2014 International Person of the Year: Vladimir Putin

2014 International Person of the Year: Vladimir Putin

In thinking about this year’s international person of the year, there really wasn’t much of a contest – if impact on the global political and economic scene is the measuring rod. J. BROOKS SPECTOR makes the award for 2014 to a man who likes to hunt, fish, ride a horse, go bare-chested, pursue martial arts - and who follows Nicolo Machiavelli’s famous advice about whether a prince should strive to be loved or feared. Runners-up: Xi Jinping and Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi Al-Husseini Al-Qurashi.

Some time in the future, say fifty years from now, we are going to recognise that 2014 was the year a child was born who became the scientist finally sorted out a nano-bot that, working in tandem with new chemotherapies, was able to deal with cancer decisively. Or perhaps this was the year a child was brought into the world who eventually sorted out the way to make thermonuclear energy not just a possible but THE killer technology for power generation (and thus rendering OPEC, fracking and tar sands quaint historical footnotes). And maybe this year will herald the birth of a child who, through transcendental, transformative insights, became central to the establishment of a new religious rebirth, generating serenity and peace across the planet. Or even, perhaps, this will be the year a baby girl took her first breaths and who, after a stellar career in becoming the youngest-ever-PhD in astrophysics, decisively captured definitive proof of intelligent life on another planet.

In the meantime, however, 2014 was a year in which political and economic issues were the crucial ones instead of those in science, philosophy, religion or the arts. As a result, The Daily Maverick has been forced to identify who, for better or worse, decisively affected the circumstances of the globe, from among a group of influential international political figures, rather than among poets, philosophers, preachers, physicists, or painters.

This process of selection closely follows an inspiration first carried out by TIME magazine, back in its early days, when it was still trying to break out from the herd of publications available on every newsstand, by creating what became an eagerly anticipated yearly event. TIME’s man (eventually, person) of the year has, in subsequent years, been emulated by various other publications as the world has become ever more attracted to the celebrity of lists and rankings – but the idea of the person of the year, globally, remains a compelling one for millions.

And so, as we have done for several years now, The Daily Maverick picks its person of the year at the international level, just as it picks a person of the year domestically in South Africa. For us, while there are several runners-up, there is truly only one winner this year. But before revealing the winner, let’s look at the “could have beens”. For this second place, we see a virtual tie for global impact – but for some very different reasons.

Not surprisingly, right in the mix is Chinese President Xi Jinping. Since consolidating his position as head of the Chinese Communist Party as well as president of the country in the past year, Xi has been putting a decisive stamp on a nation with already-major global impact, working to make China’s position yet more influential. Most analysts of Chinese developments already agree that within the relatively short period of Xi’s political ascendency, he has already put his stamp on the Chinese political economy and its international impact more firmly and assertively than anyone since Mao Zedong could achieve back at the time of the Bandung Non-Aligned Nations summit in 1955 – and to much greater effect for the benefit of the Chinese population.

Xi Jinping runner up

Photo: Chinese President Xi Jinping and Portuguese Deputy Prime Minister Paulo Portas (not pictured) sit for a meeting at Angra do Heroismo, Terceira Island, Azores, Portugal, 24 July 2014. EPA/ANTONIO ARAUJO

In this past year, in addition to setting out a broad domestic agenda that speaks to increasing domestic demand (and the incomes to do the spending on things) as a way of underpinning the Chinese economy even more than what has been achieved, earning it the reputation as “the factory of the world”, Xi has extended the reach of Chinese economic diplomacy in summits with regional figures – as well as much further afield with Africa’s leaders. In so doing, Xi has been working hard to position China as the natural champion of the global community beyond the OECD nations – and thus as the logical leader of the rising nations such as the fast-growing emerging markets.

Moreover, in connection with the greater global reach economically, Xi’s China is moving aggressively to position itself militarily as a dominating (if not actually the dominant) power of the Western Pacific Ocean littoral with the launch of its new aircraft carrier, development of a fighter jet designed to work with that ship, and increasing fleet movements through disputed waters – as well as symbolic expressions of this new heft such as Chinese passports that indicate Chinese sovereignty over all of those now-disputed island groups and surrounding waters, deep into the reaches of the South China Sea.

So far at least, very little of this has been in the form of a direct power or territorial grab. Rather, these manoeuvres are designed to set out the perimeter flags of what China will fill in with a growing influence and confidence in the years ahead – as well as the power from its still-growing economic circumstances. Thinking very long-term seems to be the key – and this is something China has had thousands of years of practice at doing, back to ancient beginnings of the China as a discrete political entity and the centre of the world as the Middle Kingdom.

But little of this effort represents one single transformative year, the kind of actions needed to win Xi Jinping the person of the year honours. However, as the cumulative result of all of this during his tenure as president, Xi might yet come along and claim the person of the decade flag, by and by.

The second runner-up would, without question, be none other than Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, or Abu Du’a, or Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi Al-Husseini Al-Qurashi – and usually known to his ardent supporters, best buddies and fans as Amir al-Mu’minin, Caliph Ibrahim, the emir. Baghdadi is the self-proclaimed caliph of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Before 2014, probably not one person in ten million outside the Arab world had ever heard of Baghdadi, or his group. But, by the end of the year, they had probably garnered more headlines, broadcast footage and social media conversations (and not a little fear and trembling unto death for many as a result of some truly ghastly YouTube postings) than any other single political event or issue of 2014.


Photo: A frame from video released by the Islamic State (IS) purportedly shows the caliph of the self-proclaimed Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, giving a speech in an unknown location. EPA/ISLAMIC STATE VIDEO

Baghdadi’s organisation, now increasingly termed a “mafia regime,” has largely upset the proverbial applecart in the Middle East, with repercussions extending well beyond that region of the world. Baghdadi’s IS, something of an offshoot from the al-Qaeda group, is allied with or in various kinds of rivalries with other similarly aligned groups like al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP) or al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) over who can be the biggest, meanest boys on the block.

IS has carved a robber baron-style empire out of much of eastern Syria and northern Iraq. In the process, IS has driven whole populations of ancient minority groups into precarious exile, seized the property previously held by hundreds of thousands in both nations, and collected revenue of oil pumped from wells in its areas of control and exported through dubious illegal brokers. Subsequently, it’s been enforcing a religiously subtexted reign of terror through these activities, as well as via mass executions and the beheading of western hostages on video clips to keep peoples’ attention firmly and appallingly focused on IS’ proclivities.

In the process, IS, under Baghdadi’s guidance, has steadily upended American plans (and hopes) for reaching some kind of settlement for an increasingly beleaguered Iraq and a civil-war-battered Syria. As a result, the balance of forces in the region involving Saudi Arabia, Iran, Israel and Turkey has been pushed out of kilter as well, with effects that, potentially, will be unraveling for years to come.

But it is not clear IS would be a force to reckon with in the absence of Baghdadi, or even that it would be able to maintain its current momentum, once its supply lines extend much further, or when or if it bumps into Turkey or any of the other regional powers and if the US and others continue their attacks on IS troops, supplies and communications. And given the loose bureaucratic hold IS has over its conquests, it is not even clear it will continue to maintain its hold over them, once (or if) its enemies begin to act seriously in concert. But besides its current impact on the two nations whose significant shares of territory it now controls and an unstable regional balance of power, perhaps its biggest impact has been Baghdadi and IS’ psychological impact on parallel al Qaeda-inspired groups and factions – impelling or encouraging them to take their own greater risks in the name of their religiously-inspired fanatical military behaviour.

But none of this – so far at least – seems set to fundamentally upset the regional balance, rather than make every other established power increasingly wary of the situation, and keep the situation both fluid and unsettled. While the impact of Baghdadi’s IS on the minorities in the region they control, has been life-altering, it has not, at least so far, been the ultimate game changer that will fundamentally reshape the Middle East. Of course there is always next year.

So who is 2014’s international person of the year? Ultimately, it can be no one other than Vladimir Putin, the man who has been at the helm of Russia since 1990 as Prime Minister, President, Prime Minister, and then again President, and who seems almost certain to remain at the helm for years to come. In 2014, after years of passive drift following the end of the cold war and the dissolution of the old Soviet Union under Putin’s predecessors, Putin, the man who has publicly insisted that the greatest catastrophe of the twentieth century was the collapse of the USSR, has decisively started a reconfiguration of the European geo-political landscape with final results no one can yet predict.

After years of nibbling at the edges with Russia’s lower-level support and moments of armed conflict in support of a quasi-independent Trans-Dniester Republic, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, prised away from Moldova and Georgia; this year, Vladimir Putin’s Russia – and there is no other political figure with anything close to the reach and impact of Putin in today’s Russia – moved decisively to rip up the post-cold war political order. Russia occupied Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and it has been supporting (or most likely directly aiding with military hardware and troops concealed with some very flimsy mufti and uniforms without unit designations) a separatist insurrection in the eastern reaches of Ukraine.

This Crimean annexation and the succeeding incursions into the largely Russian-speaking regions of the eastern part of Ukraine, after unleashing an agitprop barrage that charged Ukraine’s “Maidan” revolution had been covertly organised by the West and largely led by neo-Nazis (a term pregnant with meaning if ever there was one), has led to the most serious deterioration of Western-Russian relations since the end of the cold war. There is definitively no more talk about any kind of “reset” of US-Russian relations, as was the hope in the first Obama administration.

And crucially, while western nations have imposed a range of economic and financial sanctions on Russia in response to these assaults, there has been no real effort to push the Russians out of their newest territorial accessions. The net lesson clearly learned in Moscow (and other capitals) is that Putin’s Russia is both capable and willing to use its military power – or at least the threat of it – to redraw borders in what the Russians insist is their ‘near abroad’. This is in parallel with their claim to have special rights to re-arrange those geographical delineations at a time and place of their choosing. And all of this comes despite a more general understanding among the OSCE (Organisation of Security Cooperation in Europe) nations that the borders in Europe were only to be realigned from the peaceful determinations of the nations concerned (such as the division of Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia) as well as Russia’s own earlier pledges to other former Soviet – now independent – republics that it would respect their territorial integrity.

The starting point for Vladimir Putin seems to be that he is philosophically inclined to reject the idea the post-cold war settlement in Europe is the wave of the future. Instead, he has insisted that these arrangements represent merely interim steps along the way to a final map. Instead, Russia as a revanchist power, especially one that has reinvigorated its economy, delivered a significant share of the country’s new prosperity to many of its citizens, and produced political stability (albeit at the cost of a real rollback of civil liberties), is entitled to carry out real changes in the order of things. And that is precisely what it he has been doing in 2014.

At this point, given the West’s relative timidity beyond economic and financial sanctions, there is no reason to assume Putin’s Russia is about to pull back from its foreign adventures in the “near abroad”. And this means Vladimir Putin gains The Daily Maverick’s acknowledgement as 2014’s Person of the Year.

There is one footnote in all this – and it is something that might just well undo everything Putin has gained with his newest gambles. And that, of course, is the price of oil on world markets. Most of Russia’s exports by value and hard currency earnings are from petroleum and natural gas. In recent years, the high price of these commodities has effectively underwritten Putin’s government both for its expansionist ideas as well as its ability to bring in the foreign goods and services seen as so desirable by Russia’s increasingly consumerist population.

But, with the 40% fall in oil prices, that some say it is Obama’s response to Putin’s expansionism, the cushion is gone – at least for the near future. If, together with the collapse of the rouble, the Russian bourse and investor confidence, as well as the impact of those sanctions, all of this affects the Putin regime’s ability to carry out its foreign adventures and to support imports, 2015 may just possibly become the year Vladimir Putin went from hero to zero in the eyes of his countrymen and -women. But for this year at least, Vladimir Putin is the 2014 International Person of the Year. DM

Photo: Russia’s President Vladimir Putin holds a news conference at the end of a G8 summit at the Lough Erne golf resort in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland June 18, 2013. REUTERS/Yves Herman


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