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Today, most Americans look down on Russia’s political system for its lack of democratic traits. The failure of Russia to transform into a fully democratic state concerned with social issues and the embracement of the west immediately after more than 70 years of communist rule upsets and baffles many idealistic scholars. This perceived ‘failure’ on Russia’s part by most American policymakers and scholars is the main contributor to the relatively negative state of Russian-US relations. Interestingly, this negative outlook on Russia can be traced to aged Cold-War mentalities and not an actual knowledge of the economic and social conditions of post-Cold-War Russia. The key figure in Russian politics after the fall of communism is Vladimir Putin, President from 2000-2008 and Prime Minister thereafter. Most of the American policymakers view him as a pseudo-authoritarian leader who despises the west and clings to an aged perspective of Russia as a great power. He is criticized for suppressing opposition and moving away from liberal democratic ideals of governance. In the west, he is a negative, always associated with corruption and oppression. However, these harsh opinions come from outsiders without a working knowledge of Putin’s mentality or popular opinion in Russia. We criticize from our outsider perspective, asking, “What is the best way for Russia to be ruled so that its policies and ideals are in-line with our policies and ideals?” Instead of asking the only really important question, “What is the best way for Russia to be ruled for Russians?” Once the Cold-War ended and communism fell, Russia was in shambles, economically and politically, Russia as a nation and state was weak at best. After the collapse, there was no unifying sense of national identity, there was no central government to run a cohesive state and there was virtually no economy. The result was complete chaos, as Jeffrey Mankoff put it, “In percentage terms, Russia's economy shrank by a larger amount in the 1990s than the American economy during the Great Depression. Personal security for vast swathes of the population was undermined by hyperinflation, rampant criminality, and the disastrous first war in Chechnya…” These are the conditions that must be examined and known by policymakers in order to understand Putin and his governing style, and once Putin’s administration is understood we will be able to realize that he is not opposed to democracy and freedom of the Russian people, which is the first step to truly improving Russian-U.S. relations.
The first step in evolving U.S. perceptions of Putin is understanding the conditions after the fall of the Soviet Union but before the Putin-Era of Russian politics. This pivotal time in Russian history, especially the Yeltsin era, holds the key to understanding the mentality of the current Putin regime. As Stephen F. Cohen, a Professor of Russian Studies and History at New York University and Professor of Politics Emeritus at Princeton University, explains, “When Yeltsin began his own effort to modernize Russia, in the early 1990s, he resorted to a kind of shock therapy. When Yeltsin adopted this new version of a transformation imposed from above—partly on the advice of Americans like Jeffrey Sachs, Larry Summers, and many others, (it wasn't Harvard's finest or wisest moment)—he may not have known that he was resorting to a dangerous Russian tradition. Unlike Gorbachev, who knew Russia's history of catastrophic modernizations from above, Yeltsin and his western advisers knew little of it or were uninterested in the inherent political dangers…his disregard for evolutionary change was in the same tradition [as Stalin]...” To further clarify, Cohen adds, “Under Gorbachev, modernization…meant both political and economic modernization. After the Soviet Union ended in 1991, Yeltsin continued Gorbachev's democratization in some respects but his policies resulted in the beginning of Russia's de-democratization, which in the United States is usually, and incorrectly, attributed to his successor, Putin. The way Yeltsin abolished the Soviet Union, like a thief in the night, was not constitutional or democratic. There was no referendum on it. If you want to create democracy, you do not abolish the only state and homeland most people had ever known with the stroke of a pen, without consulting them.” Yeltsin’s approach to modernization, which was formed with the help of squads of American advisors eager to ‘teach’ Russians how to live in a democratic free-market society, resulted in the creation of an elitist group of oligarchs which privatized huge formerly state-owned assets and corporations in a legally questionable manner for personal gains, neglecting the rest of the population.
The way property was privatized under Yeltsin, was far from a progression towards a truly democratic capitalist society, and as Mankoff states, “For many Russians, the chaos of the 1990s has come to be associated with the concepts of liberalism and democracy and with the West, which was busy promoting Russia's transformation. When Western-supported initiatives went awry…the West and its army of consultants took much of the blame...” In numerical terms the dire state of the economy as a result of these failed reforms is blatantly evident, in 1989 the GDP in U.S. dollars was 506.5 billion, and by 1999 the GDP had fallen to 195.9 billion. During the ‘89-‘99 decade, the average annual growth of GDP and GDP per capita was around -6 %. For ten years Russians watched their newly free economy plummet with the help of western advisors. (The World Bank: Data and Statistics). While one shouldn’t claim that the western advisors that flooded Russia with Yeltsin’s approval maliciously and knowingly engaged in programs that would prove disastrous, from the perspective of the general Russian population and in light of their first real encounter with the American West and its modernization programs, the development of a subsequent strong anti-western sentiment cannot seem surprising. This anti-western sentiment was aimed at the western economic advisors and the political figures that supported them, which inevitably lead to a general weariness of western ideas about democracy transition and overall western ideals. As Cohen states, “The main obstacle to democratization in Russia is not—contrary to American political and media opinion—Vladimir Putin or the KGB, or any single leader or institution. It's the way the nation's most valuable state economic and financial assets were "privatized" between 1991 and 1996…The Soviet state property fell into the hands of a relatively small group of insiders…and created an extremely wealthy class very quickly.” Russians are not ignorant to this fact and he makes this clear by adding, “Polls show that a majority of Russians still think that property was taken and is held illegitimately...” With this wealthy class illegitimately controlling vast amounts of important assets, and the general population knowing this fact, any real democracy would inevitably decide to attack these ‘insiders’ and their assets. This is something that the oligarchs will use all of their power and resources to prevent, hence stalling any emergence of a real democracy. In addition, since, “the United States, by supporting Yeltsin's privatization policies, was deeply complicit in the way that property was acquired. The Clinton administration and outside advisers called it a transition to a market economy and cheered it, and Americans went to Russia to guide the process,” the logical evolution of an anti-‘American ideas of how to transition to democracy’ position also emerged in the minds of most Russians. These are the economic and political conditions that Putin faced when he became president on January 1, 2000.
In his own words, the Russia Vladimir Putin confronted was “…in the midst of one of the most difficult periods in its history. For the first time in the past 200-300 years, it is facing a real threat of sliding into the second, and possibly even third echelon of world states" (Putin, 2000). However, this would not discourage him from embarking on a radical campaign to restructure the political and economic system in order to restore Russia its position in the world. As Dale H. Herspring discovered in researching Putin, “Perhaps because of his KGB background, Putin gave the impression that he believed that even the most difficult problem could be resolved provided the decisionmaker followed through and took personal responsibility for the outcome.” In Putin's mind, Herspring argues, he had two major goals when he took over as president. First, on the internal front, he believed that the Russian state had to be recreated and strengthened. Yeltsin had given away power, in order to preserve his own position by securing support for his election, to the point that Moscow exercised very little control over what happened in country and its many different regions. The second goal was to reestablish Russia’s influence in the realm of foreign relations. Russia, in Putin’s mind and by many measures, in reality, was broken, and until it was brought back to a level of stability he would personally oversee its repair in order to prepare the country for a real democratic transition, which can only occur in a society with established institutions and a strong infrastructure. The result of this perspective was the emergence of what many in the west claimed was his ‘authoritarian’ rule of the country. In reality, while some ideals of a democratic government were neglected and opposition ‘strongly discouraged,’ the majority of the population supported him and his policies and freedom was at a higher level than that of the Soviet Union, while stability was higher than in the Yeltsin era. He institutionalized a bureaucracy with his political party and himself on top, where he systematically cut down on the influence of the oligarchs empowered during the Yeltsin era, created a new unifying national identity, and brought Russia back from a state of relative political and economic insignificance. The fact that his policies face harsh criticism from western observers shouldn’t necessarily be viewed as a negative, considering the chaos detailed earlier that resulted when Russia attempted to import the Western model of democratic transition. Putin noted, “Russia is a country that, by the will of its people, chose democracy for itself. It set out on this course itself and, observing all generally accepted political norms, will decide for itself how to ensure that the principles of freedom and democracy are implemented, taking into account its historical, geographical and other characteristics " (RTR Russia TV, 2005). His perspective reflects the general anti-western sentiment solidified in the majority of the population by the turbulent 90’s, but deeply rooted in Russia’s history. Russia, a nation created more than a thousand years ago by the czars of the past, deeply rooted in conservative orthodox ideals, cannot and shouldn’t embrace a level of liberalism equal to that of Western Europe or the United States. The Western form of democracy is categorically incompatible with Russia, and as an educated Russian, Vladimir Putin understands this.
Today, modern Russia is evolving its own form of democracy, maybe not fast enough for western observers or in line with many of our liberal social norms, but for the benefit of and in line with the values of the Russian people. As an independent survey conducted during the 2007-2008 election survey showed, 59 percent of the population either approved or fully approved of Putin’s activities as president, with another 34 percent mixing approval and disapproval, and only 5 percent reporting outright disapproval (Hale and Colton). Evidence of the evolution of Russia’s democracy is clear, since stability has increased, the need for Putin’s strict bureaucracy has diminished and liberalization towards a less bureaucratic democracy has begun. Starting with the election of the most-liberal member of Putin’s inner circle, Dmitry Medvedev, to the post of President in 2008 and continuing to the parliamentary elections of Dec 4th 2011, when, “with 96% of the votes counted, Putin's United Russia party took the largest share of the vote…with 49.5%...But the numbers add up to a significant loss. United Russia stands to lose many of the 300 seats it currently holds in the 450-seat Duma -- Russia's parliament -- possibly shedding more than 60.” (Labott, CNN). This latest parliamentary election showing a growing number of different political parties being represented within the Duma, Putin’s United Russia has lost ground and given way to opposition.
Hale, Henry E., and Timothy J. Colton. "Russians And The Putin-Medvedev "Tandemocracy": A Survey-Based Portrait Of The 2007-2008 Election Season."Problems Of Post-Communism 57.2 (2010): 3-20.
Herspring, Dale R. "Vladimir Putin: His Continuing Legacy."Social Research 76.1 (2009): 151-174.
Labott, Elise. "Clinton Cites 'serious Concerns' about Russian Election - CNN.com."CNN.com - Breaking News, U.S., World, Weather, Entertainment & Video News. 06 Dec. 2011. Web. 06 Dec. 2011. <http://www.cnn.com/2011/12/06/world/europe/russia-elections-clinton/index.html?iref=allsearch>.
Mankoff, Jeffrey. "Generational Change And The Future Of U.S.-Russian Relations."Journal Of International Affairs 63.2 (2010): 1-17.
Putin, Vladimir. "Russia at the Turn of the Millennium." (Pravitel'stvo Rossiyskoy Federatsii"), 2000 <www.govemment.gov.ru/enghsh/statVP_engl_l .html>.
"Russian Federation - Data and Statistics."World Bank Group. Web. 06 Dec. 2011. <http://web.worldbank.org/WBSITE/EXTERNAL/COUNTRIES/ECAEXT/RUSSIANFEDERATIONEXTN/0,,contentMDK:21032960~menuPK:989684~pagePK:1497618~piPK:217854~theSitePK:305600,00.html>.
RTR Russia TV. "Putin Focuses on Domestic Policy in State-of-Nation Address to Russian Parliament." Moscow, in Johnson's List, April 25, 2005.
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