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Opinion: Putin is losing his luster - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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One of the myths woven around Vladimir Putin’s personality cult is based on the narrative of his first visit to “the Holy Land” as a young man, where he is supposed to have been inspired to assume “a special mission” in the service of Mother Russia. The Putin system is often spelled out with a verbal tripod: a man, a nation, a mission!

That slogan requires that the man be kept in the limelight at all times. For more than a decade, Putin, in various political incarnations, has managed to do that by attending major international conferences and playing host to top notch foreign dignitaries in Moscow while spending his increasing oil revenues lavishly. Recently, however, the formula has proven more difficult to apply.

Since Russia triggered the Crimean crisis, few foreign big shots have visited Moscow. As for Putin attending international events, the number of invitations has dropped to almost zero. Russia was unceremoniously excluded from the latest G8 summit. In the case of the G20 summit in Australia, though he was invited, Putin had to leave without having lunch to escape the “hostile atmosphere.”

These days, Putin keeps himself in the news with reports of contacts with second or even third division leaders. He appears on TV greeting the president of Abkhazia. He receives a cable of congratulations from the head of the local assembly in Nagorno-Karabakh. A phone call from Hassan Rouhani, the mullah who acts as president of Iran, is given top billing by the media under Putin’s control.

The “global leadership” position claimed by Putin until a year ago is now reduced to his position as leader of a band that consists of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transnistria, Nagorno-Karabakh, and the rebel twins of Luhansk and Donetsk in Ukraine, with Iranian mullahs and the Assad clan in Syria providing the illusion of strategic depth.

Despite the size of their country, by far the largest in the world, Russians have always been obsessively fearful of being surrounded by hostile peoples. Today, that fear may not be totally without justification. Russia’s relations with most of its 14 direct neighbors are either tepid or tense.

Five neighbors that are members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) are putting themselves on a war-footing with the help of other members, notably the United States and Britain. One neighbor, Ukraine, accounting for Russia’s fourth longest border, is in a de facto state of war with Moscow.

China, with Russia’s second-longest border, continues to nurse old resentments over the Russian annexation of large chunks of Chinese territory in the 1960s. This was partly why Beijing quietly ignored Putin’s efforts to upgrade the so-called Shanghai Cooperation Organization into an anti-Western alliance. Even the transfer of S400 surface-to-air-missiles, something China has denied for years, has not persuaded Beijing to endorse Putin’s annexation of Crimea.

Georgia has become an enemy because Putin invaded it in 2008 and annexed 25 percent of its territory. Mongolia and Kazakhstan, home to substantial ethnic Russian minorities, are worried that Putin’s kith-and-kin discourse may put them in danger, too. Another neighbor, Belarus, arguably more Russian than Russia itself and where ethnic minorities account for some 30 percent of the population, is trying to avoid being too closely hugged by Moscow.

Azerbaijan has firmly built its strategy on friendship with Turkey, Israel and the United States, regarding Russia and Iran as the two powers helping Armenia hang on to captured Azeri territory. Finland, having been Finlandized during the Cold War, does what it can to avoid tension with Russia. However, a member of the European Union, Finland cannot but join sanctions imposed by the partnership to punish Russia.

That leaves North Korea as Russia’s only friendly neighbor; not a big relief because Moscow is forced to go along with baby-face Kim Jung-Un’s childish but dangerous pranks.

To compound Putin’s foreign policy failures, the Russian economy has entered a period of low or even negative growth. The downward spiral, caused by global recession, started before the crisis over Ukraine.

This year Russia may register a growth rate of less than 0.5 percent. In 2015 that might fall to below zero. The ruble, Russia’s national currency, has already lost almost a third of its value compared to 2013. With the price of oil at its lowest since 2009, the Russian economy, so dependent on oil exports, may have tougher times ahead.

For the first time in two decades foreign visitors to Moscow are wooed by “money changers” hanging around major hotels and tourist spots. So far this year, 87 foreign firms have reduced or totally wound up their presence while rich Russians are transferring their money to foreign banks, including those in Cyprus.

Crimea is becoming an expensive mistress. Having lost almost 50 percent of its revenue from tourism, the peninsula now depends on handouts from Moscow. At the same time, Moscow has agreed to bring salaries and pensions up to Russian levels, costing around 12 billion US dollars a year. On top of that, Putin has decided to spend billions building a bridge between Crimea and the “motherland” by 2018, though studies show there is no market for it. Shortage of money is already cooling Putin’s ardor in defense of Donetsk separatists. My guess is that he is looking for a way to weasel out of that adventure.

The counter-sanctions Putin has imposed on the European Union have already led to shortages in a range of goods, especially fruit, vegetable, meat and dairies. Friends tell me that in some places, Murmansk for example, people are facing Soviet-style shortages once more, when the arrival of a batch of potatoes was big news. In Moscow, the price of beef has risen by more than 40 percent.

Well, Russians can always make do with caviar.

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. Mr. Taheri has won several prizes for his journalism, and in 2012 was named International Journalist of the Year by the British Society of Editors and the Foreign Press Association in the annual British Media Awards.

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