Saturday, February 24, 2007

The Lollipop Kid and Time Magazine

Lollipop Kid Becomes Street Thug . . . and Man of the Year

Aleksandr Golts

Yezhednevniy Zhurnal

December 21, 2007

To tell the truth, I had originally planned to write this article about two weeks from now, conducting a “year in review” with the other members of the YeZh staff. But the decision of Time Magazine to declare Vladimir Putin its “Man of the Year” compelled me to do it earlier. Because this decision in a surprising way explains why so many people (including the staff of Time Magazine) consider Putin’s foreign policy to be a success. As they put it: “Time's Person of the Year is not and never has been an honor. It is not an endorsement. It is not a popularity contest. At its best, it is a clear-eyed recognition of the world as it is and of the most powerful individuals and forces shaping that world - for better or for worse. It is ultimately about leadership - bold, earth-changing leadership. Putin is not a boy scout. … [but] he has performed an extraordinary feat of leadership in imposing stability on a nation that has rarely known it and brought Russia back to the table of world power. For that reason, Vladimir Putin is Time's 2007 Person of the Year.” As I read it, the Time Magazine writers, in their expansive commentaries, point to two major achievements of President Putin. First, by gagging the press, trampling on civil rights and freedoms, and turning elections into a farce, he has brought stability to the country, “which it has rarely known”. Secondly, it was exactly Putin, according to Time, who returned Russia to its status as a world power.

If this is true, then one should acknowledge that this status is a direct result of a completely ruinous foreign policy. In previous years the symbol of Moscow’s international activities was “the little boy with the lollipop in his sweaty palm” who wanted to trade with the West, exchanging oil and gas not only for money but for influence as well. This year, the little boy grew up and became the neighborhood thug. Now he no longer trades, he tries to intimidate. The year 2007 saw the militarization of Russian foreign policy. National interests and claims against other governments were expressed almost exclusively in military terminology.

The main foreign policy events of the year - the effective withdrawal of Russia from the Conventional Forces In Europe (CFE) treaty; the conflict surrounding Washington’s intention to base some elements of its anti-ballistic missile (ABM) system in Poland and the Czech Republic; the constant threats to withdraw from the Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile treaty - have been directly related to efforts to demonstrate Russia’s readiness for military confrontation with the West. The paradox is that none of this has any connection with defending country or ensuring its security. Russian demands have had no logic whatsoever. Russian demands have lacked even formal logic. Take for example the withdrawal from the CFE treaty. Moscow explains this by pointing to the refusal of NATO countries to ratify an adapted version of the treaty. The basic concept of the treaty reflects two opposing blocks, setting forth limits on the armaments that can be deployed in various countries and regions. But the Kremlin never ceases talking about the colossal advantage NATO has gained as a result of its new members. The head of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs demands the introduction of a general ceiling on the armaments of all the governments of NATO. In this manner Russia is positioning itself as the lone member of a new Warsaw Pact.

The new defining characteristic of Russian foreign policy has become how its exponents do not even try to make plausible arguments. The head of the Russian General Staff Yuri Baluevskiy claimed that the launch of American ABM missiles from Poland could be mistaken for a nuclear attack and cause a retaliatory strike. Evidently, the general literally forgot about agreements with the U.S. on the exchange of information and joint control. Therefore, Russia will know exactly what kinds of missiles are based in Poland. It will therefore be impossible to mistake them for nuclear missiles. But Moscow no longer worries about plausibility in its claims. They need only shout them out, as loudly as possible.

Still, even deploying the phraseology of the cold war, the Kremlin does nothing that the West could construe as a genuine threat. No one is talking about any sort of return to actual military confrontation.

But might one say in all seriousness that Moscow has become an important player in international politics?

Perhaps Russia is returning to a position of general respect, developing its bilateral relationships with various governments? One must certainly say that in the past year Moscow has significantly enriched the practice of diplomacy. What was the cost to Russia of the murder of Litvinenko, in the course of which half of London was radioactively poisoned? And then not only did Russia refuse to extradite the suspected murderer, Andrei Lugavoi, but secured his election to parliament. And then there was the shut-down of the Estonian embassy in Moscow by Putin’s Red Guards. All of this, of course, is clear evidence of Russia having been turned into a great power.

And so, the little boy with the lollipop got himself a dagger. He has not yet, thank God, gotten himself into a fight. But he flashes the knife everywhere and anywhere. That’s all there is to Russia’s growing authority in the world. But the journalists at Time Magazine simply took it as an axiom that Russia’s influence in the world is growing, without even trying to confirm it with facts. Exactly this speaks volumes about the supposed arrival of an era of “stability”, which according to the American journalists is more important for Russia than truth or freedom. They did not comment at all on those parts of their interview with Putin where he plainly lied. For example, about how he was simply assigned to the KGB after graduating from university. Or about how there are television stations in Russia where opposition leaders “just never leave”. The Time Magazine journalists (and before them Western analysts from the Valdai Club) placidly heard Putin out as he practically accused them of being paid-off/corrupt.

The thing is that all of them – the president of France, who congratulated Putin on his success in the elections; the president of the U.S., who said he understood Putin’s soul; and countless diplomats, experts and journalists - have quietly come to agree that Russia is the one country of Europe that will never be a democracy. For this reason they can admire the “old monster” with the unblinking steely gaze. And they can present freedom as an opposite to stability.

In this sense the designation of Putin as “Man of the Year” is a clear indication of how he, and worse Russia, has finally passed into a clearly-defined category of country. The category where China sits next to Paskistan. And that means that Russia will not be treated as an equal partner. This is the main accomplishment of her foreign policy.

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