Putin Makes it hard on his Defenders

Early Saturday morning, unknown gunman murdered Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov. Nemtsov, a vocal opponent of Putin, planned to speak at an anti-Putin rally on Saturday. Putin had previously castigated his opposition as traitors and fifth columnists. Nemtsov also claimed to have proof that Russian soldiers were fighting in eastern Ukraine. Given this, Putin would be the obvious suspect in Nemtsov’s death, but there are a number of alternate theories.

In the past, I’ve defended Putin, but if he ordered his opposition murdered, then he’s gone well beyond defending. After the chaos of the Yeltsin years, Russia desperately needed order. Putin’s economic policies, aided by high commodity prices, brought Russia out of its economic death spiral, and he deserves credit for it. Also, the West made a number of mistakes with regards to Russia -- aggressively lecturing Russia over gay rights and expanding NATO into the Baltics come to mind. Both of these fueled anti-American and anti-European sentiment in Russia.

With these qualifications in mind, Putin is on the wrong side of history. An argument can be made in defense of authoritarianism in times of crisis, even in favor of dictatorship. Given the damage the sanctions have inflicted on Russia’s economy, this argument seems at least plausible. However, Russia will ultimately have to choose between prosperity and authoritarian rule, it can’t have both.

Right now Putin enjoys considerable popular support, and his pro-Western opposition is concentrated in Moscow and St. Petersburg. However, these two locations are home to Russia’s business and professional elites. If Russia wants to develop, it needs these people. Ultimately, these people do not want to live in a dictatorship controlled by fear. If they have to choose between Mother Russia and freedom, they will be on the first plane to America, as occurred during the Cold War.

Russia is not Saudi Arabia; it has natural resources but too many people to rely on them completely. More importantly, Russia aspires to be more than just a source of raw materials. It doesn’t seem possible for a closed society to compete on an equal footing in the global economy, or anywhere else. Once a society opens up to the outside world, it can’t completely shield itself from Western influence.

None of this should be taken to mean that Western-style liberal democracy is the ultimate endpoint of all civilizations. Rather, in this particular case, Russia can’t afford to lose its best and brightest to emigration. 

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