Three years of Vladimir Putin's presidency have been enough to totally dispel illusions including Putin's own, it seems that it would be enough to push a few liberal laws through the Duma and replace a few bad Jewish oligarchs with a few good Orthodox ones to ensure Yeltsin's mutant would simply fade away of its own accord, to be replaced with a dynamic and transparent market economy. Not only has the mutant not disappeared, it is still stopping the country from modernizing and entering a post-industrial development phase.
For all its achievements in the early 1920s, the rickety NEP couldn't ensure the country's transition from an agrarian economy to an industrial economy. There were two possible ways out of this crisis. The first was to take the NEP further with economic liberalization and bring about industrialization through an authoritarian but economically liberal regime, as happened 50 years later in a number of south-east Asian countries.
Young, aggressive and still convinced it had historic truth on its side, the Soviet communist regime finally chose a path more in line with its ideological dogma and the traditions of state power in Russia. This path led the country toward a mobilization economy, maximum concentration of resources in state hands and political terror against whole groups of people, above all, against the peasants.
The great watershed year put a definitive end to the NEP period and ushered in a new era, in which the country was dragged into industrialization through barbaric means and at a huge, perhaps irreversible cost.
Russia still has no real civil society, and this means that, just as it was 80 years ago, the authorities will decide how to get the country moving forward in the 21st century. Essentially, the authorities have three options.
The first and most tempting is to do nothing. Of course, problems would build up and social tensions would rise, but nothing would threaten the ruling elite, at least not in the short term. The population spent its political energy during the upheavals of the 1990s and has now sunk into apathy and a feeling of deep disappointment with all forms of political activities. Putin's high ratings are often referred to as a rating of the public's hopes, but I think it is more of a rating of hopelessness and indifference.
Perhaps the "do nothing" scenario is not only the most convenient for the authorities, but also the most humane. After all, when a cancer has progressed too far and can no longer be operated on, isn't it better to put the patient in a hospice and prescribe painkillers in the form of the revived Soviet anthem, communist stars and soothing chats between the president and the people?
The second option, increasingly called for not just by the left wing, would certainly ensure a short-lived burst of enthusiasm, but it is remarkably reminiscent of the 1929 watershed-year scenario. To follow this path would be to take the analogy made by Yegor Gaidar to its logical conclusion.
The program would "return to the people what was stolen from them," introduce a mobilization economy and concentrate resources in the hands of a state bureaucracy, all overseen by "patriotic secret service officers." This concoction would ensure that Russia surges forward and return it to the ranks of the leading countries, or even better, to its rightful superpower status.
The tragedy of 1929 would repeat itself as a farce, and the great leap into the future would send the country tumbling into the black hole of the past. Means such as these are unsuitable for taking a country into post-industrial society. What is needed, rather, are maximum economic and political freedoms. And in any case, where are these fearless knights of the secret services who will lead the mobilization economy and spearhead the charge into the future? In the three years they've had free reign in the jungles of Russian business, they've proved themselves no different from the "Family," but even greedier and less competent.
The third option is the most difficult for the authorities, and therefore the most unlikely. It would require a degree of civil responsibility and commitment to moral rigor that is hard to imagine the modern Russian political elite possessing. The authorities would have to change the very rules of the game on which their self-serving interests hinge, which made them the elite in the first place.
This would mean separating money and power, putting raw-materials profits at the service of society, bringing corporate management into the open, making the courts independent, forming a government of people not linked to oligarchic clans and not caught up in business interests of their own, and encouraging the development of a civil society that would become an effective lever for controlling the elite's actions.
Critics have repeatedly reproached Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky for giving too big a role to the figure of the "good tsar" or "clever tsar" in the proposals he makes in his "demodernization" for leading Russia forward. But the issue is not one of Putin himself and his personality; rather it is about the specific nature of the post Putin holds. It is the authorities that would have to choose between the three development scenarios mentioned above.
The modern Russian political system is designed in such a way that the decision will be 90 percent the responsibility of one man. And you know who this man is.