Just How Bad is Putin?

Posted: Jan 10, 2006 11:17 AM

Back when Vladimir Putin succeeded Boris Yeltsin as president of Russia a few years ago, American observers and commentators were broadly agreed that it was bad news. Putin, after all, had been a career officer in the KGB, rising to the rank of colonel, and had been sent to East Germany to do his masters' evil bidding there. What reason was there to hope that he would help Russia find its way to greater freedom?

At the time I counseled patience. Russia's road to democratization was bound to be rocky, and Putin was admittedly no Russian version of James Madison, carefully constructing a free society to replace Russia's almost uninterrupted succession of despotisms, first czarist and then Communist. But he was presumably a realist, who knew that the Russian people had at last opted for a more liberal regime than -- say -- Brezhnev's. It was in his own interest to accommodate that impulse, to the extent that he could.

Since then, Putin's record has been, from a Western standpoint, distinctly uneven. For a time he seemed to be encouraging a freer economy, but his ruthless suppression of the business oligarchs who took over huge swaths of Russian industry made observers wonder whether he was really a friend of free enterprise or just consolidating his own hold on power. The Russian media are generally pretty free, but instances of what seems like governmental persecution aren't hard to find. There is a functioning parliament, with highly vocal opposition parties, but Putin has moved aggressively to put the provincial governors under his thumb. Is this a performance we can endorse?

After all, the American media, in general, have accentuated the negatives. No doubt this is, in part, their natural preference for bad news. And it also serves their ongoing impulse to bash Bush; along with everything else that's wrong with his administration, look at the mess in Russia! Just last week, one of Putin's senior economic advisers, Andrei Illarionov, resigned with a blast at his boss. He charged that Russia "has ceased to be politically free," and added that the government is following the wrong economic policies.

Now, when a bureaucrat resigns and denounces his former employer, it's usually safe to bet that he has simply lost some internal power struggle and quit in a huff. But The New York Times treated Illarionov's charges with solemn respect. And what did Putin do? Throw his new critic in jail? Not at all. His office simply declined to comment.

Our media paid virtually no attention, however, to one recent event that was reported in London's Spectator magazine and reprinted in the January issue of its namesake, the American Spectator. Its author, Peter Robinson, described witnessing a recent ceremony in Moscow in which the military leader of the White (i.e., anti-Communist) forces in the Russian civil war of 1919, Gen. Anton Denikin, who had died in exile, was brought home and reburied with great pomp in the Donskoi monastery. This was a remarkable reversal of the longstanding official attitude toward the "Whites," and reflects Putin's surprising determination to encourage equal regard for the contending forces in that war.

To be sure, such moves toward reconciliation inspire sentiments of national unity that indirectly favor Putin. But they also foreshadow a far better future for Russia than Stalin and his successors ever vouchsafed it. Bringing that brutalized and looted nation safely into the 21st century is not going to be a picnic in the park, and it will take tough men to do so.

No, Vladimir Putin is not the kind of person you would pick to preside over a well-established democracy like the United States or Britain. And he may, from time to time, succumb to the temptation to abuse the powers of his office. Certainly it is entirely proper for the United States and other well-intentioned nations to insist, so far as we are able, on a decent regard for human rights in Russia. But let us never suppose that a happy outcome there will be easy for anyone to achieve.