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20 March 2014

When I hear of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s lavish expenditure on the winter Olympic Games in Sochi and the more recent illegal occupation of the Crimean peninsula I am reminded of historical precedents

Such moves hark back seventy or so years to recall Adolf Hitler’s Berlin Olympics of 1936. It was here that he proudly showcased the new, all powerful Germany with gleaming concrete stadia and massed Nazi flags proclaiming the wonders of the Third Reich. Then two years later, in March 1938, Germany’s occupation of Sudetenland left the remaining part of Czechoslovakia weak, powerless and easy prey for the eventual complete take-over by Hitler’s armies. The Furher grandly stated he was the Czechs savior as he was releasing three and half million Germans from oppression and gave them, quotes: ‘an unalienable right to self-determination’.

And now are we hearing this same empty rhetoric being pedaled once again. Yes, the same old self-justifications spewing out of Russia’s propaganda machine.  And they expect us all to believe it, be taken in? For the Czechs, Hitler’s legacy was war, deprivation, starvation and mass killings of the Jews, gypsies and other untermenschen – the Nazi classification for ‘sub-humans’. And what will Russia’s legacy be in the Crimea? Despite their claims of legitimacy through fixing the referendum these bully-boy tactics swim against the tide of many peoples’ wishes. Judging by Russia’s track record you can expect a more authoritarian regime with the suppression of opposition voices, spying on its people, locking up dissenters without trial and at worst ‘disappearing’ serious offenders.

History has a nasty habit of repeating itself as so-called ‘national influence’ is exerted by powerful neigbours. The Russian bear has come out of his cave once again to frighten those countries on its borders, remember Georgia in 2008? The old parts of the Soviet Union will be feeling a chill of apprehension once they see the brazen manner in which Russia is exercising its power once again.

In the process Russia’s belligerence is upsetting the western democracies but what will they do? The USA has no stomach or the money for another war, the European Union will waffle and we’ll watch on the sidelines with righteous indignation and do nothing. It looks like Munich all over again. In 1938 we called it appeasement now we’d call it apathy.

‘Sanctions , Sanctions,’ everyone cries but there is now so much Russian money in the UK and other western capitals, can the money-men really cope with life without the Oligarchs’ tsunami of lucre? This free-flowing stream of cash has fuelled property markets, the sales of upmarket automobiles and growth in high-end luxury goods – and none more so than in London. And if the West does turn the screw and starts to freeze Russian assets, what then? Putin could turn the off the gas he supplies to the west. Crikey! West Germany relies on two thirds of its gas from the Ukraine pipeline and the EU as a whole  relies on a third of oil, gas and coal from the Russia – what would that do to energy prices and our industrial output if that was curtailed? However, to balance that argument Russia generates 52% of its income from EU energy sales and its economy couldn’t do without that either. Although it seems ridiculous to a layman how the West has become so self-reliant on a Russian dictator for energy needs?

As is often the case with the exercise of Power the problem revolves around greed and corruption. During the last twenty years we have seen Russia emerge from the chaos of Yeltsin and modernise its commercial activities, stabilize its stock market and flood western goods into its shops. It’s moved from collective communism into a hybrid-capitalism with corruption at its heart. As Milo Minderbinder used to say in Joseph Heller’s great WW2 satire, Catch 22, when justifying buying stores from both his enemies and allies to feed the American troops in war-torn Italy, ‘But you all get a share’. In Russia’s case you’ll get a share if you are a part of Putin’s inner circle of favour, which is why he is known as the ‘Little Czar’.  He snuffs out opposition when it emerges, crushes any outspoken press or TV channels, the leaders of all the big cities are Putin’s men as are the heads of the major corporations – companies like Gazprom are under Putin’s control. The original ‘owner’ was put in jail for eight years on trumped-up charges of corruption. In reality he had gathered too big a political following and power base.

In Russia it is dangerous to be become a threat to Putin. And you are not even safe in London; witness the journalist and author, Alexander Litvinenko, poisoned in his west end hotel with a lethal dose of polonium in his tea. Then the President manipulated his terms of office so that he could serve another two eight year terms. He is becoming impregnable with too many men around him that need his patronage to maintain their seriously rich lifestyles – it is positively medieval, the robber barons are on the rampage.

So what is that drives oppressive regimes – a bid to control, wealth and the ruthless need to stay in power at all costs? Dictators never retire; they get ousted, just like in Ukraine. But there remains something more sinister around these all powerful regimes. Take North Korea with its obsessive secrecy. Those who have been lucky enough to escape its brutal grip speak of cruelty beyond measure, starvation and a standard of life that is incomprehensible to most other civilized nations, third world or otherwise. Why would you suppress your citizens so harshly and not accept food aid or technological help to feed your people. Why not give them the freedom to read and hear what they like, understand the world beyond their own borders, travel or engage in the social activities that we would regard as our given right? Their political prison camps are harsh in the extreme; an execution was alleged for some poor individual who had the temerity to sing a South Korean song. It is very expensive to manipulate a population of many millions of people. In North Korea, like Stalin and Hitler, Kim Jong Ill, is worshiped like a God, the cult of personality is espoused. So much so that it is reported that a 14 year old girl was recently drowned in a flood trying to rescue a portrait if their beloved leader. Perhaps if the North Korean hierarchy understood precedent they would realise that such adoration of false gods will be their eventual undoing. Meanwhile they spend most of their income on arms, in the same way that the Soviet Union did until Gorbachev realized they were broke.

In Korea if you deviate, you go off to prison to be re-educated. If you learn your lessons you’ll be released, if you don’t its curtains. Should North Korea one day break its grip on their peoples I wonder how long it would take the entire population to un-learn what they have had drummed into them since the end of the Korean War in 1953?

Precedent would suggest for some never. Take the Japanese soldiers who spent fifty years hold up in the hills of a remote island off the Japanese coast and did not surrender their weapons until the mid-1990s. They were still fighting for the honour of their Emperor and unaware that the war had ended. A sworn allegiance never to be broken, in their case, this was loyalty without precedent.








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