What the World Really Wants; Russians Still Rate Democracy as Something They like and Value. but Their Big Priority Is the Conditions That Let Them Lead Decent Lives

By Zakaria, Fareed | Newsweek, May 29, 2006 | Go to article overview
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What the World Really Wants; Russians Still Rate Democracy as Something They like and Value. but Their Big Priority Is the Conditions That Let Them Lead Decent Lives


Zakaria, Fareed, Newsweek


Byline: Fareed Zakaria (Write the author at comments@fareedzakaria.com.)

The Bush administration describes spreading democracy as the lodestar of its foreign policy. It speaks about democracy constantly and has expanded funding for programs associated with it. The administration sees itself as giving voice to the hundreds of millions who are oppressed around the world. And yet the prevailing image of the United States in those lands is not at all as a beacon of liberty. Public sentiment almost everywhere sees the United States as self-interested and arrogant. There is a huge disconnect between what the Bush administration believes it stands for and how it is seen around the world.

Why? Well, consider Vice President Cheney's speech on May 4 in Lithuania, in which he accused Russia of backpedaling on democracy. Cheney was correct in his specific criticisms. If anything, he was coming a little late to this party. Senators like John McCain and Joe Lieberman have been making this case for more than a year. Russia watchers have been pointing to these trends for longer. But to speak as Cheney did last week misunderstands the reality in that country, and squanders America's ability to have an impact in it.

In Cheney's narrative, Russia was a blooming democracy during the 1990s, but in recent years it has turned into a sinister dictatorship where people live in fear. In castigating Vladimir Putin, Cheney believes that he is speaking for the Russian masses. He fancies himself as Reagan at the Berlin wall. Except he isn't. Had Cheney done his homework and consulted a few opinion polls, which are extensive and reliable in Russia, he would have discovered that Putin has a 75 percent approval rating, about twice that of President Bush.

Most Russians see recent history differently. They remember Russia in the 1990s as a country of instability, lawlessness and banditry. They believe that Boris Yeltsin bankrupted the country, handed its assets over to his cronies and spent most of his time drunk and dysfunctional. Yeltsin's approval ratings by 1994 were below 20 percent and in 1996 he actually went into the single digits for a while. Russians see Putin, on the other hand, as having restored order, revived growth and reasserted national pride.

Why? Well, for the average Russian per capita GDP has gone from $600 to $4,500 during Putin's reign, much, though not all of which, is related to oil prices. The poverty rolls have fallen from 42 million to 26 million. College graduates have increased by 50 percent and a middle class has emerged in Russia's cities. And yet the backsliding that Cheney described is quite true, too.

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