I realize that the decision of a German group to give a prize to Vladimir Putin as a “role model” for Germany has garnered a lot of press in recent days and forced the group to cancel the ceremony and the award itself. But I remain stunned that any selection committee for any semi-respectable prize anywhere could have made such a pick in the first place.

Just to recap (from The New York Times article):

A German nonprofit group canceled its annual prize ceremony on Saturday after its decision to honor Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin sparked a public outcry.

In a statement, the group, Quadriga, said that the ceremony scheduled for October had been called off and the award canceled “in light of the growing and unbearable pressure and the danger of further escalation.” After a week of harsh criticism, the news that Vaclav Havel intended to return the prize he received in 2009 to protest the award for Mr. Putin appeared to have been the final straw for the panel …

After the choice of Mr. Putin became known last Saturday, a public outcry ensued among the ranks of those who believe that he helped roll back democracy and human rights in Russia and that, far from being a role model, he is unworthy of an honor previously bestowed upon Mikhail S. Gorbachev and the civil rights advocate Bärbel Bohley, who worked to end Communist rule in East Germany. Judging by the volume of the public discourse, those ranks are quite large.

I asked Chris Walker, director of studies at Freedom House, for his thoughts on the case. Chris, also a TOL advisory board member, follows both Germany and Russia closely. “Why,” Chris asked, “would they feel compelled to recognize Vladimir Putin as a ‘role model for Germany’ under any circumstances? Why not someone with real courage like Oleg Orlov, for instance?” (Orlov is the chairman of the respected Memorial human rights group in Russia).

The confusion over the choice also stems from Quadriga’s own explanation. According to the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, Putin was recognized for creating “stability through the interplay of prosperity, economy and identity”. He was also referred to as “in the tradition of Peter the Great, a switchman in the direction of the future.” I wonder how long it took to come up with those poetic words. I’m also curious about this interplay of prosperity, economy and identity. What exactly does that mean?

In any case, in Chris’s view, the prize selections falls into a long-running embrace between the German elite and Putin:

More troubling is that the German political/business elite put all their chips on Putin ages ago. Don’t forget that it was Gerhard Schroeder who described VP as a “lupen rein” (flawless) democrat 5 or 6 years ago already. Given the degree of German investment committed to Russia, it’s a strategic bet – and risk – that the coercive and corrupt governance model VP has forged is durable.

Lastly, Freedom House just released its latest Nations in Transit (NIT) report on Russia. Again, in Chris’s words:

“The NIT findings clearly show “leadership” in Russia but not the kind this prize purports to support. Bob Orttung’s report is a sobering analysis of the debasement and degradation of the country’ss institutions. It’s a decade long decline that is impossible for anyone to miss.”

Well, not anyone.

Putin photo credit: Russian Presidential Press and Information Office.

Jeremy Druker

Jeremy Druker is the executive director and editor in chief of Transitions Online. Twitter: @JeremyDruker Email: jeremy.druker@tol.org

More Posts