Russian support for Vladimir Putin and freedom of expression

Russian support for Vladimir Putin and freedom of expression, by Philip Greenspun.

Our media portrays Russians as living under a cruel dictatorship. Vladimir Putin and his friends are stealing all of their money. Our go-to “look how they abuse their women” slam against enemies doesn’t work with Russians (since women obtained an equal role in their society 100 years ago) so we decry the cruel oppression of gay and transgender people by a heteronormative government.

What was it like on the ground? I visited Moscow, which I was told was the part of Russia least likely to support Putin. Nonetheless, I met Putin supporters and Russians of all political persuasions agreed that Putin would win 65-70 percent of the vote in a completely free election.

Putin is credited with eliminating corruption and chaos at local and intermediate levels of government. Although Russians might be happy to live in an English- or German-style parliamentary democracy, they don’t see this as the alternative to Putin. Instead they envision pervasive corruption, violence, and looting.

What about the fact that Putin and people close to the government seem to have become richer than typical civil servants? (Though let’s keep in mind that these folks haven’t made anywhere near as much money, in the aggregate, as cronies of the U.S. government! Consider the $182 billion A.I.G. bailout, for example, and all of the Wall Streeters protected from their own incompetence thereby.) …

A Boston-based emerging markets bond fund manager confirmed Putin’s basic fiscal prudence: “When oil prices went up, Russia paid off a lot of its debt early. Compare that to Venezuela where they spent it on social programs and making Hugo Chavez’s daughter a billionaire.”

Russia has a flat 13-percent individual income tax, a flat 20-percent corporate income tax, and a European-style value-added tax of 10-18 percent (PWC). They are suffering from more or less permanent “austerity” because the government spends only about what it takes in via revenue. I.e., they don’t have deficit spending.

Russian freedom:

As in Soviet times, though there is probably more freedom of expression in social and work situations than we have here in the Boston area (e.g., you can express your opposition to race-based hiring preferences at your employer, but you won’t have a job a day later!), running a mass-market TV network with 24/7 anti-government stories wouldn’t work. …

What about something that corresponds to our obsession with Russians controlling important events here in the U.S.? Are there Russian stories about how various officials are being manipulated by Americans or the American government? There don’t seem to be. Government-influenced Russian media do seem to enjoy pointing out American hypocrisy and of course we give them plenty to choose from. The Land of Liberty (TM) has the world’s highest incarceration rate. The Land of Opportunity (TM) has a massive underclass. From those two contradictions alone the Russians can fill all of the pages that they want with stories that make us look ridiculous.

hat-tip Matthew