President Putin and President Bush in September 2003
One week ago Russians went to the polls to vote in national parliamentary elections. The result was hardly in doubt -- the United Russia Party of Russia's President Vladimir Putin swept to victory. Equally predictable was the reaction of most Western media to this largely foreordained result.
We are told that Putin is reviving the Soviet Union and that he has been busy building a cult of personality while crushing all political opposition. More importantly, we are told that Putin is reigniting the Cold War rivalry between Russia and the United States. This is the message that we constantly read on the editorial pages of the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, even as the business sections of each paper continue to report the tremendous growth of the Russian economy since Putin took office in 2000.
Yet if the Kremlin is really hell bent on another Cold War with America, why is the Pentagon still using huge Russian transport planes to haul American war materiel into Iraq and Afghanistan? If the Putin Administration is systematically renationalizing Russian industries, why did the first six months of 2007 see more foreign investment in Russia than during the entire decade of the 1990s?
Coattails - a United Russia campaign poster reads: "Putin's Plan is Tkacheva's Plan"
Clearly there are facts that contradict the conventional wisdom that a resurgent Russian leadership, bolstered by higher world energy prices, has set about restoring the Evil Empire. Nonetheless, there are some troubling -- and legitimate -- questions about Russia's leadership that should be viewed in perspective.
For starters, there is the seemingly larger than life figure of Russia's President, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. Like President Bush, whom many foreigners see as the swaggering personification of everything they dislike about America, "VVP" has become a lighting rod for criticism of his country. Like foreigners observing Bush and America, there is a tendency for non-Russians to pretend that if only Putin were not in charge, if only someone more accommodating to foreign opinion were president, then Russia would suddenly become what we want it to be, and not what it is -- a nation struggling to overcome centuries of Czarist misrule and decades of Soviet tyranny.
We are told that Putin is a dictator, and that as a former KGB officer he has never let go of nostalgia for Russia's Soviet past. However, when President Boris Yeltsin passed away a few months ago, Putin summed up his predecessor's accomplishments by saying, "he gave us freedom." This in spite of the fact that Yeltsin shelled a rebellious Russian Parliament when it tried to impeach him in 1993 and that during his administration oligarchs built their vast fortunes based on looted state assets. Popular discontent over this chaotic era -- which included the total collapse of the Russian ruble and banking system -- led the deeply unpopular Yeltsin to appoint Putin as his successor in 1999. Since then, as President Bush observed at a press conference with Putin in July 2007, Russia has gone from being a debtor nation to having some of the world's largest hard currency reserves and a growing middle class.
For their part, Russia watchers in the West will usually acknowledge these positive changes, but then dismiss them all as the product of higher prices for oil, natural gas, and minerals, all of which Russia exports in abundance. However, Yegor Gaidar, a former economic adviser to Yeltsin and leading member of Russia's liberal opposition, has declared that the Russian economic turnaround began before world energy prices shot up three years ago, after Putin instituted a flat tax and privatized agricultural land across the country. And while Putin may seem like just another resource nationalist for seeking to renegotiate deals the Yeltsin Administration inked with multinational oil companies 10 years ago, it was probably not a coincidence that world commodity prices reached lows not seen since the Great Depression during the 1990s -- at a time when Russia's oligarchs were exporting massive amounts of raw materials at prices well below world market rates.
When the Russian energy monopoly Gazprom stopped subsidizing its former Soviet republics with cheap natural gas in 2006 and 2007, the Russians were accused of trying to manipulate politics in neighboring Ukraine, Georgia and Belarus. Hardly any free market-championing Anglo-American pundit stopped to ask whether these countries were entitled to receive natural gas at rates less than half of what Western Europeans pay. Perhaps this is because Gazprom, unlike Exxon Mobil, is a corporation controlled by the Russian state, and it is unimaginable that an entity so closely connected to the Kremlin could possibly base its decisions on economics, rather than on Machiavellian calculations.
Russians and Americans speaking the common language of business - then Secretary of State Colin Powell speaking to the U.S.-Russia Chamber of Commerce in 2004
Yet whether Washington likes it or not, we are living in a world where state-owned "national champions" -- and trillion dollar sovereign wealth funds -- are exerting an increasing influence over global trade. And this is the real reason why the one-sided, overwhelmingly negative view Americans are receiving of modern Russia could cost us. It was one thing for Congress to engage in bipartisan election-year demagoguery over a bid by a United Arab Emirates-based company to operate several U.S. ports in 2006. It will be quite another thing if Congress drives hundreds of billions in Russian, Arab and Chinese capital out of American financial markets through financial protectionism.
Besides short-sighted moves based on congressional insecurity about our economic model competing with the global appeal of Russian-Chinese state capitalism, there are other potential headaches for U.S. businesses related to politics. Russia, like governments in several other major emerging markets, is planning an enormous infrastructure build out in the next several years. There are no good reasons why American companies should not compete with their Chinese and European counterparts for a share of that business, but they may find themselves the victims of tit-for-tat in a trade dispute. Additionally, if certain congressmen want to argue that allowing Gazprom to ship oil and liquefied natural gas to the U.S. Gulf Coast is terrible, than let them explain how buying the stuff from the Middle East or West Africa would be better for American interests. Delaying Russia's entry into the World Trade Organization, five years after authoritarian and officially communist China was allowed to join the organization, has already hurt U.S. businesses operating in Russia.
To be sure, in recent months Putin and his government have taken a harder line against the West and against the largely divided and ineffective opposition to his party. While Putin has a point that exiled oligarchs who have fled criminal charges in Russia are funding some of these groups, his recent speech suggesting that foreign-funded activists are plotting to overthrow the Russian government sounded silly and paranoid.
Many powerful Russian industrialists have publicly pushed Putin to change the constitution to allow him to stay on for a third consecutive term. Many pro-Kremlin activists have also urged Putin to become a kind of president-for-life as Hugo ChÃ¡vez had hoped to become in Venezuela. But Putin has insisted that he will step down at the end of his second term, even as he has already listed himself as a candidate for a seat in parliament and, likely, a prime minister post. In American eyes, this may seem like a flimsy distinction. But no one called France a dictatorship when Jacques Chirac served several terms, first as a cabinet minister, then as prime minister and finally as president.
Putin at the controls of a jet at the MAKS Air Show
As the American geo-strategist Thomas P.M. Barnett recently observed, Putin may be auditioning to perform a role in Russia similar to that of Lee Kuan Yew, the former prime minister of Singapore. And as several other American pundits have admitted, with a Bush, then a Clinton, then another Bush, and now another Clinton likely to serve as Presidents of the United States, it is getting more difficult for Americans to criticize Putin's appointment of his successor as dynastic.
Certainly there is a danger that United Russia could become the Russian version of the old Mexican PRI, a kind of pseudo-democratic party that becomes deeply entrenched for decades due to patronage, vote rigging and corruption. Russia has never been a liberal democracy, and contrary to what some may suggest, Russian television was not free of oligarch or Kremlin influence during the 1990s either. Far more Russian journalists and businessmen died violently during the Yeltsin years than during Putin's term. But because Yeltsin was seen as an ally in a country just emerging from Soviet dictatorship, he largely received a pass for this, and for the blatant vote buying and media manipulation conducted on his behalf against the opposition Communists in 1996. Therefore, Western governments and nongovernmental organizations lack credibility in Russian eyes when they accuse Putin's United Russia of doing the same thing now.
A Time magazine cover from the late Nineties
Today, many cynical Russians go one step further and ask: Is Western criticism really about democracy, or is it about dislike for Putin's less accommodating and more nationalistic policies? Is this about freedom, or is it about the West losing access to cheap raw materials? Ranking Kazakhstan, which actually does have a president for life, on par with Russia on Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders rankings does not exactly bolster the credibility of Western non-governmental organizations.
Meanwhile, former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, a man widely credited in liberal circles in the West for ending the Cold War, recently described Russia's President as a "responsible leader" in an op-ed for the International Herald Tribune. He added that "Putin has not crossed the line that would turn Russia's system into an authoritarian regime."
The Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a man widely admired by conservatives worldwide for his stand against communism and atheistic materialism, recently told Germany's Der Spiegel magazine that, "Putin inherited a ransacked and bewildered country, with a poor and demoralized people. And he started to do what was possible -- a slow and gradual restoration."
Eight consecutive years of economic growth have left Russia with some growing pains - and a mixed political landscape
Ultimately, the issue is not Putin, nor is it Bush. Both will be leaving office in 2008, though Putin enjoys far more popularity and will likely continue to exert significant influence over his country's affairs. The real question is: What actions will give us a Russia we can do more business with, and shift the world's largest country closer to a Western rather than an authoritarian, Chinese model of development? Many Russian leaders have already decided, based on the phenomenal economic growth of China and other Asian countries in recent years, that American-style liberal democracy is not necessary for a booming economy. So where does that leave us? How should America and Europe proceed to win back some of the leverage and credibility with Russia that we lost in the 1990s?
We could start by recognizing that Russia does not need to be a full-fledged liberal democracy to be a useful ally in the fight against terrorism. In the long term, with the support of America, India, and other world powers, Russia can also help insure that China's rise remains peaceful, based on commerce rather than on territorial acquisition in Russia's Far East. Taking this long view may require abandoning missile defense systems and further military alliances in Russia's back yard. But if the real enemy is the global jihadist movement, what useful purpose does expanding NATO into Ukraine serve?
As the former advisor to President Reagan and conservative commentator Patrick Buchanan has pointed out, this would be the equivalent of Russia inviting Mexico into a mutual defense pact. Just as there are millions of Mexicans and people of Mexican descent in the United States, so Russia has centuries worth of history and blood ties with Ukraine. Denying this reality only sows distrust between Washington and Moscow while fueling disunity in Kiev.
President Ronald Reagan shaking hands with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985. President Reagan contemplated the U.S. and Russia establishing a joint missile defense system, but ironically, many who would claim his ideological mantle reject the idea out of hand
When it comes to defending Europe from a potential missile threat from Iran, America should take up the Russian offer to establish a joint missile defense system in southern Russia, and place early warning radars in Azerbaijan and Iraqi Kurdistan. From a technical perspective, placing ground-based interceptors 2,000 miles away from Iran in Poland and the Czech Republic makes no sense, unless the goal is to please certain ideologues and Eastern European lobbies in Washington.
Lest we forget, on Sept. 11, 2001, the first world leader to telephone President Bush offering America basing and overflight rights to use against the Taliban was none other than Vladimir Putin. The Russian President extended this offer over the vigorous objections of his cabinet and military. Within days, fully armed American bombers were flying over Russian territory to bases in Central Asia, something that would have been unthinkable during the Cold War. In the months that followed, the heady talk of a U.S.-Russia alliance against global terrorism vanished, along with America's post-9/11 bipartisanship -- but it should not be forgotten.
America needs Russian resources, and Russia needs American technology and investment. Throwing out the half century-long aberration of the Cold War, America and Russia have historically been friends, not enemies. Let's keep it that way.
UPDATE: Russia Profile has republished this article here.