Friday, 14 December 2007

14 December 2007

Don’t you love it when politics gets all cosy? Like in Argentina, for example, where President Nestor Kirchner has just handed over the baton (literally) to President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Yes, she’s his wife. And yes, she was elected.

Or in the US, where President Bush I was followed by President Clinton I, who was followed by President Bush II (son), who may soon be followed by President Clinton II (wife).

My favourite, though, isn’t exactly “keep it in the family”, although it’s not far off. President Putin of Russia said this week that he thinks first deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev would make an excellent President. To which Mr Medvedev replied that he thinks Mr Putin would make an equally excellent Prime Minister. See what I mean by cosy?

But I’m not sure we should accept these Kremlin games of “happy families” at face value. Can you really imagine strongman President Putin suddenly becoming meek and obedient Prime Minister Putin, playing the loyal subordinate to a new President?

No, nor can I. In the bad old days of the Soviet Union, people who studied Kremlin power games were known as Kremlinologists. I think we now need a few Putinologists to guide us through what look likely to be some exceptionally interesting times up to and beyond the Russian presidential election in March.

On the subject of which: why do you think Mr Putin has turned against the British Council? The authorities have ordered all the British Council’s regional offices to shut down before the end of the year. Officially, it’s something to do with the council’s tax status and the fact that it charges Russians for language lessons. But as the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov openly admitted in a BBC interview this week, it’s really the latest move in the ongoing battle over the murder of the former Russian intelligence official Alexander Litvinenko in London a year ago.

President Putin attaches a lot of importance to looking strong. (Remember those photos of him in the summer, bare-chested and virile-looking as he went fishing?) That’s why he occasionally switches off the gas supplies to uppity neighbours (Belorus and Ukraine). It’s also why in the summer Russian bombers started flying Cold War-style sorties close to NATO and US areas.

It’s also, I suspect, why he’s taking action against the British Council. As I’ve written here before, the Russian bear may have been asleep – and a bit out of form – for a few years, but it’s wide awake now and feeling fighting fit.

We need to keep this in perspective. I don’t for one moment believe that the Kremlin wants to go to war, of either the hot or cold variety. But it doesn’t like being taken for granted. So it won’t, for example, sign up to independence for Kosovo, which is a major headache for the US and the EU.

It’s also making ominous noises about restarting the arms race unless it can do a deal with Washington over the anti-missile defence installations which the US wants to build in Poland and the Czech Republic. And in its current mood, don’t even think about getting Moscow’s approval for a new UN sanctions package for Iran. Amazing, isn’t it, how a few billions from oil and gas sales can do such wonders for your self-confidence.

I remember someone telling me shortly after the end of the Cold War that one of the new realities of the post-Soviet world was that you could get nothing done in the international arena without the approval of Washington. Moscow’s ambition now, I suspect, is that we should start thinking the same about them.

It’ll be interesting to see how President-to-be Medvedev decides to play his cards.

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