The Corner

Putin

The Guardian’s Moscow correspondent is returning home after four years in the Russian capital. I wouldn’t agree with all he has to say, but he manages a more balanced assessment of what’s going on in Russia than did the Vice President in his singularly ill-judged Vilnius speech. His conclusion:

” [Putin] has put Russia on a course that means it will soon no longer be his choice whether he, or perhaps his successor, stays in power. Commerce, not politics, will bring Russia round. Russians have fallen irreversibly in love with denghi – their ugly word for money – and the mobility and riches of the globalised world. Thanks to Putin, a strong enough state now exists to gradually compel them to pay taxes. The Kremlin, despite its Soviet-era idiocies, still cares hugely whether it is popular, and hence often uses these monies to the electorate’s benefit. With increasing taxation comes an increasing demand for representation, and eventually the government will fear the people, rather than the other way around…My four years here have seen an ugly surge of authoritarianism in Russia but also vast economic freedoms; a rise in Islamic extremism and a dozen major terrorist atrocities but also the death of their mastermind, Shamil Basayev; the broad repression of dissent, but also a hardened popular understanding in some corners of how a proper, civilised society should be; a winter then a summer that were minus and then plus 32C. And so it follows, on the pendulum of extremes that is society here, that while the country’s direction can be intensely sad and worrying, it should, just moments later, be intensely hopeful.”

Too optimistic? Maybe, but a reminder that, in an age of more intense (and more complex) national rivalries across the globe than we have seen for some time (in a moments of gloom I can detect a touch of 1914 in the air), it is essential that the US can convince Russia of the two countries’ shared interests. Shouting insults across the ramparts is not a realistic policy: all it will lead to is more moves by Russia like the recent disgraceful decision to sell arms to Chavez, and I shouldn’t have to remind anyone about the scope for Kremlin mischief-making over Iran.

Does all this mean that we have to ignore the (considerable) debit side of the Putin ledger? No, but it also means that the administration has to deal with the world as it is, not as it would like it to be.

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