TCS Daily


Putin the Great?

By Nathan Smith - July 18, 2006 12:00 AM

In his TCS article, "G7 + 1 Autocracy," K. Caldwell Harmon voices an increasingly common view: that "G8 member countries should examine whether Russia deserves to be represented in a group intended to represent the developed, free world," in view of the way "political freedom under Vladimir Putin has been heavily curtailed."

Yet despite, or because of, his moves to centralize power and clip the wings of civil society, Putin now enjoys a 77 percent approval rating in Russia, which is probably the highest in the G-8. Why don't Russians seem to object to the curtailment of their freedoms?

The Russian language has two words for freedom, neither of which quite corresponds to civic freedom in the Anglo-American sense. Svoboda is merely not to be a slave, serf, prisoner, or under foreign occupation. Russians under the tsars were svobodnye. Volia, which also means "will," is like the wild freedom of a Cossack on the steppes. For generations, Russian writers like Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Nicholas Berdyaev have struggled to articulate a quixotic "Russian Idea," which combines an inner freedom, made possible by spiritual transcendence, with a communitarian ethos. The Russian Idea is believed to inhere in the Russian people.

Though not illiberal in itself -- it implies no clear political program -- the Russian Idea has been a distraction from the gradualist pursuit of practical freedoms. Worse, it has periodically morphed into political utopianism, and helps to explain Russia's attempts at total societal transformation, in which the past is completely repudiated, and the country tries to emulate foreign models.

In the 17th century, Czar Peter I the Great decided to recast Russia in the Western mold. He introduced Western-style fashion, navigation, education, and even built a new capital, St. Petersburg, on the Baltic Sea, as Russia's "window on Europe." But Peter the Great was ruthlessly repressive, all the more so because his expensive Westernization program required heavy taxation, and provoked cultural resistance.

Next, the revolution of 1917 sought to realize the socialist theory developed by a foreign philosopher, Karl Marx. The Soviets repudiated Russia's past, and desperately tried to industrialize the country and imitate Western technology. Finally, in 1991, Russia attempted another societal transformation, this time from communism to democratic capitalism. Like past Russian revolutions, the 1991 revolution was a time of grand illusions juxtaposed on social breakdown, chaos, and impoverishment. The forms of Western practices appeared without the substance.

Today, while Westerners regard the non-violent fall of communism as one of history's better moments, Russians regard the Soviet collapse as a disaster. With the dissolution of the USSR, millions of Russians found themselves living in foreign countries. There were mass exoduses from places where Russians had lived for decades or generations. Wars broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan; in Tajikistan; and in Chechnya. The economy unraveled, and by the mid-1990s, Russia's official GDP, in current dollars, had sunk by over 40 percent; Ukraine's, by over 60 percent; Georgia's, by almost 80 percent. Male life expectancy in Russia fell from 65 to 58. For a few years, the centrifugal forces of regionalism put the very survival of the Russian state in doubt.

The year 1991 for Russia was like the Great Depression and the South losing the Civil War, rolled into one. Like post-Civil War Southerners, Russians half realize that the West was right in the Cold War, but nostalgia and romantic nationalism keep enmity with the West alive in the Russian imagination. At the same time, after the meaningless suffering of the 1990s, Russians admire Putin for getting their country out of its Great Depression, just as an older generation of Americans once admired Franklin D. Roosevelt.

In the aftermath of the 1991 revolution, Russians have become pragmatic. A Pew poll in January showed that Russians favor a "strong leader" (66 percent) over a "democratic government" (23 percent), and also think that a "strong economy" (81 percent) is more important than a "good democracy" (14 percent). One might object that these are false dichotomies. "Democracies, both old and new," Dick Cheney said in Vilnius last May, "can follow a course to political stability and economic prosperity." In the Russian context, this claim has, to put it mildly, not much empirical support.

Fareed Zakaria, in his recent book, uses Russia to illustrate his "illiberal democracy" thesis: Putin is an elected leader who has restricted freedom, with strong public support. Yet in the same book he calls Putin a "liberal autocrat." Which is it -- is Russia an illiberal democracy, or a liberal autocracy?

Maybe both. Putin's apparatus has stifled criticism of the president on television, and NTV, the last independent TV channel, was shut down in 2001, though newspapers sometimes criticize the president, and the internet remains uncensored. Putin's main ally in the Duma, the Unity party, is short on ideas and long on yes-men. But with the help of a pliant Duma, Putin has passed reforms that, among other things, allow private ownership of land, introduced trial by jury, cut corporate taxes, and most importantly, introduced a flat tax of 13 percent, which has led to increased revenues and a balanced budget. That Russian GDP per capita has increased at an average 7 percent per year since Putin came into office owes a good deal, of course, to high oil prices, but smart macroeconomic policies have also helped.

Daniel Treisman and Andrei Shleifer recently disputed the black legend about Russia in a Foreign Affairs article entitled "Russia: A Normal Country," by which they mean, "a normal middle-income country." Point by point -- on elections and democracy, on corruption, on economic inequality, on press freedom -- Treisman and Shleifer argue that, while Russia has its flaws, its problems are not systematically worse or different than those of other middle-income countries.

Of course, even if Russia is a normal middle-income country (with nukes of course), its G8 membership is still anomalous, because, minus Russia, the G8 is a club of high-income countries. But is the exclusiveness of the G8 club an end in itself? There may be practical benefits to giving Russia a seat at the table that, in some sense, it doesn't "deserve." The themes that Russia chose for this G8 summit are energy security and education. What's the harm in Russia leading discussions on these topics? Indeed, Russia has a comparative advantage on these issues, since Russia itself and the former Soviet Union generally are both large energy exporters, and unusually well-educated relative to their level of per capita income.

Given Russians' recent bad experience with trying to import the Western model, Western "pressure" or "holding Putin accountable" will go down badly with normal Russians. For now, Russians have the government that they want, and they're tired of Western meddling. We should respect that. If Russia's G8 membership gives Russia a stake in a Western-led international order which otherwise it might be inclined to subvert, it's an anomaly worth keeping.

Nathan Smith is a writer living in Washington, DC. He blogs here, and you can e-mail him here. He has lived and traveled extensively in eastern Europe, Russia, and other post-Soviet countries, and is married to a Russian national.

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4 Comments

Russia on international security? - (ps no immigration remarks???)
Appreciate the article. It is interesting to get a perspective on Russia and not panic about current developments.

Russia had to stop the economic slide in the 90's. If it is getting economically stronger and building a middle class, then that is in everyone's best interest.

Possibly Russia will develop along the lines of Singapore and South Korea that had "strong-men" as their leaders while they grew their economies.

My main problem with Russia is why they have to be such a pain in the ass in the international security arena. Why can't they help rein in Iran and North Korea? I don't see how Putin can think that it is in Russia's best interest to help these rogue nations. The only reason I can think of is an historical anti-West reflexive behavior to world affairs.

reasoning
I believe that there are a lot of Russians who resent that they are no longer a super power. This resentment causes them to do stupid things, like reflexively oppose the US, even when such opposition is not in their economic or political interests.

putin the popular?
I would not trust any statistics coming from Russia.

It's like believing every word from Pravda or the NY Times.

This is not to say the words are false. I mistrust the way facts are gathered in that
country, nor do I trust those who submit them for publication (who have every reason to
make the man look good).

Russia is young...
A lot of Americans think that Mikhail Gorbachev ended the Soviet Union. Actually, in December 1991 the Russian President Boris Yeltsin met with the presidents of the Ukraine and Belarus and they agreed among themselves to dissolve the USSR. Gorbachev himself resisted this move but he was only just then recovering his political momentum following a Soviet military coup that only Yeltsin's personal intervention saved him from. When the Russian delegation took the Soviet seat at the UN later in December it was over. The next day Gorbachev resigned and the USSR ceased to be.

Boris Yeltsin appointed Vladimir Putin to be his Prime Minister in 1999, in the normal course of business, and when Yeltsin himself resigned at the end of 1999, Putin succeeded him (like our own Vice President would).

Putin was elected President himself in 2000 and 2004. They might change their Constitution regarding term-limits so he could run again in 2008.

The Russians have an executive branch, a two-house parliment (the lower house Duma and the upper house Federation Council) and a Russian Supreme Court. There are three political parties with some 80% of the votes and more than ten political parties with the rest.

Russia never had a President who ran for that office without already being the incumbent. For the moment Russia is too busy trying to get its economy into a competitive posture in the global economic arena. Just like Mexico, it might be a little while before the dominant party allows honest elections and starts to share power. It is hard to say that they are back-sliding regarding their own democracy. The Russian nation is just at the beginning of understanding what democracy actually means to them.

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