Foreign Policy Blogs

Libya’s Transition: Following in Russia’s Footsteps?

As Russia desperately struggles to make amends with Libya’s rebel government, a fantastic new article uncovers some amazing parallels between Libya’s revolution and Russia’s transition from Communism.

Writing in the Exiled, the web-only successor of the defunct Russian gonzo paper, “War Nerd” Gary Brechter observes that Gaddhafi’s Libya and Brezhnev’s Russia were very similar:

Libya was a lot like Russia, a smaller, warmer Russia. Life wasn’t bad for the average Arab (the average Berber had a harder time). The basics were guaranteed, you weren’t going to be thrown in prison unless you mouthed off. Russia in the 70s and 80s, I mean, not Stalin’s Russia. And although you’re not supposed to admit it, a lot of Russians liked it better back then, when you could take a day off and not lose your job. The ones who liked it were the old, the ordinary, the ones with no ambition.

And, according to Brecher, we can expect similar things in the aftermath, too.

What’s going to happen in Libya is most likely to be a lot like what happens everywhere else that one of these old-school “regimes” gets booted by a multinational “alliance.” There’s a script, and it’s pretty familiar by now. First the cheering and the statue-demolition stage, then the foreign experts reorganizing the currency, then the corporations coming in.

The biggest recent example is Russia. When the USSR crumbled, the experts came in and reorganized the economy, revalued the currency, changed everything from the faces on the money to the national anthem. If you were old, you were in serious trouble. Your pension was suddenly worthless, because they’d added a few zeros to the ruble and what used to pay your rent wouldn’t buy a pound of beets any more. You could still get bread, from what I’ve read, for an interesting reason: Ever since the French Revolution, turns out, European countries have subsidized the price of bread because the masses gotta have their bread. Typical nervous-poor Euro families, the dad’d always be saying, “Eat yer bread!” or “The one that eats the most bread gets the most pudding!” So the oldies could still get bread at Socialist prices in Yeltsin’s IMF version of Russia, but they couldn’t pay their rent and they couldn’t buy medicines. So if they got sick, they died. If they lost their apartments, they died.

All the wealth that was tied up in those pensions was instantly worthless. All the money went in a fairy-godmother flash to the kids who were still young enough to reinvent themselves as bankers. Now Russia’s a normal country, run by bankers under 40. Look at a picture of bitter commies demonstrating in any Russian city and you’ll notice most of them are old. Spry, most of them, but old. The ones who weren’t spry, who needed those blood pressure or diabetes meds, you won’t see them at the demo because they’re dead.

Likewise, in Libya:

It won’t last, the boom time. Never does in these places. Oil doesn’t produce a lot of jobs at the point where it leaves the ground.

For a few years, the multinationals will need local collaborators, and there’ll be payoffs to the new breed of “democratic” politicians. And you know the funny thing? Those payoffs will be totally legal and every Western reporter will love the guys who get them because they’ll look good in suits, talk English and have good accountants.

Then the system will “normalize” and they won’t need those local auxiliaries as much. The jobs will dry up.

The most aggressive Libyan youth will have gone into coastal condos by then—whole lotta Mediterranean coast to be sold off in Libya, whole lotta Euro retirees to buy it–and the million or so families who sold their fishing shack for the price of dad’s dialysis will be wondering what the Hell went wrong, because they could swear they’re poorer than they used to be because now the doctor takes half their income from sweeping the floors at Club Med down the beach. But they’ll know they’re just crazy or something, and there’ll be experts to back them up on that.

Let’s hope he’s wrong!



Vadim Nikitin
Vadim Nikitin

Vadim Nikitin was born in Murmansk, Russia and grew up there and in Britain. He graduated from Harvard University with a thesis on American democracy promotion in Russia. Vadim's articles about Russia have appeared in The Nation, Dissent Magazine, and The Moscow Times. He is currently researching a comparative study of post-Soviet and post-Apartheid nostalgia.
Areas of Focus:
USSR; US-Russia Relations; Culture and Society; Media; Civil Society; Politics; Espionage; Oligarchs