Sep 13, 2011

"Master of the World"

Ivan the Terrible. Peter the Great. Lenin. Stalin. Russia’s most dictatorial, controlling leaders tend to be those whose names are etched in global history. Maybe that’s why Vladimir Putin seems so keen to emulate them. David Cameron was in Moscow today to meet Putin, currently the Prime Minister, and Medvedev, the President, which gives me an excuse to do something I’ve always wanted to do… write a politics blog. If the mere mention of politics is enough to make you switch off, scroll down to the bottom for an anecdote about mullets!

In Russia you cannot escape Putin. His face, always severe (fake smiles don’t cut it in Russia) glares down from massive billboards, presumably from Kaliningrad on the Baltic to Vladivostok on the Sea of Japan. He is on the news every day, sometimes more than once. In fact, from what I’ve seen so far, the news on Rossiya 1 (= BBC1) is a bit like a reality TV show documenting Putin’s every move. That’s not to say that President Medvedev doesn’t get coverage as well, but, inevitably, he gets overshadowed by Russia’s self-styled ‘natural leader’. For example, today Medvedev was shown hosting a meeting to discuss a suitable response to the tragic air crash which killed the whole of the Locomotive Yaroslavl ice hockey team last week. This was immediately followed by a speech from Putin, apparently chairing his own meeting, on exactly same issue. Anything you can do, I can do better…

As far as I can see, this is all part of Putin’s master plan, and a masterful plan it is. According to the constitution, Putin had to give up the presidency in 2008. But Putin had not exactly made a habit of sticking to the constitution. He didn’t have to go, but he saw an opportunity. By relinquishing the Presidency, he went some way towards silencing those who accused him of being a dictator, and he preserved some legitimacy for both the Russian constitution and political system. Furthermore, by choosing Medvedev, he broadened his support support base without really compromising his own position as ‘natural leader’. This is because, as a Russian friend explained to me yesterday, Medvedev’s approach appeals to the young, educated people who see through Putin’s more blatantly propagandistic methods. They like his enthusiasm for modern technology and his willingness to try out new ideas. In fact, I was surprised that this friend, who studied International Relations at university, considered Medvedev quite independent from Putin. Most western commentators would disagree, but it isn’t their opinion that counts for Putin. His tactic seems to have worked.

Not only does Putin not being President increase his support base (or at least, decrease opposition), it also frees him to cultivate his image as ‘natural leader’. When Russian troops fought in Georgia in 2008, Putin, dressed in his bomber jacket, was able to travel to the front line, where he comforted traumatized Russian citizens and encouraged the soldiers, while Medvedev (wearing a suit), was fully occupied seeking a diplomatic solution with foreign leaders. Another Medvedev-Putin juxtaposition on the news this week strengthened my impression that, for Putin, being Prime Minister is much more fun. First, they showed Medvedev looking bored out of his mind addressing a summit attended by, amongst others, the Presidents of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan… you get the idea. This was immediately followed by Putin’s appearance at a rock concert, but this wasn’t just any old appearance. Putin, man of the people, rode in at the head of a motorcade of bikers, as fireworks went off in the background. Then, still in his leathers, he proceeded to address the crowd. I thought he looked ridiculous, but, presumably, plenty of people lap it up, and I guess Putin gets a kick out of it.

Elections are going to take place next year, and the only uncertain thing is whether or not Putin decides he wants his job back. General consensus is that he does. Maybe he worries that Medvedev, given another term, might start to act more independently. Maybe he has had enough of cuddling animals, riding bikes and consorting with the people. Or maybe he just wants his title back. His parents chose well when they called him “Vladimir”, which can be translated “Master of the world”. He wishes…

Anyway, on to more important things! Today I had two amusing “Russia moments”. This afternoon, I saw a guy with a horrendous mullet (they are still “in” here) styling his mop in the mirror in the university toilets. Then, as I walked home, a boy who can’t have been more than twelve skidded up to me on his bike and asked for a cigarette. I politely declined.  

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