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Martin Tillier

Martin Tillier

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Why The ‘Oil Curse’ Can’t Hurt Bare-Chested Putin

Why The ‘Oil Curse’ Can’t Hurt Bare-Chested Putin

There has been speculation, including in this Aljazeera piece by Paul Hockenos, that Russian leader Vladimir Putin will fall victim to “The Oil Curse” as set out in Michael L. Ross's book of the same name. The theory is that Russia’s dependence on oil and natural gas will lead, as it often does in similar circumstances, to the eventual collapse of the government. This belief ignores something basic about Russia and its people that could keep Putin in power and lead to more of the aggressive foreign policy that we have seen this year with regard to Ukraine.

History would suggest that the oil curse itself is real. From the fall of the Shah of Iran in 1979 to the current problems in South Sudan, there is ample recent evidence that a country overly dependent on mineral wealth is more prone to authoritarian government and unequal wealth distribution.

There is, however, a hint of “chicken and egg” to the idea. Does dependence on oil inevitably produce inequality and authoritarianism? Or is it just that countries with authoritarian governments and extreme poverty stay that way when they discover oil reserves, making them more prone to collapse? As this Reuter UK piece reports, an oil boom has caused some problems in Norway, for example, but hasn’t caused an existential threat.

How a country deals with newfound wealth and power depends on several factors. Rather than fitting into a pattern, the existing social, societal and governmental conditions influence the outcome. Having lived and worked in Russia during the course of a near 20-year career in the foreign exchange market, I believe that there is something in the psyche of Russians that will protect Putin from the curse of oil.

I should say at this point that, as an Englishman who has lived and worked in Japan, Poland and now the U.S. as well as Russia, I am all too aware of the dangers of attributing characteristics and beliefs to people based on their nationality. I do not have perfectly straight teeth, am prone to a touch of arrogance and have a penchant for overcooked vegetables, but these things are not necessarily because I’m English, nor do they necessarily apply to all English people.

Related Article: Russia Extends Ukraine’s Gas Payment Deadline, Easing Tensions For Now

That said, most countries have national traits. When I moved from Russia to Poland, I was frequently asked to offer my opinion of the two countries. It was usually pleasing to my Polish friends when I replied with my honest observation. Russia, I said, had been a communist country for 80 years, while Poland had been a country with communist leaders for 40. The Russians, with the Tsarist regime immediately preceding communism, were somewhat resigned to authoritarian government. They had a misty eyed view of past Russian greatness and were looking for a strong leader to take them back there. We should not forget that even as the Berlin Wall fell, change in Russia came from the top down.

To us in the West, pictures of Putin doing manly things with a bare chest are ridiculous, but do we honestly believe he would keep publishing them if they didn’t serve a purpose? This carefully cultivated image of a strong man will give Putin some protection. We place too much emphasis on protests within the country because we believe that, of course, everybody wants freedom and real democracy above all else. In my experience, most Russians don’t think that way. They have a fatalistic outlook and are not averse to following orders. It doesn’t occur to us that some people are resigned to dictatorial government and value stability over change, but they are and do.

There is no doubt that Russia is hugely dependent on its oil and gas reserves. They account for 70 percent of the country’s exports and 52 percent of the federal budget, according to the previously cited Aljazeera report. That doesn’t lead to an inevitable conclusion that Russia is a failing state. It is far more likely that Putin will use the money and power that fact brings to further enhance his image as a strong leader with a mission to restore Russia to what Russians see as its former glory.

It is that, rather than the instability or leverage that large oil and gas reserves have caused elsewhere in the past, that should have the rest of the world concerned.


By Martin Tillier of Oilprice.com

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  • Brian McKeever on June 12 2014 said:
    What most Americans fail to grasp is that Pussy Riot is hated by far more Russians than is Putin. Russians living in the hinterland view the urbanites in Moscow and St. Petersburg much the same way that small town America views New York City and Washington. Those people are Putin's constituency, and judging by the election results there are an awful lot of them.

    As for the oil curse, it sounds conversely from those budget figures you quoted that the oil revenues are doing a huge amount to help Putin keep his supporters happy by enabling him to be seen as restoring Russia's place in the world as a great power.
  • Martin Katchen on June 13 2014 said:
    We need to take into consideration the fact that Al Jazeera is hardly unbiased when it comes to Russia. Al Jazeera is headquartered in Qatar, one of the most politically active of the Sunni oil states. Qatar has supported Sunni rebels in Syria, including the Al Qaeda aligned Al Nusra Front--with money and weapons. Qatar is enemies with the Shiite governments of Iran and Iraq as well as the Alawite regime of Syria. All of these regimes are supported by Russia and China.
    And Russia is a strategic and business competitor to Qatar, which has huge natural gas reserves that it is attempting to market to Europe both as gas and as synthetic diesel fuel as well as OPEC in general. Russia is even a potential conduit for oil and gas from Iran to China if Iran and Russia ever reach an agreement on how the nations of the Caspian Littoral should divide the Caspian Sea.
    So it is not surprising that Al Jazeera should curse Russia just as Al Jazeera, taking a sympathetic tone when it comes to the Native American pressure group No Longer Idle is critical of and attempts to "curse" another strategic competitor of Qatar and OPEC, Canada. (As Russia apparently plays the game as well by supporting Greenpeace's endeavours against frakking in Europe to protect ITS share of the European market.
    If there is a "resource curse" or resource bias in favour of authoritarian regimes, maybe one of the prime reasons for this bias in favour of authoritarianism is the difficulty of getting resource projects going in democratic nations because of environmental opposition--not all of it rationally based. And the opposition to frakking is only the latest example of this. It is apparently far easier to get energy projects going--and for far cheaper with much fewer pollution safeguards in countries which have strong enough regimes to imprison or even behead anyone with the temerity to demonstrate against a project than to spend the money to develop an energy or mining project with state of the art environmental and pollution safeguards. There are exceptions to this rule, such as Norway, Canada, many American states and even Papua-New Guinea--but given the difficulty in overcoming democratic and environmental opposition to projects in many developed and democratic nations, it is not surprising that dictatorships of one stripe or another will have an advantage when it comes to attracting big mining projects.
  • Marve McCutchon on June 16 2014 said:
    Vladimir Putin is the savior to Russia, the new Czar of a grand new imperial reign. The Ukraine is just the beginning of the great expansion which is fueled by income from oil and gas within rich Siberia. The final goal is dominance over Europe, of course, and control over the flow of energy across the eastern hemisphere and more.

    Russia is the natural leader of the world. Only a few stumbling blocks remain.
  • Andrey Palyura on June 18 2014 said:
    This artivle is more about politics and history, than oil. Political views usually are biased and controvercial. Russia is a really energy country and has its own interests, which she tries to protect. But I do not think that Russia wants and is able to dominate Europe, as well as she does not want to be domianted by others.
  • Argent on June 20 2014 said:
    True. Russia aims for world domination and begins with putting the boot on Europe. This is the paying back for Germany invading the heartland of Russia in 20th century.

    V. Putin learns slow maybe uses stick too much and not the carrot. He must be learning better soon, or his imperial goals will be more tough to achieve.

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