Issues We Should Debate: Russia

As the general election takes shape, the leading issues have emerged: the economy, the Iraq War, ethics reform, global warming. A news story may temporarily thrust a new item onto the list, but in poll after poll, these are the issues that people care about. In fact, it is an old bit of wisdom that when the economy is bad, there is no other issue. As important as these issues are, others will command an equal share of the next president’s attention and might usefully clarify the differences between the candidates. At the top of that list is what to do about Russia. The collapse of the Soviet Union was followed by the chaos of the Yeltsin years. The economic assets of the previous regime were poached by a group of smart, ruthless men, some with access to foreign capital, others with favored contacts from the old regime, all determined to get rich, very rich. They succeeded. While living standards plummeted for most people, the oligarchs grasped the nation’s wealth. Russia was free, but it lacked the institutional and cultural restraints upon the accumulation of wealth and power that keep a free society stable. The ways of the wild West infected the ancient East. Into this chaos walked Vladimir Putin. With an iron fist, he marshaled the resources of the presidency for eight years to restore some semblance of order and prosperity. The average Russian can be forgiven for overlooking Putin’s flaws when you consider that during his tenure, wages grew by more than 150% and GDP grew by a quotient of six. Poverty was cut in half. The trains ran on time. The next president of the United States has to decide the degree to which he also wishes to overlook Putin’s flaws in the interests of stability. Putin has been ruthless in shutting down the opposition. A witness to Gorbachev’s experiment with "glasnost" and "perestroika" Putin is not likely to let his regime crumble in the manner of the old Soviet regime. Opposition newspapers and television have been shut down. Opposition leaders have been arrested, some murdered. Although Putin’s popularity guaranteed the election of his hand-picked successor, Dmitry Medveded, but he nonetheless used a full range of oppressive tactics to shut out other claimants to power. Here is a classic dilemma for American foreign policy. Are we to be realists and applaud the newfound stability in Russia, or are we to champion our democratic values and risk hostility with the new Russia? Should we press to see human rights respected, opposition leaders released, the emergence of a free press or should we curry favor with the regime hoping for their assistance on touchy issues like preventing neighboring Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, stemming global warming, or help lowering the soaring price of gasoline? These are difficult questions and there are no easy answers. Some of Putin’s internal critics say the regime is less stable than it appears, but that is far from clear, especially in the short term. It was always foolish to think Russia would transform itself quickly into a modern, democratic, capitalist country. When the Wall fell in 1989, there was not a single person in Russia who knew the real cost to produce a tractor, or the market value of real estate. In 1992, I ate a sumptuous dinner in St. Petersburg with a woman friend: shrimps, salmon, vodka, two bottles of wine. The check was $14 and she was shocked. The dinner represented three months’ salary for her. That was Russia before Putin. Putin has restored order, but his tactics put one in mind of Mussolini. How the next president chooses to deal with Russia will have an enormous impact on America’s future. Too bad we will barely see the issue discussed this autumn. Michael Sean Winters
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10 years 6 months ago
Michael Winters is correct. I hope both McCain and Obama will read this and take it to heart. Russia is of enormous importance to the USA. Whether we like it or not, Russia is clearly on the way to re-emerging as a major world power. It is unrealistic to expect Russians to adopt a Western-syle democracy; certainly they will not do so in response to our sermonizing. It is in our national interest to learn how to work with Russia as it is, and is going to be, not the way some wish it were.

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