Exploiting the Phraseology of Democracy

The great Serge Schmemann of the IHT has published quite a compelling opinion article on objectives and perspectives of Vladimir Putin:

The implication is clear – those quaint times are behind us. He does not disown the Soviet Union, which he served as an agent of the KGB, but the Russia he repeatedly invokes is a great, powerful, divinely ordained state that stretches back a thousand years. He is there to restore its glory, its power, its faith, and above all its proper place in the world. And that is the unifying context of his presidency: Russia will be great and strong. It explains the repeated contradictions in the world view he expounds: Russia must have a multiparty democracy, but it cannot exist without a strong president. The economy is free, but the state must control its wealth. He is prepared to cooperate with the West, but promptly switches to confrontation when he senses a snub. He freely criticizes the West, but bristles at suggestions that Russia is backtracking on democracy. Such criticism is a ploy, a diversion, he declares: “Of course, we see efforts to exploit the phraseology of democracy to influence our internal politics,” he says. “This is dangerous, this is not proper, it undermines faith in the basic principles of democracy. If you need something from Russia, you need to talk about the substance, not to approach it from another angle. If you need to resolve Kosovo, talk about Kosovo. If you need to resolve the nuclear issue with Iran, talk about Iran. Not about ‘democracy in Russia.’ ” There are distinct echoes of the Soviet Union in this blend of bluster, insecurity, hypocrisy and pride. But Putin’s Russia is definitely a new hybrid. There’s no threat of a new Cold War, no ideology of world domination in the new Russia. The president enjoys a level of popularity and legitimacy Soviet leaders never had. However authoritarian Putin’s rule might be, argues Grigory Yavlinsky, an opposition politician highly critical of the president, his rise is a logical consequence of the brutal disappointment of the Russians with the course of events since the collapse of Communism – the hyperinflation, political wars, crony privatization and the financial crisis of the 1990s, along with the humiliations – perceived and real – inflicted by the West, from NATO expansion to endless preaching. Now, Russians are suddenly living better than they ever have. They have a combination of personal freedoms and prosperity they’ve never had before. They can travel abroad and surf the Internet to their heart’s delight; the arts are booming; stores are overflowing; they can make money. Lots of it. Politics? O.K., there’s a problem there, but in this new Russia, with its glittering streets and fast pace, who cares? This is Putin’s Russia. No matter that the oil boom is in great part responsible for his successes; he has brought a measure of stability and pride where Boris Yeltsin, the “democrats” and the West all failed. He will not be preached to. He will not be pushed around on Iran or Kosovo. He will be treated with respect, whether at the Group of 8 summit meeting or fishing at Kennebunkport. So look for more Putin. In what guise, we will soon learn. But with what goal and style, there is no doubt.