Joachim Gauck and Ksenia Sobchak.

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 [update: but see comments for a distinction between them] 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.
Update Follow-up post.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

19 thoughts on “Integrity”

  1. 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.

    1. 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.

  2. 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.

    1. 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.

      1. Nelson Mandela was not fruit of a dynasty, he was a leader (and a widely respected one) before he was imprisoned.

        Suu Kyi came to prominence as daughter of her father. She has been alive long enough for people to know both her character (imperious and intolerant of opposition) and her policy principles, the most notorious of which was her encouraging (against the wishes of MANY Burmese) the imposition of Euro/US economic sanctions, and even humanitarian aid, with the attitude of “sure there will be suffering, but the long term pay-off will be worth it”.

        Claiming that a hermit will not make a good pope is not a slight against the hermit and doesn’t need to be treated as such.

          1. I’m not just making this stuff up, James. Unlike (I suspect) you, I have friends who have real connections to Burma, who follow what is going on there every day and in great detail.

            The following recent article in The Irrawaddy makes some of the points I am making (and The Irrawaddy is very much a pro-Suu Kyi publication).
            Likewise this comment on the article

  3. 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.

  4. Aside, but kind of relevant: I was a weatherman in the USAF in the 1980s, and stationed in W Germany just south of the then-President’s home. Our base had a long runway and anti-aircraft missiles - great for VIP-sized planes to land - and the American diplomats and other VIPs would land there to visit the President over the weekend. I was - shockingly - the only observer who would go out to the tower, open the airfield for their arrival (or say, no too foggy, not today) and close it after departure. I would get a 4-day pass for this couple-hours work and that set my travel pattern for my time there: visit one place for four days and come back home, then a couple weeks later do it again, then again, and again, and sprinkle in a longer trip. I was perpetually happy from the travel because people wanted to visit the president.

    Anyway, I haven’t gotten that sense lately of people lining up to visit the president, but I do now.

    Thank you for the indulgence.

  5. Good stuff, James! Could Imran Khan be a AfPak glimmer of hope? (Test cricket was said to offer us rather unspiritual Brits some inkling of eternity - plus participants wear white and “stand around” in the words of the hymnist)

  6. the two previous Presidents, unremarkable warhorses from her own CDU party, both resigned in disgrace

    Describing Köhler and Wulff is unfair to the former. Köhler has ties to the CDU, yes, but was not a career politician in the strict sense. And unlike Wulff’s, his resignation was tragedy, not farce. He made political statements of a sort deemed unacceptable for a federal president to make; and so he drew the inevitable conclusion and resigned.

    Wulff, by contrast, was a true Parteisoldat, a venal and rather dim-witted mediocrity who has been a party functionary literally since his school days and has never done or achieved anything much in the real world. He was exposed as a corrupt liar who threatened journalists with criminal prosecution if they printed the truth abut him, and he hung onto his post with all ten claws, resigning only when he had no other option, and only after swinging a deal that allows him to keep the pension to which presidents who have completed their terms are entitled (€199K a year, tax free, for life). This pension is called the Ehrensold: “honor payment”.

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