By Tito Sasaki
Like a phoenix reborn from its own ashes, Russia soars again over its prey. President Putin is basking in the glory of being a bad boy who defied the world over Crimea. We can expect more mischief to follow. Expelling Russia out of the G8 or imposing economic sanctions will have little effect on him or Russia. Why?
Under Putin, Russia has forged “sovereign democracy,” where domestic public support, not international opinions, shapes policies and actions. And Putin has done a lot to gain public support in Russia. They include: more than tripling real wages, halving unemployment and poverty, wiping out organized crimes and terrorism, and a flat income tax of 13%.
Russia is the world’s largest exporter of oil and natural gas. Her balance of payments in 2011 was a surplus of $99-billion against our deficit of $466-billion. Russia’s 2012 per-capita government debt of $2,200 was modest compared to our $36,700. With strong consumer demands and domestic supply basis, Russia could easily withstand trade sanctions.
Moscow now boasts the highest number of billionaires of any city in the world. Contrary to the public notion of Russians being crude, I find most Russians today quite genial. They love music, drama, fashion, and American Western life. A few years ago on a charity concert Putin played piano (rather poorly) and sang (better) “Blueberry Hill.”
In their element Russians exude their Slavic sentiment. Most of their popular songs are composed in minor scales with melancholic melodies. It’s not unusual to see the audience wipe tears listening to the lyrics. Even their (and my) favorite military march, Proshaniye Slavyanki, sounds to me more like a dirge. So, what’s there to moan about in their new prosperity? One is agriculture.
Russia was once a major agricultural power. In 1910, over 36% of the total world wheat export came from Russia. But the farm owners of this old Russia were shot or sent to Siberia and their land confiscated when the communist government took all farmland into public trust.
Bureaucrats then dictated what to plant, where, when, and how, and forced farmers to achieve the quota. It was a virtual slave system. Did it work? They suffered from repeated famines. Only the shadowy private farming in the farmers’ backyards was productive.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, new government has been transforming agriculture into free market-driven private enterprise. However, the wound of the past was deep. Physical and institutional infrastructures as well as the farmers’ mind-set had to be rebuilt. Today, 10% of the population is still engaged in agriculture, yet their production is barely sufficient to feed the nation.
In contrast, we produce more than what our nation can consume with less than 2% of the population in ag. But while Russia strives to rid collectivism, we are steadily marching into it. First, water was declared as a public trust asset, and then wetlands and coastal areas. Eventually all productive farmland will be at risk. Already much of our farmland is taken for public trust uses such as critical habitat and riparian setback. We are also regulated on irrigation, frost protection, and, should there be a GMO ban, what we can or cannot plant.
Be aware when we yield to new regulations. Some concessions may be mutually beneficial. But let’s stand firm in guarding our foundation, to save agriculture, our nation, and humanity.