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A Valentine for Vladimir By: Jacob Laksin
FrontPageMagazine.com | Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad must be kicking himself. In the last year alone, the Iranian president has captured British sailors and humiliated their home country. He has lectured the United States about civility and human rights from a podium at Columbia University. He has sneered at the international community and forged ahead with a rogue nuclear program. He has done it all, moreover, while cracking down on opposition activists, students, and pro-democracy campaigners. For all that, he has been passed over for Time magazine's coveted "Person of the Year" award in favor of Russia's Vladimir Putin. What does an aspiring dictator have to do to get noticed?

Apparently, he has to bring "stability" to his country. Such at any rate was Time's rationale for crowning Putin with its top editorial honor.

It is, on the face of it, a curious justification. Even as the issue bearing his scornfully unsmiling likeness is making its way to newsstands, Russia is in the midst of a chaotic behind-the-scenes turf battle to determine Putin's successor in the winner-take-all contest that Russian politics has become on his watch.

Pitting veterans of the notoriously corrupt FSB security service, the so-called siloviki, against comparably corrupt Kremlin apparatchiks and status-seekers, the cutthroat clash has already produced several high-profile arrests and murders. The slain journalist Anna Politkovskaya and the poisoned expatriate dissident Alexander Litvinenko are but two of the most prominent examples of the tragic cost of challenging Putin’s Mafioso regime its FSB enforcers. (It is a measure of the lawlessness in Putin’s Russia that the chief suspect in the Litvinenko murder, former KGB thug Andrei Lugovoi, was recently promoted to the State Duma, where he enjoys parliamentary immunity from prosecution.)

Adding to the national confusion, Putin himself has tapped a longtime loyalist, Dmitry Medvedev, to succeed him as president, fueling speculation that he intends to wield power from behind the scenes. Given that the stakes are nothing less than full control of the Russian ship of state, to describe this ruthless scramble for absolute power as "stability" is to rob the word of all meaning.

As always when their choice stirs criticism, Time's editors protest that the title "is not an endorsement." This is both true and stunningly disingenuous. Let us concede that the award is not intended to confer approval. It is entirely possible that the magazine did not mean to hail Hitler when it made him its man of the year in 1938, just as he was beginning his Anschluss of Austria. Grant, too, the possibility that the selection of Stalin the following year and of the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979 -- in the middle of the Iranian hostage crisis -- were judgments on their geopolitical importance and not tributes.

None of this alters the fact that the title is invariably taken as an accolade by its recipients. Accordingly, Putin's surrogates have rushed to pronounce Time's award as a validation of his autocratic rule. "It's very good news for us, very good news," a Kremlin spokesman said of the award this week. "We treat it as an acknowledgment of the role that was played by President Putin in helping to pull Russia out of the social troubles and economic troubles of the 1990s."

Translation: "Thanks for the endorsement!"

Aside from its utility as propaganda, another problem with the choice of Putin is that it is a missed opportunity to spotlight some truly deserving candidates.

General David Petraeus, the intellectual architect of the successful "surge" strategy in Iraq, would have been a logical choice. Instead, the man who is working to build democracy in Iraq has to play "runner-up" to the man who is eroding it in Russia.

Alternatively, since Time editors are determined to focus on Russia -- "history lives in Russia" they pompously exclaim -- they would have done a public service by highlighting the struggles of Gary Kasparov. The former chess grandmaster could have had a comfortable life in the West, where he has no shortage of friends and supporters. He has instead chosen to wage a lonely struggle to restore democracy and the rule of law to his country.

Often he has stood in harm's way. In late November, for example, Kasparov took part in a demonstration against the government's decision to bar candidates from his political party, Other Russia, from standing in parliamentary elections. That earned him a five-day stint in jail. Earlier this month, Kasparov was forced to abandon his utopian bid for the presidency after his party was prevented from renting a hall for its nominating convention as stipulated by Russian law. There are daily threats on his life, and he has become a persona non grata, but Kasparov at least retains his sense of humor. Of Time magazine's decision, he noted with mock approval that it was "almost in tune with the official Kremlin propaganda."

As it stands, the closest that Time came to recognizing Russian dissenters is to give an honorable mention to J.K. Rowling, author of the best-selling Harry Potter series. It may be recalled that in 2003, the Russian government's lawyers threatened to bring a lawsuit against "Dobby the house elf," the computer-generated creature who starred in the film version of Rowling's Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Dobby's big-eared, bug-eyed features were taken to be a deliberate slight to Putin, though wags pointed out that, if anything, the elf was the wronged party.

Ultimately, of course, it is pointless to object to the magazine's choice. The "Person of the Year" award is about cash not content. It is a cynical gimmick designed to drum up the perennially flat circulation of a newsweekly that has lost its former influence. If putting a dictator on the cover achieves that end, the substance is immaterial. Much the same could be said of Putin's Russia. There, a great deal of money is waiting to be made, at least by anyone prepared to turn a blind eye to the increasingly authoritarian character of the government. Perhaps Putin belongs on Time's cover, after all.

Jacob Laksin is managing editor of Front Page Magazine. His email is jlaksin -at- gmail.com

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