VLADIMIR Putin must have been thrilled to bits last week when Forbes magazine designated him the most powerful person in the world.
It is no secret, after all, that the Russian president is something of a narcissist, with a self-belief bordering on autotheism.
Forbes did not, however, elevate him above Barack Obama, Pope Francis and Xi Jinping on that basis, or because Putin enjoys being photographed half-clothed while seemingly accomplishing extraordinary physical feats.
Its decision was based more on endeavours in the realm of realpolitik, notably Russia’s success, thus far, in averting foreign military intervention in Syria and its willingness to poke the United States in the eye by granting at least temporary asylum to National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Edward Snowden.
The motivations in both cases may be open to question, notwithstanding the relatively desirable consequences.
The bloodshed in Syria is utterly appalling, not least on account of associated factors such as mass starvation and disease in certain areas. What guarantee is there, though, that US-led bombardment would have sorted out the problem? Even the US president was wary of barging in and parcelled off the issue to Congress — after Britain’s House of Commons had rejected David Cameron’s war resolution.
The prospect of a legislative defeat was warded off, though, when Moscow responded with uncommon speed to Secretary of State John Kerry’s rhetorical remark that Damascus could avoid military strikes by surrendering its chemical weapons arsenal and capabilities.
Its manufacturing facilities have subsequently been destroyed under international supervision and existing weapons are supposed to be dispensed with by the middle of next year. Conventional crimes against humanity continue to be committed, though, and in condemning the supply of weapons to the opposition, Putin did not deign to acknowledge his nation’s arms sales to the Bashar Al Assad regime.
Moscow must also be chuffed by the fact that Snowden’s NSA revelations have lately led to a rift between the US and some of its closest European allies, most notably Germany — where a public campaign has been launched in favour of German asylum for Snowden.
He would probably be safer there. Although Putin dressed up his decision to accommodate Snowden in feel-good terms such as human rights and civil liberties, these concepts carry little weight in Russia’s domestic political context — and no one can seriously doubt how an equivalent Russian whistleblower would have fared even if he or she managed to escape abroad.
Putin’s critics and opponents all too often tend to come to a sticky end, be it in a prison cell or a mortuary.
When he came to power — rising from relative obscurity as the deputy mayor of St Petersburg to a key post in the Kremlin, followed by his elevation to prime minister and, eventually, his designation as successor to Boris Yeltsin — his pursuit of the oligarchs who had robbed Russia blind following the disintegration of the Soviet Union was initially widely hailed as a partial salvation of the state after the neoliberal anarchy of the Yeltsin years.
It turned out soon enough, though, that Putin’s aversion to the consolidation of economic power related primarily to whose hands it was in. Crony capitalism was fine as long as he was in control. The kleptocracy that has eventuated is arguably typified by the arrangements for next February’s Winter Olympics in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.
The bill for the Beijing Summer Olympics came to $43 billion, while Britain spent $13.9bn on last year’s London Olympics. In the case of Sochi, costs have already topped $51bn, and there are still three months to go.
Putin’s personal fortune, based on alleged stakes in state-owned corporations, is rumoured to be between $40bn and $70bn. If these claims — which, inevitably, come from opponents — could be corroborated, he may well figure highly in another periodic Forbes list, which ranks the world’s richest individuals.
Such figures tend to be semi-officially dismissed in Moscow as motivated propaganda.
Putin’s distaste for dissent in more or less any form is harder to disguise, however. Two of the three young women who, billing themselves as Pussy Riot, staged a protest in an Orthodox church in Moscow last year are serving long terms in remote prisons, for instance.
More recently, a Greenpeace vessel protesting oil drilling in the Arctic was taken into custody in international waters, and the 30 foreign citizens aboard it have been imprisoned pending a trial on charges of “hooliganism”.
Meanwhile, the Russians jailed after demonstrating against Putin’s return to the presidency last year are still awaiting trial.
If re-elected in 2018 — and there’s no reason to suppose that he won’t be a contender yet again, as long as he’s alive and kicking — Putin could remain in the Kremlin until 2024, exceeding Leonid Brezhnev’s tenure and rivalling that of Josef Stalin.
He has, in different contexts, been compared with both. Earlier this year, confronted during a televised question-and-answer session that his crackdown against opponents echoed Stalinism, a bristling Putin responded: “Stalinism is linked with the cult of personality and massive violations of the law, with repression and camps. There is nothing like that in Russia....”
“Quod erat demonstrandum” would perhaps have been an appropriate riposte. He had enough nous to add, though: “That does not mean there should not be order and discipline.”
Whatever anyone may make of the Forbes designation, the former KGB agent and FSB chief really ought not to consider it a compliment. It may well be repeated, though, as long as his dictatorship of the explotariat faces no prospect of a Russian spring that stretches far beyond the confines of Moscow and St Petersburg.