Putin - Man of the Year

Vladimir Putin has been awarded Time Magazine's Person of the Year.

Ever since I studied Russian history at University, the land of Rus has been of great interest to me. Russia's rise to superpower status under the Soviet regime was not without devastating brutality but it was certainly effective. Through their own hard work and careful intelligence, Russia sent the first satellite into orbit, the first man into orbit, posed a viable threat to the US, and had a standard of living that rivalled anywhere in the West... up until the 1970s that is.

It was China who first discovered that pure communism - even that which arose from its own ranks - was not going to work. The multitude of deaths that occurred during the "great leap forward" - as ironic as any term in history - convinced the Chinese communists to put aside pure ideology and instead focus upon what actually worked. And if that meant returning some of the economy to capitalism, then so be it. In years to come, the name Deng Xiaoping will be respected the world over for his influence in developing "Socialism with Chinese Characteristics" - a code word for economic reform. Under Deng's leadership, China moved from being a poverty-stricken third world nation into what it is today, an industrialised and prosperous society. Deng's reforms so changed China that it could be argued that he saved the lives of countless millions of his countrymen, and reduced poverty more effectively than anyone else in history.

But what of Putin and Russia? Gorbachev did, I think, try to reform the economy much in the same way as Deng, but he was not always popular. When Russian communism collapsed in 1991, the resulting social and economic chaos was not what supporters of democracy and capitalism wished. In fact, Russia was in terrible danger of repeating the post-revolutionary conditions of the 1920s where no one in power really knew what to do while the population starved.

The United Nations Human Development Index paints a very stark picture of Russia after communism collapsed. The index, which takes into account three equal measures of development - GDP per capita, educational attainment and average life expectancy - shows a frightening decline from 1990 (HDI of 0.818, which is equivalent to a first world nation) to 1995 (0.771, a second world nation). With this evidence in hand we can pretty much assume that the 5 year period between 1990 and 1995 saw massive financial losses, higher levels of poverty and higher death rates amongst ordinary Russians. By the year 2000 - and the end of Boris Yeltsin's reign - Russia's HDI had risen only slightly (to 0.785), which indicates a recovery of sorts, but certainly not enough to erase the devastation of 1990-1995.

The last time Russia's HDI was measured was in 2004 (0.797), which indicated that Russia's standard of living was continuing to improve. Moreover, Russia's GDP continues to grow at around 7% pa, showing that the economic reforms that were implemented are now beginning to bear fruit.

Putin will not be thought of in the same way as Deng. Putin's reforms were never as widespread or as effective or as life changing as Deng's. Yet there is no doubt that under his rule, Russia has become more peaceful and more prosperous. Election oddities aside, Putin remains a popular figure in his country and they will not soon forget him.

It's not that Putin is somehow saintly. All the evidence points to him lining his own pockets from ventures like Gazprom. He won't be remembered for being a democracy lover either, with evidence pointing to electoral corruption and even the "elimination" of political threats. What he won't go down in history though is as a military dictator - the conflicts in Chechnya and other places in the Caucasus were never resolved under his rule, but they were never expanded either. Moreover, he won't go down in history as a person who ruined the economy because of his own stupidity, like Stalin in the 1930s and Mugabe today. Certainly Moscow and other cities are still plagued with crime, but the foundations of civil society are still being laid which means that things are more likely to get better.

Putin is smart. Lacking the charisma of previous leaders, Putin fought for respect based upon his competence and his connections. If you look at world leaders, Putin is probably the most corrupt, yet you cannot argue that he lined his pockets by doing the right thing.

I believe that democracy is the best form of government around. Russia under Putin is hardly a functioning democracy. Yet I would also argue that for democracy to succeed and grow it needs a peaceful and prosperous populace. Putin has provided this foundation, let's hope that subsequent leaders can build upon what he has laid.

1 comment:

BLBeamer said...

Yet I would also argue that for democracy to succeed and grow it needs a peaceful and prosperous populace.

It also requires that all the democrats not be murdered, exiled or imprisoned.