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#20 - JRL 7240
The Times (UK)
June 26, 2003
How Vladimir could become Putin the Great
By Anatole Kaletsky

Vladimir Putin, although flawed, has already been eloquently described on this page by Michael Binyon as Russias best leader since Tsar Alexander II. That is a view I broadly share, but I would draw the parallel further. Alexander II ended the feudal system in Russia by abolishing serfdom. Mr Putin is ending feudalism in a different sense. After the breakdown of communism, Russia reverted to an anarchic state of nature, reminiscent of the Dark Ages after the fall of Rome. The main political and economic activity was looting. The looters who were fastest and most ruthless enjoyed exponential accretions of wealth and power. This was the story of Russia under President Yeltsin, a quintessential weak king of the early Middle Ages, surrounded and controlled by all-powerful barons, known in Russia as oligarchs. But as the oligarchs have become more wealthy, their interests have shifted from continuing the plunder to protecting what they have. This was the transition from anarchy to order represented by Mr Putin, the historical analogy being the replacement of anarchic feudalism, where power was based purely on wealth and military violence, to the more centralised, law-governed early modern state.

Mr Putin has been remarkably successful in managing this transition, creating the foundations of a legal system and an incipient market economy, but in two of his main objectives he has failed. The Chechen civil war rages as viciously as ever and Russias global influence has dwindled almost to nothing, especially after the Iraq conflict.

Both of these failures are connected with a psychological flaw in the Russian political establishment: a refusal to accept that the world has moved on since the Cold War when the most important principles of East-West diplomacy were respect for international borders, absolute national sovereignty and non-interference in the internal affairs of foreign states. Instead we see today the emergence of global powers and alliances that claim both the right and the moral duty to impose universal values across national borders if necessary through military force.

Idealists, including Tony Blair, sometimes describe this as a New World Order. Cynics, including Mr Putin, call it neo-imperialism or Pax Americana. But whatever you call it, the erosion of national sovereignty is sweeping global politics after Iraq. The question is whether this most controversial form of globalisation should now be resisted or embraced.

If you want to form your own opinion on this enormous question and also get a feel for how it interacts with some of the burning questions in British and international politics today let me make an unusual recommendation. You should do what I did last Friday. Buy, beg or steal a ticket to a short play, with the following unwieldy title: I have before me a remarkable document written by a young lady from Rwanda. Actually Mr Blair would do well to take Mr Putin to see this play, not only because it deals with issues of immense geopolitical importance, but also because it represents much that is best about life in Britain today.

The play tells you something about Britains cultural vitality and the capacity of British theatre to regenerate continuously from the grass roots upwards, despite the scandalous mismanagement of our great national companies such as the RSC. The play is performing in a tiny theatre, the Finborough, above a pub in Earls Court. It has been produced on a shoestring yet the acting was superb, the writing was truly poetic, and the theatre was packed. But I am not a theatre critic, so let me explain why I mention this play.

The play is about a naive young African woman, who has found asylum in London after witnessing the murders of her prosperous middle-class family in the anti-Tutsi genocide in Rwanda. The play is built around a series of flashbacks, as the woman tries to write down her story, with the help of a failed novelist working in the refugee centre.

The story, based on the experiences of Sonja Linden, a playwright who worked in exactly this capacity in Camden Town, at the Medical Foundation for Victims of Torture, has the same power as the personal chronicles of the Nazi Holocaust from Anne Frank onwards the power to translate the cold, abstract, statistical horrors of genocide into the horribly comprehensible realities of everyday life. The killers demand money so that the girls father can buy a clean death with a single bullet but even this final bargain is treacherously betrayed as the man is hacked limb from limb.

At an intellectual or literary level, the themes of this play were the relationship between abstraction and reality, between the general and the specific, between civilisation and barbarism, all chillingly summarised in Stalins famous dictum: A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.

But I was equally struck by another political implication of the Rwanda story, which I am sure the author did not intend. This play offered the best justification for invading Iraq and a cast-iron defence against claims that the war was unjustified because no weapons of mass destruction have yet been found. The holocaust in Rwanda and the other equally dreadful acts of genocide in Africa before and since created an irrefutable moral case for overriding national sovereignty as an absolute principle of international law.

Ironically, the liberal Left (including much of the audience at the play about Rwanda) has this argument back to front. Liberal commentators still argue that because the international community failed to stop the massacres in Africa, killings in Iraq should be permitted too. But most people whose judgment is unclouded by a PhD in philosophy or international relations can see through this nonsense. If you want the international community to start taking a stand against state-sponsored killers, torturers and genocidal maniacs as the UN peacekeepers so shamefully failed to do in Rwanda and Bosnia you have to start somewhere and you have to use military force.

This is why, regardless of the Bush Administrations real motives whether they concerned oil, revenge or just electioneering the war in Iraq could go down in history as the event that launched the idea of an ethically based international polity and destroyed the unconditional sovereignty of nation states.

This is even more true today than it was a few months ago. Without WMD, the invasion can be justified only by appealing to morality and human rights and these values will now be permanently on the agenda of global politics. But even if military intervention in the next Rwanda were accepted in principle, who would be the world policeman? This brings me back to Messrs Putin and Blair. Mr Blair is the worlds most eloquent exponent of a New World Order, to include the principle of military intervention to uphold universal human values. Russia, meanwhile is the most determined opponent of any such approach. If international diplomacy ever formally accepted such a principle, untrammelled state sovereignty, national self-determination and respect for borders would all melt away. For the Russian political establishment, still steeped in Stalinist xenophobia, this is a terrifying threat. It was this principle of noninterference that eventually trumped everything else in Russias opposition to the war in Iraq. But let me think the unthinkable and suggest that a softening of Russias obsession with national sovereignty could solve Mr Putins two most intractable problems and transform his presidency from good to great.

At home, he could invite foreign assistance, or at least surveillance, in Chechnya. This would internationalise the conflict, win greater understanding for the Russian position, force co-operation from Georgia and maybe even make the Russian Army improve its own military efficiency and its respect for human rights. Abroad, Mr Putin could actively support the principle of humanitarian military intervention, not only in Iraq, but also in Africa and even in the Balkans.

By doing this he could win admiration in Europe and offer his military establishment a new role on the world stage. He could strengthen the UN by offering it access to new military resources, independent of Washington, London and Paris. He could make Russia respected again as an active participant in global diplomacy, but this time with an ethical dimension. People might even start talking about a second benign superpower.

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