By Pieter Cranenbroek – International Politics Blogger
Forbes named Vladimir Putin the most powerful person in the world and it is easy to see why the Russian president trumped colleagues Barack Obama and Xi Jinping.
Not only does Putin rule the world’s largest country with an iron fist, the merciless capturing of 28 Greenpeace activists and two journalists in international waters painfully illustrates that he couldn’t care less about the rest of the world. It is Putin’s way or the highway and it is about time someone put the brakes on him.
In mid-September, 30 people involved in a Greenpeace protest against Arctic drilling were seized by Russian coastguards and charged in front of a Russian court for piracy. The detention of the activists is far from proportionate and various world leaders have pleaded for the immediate release of the ship and its crew but so far Putin has not flinched.
It is this powerlessness of the international community towards Russia that clearly underlines the former KGB officer’s ‘untouchability’. The Syria civil war made clear that there was a shift in the world’s balance of power. While every state was reluctant to pick a side in the messy conflict, Putin openly backed Syrian president Assad and thus determined the strategy with the US playing second fiddle. Putin’s authority in Russia is indisputable, but now it appears his dominance is growing over Russian borders as well.
At the end of a Communist Party conference in the late 1930s, the usual standing ovation for Stalin lasted eleven minutes because nobody dared to stop clapping and risk being gulagised. Since then, surprisingly little has changed.
Putin is a dictator that does not tolerate insubordination. With people being critical of the regime disappearing in dungeons and journalists being murdered at an alarming rate, freedom of speech is an illusion in Russia. Since the country inconveniently adopted a democratic system of government after the fall of the Soviet empire, Putin was ineligible to run for a third consecutive term as Russian president. So he simply let his hand puppet, Medvedev, play head of state before he could reclaim his throne. Since Putin will be allowed another six-year term in 2018, it appears very unlikely that he will have to give up his power before 2024. Houston, we do indeed have a problem.
For as long as the Kremlin remains a Putin-controlled theatre, Russian civilisation will drift further and further away from the West. Russian society has never been known for its inclusiveness, but with Putin in charge the situation is more likely to worsen than to improve.
The best example being the highly controversial anti-gay law that prevents any discussion of homosexuality among teenagers. Although it has caused global outrage and appeals to boycott the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Putin remains stoic. He knows that in the end the boycott talk will all turn out to be a storm in a teacup, similar to the fuss about Tibet that existed prior to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
Back to the USSR
We need counterweight against Putin, soon. The intimidation that characterises the Russian ruler’s domestic policy now seems to spill over to his foreign policy. Whereas Putin has long kept a low profile in foreign affairs, he now appears ready to impose his will outside Mother Russia.
Discontented about the EU’s talks with Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova about an association and free trade agreement, Russia has suddenly subjected goods from the countries involved to extra border checks. Coincidentally, Russian scientists have suddenly found problems with Georgian mineral waters, Moldovan wines, and Ukrainian chocolates while Dutch tulips and dairy products have been deemed ‘unsafe’ since Russia’s diplomatic row with the Netherlands. The grasp of Putin’s tentacles is slowly but surely spreading beyond Russian borders and if global leaders fail to put a stop to it, then we are definitely going back to the USSR.
Given that recent criticism from across the globe has left Putin unimpressed, merely lecturing him will sort no effect. Moreover, Russia nowadays has a permanent seat in the UN Security Council and a military alliance with NATO, which means that the ‘us versus them’ terminology that existed during the Cold War no longer exists.
Still, someone should step up. Yes, Europe, that means you. As an aspiring political superpower, incorporating former Soviet states in your internal market could be a powerful statement to Moscow. America, what are you waiting for? Wouldn’t this be an excellent opportunity to show the world your dialogue-based foreign policy has teeth? Putin was deservedly named the world’s most powerful man; now it is time to tell him ‘this far and no further’.