WITH a late flourish of insouciant authority, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has arguably established himself as 2013’s most powerful leader.
America has been embroiled in costly foreign entanglements and a domestic budgetary crisis. Europe continues to suffer from a debilitating economic malaise and failure of leadership. China has struggled to keep its miracle growth on course. But in Russia, Putin reigns supreme – and never more so than in the past few days.
He has acted with what many in the West will enviously regard as opportunist alacrity in securing continuing Russian sway over Ukraine – a political triumph over the bumbling EU. He has attempted to placate global criticism ahead of the huge Sochi Winter Olympics in February – vividly described elsewhere on these pages as “a disco above a political abattoir”. He has overseen the release – and despatch –of his former formidable political opponent and oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who spent ten years in jail in the country’s furthest extremities. Greenpeace activists have also been released from captivity and have left the country, with little evident enthusiasm for any early return. And two members of the exotically named Russian punk band Pussy Riot – Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alekhina – were also released this week, having spent nearly two years in jail on charges of “hooliganism”.
Putin has solidified his power and grips the country’s political institutions as the personification of a timeless Russia: the iron fist beneath the iron fist. He is feared on the global stage almost as much as by political opponents at home. And whether acting abroad or at home, he has been driven by a determination never to allow a repeat of 1989 which saw Russia in disarray and humiliated in the eyes of the world.
Putin’s sway over Russia owes much to the continuing legacy of the Cold War. His military – the navy in particular – still has a deep suspicion of the West, based on the conviction that America came close to starting World War III. This conviction may seem arcane after more than 20 years of privatisations, the widespread availability of western brands in shops, apparent détente and workmanlike (if not warm) relations with western leaders. But it works to bind the country behind him on key issues, for better or worse. And it is the ability of Russia and its ex-KGB macho leader to instil fear that millions of Russians actually admire. Few leaders enjoy such unquestioned dominance. How appropriate, perhaps, that Putin was prominent at the funeral yesterday of Mikhail Kalashnikov, designer of the all-conquering AK-47 assault rifle, on whose coffin he laid wine-coloured roses.
So after the release of Pussy Riot members, Greenpeace activists and Khodorkovsky, those tempted to view the Russian leader in a more sympathetic vein need to look again at the reality his actions help to disguise.
Safety first for Hogmanay planners
Given the challenging weather of recent years across the UK, it is something of a triumph that the Hogmanay celebrations in Edinburgh have not been disrupted more than they have. The capital’s showpiece party, regularly beamed round the world, has only been cancelled twice in the past due to extreme weather.
It is easy to mock the fretful concerns of the health and safety brigade. But both the huge numbers of people at potential risk and the severe winds and rain over the past two weeks cannot but make safety considerations paramount. The notion that “a wee gust of wind can’t harm anyone” pales before the storm damage recently witnessed across Scotlands – and with more heavy rain and winds forecast for New Year’s Eve, the event is truly in the “hands of the weather gods”.
The party brings some 80,000 revellers to the city and is worth an estimated £32 million to the Scottish economy. But concerns over revenue loss should not cloud any decision about cancelling the massive fireworks display. This should be made strictly on public safety grounds.
Hogmanay producer Pete Irvine says any such decision would not be taken until the “last minute”. But it is appropriate that regular public reminders are made in the preceding hours about likely weather conditions. Even the most intrepid visitor would appreciate being made aware of potential stormy weather and the possibility of event cancellation.
This also goes for all the other Hogmanay events planned across Scotland. We all hope the weather will abate and allow the parties to proceed. But the prerequisite of a happy New Year is that it starts by being a safe one.