How the West made Putin

AS Putin sends his troops and tanks in to Ukraine in an appalling piece of unprovoked aggression that beggars belief, it is, perhaps, useful to remember the role that the West had in creating the conditions that made it easier for someone like Putin to take control of Russia.

Ukrainian troop prepare to defend their country

So, let’s recalls what was happening in 1991. In July that year, as the days of the USSR were numbered, Mikhail Gorbachev was still in power. His policies of perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness) were being used by him to lead the Soviet Union towards the kind of representative government enjoyed by Scandinavian countries. The press was free, elections had been held for the Russian Parliament, local councils, president and vice-president. Gorbachev wanted a free market economy but with a strong social security net along the lines of the Scandinavian model.

As Naomi Klein points out in The Shock Doctrine – The Rise of Disaster Capitalism the West was at first very supportive of Gorbachev and ‘on a visit to Prague , Gorbachev made it clear that he couldn’t do it all alone’. He said: “Like mountain climbers on one rope, the world’s nations can either climb together to the summit or fall together into the abyss.” He was about to attend his first G7 meeting.

But, as Klein reports, ‘what happened at the G7 meeting was totally unexpected’. She writes: “The nearly unanimous message that Gorbachev received from his fellow heads of state was that, if he did not embrace radical economic shock therapy, they would sever the rope and let him fall.”

Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s

Gorbachev wrote of the event: “Their suggestions as to the tempo and methods of transition were astonishing.”

The shock doctrine was developed by the economist Milton Friedman, the proponent of unfettered capitalism, now often referred to as neoliberalism. He believed that major crises could bring about real change and he thought it was his job, and those of his followers, to strike early and wherever possible to ensure that the mass privatization that was at the heart of the Chicago School of Economics gained traction.

Milton Friedman

But let’s not forget that two years before that G7 meeting relations between the Soviet Union and the West were very different. In his address to the Supreme Soviet on 1 August 1989 Gorbachev said: “Western Europe is realizing more and more how essential it is to achieve mutual understanding and cooperation with the Soviet Union.” It was a different matter after the G7 meeting. According to Klein, Russia was presented with the choice of either carrying on with the reforms of its political set up with representative government or ‘in order to push through a Chicago School economic programme, that peaceful and hopeful process that Gorbachev began had to be violently interrupted, then radically reversed.”

A month after the G7 summit Boris Yeltsin became the hero of the new Russia when he stood on a tank during a failed coup.

Boris Yeltsin addresses the crowd from the famed tank

Not long after that he forced the resignation of of Gorbachev. However, Yeltsin was much more sympathetic towards the Chicago School way of thinking, which had its first run out with Pinochet’s Chile in the 1970s. And a series of violent events unleashed by Yeltsin, culminating in a coup on 4 October 1993, brought him to power. Yeltsin imposed shock therapy on the fledgling representative government but could only defend it by…dissolving representative government, receiving enthusiastic support from the West.

There followed a fire sale of Russia’s public wealth, which led to the rising power of the fabulously wealthy oligarchs. But just as Yeltsin positioned himself as the saviour of representative government, so Putin positioned himself as the stabilizing, reassuring figure in 1999 and, as Klein puts it ‘several oligarchs engineered a quiet handover from Yeltsin to Putin, no election necessary’.

Putin and the oligarchs

Putin was originally seen as a backlash against the shock therapy even as ‘tens of millions of impoverished citizens were still excluded from the fast growing economy’. However, the warning signs were there with a ‘new breed of “state oligarchs” rising around the Kremlin’. Meanwhile a ‘growing number of journalists and other critics die mysteriously, and the secret police enjoy seemingly total impunity’. Nevertheless, as Klein puts it, ‘the memory of the chaos of the nineties has made many Russians grateful for the order Putin has restored’.

Of course, the events we are seeing today might have happened any way without the imposition of shock therapy in the 1990s, but perhaps we should at least acknowledge that without the intervention of the G7 as Russia was peacefully reforming itself under Gorbachev, the world might have been very different.

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