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Myth of the Strongman

By Fred Hiatt
Monday, December 24, 2007

So Time magazine is the latest to swoon at Vladimir Putin's "steely confidence and strength," his "chiseled facial features and those penetrating eyes." The Russian president is a man of "contained power," Time finds, whose gaze says: "I'm in charge."

Time's elevation of Putin as Person of the Year is not all hagiography by any means. The designation is reserved for consequential but not necessarily beneficent figures. Time found Putin to be charmless and humorless, a czar who has "dramatically curtailed freedoms."

But the magazine buys into the central myths that Putin has fostered, that the Bush administration consistently has promoted and that increasingly are accepted as historical truth.

Foremost among these is that, by transforming democracy into autocracy, Putin also transformed chaos into stability. Russia a decade ago, Time senior editor Nathan Thornburgh observes, was "a rudderless mess, defined most by a bestial crime rate and Boris Yeltsin's kleptocracy in the Kremlin."

In fact, crime worsened after Putin succeeded Yeltsin as president in 2000, as did corruption. In a useful corrective to the conventional wisdom just published by Foreign Affairs magazine, Michael McFaul and Kathryn Stoner-Weiss of Stanford University cite official Russian statistics to show that the average annual total of murders increased from 30,200 between 1995 and 1999 to 32,200 between 2000 and 2004. Meanwhile, in 2006 Transparency International ranked Russia at a new low of 121 out of 163 countries for corruption, the Stanford experts point out, "putting it between the Philippines and Rwanda."

And, while soaring oil prices larded the Russian treasury and the government payroll more than doubled, Russians were dying younger (life expectancy for Russian men is 59 years), getting sicker, having fewer children and drinking more.

What then is the basis of the myth? Russia is more prosperous today than when Putin took over, and Russians at all income levels have benefited. Like all post-Communist countries, it endured a rise in poverty and political upheaval in the first half of the 1990s. In 1997-98, Russia along with other "emerging markets" suffered a financial crash. Yeltsin appointed a new prime minister, Yevgeny Primakov, who restored fiscal solvency and began Russia's recovery, before Putin appeared on the scene. The forlorn babushkas selling their personal effects that many foreigners remember were ancient history by the time Putin took power.

Putin continued the economic reforms in his first years, to good effect. But as he clamped down on political freedoms, he also went after independent businesses and began to resocialize the economy, dampening investment. Stunningly, even with all its oil, Russia's rate of economic growth fell from second among the 15 post-Soviet republics in 2000 to 13th in 2005. "If there is any causal relationship between authoritarianism and economic growth in Russia," McFaul and Stoner-Weiss conclude, "it is negative."

Russia, like Poland, Estonia and many other countries, went through tough post-Communist times. It was approaching a safe shore by the time Putin took office. Yeltsin's greatest sins involved impinging on democracy -- not allowing too much of it -- but he nonetheless bequeathed Putin a country with a lively press, competitive political parties and an energized civil society. Like Poland, Estonia and the rest, Russia could have opted for prosperity and democracy. Putin made a different choice.

Why then is he so popular? There's the oil boom, of course, and the fact that government-controlled television -- the only kind now -- lionizes him ceaselessly. But maybe the better question would be: Is he so popular?

Generally, an answer could be derived in two ways. One is polling. But the Kremlin has gradually sapped the independence of Russia's polling industry, just as it did with the media, and it's fair to ask how honestly respondents will be evaluating -- publicly, speaking to strangers -- a leader whose enemies tend to end up poisoned, shot or in prison.

The other method is elections, and here perhaps we should defer to Putin's considered judgment. Garry Kasparov, the famous chess grandmaster, wanted to run for president against Putin's handpicked successor. A candidate must be nominated at a public meeting, but no one would rent Kasparov a meeting hall. Officials menaced his wife and daughter when they sought to fly out of the country. Kasparov himself was jailed when he attempted to take part in a political demonstration. Ten days ago, he finally gave up.

Why would a leader of such steely confidence, heroic achievement and massive popularity be so afraid of political competition? Perhaps he will explain at Time's awards banquet.

fredhiatt@washpost.com

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