By David Lias
When the dust settled after Communism fell in the Soviet Union, one thing became very clear – a small number of the population of today’s Russia became very, very wealthy.
That’s according to Dr. David Burrow, a University of South Dakota professor, who was joined by Ilmira Dulyanova for Monday’s international forum entitled “Russia: Friend or Foe?”
Dulyanova is a native of the Soviet Union. “I have the experience of living in the Soviet Union and since I came to the United States in 2004 as a Fulbright Scholar, I came to USD to teach Russian, and I stayed for good,” she said.
The forum was held in Farber Hall in Old Main on the USD campus.
“When the Soviet Union collapsed in the 1990s, which very few analysts in the West expected or predicted, we did not know what the former Soviet states were going to evolve into,” he said. “What we ended up with in Russia was a transition where a relatively small number of people were able to jump from positions of authority in the Communist party and gain control, very cheaply, of gas, oil and other natural properties, and become very rich.”
The result is a high concentration of wealth among a small percentage of Russian citizens.
“The last survey that I saw on this recently suggested that Russia has one of the greatest wealth gaps that you can imagine,” Burrow said. “The elite of Russia is astonishingly wealthy … and almost all of them, in one way or the other, is tied in with the state. Even if we had a flourishing of the oligarchs under the Yeltsin era, the Putin era has definitively put most of the oligarchs back in their place. Most of the oligarchs today are tied into the political structure.”
Vladimir Putin, who first served as Russia’s president from 2000 to 2008, and resumed the presidency in May 2012, has formulated policies that attempt to cast Russia as a major global political player, Burrow said.
“The overriding imperative of Putin since he came into to power is to see to it that Russia is treated very seriously and to be regarded seriously in all matters,” he said.
Burrow noted that “Russia, at times, seems to play the role of a spoiler while advocating cooperation, which is partly what it is doing in Syria.”
He referred to Putin’s letter published by the New York Times last September, when it appeared that the United States military might intervene in Syria. Putin wrote that a U.S. military strike in Syria would result in more innocent victims and “escalation, potentially spreading the conflict beyond Syria’s border. A strike would increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism.”
Dulyanova is not surprised by Putin’s friendly stance toward Syria.
“The Soviet Union and currently Russia have had long ties to Syria. Syria and the Soviet Union have been allies for over 50 years,” she said. “Ten percent of all Russian weapon exports belongs to Syria. Russia does not want Syria to be attacked; they still want a way to sell their weapons.”
After recent conflicts in Libya, she noted, Russia can no longer sell weapons there.
“Another reason is if we talk about power and money, Syria is the only ally of Russia in that Middle East region. They don’t want to lose that connection. That’s why I think that they will do everything to try to keep peace in that region,” Dulyanova said. “They want to keep peace there, so that they continue to have an economical and friendly relationship with Syria.
“Do I sound skeptical? Maybe, but this is part of my Russian nature,” she said with a laugh.
Putin also wrote that Syria is not witnessing a battle for democracy, but an armed conflict between government and opposition in a multi-religious country.
“That’s significant, because that’s the way he couches almost all opposition to his authority within multi-ethnic Russia,” Burrow said.
He added that, “possibly the most enthusiastic world leader to George W. Bush’s call on an international war on terrorism was Putin, because that gave Putin the ability to label many of his domestic opponents or Muslim movements as terrorists and just pound them in the name of the international war on terrorism.”
Dulyanova described growing up in what she called a “closed country.”
““We did have a world geography course, and we did learn about continents, but we never thought about leaving the country,” she said. “We were brainwashed, we were taught, we were educated that the Soviet Union was the best country in the world, and I had no doubts.”