American media coverage of Vladimir Putin, who today began his third term as Russia’s president and 13th year as its leader, has so demonized him that the result may be to endanger U.S. national security.
For nearly 10 years, mainstream press reporting, editorials and op-ed articles have increasingly portrayed Putin as a czar-like “autocrat,” or alternatively a “KGB thug,” who imposed a “rollback of democratic reforms” under way in Russia when he succeeded Boris Yeltsin as president in 2000. He installed instead a “venal regime” that has permitted “corruptionism,” encouraged the assassination of a “growing number” of journalists and carried out the “killing of political opponents.” Not infrequently, Putin is compared to Saddam Hussein and even Stalin.
Well-informed opinions, in the West and in Russia, differ considerably as to the pluses and minuses of Putin’s leadership over the years – my own evaluation is somewhere in the middle – but there is no evidence that any of these allegations against him are true, or at least entirely true. Most seem to have originated with Putin’s personal enemies, particularly Yeltsin-era oligarchs who found themselves in foreign exile as a result of his policies – or, in the case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, in prison. Nonetheless, U.S. media, with little investigation of their own, have woven the allegations into a near-consensus narrative of “Putin’s Russia.”
Even the epithet commonly applied to Putin is incorrect. The dictionary and political science definition of “autocrat” is a ruler with absolute power, and Putin has hardly been that. There are many examples of his need to mediate, sometimes unsuccessfully, among powerful groups in the ruling political establishment and of his policies being thwarted by Moscow and regional bureaucracies. Moreover, if Putin really were a “cold-blooded, ruthless” autocrat, tens of thousands of protesters would not have appeared in Moscow streets, not far from the Kremlin, following the December presidential election. Nor would they have been officially sanctioned – as were the thousands who gathered yesterday before a small group breached the sanctioned lines and violence ensued – or shown on state television.
But consider the largest, and historically most damning, accusation against Putin. Russian democratization began in Soviet Russia, under Mikhail Gorbachev, in 1989-91. “De-democratization,” as it is often called, began not under Putin but under Yeltsin, in the period from 1993 to 1996, when the first Russian president used armed force to destroy a popularly elected parliament; enacted a super-presidential constitution; “privatized” the former Soviet state’s richest assets on behalf of a small group of rapacious insiders; turned the national media over to that emerging financial oligarchy; launched a murderous war in the breakaway province of Chechnya; and rigged his own re-election. (On February 20, outgoing president Dmitri Medvedev shocked a small group of visitors by finally admitting that Yeltsin had not actually won that election against the Communist leader Gennadi Zyuganov.) Putin may have only moderated those fateful policies, but he certainly did not initiate them.