Latin American Dynamism

Boris Kagarlitsky - TNI Fellow
The Moscow Times, 4 February 2003

In his address to the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre last week, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva announced that while his country had previously been oriented toward the United States and, to a lesser extent, Europe, Brazil would now seek to develop political and economic ties with its Latin American neighbors, South Africa and China. Lula didn't mention Russia once in his speech.

In fact, Russia almost never came up at the World Social Forum. Latin American affairs were the focus: the crisis in Venezuela, victories for the left at the polls in Brazil and Ecuador, and the upcoming election in Uruguay. Hot topics included the world economic crisis and experience with participatory democracy amassed in cities controlled by Lula's Workers Party. There were protests against the impending U.S. attack on Iraq, of course. The delegates tried to engage Lula following his speech and flocked to hear Venezuela's unpredictable president, Hugo Chavez, who floundered when asked about his country's economic transformation, but delighted his audience for an entire hour with political anecdotes.

Russia didn't come up much at Davos, either. The Russian delegates this year couldn't bemoan a domestic financial crisis or boast about rapid economic growth. As a result, Russia was lost in a long list of second-rate economies, all vegetating on the margins of the world economic system. When you get right down to it, how is oil-rich Russia any more interesting than oil-rich Nigeria?

The world isn't much interested in Russia these days, and rightly so. Russia has nothing to show the world as it once did. Ours is a society run by faceless bureaucrats who have set themselves the most insignificant of goals.

Nikita Khrushchev once promised to overtake the United States in 20 years and to build communism at the same time. Today's visionaries at best predict that Russia will catch up with Portugal in 10 years — and this is no less utopian than Khrushchev's dreams of Soviet economic superiority. But at least Khrushchev dreamed big. When the Soviet regime figured out that it would never overtake the United States or build communism on time, it hosted the Olympic Games in Moscow to soothe its wounded pride. The current regime can't even land a major international sporting event.

The world couldn't care less about Russia, and Russia has responded in kind. As befits a thoroughly provincial society, we studiously avoid noticing the global processes that directly affect our lives. For all the talk about globalization, the Russian press ignores most of the globe. This myopia was obvious in coverage of the Davos forum. The Russian press took scant notice of the event, and even that was only because a number of Russian leaders were in attendance and it would have been bad form to ignore them completely. The World Social Forum didn't merit even that.

Russia has no intention of solving its own social problems, not to mention the world's. Fifteen years ago, when the skeptics were outlining a worst-case scenario for economic reform, they warned that Russia could turn into the Brazil of the north — no carnivals, but plenty of snow. Later we feared turning into a banana republic without the bananas. Now these nightmares look like unfulfilled dreams. The collapse of Russia's science-driven industries and the decline in manufacturing over the past 15 years have led to a raw material economy controlled by an oligarchy and an increasingly authoritarian political system.

The last decade of neo-liberal reform in Latin America, on the other hand, was a time of staunch opposition, popular protests and the rise of mass political movements. Politicians relying on the support of these movements are now coming to power. Lula, who heads a broad-based coalition, is a far more effective leader than the populist Chavez. But individual presidents are not the real story. These are dynamic societies looking for new models of development and trying to solve their problems.

Russian society, by contrast, has come to the firm conclusion since the mid-1990s that it has no role to play in running the country, and the ruling elite has obviously decided that nothing needs to be changed. Stability has therefore become the slogan of the day, as it was in the Brezhnev era, when it became clear that the hopes of the Thaw era were just pie in the sky. Under Brezhnev, stability led the country into stagnation. Much has changed since that time. Today stability is no longer a euphemism for stagnation, but for decay.

Copyright 2003 The Moscow Times

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