27 April 2007

"We Hoped For The Best, But Things Turned Out As Usual"

Courtesy of Popbitch comes that summing up of the recently deceased Boris Yeltsin's tenure as Russian president by his prime minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin. Given the current state of affairs in Russia, some folks have been waxing nostalgic about the Yeltsin years, but I think they're guilty of selective amnesia.

If you'll cast your mind back a little more thoroughly (at least those of you old enough to remember), Russia under Yeltsin was falling to bits, and he was usually too drunk or clueless to do much about it. He had his moments, especially when defying old school Communist hardliners, but under his watch Russia's GDP was cut in half and its people's life expectancy by a third. Obviously it wasn't all his fault; the transformation from communism to capitalism was bound to have a greater disruptive effect than any single politician could control. But Yeltsin's approach of simply abolishing or demolishing Soviet institutions and redistributing state assets in a free-for-all that favored only the thuggish and/or well-connected left wreckage in its wake that Russia will be cleaning up for decades to come (oddly enough, this seems to have been the approach America adopted in Iraq, with similarly dismal results).

Yeltsin's successor, Vladimir Putin, has done a pretty fair job of clearing up the mess and getting Russia back on its feet, but seems to have fallen out of favor with the West due to his autocratic ways. Few American politicians will pass up the opportunity to lecture him about democracy, free speech, Chechnya, etc., despite the fact that Russia and its people are considerably better off today than 15 years ago, when the country was plummeting into chaos.

What's curious is that China, if anything a far more repressive society, comes in for less criticism, and even the occasional protests about censorship of the internet or prison labor pale into insignificance alongside the massive redistribution of resources, money and political power masterminded by the People's Republic of Wal-Mart. For some reason, different standards seem to apply to China and Russia; we seem far more prepared to accept totalitarianism in the former than the latter.

Why? Could it be an insidious form of racism, wherein it's presumed that democracy and freedom aren't as important to Asians? Is it because our economy (as in low prices for consumer goods) is so bound up with that of China? Perhaps, but then why aren't we cozying up to the Russian regime in hopes of snagging cheaper oil and gas?

But at this point I risk going off on a tangent; what I mainly wanted to note was the difficulty we seem to have in accepting that not every country can progress toward democracy in the same way and time frame as our own, and that sometimes the best we can hope for is that people aren't actively being exterminated or systematically starved. Which, for the most part, they're not in Russia today. Putin may not be the kind of president most Americans would want (for that matter, neither is George Bush), but he may well be the best that Russia can hope for at this particular time.

And if any of you want to infer from the foregoing that perhaps we should have let Saddam Hussein, warts, genocide and all, stay in power rather the risk the nightmare we seem to have blundered into, well, don't think the thought hasn't crossed my mind as well.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

----we seem far more prepared to accept totalitarianism in the former than the latter.----

You are correctly pointing out a double standard when it comes to Western media and political condemnation of Chinese totalitarianism as compared to milder forms of the same in Russia.

The difference in treatment, however, is not the racist view that we don't mind totalitarianism in Asia (after all, look at our relationship with North Korea). The difference in approach, I believe, is strictly economic.

Economically, the Chinese government is playing ball with the West, and, at this point, has a greater amount of integration (and hence clout) with Western governments and busines than does Russia.

In recent years, the People's Republic of China has also become a holder of over $1 trillion in dollar denominated assets, of which about $349.6 billion are U.S. Treasury securities. That's second only to Japan. In other words, China is the #2 creditor in the world for the U.S. government.

U.S. government debt has soared and inflation has stayed low in part because China has been willing to accumulate reserves denominated in U.S. Dollars. Should China decide to discontinue this practice, or hold reserves in Euros or Yen, or dump dollars for other political reasons, the U.S. government would be in trouble. Russia, in comparison, has no such economic leverage over us.

Here's a good article on the subject.

Debt Weakens U.S. Hand on China