Putin is wrong about the liberal idea.
WHILE Vladimir Putin's choice of Dmitry Medvedev as his deputy ( even during the five years when the latter was technically his superior) is perhaps the only indication of any liberal strand in the personality of the leader who has steered the course of Russia for close to two decades. Medvedev is a 'closet' liberal, entranced by the persistent St Petersburg obsession about being more western European than the west Europeans themselves, a mindset that presumably entered Russia along with the Germans who ruled the country as absolute monarchs. Of course, the Germans themselves consider their own selves to be more than a tad different from the French or - more emphatically - the Italians, despite the fact that the French are presumed to be wonderfully romantic while the Italians are the snappiest dressers on within the European Union.
This sense of 'Germanic' separateness is present not only in those who hail from what was once Prussia, but also Bavaria, a part of Germany that seems ever on the edge of following the example of the Scots and the Catalans in seeking self-rule. Returning to Russia, the reality is that a country that is more than three times the geographical size of its nearest competitor is a civilisation in itself. The people of Russia have over the centuries formed a blend of culture and thought that puts them in a separate category, just as the Chinese are in a category separate from any other nationality. Initially, Putin too seemed to believe in the 'Common European Home' theory propounded by Mikhail Gorbachev, who ensured the meltdown of the Soviet Union by keeping in the deep freeze the instruments of control that had held the country and its system together since 1917 takeover of power by Bolshevik Party.
However, the former 'Gaybisty' (KGB operative) is easily among the shrewdest of world leaders, and within five or six years understood that France and Germany (not to mention the UK) would never permit Russia into the cosy decision-making clubs that they dominated. The entry of Moscow into the equation would have reduced to nought the Franco-German primacy over European Union policy, which is why Berlin, Paris, London and Washington (since the days of Bill Clinton) teamed up to ensure that as much damage was done to Russia's hi-tech capabilities as they could get away with. Finally, despite the entreaties of Medvedev, who was ready to accept second class status rather than move away from his beloved western Europeans), then Prime Minister Putin struck out on his own, in the process constructing a geopolitical primer that positioned Moscow as a rival to the Atlantic Alliance. After Xi Jinping took over in 2012 as the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, Putin entered into what is today an alliance that in many respects is equal to - when not superior - to the multiple groupings led by the US. Should the Chinese economy continue to grow at 7% plus during the next decade, the country would overtake the US as the world's largest economy during the period when Xi Jinping would almost certainly still be in charge of the country. This would affect US 'soft power' substantially, reducing the pull of what gets referred to as American lifestyles', which includes some of the least healthy products in the world, such as US fast food chains that are plentiful across the world.
During Soviet days, a few segments of industry were world class, including the missile, atomic, defence and space programmes. It was not an act of forgetfulness that ensured much broader liberties within the townships housing those who worked in such programmes. They lived in what may be termed 'liberal bubbles', in contrast to those working in sectors that were far from world class, such as the consumer goods industry. In China, the good news for the regime is that the overwhelming mass of the population are not concerned with politics at all, except in so far as this impacts the economy. The Chinese want economic benefits, and so long as these are growing, are happy. Interestingly, in several aspects of daily life, there is a very liberal spirit. Chinese women, for example, have far greater freedom these days than they ever had before.
More and more, restrictions such as the system of permits to migrate to different cities are being diluted. Because of the trade war with the US that has moved to an intense stage since 2018, the private sector in China is likely to be given much more prominence and assistance than has been the case in a system that placed emphasis on state-owned enterprises. Freedom cannot be defined as just the right to cast a vote every few years. It also implies the right to live life the way wanted, without of course physically harming others. It implies the right to set up a business or find work in a manner that is not restricted by bureaucratic prohibitions. If a comprehensive review of rights across the spectrum of human activity were made, some of the relative positions of countries that are regarded as democratic or authoritarian may get altered. The reality is that people wish to have a substantial degree of autonomy in their lives, and this forms the core of the liberal idea. To say, as Vladimir Putin is said to have, that liberalism has become discredited is to ignore the desire for a range of freedoms present in every human being.
In an age when education has spread to a much greater number of people than in the past, and in a period where social media is accessible to more than four billion inhabitants of the planet, there will be resistance to any effort at returning to the grip of the state the rights and powers that citizens have become used to enjoying. So far as the knowledge-based economy is concerned, such freedoms are essential to power the imagination and innovation necessary to ensure success in such a 21st century field. Russia will lag behind if it goes the way of the Tsars or returns to the restrictions placed on citizens by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The population of Russia has demonstrated a capacity towards intellectual excellence that requires for sustenance freedom in as many spheres as is possible without endangering overall stability of the state.
Rather than claim that the liberal idea is making a retreat, President Putin needs to remember that the centres of excellence in the Soviet Union were each marked by a much greater freedom for those involved than had been enjoyed by the rest of the population. The liberal idea is inseparable from the humanist vision that the world must protect rather than diminish. Especially in the knowledge-based economy, the expansion of personal freedoms inherent in the 'liberal' idea is core to faster and more balanced growth. Unless such development takes place, social conditions and tensions will boil over. Only growth in an atmosphere of freedom of choice can provide the cushion and the environment needed for the technological innovations needed for cheaper energy, adequate housing and proper healthcare. Especially in Russia.