The dejected and rejected of Russia would vote for Donald Trump too, if they could
Toby Latta, CEO Asia Pacific
A recent story from the depths of Siberia jolted me in my Singapore office with sorry echoes of the desperate dying days of the Soviet Union, at the time my home. Nearly 50 perished from drinking a cheap bath oil, high in alcohol content but accidentally laced with anti-freeze, as an alternative to expensive vodka. My late 1980’s echo chamber reminded me of the extraordinary array of bathroom and household products poor Russians would drink after Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev introduced the ‘Dry Law’, prohibition to tackle epic alcoholism, and similar tragedies were rife.
In Moscow, 25 years ago, I watched as the Soviet hammer and sickle was lowered from the Kremlin and the Russian tricolor hoisted in its place. A humiliated Gorbachev declared his job redundant and his country dissolved on live TV, after presidents of the Soviet member states declared independence from the erstwhile superpower and went their separate ways. The Soviet Union had imploded in a void after a tussle between the elites of the Soviet security establishment and the leadership of the Union’s component parts, and a dull thud of public discontent (though this was no popular revolution).
What we have witnessed since is the re-establishment of elite power in Russia, nourished by the wounded national pride of a superpower and the despair and humiliation of those who lost out. And our optimism that the end of the Cold War would lead to a new era of East-West mutual understanding and cooperation – a squandered opportunity – has given way to a more familiar geopolitical polarization, only where China is now also in the frame.
I had called the Soviet capital home for three years prior to the coup attempt in 1991, and would emerge blinking into newly ‘independent’ Russia with its people and remain for another four after the event. Russians’ enthusiasm to taste their country’s opening to the world was soon overcast by the dash towards a liberalized economy, destroying fragile livelihoods and sending Soviet state run industries, already on life support, careering towards a middle-aged grave. A youthful Russian government, advised substantially by even younger western academics keen to experiment with economic theory, posited that set free from its Soviet shackles an inherent entrepreneurial spirit would make it all come good. They were wrong.
Part of the old elite felt unleashed and benefited hugely (often criminally) from privatizations. I saw another part, largely hidden from view, smoldering with resentment and biding its time. Resentment that we – the WEST – had declared our system victorious. We in turn ignored, at our peril, weak protest from Moscow that it would not tolerate its national and security interests being ignored. After all, the inherent strengths of western democracy and a liberal economic order had shown up the weakness of a socialist system adopted by our historical Soviet foe. Now Russia was too enfeebled to have its voice heard. How much has changed since.
I look back at this brief detente, now based in Singapore and running an Asian regional business with major interests in China, and dust off my Cold War instincts. It is pretty clear that the West’s declaration of ‘Mission Accomplished’ was naively premature. The world feels very different from here. Few know why the Soviet Union fell apart but many think its collapse probably wasn’t a good idea. The Chinese establishment for one – and not for ideological reasons at all.
The victory we preached was of the dominance of a rules-based global order, of a democratic system, of a moral high ground. It turns out that wasn’t how most of the world saw it. This was about ‘our’ rules and system, our democracy and our high ground. Our narrative became one of global powers settling for economic inter-dependence in a globalized economy, which would trump ideological or geopolitical differences. 25 years of assuming an inevitability of this narrative haven’t served us well.
A 1990s decade of humiliation, as many in Russia saw it and certainly how the elite felt, produced Vladimir Putin. He now maneuvers with guile and disruption, outpacing what are again western adversaries in a dynamic game of tactical chess for which its masters are so famed. China had played an even longer game, biding its time to build economic muscle, and has found its voice to reassert itself on the international stage. And meanwhile, the US - the spiritual home of our victorious narrative - has a new High Priest who is preaching to a different tune.
This all leads to us living in heady and conflicting times, a state of greater geopolitical tension than at any time in a generation or more. And a far cry from what might have come about as the Soviet Union passed away into history a quarter of a century ago.
Those left behind as the Russian elite reasserts itself and again projects influence around the world, are no better off now with bath oil than they were with other alcohol substitutes in the Soviet Union’s dying days. In the United States, a similar constituency voted for Donald Trump. In Russia, they didn’t need to.