March 20th, 2012

Joachim Gauck has been elected President of Germany. Very much against Angela Merkel’s wishes, but the two previous Presidents, unremarkable warhorses from her own CDU party, both resigned in disgrace and Gauck became inevitable. He’s the dream candidate to everybody who isn’t Chancellor and wants an invisible head of state rather than a possibly inconvenient person of independent character and stature. The office is ceremonial but can have moral weight.

Gauck is a former leader of the opposition to East German Communism and later ran, impeccably, the office responsible for the Stasi files. Timothy Garton Ash wrote a fascinating account of obtaining and reading a copy of his own slim Stasi file, created when he was an exchange student. Serious players like Gauck had files of thousands of pages. We can be sure that if Gauck had any real weaknesses, the most efficient and comprehensive secret police force in history would have found them. Psychological portrait here.

He’s already adroitly moved to disarm excessive expectations. Der Spiegel:

At a news conference on Sunday evening [video in German], he already asked to be forgiven for making mistakes when he’s finding his feet as president. After all, he said, he couldn’t be expected to be “a Superman or a flawless person.”

Gauck is as good a man as Germany could reasonably hope to find. Excellent news.

The same day’s paper carried reports of a more unlikely as well as prettier (footnote) heroine, Ksenia Sobchak.

She’s a celebrity of the Paris Hilton type: spoilt child of the new nomenklatura, Playboy cover-girl, hostess of a trashy reality TV show, protagonist of endless sex-and-partying stories. A Google image search gives you the idea.

She is also the intelligent daughter of a flawed hero of Russia’s flawed democratic revolution, Anatoly Sobchak: mayor of Leningrad (which he restored to St. Petersburg), stand-up guy against the 1991 putsch – and patron of Vladimir Putin, rumoured to be her godfather. Even six years ago, she was dabbling in politics. Now it’s got serious. She’s become a leader of the protests against Putin. She wasn’t in fact well received by the demonstrators: she’s not courting fame, rather using it. The move has led to a break with her mother. On a talk show, Sobchak said (my italics):

Kinship is a very strong tie, a strong material, But the ideas in my head are also of very strong material, so I have no choice.

Her stand does not compare with the decades-long struggles of Joachim Gauck and Aung San Suu Kyi. Her offer of leadership may still be rejected by the protest movement because of her past – a bad move IMHO, they badly need her national name recognition, not to mention looks. On my reading of modern Russia, such a rejection would be out of distaste for her nouveau riche flaunting of ill-gotten wealth rather than her interesting sex life, which worries Russians about as much as it would Italians or Brazilians. Alternatively she may be nobbled by her godfather’s ruthless minions: stand by for the tax evasion charges. Or she may just not have the stomach for the years in the wilderness facing the Russian opposition, or the graft needed to develop workable and saleable alternative policies.

Still, she’s come a long way already. Stranger things have happened in politics than the conversion of a playboy to a saint or steely politician. Slippery slopes go both ways: the feedback loops which reinforce acquiescence and venality, or lonely courage and resistance. Ms Sobchak has already taken the first steps down a path which may lead her to power or to martyrdom.

Best of luck to the old man and the young woman.

I know, I know. But her looks are a crucial part of her story: both her past and her possible futures.

8 Responses to “Integrity”

  1. John G says:

    Vladimir Putin? Or somebody else?

  2. marcel says:

    I corrected one of the links in this sentence:

    Still, she’s come a long way already. Stranger things have happened in politics than the conversion of a playboy to a saint or steely politician.

  3. marcel says:

    Huh. That didn’t work. Well, here’s the link that was removed when I submitted the previous comment:

    • Sadly the account Shakespeare unforgettably retails of Prince Hal’s mis-spent youth carousing with Falstaff has little basis in fact. He did quarrel with his father on political issues. Henry V did bring back English as the language of government, so Shakespeare did owe him one professionally speaking.

  4. Maynard Handley says:

    Hmm. I’m uncomfortable with dynasties in politics — they generally do not work out well. What one tends to find is that people who have an in because of their parents are able to rise rather higher than their natural level of incompetence, which can have unpleasant affects for everyone around them.

    Indira Gandhi was not an especially great leader, likewise for Benazir Bhutto. My Burmese friends generally believe that, while Aung San Suu Kyi is a fine moral example and fulfilled that role as expected, her personality and skills are such that she would likely be a disastrous leader if she actually came to power. And of course we all have our opinions about Bush the Younger.

    • If Ksenia Sobchak rises, it won’t be dynastic. Her initial advantages are (a) money (as being on the inside track under the Yeltsin privatisations) and (b) the poisoned chalice of Putin’s relationship to her father, which both gives her some protection and marks her out as a traitor within the club. The looks are geneetic but not dynastic. Her career so far as good-time girl and TV celebrity, trashy though it has been, was self-made, as is her turn to opposition.
      Aung San Suu Kyi: how on earth can they know? Cf. Nelson Mandela. We know she’s superhumanly brave and principled on the important things. That isn’t evidence she doesn’t, like Mandela, know how to compromise and flatter if she finally achieves the power to which she was elected long ago.

  5. Sock Puppet of the Great Satan says:

    Anatoly Sobchak was not given nearly the recognition the West for foiling the coup that he deserves. He kept the KGB out of Leningrad by phone calls from his holiday dacha before rushing back to the city. (In retrospect, his protege Putin might have played a role here.) But the fact that there were tanks in Moscow but none in Leningrad heartened those against the August putsch, and weakened the resolve of the inept putchists.

    Similarly, Edvard Shevernadze, who later was overthrown as President of Georgia because of corruption, resigned conspicously in December 1990 warning of a coup plot, which deterred the putschists until the last minute before a new treaty between the republics of the Soviet Union was signed. His action in December made the failure in August more likely.

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