The Bloody Nose in Politics: Berlusconi gets punched, Putin doesn’t
There’s something deeply gratifying about politicians punching each other in the face. For one thing, these scenes serve to level out humanity. They remind us that everybody has a temper, and no amount of pomp or protocol can civilize it completely. That is just a nice thing to be reminded of. (Queen Elizabeth snapping at Annie Liebovitz in 2007 was a great story for exactly this reason. It made it official: absolutely everybody snaps.)
There is also the satisfaction of knowing that even a guy like Silvio Berlusconi, who was socked in the mouth on Sunday by some random guy in the crowd, is not untouchable. On a strictly egalitarian level, it’s comforting to know that regular people can hold these guys to account if they want to, like the Iraqi reporter did when he hurled a shoe at Bush. I for one felt empowered (Bush would probably say emboldened) by that whole incident, and so too by this one:
Part of me though feels bad for the old lecher: he got it pretty hard. But that sympathy is tempered by the fact that Berlusconi is one of Putin’s dearest friends, and this is probably the closest anyone will ever get to clocking Vladimir Vladimirovich. (They’re such good friends in fact that Berlusconi is the only head of state who gets to sleep inside the Kremlin when he comes to visit; everybody else gets a hotel, with the other exception being, of course, Qaddafi, who at least got to pitch his tent inside the Kremlin walls last year.)
Yet on the whole I think the greatest satisfaction comes from politicians punching each other in the face, as opposed to say royals or random pugs being involved. In such cases there is an added level of joy. That is because a good brawl in the hall of parliament, to my mind, serves as proof that the chamber is not a farce, that the parliamentarians involved actually stand up for principles of some kind or another, even if only personal ones. A politician throwing a punch is therefore more heartening to me than a politician receiving one.
All of this, I think, is why this was also a happy weekend for the democracy in Ukraine. During one of the commercial breaks in the political talk show Shuster Live (no relation), Congressman Nestor Shufrich came up to Interior Minister Yury Lutsenko and, yes, punched him in the face. Cameras, sadly, only managed to capture the aftermath in the hallway:
Probably in the West, where there is a tradition of feuding political parties, the emotional flavor of politics can be taken for granted. But in the rest of the world, scenes like this are rare thing. This is certainly true in most of the former Soviet Union, where senators are generally puppets. Their role is to create a vague impression of debate when in fact only one person or a small group of people (none of whom can ever be caught punching anyone in the face) make all of the decisions.
But in this clip, roughly translated, we have the congressman saying, “Come on, funboy, you want som’more?” Then the distinguished minister says: “You’re not worth it. I don’t have legal immunity, and I’d be breaking the law, you jerk.” Yes, I know, it’s pretty pansy stuff from the guy in charge of the country’s police force. And for the record: he didn’t hit back.
But in the past, Ukrainians have thrown down with the best of them. This happened just last year.
The point I’m trying to make is that this would be hard to imagine in today’s Russia, let alone Turkmenistan or Kazakhstan. Under Putin, the fighting in the Duma has stopped. The communists and the nationalists can still duke it out over trifles, but it’s impossible to even dream of a congressman coming up to one of Putin’s ministers and punching him in the face. And that’s to say nothing of someone in a crowd actually taking a swipe at Volodya; I cringe at the thought of what would happen to that man. To put it more diplomatically, a political consensus has formed in Russia.
(There is of course one exception in the Duma that will never go away: the Russian nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who’ll tear a communist’s heart out over parking reform. Some have even theorized that the Kremlin keeps him around just so they can point to him as proof of Russian pluralism and freedom of speech. Others have said that by making himself the symbol of the loud mouth opposition, he discredits any opposition before it has a chance to take shape. All I can say for sure is that only a conspiracy could explain this guy):
But on the whole, Russian politics have been pacified, unlike say Ukrainian or Italian, as we learned this weekend. In Russia they have congealed into a pyramid with one man at the top, and I think that’s a rather bad thing, even if it does mean fewer broken jaws in parliament. Which is why for me it’s strange that Europe and the United States are demanding political consensus in Ukraine. To me this sounds like a plea to be more like Russia.
The International Monetary Fund (whose loans are given on the condition that the country getting them becomes more democratic) has even frozen a $3.5 billion loan to Ukraine because of the lack of consensus in the government. The IMF says that there are too many disparate voices, too much argument over the budget, over pension reform, over corruption, too much debate. And yes, sure, it’s pretty chaotic and not a lot gets done. But let’s be consistent.
If there had been a YouTube in the days of the ancient Greeks, I’m pretty sure it would have been full of bloody toga clips and teeth on the Agora floor. And if that is the tradition that the West wants Eastern Europe to adopt, it does not seem right to punish Ukraine for the diversity of feuding opinions in its government. In any case, after three years living in Russia, where the neat political consensus is leading the country right back toward autocracy, I found the congressman’s sucker punch on Friday and Berlusconi’s broken nose on Sunday both kind of refreshing.
Nevertheless, this week’s prize in brute democracy goes to…the South Koreans. Holy shit.