Kerns: From Russia, with love



Bryan Kerns

He’s a political Khrushchev with the economics of Margaret Thatcher.

Maybe he’s a benevolent authoritarian Mussolini mixed with plutocrat Silvio Berlusconi.

However you put it, this is certain: Machiavelli has nothing on Vladimir Putin, a former KGB chief turned Russian president.

He really stepped up his impression of “The Prince” when he decided that legitimate democracy was not an option for Russia and went about duping George Bush into believing he was committed to establishing a Russia in line with American capitalist democracy.

Capitalism in Russia? Yes, according to former Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan, it’s there.

“The Russian economy is today best described as a market economy backed by a still imperfect rule of law,” Greenspan said.

Greenspan also mentioned that Russia’s major corporations are controlled either by the state or Putin allies.

Juxtapose this with Boris Yeltsin’s mess, and, according to Greenspan, the Russian people are happy to have relative financial stability – seemingly provided even though upstart tycoons have sapped up much of the country’s wealth.

Remember, too, that the financial crisis of 1998 ruined the Russian economy and many people’s personal savings.

Now what about democracy in Russia? Not so much. During the 1998 economic crisis, Britain’s House of Commons Library issued a paper that opened with the lines, “Until the early 20th century, Russians had very little experience of parliamentary institutions, having lived under a more or less autocratic monarchy for most of their history.”

The first time Russia experienced a democracy resembling something with which the Western world is familiar was in 1993. After Yeltsin’s experimentation, 14 years later, Putin has engineered a retreat into authoritarianism milder than many Russians have known in their lives under the Soviet Union, but definitely a familiar historical feeling for Russia dating back centuries.

A recent editorial in The New York Times called on the United States, Europe and Japan to step up and chastise Putin for “emasculat[ing] the democratic institutions that evolved in the 1990s.”

That same editorial also criticized Bush for bungling Russian relations and conceded that “no one expected a smooth trajectory from the seven decades of Soviet dictatorship to Jeffersonian democracy.”

The Times got it right but also got it wrong.

Bush bungled relations by jumping into bed with Putin after Bush said of their initial encounter in 2001, “I was able to get a sense of his soul, a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country.”

This essentially endorsed anything Putin did moving forward by giving him a personal level of credibility.

Therefore, when Putin turned in an ideologically troubling direction, Bush had trouble backing out of his statements because it involved admitting that he had been so easily deceived by Putin.

Admitting mistakes is not Bush’s strength; instead, he demanded Putin reverse his course. Putin’s response: he laughed in his face because he fooled Bush once; why couldn’t he get him twice?

The Times talked about seven decades of Soviet dictatorship, forgetting about centuries of a restrictive monarchy. The cultural Russia has been deeply affected by that history. In many ways, it has been defined by it.

In the same book, Greenspan also wrote, “A poll in 2006 reported that almost half of the Russian people value material well-being over freedom and human rights: democracy and freedom of speech are not high priorities.”

They haven’t had them for 800 years or more, so why bother starting now? The Russian mindset remains steadfastly elusive to Westerners, even after all these years.

That material well-being seems to be taking root in a relative sense. Russia’s GDP grew by 6.7 percent in 2006, the United States’s by 3.2 percent and the European Union’s by 3.1 percent, but Russia’s GDP still lags far behind.

Russia is a paradox. It’s a politically authoritarian state making economic strives. The rights Americans have don’t seem to interest Russians.

Is any of this ideal? Not really.

However, Russia is in an intermediate stage. Further advancement toward democracy will come only through the will of the people.

Democracy cannot be imposed on a population; it only effectively establishes itself when the people bring it about like this country did in 1776 and India did in 1950.

Putin’s authoritarian leanings are troubling, especially as he dances with Iran on nuclear power and other issues. Despite this, the Russian people don’t seem to mind.

Ideological rhetoric from the United States will not bring about change. International pressure won’t either – Bush ruined that opportunity.

What will? The answers to these and many other questions elude us. The smart money says they’d like to keep it that way.

Machiavelli and Putin would have been good friends.

Only the Russian people can eliminate that historical analogy and create the change that the ideological West wants to see.


Bryan Kerns is a freshman from Drexel Hill, Pa. He can be reached at [email protected].