Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
Excerpts from the JRL E-Mail Community :: Founded and Edited by David Johnson

#8 - JRL 8421 - JRL Home
Moscow Times
October 22, 2004
George Bush as Manna From Heaven
By Alexei Bayer

You don't often see Russia's political leaders endorse American presidents, certainly not conservative Republicans. But Vladimir Putin's recent comments at a news conference in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, amount to a ringing endorsement of U.S. President George W. Bush.

Moreover, by declaring that terrorists in Iraq are directing their attacks personally against Bush and that their goal is to prevent his re-election, Putin clearly played into the hands of the Bush campaign. The American incumbent's central message has been that he is the best man to make the world, and the United States, safe from terror.

This wasn't the first time the Kremlin extended a helping hand to Bush. Last June, for example, Putin suddenly declared -- without a shred of evidence -- that Russian security services had repeatedly warned Washington about terrorist attacks on U.S. soil being prepared by Saddam Hussein's agents. That too was helpful to Bush, who at the time was struggling to explain to the American public the link between the war on terror and the Iraqi dictator.

But for the source of those statements, they could have easily been used in Bush/Cheney commercials running in battleground U.S. states. However, you can't separate the message from the messenger. An apparent endorsement by Putin puts Bush into a rogue gallery of foreign political leaders whom Russia supports, including Belarussian strongman Alexander Lukashenko and convicted felon and Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych.

At first sight, it seems clear why Moscow should back that unsavory twosome. Keeping the two Slavic ex-Soviet republics on a tight leash is integral to the revival of Russia's imperial ambitions under Putin. It seems far less obvious what Russia hopes to gain from Bush's re-election.

In reality, it is exactly the opposite. Lukashenko has been nothing but an embarrassment and a financial burden on Russia, and Ukraine under a universally ostracized President Yanukovych would be the same.

On the other hand, Russia should thank its lucky stars for Bush's first term. In fact, Bush should be placed high on the list of crazy favors Providence seems to have showered Russia with in the course of its history.

All successful modern nations benefited from good fortune or lucky turns at some point in their history. However, Russia has been particularly favored by fortune. Throughout its history, there is always some inexplicable event saving Russia from inevitable destruction at the last moment or helping it expand its already vast domains. In the 14th century, invading Tatars turned back from Moscow after Tamerlane had a vision of the Virgin in a dream. Peter the Great was briefly captured by Crimean Tatars while battling the Swedes, but was then suddenly let go. Invading foreigners, from Napoleon to Hitler, were driven out of Russia by unusually vicious winters. It should also be mentioned that Russia has been blessed not only by a vast territory but by a wide variety of natural resources, which the other two large countries in the Old World, China and India, so glaringly lack.

It is therefore not at all surprising that the most beloved character in Russian folklore is the simple-minded younger son, who spends his days lying by the stove but who in the end, with the help of incredible good fortune, gets the firebird, the kingdom and the beautiful princess.

But to counteract their good fortune, Russians have been going out of their way to do great harm to themselves. The communist era was especially egregious in this respect. In the two decades from the October Revolution to 1937, the country exterminated its writers, artists and scientists, shot and exiled its service nobility and competent administrators, expropriated its entrepreneurs and business managers, and dispossessed its productive peasants. The great Soviet economic experiment created a remarkably wasteful system, which for eight decades produced machinery to mine coal and iron ore in order to produce steel and make more machinery.

Naturally, when the entire rotten system came apart, Russia was plunged into a severe economic, political and social crisis, which culminated in the 1998 ruble devaluation and debt default.

Things seemed dire enough until 2000, when the United States elected Bush as president. Bush's foreign policy blunders have been tailor-made to help Russia resolve its numerous problems. First and foremost, Bush's misguided invasion of Iraq stirred trouble in a volatile, unstable region, driving oil prices to record levels and heightening Russia's strategic position as a relatively predictable supplier of energy. In addition, Washington's single-minded concentration on the war on terror in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, provided a unique opportunity for Moscow to find a multilateral solution to its festering separatist war in Chechnya. Finally, by straining the United States' relations with its allies in Western Europe, Bush's White House raised fears in Paris and Berlin that America could turn into a rogue nation, driving them closer to Moscow.

All this created conditions for Russia to become a pivotal international player once again, and to develop its economy by attracting foreign investment. During Putin's stable first term, the country seemed to be moving in this direction. However, the judicial persecution of Yukos, which began in the summer of 2003, was a watershed. Since then, Russia has definitively turned away from economic reforms and democracy, wasting its considerable financial windfall and reminding potential Western partners why they had been so leery of Russia to start with.

The good luck represented by Bush's election has not run its course yet. Bush may yet be re-elected. However, having good luck is not the same as taking advantage of it. While the hero of Russian folklore is always skillful in exploiting his big chance, Russian leaders have been rather the opposite. Russia's great good luck of having Bush in the White House for another four years is likely to be wasted as well. What Russia has never had good luck with is the quality of its leadership.

Alexei Bayer, a New York-based economist, writes the Globalist column in Vedomosti on alternate weeks. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.