The Columbia Critic

A place to debate anything we want to. We'll talk Columbia campus issues. We'll talk up the homosexual problem. We'll talk China. And we'll talk without resorting to partisan rhetoric. We may be left. We may be right. But we aren't going to be quoting any party line. We're leading the discussion. But feel free to chime in. Hannity and Colmes this is not.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Deja vu all over again ...

MOSCOW (AP) - President Vladimir Putin told a party congress Monday that he would accept the prime minister's post if his longtime protege is elected president, guaranteeing Putin an ongoing heavyweight political role in Russia.

Couldn't help but think of this old column I wrote in '04 after reading about how Putin has installed himself to keep pulling strings, even more directly than Jiang Zemin did after he stepped down as the president of China

The Greatest Catch of Them All
By Brian Wagner

Created 09/21/2004 - 2:00am

Every autocratic leader believes his cause to be righteous, his
actions just, and his ideology greater than any force that can
block his path. We assume that in a democracy there is no room for
autocrats. But as President Vladimir Putin has continually shown in
Russia, when those in power do not respect the notion that power
rests in the people, but instead place full faith in their own
capacities, a democracy can become just as illiberal as a
dictatorship. Putin wins every argument about his leadership style
by stating that his actions are for “the good of the
state,” a blanket concept that is the greatest Catch-22 of
all.

Strong executives like Putin, who must deal with neither
balancing branches of government nor a powerful middle class, face
few obstacles to exerting power. It is important to understand the
mind-set of men like Putin, or in much more extreme cases, Stalin,
Mao, and Hitler. Fervent believers not in a system but in an
ideology, they live in a world created within their minds, where
“the good of the state” means not “the good of
the people,” but the degree to which the autocrat’s
conception of the state is being fulfilled.

Welcome to the deadly world of egocentrism, population one,
where even as autocrats destroy their country and kill their
people, they believe that they are serving the good of the state.
Thus, as Mao Zedong was pursuing agricultural reform that starved
30 million people in 1958-1960, he never questioned the
righteousness of his leadership, because he was convinced that only
he knew what was best for China.

As an old woman in Joseph Heller’s novel said,
“Catch-22 says they have a right to do anything we
can’t stop them from doing.” In a country with a single
strong leader, Catch-22 is the be all and end all. Everything the
autocratic leader does is for the good of the state, and the good
of the state is served by every action performed by the leader. It
is a self-sustaining catch, as it helps leaders avoid the odious
task of questioning their actions or suffering from a moment of
doubt.

“Pour l’utilité de la
démocratie,” wrote the 18th century philosopher Baron
de Montesquieu to justify the partial suppression of equality in a
democracy. Machiavelli argued that all monarchies and republics
would have to resort to crime to survive, but such actions were
justifiable because they were for the good of the state. Plato
referred to the right of rulers to lie in order to serve the good
of the state.

Every government in the world has at one time or another
suppressed the actions and freedoms of its citizens in isolated
incidents to achieve what it perceived to be good for the state.
That is why nearly 50 percent of the world’s 119 democracies
have been found to be pursuing policies that are classified as
illiberal, meaning that they don’t respect basic liberal
values such as freedom of speech, assembly, press, and
religion.

Yet few of those offending democracies have strayed as close to
autocracy as Russia has under Putin. Anointed by outgoing president
Boris Yeltsin in 1999, he has never actually had to deal with the
will of the people. In order to facilitate his efforts to serve the
good of the state, he has ordered the Russian media gagged, big
business oligarchs hobbled, political parties outside of
Kremlin-friendly United Russia discouraged, and potential
candidates for office harassed at every turn.

Russia’s fledgling democracy, as I have written in the
past, is collapsing under the weight of Putin’s
quasi-dictatorship. He cannot be challenged from within, because he
has successfully built up a system that is justified merely by its
goal of serving the good of the state.

His complete disconnect from logic and reality is evidenced in
his reaction to the recent Beslan school hostage crisis in North
Ossetia, where 330 adults and children were killed during a
standoff between Chechen separatists and Russian troops. Under the
guise of securing the country against terrorism, Putin announced a
further centralization of powers under himself. Russians will no
longer elect their regional governors; independent candidates can
no longer run for seats in the State Duma, the national assembly;
and more money has been shunted to military and security services
without any concrete plans on how such expenditures will be used to
prevent future terrorist attacks. Yeltsin, who oversaw
Russia’s transition to democracy, spoke out on Friday to the
Moscow News, criticizing Putin’s actions: “We should
not allow ourselves to step away from the letter—or the
spirit—of a constitution that the country adopted in a
national referendum in 1993. ... The strangling of freedoms, the
rollback of democratic rights—this can only mean that the
terrorists won,” he wrote.

Putin is making the most of Catch-22 in Russia today, committing
gross injustices against the nation’s democratic institutions
with little justification beyond invoking the good of the state.
The international community, led by the U.S., must act decisively
to awaken Putin, and other leaders of illiberal democracies, to the
reality that the true utilité de la démocratie can
only be achieved when government serves and is answerable to the
people. Otherwise, Russia will remain:

One nation/ Under Putin/ Illiberal/ With Liberty and Justice/
For None.

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