Putin’s winter games, part II

A Global diary

President Vladimir Putin, who once closed down most of Russia’s casinos, is now a gambler on a roll.

Betting against the odds of a terrorist attack, he staked $50 billion on the Sochi Winter Games, topped the medal table, won world acclaim and restored his nation’s post-Soviet pride. Then he annexed Crimea. 

This is his Winter Games, Part II. Putin’s macho stunts are so frequent he could have hurtled bare-chested down a Sochi ice tunnel on a tea tray and no one would have noticed. But plunging Russia headlong into a diplomatic ice age is genuinely chilling. 

Hail the return to a slim-line Soviette Union, but farewell to G8, the rich countries’ club, from which he is now excluded. Putin is ready for a cold war and sanctions, but is gambling that the West won’t want a hot war over Crimea. He is probably right – as long as he stops there. Any deeper incursions into Ukraine, or other Russian-speaking enclaves, such as in Moldova, and all bets will be off. It could be a long winter. 

Another gambler on a roll is Matteo Renzi, Italy’s new 39-year-old centre-left Prime Minister. Only months ago, he was the boy wonder mayor of Florence, cradle of the Renaissance, shocking old hands by renting out the Ponte Vecchio bridge. Now he is an economic saviour, plotting a new renaissance. Handsome, athletic and an inspiring orator, he has charmed Germany’s Angela Merkel and even the Italian right’s arch-schmoozer, Silvio Berlusconi. 

Renzi’s Big Idea is to cut taxes and public spending, boost growth, bypass the Eurozone’s austerity rules – and surpass Germany as Europe’s powerhouse. The messianic Catholic’s zeal confounds critics, but lifts Italian spirits. He jokes that his confessor tells him: “Matteo, God exists. But relax, it’s not you…” 

It isn’t Pope Francis, either. But the Vatican’s own renaissance man, who was a 25:1 outsider in the Papal election, romped home as Time Magazine‘s Person of 2013, marking an epic first year. The world has taken to its heart the humble former nightclub bouncer, who washes the feet of the poor, kisses the grotesquely afflicted and poses for ‘selfies’ on the phones of the faithful. He swapped the Popemobile for a 1984 white Renault 4, which he drives himself, and the Vatican has felt obliged to deny rumours that he slips out at night to visit the homeless. But meek is not necessarily mild. Francis’ reforms include a ruthless purge of the Curia, the Vatican’s fabled bureaucracy, to reflect his new Papal Lite style. 

This common touch may be infectious. Pictures of President Xi Jinping went viral on China’s digital media when he stopped at a roadside Beijing eatery for a $3.50 breakfast of pork and liver buns, with no guards in sight. 

Perhaps it was a rehearsal for dinner with his upcoming guest, François Hollande, who also has a relaxed side. The French President, a hawk abroad and a lame duck at home, is in his private life a turtle dove, with four children by Ségolène Royal, a former Socialist presidential candidate. His live-in partner, Valérie Trierweller, was unofficial First Lady at the Élysée Palace, until a magazine revealed the President had a mistress, actress Julie Gayet, whom he visited – lèse-majesté – on the back of a scooter. 

He acted decisively, moving Ms Trierweller out, but not moving Ms Gayet in. Yet a woman is still stalking him. Jean Marie Le Pen, leader of France’s far-right National Front, looms threateningly after major victories in municipal elections. No political trysts are likely. 

Israel bade farewell to former premier Ariel Sharon, who died aged 85, after eight years in a stroke-induced coma. He was brutally complex: hero of the 1973 Yom Kippur war; later reviled as the butcher of Beirut; yet as Israel’s premier he ordered troops into the West Bank to clear it of Jewish settlers. 

Legendary folk singer and civil rights activist Pete Seeger died at 94, leaving a vast anti-war back catalogue, including Where Have All The Flowers Gone?. Last year he urged Vladimir Putin to release the crew of the captured protest vessel Arctic Sunrise. “I am sure you will reach the right decision,” wrote Seeger. “The people of the world are watching.” 

They still are, Mr Putin. When will they ever learn?


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