Last week the Russian president Vladimir Putin was presented with an Akita fighting dog puppy by visiting Japenese foreign minister Koichiro Gemba. The dog – which is called Yume – apparently flew business class to Moscow after receiving an upgrade from Aeroflot.
This gift is a symbolic gesture of friendship and an antidote to the fraught relationship between Moscow and Tokyo, which has been tested by a number of recent geopolitical spats. It is also a reminder of the value that world leaders attach to animals in terms of both international diplomacy, and also electoral appeal on the home front.
The examples of animals being employed to show politicians’ human sides are legion. Putin is always eager to be depicted alongside his faithful Labrador, Koni, and is quick to remind people that he once received a tiger as a gift. The Bulgarian prime minister Boyko Borisov gave Vladimir a karakachan puppy in 2010. Putin has also presented animals to others – giving two of Koni’s offspring to former Austrian president Thomas Klestil. And now the Russian premier will deliver the Japanese minister a Siberian cat as a gesture of reciprocal good will.
Ahead of a trip to Cuba earlier this year even the Pope engaged in a spot of animal diplomacy, presenting a crocodile to the people of Cuba. This wasn’t an overly literal papal aide following the instruction to “find a wild present, and make it snappy”, but instead a masterpiece of diplomacy. The Roman Catholic church has a difficult relationship with Cuba but the supreme pontiff made exactly the right impression by returning the miniature reptile to its homeland, after it was confiscated by Roman customs being smuggled in to Italy hidden in a sock in a suitcase.
The Seychelles presented China with a pair of Aldabra giant tortoise to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic. And it’s China that is responsible for surely the most celebrated instance of animals as diplomatic currency – pandas. An ancient tradition of donating the beasts to other countries was revived when US president Richard Nixon received Ling Ling and Hsing Hsing as a thank you for making his historic visit to Beijing in 1972.
I suppose soft power doesn’t come much softer than a panda, but are experienced statesmen and cynical electorates really affected by the strategic deployment of animals?
I believe they are – and with good reason. I must admit to a deep suspicion of people who are not dog enthusiasts, for example. And I find it harder to trust a politician who is not an animal fan. The sensitivity required of a person to tend to a pet is an appealing quality. And these traits should be universally admired, as animal appreciation really can galvanise brittle political relationships, and repair diplomatic fractures.
I am glad that Vladimir Putin, a man with a fearsome reputation, is engaged in this particular form of political discourse. It suggests that there is a more humane side to him and other tough-talkers than meets the eye. And that’s good news for everyone.