The focus of much of the reporting of the run up to, and the results of, Russia's presidential election has been on what is perceived to be the inevitability of Mr. Putin's reelection, and how this somehow spells disaster for Russia. But the overt anti-Putin orientation of the western press -- which boils down to 'anyone but Putin' -- fails to capture some important elements of Mr. Putin's rise, his re-emergence as the supreme leader of Russia, and what it says about Russia's future.
There is of course plenty of truth in the notion that Mr. Putin is a product of his KGB past, he has a tendency to strong-arm his opponents, and he appears to be stuck in a Cold War mentality with respect to his view of the world. However, this is ultimately simplistic, and fails to take into account Mr. Putin's many significant accomplishments during his previous presidency, and the likelihood that he may surprise a great many of his critics over the next 6 years.
Mr. Putin has taken Russia far from its Stalinist roots to develop a uniquely Russian approach to democracy -- and I say uniquely Russian because by western standards, many have criticized this election -- when in fact, it has been by far the cleanest and most transparent of any election in Russian history. More than 91,000 web cameras were placed in polling stations throughout the country, and although some independent election observers have claimed there were some procedural or technical violations, none of the observers from the OECD have thus far claimed any irregularities. The Russian government has gone far further than most western governments in ensuring the sanctity of the voting process in this election. I dare say this Russian election appears to have been cleaner than many in the West.
The Western media has failed to note Russia's incredible growth rate during Mr. Putin's presidency between 2000 and 2008. In 1999, just before he came into office, Russia's GDP was $196 billion. When he left in 2008, it was $1.7 trillion -- a nine-fold increase in the space of 8 years. Many would write this off merely as Mr. Putin's luck -- having been elected and reelected at a time when the global economy was booming and oil prices did nothing but go up. Excuse me? Show me another major economy that grew 900% in 9 years! Even China grew just under 400% for the period! Can that be purely the result of 'luck'?
Mr. Putin also gets short shrift in the western media for having broken the backs of the Russian oligarchs, who had amassed incredible fortunes during the Yelstin era, or for having promoted a range of economic and political reforms during his tenure that has paved the way for its future development. Mr. Putin has anything but the reputation as a reformer in the West, but many Russian observers acknowledge this without hesitation.
There is also the view -- perpetuated by the media -- that Mr. Putin is an enemy of the U.S. and the West. This fails to take into account some important 'footnotes' that the media appears to have conveniently forgotten. For example, Mr. Putin wanted Russia to become a member of NATO a decade ago, but was brushed off repeatedly by NATO members -- and especially the U.S., which never seriously considered Russia's application for membership. Of course, NATO was created in large part to counter the Russian Cold War threat, but who is now guiltier of being stuck in a Cold War mentality? Russia -- which sought NATO membership -- or the West, which refused it? It was only after that refusal that Russia's tone toward the West changed -- and quite naturally so.
Mr. Putin gets little credit for not responding to the U.S. unilateral withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, or for being instrumental in ensuring U.S. access to Central Asian military bases when the U.S. first entered Afghanistan. Similarly, Mr. Medvedev was brushed off when he sought to enhance missile defense cooperation with the U.S. following approval of the New START treaty. Only then did his tone change. Russia has in fact reached out to the U.S. and West repeatedly, without success. Mr. Putin can hardly be blamed for emphasizing the importance of strong military defense - at a time when the U.S. and the West are doing exactly the same thing -- yet he is criticized for doing so.
The West dislikes the idea of a strong leader who does not snap to attention when called upon to do so. It knows it will not be getting that from Mr. Putin this time around, either. For that reason, the West would be well advised to recognize that Mr. Putin has the strong backing of the Russian people, and he is here to stay. We had better get used to the idea that Russia is, and will remain, a force to be reckoned with in global affairs. Russia and China's recent veto of the UN resolution criticizing Syria's Assad's human rights record is but an appetizer of things to come. We are living in a multi-polar world, and Russia is very much a part of it.
The West's challenge will be to reset relations with Russia to a more acceptable level, based on the concept of mutual respect, and taking into account Mr. Putin's new mandate. Mr. Putin's challenge will be to transform his mandate into meaningful reform at home, and meaningful engagement abroad. Both sides need to shake off the remnants of the Cold War and embrace the new normal. Similarly, the western press should stop taking an 'anything but Putin' approach to reporting events in Russia. Not only is it tiresome, it is largely inaccurate. Do not be surprised if Mr. Putin surprises virtually everyone by taking Russia further than anyone expects over the next 6 years through a combination of focus, reform, strength, and realpolitik.
*Daniel Wagner is CEO of Country Risk Solutions, a cross-border risk management consulting firm based in Connecticut (USA), Director of Global Strategy with the PRS Group, and author of the new book Managing Country Risk.
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