Don’t blame Putin; blame Russia
I’ll let the experts churn out opinions on what should be done about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But it does appear that many of them refuse to accept a number of truths about the world. Take these, for instance: 1) Most people do not shares our values. 2) Most people don’t even understand our values. 3) Authoritarianism is often more popular than freedom. 4) Democracy and liberalism are not the same. I argue the latter point — not coincidentally! — in detail in my new book, “The People Have Spoken (And They Are Wrong): The Case Against Democracy.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin may face international disapproval from the West over his Crimean actions, and he may even have to deal with some short-term ineffectual sanctions; but at home, he’s enjoying his highest approval ratings in years. Yet we act as if Putin is acting alone. Before the invasion, the respected Levada-Center found that 65 percent of respondents approved of Putin’s leadership. According to The Guardian, the less respected pollsters at the All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center gauged Russian attitudes March 1-2 and found that nearly 68 percent of respondents approved of Putin’s job performance. That was right as Russian troops were entering Crimea, so expect that number to go up.
Putin has enjoyed 60 percent approval ratings throughout his career — and often much higher. Despite a stagnating economy, a Pew Research Center poll in 2012 found that 72 percent thought Putin was doing a good job. It’s the kind of support that — apart from some fleeting moments of history — is, thankfully, unachievable in a healthy democratic nation. Despite some of the political rhetoric we hear at home, too much unity reflects poorly on a nation’s health.
And the more Putin undermines liberal institutions the more popular he becomes. The people who vote for the presidents of Russia and the United States are unrelated, emerging from distinct historical, moral and ideological perspectives. So expecting people — even people given a vote — to act in what we consider a logical manner is a waste of time. While we, for example, may be confused about the harsh fate of Pussy Riot, only 5 percent of Russians believed that the punk/activist band didn’t deserve serious penalties for its actions. Actually, 29 percent believe that the band members should have been sent into forced labor, while 37 percent believe they should be imprisoned.
So the Russian government controls the country’s three main television channels, and at the end of 2013, Putin replaced the national news agency with a new and more compliant version. This undermines the free press, of course, but the ugly fact is there doesn’t seem to be much anger about it. In recent years, the Kremlin has imposed limits on protests, criminalized libel and censored political material on the Internet. It has banned the work of nongovernmental organizations (typically aimed at fostering more transparency in government), frozen the assets of human rights groups that receive funding from U.S. citizens and jailed the political opposition. Occasionally, a dissident dies of poisoning.
But the reversal of once promising liberal reforms in Russia is not the result of an undermining of democracy. It happened with the full consent of the electorate. In Russia’s first presidential election, in 2000, Putin, who had previously been made prime minister, won 53 percent of the vote. In 2004, he won 71 percent of the vote. In 2008, his lackey Dmitry Medvedev also won in a landslide. In 2012, Putin returned to the presidency in a landslide election with a Parliament dominated by members of his party, giving him virtually one-party rule.
Gloomier still, Putin may be a better choice. It’s not as if democrats with widespread support are waiting in the wings. Remember that it was the Communist Party leader, Gennady Zyuganov, who came in second place in the most recent election, with 20 percent of the vote. In a 2009 poll, nearly 60 percent of Russians said they “deeply regret” the Soviet Union’s demise. So forget the Middle East, where we’ve thankfully stopped pretending democracy is a panacea, and start accepting the fact that most people don’t view the world as we do.