Thursday, February 28, 2008

That tyrant Putin and more...a ramble through Russia and China that eventually gets to Obama

The presidential candidates seem to be unified in their opinions about Vladimir Putin. He's consolidating power like a tyrant, he will stay in control, he is completely undermining democracy, and he is an out and out bully. That may all be true but during his nine years of power the Russian economy has expanded every year, personal incomes are up sixfold, and the country now has $500 billion of currency reserves after defaulting on its debt in 1998. Russia still has big issues with corruption, infrastructure, healthcare, and distribution of wealth but some reports suggest that there is even some improvement on these problems given the natural resources windfall that has been the wind behind Putin's back. Putin does seem to be a brute that is in pretty much total control of a country that has only known czars, bolsheviks and communists for the last few hundred years. Democracy is not a tradition there and may take a back seat to nationalism, pride, and economic opportunity.

A comparison could possibly be made to China today. While very different, they both have strong single party governments that can and will stop any capable dissent and that's combined with a market economy that is allowed to flourish as long as the leaders of finance and industry tow the party line. Both have significant issues with corruption and pollution. In both a new business class of immensely wealthy individuals has developed. Both countries are building their military power and both have huge currency reserves and robust economic growth. Both countries get their share of criticism from U.S. politicians, but those politicians are accustomed to China's lack of democratic ways and pretend to see progress there while Putin's step backward and independent ways really piss them off.

This is no defense of Putin. It's just looking at perspectives. It's unclear that the U.S. media is especially balanced on the issue of Russia. By most accounts outside of the U.S. press, Putin and his handpicked bureaucrat Medvedev would have easily won election with at least 60% of the vote if Putin had not crushed most opposition with various "legal" ploys. Now they will get 75 to 80% and no other candidate will get more than 15%. Putin seems to be passionate about domination rather than just winning, and that's unsettling. The hope is that bureaucrat Medvedev can be the operational good guy while Putin sits on top as the KGB control guy to keep everyone in line. Apparently the majority of Russians will accept that as long as economic issues continue to move in the right direction. Currently inflation is the big risk there.

With all that said, what's the Russian man on the street to think of the United States presidential candidate's attacks on their leader, criticizing him for aggressively consolidating his power and staying in control after stepping out of office. Yeah, the USA, they don't have that kind of thing. Right, you have Bush, then Clinton, then another Bush, now maybe another Clinton, and if the Republican loses in '08 there's another Bush, Jeb the so called "smart" one, waiting in the wings for 2012. Looks a little fishy. The perspective on all of this from a country with almost no experience in democracy might be different from that here in the land of the free.

Maybe that's even what makes Obama a candidate of change here. For some folks, consciously or subconsciously, it could appear that the U.S. is in some kind of deja vu all over again rut, a political "Ground Hog Day". Obama is not a Clinton or Bush. He's not aligned with any of the major political personalities in most people's minds, notwithstanding some late to the fray Kennedy support. Let's face it. Who really knows whether his policy ideas will work and if he has real ability to facilitate change. HE is change, he smiles like Kennedy and Reagan did, he speaks well, he's quotable, he's confident, he's new.

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