Isn’t it ironic? On the same day that Putin signed Russia’s official accession into the world economy, he also signed a law essentially labelling NGO workers foreign agents. As the country edges another step closer to western economics, it slips further from western ideals of human rights.
Was this just another example of Russia’s characteristic one-step-forward, two-steps-back idea of progress? Perhaps. Or some strange aberration, a glitch in the inevitable tandem of capitalism and democracy? Unfortunately, there was nothing remotely surprising about the development. In fact, the economic shock-therapy of the early 90s sowed the seeds both of Russia’s future economic integration and its domestic repression.
Joseph Stiglitz famously labelled Russia’s neoliberal reformers — the likes of Yegor Gaidar, Anatoly Chubais, et al. — “market Bolsheviks”; yet they were not offended by the term. Yeltsin’s economic team believed that capitalism had to be built in Russia at all costs. Because most average people at the time opposed the reforms, “at all costs” quickly started to mean “at the cost of democracy.” By the 1996 presidential elections, these economic policies had become so toxic that Yeltin’s popularity reached the single digits. In order to win — again, “at all costs” — he gave away the choicest national assets to a hand-picked gang of businessmen in exchange for enough cash to buy victory at the polls. That deal, which became known as the notorious ‘loans for shares’ scandal, not only spawned the original oligarchs but also, in the irrevocability of such mass-privatisation, sealed the country’s market evolution.
This is not an ideological argument. What drove these people was not so much the philosophy of the Right (though of course, the Chicago school was a key inspiration) but a warped and messianic sense of technocracy: “we know what we are doing, and should be allowed to finish the job without the meddling of the ignorant masses.” Putin may differ from Yeltsin in many ways, but he has remained deadly faithful to that precept. No wonder Anatoly Chubais is still sticking by him!
Putin wants Russia to join the WTO because, just like Yeltsin and the ’90s market Bolsheviks, he believes he knows better what Russia’s economy needs than the people who actually work in it and will suffer the consequences.
He wants to curb NGOs not because they are pro-Western, or because he is a fascist, but simply because they get in the way of the government doing what it knows best.
Joining the WTO and curbing NGOs are simple two sides of the same coin.