03.11.2017 Author: Deena Stryker

Is Putin a Tsar, Really?


The first time I took on The Economist was in 1985, when Mikhail Gorbachev appointed Eduard Schevarnadze as Foreign Minister after the death of Andrei Gromyko, known in the West for his intransigence. When The Economist headlined something like “Schevar-Who?”, I opined that the two probably went back a long way, which turned out to be true: together they ushered in Perestroika, which successfully influenced East-West relations.

Today I’m taking on the venerable Economist again, in the person of its editor-in-chief. Zanny Minton Beddoes titles her lead October 28th article A Tsar is Born, giving the lie to feminist claims of original thinking. It behooved the widely read English-language weekly to mark the hundredth anniversary of the Russian Revolution — and what better way to mark the date than to deliver the ultimate Putin-bashing? As Catalonia’s future hangs by a thread, and US airwaves imply there is no bigger story than the president’s declaration of an opioid crisis, I dissect this eminent contribution to international comity:

In the second paragraph Ms Beddoes asserts that President Putin shares the weaknesses of Tsar Nicholas II, the last Romanov to sit on the throne, who was executed along with his family by the Bolsheviks, without spelling this out, but noting that: “The Kremlin is said to be preparing a display of mourning for the execution of the last tsar,” which is in line with President Putin’s statements (ignored by Western editorial offices) condemning the execution of the royal family.

Beddoes further muddies the waters by affirming that todays elites lack a legitimacy of their own and make no long-term plans, asserting that they mainly associate revolution with the recent uprising in Ukraine? Only journalists committed to the official narrative can affirm that in 2014 there was anything remotely resembling a revolution in Ukraine. What took place was a coup, in which beefy, chain-wielding Neo-fascist militiamen forced the pro-Russian elected president to flee for his life.

Perhaps with Peter the Great in mind, Beddoes affirms that “The legitimacy of the tsar lies not (or, at least, not entirely) in the bloodline or the throne itself, but in the person who occupies the role and his ability to turn defeat into victory,” implying that President Putin does not fulfill the requirement, even when he beats back ISIS in Syria, saving its secular President, targeted by the US. “Like any tsar, Mr Putin has presented himself as a gatherer of Russian lands and the man who came to consolidate and save Russia from disintegration after a period of chaos and disorder.” (That’s the ‘revanchist’ thing…) “To create this image, he portrayed the 1990s not as a period of transition towards Western-style democracy and free markets, but as a modern instance of the Times of Troubles—a period of uprisings, invasions and famine in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.”

If I had the time and inclination I would consult The Economist’s archives for coverage of the disorder widely recognized as having characterized Boris Yeltsin’s presidency, when Russia’s crown jewels were being snapped up at bargain prices by those who became its famed ‘oligarchs’, while ordinary Russians struggled to master the ‘democratic’ free-for-all.

Western-style democracy represents the gradual transformation of the hallowed Greek ideal of direct citizen rule into a Ponzi scheme. Is not the most important information presented by the media the amount of money competing campaigns dispose of? As my TV grinds on, still focusing on the president’s announcement of an opioid crisis, the headline is about lawsuits against purveyors of prescription pain killers, to which users become addicted, that will affect the pharmaceutical industry. On the same day, President Putin decided to bring forward the yearly increase in military pensions, due to need. The Russian ‘tsar’ doesn’t have to worry that private interests will prevent the Duma (or parliament), from taking this action, as could well be the case if Russia were a ‘Western democracy’. (How many pet projects may have to be delayed in order for money to be diverted to Russian pensioners?) According to RT: “President Putin commented that “the Russian budget has enough money for the early increase”, the Russian Finance Minister confirmed it, and that was that.

For Beddoes, such behavior is shameful: “[Putin] established a direct line to the Russian people, using state television stations to project his message,” as if unaware of President Trump’s constant use of Twitter to bypass the media.

Much like a Tsar, she notes, Putin “rarely appeared with or talked about his wife.” I remember hearing him say, a few years ago that: “With our children now grown-up, my wife and I have separated amicably…”

But no anti-Putin screed would be complete without a role for the most copy-worthy oligarch: “Whatever the formal reasons for sending Mikhail Khodorkovsky to a Siberian jail, (he was convicted of embezzling a lot of money from business partners), most Russians believed that he fell foul of Mr Putin and deserved his personal wrath. Few questioned the prerogative of the tsar to banish a rebellious underling.” (Khodorkovsky was sent to a jail in a remote region on the Russia-China border, thousands of miles from Moscow — and Alexei Navalny was recently released from detention in Kyrgyzstan…..) “In Mr Putins system the oligarchs prosper at the rulers pleasure.”

Ms Beddoes appears to have forgotten Putin’s statements early in his presidency, that the oligarchs were free to do business as long as they didn’t interfere in government, not to mention their literal looting of the country’s resources and industries. In fact, she whitewashes them: “In the 1990s these [civil society] networks jostled for influence; in the 2000s they were integrated into a single pyramid with Mr Putin at the top as the chief patron…” (She apparently can’t make up her mind whether Vladimir Putin is a fake tsar or The Godfather…)

[In 2012] sliding ratings, and protests in Moscow and several other large cities, forced him to reaffirm his status by traditional means—and he saw his chance by expanding Russias territory during the protests in Ukraine in 2013.” Beddoes appears to suggest that Russia took over the Ukraine, and moreover that it did so in 2013, even before the US-instigated Maidan coup!

Referring to next year’s presidential election, which Vladimir Putin is expected to win, The Economist appears to back Alexei Navalny: “[He] is not seeking to beat Mr Putin—for that he would need a fair election.” (Is that all?). “He wants to deprive him of ‘miracle, mystery and authority’. Recently he described Mr Putin not as a despot or tyrant, but as a turnip. ‘Putin’s notorious rating of 86% exists in a political vacuum,’ he wrote in a blog. ‘If the only thing you have been fed all your life is turnip, you are likely to rate it as highly edible. We come to this vacuum with an obvious [message]: There are better things than turnips.’” (See my ‘Putin versus Navalny: Is this a Joke?’)

What Mr Navalny offers is not just a change of personality at the top of the Kremlin, but a fundamentally different political order—a modern state. His American-style campaign, which includes frequent mentions of his family (sic), breaks the cultural code which Mr Putin has evoked. His purpose, he says, is to alleviate the syndrome of ‘learned helplessness’ and an entrench-ed belief that nothing can change.” (I’ve read that most Russians feel their country has had enough change in the last hundred years, and they appeared to be anything but helpless when I visited last May.)

Alexander Dugin, a nationalist ideologist, says Russia is entering a time of troubles. ‘Putin works for the present. He has no key to the future,’ he says. Few people in Russias elite expect the succession to happen constitutionally or peacefully.’” That’s because a country only gets a leader like Vladimir Putin once in a century. For the US, the best possible scenario is President Trump reaching the end of his term without getting us into a nuclear war – a post-impeachment President Pence being too sanctimonious to contemplate.

Deena Stryker is an international expert, author and journalist that has been at the forefront of international politics for over thirty years, exlusively for the online journal “New Eastern Outlook”.