He’s a son of a bitch, but he’s their son of a bitch

Western observers loathe Time Man of the Year Vladimir Putin’s aggressive nationalism. But he is widely supported by the Russian people.

James Heartfield

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It is not that great an honour – alongside Hitler, Nixon, Stalin (twice), Khrushchev and Chiang Kai-shek, Russia’s outgoing president and incoming prime minister Vladimir Putin has been named Time magazine’s Man of the Year for 2007.

Reading Adi Ignatius’ interview with the KGB agent turned leader, it is hard not to sense some sarcasm in the award: Putin is probably the second least favourite world leader amongst Western intellectuals. His high-profile campaign of Russian national self-assertion is widely believed to extend to the assassination of critics, most notably journalist Anna Politkovskaya, gunned down in her Moscow hallway, and renegade secret service man Alexander Litvinenko, poisoned in London last year. As Time’s editors gingerly explain, ‘it is not an endorsement’.

On the other hand, perhaps Putin’s dogged indifference to his critics draws some sneaking admiration in the White House, given that its current incumbent George W Bush (Time Man of the Year in 2000 and 2004) is the first least favourite world leader amongst Western intellectuals. For Time’s editors, wary of the pace of world change perhaps, Putin ‘stands, above all, for stability – stability before freedom’.

Putin is attacked in the West for his repressive policies. The recent electoral victory of his United Russia Party drew squeals of outrage in the European press, and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe denounced it as unfair. Central to the critics’ charges is the fact that there is not full political freedom for opposition parties within Russia. That is true: Putin’s ‘managed democracy’ imposes strict limitations upon the rights of opponents to organise and contest elections, as well as unofficially controlling most of the larger media outlets.

The critics are on weaker ground, though, when they question Putin’s mandate. However you look at it, Putin’s support is healthy – a lot healthier than that of most Western leaders. In successive elections, presidential and parliamentary, Putin’s brand of mainstream nationalism has won a wide base of support.

Putin’s critics for the most part do not just attack Putin. They also attack the Russian people who elect him. Foremost amongst Putin’s critics are the ‘exiles’ – Russians living abroad, many in the UK. In the first instance, these oppositionists were drawn from the disappointed intelligentsia, only later being invigorated with exiled oligarchs like Boris Berezovsky and Chelsea FC owner Roman Abramovich. This cohort blames the Russian people for failing to listen to them, and insists on seeing Putin as the reincarnation of Stalin.

The exiles enjoy the sponsorship of Putin’s critics in the West. The tradition of supporting an alternative exile leadership for Russia is an old one that precedes even the Cold War, when anti-communist dissidents were promoted by the West; it goes back to the nineteenth century, when radical enemies of the Czar were given exile. Today, Britain is at the fore of the policy of shielding Putin’s foreign critics, most notably Boris Berezovsky, much to the irritation of the Russians. But the European Union, too, is active, giving a helping hand to the Orange anti-Russian movement in the Ukraine.

The problem for the exiles and Putin’s other critics is that inside Russia they enjoy little support. Putin’s aggressive attacks on the oppositional Other Russia party led by Garry Kasparov simply do not outrage most Russians in the way they do people in the West. Putin retains the support of Russia’s middle-class because he stabilised the economy and delivered years of solid economic growth.

In the British Foreign Office, criticisms of Putin notwithstanding, officials insist that Britain has to work with Russia – though the contempt that Putin reads in their reactions to him is close to the surface. They think of the current Russian government as mediocre in comparison to the ‘heroic’ Yeltsin imposition of free-market reforms on to a clapped-out Stalinist economy. Oil, they say, is the key to Putin’s success. It is true that during the economic upturn of the 2000s, boosting oil demand helped Russia a great deal. But under Yeltsin there was oil, too; it was just that he sold it off cheap to foreign investors.

By contrast, Putin’s nationalist economic policy redirected oil wealth towards investment leading to strong growth rates. Mikhail Gorbachev (Time Man of the Year in 1987 and 1989) explained the limits of the West’s support for reform: ‘As Russia becomes stronger, suddenly our friends in the West begin to get excited.’ (1) It is all a long way from the generous attitude that US President Bill Clinton (Time Man of the Year in 1992 and 1998) had towards a mostly supine Boris Yeltsin.

Putin’s aggressive reassertion of Russia’s national interests has certainly cost him support in the West. But then, he is not a representative of Western interests, but of Russian ones. His militant suppression of Chechen nationalism and the excessive power of the oligarchs play well in Moscow, if not in London or Brussels. He is certainly no supporter of civil or political liberties – though it should be noted that the Western leaders who taught him what ‘democracy’ is supposed to mean are fairly indifferent to those things, too. And as Time’s sort-of endorsement of Putin underlines, realpolitik in the West favours a strong leader they can do business with.

James Heartfield is a writer and researcher in London. Visit his website here.

Previously on spiked

James Heartfield dismissed theories about a new Russian revolution. Julia Svetlichnaja and James Heartfield wrote about the reaction to their interview of Alexander Litvinenko and James Heartfield discussed the way Litvinenko’s assassination put all Russians in the frame. Tara McCormack wondered what happened to Ukraine’s Orange Revolution. Brendan O’Neill illustrated the international connection to the Beslan school killings. Or read more at spiked issue: Russia

(1) Guardian, 8 March 2006

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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