Monday, December 3, 2007

Czar Putin

This weekend CNN aired a special titled “Czar Putin”, with the tagline “the dark side of Putin’s Russia.” In reality, the report wasn’t quite as negative as the set-up would make you believe, mostly because CNN assigned the job to Christiane Amonpour, who is probably their best reporter on foreign affairs. She gave at least a somewhat balanced picture of political conditions in Russia, including talking to Russians who actually like and support Vladimir Putin and his policies.

The drumbeat of reporting about Russia in our press recently has been overwhelmingly negative. The storyline played out in the press is that Russia is once again our adversary, with Putin a Josef Stalin in training.

This is a symptom of a larger problem: that the West (particularly the United States) can’t figure out what to make of Russia. The problem started with the end of the Cold War. The right-wing in this country elevated Ronald Reagan to mythic status for leading us to victory (maybe this was a natural reaction since it had been awhile since we won a war). But when we defeated Germany and Japan in World War II, the evidence of our victory was clear to see, their armies were smashed; their cities lay in smoldering ruins. Russia at the end of the Cold War however, was still in one piece.

Russia’s economic collapse became a stand-in for our proof of victory. Stories of factory workers going unpaid for months, long queues for food and emergency loans from the IMF showed that we had indeed won a great victory. Boris Yeltsin’s drunken antics and poor health only added to the image.

But then in 2000 Vladimir Putin came to power. He was young, healthy and a crafty politician, all things that Yeltsin was not. He instituted economic reforms that were helped - some say greatly helped - by soaring prices paid for Russia’s abundant oil and natural gas exports. Russia quickly reversed its economic misfortunes – loans were repaid, Moscow and St. Petersburg boomed with new construction and wealth (Moscow is now home to more billionaires than any other city in the world). The signs of our victory quickly disappeared.

With his country’s economic turnaround, Putin became emboldened. He wanted to be treated as an equal in terms of world affairs. In practical terms this has meant everything from opposing the expansion of NATO and the EU into the former Soviet sphere, to opposing the war in Iraq and a host of other policy decisions; all aggressive steps it is hard to imagine Boris Yeltsin daring to undertake.

And recently the attitude towards Russia has changed; talk of a “new Cold War” has surfaced. It is true that there have been negative signs coming out of Russia, especially in the lead-in to this weekend’s parliamentary elections, where stories of vote-rigging and voter intimidation were widely reported. But a new Cold War simply isn’t in the cards. The Cold War was about a clash of ideologies Communism versus Democracy. Russia may be becoming more authoritarian, but it is not becoming communist. The worst-case scenario in Russia would be a system of state-managed capitalism (like is present in China), rather than the continuing embrace of western-style free-market capitalism. This is not the clash of ideologies though that fueled the Cold War.

The New Cold War is an inaccurate view of our relationship, just as the defeated foe view we held in the 1990’s was also inaccurate. Given its mineral wealth, strategic importance, and growing presence on the world stage, Russia is a power we will have to deal with. We need a view of their nation that rises above simplistic clichés if we ever hope to have a positive relationship.
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