Is Putin the new Stalin?
Last week, an optician from my home town, let’s call him ‘Bernard,’ posted a link on Facebook to a radio show I participated in from Moscow. There was nothing unusual about that, but some of the comments below the line were startling.
Particularly from a man I admire in other walks of life, who will be known as ‘Tom’ for the purposes of this op-ed. Tom is as bright as a button, well read, and is a high achiever but his prejudices when it comes to Russia are badly misinformed.
“Russia (is) probably the most corrupt nation on the planet. Putin is in the same league as Stalin. Sorry, I have no time for their leadership. A tiny number of oligarchs have usurped the wealth of a huge country. All are friends of Putin,” Tom wrote on Bernard's page.
My initial reaction was that his statement essentially regurgitated talking points from numerous BBC ‘exposes’ on Putin’s Russia. Which does go to show the influence of the British state broadcaster.
Since I began reporting on Russian affairs, I’ve often been exasperated by the incredible bias of many American and British peers. Indeed, some of the factually challenged, and one-sided, dispatches they frequently deliver wreck my head. For example, when they have Vladimir Putin fathering love children in Switzerland, purchasing vineyards in southern Spain or secretly exulting in the title of the world’s richest person. All delivered without credible - or often even named - sources by newspapers which have accused this network of promoting "conspiracy theories."
In moments of weakness, I sometimes feel I’ve been too harsh on certain individuals. After all, everyone needs to make a living and their copy reflects the expectations of editors back home who usually know little or nothing about Russia, but demand sensationalism. The fact that many newspapers no longer offer monthly retainers to their foreign correspondents, but operate on a “no foal, no fee” basis only increases the pressure on journalists to get published. And, incidentally, most Moscow-based hacks from the Anglo-sphere appear to have no proper training in the trade at all.
In my native Ireland, it’s a bit different. Unlike the BBC in neighboring Britain, for example, the state broadcaster (RTE) still occasionally strives for balance on East Europe and is sometimes open to the Russian perspective on events. For that reason, I was recently invited onto the country’s most popular daytime radio show to discuss the view from here on the Rio Olympics after a controversy regarding an Irish boxer, Michael Conlan, and his opponent, Vladimir Nikitin.
However, it’s not the content of the program, deftly handled by the remarkably neutral Joe Duffy, which discommoded me. Sadly, it’s the subsequent social media reaction. You see, proximity to the United Kingdom, a NATO member, means many Irish people can’t help but consume their media and culture and it appears that the tremendous propaganda from across the sea has permeated into Irish discourse.
It's All About Transparency
My initial reply to Tom was a little angry, a result of my frustration at inaccurate stereotypes when it comes to a country I know very well. At first, I pointed out that Stalin was responsible of the deaths of at least 20 million (the consensus figure) people and that the Georgian dictator established a murderous web of gulags and shunted around entire ethnic groups to sate his paranoia. Sure, some political opponents of Putin have left Russia, apparently to pursue careers on the talk show circuit, but we haven't had mass executions (in fact, unlike in America for instance, the death penalty is outlawed in Russia) and labor camps aren't a feature of his administration. Oddly, these type of things do exist in China, but its leaders are feted in the West.
Meanwhile, Putin’s one external war of his 12 years as President - or two if you count Ukraine as a Russian conflict - has caused far fewer deaths than Barack Obama’s bombing campaigns against seven countries during his eight-year term. For the record, they are Libya, Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq, Pakistan and Somalia. As it happens, Russia’s Syria intervention is legal under international law, whereas most of the American incursions have been illegal. Putin’s domestic war was Chechnya, which he inherited from Boris Yeltsin’s badly botched attempts to quell the restive province.
On the subject of graft, Tom was surely surprised to learn that Russia is not the most corrupt nation on earth, nor close to being labeled as such. According to the Germany-based Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, Russia is actually 49 places below the worst offender, North Korea. Indeed, the country’s rating improved by 17 places last year as a government anti-graft drive appears to be yielding some results.
Money, Money, Money
Tom’s other big concern was the oligarchs. These individuals actually owe their wealth to the botched 1990’s privatizations during Yeltsin’s presidency. Indeed, not only are they certainly not “all friends of Putin,” he’s actually cracked down on plenty of them. Including Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the late Boris Berezovsky, both of whom have been heavily promoted in western media. It is true that a number of oligarchs have survived in Russia but today their political influence is negligible compared to the Yeltsin years, when they pretty much ran the government.
Undeterred, Tom shot back by insisting that Putin was “coming after the Baltic States,”“ruining the Russian economy” and that “whatever faults the West has, it is far more appealing which is obviously why Europe and (the) USA are so attractive to refugees and immigrants. Not too many (are) heading East!”
In the real world, Russia is actually the globe’s second biggest immigration destination after the USA and has accepted far more newcomers than any other European state. This isn’t widely reported abroad because it runs counter to lazy, and erroneous, tales of the “dying bear.” Which are pure hokum anyway, because Russia's birth rate is far healthier than that of many other large European states, including Germany, Italy, Poland and Spain.
Also, when it comes to the Baltics, there is no evidence that Putin has any hostile interest in those rapidly depopulating (Latvia has lost 27% of its people since 1990) countries, which have close to zero natural resources and boast little strategic value, especially considering Moscow already controls nearby Kaliningrad. At the same time, the number one emigration destination for citizens of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, presumably seeking brighter futures, is actually Russia.
This is despite their free access to the European Union whereas they need visas for Russia, which can be difficult to obtain.
Furthermore, when it comes to the Russian economy, despite the current crisis, the average, official, monthly salary today (in dollar terms) is $567, compared to a meager $64 when Putin assumed office in 2000 and GDP per capita, when measured by purchasing power parity, has trebled. Also, quite incredibly given the severity of the collapse in resource prices, Russian unemployment has actually fallen this year.
Rocking in the Free World
Democracy is another concern of Tom’s. He states that “Russia could be a super country with proper democracy” and “should be a counter balance to US dominance.” Nevertheless, there are problems with this supposition. You see, Russia isn't powerful enough to equalize the US and its annual military spending (around $50 billion) is a drop in the ocean compared to Washington's largesse ($598 billion in 2015). Anyway, the Kremlin doesn’t appear to crave such a status. Instead it seems to want the US to merely butt out of its hinterland.
When it comes to democracy - and this is tricky to explain - most Russians don’t appear to actually want to adopt the Western system. This year, Levada, which is universally accepted to be an independent pollster, revealed that only 7 percent of Russians are strongly concerned about democracy. Instead, voters are more interested in levels of social support (60 percent) and personal safety (45 percent). This tallies with a 2014 survey in which only 5 percent saw a Western-style democracy as essential for Russia’s development versus 16 percent who favored a return to the Soviet system. Indeed 45 percent of respondents said western-style democracy would be “destructive” for Russia and 55 percent agreed that the only form of democracy that could work for Russia was one that was "completely unique, corresponding to national traditions and Russia's specifics.”
To understand why Russians are so belligerent about values held dear in other parts of Europe, we need to go back to the 1990’s. Back then Russia adopted a liberal democratic system and it turned out to be the most disastrous decade endured by a major global economy since the Second World War. The state effectively broke down and criminals ran amok. Salaries weren’t paid on time and proud, educated people were forced to sell their possessions on street corners just to survive. To add insult to injury, the Kremlin was helmed by a chronic alcoholic who was enthusiastically supported by the US and the 1996 election was effectively stolen in order to prevent the Communists from winning, while the west failed to bat so much as an eyelid. As a result, democracy is often a dirty word in Russia and the term “liberal” has been merged with a swear word “pederast” (pedophile) to create a new insult known as “liberast.”
Do as I say, not as I do
Next, Tom brings up Russian alliances with totalitarian regimes. He mentions Iran, Syria, Belarus, Venezuela, China, North Korea and Serbia. Now, never mind that some of those are not dictatorships; he does have a point here. But the problem is that the west has lost all moral authority in this regard through American-led support for the likes of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Chad, Uganda, Rwanda and Uzbekistan. Indeed, the latter regime has jailed more political prisoners than the rest of the former USSR put together and is known for boiling its opponents to death.
Despite this, when John Kerry visited nine months ago, he never even mentioned these subjects in public. Presumably because Washington finds Uzbekistan geographically useful in case of future tensions with Russia or China in central Asia.
But back to the original point. If we accept that Putin is obviously no Stalin, we need to find a more appropriate equivalence. So, I’d suggest Charles DeGaulle. The former French leader was also a staunch nationalist who tried to plot a different path for France, while remaining part of the global order. Because of the Cold War, the general’s ambitions were tolerated but Putin hasn’t enjoyed such luck. Interesting, both were also accused of cronyism and installing their fellow travelers as a new elite in their countries and 'Gaullists' remain the establishment in France today. That might be instructive for those who endlessly predict the end of the "Putin system" in Russia.
There is no evidence that Putin is an especially “dangerous man” as Tom suggests. Russian jails are not choc-a-block with political activists like those in, Western-allies, Uzbekistan and Turkey. There is also nothing to suggest that the Kremlin runs secret prisons to detain its opposition as Amnesty and Human Rights Watch have accused Ukraine of this weekend. The same Ukraine that the US and EU fully support, arm and bankroll.
Putin’s involvement in Ukraine might be considered murky, but it’s hardly on a par with Stalin’s activities there. Russia has reabsorbed Crimea, which was only subsumed into Ukraine in the 1950’s for administrative reasons, with barely a shot fired. Additionally, the Kremlin has supported ethnic Russian rebels in the east to an extent considered far too conservative by many Russians. It's also worth mentioning that Mikhail Gorbachev, considered a very reasonable man in the west, openly supports Putin's Ukraine policy. For which, as it happens, Kiev has given him a visa-ban. By comparison, Stalin is accused of killing at least 2.5 million Ukrainians in a forced famine (the Holodomor) and we know he deported millions more to other regions of the USSR.
Comparisons between the legendary French leader and Putin don't end there. Because the situations they inherited are also somewhat synonymous. DeGaulle took over a defeated France, which had been humiliated in the 1940’s, and rebooted the state while promoting patriotic pride amongst its citizens. Similarly, Putin came to power in a Russia which had been reduced to penury during the 90’s and was the laughing stock of the world. Of course, there’s little doubt that the President sees it as his mission to restore Russia’s ‘greatness.’ However, behaving like a long dead Georgian despot would evidently be counter- productive and morally unacceptable.
Sorry, Tom, but Putin is no Stalin. And thank God for that.