“For Better or Worse,” TIME Gets it Right with Putin

After some thought, and more than a few conversations with colleagues who expected me to be outraged or scandalized, I continue to unreservedly believe that TIME Magazine’s selection of Vladimir Putin as person of the year is truly a great thing. I congratulate the magazine’s editors on the selection. The exact wording is that “TIME’s Person of the Year is a clear-eyed recognition of the world as it is and of the most powerful individuals and forces shaping that world—for better or for worse” – and, for better or worse, I think it is a very positive thing that one of America’s major media outlets has decided that Russia is again playing a crucial role in the world and should be #1 on everyone’s agenda. Far too much of what Putin has been doing has gone under the radar screen, and TIME has provided a major public service to shine the light of Western media attention on Putin’s accumulation and wielding of power.

It would be a mistake to think that the selection is a celebration, though certainly in many quarters it is already being perceived as such. The magazine itself went to great lengths to clarify that it “is not and never has been an honor”, and many a clever blogger has already pointed out the past nominations of Hitler, Stalin, and Ayatollah Khomeini.The article itself is admittedly a solipsistic item that even a United Russia propagandist would find too glowingly deferential. If there’s one thing I think I would agree with President Putin about, is that I would probably also not find the strength to sit through a complete meal with this journalist, who unfortunately didn’t pay very close attention to all the details.The article says a lot with very little description. Adi Ignatius recognizes that: “His government has shut down TV stations and newspapers, jailed businessmen whose wealth and influence challenged the Kremlin’s hold on power, defanged opposition political parties and arrested those who confront his rule.” This period of renewed authoritarianism escalated with the sham trial and imprisonment of Mikhail Khodorkovsky more than four years ago, and the Kremlin’s seizure of property and investments owned by thousands of Russian and international shareholders of Yukos and other supposedly “strategic” corporations. Unfortunately, Western governments and investors have mostly looked the other way, or indulge in wishful thinking that democratic governance and free market institutions will somehow emerge on their own. After all, even President Bush looked into Putin’s soul and assured us that he is a good and trustworthy man.However the TIME journalist places an overemphasis on this treasured “stability” concept that is rather flawed and poorly designed. I’ve always had a philosophical problem with the whole concept of “stability” in the way the Kremlin touts it these days as some great achievement of Putin’s. Also with their other loudly-trumpeted achievement – that the world now treats Russia with respect again.”Stability” clearly means nothing more or less than “iron fist”. It is not “stability” in the usual sense of the world when the power sends out the OMON to indiscriminately suppress, often with great violence, people on the streets at the drop of a hat. It is not “stability” when millions of dirt-poor pensioners realize it’s not worth the effort to complain because of an overwhelming culture of fear. It is not “stability” when the entire electoral and judicial and broadcast media systems are not freely functioning institutions, but rather tightly controlled from above.There is also a significant problem with the article’s remarks of Russia’s newfound international respect. Here I think there’s an even more obviously illusory phantom we need to deflate. It should be a lot easier to do, because the parties being invoked by this statement are external to Russia. I don’t think many countries would necessarily agree that Putin’s Kremlin has gained greater respect. For many, Russia is now regarded as an ominous threat, a runaway train comparable to, but more dangerous than, countries like Belarus, Venezuela, North Korea, Zimbabwe, etc. There is a strong argument that Russia is being respected less and less every day, which is also a strong reason for the Person of the Year selection.Ultimately, aside from these issues in the fawning portrayal, TIME’s choice is a great thing for Russia and her people, as we can all take a much closer look now at what is going on (and what’s going wrong) in this great nation. If the editors were seeking controversy, they have achieved it, and if this controversy involves everyone having to think a little bit more about the president of the Russian Federation – I think that can only be a good thing.