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Published:September 7th, 2007 09:20 EST

The Master of Illusion Vladimir Putin

By Krzys Wasilewski

Russia is stronger than ever before. Or at least this is the vision that the Russian president tries to sell to the rest of the world. Like a great illusionist, Vladimir Putin hopes to convince the gullible audience that his magic hat covers more than anyone can imagine. The problem is that he may soon run out of tricks.

The long history of the art of illusion proves that people will believe in almost anything. All it takes for a magician are some skills and a bunch of cunning tricks, and objects as big as the Statue of Liberty disappear. One move of a magic wand and the juggler wins hearts and minds of rationally thinking witnesses. What seemed impossible only five minutes ago now appears to be completely feasible.

But even such legends as Harry Houdini and David Copperfield pale in comparison with the Russian president. Houdini could free himself of any manmade handcuffs; Copperfield won fame when, in front of hundreds of people, he made the Statue of Liberty disappear. Neither of them, however, managed to come close to what Vladimir Putin has been doing recently – to create an imaginary country and persuade the rest of the world that it really exists.

This imaginary country is Putin’s Russia – stronger and richer than ever before. Soaring crude oil and natural gas prices are the first surprise in his magic hat. Being the largest country in the world, Russia possesses around 20 percent of all reserves of oil and natural gas. Due to an endless demand for these two resources, Russia has become a monopolist in Eastern Europe and can easily blackmail her neighbors, just as she did with Ukraine and Belarus last winter.

Surprise number two is Russia’s military. The lack of funds after the collapse of the Soviet Union had devastated the Russian army of over one million soldiers for years. Thousands of tanks, submarines, air fighters, and the world’s largest nuclear stockpile had rotted since each consecutive government had other expenditures. Underpaid officers were ready to sell the country’s greatest secrets to whoever offered the better price. Putin changed this. Under his rule, the army became a top priority. Official figures reveal that of slightly over $1.7 trillion, which comprise Russia’s gross domestic product (GDP), $32 billion are spent on the military. Recently, Putin informed that bomber aircraft long-range flights – a practice suspended for 15 years – would resume. Russia flexes her muscles on the ground, as well. In response to American plans of building an anti-missile system in Central Europe, the Russian higher command voiced the possibility of deploying nuclear warheads in Belarus, at the very doorstep of the European Union.

Who knows what else Putin keeps in his magic hat? For a former KGB agent like the Russian president, playing tricks and confusing opponents is nothing new. But as soon as the smoke clears from the scene, the audience may realize that the king is naked. Despite her vast resources, Russia remains one of the poorest countries in Europe. It is true that the capital, Moscow, rules in first place as the world’s most expensive city; it is also true that Russian oil billionaires can afford every caprice – from an all-gold car to a private island. These billionaires, however, comprise merely a fraction of the Russian population. The rest of the country’s 143 million citizens live a life not very different from the one in the former Soviet Union. Time in some far-east villages stopped in the 19th century, when tsars exercised absolute power. In cities, corruption is present on all levels of bureaucracy, from a clerk in a post office to top officials in Russia’s numerous ministries.

The eight years of Vladimir Putin’s presidency have turned Russia into an autocratic state where, once again, the army plays the main role. What is more, the incumbent president has squandered the chance of rooting out nationalism that accrued in Russian society during the decades of the communist rule. Now, Russia maintains the lead in Europe when it comes to the number of race-related crimes. President Putin tries to brush all these sins under the carpet, painting his country as a Western-style democracy with liberal and independent institutions.

So far, Putin has achieved his goal. Everyone, from the American president to the German chancellor, dreads confrontation with Russia, leaving troublesome topics by the wayside. In the midst of this magic show, it is easy to forget bare facts. And these, as follows, are unfavorable for Putin:

Russia’s gross domestic product hinges on $2 trillion, which places her in 8th place while the GDP of the United States exceeds $13 trillion (giving it the lead).

According to statistics, an average Russian earns $12,000 a year – less than Libyans, Costa Ricans, and citizens of 55 other countries. The average annual income of Americans is approximately $44,000.

The Russian army uses 1970s and 1980s technology, with most of the air fighters and nuclear submarines being over 20 years old.

As skilled an illusionist as he is, Vladimir Putin cannot play his show forever. Even his masterpiece – planting the Russian flag under the North Pole – was quickly derided when it turned out that the video from the escapade might have been a fraud. Part of the success of Houdini and Copperfield was that everyone, including the two jugglers, knew that it was all only fun. Unfortunately, President Putin honestly believes that he governs a superpower. The world will be in danger if others, mainly the United States, buy his great illusion.

 

Please send your comments to: krzys_wasilewski@yahoo.com