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You Should Be Ashamed!

Russian democracy, civil society, and economy may all look bad from the outside. But to hear Putin talk, it’s the West that should be embarrassed.

NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP/Getty Images
NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP/Getty Images

MOSCOW — Speaking to a roundtable about civil society at the United Russia party congress on Sept. 23, the day before it was announced that he would be running for president in the 2012 election,  Prime Minister Vladimir Putin gave a frank and honest assessment of the Russian legal system.

"I wouldn’t say that our legal system … is any worse than the Anglo-American system," he said. "In some ways, it is even better." He went on to explain that because the Russian legal system is continental in its etiology, your average Russian citizen could pick his way through a codex and even defend himself in court. But his point is really that Western criticism of the Russian judiciary — corrupt, politicized, and Byzantine as it may be — is hypocritical. We may jail an oligarch every now and then, our conviction rate may be 99 percent, in other words, but you guys regularly kill people.

This is one of Putin’s favorite arguments: We are no worse than you, America and Europe. In fact, we are, in many ways, better. Over his 12 years at the top of Russian political life, Putin has responded to many a catastrophe with this simple formulation. Through Vovo’s lens, Russia doesn’t look so bad at all, especially when compared with the deeply hypocritical West.With Putin now putting himself in position to potentially rule Russia until 2024, the world will be hearing a lot more of these opinions.

Here are a few of his most insistent attempts to tilt the angle.

The World’s Air Bag

Two weeks after Lehmann Brothers imploded in October 2008, Putin said, "Everything happening now in the economic and financial sphere began in the United States. This is not the irresponsibility of specific individuals but the irresponsibility of the system that claims leadership." His finance minister had a few months before called Russia an "island of stability in a sea of world crisis" and argued that Russia’s currency reserves would act as an "air bag" for the rest of the world during the collapse.

Not long after Putin’s speech, the bottom dropped out of the Russian economy. It was the hardest hit of the BRICS, leading many economists to wonder publicly if "BRIC" even needed that R.

Me and Mahatma

Speaking at a press conference in June 2007, Putin pointed Western media to the tragic state of democracy everywhere besides Russia. The United States, he said, was in a state of "complete horror: torture, homeless people, Guantánamo, arrest without trial or evidence." In Europe? "Cruel response to protests, the use of rubber bullets, tear gas first in one capital then in another, the murder of demonstrators on the streets."

In the same press conference, incidentally, Der Spiegel asked Putin to comment on former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s statement that Putin was an absolutely pure democrat. "Of course, I am an absolute and pure democrat," he said. "But you know what the problem is? The tragedy even is that I am the only one like this. There just aren’t any others like this in the world…. Since Mahatma Gandhi died, there’s been no one to talk to."

We Hate the Electoral College Too

After a series of leaked cables came out in which American diplomats bemoaned the state of democracy in Russia, Putin went on the offensive. "When we are talking with our American friends and tell them there are systemic problems" with the electoral college system, "we hear from them: ‘Don’t interfere with our affairs. This is our tradition, and it’s going to continue like that.’ We are not interfering. But to our colleagues, I would also like to advise you not to interfere with the sovereign choice of the Russian people," he said in December 2010.

Heart of Darkness

At a press conference in Ankara in 2004, Putin said of America’s invasion of Iraq and it’s increasingly hawkish foreign policy, "I don’t want to see a situation where, as happened in Germany, we divided Europe into ‘Westies’ and ‘Easties,’ into first- and second- class citizens, where those in the first category could live under democratic and stable laws, and those in the second category, the people with dark skin, were expected to obey a kind but strict uncle telling them under what conditions they will live. And if, God forbid, one of the ungrateful natives he will be punished with a club of missiles and bombs, as was the case in Belgrade."

American Parasite

"The debt crisis in Europe and the U.S. is deepened by the fact that their economies are on the edge of recession. There is no clarity regarding their economies’ becoming more healthy, nor is any expected. And that means for all of us in the world, including Russia," Putin said in September. Meanwhile, hardly a day goes by without a note about the downward revision of Russia’s growth prognosis: In August, Russia’s RTS trading index lost 30 percent of its value and, this week, the ruble has been dropping precipitously for days. Recession, it seems, is just around the corner here, too.

At a camp for the pro-Kremlin youth group, Nashi, in August: "They are living like parasites off the global economy and their monopoly of the dollar," Putin said. "If over there [i.e., in America] there is a systemic malfunction, this will affect everyone. Countries like Russia and China hold a significant part of their reserves in American securities…. There should be other reserve currencies."

Stalin vs. Nixon

"Regarding the problematic pages in our history, yes, we do have them, as does any state,” Putin said at a 2007 social sciences conference, citing Stalin’s purges during the 1930s. "But other countries have also known their bleak and terrible moments,” he said in comments published on the official Kremlin website.

"In any event, we never used nuclear weapons against civilians, and we never dumped chemicals on thousands of kilometers of land or dropped more bombs on a tiny country than were dropped during the entire Second World War, as was the case in Vietnam,” he said in his own defense.

Hey Hey, You’re Monkeys

Not pleased when the West recognized the breakaway state of Kosovo in February 2008, Putin threatened vague retaliatory action and called Europe out for hypocrisy when it came to separatism — in Cyprus and Northern Ireland.

"I don’t want to say anything that would offend anyone, but for 40 years northern Cyprus has practically had independence," he said. "Why aren’t you recognizing that? Aren’t you ashamed, Europeans, for having these double standards? Why do we promote separatism? For 400 years, Great Britain has been fighting for its territorial integrity in respect of Northern Ireland. Why not? Why don’t you support that?"  

"We won’t behave like monkeys," he added. "If someone backs an illegal and ill-conceived position we will not follow suit. We will react to preserve our interests."

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