Who's Backsliding?

Washington Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt helpfully publishes under his own byline to assure us that dissent from the anti-Putin line that dominates the DC conventional wisdom reflects hatred of America. In fact, he's missing the point. "Who lost Russia? As the world's biggest country backslides ever more quickly into authoritarianism," Hiatt writes, "the answer you hear increasingly is: the United States."

The point skeptics will raise here isn't that the United States is to blame for Russia backsliding ever more quickly into authoritarianism, but that it's mighty hard to discern this process of rapid backsliding. Vladimir Putin, after all, was re-elected a few years ago in a vote. But it wasn't a proper vote you say? All the available broadcast media outlets were strongly supporting him and the opposition didn't have a chance? This is true. But it differs from Boris Yeltsin's re-election how, exactly? And then of course there was Putin's first election, the literal bridge between the Yeltsin era and the Putin era where, again, one can easily discern the near-total continuity between the undemocratic practices of America's favorite Russian and of America's most-loathed Russian. Putin appears to have quite possibly had a hand in the assassination of a handful of political opponents, yes. Yeltsin, by contrast, deployed tanks to shell the parliamentary opposition.

This is where the United States enters the pictures. Skeptical observers will discern that complaints about Putin do not appear to be genuinely concerned with the integrity of the procedural aspects of Russian governance. Rather, it seems that semi-authoritarian leadership of Russia was welcome when said leadership governed in a manner that was conducive to the financial interests of some well-connected western elites and when said leadership took a generally weak and compliant attitude toward international questions. Putin leads a stronger country than Yeltsin's shell-shocked wreck, one that's much more willing to challenge American policy. So, suddenly, it appears that Russia is led by a vicious dictator.