What Mr. Putin Could Learn from George Washington





Dr. Judith A. Klinghoffer is a senior research associate in the department of Political Science at Rutgers University, Camden. She was a senior Fulbright fellow in Denmark and is the co-author of International Citizens' Tribunals: Mobilizing Public Opinion to Advance Human Rights and the author of Vietnam, Jews and the Middle East: Unintended Consequences. She runs the HNN blog, Deja vu. Rick Shenkman is the editor of HNN and the author of Presidential Ambition (HarperCollins).

"If he does that [give up power], he will be the greatest man in the world," Said King George III about George Washington. The same can be said today about Vladimir Putin. If he steps down as he vows, he would create a new Russia. He seems to know that and vows to do just that. Yet to listen to him, it is clear that every fiber in his body rebels against the idea. He is sure his successors cannot be trusted to defend and nourish the Russia he constructed. Just read this excerpt from his November 21st campaign speech ( Translated by A. Ignatkin):

Nothing is preordained. Social stability, economic growth, even peace in Russia, and some improvement in living standards are not an unexpected windfall. This is a result of constant political struggle, sometimes a vicious struggle, both domestically and internationally. It is a result of a clash of interests. No battle can be fought without your participation.

Nothing would please our adversaries more than disruption of our plans, because they have other plans and designs for Russia.

They want it to be weak. They want us to be a disorganized and disoriented society, a divided society, so that they can line their pockets behind our backs and at our expense. Regrettably, there are still certain forces in this country who grovel before foreign embassies and rely on foreign grants rather than on support from their own people. . . .

The authorities do make mistakes. They deserve criticism when they do. . . .

And those who controlled the commanding heights in the federal parliament and government only a decade ago, in the 1990s, those who damaged our society and the state in pursuing the interests of oligarchic structures and looting our national wealth. It is these same people who are now trying to tell us what to do - the same people who made corruption the principal instrument of political and economic competition. It was those people who kept passing unbalanced and irresponsible budgets year after year, and who brought about the default and deterioration of living standards. . . .

I don't think anyone has any doubts as to what would follow their return to power. These people would once again rob millions of ordinary citizens and line their own pockets, in their typically cynical manner.

Everyone knows that Russia has accumulated vast resources. So there is once again a desire to confiscate it all, divide it all, and ruin everything again.

All our enemies would like to see us enslaved.

The fate of our country will be decided on December 2! Vote United Russia!

To watch the Russian people's enthusiastic response to his speeches, it is obvious that they too share his instincts. All evidence points to a major party victory. Moreover, the Russian people seem as nervous as he is about the passing of the presidential torch. The helm is certainly there for his keeping just as it was in the case of Washington. Yet Washington overcame his fears and potential hubris; he overcame the oh-so-flattering belief that he was irreplaceable. That"Apres moi, le deluge!"

Much depends on Putin's ability to do what no Russian leader ever did: Bow out at the height of his power because the Constitution demands it. It is one of the most important democratic pillars. A few years ago, one of us (Judith) suggested to the director of the Nobel Institute that the Peace Prize be awarded to Julius Nyerere for stepping down voluntarily as Tanzania's president. Alas, they had other priorities. Fortunately, Egypt's Mo Ibrahim who knows all so well the consequences of the refusal of a president to step down (think Mubarak!) established a Foundation just for such a purpose. The first award of five million dollars went to Joaquim Chissano, the former President of Mozambique. Perhaps some wealthy Russian should do the same. Perhaps, a few million dollars would help convince Putin that there is life without power.

Just a thought.

A cheaper, if not necessarily more convincing alternative, would be for someone to slip Putin a few good books about George Washington. What Washington learned over time was that he grew more powerful by giving up power than by trying to hang onto it. By surrendering his commission at the end of the Revolution, the act that so impressed George III, he cemented his richly deserved reputation as a leader who could be trusted with power because he didn't thirst for it. Like the Roman hero Cincinnatus, whom Washington modelled himself after, he gave up his sword for his plow and (to complete the Roman imagery with a Biblical one) returned to his vine and fig tree at Mount Vernon.

A few years later, as the young nation came to grips with the weaknesses of the government under the Articles of Confederation, friends beseeched Washington to agree to participate in the convention that had been called to draft a new constitution. Washington at first resisted. Though he shared their conviction that a stronger central government was vital, he worried that he would be condemned for violating his Cincinnatus-like promise. His friends, notably James Madison, argued that the reverse was true. If he resisted their entreaties he would be accused of putting his reputation above his country. Always preoccupied (some might say obsessed) with his reputation, Washington relented.

Washington then went on to serve two terms as president of the United States. Because of his reputation as a man who could be trusted with power, no one who tangled with him ever came off the better. At the end of his second term, firmly rejecting calls for him to run for a third term, he retired to Mount Vernon.

Putin does not have the advantage Washington had of growing up in a republican culture. Nor is he in as remarkable a position as Washington, the hero of the Revolution, was. But all the same he can benefit from Washington's example. If he truly hopes to inspire his country and lead it to a new day he should surrender his office willingly, setting an example that would redound through history.


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Arnold Shcherban - 12/25/2007

,since Putin acted almost exactly along my line of advice.


Arnold Shcherban - 11/26/2007

My advice to Putin would be: resign, but make sure that the President replacing you will continue along the same groove, more or less.
What Russia needs now is not so much of a democracy (the real one, not the US-style), but peace, economic and social stability along with a significant improvement of the well-being of MAJORITY of its people(the most democratic term of all, isn't it?), not of an ideological and economic minority. This goal cannot
be achieved without a strict and firm political leadership. This way
it was happening for South Korea and Japan that didn't start their head-spinning economic and social ascend as democratic nations, but ended as those after achieving relative prosperity of their populus.
Besides, the world now desperately needs at least one large country to counter (no matter how timidly) the new wave of Western neo-colonialism.

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