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Sri Lankans’ unhealthy love of Putin

a year ago

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The war between Russia and Ukraine has attracted intense scrutiny and attention from the international community, including citizens of virtually all nations, due to its geopolitical, economic and democratic implications. Russia is an energy giant, being a major player in the global crude oil and natural gas market, and the uncertainty of the situation has resulted in the price of a barrel of crude oil has jumping to a 7-year high. It is also the world’s 11th largest economy, and has trade and economic ties with many countries both near and far, and the economic fallout of the sanctions imposed on it by the Western world will be felt not just by Russia but by the entire global economy. Sri Lankan authorities too have expressed concerns about how this war could affect Sri Lanka adversely, especially due to Russia and Ukraine being two of the largest tourism markets for Sri Lanka over the past few months. Russian President Vladimir Putin is the architect of this war, and would be called its chief protagonist or its chief antagonist, depending on individual loyalties and ideologies. For the most part, it appears that Sri Lankans have sided with Putin despite his actions over the past few weeks based on the sentiments expressed on social media. One of the main reasons for the support, or sympathy, Putin is receiving in Sri Lanka is the notion that he is a great leader and bulwark against Western imperialism and hypocrisy. However, that is an opinion based on Putin’s outward personality and charisma, which has been carefully crafted by a loyal media industry, and a perception which is not supported by facts, figures and statistics. The Russian economy is only the 11th largest in the world, despite having the potential to comfortably be number 1. It has the world's largest pool of natural reserves, including the world's largest natural gas reserves, accounting for about 24% of the world's total natural gas reserves. It also has the second largest coal reserves and 8th largest oil reserves in the world. It also has the largest domestic market in Europe of 144 million consumers and is by far the largest nation in the world in terms of landmass. With all these advantages and blessings, Putin has achieved very little for the benefit of his country in his 23 years in power since 1999. The Russian economy is the most unequal in the world among the major economies, with the top 10% owning around 85% of the nation's wealth, much of which is believed to be hidden away by Russia’s oligarchs in tax havens and offshore accounts. What’s more, it’s not only the oligarchs who contribute to Russia’s wealth inequality. Bill Browder was the former CEO of Hermitage Capital Management and had invested $ 4 billion in Russian stocks at one point. However, after being disillusioned with the Russian Government, he became a fierce critic of Putin. In 2017, Browder testified to the US Senate Judiciary Committee that Putin himself was worth $200 billion, which would have made him the richest man in the world at the time. Putin has strengthened the military of Russia during his tenure and tried to expand Russia's borders. These are the main ambitions of Putin, who has long dreamed of a return to the Soviet era, once referring to the collapse of the Soviet Union as the greatest tragedy of the 20th century, a massive statement considering that the 20th century saw two world wars, multiple famines, conflict around the world and rampant terrorism. Putin, or the image he has built over the years, is relevant to Sri Lanka as well. There was a time, particularly ahead of the Presidential Election in 2019, when many Sri Lankans wanted President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to be a Putin. The main reason for that widespread sentiment was the fact that Putin has built an image as a straightforward, authoritative, fearless leader. Sri Lankans felt they needed that type of a leader, especially due to the lackadaisicalness and lack of straightforwardness of the former United National Front led ‘good governance’ Government led by the then President Maithripala Sirisena and the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, which was voted out due to various reasons, the main one being the failure to avert the Easter Sunday attacks.    As a military man and a member of the powerful Rajapaksa family, President Rajapaksa had built a reputation for himself. He was seen and was portrayed as the saviour of the nation in 2019, when there was a threat of Muslim extremism that Sri Lanka did not expect. Now, he has ruled the country for over two years, and it would not be an exaggeration to say that Sri Lankans are disappointed with his performance. This is a lesson learned the hard way, that an authoritative personality, confidence, or attractive promises do not constitute a good leader, and that the choices they make, especially at elections, should be made on a more concrete basis, or facts.   When we look at the overall situation regarding choosing leaders, Sri Lankans need to not care about or rely on promises, but about performance, and understand the plain fact that a good leader is a person who delivers what he promises. This is especially crucial when we think about the coming few years. Sri Lankans need leaders or a Head of State who makes wise decisions, not promises wise decisions, and the people have a right, power, as well as a responsibility to choose leaders that are capable of improving the country’s struggling economy and society, and not be fooled by promises. We do not need another Putin; we need leaders that understand the people’s plight and work towards the betterment of the nation and its people, not themselves. Most of all, we need to vote based on facts, statistics and past performance, not emotions, media-constructed perceptions or personal loyalties.  

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