In the life of a great nation, almost every historic transition is dominated by a leader who becomes not only the bearer of its historical and cultural pride but also the director of its future evolution.
Washington, Lincoln, Churchill, De Gaulle, Nehru, and Mandela are a few positive examples of what I mean here. There are many not so positive ones too. In that sense, in my opinion, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin is the person who has shown the ability and the power to fashion, for good or for evil, the course of events and future of the post-Soviet Russia. In this era, a great deal of what Russia promises to become depends on the spirit and the manner in which Putin continues to wield his power and shoulders the responsibilities that have been passed on to him by the spirit of the age and by his own ability.
Putin is not the evil that he is made out to be; instead he is a highly effective politician who feels that he has a mission to fulfil without any angelic obsession about it. True, given the cataclysms in Russian society during the last century or so, one has to be pretty hardnosed and cunning in order to come to power in that country and stay there for such length of time but one also has to be a highly competent strategic thinker. At the international stage, he has shown a remarkable ability to sow understanding where needed. For example, it is utterly misplaced to say that Putin in any manner duped the West into not attacking Syria. The fact is that Putin made a lot of sense and both he and President Obama acted very wisely. We should all be thankful to both. To keep the record straight, the British House of Commons decided not to have a military engagement in Syria. Putin, of course, did nothing to influence them. To his credit, Putin has always been remarkably clear-headed about the threat posed by Islamist militancy and, unlike the US or the UK, has never toyed with the idea of wooing or exploiting the jihadists for any local or parochial gains.
Yes, many people in the West remain cross with Putin for seeing through and exposing the farce of ‘liberating’ certain parts of the Middle East at behest of and with the help of Saudi Arabia. No wonder liberal and neo-con interventionists alike hate Putin for thwarting an opportunity to bomb people in the name of “human rights”, for not letting them decide who lives and who dies, and for denting their prerogative to decide who we can love and who we hate. By the way, Seymour Hearst exposed the lies about Assad and the gas. It came from the rebels. Given the presence of Islamist militancy in their midst, the West must be more concerned about decreeing that none of their citizens can fight on their own in a foreign land. This may make the West-bred Jihadists think before they leave Britain, France, Germany, or the US to fight in Syria, Afghanistan, or Pakistan.
Putin is no moral authority of his age either, as some of the anti-West rhetoric makes him out to be. In fact he is free from for all hang-ups to come across as a moral standard of his age and goes about his mission with a remarkable pragmatism. Instead, Putin is a skilful adherent to the European ‘Staatsraison” (a quest for security and self-assertion of the state at any cost and by any means), an incontrovertibly Western idea first developed by Machiavelli and further honed by the nineteenth century German thought. It continues to retain its subtle authoritarian side in the West too, as the West spies, tortures, and kills illegally abroad to maintain its interests. Putin is more candid about the interest of his country superseding the obligations of political correctness.
Putin is a living legend as an amazingly inexhaustible force of political will. Putin meant it every word when he said that he thrived in negative attention. After all the slander and mocking by the Western media has come to naught, West has finally started taking him more seriously as a smart leader, which is how the man should be viewed. A canny politician who loves power and sees it as his mission to give Russians something they have desperately looked for since the end of the USSR – minimum social and political responsibility and a sense that their country is not in the hands of buffoons indirectly influenced by the West. He has done a decent job of that. He is consciously reintegrating the pieces of Russian past. While exhibiting Tsarist conservatism, he has also significantly rehabilitated the Soviet aura in some ways. Lenin remains an honoured national figure and the powerful Russian president is not reluctant to praise the USSR in the manner he deems fitting. This is the Putin era in Russia.
Putin is an intelligent man who probably surpasses most Western leaders in sophistication and common sense and he represents a Russia increasingly happy with its Soviet heritage. As nasty as he may be, he outwits the West just by making the rational, lucid, and right choices in most cases. On the other hand, some Western governments like the UK, in particular, have made it their favourite pastime to consistently make the wrong calls in international matters. Part of his cleverness lies in his ability to learn from the past mistakes of mighty Russia and Soviet Union, whereas people like Bush, Blair, and Cameron still love to send in troops or attack other countries to create mayhem and for the weapon manufacturers to roll in profits.
It may be conscientious of Obama to remind the West of the Russian disregard for democracy and human rights but it surely appears less convincing after the entire NSA revelations and his government’s reactions to them. Similarly, Cameron’s calls for not meddling with business sound hollow for a man who is known to rubber stamp the demands of big businesses feeding on the declining wealth of his nation. Surprising, that this sickening hypocrisy doesn’t bother them. The irony is that Putin is more capitalistic than the West. No one should be sweating under the misconception today that authoritarianism and capitalism are somehow mutually exclusive. It is demonstrably clear that capitalism functions much more smoothly in a controlled democracy. Russia and China are demonstrating the case for everyone to see.
Putin is the man for his times. He has risen to power by his own efforts amidst anarchy and bedlam. The common man in Russia supports him not because he considers Putin above reproach but because, while Putin’s Russia is deeply flawed, it is much preferable to the other likely alternatives. As ‘useful’ as it might have been to have a drunken Yeltsin turn Russia into a gangster failed state pillaged by Khodorkovsky and Company, this was put to an end by Putin for entirely sensible reasons of state. It is not difficult to understand why people support him. When he came into power the country was slipping towards becoming a failed state and Oligarchs ruled the roost. Whosoever had wealth had power. He learnt to co-exist with the oligarchs by separating business and government to some extent. Lest we may forget, power struggle was not the only factor. During a decade of Yeltsin rule country had literally gone to dogs. People not being paid pensions and wages was a common occurrence. Run away homeless children were roaming the country; drug-use was a serious problem. Crime with impunity was high. He did make it his mission to deal with that. He made oligarchs understand that if they wanted to keep their wealth, they had no choice but treat their workforce right. And they did change. He made sure that pensions are paid by the government on time. He thus restored some order and replaced the grim days of not getting paid for months into regular income for all. Not to understand why these people vote for him is to insult them. For Putin, expediency takes precedence over the imperative of building an unsullied legacy. That’s why he has no qualms about allying himself with a brutal thug like Kadyrov or interfering with judicial process.
The fact is that after consistently declining for over ten years prior to Putin, Russia has overall gotten better in the past thirteen years. The spectre of Russia as a failed state has been dispelled and Russia is now re-emerging as a legitimate international actor. It needs to be accommodated, yet again. The history is upon us. It is not the ‘new cold war’ as some people fancy to think but there definitely is a less skewed unipolar pull in the universe of international politics. What is interesting to note though is that the left in the bygone era has transformed into right wing evangelists of today.
Some analysts feel that Putin is trying to end arbitrary government in Russia because he knows that it is holding back potential investors and friends of Russia. I hope that is the case. The jig of playing a dictator has done its trick but its time is up now. I also feel that Putin is at a point where he has solid enough ground under his feet to understand the massive economic benefits that could be had by all if he led a move towards greater economic integration with the West.
So Vladimir Putin is far from perfect, at home in particular, but he is one of the most effective leaders in the world today. He has done a lot for world peace, by and large he genuinely loves his country, and he stands between ultra-nationalists gaining power in Russia. In his list of priorities, economic stability, national dignity, revival of Russia as a serious world power, refinement of Russia’s banking system, youth employment, to name but a few are much more important issues than homosexual marriage**. It may be mentioned, though, that the people disapproving of Putin for being homophobic buy petrol from, accord privileges to, and support some of the most homophobic regimes elsewhere. What we must admit is that Putin is for real. He is not a phoney to present himself as what he is not and tells it how it is. At least all rational people are aware what Putin actually is.
In reality, most of our disappointment with Putin arises from the sentiment that Russia has failed to develop along the path of Western democracies. A fixation with Putin’s authoritarian style and his dislike of foreign influence leads us into neglecting that his value to the system is based on his deep understanding how Russia has always been governed, that is, by balancing vested interests in an oligarchic system. Even the most powerful of Czars felt pressed to oblige a system controlled by elite groups of boyars (the oligarchs of the past) and bureaucrats. The seemingly all-powerful Czar was, in truth, a leader capable of arbitrating disputes and dealing out power and wealth among them. This centralization is not poised to change soon, not even past Putin. What must be understood is that Putin leads a nation that has always merited to be taken seriously on the world stage. Yeltsin years are behind us and should not bolster any notions in us similar to the ones the victories in previous smaller battles against Russia bred in the minds of Napolean and Hitler.
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** Before you jump to any conclusion, I am in favour of gay rights and opposed to discrimination in all its forms but let’s get real for a moment. We are manipulated into debating same-sex marriage while abortion laws are being blocked or rolled back in countries, which account for much more impact on the well-being of individuals. We should instead focus on fighting gay discrimination which actually affects people’s lives much more drastically than the ability to slip a ring on one’s finger.