In his rambling, totally-disconnected-from-reality press conference last year, Vladimir Putin expressed an idea that I think has come to guide his thinking as of late. This is the idea that “the West” and his ever-growing list of enemies won’t leave Russia alone. Everyone is just so jealous of Russia that they literally cannot stop plotting on how they will dismantle the country and occupy the remnants.
Sometimes it almost seems to make sense. Are the US and EU truly so concerned about Putin’s record on human rights and democracy? It’s hard to believe given the near-constant ass-licking American and European leaders have been engaging in since the recent death of Saudi Arabia’s king. The Department of Defense seems to have outdone its own commander-in-chief by proposing, I shit you not, an essay contest in memory of the late king under whom people were put to death for sorcery and a blogger was sentenced to 1,000 lashes. There definitely seems to be a double standard with Russia. But what’s really behind it?
I can think of two possible factors, the first being that perhaps Western leaders actually believe Russia has the capacity to become at least a liberal democratic nation with a higher standard of human rights, something they don’t expect of Saudi Arabia or its monarchy. I remember a similar example from an anecdote about the Shah of Iran. A British adviser told of how the Shah complained to him about the Western media constantly vilifying him while supposedly not saying anything about Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. The adviser told the Shah that the West didn’t see Iraq as being on the same level as Iran, ergo they expected more from Iran and not Iraq in terms of human rights.
However inaccurate or odd that may sound, there is some truth to it. Most people will not bat an eye if someone is jailed for what they write in a country like Uzbekistan or Egypt, whereas they will react with outrage at the slightest censorship or threat of censorship in their own country. Russia itself made overtures toward being accepted as a modern, advanced nation. When you do this, people are going to start looking at your human rights record more closely.
The other factor is the possibility of a real double standard in regards to Russia because of imperialist aims on the part of the US or EU. This is a valid point, but if anything the middle of the last decade showed how the West was quite happy to turn a blind eye toward Putin, or leave the bear alone to use his analogy, so long as he kept things stable and the flow of resources, money, and women continued unabated. Moreover, even if you claim that the Western focus on Russia is imperialist in nature, that still leaves the question of why Russia and not some other country which is rich in natural resources. In other words, those with actual imperialist ambitions may be drawn to corrupt, internally-rotting dictatorships like Russia the way sharks are drawn to the smell of blood in the water.
If Putin had been using the resources of his country wisely and strengthening rule of law, human rights, and personal freedom in Russia, American or European attempts to destabilize his country wouldn’t even get off the ground. For one thing, if he had established a democratic system whereby he actually left after his first two terms, it would be difficult to pile up all Russia’s problems at his feet. We all remember how the left in the US tallied up all George W. Bush’s faults during his tenure, and the Republicans have been doing the same for Obama. Yet even if the next president happens to be a Democrat, Republican opponents will have to leave their anti-Obama list behind and start compiling new outrages of the week for at least the next four years. In Russia where you have the one ruling party, phony official opposition parties, and the so-called “tandem” tag team of president Putin and prime minister Medvedev, everything piles up on them, even imagined offenses.
If Putin had put Russia’s riches into its infrastructure, healthcare, and social services, you wouldn’t have Russians constantly dreaming about living in Europe or America to the point where some are willing to sell their own body for the opportunity to do so. Most people would realize that this is a long process, but as long as there is constant, measurable progress every year people would be patient. What angers most people in regards to the government’s incompetence and corruption is their constant promises which begin with “in six months,” then “in a year,” then “in five years,” “by 2020,” and so on.
Using the country’s resources wisely instead of allowing friends and corrupt officials to siphon off their cuts would reduce Russia’s staggering wealth inequality, ending the tradition of a massive country ruled by a few ridiculously wealthy people who live cut off from the rest of society. Those who achieve their wealth by climbing the ladder through their own work and talent, and yes they do exist, would have a greater sense of social responsibility toward their fellow citizens.
That brings us to the next point, about NGOs, the alleged Trojan horse of the US State Department. With a working liberal democratic society, strong protection for constitutional freedoms, people would form their own organizations, funds, and movements to fight whatever social ills the government fails to rectify or at least fails to do so in a timely manner. By making funds available to these social organizations, they could go about their work without ever feeling the need to take money from abroad. They would also look more favorably on their own government, since it would be holding the purse strings. And when that isn’t enough, allowing people to demonstrate and openly air their grievances would allow them to let off steam.
In the past some have accused me of supporting the US’ foreign policy line. Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s not a matter of supporting US/EU foreign policy, but rather I am no longer willing to throw my support behind amoral, corrupt dictatorships which, through the incompetence and avarice of their leaders, allow their nations to rot and thus become vulnerable to consensus pressure. These nations offer no alternative to the present system; all resources are devoted to preserving the tiny group of elites who control them. Unwilling to listen to their own people, they drive them to listen to anyone who seems to care. The strategy of America’s think tanks is to slip neo-liberal economics and privatization-worship in under the cover of human rights, freedom of speech and other positive concepts. They want people to believe that all these things go hand in hand with market-first economic policies. Tyrannical governments who deny those positive concepts to their own people cause them to focus on the most serious violations of their rights. If you have a functioning electoral system with real political competition, people will be more inclined to think about economic matters and other nuances.
Of course when you get right down to it, Putin’s “leave me alone” rhetoric is bullshit. He acts as if Russia is just minding its own business, being involved in several frozen conflicts and annexing part of another nation, and mean old Uncle Sam just won’t turn a blind eye. In reality, what Putin means when he talks about leaving the bear alone is that he and his friends want the rest of the world to shut up about them robbing their country blind and pissing away the future of its people. Can’t they just remember that one thing he did roughly fifteen years ago and shut up? He did improve their living standards once, did he not? And even though virtually all those improvements are now gone and things are steadily turning worse, can’t everyone just pretend it’s 2006 again, please? Can we ignore when my ultra-rich supporters organize special movements to suppress dissent without any legal repercussion? Don’t they do that in the US too? No? Well I’m sure they must do it in some countries like Egypt or Saudi Arabia!
Putin’s “poor little me” act is about as hollow and nonsensical as his “I’m opposing the West in the name of Christian values” shtick. While it’s not always fair, Putin’s Russia attracts negative attention for a reason. Even if the US government is hypocritical for its selective scrutiny, this does not preclude the judgement of those inside and outside of Russia who have nothing to do with the American or any other government. Don’t like double standards? Fine.Don’t deal in false dichotomies while you’re at it.