A Crude Theory: As the oil price rises, so does Russian belligerence
I think Applebaum is on to something here. More below.
In fact, nobody pretended that the Khodorkovsky verdict was anything but a political statement, one of a series of gestures the Russian government has made to its own public and to the rest of the world in recent weeks. The blocking of corruption investigations; the expressions of support for the brutal and violent “elections” in neighboring Belarus; the deaths of journalists; all these things seem designed to contradict the distinctly friendlier, reformist language that Russian President Dmitri Medvedev was using until recently. A mere two years ago, Medvedev had even denounced Russia’s culture of “legal nihilism”—a phrase some construed as a reference to the Khodorkovsky case.
Why the change of tone? Why now? Many complex theories have been hatched to explain it. This being Russia, none can be proved. But perhaps the explanation is very simple: Oil is once again above $90 a barrel—and the price is rising. And if that’s the reason, it’s nothing new. In fact, if one were to plot the rise and fall of Soviet and Russian foreign and domestic reforms over the last 40 years on a graph, it would match the rise and fall of the international oil price with astonishing precision.
To continue with why I agree with Applebaum: It is one of the hallmarks of authoritarian governments to rely heavily on the economic exploitation of the natural ressources on their sovereign soil for their political strength.
Natural ressources are like an automatic income, they don’t require the intelligent, creative and competetive participation of a large segment of the population in order to be profitable. And when natural ressources dry up (or fall in price), often enough regimes find themselves forced to open up their societies so that free entrepeneurship can bring in the much-needed wealth to tax for revenue (this is also why I am categorially opposed to foreign aid without strings attached except in emergency situations – it plays too easily in the hands of dictators).