Thursday, December 20, 2007

Vladimir Putin and Russian Authoritarianism

Did Time magazine screw-up in its selection of Vladimir Putin as Person of the Year?

I suggested in an earlier post that General David Petraeus, one of Time's runners-up, should have been selected (thank you Bill O'Reilly). I'm seeing a few others who agree on that point as well. Michael Barone has this to say, for example:

Time magazine has chosen Vladimir Putin as the person of the year. This strikes me as an odd choice. Yes, Putin has been an important player on the international stage; yes, he has frustrated American efforts to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons; yes, he has been more intransigent on asserting Russian power on the "near abroad," the former Soviet republics, which, like Ukraine, Georgia, and the Baltics, seek to take a different course. But he has been doing these things for years, and he has made no important advances, at best incremental progress, in calendar year 2007.

In contrast, Time's fourth runner-up for person of the year,
Gen. David Petraeus, has made an enormous difference this past year. With the help of many others (which is true of any leader), he has turned around the military situation and the political situation (if not at the top-down national level, then at the bottom-up local level) in Iraq. What seemed to be an imminent American defeat has been transformed into an imminent American success. And Petraeus has done more than any other person to turn that around.
I'll come back to Barone's point below (but see also Tom the Redhunter).

My dissatisfaction with Putin's pick is his growing authoritarianism. At a time when the United States is struggling mightily to consolidate democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq, it seems contradictory to our values to bestow media recognition on the autocratic, retrograde leader of the Russian state.

An article Tuesday in the Wall Street Journal raised important questions about Russia's steady drift toward authoritarian politics. The article, "
Putin and Orthodox Church Cement Power in Russia," chronicles the growing alliance between the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church.

The article opens with a discussion of Sergei Taratukhin - a defrocked orthodox priest - who recanted his denunciations of Russian state power to get back in the good graces with the regime:

Mr. Taratukhin's repentance reinforces what has become a pillar of Mr. Putin's Russia: an intimate alliance between the Orthodox Church and the Kremlin reminiscent of czarist days. Rigidly hierarchical, intolerant of dissent and wary of competition, both share a vision of Russia's future - rooted in robust nationalism and at odds with Western-style liberal democracy.

In recent months, Orthodox priests have sprinkled holy water on a new Russian surface-to-air-missile system called Triumph and blessed a Dec. 2 parliamentary election condemned by European observers as neither free nor fair. When the Kremlin last week unveiled its plan to effectively keep Mr. Putin in charge after his time as president ends, the head of the church, Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Alexy II, went on TV to laud the scheme as a "great blessing for Russia."

"The state supports the church, and the church supports the state," says Sergei Kovalyov, a Soviet-era human-rights activist. Three decades ago, he was locked up with Mr. Taratukhin, the wayward Siberian, at Perm-36, part of the Soviet gulag. Mr. Kovalyov remembers his former prison-mate well: Jailed for anticommunist agitation, he kept getting sent to an isolation cell after a gutsy but foolhardy effort to expose security-service snitches spying on prisoners....

Today's intimacy between church and state revives in many ways a relationship that existed before the Revolution of 1917, when a czarist rallying cry was "Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationhood." Russia today has no czar and its constitution mandates a division between church and state. But Mr. Putin has increasingly assumed a czar-like status, hailed by the patriarch and other supporters as a "national leader" endowed with an almost mystical right to rule indefinitely.

The alliance also has roots in Russia's Soviet past, when the KGB hounded dissident clerics and favored those loyal to the state. It recruited many churchmen as agents or informers. Among the agents, say people who have reviewed KGB archives, was the current patriarch, Alexy II.

Asked about the accusations against the church and the patriarch, Vsevold Chaplin, a senior priest in the church's Moscow headquarters, said there were no "specially planted KGB workers" within the church. This, he said, is a "myth." He added that contact with Soviet authorities was "not immoral" if it didn't harm individuals or the church. A church commission looked into the question of KGB collaboration but didn't make its findings public.

Mr. Kovalyov, the Soviet-era dissident, says: "Our patriarch and our president have the same background. They are from the same firm - the KGB."

Russia embraced Christianity just over a millennium ago and belongs to the Eastern Orthodox tradition, which split from the Western church in the 11th century and posits the ideal of "symphonia," or cooperation between church and state.

Occasional attempts by Russian churchmen to defy state authority have been crushed. When the 16th-century head of the Moscow church, Philip, criticized the abuses of Ivan the Terrible, he was taken before a kangaroo court, convicted of sorcery and ordered to repent. He refused. The czar had him murdered. Peter the Great in the 18th century placed the church under state control because he viewed it as an obstacle to modernization, and also his power. Communism later enshrined atheism as Russia's state creed. Thousands of priests were murdered or sent to the gulag.

As the Soviet Union was imploding in 1990, democratic reformers around President Boris Yeltsin faced a "very serious and painful" decision, says Sergei Stankevich, at the time a senior Yeltsin adviser and head of a policy group responsible for religion. The issue, he says, was what to do with a priesthood compromised by links to the KGB.

"It was not just one or two people. The whole church was under control," he says. "We knew it for sure because we looked at the archives," which use code names to describe priests' involvement in numerous operations. These ranged from campaigns to muzzle dissident clergy to KGB-orchestrated efforts to counter criticism from foreign churchmen of Soviet religious repression.
Read the whole thing.

It may not appear to casual readers why this tightening between Russian church and state is so problematic.

Note though: Compared to the Western democracies of North America and Europe, Russia's political history evolved in the absence of the cultural, political, and religious requisites pushing the state's development toward liberal, pluralistic political foundations.

One of the most significant developments in pre-revolutionary Russia was the tight relationship that emerged between what is today's St. Petersburg and the Byzantine Empire. The close ties to Byzantium pulled Russia in the direction of Eastern culture, and away from the liberalizing tendencies found in Western Europe. Russian rulers adopted Orthodox Christianity rather than Roman Catholicism. This alliance with the Eastern Church increased the impact of Mediterranean influences, seen not just in religion, but also in the adoption of the Cyrillic alphabet (see
the Wall Street Journal's graphic on the tightening alliance between the Russian state and the Orthodox Church).

What is more, the Eastern influence combined with internal decay and outside invasion to hinder the potential for liberalizing tendencies to take root. The Mongol hordes - the major invading power - whisked out of Central Asia to dominate Russian politics for 200 years (beginning around 1280). Their brutality delayed Russia's indigenous development and many of the local potentates adopted patterns of harsh Mongol despotism, which served to reinforce the earlier strains of authoritarianism found in the Byzantine tradition.

This two-century interregnum stunted Russian political development and strengthened a culture of encirclement and need for stability.
As Lawrence Mayer has argued:

The long period of Tatar [Mongol] control isolated Russia from Western Europe at the very time when Europe was experiencing pivotal events such as the Renaissance and the Reformation. It is difficult to overstate the importance of this period, which is among the most significant in the history of Western civilization and is considered to mark the beginning of the modern era. As a consequence, Russia never really participated in the debates concerning such issues as the proper relationship between Church and state, the questioning of the Church and state authority, and the importance and value of the individual.

Russia's experiences, beginning at the time of the Mongol invasion and moving forward, illustrate a salient feature of the Russian psyche that is still present today - the perceived need for security and protection from invasion. While it is correct to think of Russia as an expansionist power, especially from the sixteenth century on, we should be aware of the other side of the coin. While Kiev [St. Petersburg] was fighting the invaders from the East, several European groups, most notably Swedes and the Germans, seized the opportunity to stage their own attacks on Russia. These and other invasions down through the centuries, by Poland, Sweden, France, Germany, and others, may help to explain a subsequent Russian feeling of insecurity and a preoccupation with strength, security, and buffer zones.
This discussion really just hits the tip of the iceberg: Russian political development lacked additional attributes common in Western development, such as a demarcation of property rights from control of the state; a system of law binding on ruler and subject alike; and class systems of egalitarianism rather than subjugation and bondage.

This authoritarian culture was thus perfectly adaptable to the emergence of the Marxist-Leninist totalitarian regime that followed the Russian Revolution of 1917. Today, as the Wall Street Journal points out above, the state's move toward the Orthodox Church harkens to earlier, darker eras of Russian absolutism.

It's thus fitting that Time's lead story on Putin's recognition is entitled, "
A Tsar Is Born." The Russian president has consolidated power on the basis of Great Russian nationalism, centralized bureaucratic control, and economic recovery. Having been isolated during the period of NATO expansion in the 1990s, and with two American hegemonic wars currently being waged on the southern borders of Russian power, it's not surprise that Putin has mounted a robust policy of strategic independence and resurgence amid intense domestic centralization.

These are not welcomed trends, however. As Michael McFaul and Kathryn Stoner-Weiss argue
in the January/February 2008 issue of Foreign Affairs:

There is also very little evidence to suggest that Putin's autocratic turn over the last several years has led to more effective governance than the fractious democracy of the 1990s. In fact, the reverse is much closer to the truth: to the extent that Putin's centralization of power has had an influence on governance and economic growth at all, the effects have been negative. Whatever the apparent gains of Russia under Putin, the gains would have been greater if democracy had survived.
So, to return to Time 's pick of
Putin as Person of the Year. Note Michael Barone's additional observations:

It's hard to avoid the conclusion that Time didn't name Petraeus as the person of the year because its editors didn't want to spotlight and honor American success. This was not always so, as you can check by looking at Time's archive of person of the year (originally man of the year) selections over the years. During World War II, Time chose Gen. George Marshall as man of the year for 1943 and Dwight Eisenhower for 1944. To be sure, Time did not always name those admired by its founder, Henry Luce, a liberal Republican and interventionist in the run-up to World War II. For 1942, it named Joseph Stalin for the Soviets' successful resistance to the Nazi invasion that began in 1941, but it had also, justifiably, named Stalin as the man of the year in 1939, because the Hitler-Stalin pact agreed to in August 1939 enabled Adolf Hitler to invade Poland without serious opposition. Indeed, Time also named Hitler man of the year for 1938, when he got Britain and France to appease him by destroying the power of Czechoslovakia to resist conquest.
Time claims to bestow the honor on an individual who - "for good or ill" - most affected the news of our lives and "embodied what was important about the year."

Well, if that's the criteria, I'd say
runner-up Al Gore should have easily been selected over Putin. But more troubling are the historical selections from those on the "ill-side," which include some of the 20th-century's most bloody tyrants, who at the time also happened to be among America's most implacable enemies.

It's a strange and troublesome selection process. Thus, readers can see why I would argue that, ultimately, on the biggest issue facing the United States and the world this year, General David Petraeus truly is the Person for the Year for 2007.