Friday, May 06, 2005

The Two (Ivory) Towers

Did anyone notice the irony in today's MSNBC article about Vladimir Putin?

With three years until the end of his second and final term, Putin’s policies, which he defends as vital to preventing the disintegration of the state, are taking their toll.

By concentrating so much power in the Kremlin, U.S. and Russian officials say Putin has made a potentially fatal mistake. Hard-liners who control access to the president are feeding him a limited diet of analysis, thus isolating him from the growing problems of his presidency.

At least Putin doesn't hold town hall meetings that only his most ardent supporters are allowed to attend. That would really be embarrassing.

Putin appears to be trying to revive the former Soviet Union. He has largely nationalized the Russian oil business, restricted the free press, and eliminated most elections in Russia. He recently said that the breakup of the Soviet machine need not have resulted in the dissolution of the USSR. He also said "I can't understand you equating Stalin and Hitler. It goes without saying that Stalin was a tyrant, whom many call a criminal. But he wasn't a Nazi." This week, Russia sold surface-to-air missiles to Syria, its old Soviet-era ally.

Russia has suffered a major loss of prestige since the fall of the Soviet Union. I suspect that for the majority of Russians, a Chinese-style transition to a more liberal, free-market system might have been preferable to the chaos of the Soviet breakup. The USSR's collapse destroyed the police state that imprisoned the Russian people, but corruption and mismanagement broke the country's back in the process. As it stands, Russia's economy is weak, its health services and public infrastructure are a shadow of their former selves, crime is out of control, and Russia's aging nuclear arsenal is, ironically, more threatening now than it was before.

Putin is a former KGB officer. I can understand his desire to return to the glory days of the Soviet Union, when Soviet military might demanded respect (in the sense that we are compelled to respect anything so lethal).

Like the Iranians and the North Koreans, Putin has studied Bush's rejection of soft power, and decided that the United States no longer looks like the reliable, even-keeled player it once was. Furthermore, in Bush's new world order, human rights are, shall we say, "flexible."

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