazil and the worldbank even gave significant higher numbers for russias gdp in 2010 but they dont say it that if they talk about the size of the economy of russia.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_past_and_future_GDP_(nominal)

    So basically the dollar growth of russia is still quite huge even so far as to be higher than india in 2011 and the coming 5 years as well, according to imf estimate in 2011 february. Its quite stupid what all of the economist are doing when india for example surpassed japan in ppp terms in 2011 no body said anything but when china surpassed japan in 2010 or brazil britain in 2012 it was all in the news. So why they are counting growth only in ppp value???

    I also think that russian economy and chinese economy are quite similar even more so than brazil and india. They both have a heavy industry but for different reasons of course but with the same results.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Industry#List_of_countries_by_industrial_output

    https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/rankorder/2078rank.html?countryName=Russia&countryCode=rs&regionCode=cas&rank=10#rs

    https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/rankorder/2187rank.html?countryName=Russia&countryCode=rs&regionCode=cas&rank=5#rs

    Russias industry is higher than brazils and indias and a fourth of china and america. Chinas industry is manufacturing of all kind and russias industry is gathering and processing recourses of all kind. But both have kind of the same results. Russia exports more than india and brazil and they have a similar high account plus like china while brazil and india import more resulting into a minus along many western countries. Its also funny to see germany exporting more than the usa and resulting in a high account balance like chinas. Its obviously not only the west vs the brics in how a economy is built up.

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  7. “1. I overshot in saying Russia isn’t a great power anymore. Ok, but not by much.”

    I don’t think you exaggerated at all. It’s economy is smaller than Canada’s. It’s nuclear arsenal gives it nothing more than a bit of Nunn-Lugar money, and an unnecessary assurance against invasion. It has a great power military in terms of funding and manpower, but it doesn’t really do anything commensurate with that investment. It can’t project power outside its neighborhood. It can’t face NATO or China on anything like equal terms. It can push around the weak states of the near abroad, but it could do that if it were a third its current size. All in all, Russia is a largish middle power expends way too much money and manpower to be the boss of its weak neighborhood (at least while the US and China aren’t looking), and to defend its sparse, undeveloped territory against countries that don’t want it.

    Now I’ll grant that Russia’s nukes, its conventional forces, and its seat on the security council give it prestige commensurate with Great Power status. But its fundamentally hollow.

    • Well said. I wish you had been around last week when all the russophiles were accusing me spinning western propaganda. As you say, Russia is in a weird place right now. It’s not a superpower, but it’s wealthier per capita than the other BRICS. It’s got nukes, but its economy is a corrupt mess (check that TI score!), and it can scarcely control its huge landmass, much less effectively project power. And Putin’s return will only aggravate all these problems yet again.

      I like the idea of a ‘largish middle power,’ sorta like China under Mao. That does a nice job catching this awkward limbo state. Thanks for reading.

  8. This exact same topic came up on a friend’s blog a while back (h/t Oliver Stuenkel @ http://www.postwesternworld.com), but from a slightly different perspective. I’ll say here what I said there: although Russia fits awkwardly within the BRICS, there would be no BRICS without it (not just because of the R). It is precisely because of Russia’s deteriorating demographic and political situation that it needs the BRICS so bad, and why it has been a driving force behind the group along with Brazil, while India prefers other groupings such as IBSA and China prefers to charter its own course, occasionally undermining the BRICS as a grouping. Russia has a much better grasp of how to deal with China and India diplomatically than Brazil does, and a longer history dealing with established Western powers. Without it, the BRICS would be even less coherent and effective than they are now and probably wouldn’t have become much more than a clever acronym.

    Cheers.

    • This sounds right. I like the idea of Russia needing the others in order to justify its geopolitical relevance as it goes through post-imperial deterioration. That’s sharp and sounds right. I guess the question is then whether the other BRICS want to be associated with so much kleptocracy and xenophobia. Putinism doesn’t exactly win over investors, which is sort of why Goldman Sachs created the acronym to begin with. Again, Russia is a weird fit in the BRICS, which probably helps explain why the BRICS summits are so underwhelming.

      Thanks for reading.

  9. How, exactly, are Russia’s political and demographic situation “deteriorating”? This is just a lot of generalizations and talking points, the usual unsubstantiated conservative nonsense. The decline in Russia’s birth rate reversed in 2009, and births this quarter continue to climb until Russia is looking positively at natural replacement.

    http://www.perepis-2010.ru/news/detail.php?ID=7021

    Additionally, the Russian death rate is steadily declining at about 2% annually. The United States, by the way, is below natural replacement rates and relies on immigration for growth, as do many European countries. Where, then, is the “deteriorating demographic”? You’re just parroting Wall Street Journal doom and gloom, and I’ve never noticed them to be overly troubled about inaccuracy in their reporting.

    Russia’s share of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) among the BRICs is a full 50% on its own, leaving the other half to be divided among the remaining three. In case your math is weak, de-Russianizing the BRICs would result in an immediate 50% drop in FDI to the group.

    http://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/wp/2011/wp11178.pdf

    “Putinism doesn’t exactly win over investors”? Is that a fact? Well, no; it’s not. Investors may not like him personally, but the implication that investors are altruists who carefully consider, say, human rights over the opportunity to make a profit is just comical.

    Please, cite some references that show Russia’s demographics are currently in decline, and that its political situation is unstable. It would be a refreshing change from simply sticking your fingers in your ears and yelling, “Russia is falling apart!!! Russia is falling apart!!!” just because you want it to be true.

    Unable to project power beyond its borders? Military power, maybe. Is that the only means of exercising international influence? What would happen to the price of gas in Teaneck, New Jersey and Bognor Regis, UK if the world’s biggest energy producer shut down all its pipelines and drilling rigs for a month’s maintenance? When the USA has already tapped its strategic reserves twice in 2 years to keep gasoline prices down, yet people shriek that gas prices are out of control? I’m almost afraid to ask, in case your economics is as weak as the rest of your reasoning.

  10. huh, i don’t see how people can react so negatively to the general gist of your points.

    in my humble opinion, Russia was included in “BRIC” because “BRIC” sounds better and more catchier than “BIC,” thus facilitating its use for TED mini-speeches.

    including Russia in the company of Brazil, China and India is like including Saudi Arabia in that same company –

    Some may protest: “But Russia is big and has a lot of oil wealth!”
    To which the reply is: “That’s not the only thing that matters!!! No one talks up Iran or Saudi Arabia using those reasons because it would make them look stupid!”

  11. One other point I might make: many experts of European politics argue that the resurgence in right-wing extremist parties in Europe is due to the instability and lack of legitimacy created by the EMU framework. I think there’s something to that: France’s Le Pen is known to draw people to the National Front with eloquent criticisms of EMU policy and the economic uncertainty it creates for workers, and then doing a two-step and also saying “It’s it’s also because of those damn rag-head Mozzies!”

    Putin didn’t come to power in a vacuum – I would argue that the initial legitimacy of his rule came from the discontent that Russians had with neoliberal reforms. Putin and his ilk reek of the kind of right-wing “national restoration” campaigns – “Russia will be a great power again! Look at Dear Leader Putin, he is so strong!”

    Of course, Russians are obviously tired of Putin and many of his former supporters probably regret their past voting decisions, but the initial support for Putin, again, didn’t rise in a vacuum

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