Experts in propaganda warfare, or what is known in American military textbooks as psyops, at least try to fake some sort of objectivity. You know the stuff: on the one hand this, but on the other hand that and that and that, so there. Freedom House essayists disdain this sort of namby-pamby approach: their whole "essay" is a sustained vicious attack on "Putin's" Russia – but primarily on Putin himself.
Their hatred of Putin is so unbridled that they fail to hear themselves talking. First they produce this piece of wisdom: "Attention to the Russia problem should not translate into undue attention to Putin himself." And then their own "undue attention" erupts in a veritable fireworks of attacks on his person that would be judged actionable in any court of law. Putin's actions are described as "paranoid." His "personal behavior is becoming more erratic": Freedom House particularly dislikes his "stunts" like "his flight with Siberian cranes," clearly hoping that the public is unaware that such "stunts" (like winning a black belt in Judo, piloting jet planes, descending to the bottom of Lake Baikal in a bathyscaphe, stroking live tigers, etc.) have been part of Putin's image right from the start of his public career. And FH authors are really scraping the bottom of the barrel when they describe as a "stunt" Putin publicly embracing "disgraced (?!) French actor Gerard Depardieu" or refer to "mounting speculation about his health" - this about a guy who recently drove across the Far East and Siberia in a Lada. What’s more, claims that his "poll numbers" are "steadily declining" is a demonstrable lie, for one thing, and for another, just compare those "declining" approval ratings with those of any state leader in Europe or America.
But enough of this idiocy, the sort that Parteigenosse Goebbels would be proud of. Let me, too, sound a personal note. Over the years, right from the time when Yeltsin appointed Putin Prime Minister, I have been guilty of all sorts of snide remarks about the man. In an argument with Vlad Sobell, I even insisted that, in terms of his stature as a statesman, Putin could not be called a great leader, he was not in the same league as Roosevelt, Churchill, de Gaulle or (God forbid) Stalin. A couple of weeks ago I took Putin to task, in this very space, for asking silly questions about why a certain facility was built two years behind schedule at eight times the original cost: "Doesn't he know why? And if he doesn't, what is he doing being President?"
Having said this (and I could say much more), let me make my position vis-a-vis Putin unequivocally clear: I regard him as the greatest (all right, the biggest) democrat among Russia's recent leaders, and perhaps among its leaders in all its history. If Freedom House were really in the business of promoting democracy in Russia, it ought to be pinning medals on Putin for his achievement in this area, not spouting libellous rubbish about him.
My definition of a democratic leader is simple: the man who shapes his policies in accordance with the wishes, hopes and expectations of the majority of the people he leads – preferably an absolute majority.
Putin fits the definition to a T. No other Russian leader that I know of does. Was Gorbachev a democrat? He was not: he led the country straight toward collapse and disintegration against the will of an absolute majority of the population – a will that was formalized in a referendum. Dereliction of duty might be the mildest accusation leveled against him.
Was Yeltsin a democrat? "Ye-e-s!" – that's the yell that will come from Freedom House and the hordes of thieves and swindlers that flourished in his time. No, say I and millions of others in this country who have suffered at the hands of an oligarchy that was spawned by Yeltsin. Oligarchy and democracy just do not mix. Only intellectual swindlers can say they do.
Compare this with Putin's record. At any given period he had the acumen to determine unerringly what the people expected of him – and acted accordingly.
When he came to power at the turn of the century, the greatest danger to Russia was the disintegration inertia started in Gorbachev's time. Chechnya was just an extreme case. The whole country was in the hands of regional barons, especially ethnic ones, busily usurping the powers of the Center. Countless regional laws were passed in direct contravention of the federal constitution. Mr. Brzezinski wrote a whole textbook on how best to partition Russia. Putin stopped all that. Did that accord with the will of the absolute majority of the Russian people? You bet it did.
Next came the turn of the oligarchs. They were told in no uncertain terms they should know their place –or else. Gusinsky, Berezovsky and sundry others vamoosed abroad; Khodorkovsky, who had made steps not only to take a most vital strategic asset out of Russia's jurisdiction but also to buy up and run its parliament, went to jail for his pains. Did that accord with the people's will? Silly question: the oligarchs were hated even by the men and women who served them.
At all times Putin has done his best to improve the people's standards of living, pushing back bit by bit the godawful poverty line inherited from Yeltsin. My favorite dictum of Jerome K. Jerome's runs thus: "The weather is like the government, always in the wrong." The reverse is also true: The government is like the weather, always in the wrong. So people still grumble, and will continue to do so forevermore. But ask them if they would like to go back to Yeltsin's czardom of freedom and democracy, when for months they waited in vain for their wages and pensions, and see what answer you will get.
Recently, Putin resolved apparently to clean house. He senses that corruption and downright thievery have reached levels that endanger national security – and stick in the people's gizzard. So he decided to do something about it; and man, isn't he doing it right smart, to the delight of the masses! Not a blessed day passes without some stealer of billions being called to account, often by Putin in person, and on camera. The process has encompassed even the Duma, with businessmen who have crept into parliament under false pretenses lining up to hand in their mandates – hence the not quite printable Russian term specially invented to designate the proceedings, razmandachivanie.
Another part of the housecleaning is the passing and enforcement of the Russian copy of the Foreign Agents Registration Act passed in the US as far back as 1938. Russia is, as we see, way behind America in this respect – but it is catching up, make no mistake about that. Foreign agents have had too free a run of the land for more than two decades. Putin is putting a stop to that, at last, and the only people in Russia who protest against it are those whose shoe pinches – the recipients of State Department and other funds, of grants, prizes etc.
Now, who is it whose shoe pinches outside Russia? Why, the folks that direct the flow of those moneys, that's who! As Bill Clinton might have said, It's the finances, stupid! No wonder Freedom House essayists sound so vitriolic in attacking Putin. Personally affronted, one might say.
Well, I can only commiserate with them. The fact of the matter is, they are not up against Putin. They are up against the absolute majority of the Russian people – as I have taken pains to show here. Dixi.
Sergei Roy, Former Editor-in-Chief, Moscow News