Путин высмеивает американскую политику / Putin Mocks American Politics

Putin at a forum with CNN journalist

Audio Content: At a forum with a CNN journalist, Putin clarifies his mistranslated description of Trump as “bright” and takes some shots at U.S. democracy.

Video clip embedded below or at RT’s YouTube channel.

Here is one more video on Putin, Trump, and American democracy, to wrap up what turned out to be a four-part series on elections both American and Russian. This excerpt is a great example of Putin’s communication style, public persona and attitude toward the West. The clip also sheds light on an interesting Russian-English translation snafu that surfaced memorably in the U.S. presidential election. I also reflect below on the far-reaching implications of Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election. Subsequent posts will turn to lighter topics.

The video featured in today’s post comes from the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum held in mid-June 2016. In the clip, Putin responds to a question from the CNN journalist Fareed Zakaria, who was moderating a forum that also included the president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, and the Prime Minister of Italy, Matteo Renzi.

The translation issue I mentioned above involves the word “яркий” (yarkii). At a December 2015 press conference, Putin responded to a question about Trump by describing him as a “яркий” person. Many U.S. news outlets translated this word as “brilliant,” which Trump interpreted in an intellectual sense, quickly exaggerating the incident into the claim that Putin called him a “genius.” But the word “яркий” never has this intellectual connotation; its range of meaning is closer to that of the word “vivid.” In a visual sense the word means “bright” or “colorful” and in a metaphorical sense it means “flashy” or “flamboyant.” Putin was describing Trump’s persona, not his intelligence. In this clip he lightly mocks the journalistic brouhaha over his offhand comment.

The video clip also displays Putin’s diplomatic and public relations skills. He starts and ends his comments with bits of disarming flattery, which bracket several biting criticisms delivered in an amiable tone. As I mentioned in the previous post, Putin is good at “trolling” the West. Here he reprises some of his usual complaints and criticisms: that our political system is not nearly as democratic as we claim, that the West tends to “lecture” Russia in a hypocritical and meddlesome manner, and that the West is unnecessarily hostile in spite of Russia’s desire for friendly relations. Putin makes all these comments with the demeanor that he usually displays to international audiences: he comes across as confident and charming, folksy yet mature, clever and reasonable, full of common sense and essentially benevolent intentions. He presents Russia as acting justly and honestly while being treated unfairly. This skilled rhetoric tends to make his interlocutors appear slightly ridiculous or foolish, although Putin masks the attack with his personal charm. Finally, in contrast to the previous post that featured a prewritten speech in a formal register, in this clip Putin speaks ad lib and reveals traces of the casual, folksy speaking style that appeals to his Russian listeners. Note the use of the conversational “чё” in place of “что” at one point, as well as the mildly combative phrase “а что” (“so what?” / “what the heck are you implying?” / “what’s wrong with what I’m saying?”).

In spite of Putin’s skill at casually brushing off any challenges or concerns in the video featured below, the real situation is much murkier than his polished persona would lead us to believe. Putin questions some aspects of American democracy as if he cares about the integrity of elections, when in fact he has imprisoned political opponents and engineered a severe lack of democratic choice in Russia. (See the previous few posts, and the posts on Aleksei Navalny and Boris Nemstov.) He acts as if a friendly relationship with Russia is a simple, obvious choice; but to many in the West this would entail allowing Putin to invade neighboring countries with impunity (or cheat at the Olympics). And despite Putin’s complaints about Western “meddling” and his professed commitment to noninterference, the Russian state is happy to meddle extensively in other countries in the service of perceived national interests. Putin would point out that, of course, many other nations have done similar things.

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Editorial Digression:
How Cynical Should We Be About Democracy?

One particularly significant instance of Russian “meddling” occurred during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. According to the U.S. intelligence community, the Russian government carried out a state-sponsored email hacking scheme that extensively aired the internal discussions of one campaign while allowing the other campaign to maintain confidentiality in its internal conversations. Journalists and independent investigators have also found signs that some of the totally false “news” that circulated on social media near the end of the campaign originated from “trolls” employed by the Kremlin to push the state’s preferred message or impersonate politically passionate American citizens. Some in the U.S. have played down the seriousness of these actions, pointing out that other factors played a much larger role in the election and that one of the organizations investigating this topic is pretty shadowy itself. But no one has undermined the substance of the claims, namely that Russia carried out a deliberate, somewhat successful campaign to interfere in the 2016 U.S. election and generally undermine trust in democratic systems. For my part, I am of course no fan of the Russian government’s actions, but am more upset about the Americans who let themselves be taken in by such tactics, becoming participants in the manipulation and sabotage of our democracy. I have been reflecting lately on what happened and about how to counter these corrosive effects. My vision coalesced around two main points that, while they may appear naive or idealistic in light of the various problems in our country, at least point in a positive direction instead of giving in to corrosive cynicism. And so I will now take a detour into much more editorializing than is usual in my blog posts.

Point One: We need to act in a way that shows we deserve our democracy.

First of all, this entails distinguishing between real and fake news, not letting our outlook be dominated by conspiracy theories or outright lies. Secondly, we must vote wisely, based on policy substance and realism about the choices we face rather than superficial urges and false hopes. If the citizens of a democracy fail miserably in these two areas, they weaken their own democracy, tarnish the international image of democracy and contribute in the long run to the triumph of authoritarianism over democracy. After all, many people, including some Russians, prefer a “strong leader” to a democratic system, and we prove them right if we fail to live up to the demands of democracy. For example, if citizens cannot distinguish between truth and fiction, a “strong leader” is, in a way, justified in closing down the free media — after all the the people were incapable of responding to the media in an intelligent and mature way so they might as well be controlled from above. If the U.S. had interfered with Russia the way Russia did with the U.S., the Kremlin could make sure this information was all over the nightly news for weeks; in the U.S., on the other hand, the news media focuses on the most popular, profitable topics, while regular people often devour sensational, distorted pseudo-news. Similarly, if we do not vote wisely and select capable leaders, a “strong leader” may be justified in concluding that democracy is ineffective, that it is better for an elite oligarchy to choose national leaders without bothering to give the people a say. Russia, for example, is represented at the UN and around the world by skilled diplomats who have years of experience promoting Russian state interests. Are the major democracies of the world, where power changes hands more quickly, sending diplomats of equal caliber to deal with Russia?

Point Two: We should not indulge in cynicism to the point that we equate the faults of our system with a much more severe lack of civil liberties elsewhere.

Although I have immense respect for the Russian people, Russia’s cultural and scientific achievements, the Russian historical experience, and the right of Russians to decide what political system they prefer, I am going to point out some comparisons that should stop anyone from being taken in by the cynical attempt of an authoritarian leader like Putin to undermine our commitment to our own democracy and undermine our faith in the civic ideals that we are striving, imperfectly, to uphold. My concern is that, if we focus stridently and exclusively on the faults of our system, we play into the hands of authoritarian leaders who would like to convince their constituency that democracy doesn’t really exist, or that all journalism is just propaganda anyway, or that corruption and money rule everywhere, and that therefore there is no point in agitating for greater freedom and justice and opportunity.

Of course there are numerous distressing failings, in the U.S. and other democracies, in our political structures, court system, media, social hierarchy, etc. But in the United States we do have contested elections with unpredictable results. In Russia, when it comes to the powerful government positions, they do not. We do have a choice between two parties with very different platforms, particularly in domestic policy. In Russia, Putin has been in power for sixteen years, as president or prime minister, and he faces no serious challengers for the foreseeable future, nor does his party have any real chance of losing their large parliamentary majority. Putin might suggest that this is because the people are happy with his leadership (his approval rating is around 85 percent), but in a functioning democracy an opposition arises.

Turning to some other civil liberties: News outlets in the U.S. suffer from blind spots and superficiality and a focus on profitability and entertainment, but we do have large media organizations that relentlessly criticize our political leaders throughout their time in office. In Russia, all of the major federal television channels are ultimately state-controlled and they are very skilled at presenting issues in a way that subtly (or not always so subtly) supports Putin’s agenda. In the United States, peaceful protesters are sometimes met with violence, but many large, independently organized, sometimes disruptive political demonstrations occur with minimal interference. In Russia, any political demonstration involving more than one person must be pre-approved by the authorities, participants in the protests on Bolotnaya Square received significant prison sentences, and the activist Ildar Dadin was put in prison for having stood with a political placard a few too many times. The United States sometimes fails spectacularly at maintaining the civil liberties enumerated in the Bill of Rights, but we do have an independent (if increasingly politicized) judiciary as well as major organizations like the ACLU that constantly take action to defend civil rights. In Russia non-governmental human rights organizations have been labeled “foreign agents” and hounded out of existence.

In summary, we absolutely must continue to combat the flaws in our social systems, but we should not imply that these faults make the system worthless, nor should we parrot the criticisms and emulate the cynicism of national leaders who show negligible commitment to democracy and civil liberties in their own localities. Although naivete can hamper the fight for justice, an overdone cynicism may be even more corrosive for a democratic society.

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Video Clip

 

Russian Transcript

В. В. Путин: Вот… (смех и аплодисменты) Вы очень… Вы известный человек в нашей стране, вот вы лично. И не только как ведущий одной из крупнейших телевизионных корпораций, но и как интеллектуал. Зачем вы все передергиваете? (аплодисменты) Возьмите… Вот, над вами берет верх журналист, а не аналитик. Но посмотрите, что я сказал. Я на ходу сказал, что Трамп яркий человек. А что, не яркий? Яркий. (аплодисменты) Никаких других характеристик я ему не давал. Но, вот, на что я точно обращаю внимание, и что я точно приветствую, и не вижу здесь ничего плохого, наоборот: господин Трамп заявил, что он готов к восстановлению, полноформатному восстановлению российско-американских отношений. Чего здесь плохого? Мы все это приветствуем. А вы нет? (смех, аплодисменты)

Но мы не вмешиваемся, мы никогда не вмешиваемся в внутриполитические процессы других стран, тем более Соединенных штатов. Но мы будем работать с любым президентом, за которого проголосует американский народ. Хотя я не думаю, кстати говоря, что вот они всех учат, как надо жить, и демократии учат. А что, вы считаете, что там демократический выбор президента, что ли? (аплодисменты) Это правда. Посмотри: там дважды в истории США избирали президентом человека, за котор-… большинством голосов выборщиков. А за этими выборщиками стояло меньшее количество избирателей. Это что, демократия, что ли? Значит, а когда мы, а когда мы… мы дискутируем иногда с коллегами. Мы никого не в чем не обвиняем, просто дискутируем. Нам говорят: не лезьте, это не ваше дело, мы так привыкли. Так и хочется сказать, ну тогда не лезьте к нам! Чё вы лезете-то? Пожалуйста, разберитесь у себя сначала.

Но повторяю, действительно, это не наше дело, хотя по-моему там даже прокуроры отгоняют от участков международных наблюдателей в ходе избирательных кампаний, американские прокуроры. Говорят, что в тюрьму посадят. Но это их проблема. Это.. Они так привыкли. Им нравится. Америка великая держава. Ну, сегодня, наверно, супер… единственная супердержава. Мы это принимаем. Мы хотим и готовы соработать с Соединенными штатами. И как бы там не происходили эти выборы, в конце концов они состоятся. Будет глава государства. У него большие очень полномочия. Значит, там идут сложные внутриполитические и экономические процессы в Соединенных штатах. Миру нужна мощная такая страна, как Соединенные штаты, и нам нужна. Значит… но нам не нужно, чтобы они постоянно вмешивались в наши дела, указывали, как нам жить, а… мешали Европе строить с нами отношения.

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English Translation

V. V. Putin: Well… (laughter and applause) You are very… you are a well-known person in our country, I mean you personally. And not only as the host at one of the largest television corporations, but also as an intellectual. Why do you distort everything? (applause) Take for example… the thing is, the journalist in you is winning out over the analyst. But look at what I said. In passing I said that Trump has a vivid / flamboyant (yarkii) personality. So what’s your point– isn’t he flamboyant? He’s flamboyant. (applause) I did not ascribe any other qualities to him. But, you see, the thing I definitely do want to direct attention to, and that I really do welcome — and I don’t see anything wrong with this, quite the contrary: Trump declared that he is ready for a restoration, a full-format restoration of Russian-American relations. What is wrong with that? We all welcome that. Don’t you welcome it? (laughter and applause)

But we do not interfere, we never interfere in the internal political processes of other countries, especially not those of the United States. But we will work with any president that the American people vote for. Although I don’t think, by the way… they [the Americans] are instructing everyone how we should live, and teaching everyone about democracy. But listen: do you think there is really a democratic selection of the president there? (applause) This is true. Consider this: twice in the history of the USA a president was elected for whom… was elected by the majority of electoral votes. But those electoral votes corresponded to the smaller amount of actual voters. So what do you say — is this really democracy? So, this means… when we…. sometimes my colleagues and I have discussions. We do not accuse anyone of anything, we just have a discussion. And people say to us: don’t meddle, it’s none of your business, we are used to doing it this way. In that case I want to say: well, then, don’t meddle with us either! Why the heck are you meddling? Please, straighten things out in your own country first.

But I repeat: in truth it is none of our business. Although, I think, some prosecutors there, American prosecutors, are shooing international observers away from the voting precincts during the course of the electoral campaign. [See this article on Russians observing American elections.] They say that these people will be put in prison. But that is their own problem. That is… they are used to doing it that way. They like it that way. America is a great power. Today, probably, a super… the sole superpower. We accept that. We want to and are prepared to cooperate with the United States. And no matter how those elections are conducted, after all they will ultimately take place. There will be a head of government. He will have very great prerogatives. So… there are complicated political and economic processes happening domestically in the United States. The world really needs a country that is as powerful as the United States, and we need such a country. So…. but what we don’t need is them constantly interfering in our business, instructing us about how to live, and… getting in the way of Europe’s moves to establish a relationship with up.

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