Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Michael McFaul at Slate shreds the logic behind Time magazine's selection of Vladimir Putin as its "Man of the Year." Most of us have had a chance by now to hear that the magazine's selection process is meant as a nonjudgmental declaration of who deserves to be regarded as the biggest newsmaker of the past twelve months--that it's not, technically speaking, an "honor." (You sure got to hear that explanation more than a few times if you were alive and had access to media in late 1979, when the editors put Ayatollah Khomeini on the cover.) Still, there's definitely a compliment tucked inside the magazine's selection of Putin; as McFaul puts it, the scenario goes like this--"In the 1990s, so the Time story goes, Russia was a place of lawlessness, economic depression, and instability. In the last decade, however, Russia has become a place of order, economic growth, and stability." And Time, with its embrace of the Great Man theory of history, figures that Putin deserves the credit for it.

What makes this annual blip on the radar screen of contemporary history queasier than it had to be is that by saluting Putin for saving Russia, the magazine is implicitly--and, in some parts of their laudatory essay on the topless Russian president, not so implicitly--saying that the disintegration of democratic reform and the grab for centralized power that has been taking place under Putin was necessary to save the country. But as McFaul sees it, " the Time theory that Putin's democratic rollback has been a necessary condition for achieving stability and growth—they call it the 'grand bargain'—is simply wrong. In fact, there is no evidence at all—and most certainly not in the 36 pages Time devotes to Putin and his Russia—that greater autocracy has caused either order or growth. Autocracy's re-emergence under Putin has coincided with tremendous economic growth but has not caused it. If anything, Putin's autocratic turn has reduced the economic gains from what they would have been had democracy survived."

Putin took office in time to benefit from a jump in world oil prices and the "painful but necessary [economic] reforms" instituted by Boris Yeltsin on his way out the door. "Putin," McFaul writes, "did implement some important tax reforms and established a stabilization fund to ensure that the windfall revenues would not be spent frivolously or in an inflationary manner. The main drivers of Russia's economic rebirth, however, were world commodity prices, not Putin's leadership. In fact, the change in which Putin's leadership is most apparent—growing autocratic rule—has slowed economic growth, not spurred it. Corruption, a drag on growth, has skyrocketed under Putin's "central authority." Renationalization and redistribution of property directed by Putin's autocratic regime have caused declines in the performance of formerly private companies, destroyed value in Russia's most proļ¬table companies, and slowed investment, both foreign and domestic. Investment in Russia, at 18 percent of GDP, is stronger today than ever before, but well below the average for democracies in the region, such as Poland and Estonia."

Why does this matter? Because we're now heading into the last, dead days of the Bush-Cheney era, a time when our elected leaders, with a minimum of screaming and protests from the mainstream media, elected to strike their own "grand bargain," rolling back respect for civil liberties and the political independence of the judicial branch in exchange for a frightened, post-9/11 public's feeling that Big Daddy was in control. I don't want to go so far as to say that Time's exculpatory approach to Putin is "really" about George W. Bush (who's made the year-end cover himself twice since 2000), and I don't want to be accused to likening Bush and Cheney to Putin. who does make them look like pikers in the screw-democratic freedoms department. (On the other hand, you could be forgiven for finding their contempt for democracy, and their willingness to act on that contempt, much more shocking in the context of a society that claims to treasure its freedoms as an important part of its national identity, heritage, and reason for being.)

As we enter a year that will be devoted to watching politicians slug it out for the honor of cleaning up Bush and Cheney's toxic dump, the one thing that the trouble twins themselves will be concentrating on will be settling on how their "legacy" is defined. I think it's safe to say that as the two of them seem more and more powerless and thus more and more harmless, the same mainstream media that used Gerald Ford's funeral almost a year ago as an excuse to express its gratitude the fallen Commander in Chief for having helped us get a head start on "forgiving" Richard Nixon will be pitching in to urge us all to look back fondly on the past seven years and be thankful to the shifty mugs who, in a time of national trauma, helped us get through it--not by doing anything so simple as bringing us together as a people or building on the expressions of concern that flooded in from all around the world or even by bringing the killers to justice, but by daring to embody a half-witted eight-year-old's--or, to put it another way, Chris Matthews's--idea of a couple of tough guys. To compare them to Putin is, in some ways, to cut them down to size; he's a real thug, whereas they might as well be stomping around the halls of the White House accompanied by the "Little Rascals" theme, wearing spiky round hats and addressing each other as "Butch" and "Spike." (It's easy to imagine Putin in a street fight; Bush would soil himself if he had to do his own waterboarding.) For serious Americans, the cliffhanger to the upcoming election will be finding out if the winner will choose to roll back the "gains" for the power of the executive branch or if they'll be accepted as a present. In this situation, to suggest, as Time does, that there may be a way to justify or even applaud tempering the freedoms offered by democracy is, to put it gently, actively mischievous.

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