Did Vladimir Putin win 2016?
The end of the year plays out as a conspiracy theorist's fantasy
The defining song of 2016 was not David Bowie's 'Lazarus', nor Leonard Cohen's 'You want it darker' or even Nick Cave's 'Skeleton Tree' (arguably three of the finest, darkest works of art in a year marked by darkness). No, the song of the year was written in Melbourne by the sui generis songwriter/ jazz pianist Hue Blanes, who performed it within the context of Melbourne's International Comedy Festival. It's a sad ballad that goes like this: "Vladimir Putin is a very lonely man/ He tries to write a lullaby, instead, he writes a rant/ He tries to give a party and the people don't attend/ Vladimir Putin will be here until the end".
This last remark might be the most accurate estimate of the state of the world at the end of the year. Not only because there's a looming sense of the end impending but because the Russian President seems to be the last man standing, in a year that saw the fall of many men - and at least one woman: Hillary Clinton, who seems to be the victim of Russia's direct meddling in the US elections.
The CIA all but admitted, in anonymous leaks to Washington Post, that the Russian secret services are behind the hacking of the email accounts that saw a flood of material posted on Wikileaks, which is believed to have cost Clinton the Presidency. The issue has been part of a heated debate in the US, leading the great Argentinian writer and academic Ariel Dorfman to write an opinion piece in the New York Times, arguing that America is now given a taste of its own medicine: "It is ironic that the C.I.A. — the very agency that gave not a whit for the independence of other nations — is now crying foul because its tactics have been imitated by a powerful international rival", he wrote, making the case for contemplation and return to democratic values.
As Dorfman notes, Putin and those around him in the Kremlin may be right to feel a bit pleased with themselves. After years of being held at a distance by President Obama, the Russian President is now in a position to have a kind of an ally in the White House, someone with whom he shares the same values (narcissism, imperiousness and complete disregard for the rules of diplomacy, for starters).
Donald Trump, of course, is not the only rule-defying head of State who seems to be an admirer of Vladimir Putin. Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan has all but modelled his rule after Putin's ways - up to the trick of swapping the Presidency for the Premiership, in order to bend the constitutional restrictions on incumbency, which has allowed Putin to be on the helm of his country for 17 years (it's strange to realize that, in the 25 years since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia has only had two heads of State; Putin and Boris Yeltsin - three, if you count Putin's alter ego, Dmitri Medvedev).
The two countries have had a strenuous relationship recently, which was on a path of amelioration, one apparently undeterred by the shocking assassination of the Russian Ambassador, Andrey Karlov, by a Turkish policeman in Ankara. To say that Putin had the upper hand in this tragic turn of events is, of course, terrible, but this doesn't make it less true. What is also true is that the Russian President has managed to get away with sending Russian military to Syria, to aid Assad, while the US (and Turkey, for that matter) are fighting on the other side. Not to mention that, with the EU sinking deeper in existential crisis, he's rising to be the most powerful man in the broader area and there's no sign in sight that he's not, in fact going to "be here till the end".
The idea of Vladimir Putin as some kind of mastermind pulling strings and shaping the world to his taste seems like the regular conspiracy theory fodder, of course. But we do live in a complicated world, eager to believe this kind of narrative. It is no coincidence that the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2016 is post-truth – an adjective defined as 'relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief'.It should come as no surprise that this kind of circumstances seem to be affecting the way Greeks see Putin and Russia.
For the better part of the ongoing crisis, Putin was believed to be the one who'd come to the rescue of Greece out of the cruel hands of the European lenders, something that didn't happen, of course, but this did not deter the man's faithful supporters - and the word 'faithful' is not used at random. Putin in Greece is mostly revered by the profoundly religious Christians who believe that Russia and Greece are forever tied with the bonds of a shared religion (that is Christian Orthodox, for the secular among you) and that Putin is the leader of the 'Blond race' that some so-called prophets claim that will save Greece from the advance of Turkey - and the Muslims as a whole.
There is no safer and faster way to paranoia, than relying to prophecies and conspiracy theories to make sense of the world, but this too is a sign of the times. The world we know is changing so quickly and so dramatically, going to an unknown direction, that it's partly understandable that many want to believe. After all, the strength of a conspiracy theory lies on the belief that things are not evolving at random, but rather as part of a bigger plan, however sinister that might be.
It's a thought that is strangely comforting, at least more so than the idea of humanity stepping into uncharted territory. For progressive people around the world, this means that it is better to think that the former head of the KGB tampered with the outcome of the US elections, than to concede to the inherent weaknesses and failings of democracy. Which brings us back to Hue Blanes' song. By becoming the main narrative, conspiracy theories are becoming a kind of collective lullaby, when in fact, what we need is a rant.
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