Vladimir Putin, Person of the Year

by Chris Borgen

Time Magazine’s Person of the Year is Vladimir Putin (runner up Al Gore; sorry Al). The article, the wittily titled “A Tsar is Born” is here. Here’s a brief excerpt (highlights added):

He is clear about Russia’s role in the world. He is passionate in his belief that the dissolution of the Soviet Union was a tragedy, particularly since overnight it stranded 25 million ethnic Russians in “foreign” lands. But he says he has no intention of trying to rebuild the U.S.S.R. or re-establish military or political blocs. And he praises his predecessors Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev for destroying a system that had lost the people’s support. “I’m not sure I could have had the guts to do that myself,” he tells us. Putin is, above all, a pragmatist, and has cobbled together a system—not unlike China’s—that embraces the free market (albeit with a heavy dose of corruption) but relies on a strong state hand to keep order…

What gets Putin agitated—and he was frequently agitated during our talk—is his perception that Americans are out to interfere in Russia’s affairs. He says he wants Russia and America to be partners but feels the U.S. treats Russia like the uninvited guest at a party. “We want to be a friend of America,” he says. “Sometimes we get the impression that America does not need friends” but only “auxiliary subjects to command.” Asked if he’d like to correct any American misconceptions about Russia, Putin leans forward and says, “I don’t believe these are misconceptions. I think this is a purposeful attempt by some to create an image of Russia based on which one could influence our internal and foreign policies. This is the reason why everybody is made to believe…[Russians] are a little bit savage still or they just climbed down from the trees, you know, and probably need to have…the dirt washed out of their beards and hair.” The veins on his forehead seem ready to pop.

Strong words. Regarding the first highlighted quote, I think that to understand Russian foreign policy in Eurasia since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, one has to keep in mind the 25 million ethnic Russians living in other states throughout the region (sometimes called the Russian “Near Abroad”), usually as an ethnic minority. I think this has affected how Russia addresses such issues as self-determination, sovereignty, and the norm of nonintervention in the domestic affairs of another state. While I believe Putin when he says that Russia does not want to rebuild the USSR, I also think Russia is seeking significant say over the foreign and domestic polciies of neighboring states. CSIS Russia-watcher Janusz Bugasjski wrote in his book Cold Peace that Russian “[o]fficials argued that Russians could not maintain their identity outside a Russian state; hence the re-creation of a larger unit to incorporate these territories was vital for the survival of the Russian people.” This often meant setting aside the standard international legal rule that favored the domestic protection of minority rights as opposed to over favoring secession and instead becoming an advocate for a robust re-interpretation of the rights of ethnic minorities and the espousal of claims of external self-determination and sovereignty by Russians in newly independent states. (Note that this enthusiasm for secession does not extend to non-Russians; see, for example Kosovo or Chechnya.) The normative implications of this Near Abroad policy emphasizes Russia’s security prerogatives and revives an older conception of international law that makes a sharp distinction between great powers and weak states.

As for the rule of law more generally (and the U.S. emphasis on it), according to Bugajski, Putin has “asserted his belief in a strong state as a ‘traditional Russian value’ while rejecting [what he called] the ‘Anglo-Saxon model of liberal governance’ because it was ‘ill-suited for Russia.’” Perhaps more alarming was that when Putin appointed a special representative to address the human rights situation in Chechnya, according to observers the representative began by saying that Russia and the West would first have to agree on a definition of human rights, calling into question over fifty years of jurisprudence and state practice.

Does Putin deserve to be Time’s Person of the Year? Oh, yes. For better or worse, there are few people who have had, or will continue to have, the wide ranging impact on international affairs that he has.


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