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Opinion

Putin and his Russia don't deserve the bad rap

In the right light, we see Russia and Putin have taken some undue heat. Here's a look at some of the most serious accusations leveled at Putin and his Russia.

By David C. Speedie / November 15, 2011



New York

Vladimir Putin’s announcement that he will run for president in 2012 has evoked mass breast beating in the Western media. The indignant response has ranged from direct attacks on Mr. Putin himself to dire assessments of Russia’s future prospects under a renewed Putin presidency.

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But let’s look at some of the most serious accusations leveled at Putin and his Russia. In the right light, we see Russia and Putin have taken some undue heat.

First, critics take aim at Putin for the state of the Russian economy. Many have noted that corruption in Russia is rife and wealth is concentrated in the hands of a privileged few. (True, but data show that income inequality has also risen in the United States and United Kingdom over the past 20 years). Corruption is indeed a problem in Russia, and may continue to inhibit broad economic growth. But let’s remember what Putin inherited on becoming president in 2000 – the disastrous legacy of the Yeltsin era.

Under Boris Yeltsin, Russia opened the door to Western economists and followed their “shock therapy” prescription for economic ills, an austerity program designed to control inflation by raising interest rates and taxes, and inflicting deep cuts on state social programs. As a result, Russia’s GDP fell by half, unemployment soared, and the measures failed to curb inflation. Indeed, hyperinflation wiped out the savings of millions of ordinary Russians.

Another view of the Russian economy is voiced by Donald Kendall, former CEO and cofounder of PepsiCo:

“I have been involved with business in the Soviet Union and Russia since 1959, and Putin has provided the best leadership the country has ever had. PepsiCo is very happy to have Russia as its biggest international market. It is planning to put $1 billion into Russia over the next two years, bringing a ten-year total to $10 billion.”

Mr. Kendall’s favorable account of international investment is echoed by that of GE, Cisco, Nokia, Unilever, and Siemens, among others.

Second, there is the portrait of Putin as the arch-authoritarian. To be sure, Putin is, to use the celebrated phrase of my friend, the political scientist Michael Mandelbaum, no “Scandinavian democrat.” But again, we should hark back to Mr. Yeltsin. The political consequence of his authoritarian economic policies was a stalemate between the executive and legislative branches that paralyzed the state. Yeltsin sought to disband the legislative branches of government by decree and, in a final act of desperation, called in the Army to attack the parliament building, resulting in 500 deaths and over 1000 wounded.

In comparison to Yeltsin’s record, couldn’t Putin be seen as a great leap forward from his predecessor rather than as a reversion to authoritarianism?

Third, we have Putin the ultranationalist. The man cannot win. On the one hand, for example, he is criticized for buying loyalty from Chechnya and other North Caucasus republics with lavish subsidies. Certainly, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov is an unsavory character, but should Putin be condemned for trying to hold Russia together? After all, the US fought a bloody civil war to do just that.

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