Russia and the Middle East
Sun, 24 march 2019Sun
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Peter Lavelle: Vladimir Putin is no angel - he is a reformer

Calling Russia's regime under Vladimir Putin authoritarian is a hasty and dangerous exaggeration. Such an appellation undermines, dismisses, and misrepresents an important stage of development Russia is undergoing to becoming a strong and modern state. Western and Russian media specializing in Russia-bashing have been unconscionably irresponsible.
The commentariat simply refuses to think or is unable to think; it appears only to wants to profit off of fear and old prejudices from the threatening idea called Russia.
Making a case against the commentariat is very easy applying some logic and knowing some facts is all that is needed. What follows is a deconstruction of the case against Putin s authoritarianism.
1. Restricting independent media. Media is very alive and well in Russia. Print media is expanding at a healthy pace. Everyday one can easily read articles that severely criticize Putin and the Kremlin. The diversity of political opinions found in Russian print media cannot be compared the United States, for example. Russia media includes far more differing opinions. Many of the popular print news outlets remain in the hands of oligarchs (two of whom Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky live in exile.) They use their considerable wealth to influence Russia s domestic political scene (they also agitate against Putin in foreign media). If Putin is such an authoritarian, why doesn't he simply shut down these news outlets?
Electronic media is different. Television is, for the most part, either controlled or heavily influenced by the Kremlin. However, control or influence of television is not the product of an authoritarian mindset. Rather, state influence has been the response to individuals who owned television networks for personal and political ambitions the oligarchs again. The Kremlin would have been guilty of irresponsibility if it had allowed the super wealth to use airwaves to promote personal agendas (as they did during the presidency of Boris Yeltsin).
What of the charge that the Kremlin has shut down political debate on television? This simply is not true. What is true is that there are fewer political talk shows that focus on media specific personalities. Political figures continue to appear on political talk shows and continue to criticize Putin and his government. The Kremlin is also implementing some very controversial social reforms; television programs that used to pump their ratings through crude political debate only increased social tensions. The fact the Kremlin is mindful of uncontrolled, and at times grossly irresponsible, political debate on television certainly does not make it libertarian but at the same time it does not make it authoritarian.
Lastly, the commentariat is simply unwilling to ask itself a very simple question: Are Russian television audiences informed enough to made rational decisions about their lives and the world around them? Anyone who has watched Russian television programming would find the answer to this question as self-evident.
2. Pressuring opposition parties. Russia s political opposition is in disarray, but this is not the Kremlin s fault. The commentariat can't bring itself to admit that most Russian voters have little interest in the policy platforms of liberal-conservative Yabloko or Union of Right Forces (SPS). This applies to the Communist as well. The commentariat can't admit that Russian political culture traditionally supports the state interests over society. United Russia, as boring as it is, does represent the state in the eyes of the electorate (for now). The commentariat will never admit that the more it criticizes Putin and the Kremlin, the greater chance that more Russian voters will join the ranks of nationalist Rodina (Motherland).
The woes of Russia's opposition are completely self-inflicted. The fact that the Kremlin has taken advantage of this should not be surprising. Politic is about attaining and using power this game is played out in every Western democracy, why the Kremlin is not allowed to play the same game is truly mystifying. The Kremlin presented a platform to Russian voters, through its vehicles United Russia and Rodina, and the Liberal Democrat Party. Platforms supporting economic growth, down with oligarchy and an independent Russian foreign policy have a strong appeal among voters.
The opposition, on the other hand, offers little to the average Russian. In fact, the opposition simply represents failure. Yabloko and SPS continue to represent the failures of Russia s economic and political transformation since 1991. Their performance during the 2003 parliamentary elections was an embarrassment de facto supporting oligarchic capitalism that destroyed any sense of normality for the average Russian was political suicide. That death wish continues with the recent Moscow conference denouncing Putin as a dictator still the most popular political figure in Russia. If the platform of the opposition is simply anti-Putin, then liberalism in Russia is doomed for another generation. However, such a prognosis could quite possibly be too optimistic. Russian liberals have much more in common with Putin and his agenda than with the Communists or Rodina. The continuation of their anti-Putin agenda only promotes that Putin s successor will be far less liberal t han Putin.
The Communists are hardly worth commenting on. They have missed their historical moment to transform the party into a European-style democratic party like their former Eastern European Communist counterparts. That important niche is still up for grabs in Russia, with forces close to Kremlin most likely to fill that void.
Why Putin is called authoritarian when the opposition can't get its own house in order is beyond comprehension.
3. Reigning in regional governors. There had never been much interest in Russia s governors on the part of the commentariat but that has changed. Putin's decision to appoint governors instead of through direct election is an issue the commentariat really likes to harp on. Putin's announcement of this new initiative on the back of the Beslan tragedy was a public relations disaster. Appointing governors in the name of national security smacked of opportunism. The fact is that rumors of such a move had been anticipated a year ago. Appointment of governors is part of Putin's vertical power agenda to strengthen Russian sovereignty and against internal (oligarchs and corruption) and foreign (governors making foreign policy) threats having little to do with terrorism.
Putin, quite rightly, will also not allow for a moment any regional governor the opportunity to negotiate with a border country concerning issues related to Russia s sovereignty.
It is laughable to call Putin's system is authoritarian when he has to virtually put a gun to the head of each of the largely useless 1.2 million state bureaucrats to get anything done. The commentariat rarely reflects upon the fact that Putin has very few people he can really count on. It is a myth that the Kremlin has its eyes everywhere and controlling everything. Actually Putin controls very little. He wants to change that.
4. Cracking down on businesses and the oligarchs. This is another favorite issue of the commentariat. Calling jailed former CEO of Yukos Mikhail Khodorkovsky a political prisoner is an atrocity. If Putin had not challenged Khordorkovsky's economic ambitions (not political ambitions), he would have lost governing control of Russia. Khodorkovsky is quoted as saying that The best business in Russia is politics. Well, he is getting what he deserves for his belief that politics is a commodity for purchase for those who can afford to pay the highest price. No single person, or group of fabulously wealthy individuals, has the right to determine Russia economic future. Putin has actually been very responsible in addressing the privatization of the state by the oligarchs.
At the same time, it cannot be said that Western companies have never felt the heavy hand of the state. The US government at the turn of the 20th century focused much of its administrative energy against business empires that could over-shadow government rule. With that historical precedent in mind, Putin s attack on oligarchy has been logical and correct. Not a single oligarch will again attempt to pursue business policies without the state s blessing.
The good news is that the Kremlin has been forced to address to negotiate with the business community as equals in pursuit of a common goal. Finally, both have found themselves on the same page promoting economic growth. This is a very positive sign - and not a sign coming from an authoritarian Kremlin. The Kremlin has been given the choice of collecting back taxes at the expense of future economic growth or billions of dollars now instead of collecting billions of dollars in the near future. It is a not an easy decision to make. But, in the end the latter opinion will be made over the former. At the end of the day, a rational economic decision will prevail.
If Russia is to become a modern market economy and a representative democracy, economic oligarch must be tightly controlled, if not destroyed. Destroying market oligarchism is profoundly modern, democratic, and economically sound having nothing to do with authoritianism.
5. Aggressive foreign policy. Putin s Russia is profoundly defensive in terms of foreign policy. However, the commentariat claims otherwise. Russia s foreign policy has been reported on as ranging from tragic, comic, and even burlesque. Putin is not hoping to export authoritianism. The fact of matter is that Russia's foreign policy is extremely pragmatic, with the exception of a number of high profile blunders (akin to the US war in Iraq states make mistakes sometimes). Russia's foreign policy is actually quite simple: You like me - then I like you.
Then there is, of course, the meddling in Ukraine's presidential election. Indeed, there was lots of outside meddling there. Of course the commentariat focuses on the Kremlin's meddling, which should be expected. Russia's aim in Ukraine was not to subvert democracy or export authoritarianism. More than anything else, the Kremlin hoped that a Russia-friendly candidate would be elected. The Kremlin miscalculated most likely because it mistakenly believed in Ukraine's Crook Number 1 Leonid Kuchma.
The commentariat often claims the siloviki determine all state policy, particularly economic policy. There is scant evidence of this. The Kremlin's leading liberals (Alexei Kudrin and German Gref) remain in powerful policy roles (though it is questionable if all their policy opinions are acted upon certainly not in the energy sectors but then again the energy sectors have been an important political imperative for the Kremlin).
Vladimir Putin is no angel. Putin is not a democrat. Putin is a reformer. He is also committed to Russia s national interests. Putin s policy approach is to create a modern economy in which the majority of Russia s citizens can participate. Putin has broken the back of economic oligarchy, standing up to enormous international criticism over the Yukos affair. That same criticism has been well funded by Yukos shareholders. Putin is determined that Russia should have it own independent foreign policy. Putin also makes mistakes, like any leader. But most world leaders don t have the daunting tasks Putin faces.
Under Gorbachev and Yeltsin, Russia danced like a caged bear for vodka shots for the West. Putin prefers beer and doesn t dance for anyone. I suppose the commentariat deems Putin an authoritarian because he does not dance.