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Why The West Is Wrong About Putin

[Nicholas] Kristof is selling to the liberals what the neocons have been retailing to the American right-wing: the story that Russia is rising, reverting to Stalinism (or “progressing” to fascism). The next step will be to raise a hue and cry over Russian “rearmament” as we encircle the Kremlin from the Baltic Sea to the Caspian, fomenting “democratic” revolutions on the periphery while moving inexorably toward the center. A renewed arms race and the return of the cold war – all launched under the rubric of exporting “democracy” and “free markets.” This new Russophobia has something for everyone.

If Russia is not headed for fascism, then the neocon-progressive alliance of Russia-haters is determined to push them into it – or, at least, to raise such a ruckus over the alleged rise of Russian national socialism that the American public will fall for it long enough to get a new war of civilizations going.

The great danger in Russia – and for the Russian people – is that free-market ideology has been completely discredited, intellectually and politically, on account of the rigged “privatization” that led to the wholesale looting of the economy. Yet Putin must marketize, or else lose the economic advantage of having the largest oil company in the world on Russian soil.~ Justin Raimondo

Mr. Putin’s critics have been warning of neo-Stalinism ever since he took office, even though the possibility of such a development is both miniscule and entirely unimportant to Mr. Putin. Mr. Putin is a Russian nationalist and patriot, who perceived the privatisation rape of Russia as a serious symptom of Russia’s precipitous economic and political decline in the 1990s, and who regarded the increasing decentralisation of power as a threat to the unity and integrity of the Russian Federation. There has never been a state that extended across so much territory and yet was fundamentally a unitary nation-state. Pretensions of autonomous regions and limited federalism aside, Russia has been and will continue to be a centralised, unitary state, and the constitution of such a state is typically authoritarian.

Mr. Putin’s success, for which Western critics supposedly interested in democracy should be thanking him, has been to combine the necessary authoritarianism for such a peculiar territorial and political situation with legitimate elections and reasonably representative government. What infuriates his critics more than anything else is his sheer popularity and, thus, the total repudiation of the dreadful “reform” on offer from Russian liberals and their oligarchic backers: liberal democrats hate no people so much as those who refuse to embrace the liberal democratic creed, as all good people are supposed to do.

Unlike the real admirer of Stalin, Mikhail Saakashvili, dictator, er, president of Georgia, Mr. Putin has not replaced the national flag with that of his own party, nor did he begin his rise to presidential power beneath a statue of Stalin himself. If Mr. Putin is nostalgic for the past, it is the past where Russia was one of the preeminent world powers. Whether or not this is the best goal or not is for Russians to decide–what is certain is that it is perfectly normal and no clear threat to the United States or Europe. Vladimir Putin undoubtedly has flaws, but whatever his penchant for secrecy and cult of personality it is clear that Mr. Bush and his supporters indulge in these things even more. It is the Bush administration’s members and admirers who espouse mad doctrines of world revolution, not the present resident of the Kremlin. Before we cast accusations of Stalinism or dictatorship at anyone, we might look to our allies and our own country first.

Putin’s government has not been by any means without mistakes. But the weaknesses and failures of his government are indicative of just how weak Moscow’s reach has become, and indeed how weak in some sense all authoritarian systems must be. The acquisition of the main component of the oil company Yukos by the state oil company Rosneft through a none-too-subtle dummy corporation is not itself so troubling as the clumsy and confusing signals it sends to investors about Moscow’s intentions towards other privatised industry. Whatever those intentions, it is important that a clear and consistent message be sent: investors can adjust to nationalised industry, however deficient such an economic model may be, but they cannot abide a series of contradictory actions.

What few seem to remember is that Mr. Putin’s tenure has been, through generally reasonable policies and favourable oil markets, a period of economic growth for Russia and has coincided with the creation of a much more normal business climate. There is nothing in his public statements to suggest a commitment to socialist economics or permanent dictatorial aspirations. At the moment, Mr. Putin is term-limited by the Russian constitution and will leave office after his second term as president has ended. If Mr. Putin’s supporters in the Duma amend the constitution to allow a third term, the prospect of a long Putin rule becomes possible, but everything Mr. Putin has said indicates he does not intend to pursue that route. Hysterical Western ravings about new Stalins or Hitlers, or attempts to cast Mr. Putin as the creator of a “new Soviet empire,” as the ridiculous Roger Hedgecock said only today, are as worthless as they are irrational. They threaten to poison our government against Moscow still further and sour relations with Russia at a time when Russian aid in fighting Islamism is extremely important.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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