Sunday, November 9, 2014

Influential People

On this day 25 years ago, the Berlin Wall came down and the successful reunification of West Germany with East Germany, for decades a puppet state of the Soviet Union, began.

Four weeks ago, Time magazine released its list of the world's 100 most influential people.

Interestingly, two of the top five people on the Time list were in East Germany on that important day in 1989.

The first is Vladimir Putin, the Russian president from 2000 to 2008 who was elected to a third term in 2012.

The fifth is Angela Merkel, Germany's chancellor since 2005 and, effectively, the leader of the European Union.

Back in 1989, neither of these people could have been expected to rise to such heights.  They worked hard but not in areas of political leadership.  Yet, when opportunities arose to shift careers in mid-life, they stepped up and have put their mark on history.  Their stories are interesting, if murky in places.  The full effects of what they have done will not be understood for many years to come.

Vladimir Putin

In 1989, Putin was one of a handful of KGB officers based in Dresden, Germany, a mid-level office at best.  The group seems mainly to have tried to recruit spies for the Soviets and to keep check on the loyalty of members of the East German government and Stasi, its notorious secret service.

As unrest grew in East Germany during the second half of 1989, more than 20,000 people massed the Dresden train station trying to leave for Hungary or Austria.  They were confronted by East German policemen with machine guns.

According to one story, when dissidents gathered outside the KGB Dresden office, they were held at bay by Putin, who was armed with a pistol and said, in fluent German, "This is Soviet territory, and you're standing on our border.  I'm serious when I say that I will shoot trespassers."

In 1990, Putin moved to St. Petersburg, resigned from the KGB and took up a new job with the city government.  Russian leaders were alarmed at the amount of money that was flooding out of the country at the time.  According to various reports,  Putin signed thousands of licenses that accommodated the activity.  Particular mention has been made of money sent abroad to pay for food imports that never were delivered.  A commission of the Russian parliament tried to investigate the documents Putin had authorized, but only 12 ever were released.

In 1996, Putin moved to Moscow, where he became a protege of President Boris Yeltsin, who nominated him for prime minister in 1999.  Putin became acting president when Yeltsin resigned at the end of the year and was elected to the office in spring 2000.

Beside the graft opportunities in St. Petersburg, Putin's control of the Russian economy has been profitable if mysterious.  His net worth is widely estimated at $70 billion, but nobody knows how he came by the money or, really, how much of it he controls.

More importantly, he controls Russia, which has a huge nuclear arsenal and also fossil fuels that are badly needed in Western Europe and give him leverage against neighboring states.  He has made clear, in Georgia and Ukraine, that he wants to re-establish the Soviet empire.  He prefers strong-man governments in places like Syria to squishy and unreliable democracies.  He is flexible in the methods he uses to pursue his goals.

And, according to Time, he is the most influential man in the world.

Angela Merkel

Angela Merkel seems to have been the brightest student in every school she attended.  A physics PhD, she was working as a researcher at the (East) German Academy of Sciences in Berlin on the day the wall was torn down by jubilant mobs.

She did not join the efforts -- that was her weekly sauna day, she explained later -- but went later that evening to see the remnants of a barrier that had separated the city for 28 years.

Merkel became active in the reunification of German politics and was elected to the Bundestag in 1991.  She became a protege of longtime Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who made her Minister of Women and Children.

In 1998, Kohl was defeated.  After the election, he admitted that he had accepted illegal campaign donations.  Merkel wrote a widely publicized denunciation of her party's leadership, including Kohl, and became the party leader.

After losing a 2002 election, Merkel was elected chancellor by a narrow margin in 2005 and formed a coalition government.  She is the first chancellor to have been raised in East Germany and the first female leader the country ever has had.  Political leadership in Germany, unlike in Putin's Russia, does not appear to have led for her to great personal fortune.

Germany has led the European Union through the Great Recession and come out of it better off than most countries.  Merkel's economic policies have been criticized, but her ethics have not. She is steady and careful and appears to enjoy broad support in Germany.  The last times she lashed out in anger were when she discovered that American intelligence agencies had been tapping her cellphone and that the Russians had been lying about their activities in Ukraine.

By Time's reckoning, she is the most powerful woman in the world.

A Tale of Two Leaders

The quote below comes from an article published last year in Britain's Guardian newspaper.

"When (Merkel) visited the Kremlin for the first time as Chancellor, Putin gave her a plush toy dog as a gift.  Merkel became deeply afraid of dogs after she was bitten in the mid 90s.  But Putin didn't stop there. The next meeting, at his residence on the Black Sea, he let in his black Labrador Kony, an intimidating species.  Merkel sat frozen, and pictures show Putin with a sardonic grin on his face, legs widely stretched."

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