Daily Archives: April 21, 2008

EDITORIAL: Russia Digs its own Grave

EDITORIAL

Russia Digs its own Grave

Last week, Russian dictator Vladimir Putin declared he would establish “legal connections” to breakaway regimes in Georgia’s Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions. The new ties were to include trade, agriculture, education, diplomacy and social support. Military assistance was on the table as well. “Support for the Abkhaz military in the form of logistics or ammunition, this is possible,” said Putin. David Bakradze, Georgia’s foreign minister, said that Russia was adopting a policy of “creeping annexation.” The former prime minster of Estonia expanded upon that idea in a Financial Times column which we republish below. Estonia’s current prime minister, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, is even bolder, explicitly stating that Russia is intentionally destabilizing Georgia in order to disqualify it from NATO membership as an “unstable” state.

Based on this precedent, NATO is now free to do the same in Chechnya as Russia is doing in Georgia, and this should begin immediately. Chechnya has a frightening level of unemployment, and NATO can begin with “social support” for the starving population, then move on to helping Chechnya develop trade and agriculture bases separate from Russia. Simultaneously, NATO can offer Chechnya “logistics and ammunition” to be used in fending off Russian soldiers, just as Russia is helping the rebels of Abkhazia and South Ossetia attack Georgian soldiers.

Russia’s precedent is timely indeed. Reuters is reporting that Chechen rebel leader “Sulim Yamadayev, in an interview with Echo Moskvy radio station, said on Saturday amnestied rebels recruited by Chechnya’s pro-Kremlin leader Ramzan Kadyrov were engaged in violence and stood ready for another war with Russia.” Yamadayev declared: “You think there is order here? This amnestied army goes around with weapons. They do not have to hide and run… They have everything. They are just waiting!” Defense analyst Pavel Felgengauer said of the interview: “This is a very embarrassing statement and a very embarrassing situation for the Kremlin.”

When NATO begins supporting the Chechen rebels in exactly the same way Russia is supporting the Georgian rebels, Felgenhauer may need to choose a stronger word than “embarrassing.”

Of course, Russia will complain to the United Nations, just as Georgia is now doing in regard to Russia’s actions. NATO can simply record Russia’s opposition to Georgia at the UN and play it back in the future when Russia seeks to use the UN against NATO. Russia will explain why it is free to get involved in the domestic affairs of Georgia, and those same reasons, word for word, will justify NATO involvement in Chechnya. And Ingushetia. And any other place that decides it would rather not be part of Russia.

China, of course, will be free to use the same policy in Russia’s Far East.

Meanwhile, of course, now that Russia has clearly established the precedent, the world is free to to totally ignore Russia and Serbia when they complain about independence for Kosovo. Russia has decided that any nation is free to interfere in the domestic affairs of any other nation, and the only limiting factor is military power to do so. It’s a bit strange, of course, that Russia would embrace such a philosophy given that its military is a pale insignificance compared to NATO.

One would think that Russia might want to attempt to use moral arguments against encroachments upon Russian interests, and as such would understand that it must remain on the moral high ground, avoiding taking any actions that would undermine its moral authority. One would also think Russia might wish to avoid incurring the wrath of the entire Western World with its barbarism. Republican presidential candidate John McCain, for instance, reacted this way:

I spoke today by phone with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili about Russia’s moves to undermine Georgian sovereignty over two secessionist regions. Moscow has announced that it will establish governmental links directly with Abkhazia and South Ossetia without the approval of the legitimate Georgian government. Such a move is in violation of international law and deserves strong condemnation by all countries committed to the rule of law.

But as the people of Russia well know, they are governed by a superman who simply does not operate on the same intellectual plane as the rest of us mere mortals. Obviously, Putin understands that Russia is well positioned to win a new military confrontation with the West. With its declining population and non-top-55 per capita economy, Russia can simply disappear whenever it wants, and it will be impossible for NATO to find. You can’t destroy what you can’t see!

Attaboy, Mr. Putin. You’ve upheld the Soviet standard of foreign policy and given Russia the worst of all possible worlds; solid grounds for both international condemnation of Russia and precedent justifying Western interference within Russia itself. Truly, a majestic act of statesmanship. We raise a glass to your health!

Laar on Annexation

Former Estonian prime minister Mart Laar writing in the Financial Times

Vladimir Putin, the outgoing Russian president, on Wednesday accelerated Moscow’s creeping annexation of Georgian territories to sweeping annexation. This is a victory for hardliners who pressed Mr Putin to give the order before he moves from the Kremlin to the Russian White House as prime minister. It comes as Georgian proposals for peaceful settlements in the territories, Abkhazia and South Os­setia, languish. The west must shake off its torpor, condemn Mr Putin’s gambit and support the Georgian proposals. Ignoring Moscow’s Soviet-style land-grab would intensify strife in the south Caucasus.

According to Mr Putin’s “instruction”, Russia will open “representations” in the two territories to protect the interests of Russian citizens there and to foster co-operation. Russia will claim that it has many citizens to protect in the two Georgian territories, after it illegally distributed its passports to anyone remaining after the civil wars and ethnic cleansing of the 1990s.

“Those who cannot learn from history,” said George Santayana, the Spanish philosopher, “are doomed to repeat it.” In 1937, Hitler agitated for the rights of the Sudeten Germans in Czechoslovakia; in 1938, he annexed Sudetenland into the Reich, purging it of non-Germans. In Abkhazia, most Georgians, Armenians, Estonians, Greeks and Russians – perhaps 500,000 in all – are already gone. Russia recognises Georgia’s international boundaries, but its actions belie its words.

Russia’s “representations” will be less than official consulates, although consular services will be offered from offices in neighbouring bits of Russia. “Representation” is a euphemism to soothe western fears that Moscow may recognise the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in tit-for-tat retaliation for western recognition of Kosovo. However, in Moscow’s insidious gambit, the “representations” will be among the final steps toward annexation of the two Georgian territories.

The instruction allows Russian ministries and even Russian regions to open “representations” in Sukhumi and Tskhinvali, the capitals of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. It is a stratagem to install in two Georgian territories government apparatus typical of autonomous republics of the Russian Federation. Just as legal acts, corporate entities and documents of one autonomous republic are recognised throughout the Russian Federation, so too will be legal decisions, companies and papers of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This will incorporate the two territories into the Russian legal space.

Consider Moscow’s widening gait in the context of over a decade of creeping annexation. Russia maintains a near-total embargo on Georgia – no road, rail or sea links; no commerce, bank transactions or mail.

In March, Russia withdrew from the 1996 Commonwealth of Independent States restrictions on Abkhazia, including those that barred transfer of military equipment and assistance. Russia also opened to Abkhazian contractors lucrative contracts associated with the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. The net effect is to include Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the Russian economic space while maintaining formidable barriers against trade with the rest of Georgia.

The threat of force is never deeply submerged. Last November, Georgia reported that additional T-72 tanks, Grad multiple launch rocket systems, armoured personnel carriers, howitzers and about 200 new Russian troops had appeared in Abkhazia.

The authorities in Sukhumi and Tskhinvali are Russian subsidiaries. Moscow is taking big steps during the lull afforded by America’s presidential transition and by the hope of many European leaders for improved relations with Dmitry Medvedev, incoming Russian president.

Meanwhile, the west appears deaf and dumb to Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili’s offer on March 28 of unprecedented autonomy for Abkhazia in Georgia. Georgia’s proposal of a new negotiating format for South Ossetia fares no better. Western political autism is irresponsible. The west must awake and unite, not to oppose Russia or support Georgia, but to stand up for its ideals. It must send Mr Medvedev a strong signal that the path to better relations lies only in repudiating the Putin instruction and engaging on the Georgian peace proposals.

“The belief that security can be obtained by throwing a small state to the wolves is a fatal delusion,” said Winston Churchill just before Munich – we should have learnt the lesson 70 years ago.

Latynina on Bout

Radio commentator Yulia Latynina, writing in the Moscow Times:

We liberals have been wrongfully slandering the state for its attacks on various businesses. Last week, Moscow stepped in to protect the rights of an upstanding Russian businessman who was arrested overseas. I am speaking of Victor Bout, who is being held in Thailand on suspicion of plotting to sell Russian-made Igla shoulder-fired missiles to Columbian drug cartels. Bout was poised to sell a mere 100 of these missiles to drug barons, who had been planning to use them to shoot down U.S. helicopters foolish enough to fly over their plantations.

To his credit, Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin said in a statement on Friday that the country would take all necessary measures to ensure that Bout’s rights are not violated.

Bout was arrested on March 6 — more than a month ago — but Moscow’s offer to help the international arms dealer came last week. In the age of instantaneous communications, such a slow response could only mean that some other method was used to establish a connection with authorities — money, for example. When the problem of a Russian citizen arrested abroad can be resolved by a phone call, the result is seen right away. But when these issues are decided with cash payments, this is a more complicated process. Negotiations are delicate, and you have to work out how the money will be transferred. All of this takes a lot of time.

And the juiciest part of the Foreign Ministry’s statement is that Russia has no plans to press charges against Bout. The power ministries have to account for all Igla missiles in their stock, and state arms exporter Rosoboronexport has a strict monopoly on the the trade of Igla and similar weaponry. This system of tight control was instituted to prevent black market sales to terrorists.

I would recommend that United Russia immediately introduce a bill in the State Duma granting Columbian drug lords the status of freedom fighters struggling against U.S. imperialists. Duma deputies could also stipulate in the bill that cocaine, which is used by the drug dealers to settle their accounts, could be used as a legitimate form of international currency.

Bout has been accused of selling weapons to the Hutu militants who carried out a monstrous genocide campaign, killing more than 1 million people in Rwanda in 1994. He has allegedly sold arms to other bloodthirsty dictators in Sierra Leone and Liberia and equipped the Taliban. After the United Nations listed Bout as one of the world’s most dangerous criminals, he decided to settle down in Russia. Apparently, for Bout, even the African regimes were not as safe as Putin’s Russia.

The government is engaged in a heroic crusade against all those bad businessmen who break the law. It has imprisoned former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Yukos vice president Vasily Aleksanyan. Authorities have also charged with various violations the owners of titanium producer VSMPO-Avisma, Domodedovo Airport operator East Line, electronics retailer Eldorado and the Arbat Prestige perfume chain. They have taken aim at oil companies, retail chains, pharmacies and veterinarians that give anesthesia injections to cats.

As part of its ongoing war against fascism, the Prosecutor General’s Office in Samara recently put a halt to retailer Yevroset’s sale of cell phone bags displaying swastikas. In Novosibirsk, the Prosecutor General’s Office has initiated an investigation into Vyacheslav Verevochkin, an engineer, for restoring World War II German army tanks, embellished with swastikas. Of course, he should have painted French royal lilies on them instead.

In short, the Russian government has it out for everybody — from billionaire Khodorkovsky to simple country folk who reconstruct World War II battle tanks. But it is not opposed to a Russian businessman offering surface-to-air missiles to Columbian drug lords.

Ryhzkov on the New CPSU

Former opposition Duma deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov, writing in the Moscow Times:

No matter what new party we create, in the end, it always turns out to be the Communist Party of the Soviet Union!”

This was Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin’s famous phrase that he coined in the mid-1990s to describe the hordes of bootlickers and careerists who rushed to join the Our Home is Russia party. Chernomyrdin, in his trademark style, hit the nail right on the head. It is difficult to shake off a feeling of deja vu after seeing how delegates to United Russia’s ninth annual congress on Monday and Tuesday obediently applauded and stood at attention to the music of the perennial Soviet-cum-Russian national anthem.

Russia’s all-powerful bureaucracy has been following this rich political tradition ever since Peter the Great — that is, creating a ruling caste or dominant party that quashes out all opposition to gain complete and unchallenged control over the country’s enormously valuable resource wealth.

At United Russia’s congress, the only things that differed from Soviet times were the venue, which was clearly designed to copy that of a U.S. political party convention, and the person on the tribune — President Vladimir Putin in place of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev.

The parallels between Putin and Brezhnev are not only a matter of style. The basic characteristics of their respective regimes are similar as well. Both now and then, the much-vaunted “stability” depends completely on high oil and gas prices. In addition, both leaders built a power vertical that was ruled by a bloated bureaucracy and omnipresent security infrastructure. In both cases, political competition was suppressed and censorship was pervasive throughout the major media.

For the elite to be able to appropriate the country’s profits from natural resources exports, it was necessary to stifle the opposition and create a one-party system. Any discussion of corruption and abuse of power had to be limited to only a few radio stations and small-circulation newspapers. Moreover, the authorities needed to manipulate elections so that incumbent leaders received the maximum possible voter support — and thus legitimacy — in the eyes of the people.

This same goal is behind the drive to make United Russia the dominant political party. Its recent announcement that party membership had hit the 2 million mark served two purposes. First, it creates the illusion of popular support for the ruling regime. Second, it provides a means of controlling that segment of the population, which consists primarily of state employees and workers at small and medium-sized businesses who were pressured into joining the party.

In countries that are both dependent on oil and gas exports and have weak democratic traditions and institutions, a rise in global energy prices inevitably leads to increased authoritarianism. This clearly is the case with Russia.

Before our eyes, Putin is trying to concentrate the maximum possible authority and resources in his hands. When he steps down as president on May 8 and becomes prime minister, he will have full political control over both the State Duma and Federation Council as a result of United Russia’s constitutional majority in both chambers. He will also have control over regional governors, the overwhelming majority of whom are United Russia members.

In addition, Putin, as prime minister, will make every attempt to preserve control over state-owned television stations, law enforcement structures and the Central Elections Commission. And Putin’s close associates will most likely remain as the heads of major state-controlled companies such as Gazprom, Rosneft, Russian Railways, Russian Technologies, Sberbank and so on. Despite the enormous authority formally granted to Medvedev by the Constitution, the president-elect will have relatively little political leverage and few people on whom he can solidly rely.

It is a mistake to compare Medvedev to Putin at the outset of his presidency. At the end of 1999, President Boris Yeltsin was so weak and ill that he had only strength enough to hand authority over to Putin before fading into obscurity. By contrast, a robust and energetic Putin is now taking over the reins of government, openly declaring his desire to take an active role in domestic politics and foreign policy, while at the same time concentrating vast authority and resources in his own hands and in those of his friends. Putin will remain a permanent member of the Security Council, and the control he will exercise over the Duma and Federation Council through his new role as United Russia’s party chairman will provide him with a mechanism for introducing changes to any existing laws and to play a role in the appointment of judges and prosecutors. In theory, he could also initiate impeachment proceedings against Medvedev, if necessary.

Putin’s early return to the Kremlin cannot be ruled out either. His right-hand man in United Russia, Boris Gryzlov, has suggested that Putin consider pushing presidential and Duma elections forward by two years. The Federation Council has the constitutional authority to call for early elections.

Starting May 8, the Russian political system will undergo a significant transformation. It will remain just as authoritarian as before, but now Putin and Medvedev will work in tandem as the country’s leaders. Formally, President Medvedev will have higher status, but Prime Minister Putin will hold far more power and authority.

After being named as the chairman of United Russia, everything is firmly in place for Putin’s transfer of power to himself as prime minister. Now, he can sit back, relax and visit his good friend and fellow prime minister to be Silvio Berlusconi at his luxurious villa in Sardinia as scheduled on Thursday and Friday.

Annals of Shamapova

Well, they’re at it again.

At the Tier I Family Circle Cup WTA tour event last week in Charleston South Carolina, Russia and its Slavic “little brother” Serbia occupied all of the top four seeds. Yet, only one of them managed to get as far as the semi-finals.

The #1 seed, Serbia’s Jelena Jancovic, was beaten in the quarter finals by Russia’s #8 seed Vera Zvonareva; Jancovic was able to win only two games in the decisive third set against the vastly inferior Russian journeywoman. Russia’s top seed, the #2 Maria Shamapova, was crushed by the lower-ranked Serena Williams, winning just one game in the third set of their quarter-finals match. Russia’s #3 seed, Anna Chakvetadze, lost her opening round match to an unseeded opponent, taking just four games out of 16 played in the two sets she lost. It also bears noting that Russia’s other seed, #8 seed Dinara Safina, lost to a lower-ranked non-Russian in straight sets in her second match of the tournament.

This left a gigantic yawner of a semi-finals match between the lone Russian to justify her seed, the woeful serveless wonder Elena Dementieva, who lost though seeded higher, and Zvonareva. If the sport had to rely on matches of that kind for its survival, it would have gone extinct long ago. In the other semi, instead of Chakvetadze against Sharapova, we got Williams against an unseeded Frenchwoman. Then we got Serena against the Russian in a totally lame final and the predictable Williams dominating victory, with Zvonareva serving eight double faults and offering twelve break points to Serena. Ho, hum.

It’s more than obvious that the Russian contingent cannot be seen as a viable front for the sport. When Americans like Everett and Navratilova, or the Williams sisters and Lindsey Davenport, dominated the seeding, the quality of play was outstanding and the level of interest was high. Russians, however, seem to have no ability to generate that kind of electric buzz, and indeed to lack even the apparent desire to do so. Their attitude seems to be to simply grab whatever they can and disappear as fast as possible.

The apple does not fall far from the tree.

April 20, 2008 — Contents

SUNDAY APRIL 20 CONTENTS

(1) The Sunday Photos

(2) The Sunday Book Review

(3) The Sunday Sociopath

(4) The Sunday Scandal

(5) The Sunday Funnies

(6) The Sunday Short Story

NOTE: Vladimir Putin seems to have a new lady in his life. Publius Pundit has all the details, including a photo spread. Oh and, by the way, the Russian newspaper that first reported the story was shut down one day later. Surprise, surprise.