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MALTATODY 20 March 2022

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OPINION The grim legacy of 90s Russia and Putin's rise Raisa Galea Raisa Galea is editor of Isles Of The Left maltatoday | SUNDAY • 20 MARCH 2022 16 "BACK to the 90s." In the past three weeks, this phrase was repeated multiple times by (the remnants of) Russian in- dependent media, political and economic analysts, and various Telegram channels. In my native Russia, the turbulent 90s are a synonym of political and social instability, soaring inflation, shortages of basic necessities, mass poverty coexisting with the speedy enrichment of the elite and gang wars. A repetition of the 90s – or a complete blackout - is where the aggressor country is heading, fol- lowing the barbaric invasion of Ukraine. This scenario is as terri- fying as it is ironic, since the trou- bled legacy of the era is key to un- derstanding Putin's popularity. I cannot begin to imagine how the refugees feel, or what it is like to hide from bombs in basements, starving and dehy- drated while others are dying. Although I have been exposed to my veteran grandparents' war- time stories, I have never expe- rienced war firsthand. Surviving a socio-economic catastrophe, however, sounds familiar. As a person whose childhood and ad- olescence happened in 90s Rus- sia, I understand very well the grim future awaiting millions. On 24 February, Vladimir Putin waged two 'special op- erations' simultaneously – on Ukraine and on Russia's civilian population. One is fought with airstrikes and troops, the other – with repressions and poverty. Do not get me wrong, I do not mean that the two are of equal monstrosity. Nothing compares to the horrors of war. Howev- er, while the harrowing reali- ty of the victims in Ukraine is well-documented for everyone to empathise with, the misery of ordinary Russians may appear negligible. Allow me to chal- lenge this perception, based on my memories. Russia in the 90s: Surviving the Blackout In the early 90s, the reforms of Boris Yeltsin during the dis- solution of the Soviet Union hit us brutally. The transition from planned economy to free mar- ket was done hastily, liberalising prices, kickstarting record in- flation and resulting in millions losing their lifetime savings. At the same time, shortages of basic necessities meant empty shelves, food tickets and hundred metres long queues. Food tickets did not guarantee dinner. Oftentimes, we returned empty-handed, after hours of queueing, not certain what ex- actly was on sale. Sugar, butter, tea, and coffee became luxuries. Neither was bread easily avail- able. I recall queueing for it, too, wondering how much it would cost when it's my turn. The price of bread went up and up, dou- bling every few weeks. The inflation smashed re- cords. In 1992-1993, the price of everything increased ten to thir- teen fold, while state factories laid off workers, causing mass unemployment. Those lucky not to lose their job remained un- paid for months. My mother was among those 'lucky' ones. Fortu- nately, my pensioner grandpar- ents supported mum and me. Their priority membership at a specialised food store for WWII veterans diversified our austere diet with liver sausages, canned meat and spaghetti, the latter be- ing humanitarian help from Italy. The struggle was all too real, but it was not the worst part. At least, the misery was shared, and neighbours supported each oth- er, bartering matches for fabric, condensed milk for medicines. Cigarettes were the most stable currency. The worst, however, was how entrepreneurial folks capitalised on our misery and confusion. They sold us expired food at the highest price possible – a direct outcome of the liberal- isation of prices and trade. Regular power cuts and crimi- nality were another signature of the era. Despite the praise from the Western media as the dec- ade of freedom, democracy and business opportunities, the 90s are best remembered as the ep- och of gang wars for the control over various economic sectors. Although privatisation reforms turned sour for the majority, they were a golden opportunity to some. The decade of Yeltsin's rule churned out oligarchs and the new super rich, who trans- formed the country's mineral re- sources into their private assets. This was Russia at the end of the second millennium: a gar- gantuan rift between millions living below the poverty line and the elite. Wars in Chechnya kept the people in the cities in fear of terrorist attacks by separatists; the wars further drained the al- ready tight budget, displaced civillians, caused death and destruction. The August 1998 default buried any hope for eco- nomic recovery. A Road to Autocracy The formal narrative of the era starkly contrasts with the description above. According to Western media, Yeltsin's presidency was the flicker of democracy and freedom, unap- preciated by Russians, who, sup- posedly, are genetically prone to autocracy. This line of thought is prejudiced. During the 'dem- ocratic' transition, freedom of speech happened to coincide with savage free market capi- talism. Many mistook the latter for democracy and didn't like it: liberties on their own pay no bills, nor do they put food on the table. Embarrassment and humilia- tion – these two words accurate- ly express the sentiments of or- dinary Russians watching their ever drunk president at formal international meetings. In the af- termath of losing the Cold War, citizens of a former superpower interpreted Yeltin's friendly re- lationship with the US as subser- vient. Wounded national pride could be another reason behind Putin's initial popularity. After a decade of instabili- ty and dire poverty, Yeltsin's handpicked heir Vladimir Putin appeared promising. He gained popular support after (selective) cracking down on powerful oli- garchs of his predecessor (Yukos case) and reestablishing state control over oil and gas reserves. The high prices of fossil fuels subsequently benefitted his in- ternal economic policy. Russia's path to autocracy can- not be reduced to the popula- tion's chilling memories of the 90s. Other factors such as the flawed constitution, written spe- cifically to advance Russia's first president, and the support of siloviki (Russian security forces) institutionally enabled concen- tration of power in the hands of one person. Considering that the country is 'back to the 90s', albeit with- out the liberties of Yeltsin's era, hope now lies with those voices rejecting the military aggression, conservative politics and nation- alism. The country's own grass- roots protest movement means that democracy in Russia stands a chance.

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