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Time right to figure out Putin's Russia

Time right to  figure out Putin's Russia

Listening to Time magazine's interview with its Person of the Year, Russian President Vladimir Putin, reminds me, in a way, of the old Groucho Marx quip that he wouldn't want to be in any club that would have him as a member.
Putin was responding to a question about whether Russia would one day want to join the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance. But rather than the self-deprecating humor of the great humorist Marx, Putin's comments reflected the bitterness and hurt pride that has come to characterize much of Russia's attitude toward the United States since the fall of communism.
Fascinating decision
Time's decision to make Putin its Person of the Year is fascinating. The magazine's editors make clear that the bestowal of the title is not an honor, just a statement of their judgment of who has had the greatest impact on events in the past year. And the re-emergence of Russia as a major player - and not always a welcome one - on the world stage is a major development, even if its rise hasn't dominated headlines in the same manner as the war in Iraq or the presidential campaign. In the longer term, Russia's rise from the shambles of communism could have greater impact on world affairs than even President George W. Bush's misadventure in Iraq. For better or worse.
Like many people who've watched Russia throw off the shackles of the inept and, yes, evil communist system only to return to an authoritarian mode under Putin, I've been concerned about the direction of this huge, nuclear-armed country.
The crackdown on freedoms, including press freedom, the dominance of Putin's party, the widespread corruption - all smack of an earlier time in Russia. No, we are not going back to the Cold War, but the short period of real cooperation with Russia that marked the early 1990s is well in the past.
More than anything, Putin wants Russia to be a strong, independent force in world affairs. He clearly resents the way the West, notably the United States, has treated Russia, especially with the expansion of NATO to its borders.
Stabilized nation
Just coincidentally, I had dinner this week with a businessman friend who has traveled in Russia frequently over the years. I expressed my concern at Putin's authoritarian ways and his determination to hold on to power, as prime minister, once he leaves the presidency. My friend was less concerned. He believes, first of all, it's important that Russia be a stable country. Putin's authoritarian ways and the skyrocketing price of oil - Russia is the world's second largest supplier after Saudi Arabia - have helped Russia stabilize from the disastrous years following the collapse of communism. The suffering then was real and widespread and potentially dangerous.
"You could just see that they were doing it wrong - the idea of some Western economists that if you just let the market work by itself, everything would be taken care of," said my friend. "It just isn't that simple. The Russians have to find their own way of building a market economy and governing themselves. It is going to take a long time."
Even Mikhail Gorbachev, the seminal figure in bringing the old system down with his policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring), acknowledges that Putin had to bring a sense of order to the country or there was a possibility of total chaos. In the Time interview, Putin gives Gorbachev credit for facing the reality that the communist system didn't work.
There's plenty of reason to be worried about Putin's authoritarian ways and his plan to hold on to power. Is he the new czar, as Time says on its cover? When Boris Yeltsin followed the Russian constitution to give up power and stepped off the stage, it was hoped that would represent a new tradition in Russian political history. Putin seems to be following an older model.
But, as my friend suggests, we're watching a long and difficult process in Russia. Our presidential candidates have all but ignored that country so far, but how to deal with it intelligently needs to be a topic in our national debate.
James Klurfeld is vice president and editor of the editorial pages at Newsday.

Updated : 2021-06-18 20:35 GMT+08:00