Thursday, September 6, 2007

Gorbachev... Yeltsin... Putin

The three Russian leaders were destined to leave a lasting mark on the history of Russia, each his own way. Mikhail Gorbachev was to let the gin out of the bottle and make a courageous U-turn for Russia towards political and economic reform. When he came to power, the Soviet Union was in deep trouble, economically, sociologically and internationally. An incorrigible idealist and an admirer of the West, Gorbachev committed to reform. While his heart was in the right place, the course he took was not rational. You cannot destroy and build a new house overnight. His policies therefore were simply suicidal for his political life and for the country. The 'shock therapy,' the uncontrollable and unattended privatization were going to be a Tsunami for the Soviet way of life. A comparison of his policies with those of the gradualist Deng Xiaoping (1904-1997) in China reveals how systematically wrong was Gorbachev. China was not in a better shape after the insanity of Mao Zedong, when Deng Xiaoping took over. Today China's economic boom is a product of the clever policies of this man. (For more on this read China expert, Richard Baum's "Burying Mao.")

Therefore, Gorbachev spelled the seeds of disaster for Russia, while he must be given serious credit for commitment to bring needed reform to the USSR and the end of the Cold War. Yeltsin was even more incompetent. While he was also an idealist like Gorbachev, he had no clear vision of how to forge the reforms in Russia. During his time, Russia went into a deeper depression, economically, politically and sociologically. He gave free reign to the oligarchs and oil magnets, who plundered the country's natural resources and pocketed the money without paying to the treasury. The so-called "new Russians" acting as businessmen were allowed to commit the worst financial crimes with impunity. The complete absence of social services and unregulated free markets created an abyss, a huge gap between the rich and the poor, unseen of in the former Soviet Union. The poverty in Russia during Yeltsin can be compared only to that of during the Tsars. Organized crime was infiltrating all segments of the government and bribery, worse than it was during the Soviet Union was commonplace. I know this from firsthand experience because I lived in Russia during this period.

While Yeltsin should not be held responsible for all these problems, his incompetent presidency was a scourge for Russia. His health and alcoholism contributed to it. Idealism of Gorbachev and Yeltsin was not paying the dividends because it was not rational. Bill Clinton also was an idealist, but he was very rational and therefore, successful. Of course, Bill Clinton did not inherit a post-Communist country, to give some break to Yeltsin.

Russia was sinking like a big bag of stones thrown into the river when Putin took over. In contrast with the irresponsible idealism of Gorbachev and Yeltsin, this was a realist and pragmatist. Beginning from his serious demeanor and posture and ending with his policies, finally this was a man that rolled up his sleeves and went to work. His unquestionable popularity in Russia during his entire presidency associate his figure with that of Peter the Great (1672-1725)-- not a bad accomplishment, while of course, Peter the Great was a benevolent despot, similar to Napoleon.

He began with an anti-corruption campaign-- his biggest contribution to the country. Watching Russian TV, I am amazed with the number of prosecutions commenced for bribery on a daily basis. Bribery at all levels of government bureacracy was the biggest plague in the entire history of the Soviet Union. Putin's commitment to fight it is very courageous, because behind this corruption is the Russian mafia. Second, he went immediately after people like Berezovsky and Khadorkovsky. His goal was not to exterminate the big business. He understood Russia's strategic interests in oil. But he forced them to pay the taxes that they had ignored to pay for a decade. The 'stick' was nationalization of industries. Putin did that, to the great dismay of capitalists in the West and was attacked as anti-democratic. Perhaps, people will remember Roosevelt's steps taken to take the country out of the Great Depression. Putin had no choice.

Internationally, just like Peter the Great, Putin sought European integration. While Yeltsin also should be given credit for this, Putin continued these efforts strongly than ever. He played a major role in abolishing the death penalty. Today Russia does not impose the death penalty even for terrorists. Russia surrendered to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights, which now is flooded by cases from Russia. In the aftermath of the 9-11 Putin offered his genuine help to the US to combat terrorism, unaccepted by the over-confidence of the Bush administration, who chose unilateralism instead. The war in Iraq undermined the relationship between Russia and the US, because Russia's contracts in Iraq dissolved as a result.

The US plans for the Missile Defense Shield and decision to place strategic nuclear rockets in Eastern Europe further challenged Russia as a world power. Putin who set out to take his country out of the psychological depression of the 90s, has taken steps to countermand the US expansion and superiority in the world. His partnership with China through the development of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization has many realpolitik goals.

Russia prior to Putin reminded of the Germany in post-World War I. It felt humiliated. Nationalism bordering to Nazism was flourishing. People like Vladimyr Zhirinovsky were yelling the wipe out of Jews and of all non-Russians (very similar to Ahmadinejad of Iran). While nationalism is still very prominent in Russia, Putin was able to bring stability to the country by his calm and rational behavior as a politician. Moreover, his intelligence level is much higher than that of any Soviet leader. It should be noted that most Soviet leaders were never to the liking of the people. Putin was the first in many decades to win the hearts and minds of people.

There were many downsides to the institution of stability. It came at the expense of the democracy we portray in the West. Freedom to speak your mind and uncensored criticism are still not accepted well in Russia. The Russian mafia is still strong, while is under control. Chechnya, while stabilized during Putin, still is breaking the record of human rights violations. There is still much work to be done to develop the technology, industries and social services. Also the strong leadership of Putin has created some aura of the cult of personality, very similar to Maoism or Stalinism. But Putin's figure is much akin to Peter the Great in the minds of people, not ever to Stalin-- a good sign.

Putin was able to repair the fallen image of Russia, which is a double edged sword. On one hand, it recreates the balance of powers, absent from the world arena in these couple of decades. We saw how many troubles we have had because of the unipolarism. Islamic fundamentalism was an outspring of that. On the other hand, if Russia asserts itself as a world power like it used to, we will probably be very close to the brink of another Cold War. Competition between superpowers with nuclear weapons is a Hobbesian tragedy...

With all his shortcomings and failures, Putin stopped the sinking of Russia and did many positive things for his country, hence his popularity. The opposite is true of Bush, who in fact caused the sinking of the US... Very sad, given the differences between a post-Communist struggling country inherited by Putin and a strong functioning democracy with an excellent economy inherited by Bush...

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