April 30, 2004

THE SKY IS RISING:

CUT RUSSIA SOME SLACK: THE ALARM AND DISMAY ARE MISPLACED: Russia isn't as much of a mess as critics would have you think. Its economy is making progress, and its political system is probably not much less democratic than, say, Italy's. (Clive Crook, 4/28/04, Atlantic Monthly)

I was in Moscow and St. Petersburg recently, attending conferences organized by Washington's Cato Institute. It was my first visit to Russia for a few years, and what I saw surprised me: an economy poor by Western standards, to be sure, yet plainly making rapid progress; and a political system that, while messy and no doubt corrupt by the standards of the rich West, gives voice to dissent and is probably not much less democratic than, say, Italy's. The picture drawn by most Western commentators—of a kind of criminal anarchy seething beneath a top layer of sham constitutional government—just does not square with what one sees, or, for that matter, with the facts. [...]

The mistaken idea that Russia was a strong economy in 1990 and the eagerness to see capitalism fail go a long way to explain the current widespread misconceptions. Shleifer and Treisman argue that if one thinks of Russia as a middle-income developing country—which it was, in terms of per capita income, even in 1990—then its present difficulties look much more normal. Yes, Russia is far poorer than the United States is. It always was. At the moment, nonetheless, it ranks among the most promising middle-income developing countries. The answer to the question "Who lost Russia?" is not the International Monetary Fund, or the Clinton administration, or Boris Yeltsin's reckless economic reformers. Nobody lost it, unless you count the Communists.

If Russia's economy is doing better than readers of American and European newspapers might think, what about the country's politics? Again, by rich-country standards, things look bad. By developing-country standards, on the other hand, they seem about average. It is true that the government exercises influence or outright control over much of the media, and that Vladimir Putin has moved to strengthen the government's hand still further. This kind of sway would be regarded as outrageous in most Western countries (though not all: Italy's leader, Silvio Berlusconi, owns or controls the main television stations and much of the press). In many middle-income countries, ownership of industry, including the media, is concentrated in relatively few hands, and the families in charge take care to have friendly relations with politicians.

Putin's government does have an authoritarian cast, and things could deteriorate further. On the other hand, the popularity of his regime seems genuine: Nobody is claiming that the elections that recently entrenched his power were fixed, and it should come as no surprise that a recovering economy and Putin's emphasis on security are a hit with voters.


One thing that's kind of worrisome is the thought that: if the press, pundits and pols get this hysterical about an ally who's pretty clearly dragging his country forward, even if by means we'd not accept here, then how are they going to react to the unique political configurations that emerging Islamic democracies adopt? As Iraq and Iran and the rest liberalize they aren't going to have republics just like ours, but so what?

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 30, 2004 7:59 AM
Comments

Oh boy, there is the "Berlusconi is the devil"-line again.

The man owns three national TV stations (out of seven, pay-per-view channels not included) which everybody watches for the incredible babes only. On the other hand, those three channels don't fill their programs with anti-Berlusconi-hatred. It's probably a criminal offense in Europe not to demonize a right-wing politician.

Berlusconi also owns a few newspapers, but none of the big three (Il Corriere della Sera, La Repubblica and La Stampa), nor the Roman daily Il Messagero, a local newspaper with considerable cloud, as it appears in the capital. Silvio the Terrible's newspapers are rather modest in circulation numbers. The Big Three aren't particularly Berlusconi friendly (although two of them aren't exactly left-wing propaganda outlets either).

He does own Panorama, however, one of the leading weeklies. A lot of the pages are filled with incredible babes, not unlike his TV Channels.

Posted by: Peter at April 30, 2004 8:31 AM

>>The man owns three national TV stations (out of seven, pay-per-view channels not included) which everybody watches for the incredible babes only.

>>He does own Panorama, however, one of the leading weeklies. A lot of the pages are filled with incredible babes, not unlike his TV Channels.

Roger Ailes must have apprenticed with Berlusconi; Fox News Channel is well-known among aficionados of that type of thing as having the best-looking women in American TV news.

Posted by: Joe at April 30, 2004 7:20 PM

Joe:

That's because they're conservative

Posted by: oj at April 30, 2004 7:42 PM

Orrin:

That goes without saying.

(mmmmm....Laurie Dhue's lips...)

Posted by: Joe at May 1, 2004 7:36 PM
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