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[ 136 ] asia policy is Russia, as mentioned above, a wealthier (on a per capita basis), more open, and more cosmopolitan society than any of its BRIC partners; Russia’s allegedly aggressive foreign policy is less the result of an imperial will to power than a desire to maintain some degree of international influence despite the upheavals that have shaken the country over the past two decades. Russian foreign policy, as Åslund and Kuchins argue, has often been “contradictory” (p. 118–19), aspiring to secure the respect Russian leaders feel they are owed, but acting in ways that too often alienate both the country’s neighbors and the international community writ large. These failings are real, but the Cold War lens through which many in the West continue to view Russia also contributes to frequent misunderstandings of what Russia is and where it is headed. Russia’s Imbalanced Sheet Donald N. Jensen In The Russia Balance Sheet, Anders Åslund and Andrew Kuchins, two of Washington’s best known Russia watchers, provide an informative political, economic, and social portrait of that country over the past decade. The authors argue that the growth of Russian energy exports in 2001–09, though masking the fundamentally poor condition of the Russian economy, provided the wealth necessary to raise incomes and military spending and enabled Russia to pursue a more assertive foreign policy. The Russian public largely supported these policies in exchange for Putin’s centralization of power and suppression of civil liberties.1 The heart of the book is a synthesis of the major factors shaping today’s Russia: history, political development, economy, energy policy, social and demographic challenges, popular attitudes, and policies toward the country’s neighbors and the United States, among others. For the most part these chapters are clear, insightful, and splendidly serve the reader. The discussion 1 Robert Legvold, “Eastern Europe and Former Soviet Republics,” Foreign Affairs 88, no. 5 (September/October 2009): 159. donald n. jensen is a research fellow with the Center for Transatlantic Relations at the School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University. He can be reached at . [ 137 ] book review roundtable • the russia balance sheet of Russia’s economic performance over the past decade highlights Russia’s impressive growth (at least until the 2008–09 financial crisis), the country’s success in introducing the trappings of a free market, structural changes in the economy, and the key role played by rising oil prices in fueling the economic expansion. At the same time, the authors correctly emphasize Russia’s need for further reforms, the need to rebuild the country’s crumbling infrastructure, and the government’s mistakes in economic policy. Although Russia is today very integrated into the global economy, Åslund and Kuchins point out that alarming protectionist pressures have been increasing in the past few years. Lingering above any discussion of Russia’s future is the demographic challenge the country faces: “acute natural depopulation” resulting from a polluted environment, and self-destructive behaviors such as smoking, alcoholism, poor diet, and lack of exercise. The book falters somewhat in its discussion of Russia’s politics since the end of the Soviet Union. Åslund and Kuchins seem trapped by the same set of dubious assumptions about the dynamics of Russian politics that crippled U.S. policy in the 1990s and threatens to do so again today. First, the authors assert that a “nascent institutionalized democracy in the 1990s” was reversed under Putin into a “precommunist Russian model” (p. 25) and that a “democratic breakthrough” took place in August 1991. By all means, a hallmark of the Putin era has been the revitalization of traditional Russian political behavior, but the failure of the Soviet Union in August 1991 was the victory of one part of the nomenklatura (ruling elite) over another, not a democratic breakthrough. Russia was hardly a democracy under Yeltsin, even though the country was, gratefully, more pluralistic than both the Soviet behemoth it succeeded and the autocracy under Putin that followed. Boris Yeltsin did not “choose democracy” in the December 1993 referendum on the draft constitution that vastly increased his power (p. 28) but instead used the referendum process to confirm his unchallenged dominance of the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2960
Print ISSN
1559-0968
Pages
pp. 136-140
Launched on MUSE
2011-03-30
Open Access
No
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