Leave the Bear Alone!

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.

8 thoughts on “Leave the Bear Alone!

  1. Shalcker

    I think you are missing one thing that would connect most dots.

    What Putin sees is attack on Russian imperial ambitions – ambitions he believes Russia has right to have and pursue. And that is certainly not a thing US can ignore regardless of Russian track in human rights or democracy.

    “Leave us alone” is “allow us to re-build our empire as we please” (and “Customs Union” is certainly a lot more humane form then empires of old).

    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      True, though aside from the usual imperialist actions one would expect from any capitalist regional power, much of Putin’s revanchism is aimed at defending his domestic popularity. He had to snatch the Crimea because the idea of Ukraine saying “piss off” to his Customs Union would just be more proof that he has nothing to offer. Also it provoked a real conflict with the West, giving people an enemy to focus on.

      1. Shalcker

        Well, the problem is that his offer with Customs Union and loans in December 2013 was objectively better then EU one. He really did win that round, and he even put a price tag on how much it would cost to really pull Ukraine away. He seemed to believe a bit too much in rational thinking prevailing.

        And rather then get into bidding war and continue fight in economic space with EU/US he got coup there.

        And then it looked like he was “Uh, guys, how about rules?” “Screw rules, we got government we wanted there!” “Oh, screw rules? Well, we can play that too!” And he did. With resulting mess we have today,

      2. Jim Kovpak Post author

        Except there was no “coup.” Yanukovych fled and has never provided any evidence that his life was in danger.

        Now what also can’t be proved is that Yanukovych might have got an ultimatum from Putin’s side- leave now or we take the Crimea. By leaving, Russia could cast doubt on the legitimacy of any future Ukrainian government which is exactly what they do by referring to the coup in spite of elections and the fact that they recognize that “coup” government.

        As for Russia’s initial offer, yes, in some ways it was better, but not in the long term. I think Maidan was a serious case of mission creep, where people should have focused on one thing- corruption. Allowing it to turn into an inter-ethnic thing was a ridiculous mistake that never needed to happen. In some ways this was quickly corrected, but too late.

  2. Shalcker

    Well, it was clearly violent, and it was illegal as they dismissed Constitutional Court that was necessary step in impeachment process by Ukrainian law; coup seems to be best way to describe it regardless of Yanukovich actions.

    “Ultimatum from Putin to Yanukovich – go or we take Crimea” seems to be highly unlikely. What was said by all parties though is that Yanukovich (as technically legitimate president until at least May) indeed allowed Russia to deploy forces in Crimea in February/March to maintain order there, and was even regretting it later.

    Long-term escalation of hostilities against a lot bigger and powerful neighbour which even now (during war and everything) remains largest trade partner can be only described as utter lunacy.

    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      Again, Yanukovych left. What were the people supposed to do, be without a president until he decided to buck up and return? Let him rule from exile?

      None of this would have happened had he not led a corrupt regime, went with his initial promise to sign the Association Agreement, and didn’t crack down on protesters.

      In any case, he left, he was removed legally, elections were carried out. It’s not a “coup.” When Russia has an election where someone other than Putin or Medvedev wins, they can criticize Ukraine’s government on those grounds.

      1. Shalcker

        He was a head of sovereign state, and Association Agreement was just bargaining chip to further his own goals (and goals of his country). He played delicate balancing act between EU and Russia, EU offered association with we-benefit-immediately-long-term-maybe-things-will-get-better-for-you-too (not supported by fate of other states that signed Association Agreement though), Russia offered direct and immediate aid and subsidies, EU refused to up their ante or review their conditions, and he went with better deal. As he should have done regardless of being corrupt or not. Even corrupt president cares about cash flows from which he skims subsidies to his cronies.

        What they should have done is go with proper process as it happened with Orange Revolution. Court, prosecutors, rulings, all the things that make up trappings of democratic society. They WOULD get it – not like anyone still liked Yanukovich at that point. Instead they decided to cut corners and went with “anything goes”. …and got responded in kind in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine.

        None of it would happened if he would actually crack down on protesters either; worst case we would be seeing shellings of Western Ukraine rather then Eastern Ukraine with roles between West and Russia reversed.

      2. Jim Kovpak Post author

        That is a reasonable argument, and one I don’t necessarily disagree with, though one of the reasons Yanukovych fled was the defection of many of his allies which gave him power in the Rada, not direct violence against him. This means that the opportunity might not have been there.

        In other words, people often bring up 21 February as being the fault of the protesters, forgetting that Yanukovych should have stayed around. There was no immanent threat that required him to leave.

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