Person of the Year… in the good or bad sense of the term

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Russian President Vladimir Putin has been selected as 2007 Person of the Year by Time magazine.

The Vremya Novostei newspaper reports that Time chose Putin over former US Vice President Al Gore, Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling, Chinese President Hu Jintao, and General David Petraeus, commander of the international contingent in Iraq.

RBC Daily notes that the Person of the Year is selected by the magazine’s managing editor. Nominees are selected from people who have made the greatest impact on the news and everyone’s lives, whether in a good way or a bad way.

Vremya Novostei argues that Putin has indeed made the greatest “impact on the news” – in the good sense of the term. According to Vremya Novostei, two of this year’s events should be counted as indisputable victories for Putin: the choice of Sochi as host city for the 2014 Winter Olympics, and the solution to the mystery in Operation Successor. No matter how often Putin stated that he wouldn’t amend the Constitution, many didn’t believe him until he endorsed Dmitri Medvedev.

Richard Stengel, managing editor of Time magazine, offers some different arguments for his choice (editorial translated into Russian at inoSMI.ru). “One nation that had fallen off our mental map, led by one steely and determined man, emerged as a critical linchpin of the 21st century,” he says. According to Stengel, Russia’s important role is based on the length of its borders, its “significant and restive Islamic population,” the world’s largest arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, vast oil reserves, and the part it plays in the Middle East. “For all these reasons, if Russia fails, all bets are off for the 21st century. And if Russia succeeds as a nation-state in the family of nations, it will owe much of that success to one man, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.”

Gazeta.ru quotes Stengel’s interview on NBC television, where he described Putin as follows: “He’s Russia’s new czar, and dangerous in that he doesn’t care about civil liberties, he doesn’t care about free speech… he’s not a nice guy, but he’s done some incredible things.”

In his editorial, Stengel is more specific: “Time’s Person of the Year is not and never has been an honor. It is not an endorsement. It is not a popularity contest. At its best, it is a clear-eyed recognition of the world as it is and of the most powerful individuals and forces shaping that world – for better or for worse.”

RIA Novosti lists our compatriots who have been named as Person of the Year in the past: Stalin (twice, in 1939 and 1942), Khrushchev (1957), and Gorbachev (in 1987 – followed by Person of the Decade in 1989).

The BBC notes that the tradition of selecting a Person (Man) of the Year was started in 1927, as a way of filling up space in the slow news weeks of late December. Over the decades, the people named by Time have included Franklin D. Roosevelt (three times), Adolf Hitler, Lech Walensa, Bill Clinton, and many other celebrities. In some years, the title has gone to abstract concepts like the under-25 generation, the computer, and planet Earth.

After 9/11, Time chose Rudy Giuliani as Person of the Year – though rumor has it that the magazine’s editors were initially inclined to name Osama bin Laden. Ayatollah Khomeini was named in 1979, when he headed the Islamic revolution in Iran. That editorial decision led to numerous readers unsubscribing.

In May 2007, Time compiled a list of the hundred most influential people in the world. Two Russian citizens made the list: opera singer Anna Netrebko and Garry Kasparov, chess champion turned politician. Time described this as a list of the hundred men and women whose power, talent, or moral example is changing the world.

Vremya Novostei suggests that Time is trying really hard to avoid any accusations of giving Putin complimentary coverage. The photos of Putin used on the magazine’s cover and in the articles look rather grim. The article relating how Time journalists interviewed Putin is entitled “A Tsar is Born.” The journalists describe their impressions as follows: “No one is born with a stare like Vladimir Putin’s. The Russian President’s pale blue eyes are so cool, so devoid of emotion that the stare must have begun as an affect, the gesture of someone who understood that power might be achieved by the suppression of ordinary needs, like blinking. The affect is now seamless, which makes talking to the Russian President not just exhausting but often chilling. It’s a gaze that says, I’m in charge.”

Gazeta.ru reports that the American journalists met with Putin on December 12 at his Novo-Ogarevo residence. They learned not only his stance on major political issues, but a few facts about his life as well. For example, Putin has never sent an e-mail; he keeps a Bible on his plane; and he works out for two hours every morning. His favorite Beatles song is “Yesterday,” but he prefers relaxing to Brahms, Mozart, and Tchaikovsky.

Gazeta.ru notes that Time even quotes the vegetable joke that started circulating in Russia earlier this decade (updated to mention a currently-prominent politician): “Putin goes to a restaurant with Medvedev and orders a steak. The waiter asks, ‘And what about the vegetable?’ Putin answers, ‘The vegetable will have steak too.'” Time concludes: “Putin is no vegetable.” It goes on to relate how Putin went to Chechnya, then a war zone, after Yeltsin resigned on New Year’s Eve 2000.

According to Gazeta.ru, perhaps the most interesting part of President Putin’s interview is what he said about the opposition. And the accompanying article quotes United Civil Front leader Garry Kasparov as saying that “Putin wants to rule like Stalin but live like Abramovich… Putin’s system is more like Mafia than democracy.”

On the other hand, Putin has his own views on Kasparov’s political activities. Putin’s official website, Kremlin.ru, posted a Russian translation of the full text of the Time interview. The relevant part is this: “Well, what do you think: Why did Mr. Kasparov, when arrested, speak out in English rather than Russian? Just think about it. The whole thrust of this thing was directed toward other countries rather than the Russian people.” Putin explained that he regards this issue as “the tools foreign states are using to interfere in the domestic political affairs of Russia.”

When the American journalists asked about the Anna Politkovskaya murder investigation, Putin repeated that her role in Russian politics was insignificant, and described her as a “sacrifice.” He said: “Her murder was a provocation against the authorities, I believe.” He noted that the authorities intend to complete the investigation.

Political analyst Andrei Piontkovsky is outraged by Putin’s statements. In an interview with Radio Liberty he says that Putin’s allegations about Politkovskaya being killed by enemies of Russia are refuted by the investigation materials. Piontkovsky says: “Politkovskaya was being monitored by two surveillance groups that helped the killers: one group of Interior Ministry officers and one group of FSB officers – that is, officers subordinate to the Supreme Commander-in-Chief, Putin himself. If we’re to believe Person of the Year Putin’s version of events – which he hadn’t mentioned for several months, before bringing it up again now – it would appear that the sacrificial victim was sacrificed by his special services.”

When Time asked Putin about his future plans, he said that if he becomes prime minister, he will act strictly within the prime minister’s authority as prescribed by law, working on current economic and social issues: roads, housing, education. He is opposed to lifting restrictions on the number of consecutive terms a president may serve, or redistributing powers between the president and the prime minister.

(Some conspiracy theorists from the Vedomosti and Kommersant newspapers made an unexpected discovery at the State Council meeting on December 19. As President Putin took his seat between Dmitri Medvedev and Viktor Zubkov, he jokingly quoted: “A turner’s curls to my right, a smith’s curls to my left.” The quote turned out to be from a song, “The Rowan of the Urals,” which tells of a girl who can’t decide between two suitors: “And still we walk that narrow mountain path to the rowan tree, all three of us. Both men are bold, both are good.” This gave some journalists the idea that Putin’s choice of successor might not be final after all.)

Political analyst Alexei Makarkin told the Vedomosti newspaper that Putin’s Time interview flowed on naturally from some of his earlier statements – he confirmed that these are his sincere beliefs, which remain unchanged.

Political analyst Dmitri Badovsky maintains that the key point in the interview is Putin’s description of what he sees as his role, and his appeal to the moral and ethical foundations of the government system. Badovsky concludes that this is a mission statement – Putin’s mission is to serve Russia, and this explains why he’s prepared to become prime minister.

RBC Daily maintains that the Person of the Year title is unlikely to soften the West’s criticism of Russia. Political analyst and Public Chamber member Vyacheslav Nikonov says that the title’s prestige is questionable: “Putin is indeed one of the most influential figures in world politics, but Time is the magazine that picked Netrebko the singer and Kasparov the chess-player as the most outstanding Russian citizens of the decade.” Nikonov predicts that the magazine’s opinion won’t have any impact on the chill in relations between Russia and the West.

Within Russia, however, this title will be assessed and presented to the public as an enormous propaganda victory; Andrei Piontkovsky makes this prediction in his Radio Liberty interview.

The BBC reports that the Kremlin has indeed responded to Time magazines with satisfaction. “This is very good news for us,” said Kremlin administration spokesman Dmitri Peskov. “We regard this as recognition of the role President Putin has played in leading Russia out of the social and economic upheavals of the 1990s.”

In his NBC interview, Richard Stengel says that “stability is what Russia needs, and that’s why Russians adore” Vladimir Putin.

According to Piontkovsky, however, the stability created by Putin is “somewhat conditional.” Piontkovsky says: “For one thing, his stubborn reluctance to surrender power entirely, as the letter and spirit of the Constitution require, is planting a time-bomb of instability – a situation where Russia will have two tsars, starting from next year.”

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