Worried about Putin's Russia?: Read on - 2007

Worried about Putin's Russia?: Read on


For the past several years, the Russia of Vladimir Putin has been sending very clear signals that it is no longer the weakened, troubled and Western-dependent state that it was following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia is once again a proud and assertive nation, increasingly recognizable by its actions to historians of its czarist and Communist predecessors. Many will say that its recovery is based on shallow foundations, in fact that it rests almost totally upon the high price of oil and gas - and Russia's fortunate possession of vast supplies of those vital commodities. That is true. But oil revenues, if invested wisely (as has been done by two countries as different as Norway and Dubai during the past decade), can enhance national infrastructure, industrial and technological developments, and military security. Not only is Putin's regime making smart strategic investments - in infrastructure, laboratories, a modernized military - its flow of energy wealth is giving the Kremlin the confidence to pursue assertive foreign policies, secure for the moment in a set of global circumstances that has hobbled the United States, turned the attention of China and India elsewhere (toward growth and internal modernization), and given all the world's oil-producing states immense leverage.

Right now, the list of Moscow's unilateralist actions is probably only exceeded by those of the White House over the past six years. Take an obvious example: Russia uses its veto power on the UN Security Council to support Serbia and crush Kosovo's hopes of independence, just as the United States uses its privilege to protect Israel and block pro-Palestinian resolutions in the world organization. In a similar negative way, Russia controls what the Security Council may, or may not, do regarding actions against Iran and North Korea. The list goes on. Putin's ministers are adept at using what has come to be called "pipeline diplomacy" to force neighbors like Belarus and Ukraine to bend to Moscow's will and recognize their dependence upon Russian energy supplies, and it is clear that this is intended to have a secondary intimidation effect upon the states of Western Europe as well. Estonia and Latvia are browbeaten over what are regarded as anti-Russian acts, such as the removal of Soviet war memorials or treatment of Russian-speaking citizens. Western oil companies are discovering that a contract for control of energy resources is not necessarily viewed by the Moscow government as a sacred legal obligation. Thus, massive international corporations such as BP and Exxon, long regarded as powerful independent actors, are now, literally, being put over the barrel, forced to recognize their weaker bargaining position.

Many of their chief executives must have rubbed their eyes at the reports that Russia has just claimed extensive rights at the North Pole, with implications for rights to the exploitation of seabed energy resources. Moscow seems to be advancing its international claims with about the same speed that it denounces arms-control accords. If all of this is unsettling, it is by no means unusual. Actually, Russia's actions are rather predictable. They are the steps taken by a traditional power elite that, having suffered defeat and humiliation, is now bent upon the recovery of its assets, its authority and its capacity to intimidate. There is nothing in the history of Russia since Ivan the Terrible to suggest that Putin is doing anything new. "Top-down" policies from the Kremlin have a thousand-year provenance. If they seem more noticeable at this moment in time, it may simply be because of two (possibly temporary) factors: the modern world's dependence upon petroleum, and the Bush administration's obsession with Iraq and terrorism. All Putin is doing is walking through an open gate - opened, by and large, by the West. So the reports from Russia that interest me most are not those concerning drone submarines under the Arctic icecap, or putting the screws upon Belarus to pay backdated oil charges. What intrigues me are the broader and more subtle measures being instituted by the Putin regime to enhance national - and, even more, nationalist - pride. They point to something much more purposeful, and potentially quite sinister.

Two examples will have to suffice here: the creation of a patriotic youth movement, and the not-too-subtle rewriting of Russia's school history books. The youth movement called "Nashi" (it translates as "ours") is growing fast, encouraged by government agencies determined to instill the right virtues into the next generation and to use this cadre of ultra-Russianists to buttress Putin's regime against domestic critics. The policies that Nashi advocates are eclectic. Among the main features are reverence for the Fatherland, respect for the family, Russian traditions and marriage, and a detestation of foreigners; it is hard to tell whether American imperialists, Chechen terrorists, or Estonian ingrates are at the bottom of their list of those who threaten the Russian way of life.

Right now, Nashi is training tens of thousands of young diligents; right now, they are in summer camps where they do mass aerobics, discuss "proper" and "corrupt" politics, and receive the necessary education for the struggles to come. Vast numbers have recently been mobilized to harass the British and Estonian ambassadors in Moscow, following Moscow's disputes with those two countries. According to The Financial Times, Nashi is training 60,000 "leaders" to monitor voting and conduct exit polls in elections this coming December and March. I find this all pretty creepy. So, too, are the reports that Putin has personally complimented the authors of a new manual for high school history teachers that seeks to instill a renewed pride in teenagers of their country's past and encourage national solidarity. As a historian, I always shrink from the idea that education ministries should approve some sort of official view of the national past, although I know that bureaucrats from Japan to France do precisely that, that Beijing's leadership would get highly upset if it learned that schools in China could choose their own textbooks, and that American fundamentalists try to put their own clumsy footprint on what children should actually be exposed to.

But it is one thing for French kids to be told about Joan of Arc's heroism or American kids about Paul Revere's midnight ride; everyone is entitled to a Robin Hood or William Tell or two. It's a bit more disturbing to learn that the new Russian history manual teaches that "entry into the club of democratic nations involves surrendering part of your national sovereignty to the U.S." and other such choice contemporary lessons that suggest to Russian teenagers that they face dark forces abroad. What does this all mean? Should oil prices collapse - should pigs fly - then Putin's efforts at a Russian nationalistic renaissance might also tumble. But there is no doubt about the coherence of this plan to rebuild Russian pride and strength from the top down and the bottom up. Over the longer run, the current street agitation against Britain's ambassador and the tearing down of the Estonian flag by Nashi extremists may be obscure footnotes to history. By contrast, the deliberate campaigns to indoctrinate Russian youth and to rewrite the history of the great though terribly disturbed nation that they are inheriting might be much more significant for the unfolding of our 21st century.

Source: http://www.iht.com/articles/2007/08/.../edkennedy.php

Putin's hold on the Russians

BBC News profiles Vladimir Putin, whose presidency has seen Russia make a bold bid to justify its place among the world's most powerful nations.

His face may not adorn the rouble, but Vladimir Putin's image is very much stamped on 21st-Century Russia and its citizens are only too aware that the money lining their pockets was largely minted under his presidency. After the hungry, often desperate years of the Yeltsin era, it is a prosperity few Russians may stop to question. But his critics believe that it has come at the cost of some post-communist democratic freedoms. Mr Putin rapidly ascended the political ladder in 1999 when Boris Yeltsin first made him prime minister, then acting president in his place. The former Federal Security Service (ex-KGB) director's talents and instincts continue to show through: to his admirers he represents order and stability, to his critics - repression and fear. Yet he strikes a chord with those who remember the chaos of the 1990s, when basic machinery of state such as the welfare system virtually seized up and the security forces looked inept. Investor confidence has climbed back since the nadir of the 1998 rouble devaluation, and economic recovery, buoyed by high prices for oil and gas exports, has helped restore a sense of stability not known since communist times. Political opposition is weak, partly because of a genuine feel-good factor but also because his rule has discouraged democratic debate. In the 2000 election, he took 53% of the vote in the first round and, four years later, was re-elected with a landslide majority of 71%. The 2004 ballot result "reflected [Mr Putin's] consistently high public approval rating", outside (OSCE) observers noted, but also talked of the contest's "dearth of meaningful debate and genuine pluralism".

Black belt

Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin became a KGB spy after graduating from university, and served in East Germany. He enjoys a macho image, helped by election stunts like flying into Chechnya on a fighter jet in 2000, and his possession of a black belt in Judo. He has been described as a workaholic by his wife and mother of his two daughters, Lyudmila. For many Russian liberals, Mr Putin's KGB past is disturbing, with its authoritarian associations. A decade after Boris Yeltsin famously offered Russia's regions "their fill of sovereignty", Mr Putin brought in a system of presidential envoys seen by some as overseers for elected governors. Putin allies control much of the media and his rule has seen creeping controls over foreign-funded non-government organisations, which largely focus on exposing human rights abuses. The man who sent troops back into Chechnya as prime minister in 1999 has kept it under Moscow's control through military force, direct or proxy, and strict non-negotiation with the rebels. The price has been increasingly violent attacks by the separatists, which reached a horrifying level in 2004 with the Beslan school seizure. Mr Putin's patriotic rhetoric and evident nostalgia for the USSR - he once famously called its collapse "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe" of the 20th Century - play well with much of the public. But the flip side may be a disturbing rise in nationalism, taking its most sinister form in hate crimes directed at ethnic minorities such as African foreign students.

Wielding clout

Mr Putin has gradually eased liberals out of government, often replacing them with harder-line allies or neutrals seen as little more than yes-men. Yeltsin-era "oligarchs" like Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky - businessmen who grew rich in the chaos of the first privatisations - have ended up as fugitives living in exile abroad. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once head of oil giant Yukos and Russia's richest man, is now in jail for tax evasion. Mr Putin's Kremlin is accused of abusing its huge energy clout, allegedly punishing fellow ex-Soviet states like Ukraine with price hikes when they lean to the West. Further abroad, Mr Putin allied himself with Washington's "war on terror", comparing Chechen separatists to al-Qaeda, but he also opposed the invasion of Iraq and caused consternation in the US by inviting Hamas to Moscow for talks after their Palestinian election victory. The biggest diplomatic test may still lie ahead, as Iran defies the US with a nuclear programme based largely on Russian technology. Mr Putin is due to leave the Kremlin by 2008 since by law he cannot stand for a third consecutive term. Rather like Boris Yeltsin in 1999, he has no obvious successor but, unlike Russia's first elected president, he has no convincing rival yet. And, following revelations that he is considering a bid for the position of prime minister, it seems Mr Putin may continue to play a central role in Russian politics for years to come.

Source: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/667749.stm

Vladimir Putin rescued Russia from disaster: so let’s just leave him be

Our correspondent defends the Russian President and his legacy

Yet again President Putin’s fingers are being rapped: he has apparently been trying to hang on to power. Russia’s Constitution was written more or less to Western order, back in the days when free markets and democracy were supposed to reign. Models were consulted. The French one has a president with powers such that the prime minister is a glorified office-boy; but, in Russia, as in the American model, presidents are not supposed to run for office more than twice in case it goes to their heads. Vladimir Putin may retire to run Gazprom but instead, quite astutely, he is finding a way to hang on to power. He can put himself forward as deputy for the reigning party, then become prime minister, and push forward, as nominal president, a man in his mid-sixties whom he can control. Such devices are not at all without precedent in Russia. Moving an older or even an aged man, without ambition, into a high office so that he can be controlled from behind has long origins, beyond even communist times. If Vladimir Putin is finding a way to hang on to power, then he is doing so within the tradition. And the very first thing to be said is that he has been a very successful leader of the country.

Not so long ago, Russia was being written off. Wise persons shook their heads. Moscow was like Berlin in the latter days of the Weimar Republic – Cabaret, complete with rampaging inflation, old women selling their husbands’ medals in the underpasses of the ring roads, prostitutes all over the place (every businessman had his story), a collapsing birthrate, gangster-capitalism raking it in and making whoopee in hotels in Monte Carlo. There was even a school of thought to the effect that the whole of Eurasia was turning into a Latin America: a Slavonic culture disintegrating as the overall Spanish culture of Latin America had done, into oil-rich turbulent Venezuelas on the one side, and weird, atmosphere-poor Bolivias on the other, while wars went ahead between assorted Hondurases and Nicaraguas. Under Putin, Russia has not turned into Latin America. Quite the contrary. Reality on the ground in Russia nowadays is different, and this is not just to do with the recent rise in oil prices. If you go to the provincial towns east and south east of Moscow – Vladimir, say, or Saratov – you can see a successful change going ahead, as people set up businesses such as furniture factories to make up for that lack of consumer goods that marked the old Soviet Union. The university in Saratov has state-of-the-art computers; even agriculture is said to be improving.

The horrors of Chechnya are receding into the past and the International Herald Tribune, not a lover of Putin, recently carried an article about the return of order there: the planes fly back and forth and Grozny is being restored after two decades of vicious nonsense including that horrible massacre of schoolchildren three years ago. Of all things, tourism is being encouraged, and the Chechen insurgency seems to be a horror story of the past. There are other encouraging signs. In old Russia, the Tatars were a very important element, not backward Muslims as was sometimes casually supposed: they were good traders, and their habit of sobriety made them stand out. Now, Tatars have been adding their creative element (two instances that will have British resonance: both Nureyev and Barishnikov are Tatar names, Nur from “light” and Barish from “peace”). The Russians are even marketing an aircraft that will challenge Boeing and Airbus. So if Putin thinks that he has done well by his country he is not wrong, and masses of ordinary Russians agree. Now, Russia is recovering, and is back on the world’s stage. Why should a successful president be held back by some constitutional formality?

There is no real reason for constitutions to be set in tablets of stone. Referendums were staged elsewhere in the old Soviet continent for successful and popular presidents to stay in office, and it is maybe a measure of Putin’s lack of self-confidence that he shrinks from that. Does he really have to fear the criticism of Europeans, let alone Americans, who now seem to be settling into their own pattern of dynastic politics? Of course his regime is not pure, in the approved Scandinavian manner. It has had to deal with horrible problems of terrorism, and no government can ever be entirely without sin in conditions of that sort. But Putin has highlighted an aspect of Russia that anyone in London should recognise. Russia, like Britain, is a country with a capacity for tissue regeneration. In the Seventies, you would have written Britain off. And then, lo and behold, in the Eighties she struck back – many, many things wrong, of course, but back just the same. It is an odd fact that English literature translates best into Russian, and vice versa. Two countries on the European edge, with the same diagonal approach, and very interested in each other. We should not be criticising Putin: rather, encouraging him to stage that referendum.

Source: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/com...cle2582598.ece

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