Even the editors of Time magazine can occasionally display some some wisdom, and to begin the new year, they got two things right: first, they canned Bill Kristol and Charles Krauthammer; second, they named President Vladimir Putin “Person of the Year.” Putin may not be very well understood in the America, but he’s certainly deserving of the prize. The recent Russian parliamentary election delivered his United Russia Party 315 seats in a 450-seat parliament. And with Dmitry Medvedev anointed as Putin’s successor, it appears that Putin will continue to wield influence as Russia’s new prime minister. Although some analysts have cried foul play in these elections, tampering would seem superfluous: Putin is one of the most popular Russian leaders of the past 85 years. Given the chaos of the 1990s, Putin has restored a sense of order and pride to Russia, and the Russians have demonstrated their devotion in these recent elections.
This affection is not shared by the American media elite, especially those in the neoliberal and neoconservative crowds, who usually have had nothing but negative things to say about the Russian president. Vice President Dick Cheney has warned that “opponents of reform are seeking to reverse the gains of the last decade”; Michael Ledeen hysterically predicted that Putin wants to “Finlandize Europe.”
Regarding Putin’s recent condemnation of Kosovo independence—as “illegal, ill-conceived and immoral”—critics again have gone on the offensive. Calling Kosovar independence “inevitable,” David Satter, author of the doomsday Darkness at Dawn: the Rise of the Russian Criminal State, writes in a National Review Online symposium, “Russia under Putin seeks to assert itself and, for that, it needs manageable conflicts with the West”; Tom Nichols criticizes Putin’s concerns as “pointless but hypocritical in the extreme”; James S. Robbins adds that Kosovar independence is a “very sensible redrawing of lines”; Ariel Cohen chimes in that Putin is “anxious to find points of confrontation with Europe and the U.S.”
The real hypocrisy in all this is that in backing Kosovar independence, these devotees of the war on terror (and quixotic cold warriors) are supporting the creation of an Islamicist state within Europe. Putin, by opposing this Trojan horse, proves himself to be the true patriot of the West.
But the hypocrisy does not end with Kosovo. Neocons are often willing to shelve the war on terror to help the American Committee for Peace in Chechnya (ACPC), whose membership includes Richard Perle, Elliott Abrams, Midge Decter, Norman Podhoretz, Michael Ledeen, et al. As John Laughland writes in the Guardian:
“The ACPC heavily promotes the idea that the Chechen rebellion shows the undemocratic nature of Putin’s Russia, and cultivates the support for the Chechen cause by emphasizing the seriousness of human rights violations. ... It compares the Chechen crisis to those other fashionable ‘Muslim’ causes, Bosnia and Kosovo—implying that only international intervention in the Caucasas can stabilise the situation there.”
After the recent elections, this chorus of condemnation has intensified. Siding with potential Chechen terrorists against a man who has exposed numerous terrorist networks in Russia, critics have painted Putin as dangerous and autocratic. But the real question, which the media talking heads fail to ask, is: What crime has Putin committed? Do any of his practices even resemble the system of gulags, mass murder of millions, and nuclear bullying of the Stalinist era? Is he planning to occupy Western Europe or bomb the United States any time soon?
Of course not. Putin’s real crime is that he has refused to play by the rules of globalization. In fact, he has done something rather remarkable, indeed, unheard of these days in most Western countries—he has sought to pursue policies that truly are in Russia’s interest. Putin recently commented, “Russians will never allow for the development of the country along a destructive path, the way it happened in some countries in the post-Soviet space.” In other words, Putin is uninterested in Wilsonian crusades in the Middle East, undermining his own economy with suicidal free-trade pacts, driving down wages with Third World immigration, or turning over Russia’s beloved oil and gas assets to multinational corporations. Putin is doing what he was elected to do: protect Russia.
And in doing so, Putin has proven himself a true Russian patriot. Concerning immigration, Putin has instigated rules to make even Rep. Tom Tancredo appear coy. Recognizing that illegal immigrants are driving down wages in an already depressed economy as well as inciting anger among Russia’s native lower classes, Putin has steered towards a path of attrition. He has sought to reduce the presence of foreign workers at wholesale and retail markets, which had become magnets to illegal immigrants. He said that authorities should “protect the interests of Russian producers” and “the native population of Russia.” In other words, Russians first.
While American “conservatives” like John McCain warn of the “intolerance” of the religious Right, Putin has overseen a true revitalization of Orthodox Christianity in Russia. Having been closed for nearly 70 years, the Solovetsky Islands, one of the holiest sites in Russian Orthodox Christianity dating back to the 15th century, have been repopulated by monks. And most recently, Christian teaching has returned to Russian public schools. As Clifford J. Levy reports in the New York Times:
“Nearly two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union ... localities in Russia are increasingly decreeing that to receive a proper public school education, children should be steeped in the ways of the Russian Orthodox Church, including its traditions, liturgy and historic figures.”
While it is nearly criminal to mention “Christmas” in American public schools, Russian teachers are openly instructing their students in the basic tenants of Christian morality, and with Putin’s blessing, the Kremlin has hosted Russian Orthodox priests to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the restoration of the Moscow Patriarchate.
Putin has whole-heartedly pushed for the inclusion Christianity in public life. As David Nowak, of The MoscowTimes.com has observed:
“Not since Tsar Nicholas II has Russia had a leader so keen to embrace religion. Putin has made regular public appearances with Church representatives and has said the Church “plays a paramount role in preserving the moral pillars” of society.”
To all this Putin’s neocon and neoliberal critics will respond, “that’s great, but he has failed to liberalize Russia’s markets.” But why should he? To let Russian oligarchs auction off Russia’s natural resources to multinational corporations? The liberal-economic paradigm is alien to Russia’s traditions, and it would be un-Burkean to impose such a foreign order upon her. Russia has her own homegrown traditions and will chart her own course in the 21st Century.
Putin is no angel, but he is hardly the devil incarnate that many in the media make him out to be. Though he has continued some Soviet practices, Putin has mitigated them with Russian traditions and religion. He as also been prudent in recognizing that a complete break with the immediate past would be a disaster. He has sought to steer a course he feels reflects the long-term interests of the Russian people. In fact, he is pursuing a my-own-country-first policy that many Americans wish our own leaders would follow.
But inside the Beltway, the neocons at ACPC want to revive the spirit the Committee on the Present Danger and view Russia through the ideological glasses of the days of yore. Chicken hawks want an international conflict that is not in our interest against a country that is not a threat and to demonize a man who is in fact sensible and patriotic. Instead, we should extend the olive branch to Russia and recognize her as a nation of the greater West—a cultural, transnational body of which we are a part (or should hope to be.)
Matthew A. Roberts writes from Kansas City, Missouri.
This article was originally published on February 30, 2008.
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