Author: Maia Gemmill (Page 1 of 3)

The Russians have NUKES! and they’re willing to use them!

OK, so things are tense between Britain and Russia these days. But this breathless headline from the BBC is really over the top: “Russia warns of nuclear defence“.

The meat of the article is only a little less hysterical:

Russia’s military chief of staff has said Moscow is ready to use force, including pre-emptively and with nuclear weapons, to defend itself.

Under what conditions would Russia use nuclear weapons?

In a speech to a military conference broadcast on state-run cable TV, Gen Baluyevsky said there were potential threats to Russia from international terrorism or countries seeking global or regional hegemony.

“We do not intend to attack anyone, but we consider it necessary for all our partners in the world community to clearly understand … that to defend the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Russia and its allies, military forces will be used, including preventively, including with the use of nuclear weapons,” he said.

Now, where have I heard this before?

Oh, right:

The Pentagon has drafted a revised doctrine for the use of nuclear weapons that envisions commanders requesting presidential approval to use them to preempt an attack by a nation or a terrorist group using weapons of mass destruction. The draft also includes the option of using nuclear arms to destroy known enemy stockpiles of nuclear, biological or chemical weapons.

The document, written by the Pentagon’s Joint Chiefs staff but not yet finally approved by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, would update rules and procedures governing use of nuclear weapons to reflect a preemption strategy first announced by the Bush White House in December 2002. The strategy was outlined in more detail at the time in classified national security directives.

OK, so the Pentagon document doesn’t mention “territorial integrity” (which means that this statement may be a veiled warning to Georgia to cut out the hanky panky in the Caucasus). But, as we all know, the value of a nuclear deterrent rests on one’s willingness to actually use the nukes in the circumstance you want to deter–what’s the point of a Doomsday Device if you keep it a secret?


Putin’s plan

Will Putin’s plan be Russia’s victory? I can’t tell you. However, I can tell you that it does apparently involve Putin becoming prime minister. Dmitri Medvedev, the apparent heir apparent, yesterday declared that he would name none other than Vladimir Putin as his prime minister.

Thus shall Vladimir Putin keep a grasp on the reins of power, though, as I have previously noted, it is no guarantee. The prime minister’s position is substantially weaker than the president’s; should Medvedev suddenly decide to disregard Putin’s wishes, he would have substantial legal power to do so. On the other hand, Medvedev is not known to have a power base of his own in the Kremlin–he is, at least for now, heavily dependent on Putin. Legal authority is one thing, actual political power another altogether.

An interesting thing to note: for many Putin observers, it is tempting to view him as an all-powerful political mastermind. Everything he does is aimed at a dark and calculated purpose. Is Medvedev’s anointment part of a multi-year plan to regain the presidency? Possibly. But there’s no guarantee that it will work–nor is it even necessarily part of some sort of larger plan. I am reminded just a bit of Karl Rove. Right up until election night 2006, part of me was convinced that there would be no Democratic victory–that Karl Rove had some ace up his sleeve that would somehow not only stop the Democratic tide, but even turn it back, and the Democrats would lose Congressional seats, not gain them. The Rove mystique is now gone. Similarly, we should be wary of a Putin mystique. He is not all-powerful, all-knowing, all-foreseeing. Some of his maneuvers are short-sighted, ad hoc, and ill-planned. To think otherwise grants him super-human powers he doesn’t deserve. The hard part is distinguishing the plan from unplanned, the wise move from the foolish, in circumstances where we, as observers, have only limited information.

Nevertheless, the oddball personality cult of Putin continues to develop, as we can see from photos of a fashion show staged by the pro-Putin Nashi [Ours] youth group. The slogan of the day seems to be, “Vova [a diminutive for Vladimir], I’m with you!”

[beware the link–it is worksafe, but oh, it burns, it burns]


The candidate

After months of intrigue that fueled rampant speculation, Putin has finally endorsed a successor.

Drum roll, please…

And the winner is…Dmitri Medvedev.

Medvedev has been considered a front-runner for years, along with former Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov. In recent months, this seemed to be working against him. Since September, when Putin abruptly dismissed the cabinet and appointed a new prime minister, all the buzz has surrounded Putin’s supposed plan to remain in power, either to regain the presidency or serve as the puppet-master for a weak successor, as the siloviki consolidate their hold on the reins of power, fueling a rising emphasis on a resurgent Russia that is increasingly confrontational with the West.

The choice of Medvedev puts a kibosh on these lines of speculation. Medvedev is young and ambitious. And he is not a silovik. He’s a technocrat who is generally considered to be a member of the liberal-leaning, more pro-western faction in the Kremlin.

So what does this choice represent? It may represent a victory of the petro-interests–Medvedev is chairman of Gazprom (though he is widely perceived in this role as little more than Putin’s mouthpiece). It is also possible that the selection of Medvedev is intended as a check on the growing power of the siloviki, who have been becoming increasingly bold and restive, even going so far as to fight amongst themselves.

Medvedev is also an electoral novice who is not known for his charisma. Has Putin decided that this weakness will make him dependent on Putin’s personal popularity (and thus easier to manipulate)? But Putin himself was elevated to the presidency as a political novice with support from Yeltsin’s entourage, who erroneously assumed that they could control him. Medvedev’s youth and ambition, when combined with the power of the office, could produce a similar result. Surely Putin is aware of this danger.

As always, surprises abound. We’ll keep watching and waiting. Kremlinology is alive and well.


Potentialities and possibilities

By now you’ve probably read about the new NIE saying that Iran almost certainly halted its nuclear weapons program some time in 2003. There are, of course, bound to be people who disagree with this assessment–after all, it is an “estimate”, which is another way of saying “our best guess”. Although the report indicates varying levels of confidence associated with each piece of the report, it’s not like we know for sure. Disagreeing with some parts of the report (or even the entire report) is a legitimate position.

However, I am disappointed that the New York Times would published an op-ed discounting the NIE that is just filled with screaming howlers. Such as:

And why, by the way, does Iran even want a nuclear energy program, when it is sitting on an enormous pool of oil that is now skyrocketing in value?

Someone should send poor Valerie Lincy and Gary Milhollin back to freshman year, so they can take Economics 101 and learn about “opportunity cost”. The main argument that is generally made against the interpretation of a civilian purpose for Iran’s nuclear program is that the economics don’t make sense. Although generating costs for nuclear power are very low, the capital costs are extremely high. The cost of electricity generated with fossil fuels (generally, by the way, natural gas, not oil, though Iran does have substantial natural gas reserves), on the other hand, is driven largely by the cost of fuel, since fossil fuel plants are comparatively cheap to build. Thus, as the cost of fossil fuels goes up (natural gas contracts generally track the price of oil), nuclear power makes more and more economic sense. Whatever Iran doesn’t burn in their generating plants can be sold on the world market for higher and higher prices. If you understand this basic economic fact, it starts to become very plausible that Iran’s nuclear program is best understood as a successful bet on rising energy prices.

The authors of this piece also argue that Tehran’s uranium-enrichment program can’t possibly have a civilian purpose because “all of Iran’s needs for enriched uranium for its energy programs are covered by a contract with Russia.” Here again they get the facts plain wrong. Although Russia and Iran did sign a deal to supply the Bushehr reactor with Russian-produced fuel rods, construction on the Bushehr plant and delivery of the fuel has been long delayed by a dispute between the two parties over payment. Russia claims that Iran is behind on its bills and is declining to deliver the fuel. It is unclear when this dispute will be resolved and when the Bushehr plant will go into operation. Under these circumstances, especially given Russia’s growing interest in using its energy wealth to extend its sphere of influence, it is more than plausible that Iran would continue to develop domestic enrichment capabilities in order to avoid becoming dependent on Russia to maintain its electrical generating capacity.

By no means am I arguing that these factors cited above are proof that Iran’s program is entirely civilian in nature. And surely the Iranians are aware of the usefulness of a civilian program in developing nuclear expertise that could be put to military use at some point in the future. However, Lincy and Milhollin are wrong on so many counts when they claim that military purpose is the only possible explanation.

Note: Edited very slightly for style.

Image Source:


Darkness ahead

Next Sunday, Russians are expected to go to the polls and overwhelmingly endorse the candidates of the pro-Putin party, Edinaya Rossiya.* What I find surprising is the level to which the government feels it needs to engage in electoral hanky-panky: all signs suggest that Edinaya Rossiya would receive a comfortable majority, even without the blatant manipulation of the system. Kommersant reports that a recent poll shows that it is very likely that no party besides Edinaya Rossiya will clear the 7% threshold for Duma representation–in that case, a “loyal opposition” may actually need to be manufactured to preserve the pretense of a multiparty system. Is this a dictator’s fear that his popularity is merely illusory? Or is it based in a belief that greater legitimacy is derived from a manipulated landslide than a clean victory? It’s hard to tell from the outside.

Whatever the cause, the Russian state has thrown its considerable resources behind Edinaya Rossiya. Riot police break up the pathetically small opposition demonstrations and arrest the participants for creating “public disturbances”. Opposition parties find it next-to-impossible to register their candidates. One of the primary opposition parties, the Union of Right Forces, had millions of copies of their campaign literature seized around the country on pathetically flimsy justifications. The government announced that it would restrict the number of OSCE election observers to 70 (compared to over 400 in the last Duma elections), then dragged their feet for so long on issuing visas to the observers that the OSCE simply cancelled the mission. In recent weeks, there have been “spontaneous” demonstrations around Russia by an organization calling itself “Za Putina” (For Putin), which is apparently dominated by Edinaya Rossiya members.

The rhetoric of the campaign is also notable for its strong flavor of Russian nationalism, the theme of the restoration of Russian greatness, and a focus on the person of Vladimir Putin that borders on a personality cult, with Putin cast as a father-figure reminiscent of the Little Father Tsar or Papa Joe Stalin. Edinaya Rossiya has adopted the slogan “Putin’s Plan is Russia’s Victory,” though few Russian voters admit to having any concrete idea as to what Putin’s mysterious plan might actually be. At campaign rallies, Putin has claimed that opposition groups are treacherous and unpatriotic–receiving their marching order from “foreign powers” who want Russia to be “a weak and feeble state”. Today, he accused the United States of meddling in the Russian election by pressuring the OSCE to drop plans for election-monitoring (those same monitors who couldn’t get their visas) in order to delegitimize the election.

I have never believed that Vladimir Putin was a committed democrat. I have long taken the view that he has authoritarian tendencies that have steered Russia in a non-democratic direction. Never before, though, have I felt so pessimistic about Russia’s political future. With this election, it is quite possible that we will see the consolidation of true authoritarianism in Russia. The rhetoric of confrontation with the West is rising, and US officials seem completely at a loss as to how to effectively reduce tensions. Sixteen years ago, we breathed a sigh of relief when the Soviet Union collapsed, ending the Cold War, and then turned our attention elsewhere. We’ve hardly turned it back since, and it shows.

* Edinaya Rossiya is usually translated as United Russia; I noticed the other day, though, that Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty translates it as Unified Russia, which I like because it carries a slightly different nuance that better reflects the orientation of the party. “United” in English has the connotation of joining and coming together, but this is represented by altogether different words in Russian (soedinyonniy is used for “United States”, while “obedinyonniy” is used for “United Nations”). Ediniy, on the other hand, has alternate meanings of “indivisible” and “common” (as in “shared”).


I just can’t seem to get enough of you

I was planning to blog on the Ukrainian elections today (exit polls show a very slim lead for Yulia Timoshenko’s party, but both sides claim victory), but, well, things get in the way.

Like these headlines:

Putin eyes prime minister’s job
Putin Says He Will Run For Parliament

United Russia (Edinaya Rossiya)–the Kremlin-approved dominant political party in Russia–kicked off its election campaign this morning with a party conference. It was widely announced that Putin would attend this meeting, which is not unusual–he has attended past United Russia conferences, though he is not technically a member. The surprise, though, was his announcement that he would top the party list; as a result, he would be entitled to a seat in the Duma (though he may not actually to claim his seat as long as he is a sitting president). He also said that the possibility of becoming prime minister is a “realistic idea” that he has already been thinking about.

I can’t say as I’m shocked to learn that Vladimir Vladimirovich has a plan to keep hold of the center of power in Russia. Although he’s constitutionally limited to two consecutive terms, he’s wildly popular in Russia, and few really expected him to leave political life. The current scenario favored by Kremlin watchers is that Zubkov will run for president, while Putin will take the prime minister’s seat. However, technically, the
prime minister’s powers are significantly less than the president’s. Would Putin be content to play second fiddle? Does he trust Zubkov enough to be mere puppet, even though he would hold the legal reins of power?

We’ll just have to wait and see.


Turmoil in Georgia

Photo: Reuters

While I’ve been fascinated by goings-on in southeast Asia, I’ve missed events going on in my intellectual backyard: political turmoil in the Republic of Georgia.

Earlier this week, President Mikheil Saakashvili and his former defense minister, Irakli Okruashvili, had a very public falling out. First, Okruashvili launched his an opposition party, “For a United Georgia”. Then he alleged that Saakashvili instructed him to kill several public figures, including businessman Badri Patarkatsishvili, who owns the television station on which Okruashvili made these claims. He also accused Saakashvili of involvement in the death of his one-time political ally Prime Minister Zurab Zhavania, who died in 2005 of carbon-monoxide poisoning, and of far-ranging corruption.

Yesterday, Okruashvili was arrested in Tbilisi on charges of money-laundering, abuse of power, and extortion.

Today, demonstrators marched in Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi; a crowd estimated at over 5,000 (ITAR-TASS reports as many as 10,000) gathered outside the parliament, accusing Saakashvili of being corrupt himself and demanding his resignation. However, the one of the main opposition parties, the New Right Party, chose to sit this one out, arguing that Saakashvili and Okruashvili are birds of a feather.

Saakashvili, however, missed out on all the excitement: he was in New York, making an inflammatory address to the UN General Assembly (it’s that time of year, again), in which he accused Russia of attempting to destabilize Georgia through “terror” missions (a reference to recent clashes in the disputed Kodori Gorge area of the break-away republic Abkhazia).

Although one might be tempted to think that, given the generally nasty tone of Russian-Georgian relations, the Kremlin would be poised to capitalize on Okruashvili’s challenge to Saakashvili, as defense minister Okruashvili took an aggressive stance toward both Abhkazia and South Ossetia, As a result, Russia does not seem to regard him as a welcome alternative. Kommersant quotes a Kremlin source thusly: “Saakashvili set up the playing field for Okhruashvili himself by practically destroying the central opposition. But that had the opposite effect. What’s going on now is a fight between Hitler and Goebbels.” Nasty.

Deciphering the right path in the ongoing sparring between Russia and Georgia is tough. It’s pretty clear that Russia is a bad actor in this conflict, supporting separatist movements in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, acting repressively against Georgians in Russia, and generally throwing its weight around. But Georgia doesn’t appear to be an innocent victim either: it behaves provocatively at every opportunity. The penchant for trouble-making on both sides is very dangerous.


Update on Burma

The government crackdown on democracy protesters continues in Burma. The official death toll is nine, including a Japanese photo-journalist, but opposition sources claim that the true number is many times higher. One report I heard claimed that there are over 100 bodies in hospital morgues, and more bodies in the streets. It is also becoming increasingly difficult to get good information about what is going on. The junta has realized the effect of the dramatic photos being electronically sent out of the country and has been actively working to sever internet and telephone connections to the outside world. Internet cafes have been closed, and the main internet service provided has been raided by government troops. There are also reports that troops are actively targeting anyone carrying a camera. Hundreds, maybe thousands of monks have been arrested, and those protesters who remain in the streets are now overwhelmingly civilians.

There are unconfirmed reports of “unusual” troop movements in Yangon. A caller to this morning’s Diane Rehm Show, who claimed to have sources on the Thai-Burmese border, asserted that the wife of one of the junta leaders has been spirited out of the country (to a hotel in Dubai) and that the army has split into two factions, pro and anti-regime. There are also reports that there is disagreement among the leadership over the crackdown. The Irrawady News Magazine has a running account on its homepage; the site is very slow, probably due to heavy traffic.

Much seems to rest on where China chooses to put its weight. Few expect that China would support the democracy movement, but given the importance of economic ties to the west, they may be reluctant to support the regime if it engages in a Tiananmen-style massacre–both because of the bad publicity associated with its support for the junta and for the inevitable comparisons (like the one I just made).



After nine days of mass, peaceful protests in Myanmar, the crackdown has begun. Government troops have beaten demonstrators and fired tear gas and live bullets. The government currently claims that there has been one death and three injuries; independent accounts confirm the death of at least one monk. There are unconfirmed reports of as many as six protesters killed. There are also reports that hundreds of monks have been arrested around the country.

Nevertheless, the demonstrations continued on Wednesday, despite the imposition of a curfew and a ban on gatherings of more than five people. The BBC reports that at least 10,000 protesters took to the streets today, including a large contingent of civilians.

There are numerous photos are available here, at a blog titled Ko Htike’s Prosaic Collection; the author seems to be a medical worker in a Yangon hospital, though most of the blog is written in Burmese.

The Washington Post’s story on the crisis contains some interesting details about attitudes within the Burmese military:

The soldiers who put down [the 1988] uprising had been transferred to Rangoon from outlying areas because of fears that the city’s regular garrison would not move against civilians. According to Maung, there were signs that similar hesitations are arising in the Burmese military this time.

A declaration from a group calling itself the People’s Patriotic Armed Forces Alliance was circulated among exile groups. In it, the authors depicted themselves as military officers and called on fellow officers to disobey if ordered to fire against protesting monks, students or democracy activists.

“On behalf of soldiers, we the People’s Patriotic Armed Forces Alliance seriously and categorically warn the SPDC’s top brass that if they solve the present situation with violence rather than seek peace, divergences would emerge inside the armed forces and defiance or mutiny would break out,” the statement said.

Maung said there was no way to judge the authenticity of the statement or how many officers it represented. But he added that someone identifying himself as a Burmese intelligence officer had posted comments on an exile blog Wednesday morning saying similar sentiments have emerged in Burma’s internal security services.

Seeking to play on the doubts, protesters sat in front of soldiers in the street and chanted, “People’s soldiers, our soldiers,” according to reports received by exiles.

Whither goest the military, goest the revolution. Bringing in soldiers from outside to suppress unrest is a well-used tactic. The soldiers who put down the Tiananmen Square protests were brought in from the provinces; during the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, troops were brought into Kiev from Crimea.

If the protesters can turn the military, then there perhaps there really will be a revolution. They don’t have to participate–just choose to sit it out. But if the military is willing to follow the orders to shoot, there is little chance that the protests will successfully oust the regime.


Meet the new cabinet, same as the old cabinet

Putin has named his new cabinet. Despite heated speculation in the media, the changes are fairly small. Almost all the ministers kept their jobs. Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin kept his post, but has also been elevated to deputy prime minister. Minister of Economic Development and Trade Germain Gref is out, replaced by his former deputy Elvira Nabiullina. Gref’s departure was widely expected, so no big surprises there. Dmitri Kozak, former envoy to the South Federal District (southern Russia and the Caucasus), has been appointed minister of regional development. Lastly, Deputy Finance Minister Tatyana Golikova takes over as minister of health and social development. Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov retains his position, as Putin refused to accept the resignation he tendered last week (due to his familial relationship with incoming Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov).

Both Kozak and Kudrin are old Putin colleagues from his St. Petersburg days, and are thus identified more with the “liberals” than with the “siloviki” (the men of power). Elvira Nabiullina is also generally viewed as part of the liberal faction. Their new positions could suggest that the star of the liberals–and thus, potentially, Dmitri Medvedev–is on the rise. At the very least, it helps to keep things balanced–and everyone guessing, two primary goals for Putin these days, it seems.

It is also worthwhile to note that Putin’s new cabinet includes two women. Despite Soviet-era official protestations of gender equality, Russian politics have remained a resolutely male preserve.

Kommersant, however, draws our attention to the growing importance of familial ties within the government: nepotism is alive and well in contemporary Russia. Not only is Defense Minister Serdyukov the son-in-law of Prime Minister Zubkov, but Tatyana Golikova is married to Minister of Industry and Energy Viktor Khristenko. Kommersant’s quick investigation shows multiple instances of familial relationships that might violate Russian laws against supervisory relationships between close relatives within Russian government entities.


Photos from Myanmar

Source: Mandalay Gazette

The revolution may not be televised, but you can rest assured that it will be blogged. The large scale protests continue, despite yesterday’s threats. The ruling military junta has banned foreign journalists, but the locals are snapping photos and emailing them to the western press. There is a great collection at Mandalay Gazette, a Burmese language paper based in California. Photos continue below the fold.


A revolution in Myanmar?

I’ve been trying to follow what’s going on right now in Myanmar. I know pretty much next to nothing about Myanmar, other than it used to be Burma, but it certainly looks like a people-power revolution is in progress. Thousands of Buddhist monks have taken to the streets and the government has been reluctant to crack down, perhaps hoping that if they just ignore them, the demonstrations will lose steam. Instead, the opposite seems to be happening: momentum appears to be gathering and the crowds are growing larger by the day. The protests are also spreading to cities besides Yangon (Rangoon).

A couple months ago, I wrote that one of the things that can produce a crisis in an otherwise stable authoritarian regime is an exogenous economic shock. That seems to have been the trigger here: unrest first surfaced after the government was forced to sharply raise fuel prices in mid-August: diesel prices doubled, while the cost of compressed natural gas quintupled. Consumer prices, naturally, also jumped, and public transit was disrupted.

The first wave of protests against the fuel price hike were organized by dissidents who were promptly arrested. However, beginning in late August, the protests were joined by Buddhist monks, who generally enjoy a high level of social deference in Burmese society. Although there have been some repressive moves made towards the monks, the government seems reluctant to engage in a crackdown against a group with such high social capital. Monks were even permitted to march to the home of democracy activist (and Nobel Peace Prize winner) Aun San Suu Kyi and engage in prayer with her; it was her first public appearance in over four years. Nevertheless, today the regime has started to talk tough, threatening to take action if senior clerics don’t put a stop to the actions of their followers.

A violent crackdown, sadly, remains the most likely outcome of the current crisis. Nonetheless, many are hoping that if the student activists and the monks can maintain a united front, the protests will reach the sort of critical mass where ordinary people start to join in, and the regime will no longer be able to hold on.



There’s a brick building at the corner of P and 18th Streets near Dupont Circle that used to be an overgrown wreck. I first noticed it in the fall of 2003. The grass was tall and unmowed, and there was a bare, dead tree inside the fence. It seemed abandoned. For various reasons I was rarely in the Dupont Circle area between spring 2004 and fall 2006. But one day in fall 2006, I was waiting for a bus to arrive at the bus shelter immediately in front of the building. The building had been spruced up and the exterior was neatly groomed. It also bustled with activity.

As I waited endlessly for the bus to show up, I noticed a plaque that I had missed in the past, which identified the building: Embassy of Iraq.

Ah, I thought, that explains its formerly run-down state, as well as its recent rehabilitation.

Blake Hounshell notes the similarly dilapidated status of the embassy of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which is also located on a prime bit of Dupont Circle real estate. Ironically, Iraq is higher on FP’s failed state list than the DPC. But I guess it would be pretty embarrassing if Iraq couldn’t keep its US Embassy functioning. I wonder what the embassies of remainder of the top 10 failed states are like.


The patron saint of nuclear weapons

I swear I’m not making this up.

According to the Jamestown Foundation’s excellent Eurasia Daily Monitor, the Russian Department of Defense’s 12th Directorate, which is responsible for Russia’s nuclear weapons, has been assigned a patron saint by the Russian Orthodox Church: St. Seraphim of Sarov.

St. Seraphim seems an appropriate choice for several reasons. First, he was a favorite saint of the last tsar, Nicholas II; his association with one of the primary continuing symbols of Russian claims to great power status is eminently sensible in climate in which the tsarist past and ideology of “Pravoslavie, Samoderzhavie, i Narodnost'” (Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and National Spirit*) are being rehabilitated. Second, St. Seraphim hails from the city of Sarov, in the Nizhny-Novgorod oblast. Known during the Cold War as Arzamas-16, Sarov is home to the All-Russian Scientific Research Institute of Experimental Physics (VNIIEF)–the nuclear weapons research and design facility where the first Soviet nuclear weapons were developed. Sarov, appropriately, is a sister city to Los Alamos, New Mexico [warning: pdf]. Lastly, the saint’s name, “Seraphim”, which he adopted upon taking monastic vows at the age of 27, comes from Hebrew for “fiery” or “burning”. Seraphim are fiery angels with the power to purify the sinful. So, purifying fire from the heavens = nukes. Nice, eh?

* Narodnost’ is a notoriously difficult concept to translate. “Nationalism” doesn’t quite work, “populism” doesn’t quite work, “national feeling” doesn’t really get there either. I’m not really all that happy with “national spirit,” but it’ll do.


Super is as super does

A friend forwarded me this interesting article by Dennis Ross in the New Republic on why we should be paying more attention to Russia. I have to say, that I certainly agree that we should be paying more attention to Russia. And I think that he gets some stuff very right: (continued below the fold)

Russia tends to pale in comparison to these other concerns [unrest in the Middle East, the rise of China, climate change, etc.], and the tendency will be to pay it little heed. That would be a mistake. The less attention we pay to Russia, the more incentive we give Vladimir Putin and his successors to demonstrate that they are a power to be reckoned with and to act in ways that will be increasingly problematic. Already we see Russia staking out claims to the Arctic and its riches; manipulating its oil and gas supplies for political purposes; supporting separatist movements in neighboring states or what it calls the “near abroad”; and selling arms to rogue regimes like Iran and Syria. (The Russians are in the process of upgrading significantly Iran’s air defense and have also been providing Syria large numbers advanced anti-air and anti-tank missiles; when the Syrians turned over some of these weapons to Hezbollah, the Russians looked the other way.)

To understand Russia’s behavior and develop the right strategies for dealing with it, we need to appreciate the impact that lost status has had on the Russian psyche and the imperative it has created to restore the country’s standing as a world power. Few non-Russians mourned the passing of the Soviet Union, but within the country, there is deep resentment of the United States for winning the cold war. Putin has called the collapse of the USSR one of the greatest geopolitical “tragedies of the twentieth century.”

Today, the perception in Russia is not only that the United States sought to exploit Russian weakness but also to keep it weak. Expanding NATO into Eastern Europe might have been one thing but to extend it to include the Baltic states was something else. And President Bush’s decision to abrogate the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty at the beginning of his administration was one final crushing blow. Here was a pillar that had established the Russians as the strategic equal of the United States, and we dismissed it–and the Russians were powerless to do anything about it.

But I’m disappointed at the easy reliance on the caricature of Russia as an “energy super-power”. This notion that Russia is an “energy superpower” really needs to be unpacked–it’s a facile and deceptive formulation that plays into fear-mongering about a resurgent Russia. We’ve seen Russia attempt to wield its energy reserves as a political tool against its neighbors in the near-abroad–usually in the form of convenient unscheduled maintenance or a sudden shortage of coal cars or the like. But how effectively can Russia use this power elsewhere? Pipelines are funny things–they only go to where they are built. Most of Russia’s energy exports travel through pipelines–the seller is locked into a limited set of buyers. And western Europeans may be better positioned to diversify their energy imports than Russia is to diversify its customer base (former Soviet bloc countries, though, are much more over the barrel, so to speak). Russia needs its energy buyers as much, if not more, than the western Europeans need the energy. The energy sector represents about 20 percent of Russia’s GDP, while energy products make up over 60 percent of exports. If it weren’t for the constant influx of oil and gas revenue, the federal budget would be in deficit. Russia needs to sell oil and gas. If the EU members can ever act in concert on this issue, they could have the upper hand (yes, I know that’s a big “if”).

I’m not saying that this should make us feel all warm and fuzzy about Russia’s intentions–rather, we should recall that at some base level, this is a bluff that they can’t afford to have called. But loudly and publicly trying to prick the bubble of Russia’s perceived power probably isn’t the ideal strategy either [see above: resentment, festering]. Instead, we should avoid falling for the panicky hype and treat Russia as a important world player rather than the afterthought of a past era’s failure. Constructive engagement reduces the incentive to act out–from the perspectives of both domestic and international posturing.


And then there were…five?

No, I don’t know what to make of this either:

In a meeting with the Valdai Discussion Group, a group of academics and journalists, in the Black Sea town of Sochi (now best known for its successful Olympic bid), Vladimir Putin commented, “Now, at least five people are named who can really stake their claim to be elected president in March 2008. Well, if another real candidate appears, then the Russian people will be able to choose among several people.”

The only person (other than opposition candidates without a prayer) who has explicitly expressed interest in running is Viktor Zubkov (who, as you recall, was a complete unknown before, oh, Wednesday). First Deputy Prime Ministers Sergei Ivanov and Dmitri Medvedev are generally understood to be contenders, though neither has publicly expressed interest or intent.

But who are the remaining two? No one knows and everyone is talking about it.

And that noise coming from over there in the corner? That’s Comrade Vladimir Vladimirovich, laughing heartily at the big joke he’s playing on us.


The deal with Zubkov

The Duma hasn’t even confirmed Viktor Zubkov as Russia’s new prime minister, and already he’s raising eyebrows. Early commentary on Zubkov pegged him as a quietly competent bureaucrat who was unlikely to make waves or alter the balance of the intra-Kremlin jockeying over succession.

But it’s so much fun to confound the pundits: today Zubkov told reporters that a run for the presidency is not off the table.

So who is this mysterious fellow?

Here’s a summary from the various bios floating around the media. Like former president Yeltsin, he’s originally from the Sverdlovsk region in the southern Urals (Sverdlovsk is once again known as Yekaterinburg). After receiving a degree in economics from the Leningrad Agricultural Institute, he was a collective farm manager in the Leningrad oblast. He first became associated with Vladimir Putin in the 1990s, when both worked for the St. Petersburg city administration. In 2001, Putin appointed him to the head of the Federal Financial Monitoring Service, which is responsible for combating money-laundering; as such Zubkov has been an important Putin ally in his campaign to reign in the oligarchs. He seems to be well-liked and respected within the business and financial community.

Putin is known to keep his St. Petersburg associates close, so that connection is unsurprising. There are no major resume gaps or foreign posting that would be suggestive of KGB service. Interestingly, Zubkov’s daughter is married to acting Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov; such quasi-feudal alliances aren’t that unusual in post-Soviet space, but it is suggestive of the ways in which the inner circles of power are tied to one another personally, not merely professionally.

I also think that the choice of a prime minister with clear anti-corruption credentials is no accident. Anti-corruption is a useful political stance, even if it’s selective. Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko, as improbable as it may seem, originally rode into office on his name as an anti-corruption crusader. Kommersant also hints that should Zubkov successfully run for president on an anti-corruption platform, no one would be surprised if Zubkov, who is currently 66, declined to seek a second term, unlike Dmitri Medvedev or Sergei Ivanov, who are both comparatively young. The Russian constitution only prohibits presidents from serving more than two consecutive terms. Rumors have already been floating around that Putin could seek another term in 2012. The problem is finding a successor who isn’t interested in holding onto the office as long as possible. Could Zubkov fit that bill?

In addition to his unexpected comments on his political future, Zubkov has also promised some cabinet changes. We’ll be keeping an eye on those in the coming weeks.


Evidence that I am a cranky crank

I like Foreign Policy’s Passport blog. I really do. But this kind of thing BUGS the living daylights out of me.

They have a perfectly good post on a bizarre attempt by a Russian regional governor to increase the local birthrate. And it’s illustrated with a stock photo of a rather bizarre postage stamp commemorating the “Week of the Child”. At least, I’m pretty sure that’s what it says. The reason I’m not totally positive?

The stamp is from Yugoslavia. It’s in Serbian, which is written in Cyrillic, and, of course, has much similarity to Russian, but isn’t Russian.

The bottom of the stamp reads “Belgrade, Oct 4-11, 1954”. The initials across the child’s chest are “FNRJ”, for Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia.

Anything Soviet, of course, would have СССР on it, as those of us who are old enough to remember the Cold War may recall.

It’s really not fair, because I’m sure that the poster doesn’t read Russian–and the stock photo site that it came from has it tagged as Russian. Still, it’s like nails on a chalkboard.


Shake up in Moscow

Update below the fold–Ivanov is not the new PM.

Reuters is reporting that Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov has stepped down. No replacement has yet been named, though Vedomosti is reporting that First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov is the most likely candidate.

Prime ministers may come and go, but this is big news because of the open question: who will be the next president of Russia. While I wouldn’t be entirely shocked if there was a sudden domestic crisis that necessitated a third term from Vladimir Putin, most Russia watchers believe that he wants to hand off the open reins of power to someone else. The presidential election is only six months away, and Putin still hasn’t designated his preferred successor.

Ivanov’s star is already perceived to be on the rise: earlier this year he was relieved of his position as Defense Minister, which was becoming tainted by scandals related to brutal hazing of recruits, and promoted to the position of first deputy prime minister, at an equal level with Dmitri Medvedev, who is widely perceived as Ivanov’s main rival in the behind-the-scenes presidential race. If Ivanov is indeed named the new prime minister, it will be a powerful signal: Putin himself was named prime minister during the waning months of the Yeltsin administration.

Update: Vedomosti was wrong–the new PM is Viktor Zubkov. More later once I’ve had a chance to read up on him. Zubkov is surprising to just about everyone. Putin certainly does love to keep everyone guessing. In the meantime, there are some interesting comments from Dmitri Trenin, of the Carnegie Moscow Center, via FP’s Passport blog.


I’m sorry, but your computer has to come with us

Can you imagine if the FBI were confiscating computers in local Democratic party offices, merely three months before the Congressional elections?

Selective enforcement of the rules has long been a way of controlling political opponents in post-Soviet space. Everyone breaks the rules, but only those who represent a threat to the authorities get a visit from the tax authorities, or the building inspector, or the like. Leonid Kuchma, former president of Ukraine, had this kompromat down to a science–and it was ultimately a major factor in his downfall.

The Moscow Times reports a new twist on this old practice: software piracy. Software piracy is widespread in Russia. Unlicensed copies are easily available and considerably cheaper than legit software, which can take a big bite out of the budget of a small NGO or business. In Nizhny Novgorod, police raided the offices of two different opposition-oriented NGOs and the local office of Novaya Gazeta, the paper that published the work of murdered journalist Anna Politkovskaya. Similar raids have taken place in other cities, including Samara and Tula. The NGOs accuse the authorities of selective enforcement, while the authorities, naturally, deny any political motives. The law permits the police to confiscate computers suspected of containing pirated software and to keep them for as long as two months. Even if everything on the computer is fully licensed, the loss of a computer for two months is a major blow for politically oriented groups, opposition parties, and gadfly reporters, particularly as we are now less than three months away from the Duma elections.

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