Tuesday March 28, 2000
Editorial Cartoon by Graeme MacKay, The Hamilton Spectator – Tuesday March 28, 2000
Wary optimism best way to view Putin’s regime
When crooks and clowns — the Russian mafia and Boris Yeltsin and Co. — have ruled a country for years, anyone with a modicum of restraint and common sense looks good by comparison. That’s especially true of Russia, a country still struggling in the transformation from a totalitarianism to democracy, from superpower to … well, a much lesser world power.
That’s not to damn president-elect Vladimir Putin with faint praise, but to acknowledge the realities of the massive nation. Russia is still very much the “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” that Winston Churchill described in 1939. Getting elected, let alone governing in Russia, happens within an entirely different set of rules and expectations than here in the comfortable West.
Russia is a nation of terrible disparities: Enormous wealth for a select few and soul-stealing poverty for many more; a space station orbiting Earth but a disintegrating health system that has led to life expectancy for Russian men of just 58 years. Russia today is plagued by crime and alcoholism but is also “Motherland” to a nation of remarkably resilient and patriotic people.
Putin now has to govern while balancing Russians’ still-tentative moves into the unknown of a free-market economy and those same citizens’ demands for restored stability.
Despite all that, the West should be warily pleased with Putin’s election, which appears at the moment to be good for that country and for its neighbours. He has a strong popular mandate and is outspoken in his determination to root out corruption, reverse the country’s fortunes and do it without resorting to the excesses of his former masters.
Putin brings to office the pragmatism and ruthlessness of the spymaster that he was. The brutal assault on Chechnya has been more about campaign strategy than military tactics, and Putin’s first major challenge must be to find a graceful way out before his army becomes mired in an Afghanistan-style war of attrition.
Putin is smart and articulate and has shown he has the ability to be a good manager. Time will tell if he will be a good national leader. In the meantime, the West should applaud the winner of only the second democratic presidential election in Russia’s history — but keep two fingers crossed for Russia while we do so. (Hamilton Spectator Editorial, A10, 3/28/2000)