111 510 510 libonline@riphah.edu.pk Contact

The Pope & Putin

In the eyes of the West, President Putin can do nothing right and Pope Francis can do no wrong. This has less to do with papal infallibility than with the engaging personality of the South-American born pontiff. Pope Francis (born J.M. Bergoglio in Buenos Aires, Argentina) began his secular career as a chemical technologist, doubling as a night-club bouncer, employed to keep gatecrashers out. Today, as the 266th pontiff, his mission is to be inclusive, all-embracing.

Pope Francis demonstrated his skills during his recent 10-day visit to Cuba, the United States and to the United Nations headquarters in New York. Each visit was carefully calibrated. In Cuba, a largely Roman Catholic country, he called on Fidel Castro whose trespasses over the past 50 years have been forgiven finally by the United States. In Washington, no one pouted when he kept President Obama and VIPs waiting for 17 minutes while their guest reached out to the faithful who had flocked his route to the White House.

He addressed a joint session of Congress, where he referred admiringly to Moses as “the patriarch and lawgiver of the people of Israel”. No one accused him of being a closet Zionist. He shared the balcony of the Congress building with Vice President Joe Biden, a Roman Catholic who stands a heartbeat away from the presidency. He addressed the multinational General Assembly of the United Nations, a minuscule but powerful enclave which, like Vatican City, functions courtesy of its host country.

His speeches were like the Masses he conducts — structured, ordered, and designed to elicit the right responses. At the UNGA, for example, he spoke as a fellow human being, cautioning delegates — as Al Gore has been doing ever since he left politics — that “any harm done to the environment is harm done to humanity”. A practising Jesuit, he preached to his well-fed audience against the “culture of waste”. He could afford to do so, having just opened his hitherto private summer palace at Castel Gandolfo to the public.

And in an age when lawsuits against the Church abound for impropriety, he kissed children and hugged male seminarians in public without arousing controversy. Unlike the Pope, Putin can never do anything right in Western eyes. By contrast, Russian President Vladimir Putin in Western eyes can do nothing right. He is viewed increasingly as its worst nightmare, feared as a resurrected Frankenstein.

Putin addressed the UNGA from the same podium that Obama had vacated minutes earlier. It was Putin’s first speech before the UNGA in 10 years; many of his victims must hope it will be his last.

He spoke with tactful subtlety. He spoke of the Russian sacrifices during the Second World War but never once mentioned Germany except with the euphemisms: “Nazism” and “anti-Hitler coalition”. He described the emergence after the Cold War “of one centre of dominance”, a nation “so powerful and exceptional” that it thought only it knew what was best for the world, but he never once mentioned the United States.

He admitted the mistakes made by the Soviet Union when it “exported social experiments, pushing for changes in other countries for ideological reasons”. He deplored that some unnamed countries “instead of learning from other people’s mistakes … prefer to repeat them and continue to export revolutions, only now these are ‘democratic’ revolutions”.

He criticised those Western countries (again nameless) that “have chosen to create exclusive economic associations, with their establishment being negotiated behind closed doors, secretly from those very nations’ own public and business communities, as well as from the rest of the world”.

For Putin, his Russia is not the residue left after the disintegration of the USSR. (He called its collapse “‘a national tragedy on an enormous scale”.) He wants the world to acknowledge his revitalised, resurgent Russia.

Look East, he told the West, and reaffirmed Russia’s proposal “to interconnect the Eura­sian Economic Union with China’s initiative for creating a Silk Road economic belt [and] harmonising the integration vehicles between the Eurasian Economic Union and the European Union.”

Not many know that in 2001, during their first meeting, president George W. Bush broke the ice by asking him about a crucifix, blessed in Jerusalem, that Putin’s mother had given him. He cherishes it, especially after it survived a fire at his dacha. Few know that Putin has a street named after him in Bethlehem.

His connection with Christianity is necessarily less overt than the Pope’s. Like the Pope, though, Putin wishes the world to be inclusive, not exclusive. “Russia is Europe’s large and sometimes awkward neighbour,” an analyst of US-Russian relations has written, “but it is a neighbour with which Europe has to live and with whom engagement is a necessity, not a choice.” If only speakers from all other neighbouring countries at the 70th UNGA would follow such pragmatism.

The writer is an author. www.fsaijazuddin.pk

F. S. Aijazuddin, "The Pope & Putin," Dawn. 2015-10-08.
Keywords: Political science , Political aspects , Political leaders , Political relations , International relations , World war II , Cold war , President Putin , President Obama , President Joe Biden , United States , New York , Washington , USSR , VIPs