Simon Sebag Montefiore compares Yeltsin and Putin in The Spectator. (The Spectator is generally subscription only, but some articles, including this one, are free for a week.) The article is worth reading in full, but I have selected short passages to emphasise a point that struck me with some force.
The West is pathetically naive about Russian reformers. We long to believe they are real liberals, but no liberal will ever rule Russia. Peter the Great was a reformer — but a brutish tyrant too. So-called ‘experts’ in the West even believed Stalin was a prisoner of Politburo hardliners. We embraced the hardline Leninist Khrushchev (whose crude clownery and decent instincts sometimes resembled Yeltsin’s). When the KGB chief Andropov became leader, his love of jazz made him a ‘liberal’ in our eyes. Gorbachev remains the West’s favourite brand-name, but even he was not a liberal. His reforms aimed to make communism efficient, but he failed because he lost control. Historians will judge that Yeltsin was of a similar stature to Gorbachev. Both are reviled in Russia today, and they hated each other. Yet together in 1989–93, they ensured there would be no civil war — no terror as there was after 1917. That was no mean achievement...
Ironically, it was Yeltsin’s courtiers and oligarchs who in August 1999 chose ex-KGB Lt-Colonel Putin to be the next president.
Putin waged pitiless war on Chechnya. He diminished the freedom of the press, emasculated Parliament and broke the oligarchs, while using the riches and political-economic muscle of an oil-boom to restore Russian power. But the reinvigorated secret-police, successors of Lenin’s Cheka, Stalin’s NKVD and later KGB — ruthless, intolerant, xenophobic — became the enforcers of stability and the managers of economic and political power alike. A recent study shows 25 per cent of today’s elite are ex-secret-policemen, 78 per cent connected to them.
Russians are happier with strong rule — 80 per cent approve Putin. Whether he changes the Constitution to remain President or leaves for one term to return later, Putin will dominate for years to come. But his success is based on Yeltsin’s achievements, and failures. Yeltsin was Russia’s first democratic leader, possibly her last. No one can take away the experience of Yeltsin’s freedoms, but Russian democracy will never follow Western models: other authoritarian ‘controlled democracies’ — Turkey, Taiwan, Mexico — ultimately developed into democracies. But it took decades.
The bold emphasis is mine. I do not know enough about this subject to judge the overall merits of this piece. However, I can see that that author's absolute conviction about the Russian character stands in contrast to the more balanced argument in the rest of the article. Russians, it seems, do not suit democracy. They naturally prefer tyranny. Give them democracy and the country descends into anarchy.
Is this fair? I hardly know. However, I think it is a matter of culture, rather than immutable character. Put a Russian in a Western country, and he will like Western democracy well enough. South Koreans are the same people as North Koreans, and yet they embrace capitalism and something resembling democracy.
The idea that people get the government they deserve is a counsel of despair. Theodore Dalrymple disputes it in a thoughtful piece about Zimbabwe:
there is no more heartless saying than that the people get the government they deserve. Who, en masse, could deserve an Idi Amin or a Julius Nyerere? Certainly not the African peasants I encountered. That such monsters could quite explicably emerge from the people by no means meant that the people deserved them.
Here, in sharp contrast, is Rod Liddell:
The general rule for African countries is that when some obscene, homicidal and incompetent tyrant is at last somehow overthrown, the civilised world breathes a sigh of relief and the new regime is, for a while, garlanded in roses. Suddenly, from being a basket case, the country is referred to by the international relief agencies, the NGOs and Western politicians as ‘the one bright spot in Africa’, because the incoming tyrant has announced that they will get the economy back up and running, stamp out corruption and maybe hold an election or two in a few years’ time. The aid pours in and so does the goodwill. And then, after a bit, everybody begins to realise that the new boss is just as bad — if not actually many times worse — than the old boss. The economy is buoyed for a bit by the aid and the goodwill and the new climate of hope and optimism, but then it is noticed that the corruption has got a bit worse. Those promised elections never actually come about — or if they do take place, stuff happens during them which you tend not to see during elections in the UK, like shootings, the police beating up opposition supporters and ballot boxes being stuffed or burned. Within a short while — it can vary from between three or four months to three or four years — the phrase ‘basket case’ is being mouthed again and Western governments begin shaking their heads and thinking about sanctions.
This has happened in almost every African country over the past 50 years.
These days I am more inclined to the Liddell view, and am starting to despair of Africa. However, put an African in a decent, Western democracy and he will be neither more nor less suited to it than someone born into such a democracy.
There is one major exception: Islam. Belief in Islam, wherever the believer is from, is completely incompatible with democracy, except where democracy means nothing more than majority rule. The Shias in Iraq used the recent elections to gain power - power for their brand of Islam. And in Turkey, since most Turks are believing Muslims, democracy unchecked will lead to Sharia. Secularism must be enforced by the army. Furthermore, when Muslims settle in Western countries, they do not adapt and adopt Western values, but bring Islam with them. Islam may hibernate and emerge only with the next generation, but it is there, unchanged and hostile, waiting for each new generation to discover.
More than any other people, Muslims get the government they deserve. Leave them to it, and keep them out.