Tsar Beefcake takes a holiday

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Yes, it’s Russia’s own action man Vladimir Putin enjoying his summer holiday in sunny Tannu Tuva. And, as is his wont, he’s brought along a camera crew to chronicle his swimming, fishing, bare-chested horse-riding and other rugged outdoor pursuits. In so doing, he also reveals why he enjoys pin-up status in Russia – and, though the News 24 report last night contained a fair amount of sniggering, Martine Croxall seemed rather taken with him.

There are echoes, I suppose, of Mao swimming the Yangtse. But then, politicians do like to project an image of themselves as vigorous and robust, often engaging in some desultory physical activity for the benefit of the cameras. (At least, male politicians do. Somehow, I can’t imagine Harriet Harman inviting the viewing public to watch her working out.) US presidents do it a lot. Reagan would pump a little iron now and again to prove that, advanced age notwithstanding, he was still capable; Bush-41 liked to go jogging with his secret service detail, as did Clinton; Barack O’Bama shoots a game of basketball every so often.

The Brits, with their more developed sense of reserve – or maybe sense of the ridiculous is more like it – are less prone to this sort of thing. Mr Tony Blair playing tennis has just about been the height of it. William Hague let it be known that, like Putin, he does a bit of judo, but was sensible enough not to make a big deal of it. The danger is that it just looks a bit like a mid-life crisis (think Kevin Spacey in American Beauty) if you’re not careful.

It’s rather different with Putin. He genuinely is an outdoor sports nut, is fit enough to make it look convincing, and is vain enough to not be self-conscious about the cameras. But of course there’s also the message it sends out. While Russia was being plundered by crooks in the 1990s (what western journalists now coyly call “the democratic experiment”), the occupation of the presidency by a shambling old drunk was emblematic, and a source of shame for many Russians. Putin, from this perspective, is an aspirational figure – as the man who’s restored Russia’s pride, assertiveness and functioning government after the Yeltsin kleptocracy, his personal vigour is clearly calculated to count towards that national self-image.

Like I say, western politicians aren’t quite as keen on this sort of thing, although there’s little reason to believe they wouldn’t do it if they thought they could get away with it. And of course, few could handle it physically. I was just thinking that, given the left’s propensity for personality cults, it’s a pity that so many leftists – and no less at the leadership level – are so patently unhealthy, the product of a cultural of beer, fags, late nights and Pot Noodles. It’s hard to imagine sitting in an audience at Marxism in years past, only to see a bare-chested Tony Cliff stride into the room, roll out a judo mat and start throwing Alex Callinicos over his shoulder. Although I’d have paid good money to see that.

Rud eile: On a connected note, we have Bertie Ahern signing up to write a sports column for the News of the World. One hopes he’s honed his skills since his disastrous turn as a TV football pundit. But why isn’t he specialising as a racing tipster? He should be great at it, since that’s where he made his money.

Medvedev: Come on and have a go if you think you’re hard enough


Yeah, you have to hand it to those Russians. Vladimir Putin, Dmitri Medvedev and their firm-but-fair government have played an absolute blinder over the Caucasian crisis. And I’m struck especially be the confident performance of Medvedev, who a lot of people had written off as simply Tsar Vladimir’s puppet. In answering questions on the Caucasian recognitions, he’s been able to rattle off the Empire’s Kosovo playbook with considerable aplomb. Certainly, there’s a hell of a distinction to be drawn with Gordon Brown’s attempt at Cold War sabre-rattling.

Brown: Urrrm, Russia must realise its actions have consequences, like we may hold up their entry into the WTO or something.

Medvedev: Oooo, I’m so scared. Look at me, I’m quaking in my boots!

Somebody should tell Gordon that sabre-rattling doesn’t work if everyone knows your sabre is made of cardboard.

So, what of Georgia? Those poor bastards haven’t had a very good time of it since the SU collapsed, have they? First they had a free election, which resulted in the disastrous government of Zviad Gamsakhurdia. Disastrous not least because Gamsakhurdia thought it would be a bright idea to abolish Abkhaz and Ossetian autonomy, and was prepared to rely on fascist militias to do his dirty work. So that government went rapidly downhill, until Gamsakhurdia was overthrown in an extremely violent coup and the ruling cabal of warlords invited Shevardnadze to take power. This led to Shevy the great democrat being feted in Washington, Berlin and Moscow while at home his government was autocratic, corrupt and spectacularly useless at improving the lives of its population.

Which brings us to the present incumbent, Mikheil Saakashvili. Smoothie Misha does have some media advantages, in that he’s young, speaks good English and has been trained by his American mentors to drop the necessary buzzwords about democracy and human rights and multiculturalism into his interviews. Nonetheless, that hasn’t meant squat in the face of Russian power, and for that Misha has only himself to blame.

Consider this. You have a ‘colour revolution’ democrat who comes to power in a coup, then legitimises his rule with elections so spectacularly bent that Bob Mugabe must have whistled in admiration. Then, instead of doing what Shevy didn’t do and trying to make life better for his citizens, he spends most of the state budget buying American weapons, while making bellicose noises towards Russia and applying for membership of Nato. Shevy, who was savvy enough to have a sense of Georgia’s real leverage, and aware that the Georgian economy is totally dependent on trade with Russia, would not have pushed it that far, never mind actually going to war with Russia.

And so Misha reaps the whirlwind. In a very short space of time, the Kremlin has turned Georgia into a failed state. The Georgian army was effectively dismantled within a week, and those much-vaunted American weapons have been either destroyed or seized. And now the Abkhaz and the Ossetes are a lot further towards getting what they wanted in the first place, and Misha stares into the abyss.

The whole affair also casts doubt on the wisdom of Anglo-American policy towards Russia. The Russian view that Nato expansion is basically encirclement is not paranoid, but has a solid basis in fact. The Americans may say that those missiles in Poland and the Czech Republic are going to be pointing at Iran, but nobody seriously believes that. And it may also be an opportune time to review Imperial policy in Ukraine. Bear in mind that Ukraine contains some ten million self-identified ethnic Russians, plus millions more who have more affinity with Russia than with anticommunist Western Ukraine. The Crimean autonomous republic, which has only been part of Ukraine since 1954, has a solid Russian majority who would secede in a minute if given the chance, and a strong minority of Crimean Tatars who, while not particularly pro-Moscow, are not particularly pro-Kiev either. In view of all this, is trying to build a linguistically-based anti-Russian majority in Ukraine a sensible policy? And the EU commissars, if they can take time out from lecturing Bulgaria on public transparency, might like to consider whether it’s smart for Latvia and Estonia to continue to deny citizenship to Russian-speakers who have lived there for decades.

There’s another question of what this means for similar situations worldwide. International law is hazy on the question of unnegotiated secession, and has tended to lean against since the American Civil War, when the European powers refused to recognise the Confederacy. (This goes some way to explaining why three-quarters of UN members have refused to recognise Kosovo.) So we have a number of positions. There is a position followed by China, and also by most Third World countries, plus European states like Spain, Romania and Slovakia who have their own worries about ethnic separatism, which is that borders are sacrosanct and should not be changed except by negotiation.

Then there is the position held by the Anglo-American bloc, which is basically quod licet Iovi, non licet bovi – or, for those of you who aren’t Latinists, that borders should not be changed by force unless ‘The West’ is doing the changing. Handing over Kosovo to a bunch of narco-terrorists, and then browbeating your client states into recognising it, is only the tip of the iceberg. One may also mention Washington’s open sponsorship of separatist movements against leftwing governments in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador. One may also mention continuing CIA involvement with Uighur separatists in China. And so on.

What Russia’s recognitions have done is to blow the situation wide open. Remember that the collapse of the Soviet Union triggered at least half a dozen serious separatist movements beyond the original separation of the republics. The Chechen insurgency has been put down with considerable brutality, although it’s worth noting that many of the worst abuses took place on Yeltsin’s watch. The Gagauz question in Moldova was settled with patient diplomacy, helped not least by Gagauzia being too small to be a worthwhile geopolitical pawn. Crimea is more or less settled, unless the Kiev government takes a rush of blood to its collective head and tries to abolish autonomy.

Which leaves the four frozen conflicts, where the unrecognised para-states have had more or less functional governments for 16 or 17 years now. Since Russia has now moved to a basically anti-sovereigntist position, there is no reason in principle why Nagorno-Karabakh shouldn’t get recognition soon, especially since Azerbaijan is an even more squalid little dictatorship than Georgia. Transnistria may be a tougher ask, but it’s going to simmer along too. And where does this leave Cyprus? Interesting times ahead, and the IR case studies are going to be aplenty.

Don’t mess with the Tsar

Forget about the smog in Beijing, it’s more interesting to discuss the huge cloud of humbug stirred up by events in the Caucasus. And this is surely proof if proof were needed of the terminal dopiness of ideas of an ethical foreign policy. As any tyro in IR can tell you, a moral conscience is not an ontological attribute of the state. Realpolitik and the pursuit of interests reign supreme. Like Lenin said, you look for the person who benefits.

First off, we need to get past the idea that Georgia is an actual functioning country – the “beautiful democracy” that the egregious Jim Murphy has been slabbering about – rather than what it really is, a loose patchwork of fiefdoms under an alleged government that bears more resemblance to an organised crime syndicate. Which is pretty much the story of Georgia since the twelfth century. And it’s also worth recalling that not very long ago, Mikheil Saakashvili rigged his re-election and clubbed the opposition off the streets. All that really distinguishes Misha from Robert Mugabe is that he hasn’t lived long enough to have accumulated Uncle Bob’s enviable rap sheet.

A particularly large effusion of humbug has come from Emperor George, who has been holding forth on the need to respect the boundaries of sovereign states. Let’s ignore Iraq and Afghanistan for the sake of argument. Is it irrelevant that US-EU diplomacy has recently carved out and supported the mafia-run statelets of Kosovo and Montenegro? Is it unutterably cynical to mention that Washington is currently sponsoring no less than three separatist movements in South America – Guayas in Ecuador, Zulia in Venezuela and the white ranchers in eastern Bolivia – against governments it finds uncongenial? Would it be totally beside the point to ask the Colombian population about how Panama was created in 1903, for the purpose of giving the Yanks a more pliant government in charge of the Canal?

As far as the Kremlin is concerned, well, we don’t need to impute humanitarian motives or to resort to conspiracy theories. The Tbilisi regime has been putting in a lot of effort to get up the Russians’ collective nose, of which more below. And for many years the Russians have been seriously annoyed about Chechen jihadis operating out of Pankisi with the full knowledge and connivance of the Georgian government. But really, it’s sufficient to see the Georgians opening fire on the Russian army as a clear case of peeing on the Dude’s rug.

I actually have quite a bit of time for the Ossetes and the Abkhaz, who seem to have been obscured in all this. These are people who were never part of an independent Georgian state, and certainly never asked to be in Georgia, but who wound up incorporated into the Georgian SSR in the 1920s and 1930s thanks to the imaginative nationalities policy of Stalin, Beria and Orjonikidze. (And isn’t it wonderful how our present-day Cold Warriors are so devoted to Stalin’s borders?) Upon the collapse of the Soviet Union, they figured, not unreasonably, that everything was on the table and there was no reason why Abkhazia shouldn’t go for independence, or South Ossetia join up with North Ossetia. Maybe, back in 1991, things could have been negotiated amicably. But first the extreme chauvinism of the Gamsakhurdia government, then Kitovani’s fascist paramilitaries trying to “liberate” the rebel republics, sans population if necessary, polarised things intensely, and the Yeltsin-Shevardnadze agreement under which Russia was the guarantor of the ceasefires only froze things without resolving them.

Now, although Georgia is certainly a US client state, I don’t buy the idea that this is a proxy war being waged from Washington. There are enough reasonable explanations internal to Georgia. First you have to consider that Saakashvili came to power in one of these “colour revolutions”, and just like the other governments to have so arisen, his government has turned out to be just as useless, corrupt and repressive as its predecessor. Not terribly popular at home, it’s no surprise he’s been beating the nationalist drum.

When Shevy was in power, he would make the odd speech about the lost territories, but never tried to launch a military offensive to take them. And while Shevy would sometimes make noises about Georgian membership of Nato, that was mostly to annoy the Russians and he never made a serious bid. Misha is not as devious. Where Shevy used to go to Moscow and treat with the Kremlin on a regular basis, Misha has cranked up the anti-Russian rhetoric to a hysterical pitch. Misha has actually tried to get into Nato, and come close to doing so. (It’s sobering to realise that, if the Germans hadn’t put up resistance to that bright idea, Nato would now be legally committed to war with Russia.) Misha has asked the Yanks to station troops in Georgia, and has gone so far as to send Georgian troops to join in the occupation of Iraq.

On a diplomatic level, this paid off. Misha has always been treated royally when he’s been in Washington. He even got John McCain to lead a high-powered congressional delegation to Georgia, during which McCain proclaimed that South Ossetia must be under Georgian rule indefinitely, and never mind what the South Ossetians had to say on the matter. But did Misha really go to war on a punt? Did he think the Yanks had given him a nod and a wink? Could he really be gormless enough to pitch his tiny army against Russia and think he wouldn’t get his ass kicked?

It seems so. In fact, from Saakashvili’s frequent TV appearances over the last few days, the man appears to be in an advanced state of paranoia. When he starts making dramatic claims that are then contradicted by his own government, that’s not a good sign. I think Misha’s calculation was that he could take Tskhinval in a short blitzkrieg, and by the time the Russians started to regroup his American friends would protect him. Well, so much for that cunning plan.

This is not, one fears, going to end well for Saakashvili. Even before his gamble he was at the bottom of Tsar Vladimir’s Christmas card list, and there can be no doubt that the Russians would love to be rid of him. But it’s probably not necessary, whatever Bush says, for the Russian army actually to go into Tbilisi and overthrow the government. It’s just as likely that the warlords and gangsters who wield the real power in Georgia will decide that little Misha is now a liability.

Hoch das Bein, treten Sie ein…

Dreh dich nicht um (schau, schau) der Kommissar geht um

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I’m not, I must admit, a huge fan of Vladimir Putin or his grisly Kremlin regime. Quite the contrary. So why do I find myself warming to the bastard? It must have something to do with the style he’s shown slapping it up the Brits in the current diplomatic crisis.

The pretext for all this hoo-hah is the Brits’ request for the extradition of some bloke called Lugovoi, who is apparently the chief suspect in the Litvinenko poisoning case. Whether he did it, or even whether there’s any evidence against him, I have no idea, but the Brits fingered this Lugovoi and then demanded the Kremlin hand him over. No doubt they had in mind the actions of the neo-Jacobin government in Belgrade some years back, which happily kidnapped Milošević and gave him up to the Hague Inquisition, in breach of about a dozen federal and republican laws. No such luck with Putin – if the Russian constitution forbids extraditing Lugovoi, the Kremlin strongman is not minded to breach the constitution for the Brits’ convenience.

So what we then have is the Brits, in a fit of pique, expelling four Russian diplomats. Tellingly for the new spin-free Brown government, the expulsions were accompanied by a statement from the FCO that any retaliation would be unjustified. So then the Russians do four expulsions of their own, and are met by lots of moaning and groaning from the new Foreign Secretary, nine-year-old wunderkind David Miliband, who reckons there is no excuse for the Russians doing, er, what the Brits are only after doing.

What interests me is the question of why the Brits have such a bad relationship with the Russians, while the French, the Germans and the Yanks are getting on quite well with Putin. I’m tempted to blame the FCO minister responsible for Russia, prize gobshite Jim Murphy, but he’s only just in post. A big element, no doubt, is the Brits’ recent decision to grant political asylum to the glorified spiv Berezovsky, whom the British media seem to be treating as a kind of Mandela figure, instead of being the Russian analogue to Conrad Blackadder.

But there’s also the element of Britain’s asylum policy in general. I realise of course that the likes of Melanie Phillips and Nick Cohen are always griping about mad Muslims getting into the country. They might have a point if they picked the right targets. What they actually do is focus on relatively harmless groups like Hizb-ut-Tahrir and Jamaat-e-Islami. (I know all about Jamaat’s record of thuggery in its native Bangladesh, but there have been no indications that it poses any danger to the British public.) Where Nasty Nick and Mad Mel go wrong is in ignoring the people who’ve made the most sensible criticism of Britain’s record, the government of France. Ironically, they consider the French to be unsound on “terror”.

The French raise the example of the Algerian GIA, who, unlike the blowhards of Hizb-ut-Tahrir, are a genuinely scary bunch. When the GIA got kicked out of France in the 1990s, where did they go? They went straight over to London on the Eurostar and set up their HQ in Peckham. One may speculate on the reasons for this, such as the possibility that, since France is backing the secular junta in Algiers, an Islamist victory may see Algeria swing towards Britain in its alignments.

Nor does it stop with Algeria. I don’t know what interests the Brits have in Sudan, but an awful lot of distinctly dodgy Sudanese have been setting up shop in Britain in recent years. Then there’s the British practice, which annoys the Russians no end, of granting asylum to Chechen separatist warlords. War on Terror, how are you. And that’s without even mentioning Altaf Hussein, capo of Pakistan’s mafia-style MQM party, who runs Karachi with a rod of iron from his base in North London.

What this demonstrates, I suppose, is that behind New Labour’s moral humbug, British foreign policy continues to run along lines of Palmerstonian ruthless pragmatism. This will escape the Russophobes who devoutly wish a new Cold War, but the Kremlin actually does have a legitimate complaint here.