Russia’s new Tsar

Vladimir Putin was born in what was then called Leningrad and is now St Petersburg on October 7th, 1952. After graduating in law he became a spook, a KGB officer for 16 years, eventually Lieutenant Colonel, stationed in East Germany until it collapsed in 1989. He then went into St Petersburg politics in 1991, and five years later moved to Moscow to join President Yeltsin.

He became acting President on the last day of the 20th Century and has been President from 2000-2008, Prime Minister from 2008-2012, and President again since 2012. Assuming the interlude with Dmitry Medvedev as President was simply a subterfuge to get around term limits, Putin has been in power for just short of 20 years, and has announced he will not seek a further term when his present one expires in 2024.

In his first two terms he was credited with rescuing Russia from the chaos of the Yeltsin years, enjoying the benefits of a boom in commodity prices, combined with prudent fiscal and economic policies. The purchasing power of Russians went up by 72% during this period, though the world financial crisis and retrenchment has produced more uneven and less prosperous times since. As principally a commodity economy, rather than a modern industrial one, Russia’s economic performance has been tied to world growth. They have benefitted in particular from supplying the raw materials to supply China’s rapid economic expansion.

After the humiliation of their collapse as a world power, most Russians welcomed a President who could reassert their country’s importance and take steps to protect its interests. Putin cultivated the ‘strong man’ image to emphasize his role as a strong leader, appearing in a variety of tough, macho roles, often bare-chested, as he rode bareback, swam in icy waters, tranquilized polar bears and tigers, went scuba diving, drove race cars, and demonstrated his martial arts skills. Many in the West mocked these contrived and staged exploits, but they resonated in Russia.

Although nominally a democracy, Russia curbs its media, arrests and even murders political opponents, and clamps down on opposition parties and demonstrations. It is neither free nor democratic. People have shown in several countries, including China, that many of them will trade political freedoms for economic prosperity. When the economy falters, leaders often turn to whipping up nationalism by confronting ‘opposing’ powers and asserting their country’s might and importance. Putin has done this, asserting its right to control the ‘near abroad,’ and the EU has unwittingly helped him do this by attempting to move its influence close to Russia’s borders. Russia’s interference in and annexation of parts of Georgia and Ukraine is part and parcel of this.

When Russia violates international law, as it has done in using internationally banned agents to murder Alexander Litvinenko in Britain, and to attempt to murder Sergei Skripal and his daughter, this is done at Putin’s instigation and with his approval. The West quite rightly imposes sanctions and expels diplomats. Russia has to be taught that there will be costs to behaving in so reckless and lawless a manner. Whether sanctions should be imposed for its internal policies, suppression of freedom and human rights violations, is a separate issue. The West is certainly entitled to express its disapproval, and to remonstrate with Putin on such issues, but a certain degree of realpolitik has to prevail.

The days when neoconservatives blithely assumed that liberal democracy would work everywhere, regardless of history and traditions, are gone. Many in the West assumed that Arab Spring would usher in peace and liberal values, overlooking the centuries of hostility between different tribes and religious factions. In some countries it might take an authoritarian ruler to keep communities from attacking each other. In some countries a democratic vote might result in the election of a religious zealot intolerant of minorities and hostile to their rights.

In the real world some countries can enjoy internal peace and stability, plus economic advancement, without the civil liberties that accompany those things in the Western democracies. It is a rather sad fact of life that Putin reminds us of.