Flash back to 1987. Baby Jessica. Margaret Thatcher. Black Monday. Robert Bork and Gary Hart. Bruce Willis.
If, in 1987, I had told you that in twenty years, in addition to Bruce Willis churning out Die Hard 8: the Search for More Money, 2007 would see the democratically elected President of Russia (not the Soviet Union) voluntarily and peacefully leaving power in favor of the next democratically elected President of Russia, what would you say? What would you say if in 2007 the press in Russia, while still beholden to the government, was freer than it had been at any time before 1987? What would you say about a Russian economy that, while still heavily directed by the state, had cast off communism and was largely based on a free market?
You’d take that, right? So would I. Perspective is a funny thing though. Let twenty years pass and the same things that seemed like such positive steps at the time are not greeted as such by everyone. Further examination is called for.
Man of the Year
The Politburglar has been putting off writing a post about Vladimir Putin for the last few weeks as I’ve been finishing some other work. With Time naming him their Man of the Year however, it seems as if I should put some thoughts down on paper.
I actually think that Putin as the Man of the Year is a very good choice by Time. Unfortunately, that’s pretty much the only good thing that I can say about Time or the article. Its unfortunate. Time is probably one of the most respected magazines produced in this country and read by mainstream America. Its mostly worthless drivel though.
A western magazine gets to spend a rare 3.5 hours interviewing the “Man of the Year” and the only thing I learned from the main article was what its like driving to his dacha in the Moscow suburbs. Seriously? Three and a half hours with Putin and you gives us half a page on your ride through the streets of Moscow? Three and a half hours with Putin and you’d rather tell a few, admittedly funny, Putin jokes? On your website you then supplement the article with an excerpt of your interview that is so shallow that I expected the author to ask Pooty Poot what he thinks of Britney Spears’ sister’s pregnancy. Seriously? Its an embarrassment (FWIW, this article accompanies the Putin piece and its actually pretty good).
I’ve always had an interest in Russia. My heritage is mutt, but to the extent that there is any dominate side its Russian. Belorussian actually. So, over the years I’ve taken a few Russian history classes. The Cold War has always fascinated me. And of course, so have the political upheavals in Russia over the last two decades.
First, a few facts about current day Russia:
Population: 141 million (U.S.: 301 million)
0-14 years: 14.6% (U.S. 20.2)
15-64 years: 71.1% (U.S. 67.2)
65 years and over: 14.4% (U.S. 12.6)
Median age: 38.2 years (U.S. 36.6)
Population growth rate: -0.484% (U.S. 0.894)
Birth rate: 10.92 births/1,000 population (U.S. 14.16)
Death rate: 16.04 deaths/1,000 population (U.S. 8.26)
GDP (ppp): $1.746 trillion (U.S. $13.06 trillion)
(In case you’re not seeing what I’m seeing, these numbers mean that the average Russian is poor, old, getting older faster than the average American and is being replaced with a new generation that is about seventy percent the size. It is in fact a culture that is dying at the rate of 1% every two years.)
Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin became acting President on December 31, 1999, succeeding Boris Yeltsin. He was officially elected President in 2000. Putin was re-elected easily in 2004. The Russian constitution imposes consecutive term limits that prevent Putin from running for re-election in 2008. He has repeatedly said that he will not run in the 2008 election and that he will not change the constitution. People in his party have tried to change the constitution in order to allow him to remain as President. No matter what he says or does, the U.S. press is going to attribute alterior motives to anything that Putin does.
It didn’t take a full blown Russia watcher to know that Putin planned to stick around in some form or another after his second term expired. The question has always been the position that he would take within or outside of the government and whether he would respect the constitution. At the beginning of this October Putin announced he would run as first on the list for United Russia and might consider becoming Prime Minister of Russia.
Over the last month Putin’s intentions have become much clearer. On December 2, 2007 Putin’s party, United Russia, prevailed in parliamentary elections with some seventy percent of a less than fair vote. On December 10 Putin backed his deputy prime-minister and chairman of gas behemoth Gazprom Dmitry Medvedev as United Russia’s candidate for the presidential election. Medvedev was officially nominated as United Russia’s Presidential candidate on December 17 and Putin agreed to become Prime Minister if Medvedev wins the election.
With Putin’s backing, Medvedev is a strong favorite to win the Presidential election in March. This will likely lead to a power share arrangement with Medvedev as a weak President and Putin as a very strong Prime Minister. Under Putin, the Russian Prime Minister post is a job without a lot of power. During a Medvedev presidency, it is anticipated that there will be a shift in power away from the presidency in favor of the prime minister.
Russia Under Putin
Fer shizzle, many troubling things have occurred in the last few years under Putin’s watch:
- The Russian government and the corporations controlled by the government have come to be dominated by the siloviki, essentially the remnants of the KGB.
- Elections for regional governors have been done away with and they are now appointed by Moscow.
- The national print, radio and television media has essentially fallen under control of the Kremlin.
- Gary Kasparov is the just most prominent of many advocates of democracy that have been harassed and arrested.
- Alexander Litvinenko, a former spy and critic of the government was poisoned in Britain with radiation, allegedly by a man that the Kremlin is protecting from extradition.
- Yukos, a large Russian oil company was forced into bankruptcy and was more or less appropriated by the government at a major discount. The man who ran Yukos at the time, Russian billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was imprisoned for tax evasion.
From the perspective of the ordinary Russian however, many many good things have occurred during Putin’s years in office. Under Boris Yeltsin in the 1990’s Russia was emasculated. It went from a Superpower to a basket case in the historical equivalent of the blink of an eye. Now, with the help of rising commodity prices, the country is getting its feet back underneath it. Crime is down. The economy is growing at a healthy pace. Putin has given Russia the one thing that it needs the most, stability. A very strong case can be made that the last thing Russia needs right now is a power struggle.
George Washington or Deng Xiaoping
In the Politburglar’s opinion, the single greatest contribution that any man has ever made to democratic government is George Washington, commander of the Continental Army and the first President, voluntarily and without strings walking away from power after two terms as President. No political thought, writing or action by any other man has done as much to advance democracy as Washington did by not holding on to power.
Washington had a significant advantage that Putin does not have however. He knew that he was turning a young democracy over to the likes of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Men of similar political persuasion and giants of political thought. One can be fairly certain that the jokes being told by Russians about Putin and Medvedev weren’t being told by Americans in 1797. Jokes like “Washington goes to a restaurant with Jefferson and orders a steak. The waiter asks, “And what about the vegetable?” Washington answers, “The vegetable will have steak too” just don’t have the same ring to them.
In the end, perhaps a better model for Russia is that of China since Deng Xiaoping first transfered power. I don’t know if that’s what will happen, but what if in 1987 I had asked you if you would like to see the democratically elected President of Russia hand nominal power off to a designated successor (who is not one of the siloviki I might add) while staying for a number of years in a now more powerful Prime Minister role, while contributing to Russian stability, the growth of the Russian economy and establishing a precedent uniquely Russian with respect to the transfer and sharing of power? Is that something I might interest you in?