The only thing more predictable than United Russia’s victory on Sunday, is the West’s virtually unanimous condemnation of the elections. A spokesman from the German government called them “Neither a free, fair nor democratic election.” The Swedish forgien minister said Russia is a “steered democracy.” A European observer call them “not a level playing field.” U.S. President Bush gave Putin no congradulations, instead making one of his typical responses, “I said we were sincere in our expressions of concern about the elections.” I think it’s time to start translating Washington’s newspeak “expressions of concern” as “We don’t give a shit but I have to say something.” The only Western leader who broke step was France’s Nicholas Sarkozy. In a phone call to Putin, Sarkozy congratulated Putin on United Russia’s victory.
As a whole, however, the post-election reporting is so uniform that the only thing that reporters seemed to prove is that they are somewhat adept at using a thesaurus.
Just take a look at some of the headlines:
The LA Times: “Russian Elections Called a Sham“
The NY Times: “A Tale of Two Strongmen“
The Guardian: “A Managed Election“
The Wall Street Journal: “The Allure of Tyranny“
The Washington Post: “In Russia, the Backward March to Czarism Continues“
No need to read them. I think you get the picture from the headlines. Most intriguing, however, is how the Wall Street Journal and the NY Times lump Putin and Venuzela’s Hugo Chavez into the same bunch: strongmen and tyranny. And in a turnabout, the NY Times writes, “Who would have ever thought that Mr. Chávez could seem more palatable than Mr. Putin, who has the stamp of international respectability as a member of the group of leading industrialized nations? The United States and Europe must let Mr. Putin know that his days of respectability are fast running out.”
The Wall Street Journal even waxed a bit philosophical in its attempt to explain why the Putins and Chavezes of the world have a certain “allure.” To this, Bret Stephens writes that the desire for tyranny “springs from sources deep within ourselves: the yearning for a politics without contradictions; the terror inscribed in the act of choice.” Wow. The WSJ better watch out because it might start sounding like pomo-kings Giles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. “Everyone wants to be a fascist” the latter claimed in an essay of that title in 1977.
The greater irony of the Stephens’ statement that people have a “yearning for a politics without contradictions” and immobilized by “the terror inscribed in the act of choice” is that this is clearly the case for most Western reporters and politicians in regard to Russia. For them Russia is truly a place without contradiction. It has no mixture. No complexity. It’s politics can only be understood via its reduction. The Kremlin has made a great effort to make Russians think that Putin = Russia. That he is its alpha and omega. In a strange many reports think this too. It’s just that the Western media’s evaluation of Russia is merely the black to the Kremlin’s white. If Putin really rules by an “elaborate hoax” as Stephens claims, then West’s unanimous inversion of it proves that they too have been dazzled by Putin’s trickery. Perhaps many reporters’ inability to understand Russia on its own terms is also an example of “the terror inscribed in the act of choice.”
Nevertheless, there were two comments that dared to veer away from the predictable. First a commentary in the Independent by Mary Dejevsky and the second an opinion by Tony Koron in Time Magazine, of all places. Dejevsky dares to remind her readers that:
[T]he implications of Sunday’s elections may be rather different from those drawn by an international consensus that habitually presupposes the worst. If the elections were, as they were bound to be, a referendum on Putin’s eight years in power, the judgment was strongly positive.
But given Russia’s strong economic indicators, Putin’s undisputed personal popularity, and the sense of national dignity his presidency has helped to restore, the result was unlikely to be otherwise. A strong swing against Putin would have been more suspicious than the vote of confidence United Russia obtained. The elections may not have been as free, and certainly not as fair, as they should have been, but the result is not out of line with Russia’s public mood.
She also suggests that most commentators obsession with apocalyptic visions of “Tsar” Putin have missed the real and unfortunate story: the Russian political process has become ossified. As she rightly points out, United Russia’s victory was no more victorious than in 2003. Further, the far-right and far-left have dropped from the political scene leaving Russian politics the domain of the political center. “The parties represented in the new Duma, and their leaders, will be essentially those that have dominated the past decade of Russian politics.” So while those commentators who wish there to be an electoral revolution with every poll may stomp their feet in frustration, Russians can now breath easy. The post-Soviet “Time of Troubles” is now officially over.
It is this victory for stability that makes Tony Koron’s piece in Time so interesting. Putin has been compared to a lot of things, most of them being the vile villains of History (this is despite the fact that Putin sees himself as a Russian Franklin Roosevelt). But Koron likens Putin to another master of American politics: Ronald Reagan. There is no doubt that comparing Putin to American conservatives’ demigod will make them shutter. But hear Koron out:
The explanation for Putin’s popularity may be found in certain similarities to the man often credited with helping to bring down the Soviet Union. It’s not that the former KGB man has any policy preferences or even a political style in common with Ronald Reagan, the great icon of contemporary American conservatism. But in the sense that he has made Russians feel good once again about their country, his appeal is Reaganesque.
Reagan’s own popularity — even among many Democrats — owed less to his specific policies (tax cuts, arms buildup) than to his overall success in restoring Americans’ national pride and optimism. If the Carter era had been associated with domestic economic woes and a string of geopolitical defeats that culminated in the Iran hostage crisis, Reagan managed, almost as soon as he took office, to convince the public that a new “morning in America” had broken, by getting tough with U.S. adversaries on the global stage.
Talk about the things that make you go, “Hmmm . . .”