Wiemar on the Volga

Historian Niall Ferguson, author of the fascinating books Colossus: the Rise and Fall of the American Empire and Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order, among many others, had an essential article in the Sunday Telegraph this week. Excerpts follow:

Putin is heading for a worrying future

Seven years ago, the economist Brigitte Granville and I published an article in the Journal of Economic History entitled “Weimar on the Volga”, in which we argued that the experience of Nineties Russia bore many resemblances to the experience of Twenties Germany. In particular, we focused on the impact of very high inflation, suggesting that it had similar causes and consequences in each case. . . .

The rule of law is the keystone of both liberal democracy and international order. Yet last week the Russian government showed its contempt for the rule of law by flatly refusing to extradite the man who is the prime suspect in the case of Alexander Litvinenko, poisoned in London last November. The Crown Prosecution Service says it has sufficient evidence to warrant a prosecution of Andrei Lugovoi. But the Russians maintain that it would be unconstitutional to hand him over.

It might also be embarrassing. The world might finally hear how up to 10 micrograms of the lethal radioactive isotope polonium-210 found their way from a Russian nuclear installation to a teacup in the Pines Bar of the Millennium Hotel in London, where Litvinenko most likely ingested them. There are only two possibilities. Either the Russian government ordered Litvinenko’s assassination. Or – not much better – the Russian government has no control over the lethal substances produced in its nuclear reactors. . . .

Foreign investors have also felt the backlash. Having successfully reduced Shell’s stake in the Sakhalin-2 oil and gas field, Moscow now seems intent on doing the same to BP, which has a substantial interest in the Kovykta gas field. As before, the tactic is to accuse the foreign company of violating the terms of its licence. All that remains to be decided is how much of its stake in Kovykta BP will have to yield up to Gazprom.

Russia under Putin has remained outwardly a democracy. Yet there is no mistaking the erosion of democracy’s foundations under his presidency. In the name of “sovereign democracy”, the direct election of regional governors and presidents was replaced with a system of presidential nomination. Opposition groups can no longer operate freely. Earlier this month, the chess maestro and Putin critic Garry Kasparov and other anti-government activists were prevented from boarding a plane to Samara, where Russian and EU leaders were meeting.

On Putin’s watch there has also been a discernible reduction in the freedom of the press. The three major television networks (Channel One, Rossiya and NTV) are under direct or indirect government control, while reporters who antagonise the authorities can no longer feel safe. Only eight months ago, the investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya was shot dead outside her home, one of 14 Russian journalists who have been murdered since Mr Putin came to power.

To repeat, there is no such thing as the future; only futures. One conceivable future is that after (if?) Mr Putin steps down next year, Russia will become more liberal in its politics. But that is not the future on which I would put my money. A more plausible future is that, having more or less stifled internal dissent, Russia is now ready to play a more aggressive role on the international stage. Remember: it was Mr Putin who restored the old Soviet national anthem within a year of becoming president of the Russian Federation. And it was he who described the collapse of the Soviet Union as a “national tragedy on an enormous scale”.

It would be a bigger tragedy if he or his successor tried somehow to restore that evil empire. Unfortunately, that is precisely what the Weimar analogy predicts will happen next.