Monday, 8 September 2008

Tiger Hunt

More than just a great stunt, Vladimir Putin's single-handed delivery of a Russian TV crew from the clutches of a Siberian tiger is a powerful allegory of how the Kremlin views recent events in the Caucasus. In fact, the characters' roles are so clearly delineated as to resemble those of a medieval morality play or Biblical parable.

Like President Saakashvili, the tiger came too close for comfort. The Russian TV crew, as media workers who are only half-loved and half-trusted by ordinary Russians, are the South Ossetians. And the tranquilizer gun is the Russian Armed Forces in their purely peacekeeping role: targeted but controlled force, exercised as much to protect the tiger from itself as for any other reason. Here is a stripy version of overweaning Georgia. Were the Kremlin press office thinking of Georgia's most famous work of literature, The Knight in the Tiger Skin, when they dreamt up the metaphor?

And here - as in all of Russia's more direct communications since 8th August - there is a thinly veiled threat as well. The hand that pulls the trigger on a tranquilizer dart can just as well fire a bullet. Putin would not have hesitated to get out a rifle if the softer option had failed: Tbilisi beware!

One difference is important. We might doubt whether Prime Minister Putin really fired the dart that saved the TV crew. The glorious moment was not captured on film (presumably everyone but him had dropped their cameras and was running for the hills). But we can be absolutely certain that he was the main protagonist in the main story, the operation to rescue the South Ossetians.

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