There was a time when George Bush, in his inefably cutsey way affectionately referred to his new pal in the Kremlin as “Pootie Poot”.
Seems those days are gone.
In the face of evidence that the Kremlin is increasingly exerting “authoritarian” control over many aspects of Russian life, the US is now keen to ensure that Russia continues to pursue its “commitment to democracy and the rule of law”.
Noble as these aims are, and justified as the criticism of Putin’s presidency may seem, I can’t help but wonder how much of this criticism misses the point, not only about Putin, but about Russia and Russians in general.
In an insightful article in The Atlantic Monthly this month Paul Starobin notes that:
“Vladimir Putin is not a democrat. Nor is he a czar like Alexander III, a paranoid like Stalin, or a religious nationalist like Dostoyevsky. But he is a little of all of these – which is just what Russians seem to want. ”
While some may fear that democratic reforms instigated by Boris Yeltsin are coming under threat, in Putin’s Russia it is worthwhile noting Starobin’s comments on current Russian (and Putin’s) thinking on such matters:
“Perhaps the best illustration of Putin’s repertoire of Chekist skills can be seen in his dealings with the oligarchs who infiltrated Yeltsin’s Kremlin, made fortunes in rigged privatisation auctions and seemed to regard the state as their private preserve. On joining the Kremlin staff in 1996, Putin worked among the oligarchs and their protectors in the Kremlin – a group, including one of Yeltsin’s daughters, known as the Family ….. when he got the nod as president, they figured all would be business as usual. “He won’t try to screw our oligarchs” Mikhail Fridman a billionaire ….. told (Starobin) at the time. But, as soon became clear, Putin viewed the oligarchs much the way ordinary Russians did: as gangsters with an insidious grip on the levers of political power.”
According to Starobin Putin’s “Chekist mentality seems to reveal less an active antipathy toward democracy than an impatience with its inherent untidiness.”
This is a very useful insight into Putin’s character and may go some way to helping us understand Putin’s comments in Bratislava that, while there would be no return to “authoritarianism” in Russia, the pursuit of democracy should not allow for a state of unbridled “anarchy”.
It seems in the twenty-first century that we in West are still no closer to understanding the ‘riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma’ which is Russia.
Taking time to understand Pootie Poot though, may help us get a little closer to understanding this fascinating, if at times indescipherable, land.