There is such a massive industry in the West that is focussed on peddling lies, fear and rumour about Vladimir Putin that the jobless rate in these countries would spiral out of control if the Russian President were to suddenly quit office.
Putin hasn’t been seen in public for a few days and the industry has been making noises like a monkey that has not been fed its daily dose of bananas. All sorts of wild theories are being bandied about. Some say he’s ill. Others go to the extent of claiming the President is dead.
It’s understandable why the West – or more precisely the Anglo-American axis – hates Putin’s guts. To be sure, they can’t stand any independent leader who works for his country’s best interests. They got Salvador Allende of Chile assassinated for nationalising Chilean assets. They deposed Mossadeq of Iran because he wanted a fair price for Iranian oil that British Petroleum was stealing. They got rid of Saddam Hussein because he wanted to unpeg Iraqi oil from the US dollar.
But Putin is no Saddam; he’s the head of the country with the world’s second most powerful military – a military that can wipe the United States off the map in 30 minutes. What irks the Anglo-Americans is that Putin takes care of Russia’s interests the way they protect theirs. He’s especially anathema to them because he has single-handedly taken on the US and exposed its naked militarism. In Syria, he showed the world that American aggression against small countries can be stopped. He has signalled that US unilateralism is over.
Putin represents that moment when Russia was transformed from an economic basket case into a resurgent power. How can the West forgive him for that?
Drunk with triumphalism after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Americans and the English in particular sat back and enjoyed the collapse of their old enemy, only to see Putin return and give all of them a collective hangover.
More significant is the impact on western morale. The Russian military is once again able to operate out of its bases. Russian strategic bombers – with America in their crosshairs – are back over the Atlantic and the Pacific. On one notable occasion, two Blackjack bombers (armed with nuclear tipped cruise missiles) flew past the unprotected southern flanks of the US, causing panic in the Pentagon.
All this was too much for the West, which was used to seeing Russia stagnating and shrinking.
The man for all seasons
During the US presidential elections in late 2008, Hillary Clinton, while campaigning for the Democratic nomination, said, “He was a KGB agent, by definition he doesn’t have a soul,” to which Putin coolly replied, “I think that a head of state must have a head as a minimum.” That’s the kind of devastating comeback that few global leaders would have the wit or courage to make.
In October that year, after the war in Georgia, Putin famously described Western lackey Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia as “this corpse”. The Georgian leader never showed signs of life after that – despite mouth to mouth resuscitation by his mentors such as John McCain.
Indeed, Putin’s steely gaze is truly presidential. For comparison, how about George W. Bush’s shifty, darting eyes, Tony Blair’s smarmy smile, or Barack Obama’s empty words?
Then there’s the strongman syndrome. Where the clumsy Dick Cheney shoots his hunting partner in the face, Putin uses a tranquilizer to snag a Siberian tiger. (Even if it was choreographed it is better than Cheney’s act by several orders of magnitude). While British Prime Minister David Cameron is refused service by a waitress at an Italian cafe, the Russian leader makes news for his bare-chested photos, making Russian beauty queens draft marriage proposals.
These are not the images people in Washington and London want to see. Putin makes Western leaders look inadequate. What they really want to see is a vodka-fortified Russian stuttering on TV. That’s why former president Boris Yeltsin was the West’s blue-eyed boy.
The democracy drivel
The Economist once described Putin’s job swap with Dmitry Medvedev as making a mockery of Russian democracy. Really? How about George W. Bush’s stealing of the US Presidential election? Didn’t the US Supreme Court and the Governor of Florida (Jeb Bush, George W’s brother) collude to deny Al Gore of a win, in an election where Gore got more votes than Bush? In fact, if The Economist looks at its own backyard, it will find how Iraq sleaze was used by Gordon Brown’s backroom boys to oust Tony Blair as Prime Minister.
The Economist didn’t publish such idealistic tripe when Yeltsin was selling off Russia’s crown jewels to rapacious Western transnationals and plunging the country into Third World status. This was the same Yeltsin who ordered tanks against the Russian parliament. As tank rounds thudded into the Russian ‘White House’, killing dozens of deputies inside, TIME magazine described him as “the handsome Yeltsin”. Really? Handsome in the eyes of which species?
What Putin’s detractors fail to see is that democracy is not an end in itself but rather a means to an end – which is economic prosperity and security for the people. Putin himself has said that he doesn’t want the kind of democracy we now see functioning in Iraq and Libya. Authoritarian prosperity as practised by much of Asia and Russia is a viable option to the crumbling democracies of the West.
Setting the record straight
Okay, forget the machismo, let’s judge the man by his record and governance.
During Putin’s first stint in power (from 1999-2008), the Russian economy recorded an average growth of 7 per cent annually. During this period, industry grew 75 per cent, while real incomes more than doubled. The monthly salary of the man in the street went from $80 to almost $600. The IMF, which worked overtime to destroy Russia’s state owned corporations and banks, admits that from 2000 to 2006, the Russian middle class grew from 8 million to 55 million. The number of families living below the poverty line decreased from 30 per cent in 2000 to 14 per cent in 2008.
When Putin’s nationalist economic policies paid off (the Russian stockmarket jumped 17 per cent the day he got the job in 1999), the western media rubbished his achievements, and said Russia’s resurgence was solely due to its oil and gas. But what the paid media doesn’t realise is that Russia has always had oil and gas. Didn’t Norway and Britain build their welfare state from North Sea oil profits?
There is an underlying historical reason why the West caricatures Russia. Starting from the Crimean War—in which czarist Russia’s serf army exposed the military and logistical immaturity of the ‘professional’ British army – to the Great Game in Central Asia, it is true that Russia and Britain have had incompatible interests. The Americans, who have taken the baton from the British, now share the same historical prejudices of Britain. It’s simply the Anglo-American bloc vs the Slavic world.
No place for weak leaders
Putin’s Russia may not be perfect. It has organised crime, the oligarchs still control a good chunk of the economy, Russian companies are yet to come up with world class consumer goods, and the Soviet era infrastructure needs an overhaul. It is precisely because of such problems that strong leaders are needed. Russians have seen enough of the Yeltsin era chaos, and the last thing they want is a return to the days of lumpen democracy.
A decade ago it was popular to pronounce that Russia was in a coma; that it would take decades to establish a post-Soviet system. But compared with the discontent that’s brewing next door in Europe or across the ocean in the United States, Russia’s problems, although huge, aren’t insurmountable. Russians, you see, aren’t fighting for bread like in those places.
The Anglo-American axis and their hangers-on must realise that a foreign leader who protects his country’s interests is not a tyrant. Around 2300 years ago, Chanakya, the original master of statecraft and policy in India, said in the Arthashastra (Economics): “The foremost duty of a ruler is to keep his people happy and contented. The people are his biggest asset as well as the source of peril. They will not support a weak administration.”