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Stop the pointless demonization of Putin
Stephen F. COHEN, professor of Russian studies at New York University
American media coverage of Vladimir Putin, who today began his third term as Russia’s president and 13th year as its leader, has so demonized him that the result may be to endanger U.S. national security.
For nearly 10 years, mainstream press reporting, editorials and op-ed articles have increasingly portrayed Putin as a czar-like “autocrat,” or alternatively a “KGB thug,” who imposed a “rollback of democratic reforms” under way in Russia when he succeeded Boris Yeltsin as president in 2000. He installed instead a “venal regime” that has permitted “corruptionism,” encouraged the assassination of a “growing number” of journalists and carried out the “killing of political opponents.” Not infrequently, Putin is compared to Saddam Hussein and even Stalin.
Well-informed opinions, in the West and in Russia, differ considerably as to the pluses and minuses of Putin’s leadership over the years – my own evaluation is somewhere in the middle – but there is no evidence that any of these allegations against him are true, or at least entirely true. Most seem to have originated with Putin’s personal enemies, particularly Yeltsin-era oligarchs who found themselves in foreign exile as a result of his policies – or, in the case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, in prison. Nonetheless, U.S. media, with little investigation of their own, have woven the allegations into a near-consensus narrative of “Putin’s Russia.”
Even the epithet commonly applied to Putin is incorrect. The dictionary and political science definition of “autocrat” is a ruler with absolute power, and Putin has hardly been that. There are many examples of his need to mediate, sometimes unsuccessfully, among powerful groups in the ruling political establishment and of his policies being thwarted by Moscow and regional bureaucracies. Moreover, if Putin really were a “cold-blooded, ruthless” autocrat, tens of thousands of protesters would not have appeared in Moscow streets, not far from the Kremlin, following the December presidential election. Nor would they have been officially sanctioned – as were the thousands who gathered yesterday before a small group breached the sanctioned lines and violence ensued – or shown on state television.
But consider the largest, and historically most damning, accusation against Putin. Russian democratization began in Soviet Russia, under Mikhail Gorbachev, in 1989-91. “De-democratization,” as it is often called, began not under Putin but under Yeltsin, in the period from 1993 to 1996, when the first Russian president used armed force to destroy a popularly elected parliament; enacted a super-presidential constitution; “privatized” the former Soviet state’s richest assets on behalf of a small group of rapacious insiders; turned the national media over to that emerging financial oligarchy; launched a murderous war in the breakaway province of Chechnya; and rigged his own re-election. (On February 20, outgoing president Dmitri Medvedev shocked a small group of visitors by finally admitting that Yeltsin had not actually won that election against the Communist leader Gennadi Zyuganov.) Putin may have only moderated those fateful policies, but he certainly did not initiate them.
The catastrophic Yeltsin 1990s, which have been largely deleted from the U.S. media narrative, also put other anti-Putin allegations in a different perspective. The corruption rampant in Russia today, from seizures of major private investments to bribes demanded by officials, is a direct outgrowth of the violent and other illicit measures that accompanied “privatization” under Yeltsin. It was then that the “swindlers and thieves” denounced by today’s opposition actually emerged.
The shadowy practices of that still-only-partially reformed economic system, not Kremlin politics, has led to the assassination of so many Russian journalists, most of them investigative reporters. The numbers, rarely cited by era, are indicative. According to the American Committee to Protect Journalists, 77 Russian journalists have been murdered since 1992 – 41 during Yeltsin’s 8 years in power, 36 during Putin’s 12 years.
The exceptionally vilifying charge that Putin has been behind the killing of political opponents focuses mainly on two victims – the investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was shot to death in Moscow in 2006; and a reputed KGB defector, Aleksandr Litvinenko, who died of radiation poisoning in London, also in 2006.
Not a shred of evidence or an element of logic points to Putin in either case. The editors of Politkovskaya’s newspaper, the devoutly anti-Putin Novaya Gazeta, believe her killing was ordered by Chechen leaders, whose human-rights abuses were one of her special subjects. And there is no conclusive proof even as to whether Litvinenko’s poisoning, despite the media frenzy and rupture in British-Russian relations it caused, was intentional or accidental. (Significantly, Scotland Yard still has not released the necessary autopsy report.)
In other circumstances, all of this ritualistic Putin-bashing would be merely a cautionary example of media malpractice, an anti-textbook for journalism schools. But it has made Putin’s Russia toxic in Washington, in both political parties and especially in Congress, at a time when U.S. national security requires long-term cooperation with Moscow on vital fronts: from countries and regions such as Afghanistan, North Korea, Iran and the entire Middle East to issues such as nuclear weapons reduction, stopping nuclear proliferation, and preventing terrorism.
In all of these regards, the relentless demonizing of Putin makes rational U.S. policymaking all the more difficult. Mitt Romney’s recent assertions that Russia is America’s “number one geopolitical foe” and that Moscow has made no “meaningful concessions” seem to reflect widespread ignorance or amnesia. Are U.S. policymakers aware of Putin’s extraordinary assistance to the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan after 9/11, his crucial help in supplying NATO troops now there or his support for harsher sanctions against Iran? Do they know that for these and other “pro-American” concessions he is viewed by many Russian national security officials as an “appeaser?”
Many years ago, Will Rogers quipped: “Russia is a country that no matter what you say about it, it’s true.” Evidently, it is still true, but it’s no longer funny.