10 10 2015

Putin – the man we love to hate

Vladimir Putin has in the West become the symbol of all that we don't like. He is aggressive, authoritarian, brutal and untrustworthy, and he has ice-cold blue eyes, showing no feelings. The perfect villain for a James Bond movie. Unfortunately, he is also quite intelligent, competent and well formulated, and contrary to his ailing predecessors he has good health and is even sporty. Most Russians tend to think he is a better president than the ones they had before him. But how we are longing back to the days of our good old, corrupt, incompetent and drunk Boris Yeltsin.

Why do we hate the man so much? There are no ideological reasons any more, as during the times of the Soviet Union. Vladimir's Russia is a 100 % capitalist country and he is a declared Catholic (orthodox though) and pro-capitalist. Russia is almost as unequal a society as the US, so no reason to fear West-European egalitarianism. He wants foreign companies to come and invest in the country, so the international capital should embrace him (and they tend to do).

Then, what is wrong with the man? Well, the most often cited criticism of him is that he has said that “..the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century.” How can he say that? The peoples of the Soviet Union were liberated from the communist dictatorship, and that is described as a “disaster” (or even “catastrophe” depending on the translators). So he must be a communist in disguise, or what?

Not really. Vladimir himself gives an answer in the same speech. After deploring that “Tens of millions of our co-citizens and compatriots found themselves outside Russian territory” he continues: “Individual savings were depreciated, and old ideals destroyed. Many institutions were disbanded or reformed carelessly. Terrorist intervention and the Khasavyurt capitulation that followed damaged the country's integrity. Oligarchic groups – possessing absolute control over information channels – served exclusively their own corporate interests. Mass poverty began to be seen as the norm. And all this was happening against the backdrop of a dramatic economic downturn, unstable finances, and the paralysis of the social sphere.”

Putin is not the only one who thinks that the break-up of the Soviet Union was a catastrophe for Russia and many other parts of the Union. To make a long history short: the national economy was almost halved in a question of two years, leaving tens of millions in abject poverty, a small clique of people took advantage of the whole-sale privatisations that were part of the “shock-therapy” turning up suddenly as the new “oligarchs”, the public institutions collapsed, including health care, science, education and security, pensions were wiped out by inflation, resulting in hundreds of thousands, perhaps more than a million premature deaths – it is even possible that the premature deaths surpassed the number who died in Stalin's prison camps. If this does not merit to be called a disaster, it is difficult to see what does.

Another point we have against him is the brutal (second) war (1999-2008) in Chechnya, a territory annexed by Tsar-Russia in 1870 after a long resistance-war by the Chechen, and which had declared its independence from Russia following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The destruction of the Chechen capital, Grozny, was particularly ruthless, but “efficient” – probably the reason the same ruthless tactics were used by the US to subdue the rebellion in Fallujah in Iraq in 2004.

Then there is of course the Ukrainian crisis and the annexation of Crimea. Our attitude to the breaking up of the ex-socialist countries after 1990 is, however, all but coherent. We hailed and supported the breaking up Yugoslavia and the creation of 6 statelets, we were unhappy about the breaking up of Czechoslovakia, and we furiously support the unity of the non-functioning Bosnian statelet. We supported the secession of Chechnya from Russia, but we adamantly reject the secession of Eastern Ukraine. You know, we are quite good at distinguishing good secessionists from bad (or false) ones. It is Vladimir that has it all wrong.

My innocent suspicion is that the reason we hate Vladimir, is not because he is ruthless and authoritarian. Saudi Arabia is presently carrying out a ruthless military campaign in neighbouring Yemen, and we don't even notice - much less do we care. The authoritarian Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the different Arab sultanates are our appreciated allies – Vladimir may be an authoritarian, but at least he is elected. Try to suggest that to King Salman. The problem with Vladimir is that he thinks Russia has interests that are not necessarily identical to ours, and stands up for them. And then of course that Russia has considerable military means - even if they are vastly inferior to ours (remember, Russia's military budget is considerably smaller than that of France and UK together, and the US military budget is eight times bigger than Russia's).

Comparisons to the cold war between NATO and the Soviet Union are tempting. The “containment” of Russia with US military bases all around its borders are akin to the containment of the Soviet Union. But I think it is a wrong analogy. We are rather in a pre-First World War scenario, that is before the Russian Revolution, where different imperial, capitalist powers had divided the world and went to war for – real or perceived – geopolitical reasons. There were no ideological divisions, only power and wealth. The cry for war was peppered with ethnic, religious and racists arguments to rally the nation states against each other.

We tend to like people who submit themselves and dislike people who stand up and defend their own interests. That is why we don't like the Chinese, the Russians, the Serbs and so on. And why we loved people as Mijail Gorbachov and Boris Yeltsin. Poor Mijail Gorbachov, who we in the West are hailing for facilitating the demise of the Soviet Union, has fallen into disfavour lately, as he has backed the Russian Government in the Ukranian conflict. He has even lauded Vladimir Putin for avoiding the disintegration of the Russia Federation – how dares he? We thought he was our friend.

The socialists had the utopian idea before World War I that the peoples of the world would be able to stop their leaders from waging wars, and that they could stand together and cooperate with each other, peacefully. Unfortunately, it did not work. The same socialist parties voted for the war in each country, a war of the good ones against the bad ones, of course.

Unfortunately, we have to learn to understand that different countries have different interests, perceived or real, and that these different interests should be reconciled in international negotiations, as far as possible avoiding the use of force – this was the very basis for the creation of the UN. All nations should stand up and defend their own interests, but they should be willing to negotiate and find mutually acceptable solutions.

Unilateralism is a dead-end – and so is the uni-polar world. So we will have to get to terms with the Vladimirs of this world, like it or not.

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Thorbjorn Waagstein

Thorbjørn Waagstein, Economist, PhD, since 1999 working as international Development Consultant in Latin America, Africa and Asia.

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