Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Sunday, April 06, 2008

America and Russia

Two things happened last week that got my attention. First, John McCain started babbling about "revanchist Russia." The other thing that happened is that while in the hospital after the birth of my daughter, I saw a little special about Fort Ross on television. I've been to Fort Ross before, but this reminded me of the long and special connection between Russia and America. During the US Civil War, for example, the only open ally of the Americans was the Tsar of Russia, who wintered his pacific fleet at San Francisco as a sign of support. Also, Alexander II freed Russia's serfs in 1861.

McCain's use of the term "revanchist" sent shivers down my spine. The term dates from the 1870s when certain French politicians became obsessed with revenge (revanche) to recover the territory (Alsace-Lorraine) lost to Germany in 1871 Franco-Prussian war. Since then, it was used to describe Germany in the 1930s (for the same piece of territory) and elsewhere for similar desires to reverse territorial losses. The easy equation of the USSR and Russia is too easy. John McCain is so old that all he knows - and worse, all he can imagine - is the Cold War. For him, demonizing Putin and Medvedev is familiar territory, as it is for many neocons as well. This is not how to be Ronald Reagan for the 21st century.

I know I'm the last Putin supporter in the USA, but hear me out. The situation in Russia is so much improved for the Russian people and for the US from what it was 25 years ago. Russia, unlike the USSR, has no worldwide strategy to challenge the US. Although Putin has proven hostile to opposition parties and opposition media, he has hardly abolished freedom of speech. Russia is not a totalitarian country anymore. People are free to express themselves to their friends and family without fear of reprisals or the gulag. They are free to worship as they please and to travel abroad. They are free to own property and engage in business. Democratic and constitutional forms are taking root. When Putin wished to continue his rule, he didn't change the constitution - he accepted the need to leave the Presidency and took another role (prime minister). This is real progress, people.

Putin is also genuinely popular in Russia. He makes Russians proud of themselves for the first time in a long time. When I studied abroad in Russia in 1992, I remember many Russians saying that "communism failed because we are failures." Recovering a sense of national pride without turning to Zhirinovsky or other right-wing clowns is a great development. Oil revenue has allowed the government to succeed with a low the tax load (income taxes around 10% flat tax). In Moscow and St. Petersburg, ambitious young men and women have opportunity to succeed outside government. Lenin was a revolutionary in part because his ambition was blocked; today he would be a "biznesmen." Bread lines are gone. While the countryside remains very poor, the cities are doing better. And the cities are open. Gone is the internal passport (dating back well into Tsarist times) that forbade country folk from migrating to the cities. Russians know in their bones, if not in their heads, that life in 2008 is the best it has ever been for them. Think about that for a while.

No, Russia is not a docile pal, but - compared with China - it is clearly in the Western camp , on the path to liberty and prosperity. So when I hear McCain flailing verbally against Russia, yet happy to engage with China, I shake my head. I don't want a cold war for my daughter, and we don't have to have one. But we need to elect someone who is not emotionally and intellectually trapped in a 1960s Vietnamese prison cell.


History Buff said...

I think the big problem the neocons have with Russia is that they were very unsupportive of the Iraq war. Russia probably was remembering their days in Afganistan and they had some oil deals with Saddam.

I think that Bush's relationship with Putin is a bit strange, but he does seem to be able to deal with him in some ways. But trying to get Ukraine and Georgia into NATO, as one NPR listener said the other day, would be like Russia trying to make weapons treaties with Mexico and Canada.

As far as the freedom of journalists is concerned, I believe a couple of them were assassinated last year. That would probably give most journalists pause. But, as you say, the general public is not being watched as in the past.
I think we probably do need to tread carefully with Russia, but I don't think we should go back to Cold War thinking.

Raised By Republicans said...

Please, LTG, stop making me like John McCain. He's right about Putin's Russia.

LTG is dead wrong about Putin. Putin's popularity in Russia is a sham based on his dictatorial control of the media and his budgetary largess made possible by sky high oil prices.

LTG, says that Putin is preferable to Zhirinovsky and "right wing clowns." How? Putin is a nationalist who has waged a genocidal dirty war in Chechenya with brutal disregard for the civilians there. He has abused his authority to prosecute prominent Russians who oppose his rule. He has attempted to poison the leader of a neighboring country (Ukraine) and he in all likely ordered the murder of a whistle-blower while he was residing in the U.K..

I would suggest that Putin and Zhirinovsky differ only in who they would target and the efficacy with which they would apply their brutal methods - Putin is by far the more effictive.

Putin will go down in history as the man who put off Russia's chances for democracy for decades.

I would not draw such great distinctions between Russia and China except where their respective futures are pointed. Russia has traded a party dictatorship for a personal one. It's economy and the government's revenues depend entirely on the world price of a single commodity - oil. China on the other had has a rapidly diversifying economy and is ruled by a large and increasingly diverse Communist party.

Diversity is the key to eventual democratization. While China and Russia may be at similar points now, China is on the way up and Russia - because of Putin - is on the way down.

Whether Tsarist Russia was our ally 150 years ago is laughably irrelevant.

Dr. Strangelove said...

You may be interested to know that this argument is playing out in the intelligence community as well, but the other way around. The powers that be believe what LTG says, and those who argue as RbR does are dismissed as having a "cold war mentality." I have heard maverick officials bemoan that Russia represents as much of a threat as China, but nobody will listen. I have also heard experts scoff at those mavericks as being stuck in the 1990s.

Raised By Republicans said...

Well, I'm right and they're wrong.

So long as Russia continues to prop up a nationalist regime that is sliding into dictatorship by putting all of its economic eggs in the oil basket, Russia is headed in a scary direction.

I'm not stuck in the cold war or the 1990s. Rather I'm looking at a country with bad relations with its neighbors, a nationalist and dictatorial government and an unhealthy emphasis on oil exports.

Pretending that Russia is doing fine is probably being pushed by the big oil interests in this country. I strongly suspect that when Bush "looked into Putin's soul" and saw good there what he really saw was a few million barrels of Russia's "heavy sour" crude.

The Law Talking Guy said...

Well, RBR, I couldn't disagree with you more. I won't indulge your "I'm right, you're wrong" bait. Except to say "nyah, nyah, nyah..."

A few things, though. The Chechen war began under Yeltsin, not Putin. And Yeltsin's government was far more brutal there than Putin has been (or has had to be, more realistically). Putin sees George Bush sanctioning torture and stealing an election (or two) at home and wonders what makes "Democracy" so different than what he does. He sees Bush trying to encircle Russia by adding all the former Soviet republics to NATO (are we *really* going to risk US lives in a Russia-Ukraine conflict?). Compared to Brezhnev, he's a lamb - he certainly views himself that way. I do not think there is real evidence that Russia is sliding to dictatorship. Rather, I think it is backsliding from Yeltsin in terms of participatory democracy, but it is building up more.

Zhirinovsky would have been a totalitarian, RBR. He promoted himself as a genuine fascist who wanted to rid Russia of the "swarthy" people and Jews. So there's a world of difference between their visions for Russia. Putin has not erected statues of himself everywhere. And above all, Putin has ceded formal control to Medvedev, a popular and charismatic politician who will acquire genuine power of his own, and will not just be a puppet of Putin's Kremlin faction.

Also, the oil revenue is not going to turn Russia into Venezuela or Saudi Arabia - their other resources are far too great for that. I predict oil revenue will allow Russia to develop the infrastructure to exploit their other substantial resources, which will promote economic diversity. As of yet, there is no road that runs across the entire country from East to West. And Siberia is warming, which is good for Siberia, if for nobody else.

But RBR, I do not know or claim to know whether Clinton or Obama agree with me on this issue. I do know that they are unlikely to simply see the USSR-revived through a Cold War lens as McCain does. They will take stock of Russia realistically, and see that it is a potential partner in the world.

The history is not laughably irrelevant - it provides a narrative selling US-Russia friendship to the Russian people. It beats the crap out of, say, the Opium war and the Boxer rebellion.

Dr. Strangelove said...

Without weighing in on the truth of the situation with Russia--of which I know little--I can at least speculate on McCain's motives. As a Republican, he needs to beat the war drums about something... and since Iran is somewhat off-limits this year, Russia is a good bet.

Fear. Fear!! Are you afraid yet?

Raised By Republicans said...

I'm glad LTG "saw" my tongue in my cheek - and a double nyah nyah nyah to you.

Wikipedia disagrees about Putin's role in the war in Chechenya: According to that site, nearly half of the Chechen population was driven from their homes when Putin was Prime Minister.

I was wondering when you would defend Putin by pointing to Bush's failings. So I will condemn him the same way. Why should we condemn Bush and then excuse Putin for exhibiting the same awful behaviors ten fold?

"Also, the oil revenue is not going to turn Russia into Venezuela or Saudi Arabia"

It already has. Well, Venezuaela at least. In both Venezuaela and Russia you have an elected government that has been governing beyond the constitutional limits for some time. Both governments have agressively meddled in the affairs of their neighbors (although, I don't think Chavez has tried to kill any neighboring Presidential candidates).

As far as the cold war accusation. I don't think it is neccessary to see the world in a cold war way to see that Russia is moving in a dangerous and negative direction because of Putin and that is should be discouraged.

I think we should think of Russia in a nuanced way but Putin is a thug and we should call thugs thugs. We should not be talking about how nice it is that Russian leaders are using nationalism to increase the self-esteem of a people that (without the oil) would be worse off than Ghana.

Pombat said...

Not just the oil - don't forget the gas, and all the posturing and growling at Europe about supplies thereof.

Russia scares me a bit. But then so does China, Iran, North Korea...

Raised By Republicans said...

Yes, and Gasprom was recently taken over by Putin and is now effectively a state run company that Putin uses quite agressively as a foreign policy what we want or we'll raise your gas prices.

I'm worried about China in the short term but I'm cautiously optimistic about them in the medium and long run. Same with Iran really. I think both China and Iran are on the right path to democratize on their own. Russia shows no such tendency, in fact they're going in the wrong direction. So Russia worries me in both the short term and the medium/long term.

The use of nationalism by the current Russian leadership to distract people from how really badly run their country is is a dangerous strategy. It's what Argentina did in the run up to the Falklands War only Russia has nukes, a bigger military and more neighbor who are more vulnerable.

Dr. Strangelove said...

Excellent, Pombat [taps fingers together]. If you are sufficiently fearful, perhaps we can convince you to vote Republican... :-)

Pombat said...

Eeeeexcellennnnnt :-)

Nah, I'm not going to try and vote Republican - a citizen of one country, resident (not yet fully legally complete with visa) in another, attempting to vote in your election whilst Bush is still in charge. Gitmo scares me...


Raised By Republicans said...

I think you're right about McCain's motives - that he wants people scared for the election. And I don't think we should be running out and buying bomb shelters for our back yards. But when it comes to how we should view Putin's government, even a busted clock is right twice a day.

We should be wary of Putin and his government. His latest finesse with the Presidency/Prime Ministership is yet more evidence of his unwillingness to give up power - rather than any kind of real progress towards democracy.

The Law Talking Guy said...

I will wager a bottle of good Siberian vodka with RBR that ten years from now Russia is more democratic and pro-western than it is today.

Raised By Republicans said...

That's hardly much of a bet. How about betting on whether Russia or China or Iran are more democratic by some set of objective criteria.

Also, you would lose if the democratization of Russia took place in conjunction with some unexpected anti-Putin movement.

The Law Talking Guy said...

Well, if it's a good bet that Russia is more democratic and pro-western than it is today, that means it's on the right track, doesn't it? And why should an anti-Putin movement be disqualifying to me? Unless it takes place in a context of violence, I think that's just healthy development.

Frankly, I think this is a concession that I am right, RBR. To believe as you have suggested, you have to believe that in 10 years Russia will be more authoritarian and isolated, not less.

The Law Talking Guy said...

Well, if it's a good bet that Russia is more democratic and pro-western than it is today, that means it's on the right track, doesn't it? And why should an anti-Putin movement be disqualifying to me? Unless it takes place in a context of violence, I think that's just healthy development.

Frankly, I think this is a concession that I am right, RBR. To believe as you have suggested, you have to believe that in 10 years Russia will be more authoritarian and isolated, not less.

Raised By Republicans said...

No, LTG, it means I think Putin won't last that long.

Russia is worse off for having Putin. Whether they will be better off in the future or not is not my point. My point is that they would be better off without Putin.

The Law Talking Guy said...

Worse off than what? Than the far right? Than the communists? Yabloko, the only pro-western, pro-democratic party in existence, never commanded any significant portion of the electorate. Putin was, and is, better than the alternatives that reasonably existed. And his influence will, I think, ultimately be seen as positive and stabilizing.

The Law Talking Guy said...

Let me add that Russia in 1992 was not Germany in 1945. There did not exist, as there did in Germany, a whole social-democratic party (SDP) infrastructure ready to help run the government. There was no autonomous Lutheran church (as in East Germany) to help organize non-state civic life. Russia had no political traditions of any kind outside the communist party or a weird bunch of academic slavophile-crypto-fascist-Tsarists. Those weirdos are the "revanchists" -not Putin. Like a German professor I met in 1990 whom I congratulated after the fall of the Berlin wall, who then pointed at a map of Poland and said that "parts of the Fatherland are still under foreign control." Creepy. That's revanchism.

Russia has been making it all up as it goes along, and dealing with national humiliation and bread lines to boot. Give them a break. They've found a leader who won't open gulags, won't erect statues of himself, and will take leave of office on time. They've secured market freedoms and basic personal liberties. That's major progress for Russia. No wonder they like Putin. I don't blame them. And I don't think he's anything more than a transitional phase on the path to greater liberty in the future. One thing's for sure, he's no revanchist.

Raised By Republicans said...

Continuing designs on Polish territory by the German right is creepy. I agree.

Yabloko in coalition with other parties would have been preferable. Also, Yeltsin groomed Putin to succeed him. Another could have been groomed. Putin could have used his personal popularity to make different choices.

I'm objecting to Putin's actions on principle.