Wednesday, September 6

Golden Oldie: Lost in Translation: President Putin's history lecture to President Bush

Pundita is on vacation until September 16. The following essay was originally published February 2005.

Peter Lavelle's latest commentary Putin's "authoritarianism" vs. the 'commentariat' sent Pundita to Wikipedia for a crash history and overview of modern Russian politics. This still left us experiencing cognitive dissonance regarding the word "governor" in point #3 of Lavelle's discussion.
Appointment of governors is part of Putin's “vertical power” agenda to strengthen Russian sovereignty and against internal (oligarchs and corruption) and foreign (governors making foreign policy) threats..."
I tried and failed to imagine the governors of Rhode Island, Alabama, New York, Iowa and all the other US governors making up their own foreign policy for the United States. In that event, there would be no United States of America, there would be no country.

So what kind of democracy did Vladimir Putin inherit from Boris Yeltsin? How could you have a democracy, of the kind America represents, if there was no real sovereign nation? Seeking illumination, Pundita wrote Peter Lavelle. He responded:
Regional governors experienced enormous independence from the Kremlin for years because there was little the Kremlin could do about it during the Yeltsin years. For a decade Russia's regions were run as private fiefdoms -- with little pretense supporting democracy. Many of Russia's governors ruled poorly with self interest in mind and in the service of oligarchs. This is something that the Kremlin can no longer tolerate. To modernize the economy, strengthen sovereignty, and serve the interests of citizens living in the regions the Kremlin had to do something. While most of the Western world doesn't agree with the
Kremlin's move [to appoint governors], most citizens in Russia's regions accept that they deserve better governance.
Lavelle's clarification puts an exchange between Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush in a new light. In November 2004, at an economic summit luncheon, Bush questioned Putin's decision to eliminate direct elections for regional governors.
"Mr. Putin responded by launching into a 20-minute discourse on the history of Russian federalism from the tsars to Josef Stalin, and Mr. Bush didn't pursue the issue, according to both U.S. and Russian officials." *
Now to an American who is not knowledgeable about Russia, Putin's answer showed no understanding of Bush's question. But once you understand the Russian form of government, Bush's question showed no understanding of the situation in Russia.

Bush is famous for being a fast eater, even at state dinners hosted at the White House, so I suppose if he'd chewed more slowly or dawdled over dessert Putin could have extended the history lesson to include Yeltsin's era. However, I don't think Bush missed too much by leaving off at Stalin's era, at least in terms of governing structure.

As the Soviet Communist party spread from the sophisticated Russian cities, it met with tribal societies and clan governments, which the imperial Russian government had kept at bay with much the same tactics Saddam Hussein deployed in dealing with Iraqi tribes and clans.

Saddam did not remain in power by brute force alone. The Iraqi Baathist knockoff of a centralized western fascist government was window dressing. Behind the trappings was a nomadic tribal society meshed with a traditional decentralized clan society. Thus, Saddam relied on judicious application of bribes and a carefully tended alliances with chieftains.

The Soviet Communist government followed much the same tactic; thus, when the Soviet Union collapsed, so did the window dressing. The aftermath form of government is confusing to an outsider, if you apply the American concepts of nation, governors, democracy, government, etc., to Russia. Yeltsin's "democratic" reforms were more window dressing than democratic government. Another stage show, only this time a democracy stage show. Behind the stage paint was the same old clan system that pre-Revolutionary Russian imperial government had to deal with.

So it's jumping the gun for the Bush administration to launch "a high-level review of relations with Russia in the wake of Kremlin curbs on democracy..." *

First there has to be a sovereign nation, with only one administrative body setting foreign policy. Then there needs to be a national democratic government. Then is the time to start worrying about any perceived curbs on democracy.

All this helps explain an observation under #8 in Lavelle's commentary: "Putin is not a democrat. Putin is a reformer." But still seeking illumination, Pundita asked Lavelle to elaborate. His response:
Putin is not a democrat recognizable to the West. He is primarily interested in creating an economy in which the average Russian voter has the means and interest to participate in politics. After a decade of "oligarch" rule and misguided reforms imported from the West, Putin realizes the only way Russia can be a democracy is when living standards increase significantly--and quickly. He also understands that tough and unpopular social reforms face resistance, but must be passed into law to create a modern Russian economy. Putin, incorrectly called a dictator, is using his personal popularity and control of the legislature to create the foundations of a meaningful democracy--and it won't happen tomorrow.
I think the key concept is "foundations of a meaningful democracy."

It's a shame Putin's work to create the foundations for modern government in Russia has been greatly ignored by Washington policymakers. The struggles to reform Russian government from the ground up are very valuable lessons and with application to many societies struggling toward democracy

* From "Bush Reviews Ties to Russia Amid Rising Tensions" 01/26/2005, The Wall Street Journal

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