If one had to identify the single most successful political leader of any country over the last decade the name “Vladimir Putin” should logically stand out. Since he first appeared on the national and world stage in 1999 Russia’s dollar denominated GDP has increased sevenfold, the living standards of its people have increased in step, the country has successfully navigated its way through the world economic crisis, has fought two victorious wars including one against a jihadi insurgency (something no western country has managed), has paid off its debts and accumulated the world ‘s third largest foreign currency reserves, has the lowest level of state and personal debt in proportion to GDP of any major economy, has averted a demographic crisis and has reasserted itself on the world stage forging a network of alliances with some of the world’s most powerful countries including India, China and Brazil.
Given this record, which no other leader in recent memory can remotely hope to match, why is it surprising or disturbing that Putin should be Russia’s most popular politician?Why also, given that Putin is relatively young and in excellent health, is it “anti democratic” and sinister that he should want to stand for President again when there is no legal or constitutional bar to prevent him doing so?
I ask my last two questions in response to the universal reaction of the British press to Putin’s announcement. Without exception this has been one of horror. Every single British newspaper and media agency has condemned Putin’s announcement reflecting the monolithic quality that British reporting of Russia has now acquired. The most unpleasant commentary has been in the Guardian, which persists in repeating insinuations that Putin’s action is motivated by a desire to protect his corruptly gained wealth even though when identical allegations were made in 2007 on the eve of Russia’s previous Presidential elections they were shown to be untrue
A leader like a guest can overstay his welcome and there is a clear danger that Putin may do so. Having said this I cannot see anything in this news that remotely justifies the apocalyptic commentary I have been reading. To answer a particular point that is repeatedly made, though it is overwhelmingly likely that Putin will be re elected, the reason for this is not because Russia is a dictatorship or an autocracy or a “managed democracy” (an expression Putin has never used) or because Russians are sheep but because as a result of his record Putin remains massively popular with Russian voters. The elections in December and March are not formalities and the opponents Putin and his party will face in those elections are not token opponents. I believe I am right in saying that Russia’s biggest opposition party, the Communist Party of Russia, is still Russia’s biggest party in terms of membership. In addition it regularly wins millions of votes in elections, has representatives in almost every elected body of state power from the smallest council to the national parliament and in Gennady Zyuganov has a leader whose political career began long before Putin’s. Notwithstanding all this it might as well exist on the moon for all the attention it gets in the British press.
Which brings me to my main point. Whose interest does this sort of reporting serve? If the purpose of reporting is to inform then the uniformity of British reporting of Russia shows that this is not happening. Even those who disagree with my perspective of Russia ought to be alarmed by the fact that the British press reports only one view. Experience shows that the possibility of error is greatest precisely when there is only one permitted view.
As a matter of fact it is not difficult to show that the one consistent feature of British reporting and writing about Russia is that it has been proved to be invariably and consistently wrong. Thus the consensus in Britain in 1917 was that there would be no revolution, in the 1920s that Russia’s recovery from the Revolution was impossible, in the 1930s that industrialisation would fail, in 1939 that a Russian German rapprochement was impossible, in 1941 that Russia would be defeated by Germany in two months, in the 1950s that Russia was simultaneously planning to conquer the world and would be unable to sustain the arms race, in the 1970s that reform was impossible, in the early 1990s that Russia would become another liberal capitalist democracy, in 1999 that Russia would lose the Second Chechen War and throughout the later 1990s and for the second time in a century that its recovery was impossible . In the meantime every single attempt by a British statesman (eg. Churchill in the 1950s, Wilson in the 1970s, Thatcher in the 1980s or very tentatively Cameron today) to achieve a fundamental improvement in relations with Russia comes to nothing. Given that what the British think they know about Russia they know about a country they have largely imagined and which does not in fact exist there is nothing surprising about that.