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25 February 2012

Presidential Elections and "mind-boggling snarls"

The weekend before Russia votes for its “new” President, it is amusing to recall a previous controversial election, for the presidency of the United States in 2000. I am in the final stages of reading Strobe Talbott’s excellent memoir of his eight years as President Clinton’s senior executive in charge of US-Russia diplomacy, entitled The Russia Hand. Though published in 2002, it is still highly relevant to relations between the two countries today. As one of the most intelligent and intelligible books I have read on the subject, it is on a par with George Kennan’s famous Memoirs, though more interesting in one sense as after communism, people like Talbott were able to see so much more. The account of the in-fighting he witnessed between the Russian government and Army is fascinating.
     Right now, however, the paragraph below is worth recalling. One of the aspects of etiquette which many Russian officials have yet to absorb is that you don’t gloat about your friends’ misfortunes or cock-ups. Gloating was not part of the Tsarist armoury of diplomatic weapons; it came in with the three poisoned dwarfs: Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin. It appears to have outlasted the death of the system they created. In the light of events in Russia on 4th December (the allegedly rigged Duma elections), it reads particuarly sourly today.

      There is one language point here, which is the use of the word “snarl”. To snarl is to growl with bared teeth. Dogs do it; gangsters do it; Russian generals do it, according to Stobe Talbott. Traffic gets “snarled up”, which means it is something less than grid-locked but in more than a mere traffic jam. However, to say that the election was in a “snarl” would have been totally misleading if the context were not so clear. Better to have said “however mind-boggling the snarl up” and avoided the potential for confusion.
     Incidentally, getting back to Common Mistake #1 (9 February), Talbott records Boris Yeltsin as saying to Bill Clinton, in connection with NATO enlargement, that he did not want enlargement to include former Soviet republics in the near future. Yeltsin went on: “I understand that maybe in ten years or something, the situation might change, but not now. Maybe there will be a later evolution. But I need assurances from you that it won’t happen in the nearest future.”
     That conversation took place in early 1997. The Baltic states joined NATO in 2004. Strobe Talbott is today President of the Brookings Institution. Bill Clinton is the husband of the American Secretary of State. And Boris Yeltsin is, as we say in English, “kicking up the daisies” or, as I gather they say in Germany, “looking at the potatoes from underneath.”

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