Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Man of the Moment

Via the Telegraph, the Heresiarch learns that Vanity Fair magazine has named Vladimir Putin as the most influential person in the world. Last year it was Rupert Murdoch.

The magazine claims that it's roll-call of the top 100 movers and shakers - the "New Establishment" - "represents a global, moveable band of thinkers, owners, creators, and buyers who are the tastemakers, trendsetters, opinion formers and agenda creators in the worlds of politics, entertainment, media, business, technology, and fashion". It's a rum old list, and no mistake. There are virtually no politicians: no Gordon Brown, but no Bush or Sarkozy either. Steve Jobs of Apple is at No.4. Bill Gates is nowhere, despite his enormous charitable activities; yet Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, celebrated for their "global social activism and iconoclastic personal lives" come it at 9, between Roman Abramovich and Al Gore. Arnold Schwarzenegger beats Bono but is three places behind Damien Hirst. Weird.

The choice of Putin as the global No 1, however, is intriguing. In its profile, Vanity Fair mentions the de facto Russian leader's 80% approval rating, which "has made it easier for him to get away with his antipathy to free speech and other civil liberties". It also repeats rumours that Putin has stashed away around $40 billion in secret bank accounts in Lichtenstein and Switzerland, and mentions continuing concerns about kleptocracy. They even dig out a surprising quote from Murdoch: "The more I read about investments in Russia, the less I like the feel of it. The more successful we’d be, the more vulnerable we’d be to have it stolen from us." If even the Digger has doubts about the place it must be bad indeed.

On a lighter note, the magazine refers to his "exhibitionistic tendency to go shirtless and show off his buff, hairless physique to photographers. Under "enemies" it oddly gives pride of place to former chess champion Garry Kasparov. Is he the most dangerous opponent Putin has? Perhaps he is. Scary.

How did Vladimir Putin come to top the Vanity Fair list, when other world leaders are passed over in favour of fashionistas and actors? In economic and even military terms, Russia ought to be a fairly minor player. Despite the much-vaunted gas and oil wealth, the country's infrastructure is heavily reliant on outside investment, there are numberless internal disputes (a decade ago it was widely thought that Russia would break up as the Soviet Union had before it) and the social organisation is by western standards rather primitive. Yet if Fate dealt Putin a fairly weak deck of cards, he has played them brilliantly, as the recent takeover of Georgia showed. Europe and the US have been tied up in knots, unable or unwilling to intervene while Russia begins to rebuild its old empire. Bush already looks like a footnote in history. Gordon Brown is unable to do or say anything. Nicolas Sarkozy persuades the Russians to a sign a piece of paper agreeing to whatever terms they like, proudly trumpets it as a "negotiated settlement" - and the Russians then ignore it anyway. Angela Merkel is desperate for Russian gas and money.

Yes, the Georgian government isn't perfect; yes, president Shakashvilli may be said to be partly responsible, if only by walking into Moscow's well-sprung trap. But it matters not who started the conflict. What matters is that Russia won. A strong Russia that is also an authoritarian Russia, that has friendly relationships with Iran (the other great winner from the Iraq disaster, of course) and, increasingly, strong and authoritarian China, is not something that we in the West should be complacent about. Especially since Western countries are now heavily in debt, and no longer make anything much. The rest of the world hates us anyway, and looks on with glee as history sets off down a new path in which democracy and liberal values have never (or at least since the 1930s) looked so old-fashioned or irrelevant.

Is Vladimir Putin the most powerful man in the world at the moment? He certainly acts as though he is, and no-one so far seems to be willing to call his bluff. If all else fails, I suppose we could boycott the Eurovision Song Contest.