Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Vlad

OK, first I try to go the contrarian route and say that Al Gore wasn't going to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Well, we all know how well that call turned out ... Then I try to make up for this grievous sin by going with the conventional wisdom that Gore will win the Time Man of the Year thingy ...

Foiled again!

But Vladimir Putin?

I didn't see that one coming -- and anyone who did is probably full of it.

If you want to see an undoubtedly violent reaction to this decision, I suggest reading La Russophobe -- no friend of Putin's -- in the coming days. There will certainly be fireworks. Another Russia observer, Robert Amsterdam, already has some preliminary thoughts on the subject ...

While Gore was certainly worthy, Putin is not an out-of-left-field choice. Few people have had the kind of effect that Putin has had on a country as important a Russia, especially this year. Quick -- name another contemporary Russian politician ... Having a hard time? Exactly.

The Time article focuses mostly on Putin's past, while touching on some of the more dicey issues such as his relationships with Gary Kasparov, Anna Politkovskaya and Alexander Litvinenko. Putin continues to treat competition and critics alike in the same manner he treated the oligarchs who emerged from the post-Cold War rubble, which is to say he never loses and usually maintains astronomical approval ratings in the process.

Putin has dramatically altered both the country and the government in his own image. He brought his old pals from the KGB from Lubyanka to the Kremlin with him and essentially created a good old boys club/consulting firm run by Cold warriors in the guise of G8 country. The effect has been rather dramatic -- it's hard to go a week reading the St. Petersburg or Moscow Times without noticing the trend (see here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here).

Just imagine what's going on behind the headlines ...

Like all great Russian rulers of the past Putin is actually transforming the physical structure of Russian bringing it's two great cities into the 21st Century. Moscow is reconfiguring its streets to allow for more traffic -- an idea that seemed preposterous 15 years ago when the nearly empty streets were scarcely populated with crowded buses (on which fares were never paid) and the occasional Zaporozhets -- and building up and an astonishing rate. Just look at the Russia Tower now being built in Moscow:


And the Gazprom Headquarters in St. Petersburg:


None of these buildings look anything like classic czarist or soviet Russian architecture and both are symbols of Russia's re-emergent economic strength.

And that's really the operative phrase here: "Russia's re-emergent strength." It's not just an economic thing, but a security issue too. That's a position Russian hasn't been in for a while and an important one for the Russian psyche and national identity which has taken a huge hit during the last decade over the mess in Chechnya and the collapse of its military, to say nothing of a decline in population so sharp that the state actually had to bribe it's people with a holiday/lottery for them to basically "procreate for the motherland!"

Russia no longer defines itself in relationship to the United States. Putin is smart enough to know that the Cold War is in the past. One of his shrewder moves has been to cozy up to China, despite a history of icy Sino-Russian relations. China needs Russia's oil and natural gas and Russia will be happy to supply the world with as much energy as it can supply, even if that means providing countries like Iran with nuclear material. Putin knows that power in the 21st Century will be in the hands of those who possess energy and that gives him a lot of leverage on the world stage.

Maybe now would be a good time to note that whatever Al Gore has done to bring awareness of and future action to counteract the looming environmental catastrophe on the horizon, Putin has done much more to move that disaster along its path ...

So is Putin worthy of being considered as "Man of the Year" material? Do his autocratic tendencies negate his accomplishments or was he only able to move Russia forward by seizing the power necessary to do so? The more interesting of the two is certainly the latter, which is a question that American historians will be asking themselves of our current leader for ages to come. The answer will likely tell us a lot about the differences between the U.S. and Russia and contribute to a discussion that goes back to de Tocqueville's famous observation regarding plowshares and swords.

1 comment:

Real Debate said...

I honestly thought it would be JK Rowling, or perhaps the iPhone.

TIME always tries to do something off the wall with this announcement.

I knew it would not be AlGore, too many people wanted it.