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October 23, 2014
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No power struggle to sort out the rich and the poor

Russia''s President Vladimir Putin meets with volunteers taking part in the preparations for the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic Games.

21st century global leadership still up for grabs

It is not yet a cold war, more a chilled back street row. In the middle of last year, with Syria blazing and half of the powers anxious to get in there because they could not break the habit, the world seemed to be slipping back into a dangerous divide. Six months later, the division is markedly financial with a line drawn ever-clearer between the disgustingly rich and the dramatically poor. While we remain accustomed to the idea of the US as capitalism’s global market place, and Europe as the world’s second economic bloc, we have not seen other states lining up for leadership, and that includes the “emerging economies”, briefly baptized “BRICs” with the initials of the participating nations. There is a growing need to find proper palliatives to close the rich-poor divide.

The question is which nation or what group of countries will prevail in the power play for an improved quality of life. It is not easy to see the world returning to a stage where the patterns of divide were blatantly drawn: the Berlin Wall for instance, which marked a political frontier between East and West from the Summer of 1961 until the Autumn of 1989.

Who are the leaders of the world at present? The US gained its status as a world power at the end of the First World War, after the old imperial powers of Europe had torn one another to pieces. For the next three decades, the need for food and shelter grew dramatically. Washington’s leading role had a cut-off point in the financial crisis of 2008 — many will argue that it started much before. Today President Obama is struggling to climb out of a well of failings, surprisingly keeping a standard day-to-day existence for many US citizens. The US propagandists of old argued that the nation’s strength came clearly from the might of enterprise in all its forms and sizes and that would always keep the money rolling in. However, much of that enterprise has been grabbed by a group of Asian countries, where the big money is for the rich entrepreneurs and little is left for a poverty line working class. The employment conditions at Bangladesh’s Davar store collapse in April 2013 is not the only example.

That makes China, the main holder of US debt, a contender for world power. But so far China has chosen a different path to global strength. First, it would seek to increase the pre-eminence of the Communist party at home and through it develop economic strength before (if) an international high profile is sought.

That leaves Mr. Putin’s Russia: not just the post-1991 Federation or the collapsed Soviet Union, but Russia, which many Russians saw as the Soviet Union. Putin it is who feels that, having waited patiently through the nineties, he eventually moved into power to become, in his view, the architect of the resurrection of the great Russian state, with a claim to leadership in the world. His critics warn that his style of rule and authoritarian management place instability never far off. In spite of that, Putin has acted as the self-righteous head of an old imperial power. In line with this attitude he did not hesitate last August to grant asylum, albeit temporary, to the US computer specialist who lifted the lid on his country’s darkest diplomatic secrets, Edward Snowden, prompting Barack Obama to accuse his Russian counterpart of “cold war mentality”.

More significant was Mr. Putin’s surprise decision in mid-December to cut short the ten-year prison sentence — due to end next August — against Mikhail Khodorkovsky, formerly Russia’s richest man, charged with fraud against the state, among other things. One of Putin’s critics at home said the release was a political fiddle, “a Christmas present” for his critics which in the New Year would be forgotten. Vladimir Putin’s aim was to weaken foreign criticism —Khodorkovsky was declared a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International — and pave the way unhindered to the Sochi Winter Olympics.

Two books published in the last year portray Putin as a threat to the limited democratic gains held over from Boris Yeltsin’s and Mikhail Gorbachev’s late eighties and early nineties.

Mr. Putin, Operative in the Kremlin, by academic intelligence specialist Fiona Hill and economist Clifford G. Gaddy (Brookings Institution Press) portrays the man as a “self-limiting, inward-turning, chippy, self-righteous, Russian Orthodox-blessed and a deeply illiberal nationalist” now reaching his fourteenth year in power.

In an article on Putin by London Guardian’s long-serving Middle East and central European correspondent, David Hearst wrote that “Putin has obscured much of what he did as a KGB officer in Dresden. But he did let one thing slip. Asked what his talent was, he replied: ‘I am a specialist in communicating with people’. Working with people has a dual meaning in KGB jargon. It also means working on people.”

The other book is by Masha Gessen, Words will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot (Riverbend/Granta), which takes the case of the three women of the 11-member “feminist punk rock protest group”, two of whom served 21 months of a two-year prison sentence accused of vandalism, to aim her darts at Putin and what The Economist called his “culturally exhausted” nation.

Gessen is the author of The Man Without a Face, a life of Putin, which explains her special interest. Both books lay into the Russian leader as the head of a corrupt system built by oligarchs who adjust misrule to their requirements.

Hence David Hearst closes his article with the caution, “If Putin does not find a way to open up the system of thieves and swindlers — even to other thieves and swindlers —and if the pressure on him continues to build, there are broadly two alternatives: a tap on the shoulder from someone in his inner circle, or mass protest on the streets that could lead to regime change”.

So back to the starting point. At the moment there appears to be no new edition of the Cold War, in spite of some of the language. But if the powers that were powers cannot bring themselves to reach agreements on an economic front that will overcome the awesome divisions between rich and poor, competition might slide into a more conflictive contest. And that is when regimes change violently.

Andrew Graham-Yooll, a former Herald editor, will write a column the third Saturday of each month.

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