- - Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Twenty years ago on New Year’s Eve 1999, Boris Yeltsin shocked the world by resigning the Russian presidency. Replacing him was a largely unknown former FSB agent named Vladimir Putin.

It’s hard to imagine now, but in the year 2000, it was still somewhat reasonable to be optimistic about Russia’s near-term future. The country was at least somewhat democratic and the media were largely unfettered. Capitalism was taking root. The economy was growing. It appeared to be tilting toward the West.

Vladimir Putin’s 20-year reign as president and, for a brief interregnum, prime minister, has been disastrous for Russia. Democracy has withered on the vine; dissident political figures are routinely locked up on specious charges. The media are muzzled. The economy is not free market or even really capitalist. It’s pure cronyism, with Mr. Putin’s friends and associates dividing up the spoils.

Russia’s economy is also driven almost entirely by drilling for oil, not a recipe for long-term growth. The promised diversification has never come. Corruption, meanwhile, is endemic and opportunities to break into the middle class are scant.

But don’t take it from us. Ask the Russian people. They’ve been voting with their feet by fleeing in droves. Not only has there been a steady exodus from Russia during Mr. Putin’s rule, but more people than ever want to hop the next train or plane abroad.

“A record one-fifth of Russians would like to leave the country if they could, a threefold increase from five years ago, the Gallup pollster said Thursday,” reported the Moscow Times, one of the few remaining independent news sources in the country. “Public polling inside Russia has indicated in recent years that between 17 and 20 percent of Russians were willing to migrate. Official data, which has been criticized for downplaying immigration figures, says Russia’s emigration numbers have reached a six-year record.”

Those who can’t emigrate, unfortunately, die young. Russia is a public health disaster, with shoddy medical care and appalling alcoholism and smoking rates. The country’s life expectancy, particularly for men, is the stuff of third world countries. While it’s ticked up marginally in recent years, the average Russian man doesn’t even make it to 70. As of 2014, fully a quarter of Russian men were dying before they rang in their 55th birthday. It’s little wonder that, with high emigration, low life expectancy and a meager birth rate, Russia’s population is falling. Today it stands at 144 million, down about 2 million from the year Mr. Putin took office. And projections suggest the number of Russians will continue to fall throughout this century.

Mr. Putin’s foreign policy may, in the imagination of Washington Democrats, be the stuff of diabolical genius. Congressional Democrats blame Mr. Putin for everything from Donald Trump’s election to the existence of the NRA to Brexit. But the truth is more prosaic, and bad news above all for Russians (and perhaps especially Ukrainians). In 2014 Russia invaded Ukraine, annexed Crimea, and has continued to engage in a costly and bloody proxy war with its neighbor. The Kremlin has spent billions propping up its client in Syria, the bloodthirsty dictator Bashar Assad. What this reckless foreign policy has accomplished amounts to little for Russians or anybody else.

Russia is a cultural treasure trove, home to a warm and generous people. St. Petersburg is one of the world’s great cities. The Hermitage is one of the world’s great museums. Even the Kremlin is an architectural marvel.

But Vladimir Putin is a disgrace to the country that produced Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Turgenev and Tchaikovsky. His 20 years in power have brought nothing but disaster.

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