Mid-October saw an event in Russia that has probably gone mostly unnoticed outside, but I think it's significant. President Putin has reached an agreement with the big retail chains and the agricultural unions to freeze food prices ahead of the parliamentary elections.
It's been a bit of a topic in Russia recently, I understand. For all the money coming into the country, there's still a massive welfare divide, and a lot of people are still quite poor. At the same time, the rise in spending naturally leads to inflation* and rising prices. So when the price of milk increases by 10% in a month, people are pissed.
Remember how I said that Putin's plans - whatever they may be - depend on his personal popularity? To stay in the people's good graces, he needed to curb the price growth. The method that he chose, however, is at once very Russian and very disturbing. He went to the people who sell the food, and he asked them nicely to not raise the prices any more, no matter what capitalist theory suggests.
When the President of Russia, especially one such as Putin, asks you nicely - you know you'd better fucking comply.
The reason this scares me is because it's an indication of a mindset. For all his westerly aspirations, Putin is prepared to revert to the old Soviet scheme of keeping the people happy, no matter what the cost. The firehose of oil revenue still has enough pressure, and it's not implausible that it is being applied here somewhere - owners of retail chains quietly getting lucrative consessions on the side. That would actually be the slightly more preferable option. A corrupt capitalist country is at least predictable; there are rules which it follows, and you can use those rules to build up a strategy. Lots of people got rich in the ostensibly lawless 90s by understanding the rules.
The worse option is that Putin got the retailers and producers to freeze prices at an essentially arbitrary level or else. This would mean that Russian history is beginning to repeat itself. Since I live a hundred miles from the border, Russian history repeating itself scares me shitless.
In the context of the end of Putin's second term, and the inevitable tectonic shift in the Russian status quo, I can't help thinking about the true motivation for a lot of Estonia's foreign policy. Again, this is one of those things that people don't say aloud, because it makes them look bad, but everyone's thinking it. Though it may seem improbable and alarmist, we're always weary of the chance that Russia will pull another "cooperation pact", and the least we can do is to make the fallacy of any spin about Russian soldiers welcomed as liberators obvious.
Call me a coward, but come next spring, I'm keeping my gas tank filled up, and seeing if Tallink will sell me an open ticket to Stockholm.
*Inflation has been a buzzword in Estonia - last year we were making an effort to push it that last bit down under 3%, so that we could join the Eurozone, this year it's spiked to as much as 7%. The newspapers are running scary articles. The word is deceiving though: the EEK is still pegged to the Euro, so the value of the money isn't decreasing (any more than the Euro is), but the cost of life in Estonia is rising. Which is kind of to be expected: you didn't really think we'd keep Eastern European prices while inching closer to Central European earnings, did you?
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