December 19, 2007

Putin Is POTY

Time Magazine has selected its Person of the Year, and while they didn't select General David Petraeus, they didn't select Al Gore, either. Instead, they chose Vladimir Putin with the title,"A Tsar Is Born" -- which would have been catchy in 2006 or 2005, when Putin's political direction became clear:

Putin has said that next spring, at the end of his second term as President, he will assume the nominally lesser role of Prime Minister. In fact, having nominated his loyal former chief of staff (and current Deputy Prime Minister) Dmitri Medvedev to succeed him as President, Putin will surely remain the supreme leader, master of Russia's destiny, which will allow him to complete the job he started. In his eight years as President, he has guided his nation through a remarkable transformation. He has restored stability and a sense of pride among citizens who, after years of Soviet stagnation, rode the heartbreaking roller coaster of raised and dashed expectations when Gorbachev and then Yeltsin were in charge. A basket case in the 1990s, Russia's economy has grown an average of 7% a year for the past five years. The country has paid off a foreign debt that once neared $200 billion. Russia's rich have gotten richer, often obscenely so. But the poor are doing better too: workers' salaries have more than doubled since 2003. True, this is partly a result of oil at $90 a barrel, and oil is a commodity Russia has in large supply. But Putin has deftly managed the windfall and spread the wealth enough so that people feel hopeful.

Russia's revival is changing the course of the modern world. After decades of slumbering underachievement, the Bear is back. Its billionaires now play on the global stage, buying up property, sports franchises, places at élite schools. Moscow exerts international influence not just with arms but also with a new arsenal of weapons: oil, gas, timber. On global issues, it offers alternatives to America's waning influence, helping broker deals in North Korea, the Middle East, Iran. Russia just made its first shipment of nuclear fuel to Iran—a sign that Russia is taking the lead on that vexsome issue, particularly after the latest U.S. intelligence report suggested that the Bush Administration has been wrong about Iran's nuclear-weapons development. And Putin is far from done. The premiership is a perch that will allow him to become the longest-serving statesman among the great powers, long after such leaders as Bush and Tony Blair have faded from the scene.

But all this has a dark side. To achieve stability, Putin and his administration have dramatically curtailed freedoms. His government has shut down TV stations and newspapers, jailed businessmen whose wealth and influence challenged the Kremlin's hold on power, defanged opposition political parties and arrested those who confront his rule. Yet this grand bargain—of freedom for security—appeals to his Russian subjects, who had grown cynical over earlier regimes' promises of the magical fruits of Western-style democracy. Putin's popularity ratings are routinely around 70%. "He is emerging as an elected emperor, whom many people compare to Peter the Great," says Dimitri Simes, president of the Nixon Center and a well-connected expert on contemporary Russia.

All of which has been clear to people over the last couple of years. Putin isn't necessarily a bad choice, but if Time wanted to show that it leads the analytical pack, he should have been chosen last year. Instead, Time decided to pander to its audience, naming all of us Person of the Year.

It could have been worse. Al Gore came in second, almost confirming most predictions about the selection. David Petraeus, who singlehandedly changed national and international politics by reversing the disintegration of Iraq, placed fifth. Hu Jintao, the leader of communist China, came in fourth, just behind ... JK Rowling. Granted, Rowling sold a lot of books last year, including to me, but can anyone explain how Rowling's 2007 held more significance than that of Petraeus?

Once again, Time shows that it lacks seriousness in its calculations. They did better than they did in 2006, but they had nowhere to go but up, too.


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Time Magazine's Person of the Year is Vladimir Putin, the man who has destroyed Russia's infant democracy and replaced it with a neo-Tsarist authoritarian state. [Read More]