U.S. Secretary of State Condi Rice and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov give a press conference. The Moscow Times is already reporting on the meeting. Reuters reports a testy exchange over Iraq. The G-8 looks like its going to be fun.
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By Sean — 10 years ago
“I’m out of it for a little while and everybody gets delusions of grandeur.” Now I understand how Han Solo felt after being defrosted from carbonite. I go into the basement for two weeks and there are rumors of me being in a post-election hangover, or worse, murdered. Well, I assure you dear readers that I’m alive and well. Los Angeles may be ablaze (again) but I’m safe from the rings of fire, that is until I kick the bucket and meet the dark lord.
For the past few weeks I’ve been devoting my Bolshevik will and strength to finishing a dissertation chapter. “Bolsheviks can storm any fortress” read the Stalinist slogan, and I did. I do have to finish this damn dissertation at some point. And well if I have to pick between you my dear reader and my career, well my petite-bourgeois sensibilities win out every time. Just don’t hate the player, hate the game. So over the next few months expect more periods where I go underground . . .
But the delusions of grandeur aren’t about me and my rumored doom. They have more to do with what’s been going on in Russia over the last few weeks. Well, not in Russia exactly, but more how it’s being interpreted by the gatekeepers of English language reporting. As we know, Obama was elected President of the United States, and Dima Medvedev instead of showing the proper deference to the new Emperor decided to address the Duma where he blamed the US for the global economic crisis (he’s right) and threatened to put missiles in Kaliningrad to match American intentions of putting missiles in Poland. Was this the challenge to Obama’s “lack of experience” that everyone predicted? The New York Times thought so. It called Medvedev’s move “a cold-war-tinged challenge for President-elect Barack Obama.” After all, the Times reasoned, “Russia’s leaders know full well that the American missile defenses pose no real threat to their huge nuclear arsenal. But playing the victim is an easy way to divert attention from Russia’s shrinking democracy, and now from declining oil prices.” A new President but the Times plays the same old record. So much for hope and change. Russia’s just the same old big bully, they say. Sigh.
But digging at the US wasn’t all, or even the real focus of Mr. Medevev’s speech. Sorry to disappoint my fellow Americans, but sometimes you aren’t at the center of everyone’s existence. To quote the NY Times again, “The dark flashbacks didn’t end there.” Surprise! Medvedev isn’t the liberal everyone hoped, prayed, and sacrificed small animals and virgins for. He’s a Putinist of perhaps a lighter shade, but still a Putinist. Dima’s most recent affront to Western democratic sensibilities was his proposal that the Russian presidential term be extended from four to six years. Immediately, pundits cried “authoritarianism” and revived the corpse of Putin’s impending return to Russia’s top job. The logic goes that since Putin didn’t want to risk international condemnation for changing the Constitution when he was President (as if there wasn’t enough condemnation already), he sent is little bear to do the dirty work.
The changes were submitted to the Duma on Friday and they passed without a hitch. No surprises there or in the Guardian‘s Luke Harding usually predictable analysis: The changes entrench “the Kremlin’s grip on power and paving the way for an early comeback by Vladimir Putin.” In fact, rumor has it that Putin will be back as early as 2009! For the life of me, I can’t figure out why this signals Putin’s “early comeback” especially since people like Harding believe that he never went anywhere in the first place. After all, isn’t Putin the de facto President anyway? Is Medvedev Putin’s puppet or not? Make up your damn mind.
In addition to extending the presidential term, Medvedev also proposed extending the terms of Duma reps from four to five years. This will certainly make representatives of United Russia happy. Since the majority of Duma seats are based on lists and not direct candidate elections, this will solidify their place for one more year. Rest easy, comrades. But not too easy . . .
Medvedev also made some other interesting proposals in his speech that went virtually unnoticed in the Western press. One is to change appointments for governors. Instead of being appointed by the Kremlin, candidates for governor would chosen by their parties and be elected by a majority vote in their respective provincial Dumas. Ekspert called this move “the most radical of all presidential initiatives.” If this is implemented, governors would be more accountable to the regions they represent rather than to the Kremlin. True, the Kremlin will certainly have a hand in the process via the back door–United Russia, after all, dominates every regional parliament–but it is a move toward some semblance of political decentralization.
The question, however, is why? Why extend terms of President, Duma reps, and propose altering regional politics? Many have pointed out that it’s all about the boys in the Kremlin tightening their grip. Perhaps, but I have a different take.
Taken together, Medvedev’s proposals are a gift and a check to bureaucratic power. Extending Duma terms gives reps a bit more time to rest on their laurels. Score one for the national political elite. Making governors accountable to locals is feather in the cap of local elites. Score one for them. Extending the presidential terms to six years, however, is a potential check against this transfer of power. The President will be in power longer than any one Duma member and given more time to put pressure on regional governors and their parliaments.
Extending the presidential term also suggests something else. In his speech, Medvedev spoke of “effective government.” In one sense, his proposals are exactly about effective government. They potentially, and I say potentially, increase the President’s effectiveness in influencing governance. But this doesn’t mean that it’s about the Kremlin strengthening itself. Quite the opposite, in my view. Extending the top dog’s term says to me that the center still can’t trust its regions to implement its agenda. Therefore the President needs two more years to ram it down their throats.
Political power in Russia is indeed centralized because the history of regional politics from the Tsars to Putin have been one of autonomy, localization, stonewalling, foot dragging, or worse, exploiting the center’s directives. Russian rulers’ solution has been to centralize its power. But here is where the inner contradiction of centralization rears its ugly head. The center must weaken the periphery to run the country as effective as it can, but in that weakening it makes itself the only real political force of reform, negating the power local need to prosecute the center’s policies. The center is thus weakened by its very effort at becoming more effective. The question then becomes how do you rule effectively and subordinate the machinations of regional boyars without giving them too much power to muck up your agenda? It sounds as if Medvedev, with his proposed changes, is faced with the same conundrum. Whether they will provide some semblance of an answer remains to be seen.
To think people believe that Putin wants this job back?!
By Sean — 11 years ago
A state’s great power status resides in the flow of cheap oil, argues Michael Klare, author of the newly published Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet: The New Geopolitics of Energy. With oil prices hitting another high of $123 this week, and predictions of it hitting $200 over the next two years, the overall impact on American ability to project power, the dollar’s solvency, and its domestic economy may have devastating effects. Another result could be a profound geopolitical shift. In fact we are already seeing it. The rise of India and China, the reemergence of Russia, and a more independent EU are all coming at a time where American power is at best stagnant and at worse shrinking. As Klare notes, “By now, we are transferring such staggering sums yearly to foreign oil producers, who are using it to gobble up valuable American assets, that, whether we know it or not, we have essentially abandoned our claim to superpowerdom.”
Indeed, it is difficult to argue that American global power has increased in the last eight years. So much so, America’s decline has prompted some to reevaluate America’s “victory” in the Cold War. The way things are going the final assessment of the Cold War might not be who won, but who collapsed first.
As great powers fall, new ones arise. There is no doubt that Russia is one beneficiary of exploding oil prices. As its position as a energy exporter (Russia is the second largest oil exporter after Saudi Arabia) grows, its hegemony expands, especially over Europe, resulting in a shift in the balance of power. Klare writes:
As Russia has become an energy-exporting state, it has moved from the list of has-beens to the front rank of major players. When President Bush first occupied the White House, in February 2001, one of his highest priorities was to downgrade U.S. ties with Russia and annul the various arms-control agreements that had been forged between the two countries by his predecessors, agreements that explicitly conferred equal status on the USA and the USSR.
As an indication of how contemptuously the Bush team viewed Russia at that time, Condoleezza Rice, while still an adviser to the Bush presidential campaign, wrote, in the January/February 2000 issue of the influential Foreign Affairs, “U.S. policy… must recognize that American security is threatened less by Russia’s strength than by its weakness and incoherence.” Under such circumstances, she continued, there was no need to preserve obsolete relics of the dual superpower past like the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty; rather, the focus of U.S. efforts should be on preventing the further erosion of Russian nuclear safeguards and the potential escape of nuclear materials.
In line with this outlook, President Bush believed that he could convert an impoverished and compliant Russia into a major source of oil and natural gas for the United States — with American energy companies running the show. This was the evident aim of the U.S.-Russian “energy dialogue” announced by Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin in May 2002. But if Bush thought Russia was prepared to turn into a northern version of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, or Venezuela prior to the arrival of Hugo Chávez, he was to be sorely disappointed. Putin never permitted American firms to acquire substantial energy assets in Russia. Instead, he presided over a major recentralization of state control when it came to the country’s most valuable oil and gas reserves, putting most of them in the hands of Gazprom, the state-controlled natural gas behemoth.
Once in control of these assets, moreover, Putin has used his renascent energy power to exert influence over states that were once part of the former Soviet Union, as well as those in Western Europe that rely on Russian oil and gas for a substantial share of their energy needs. In the most extreme case, Moscow turned off the flow of natural gas to Ukraine on January 1, 2006, in the midst of an especially cold winter, in what was said to be a dispute over pricing but was widely viewed as punishment for Ukraine’s political drift westwards. (The gas was turned back on four days later when Ukraine agreed to pay a higher price and offered other concessions.) Gazprom has threatened similar action in disputes with Armenia, Belarus, and Georgia — in each case forcing those former Soviet SSRs to back down.
When it comes to the U.S.-Russian relationship, just how much the balance of power has shifted was evident at the NATO summit at Bucharest in early April. There, President Bush asked that Georgia and Ukraine both be approved for eventual membership in the alliance, only to find top U.S. allies (and Russian energy users) France and Germany blocking the measure out of concern for straining ties with Russia. “It was a remarkable rejection of American policy in an alliance normally dominated by Washington,” Steven Erlanger and Steven Lee Myers of the New York Times reported, “and it sent a confusing signal to Russia, one that some countries considered close to appeasement of Moscow.”
For Russian officials, however, the restoration of their country’s great power status is not the product of deceit or bullying, but a natural consequence of being the world’s leading energy provider. No one is more aware of this than Dmitri Medvedev, the former Chairman of Gazprom and new Russian president. “The attitude toward Russia in the world is different now,” he declared on December 11, 2007. “We are not being lectured like schoolchildren; we are respected and we are deferred to. Russia has reclaimed its proper place in the world community. Russia has become a different country, stronger and more prosperous.”
The same, of course, can be said about the United States — in reverse. As a result of our addiction to increasingly costly imported oil, we have become a different country, weaker and less prosperous. Whether we know it or not, the energy Berlin Wall has already fallen and the United States is an ex-superpower-in-the-making.
By Sean — 11 years ago
Russia and the world were stunned by the assassination of Vladimir Putin as he walked out of a midnight mass at the Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow on January 7, 2008.” This line is not out of Brad Thor’s spy thriller State of the Union or Robert Ludlum’s historical dystopia The Tristan Betrayal. This fanciful scenario can be found in the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ new report “Alternative Futures for Russia to 2017.” More specifically, “A Shot in the Dark … and True Dictatorship,” the second of three “alternative scenarios” Kremlinologist Andrew Kuchins, formerly of the Carnegie Endowment, predicts for Russia over the next decade, a report which caused a minor shitstorm in Russia last week.
Predicting Russia, however, is more than just an academic venture. It is a genre in and of itself. A sort of “social science fiction” where the Socratic Method is employed to weave fanciful and farcical tales about the Great Bear. And like any literary genre it posits a narrative filled with heroes and villains, climax, and foreshadowed resolutions. All that is historically contingent is flattened. All that is seemingly unexpected is, by the plot’s end, all too expected.