Yelstin Good, Putin Bad

I highly recommend subscribing to David Johnson’s Russia List. Mr. Johnson provides some of the best sources for news on Russia and the other former Soviet states. Today’s edition, JRL #9261, is particularly interesting because Johnson inserts some of his wit into the news roll. Featured are two editorials published today. One, “Mr. Putin’s Clouded Promise,” from the NY Times and the other, “Silent on Putin’s Slide. Bush Ignores Russia’s Fading Freedom,” from the Washington Post. For comparison, he follows them with two editorials from 1993 from the same papers. From the NY Times: “In Russia, Disorder to Democracy?” (October 5, 1993) and “Officials Hail Yeltsin Foes’ Rout,” (October 6, 1993); and the Washington Post: “Weekend War,” (October 5, 1993). Johnson adds this short introductory note:

“In early October 1993 Yeltsin’s tanks assaulted the parliament and the future course of Russian history was decisively altered. I follow the first two items from the Washington Post and the New York Times with items from those papers from October 1993. I’m not sure what lessons can be drawn from this but I suspect there is something to be learned.”

Lessons to be learned indeed. The articles show the typical American hypocrisy when it comes to Russia. When Yeltsin used tanks against “old-line Communist “reds,” fascist-minded, nationalistic anti-Semitic “browns” and other bitter-enders,” this was hailed by the Washington Post, NY Times, and the Clinton Administration as democratic progress. It was a sign of a commitment to “reform and democracy.” Translated: reforms and democracy that are favorable to American interests. Lesson #1: weak dependent Russia is a good Russia. But Putin gets no license or democratic accolades like his drunken former benefactor. Apparently, you have call tanks into the streets to eliminate his opponents to get that. Instead, the Washington Post is tempted to call Putin’s tactics “Stalinist” because “he can reimpose authoritarian rule without a gulag, simply by spreading fear through example.” But his policies, whatever you think of them, are not in the interests of the U.S., but independent of it. Lesson #2: strong independent Russia is a bad Russia.

The NY Times and the Washington Post can cry all the want about poor Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Don’t let his metrosexual visage fool you. The truth of the matter is that he is a crook just like all the Russian oligarchs, and that most Russians rightly see him as such. It is only the American press that had made Khodorkovsky into some beacon of freedom and example of a “political prisoner.” I wish the Bush would use that kind of state power and arrest some of our corporate crooks. But wait, that would mean arresting all of his friends!

Sure, Putin’s actions against Khodorkovsky are selective. They are authoritarian. I’m not apologizing for that. But to say that Russian democracy is “slipping” is utter fantasy. It’s never stood up.

To be fair, the Washington Post does point to some real concerns:

“[Putin] can fire one editor for putting a negative story on the front page and other editors get the message. He can have one or two judges dismissed without pension and other judges toe the line. Threaten a few human rights organizations, allow the murders of a few journalists to go unsolved, open a criminal investigation of the one politician who mentions challenging you in the next election, throw a few businessmen into tuberculosis-infested prison cells — and word gets around.”

But Johnson’s transposes these articles to make a different point: American interpretations of democracy and reform in Russia are just as hollow as Putin’s claims to them. And this is why, I’m afraid, Western reporting on Russia should always be taken with a dash of politics and a pinch of Russophobia.