Man of the year, or scandal of the decade?
CHOOSING a “Man of the Year” is a risky business and writing about him even more so. Take this sentence: “His was no ordinary dictatorship, but rather one of great energy and magnificent planning.” It is a fair bet that by 1941, the editors of Time magazine regretted this description of Adolf Hitler, used in “Hymn of Hate”, a (largely negative) cover story that celebrated his crowning as 1938’s “Man of the Year”.
Now Vladimir Putin is Time’s “Person of the Year” for 2007: not an honour, the magazine insists, but just a recognition of “bold, earth-changing leadership”. Even so, that is hardly future-proof. Russia’s still-shaky economy and disastrous demographics mean that rather than being the harbinger of Russia’s stability-based revival, as Time predicts in a cooing article it cheekily titled “A Tsar is born”, Mr Putin may be seen as the mortuary assistant who presided over the greatest missed opportunity in its history.
He didn't even finish dinner
Even without endorsing Mr Putin’s rule outright, Time largely swallows the Kremlin’s version of Russia’s past and present. Yet as Michael McFaul and Kathryn Stoner-Weiss point out in the latest edition of Foreign Affairs, it is far from obvious that autocracy has been good for Russia, either in economics or in the growth of modern, efficient and accountable state institutions.
Russia’s economy is certainly doing better now than in the 1990s under Boris Yeltsin, but any comparison based on that must also include the wildly different starting conditions and external environments. “Even in good economic times, autocracy has done no better than democracy at promoting public safety, health, or a secure legal and property-owning environment,” they note.
Russia’s economic history lends itself to sharply different interpretations. An excellent recent book by Anders Aslund, “Russia’s Capitalist Revolution: Why Market Reform Succeeded and Democracy Failed”, gives Mr Putin and his team high marks for their economic policy in the early years of his rule, particularly the unglamorous but vital fiscal reforms of 1999-2001, which ended an era of chaos in Russian public finances.
But Russia’s recent political history tends to attract criticism from all corners. The audible but mostly invisible feuds inside the Kremlin, and the total secrecy about political decision-making, make even the stability so praised by Time look precarious. Even Mr Putin’s biggest fans would find it hard to argue that he enjoys a robust debate with critics, or promotes a fastidious separation of business and political interests.
He has also a troubling habit of dissembling when faced with awkward facts—claiming, for example, that the state had nothing to do with the onslaught on Yukos, the energy company owned by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an anti-Kremlin tycoon. Mr Aslund says of this episode that Mr Putin, Soviet-style, “re-established the public lie” as an official standard.
The Time journalists avoided calling Mr Putin a liar, though they clearly struggled to like the man they interviewed for more than three hours. They politely bemoan his humourlessness, rudeness, and “vein-popping” short temper, and note that he left abruptly and without explanation, with his dinner just half-eaten. They signally failed to confront his absurd equation of America’s deplorable electoral hiccoughs with the Kremlin’s crushing of its political opponents, or Mr Putin’s slanderous attacks on the opposition leader, Garry Kasparov, or his brazen evasion of allegations about corruption in his inner circle. And how come Mr Putin demands strict non-intervention from other countries when it comes to Russia, but shows no such restraint when the Kremlin is dealing with its troublesome neighbours?
No doubt Time will have plenty of opportunity to deal with these questions in the months and years to come. So will everyone eView Bloglse.