Tag: Putin (page 1 of 2)

If You Post It, They Will Come

I know most of you are busy watching the all-too-real reality horror show of the 45th administration, but there has been some interesting news coming  out of Russia (sorry, no meteorites or Putin’s nipples). On Sunday, somehow almost 90  thousand people went out on the streets in 87 cities all over Russia to protest against corruption. The unsanctioned demonstrations were met with brutal police crackdown with around 1000 protesters arrested in Moscow alone. To make matters worse, none of the TV channels reported the disturbances (apart from Russia Today, to be fair). Channel One spent about an hour on “news of the week”, castigating Ukraine, ISIS, discussing the London terrorist attack, Alaska sale to America and Rockefeller’s life among other things. Nothing to see here, move on.

What happened?

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#RussiansDidit

Putin’s annual press conference is a chance for regular citizens to spend 3 hours in a great and rich Russia, where everything is in order and Putin is capable of installing presidents in foreign countries (according to one journalist). In general, the press conference strived to paint a picture of a great power facing some economic problems and who is constantly challenged by other countries (they are probably jealous and/or Russophobic). For me it was also a chance to wonder at Putin’s stamina. He might not be Superman, as one of the posters brought by the journalists stipulated, but his bladder is definitely made of steel.

As always, Putin demonstrated his ability to juggle all kinds of statistics in response to questions about economics, including Russia’s successful export of IT. One may wonder if he included hacking, because that was definitely a very successful export. As a female journalist called for abolishing juvenile justice in Russia, because ‘slapping children is a traditional Russian [sic] pedagogical method’, Putin emphasized that there was a slim line between slapping and beating up, but still warned against interfering into family matters. In comparison to the rhetoric of some of the questions, Putin did make an impression of a more liberal and reasonable politician, very much fitting into the narrative of ‘without Putin it could be much worse’ .

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WPTPN: Will Populist Nationalism Lead to Great-Power War?

This World Politics in a Time of Populist Nationalism (WPTPN) guest post is written by Louis F. Cooper. His online writing includes “Reflections on U.S. Foreign Policy” at the U.S. Intellectual History Blog (July 16, 2014). His Ph.D. is from the School of International Service, American University.

The French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars of 1792-1815, which one historian has labeled “the first total war,” engulfed basically the whole of Europe. A century later, a war broke out in Europe that extended beyond the continent to become global in scope. One can think of the two enormously destructive world wars of the twentieth century as a “thirty years war” (1914-1945), interrupted by what can be viewed in retrospect as an uneasy lull marked by the Depression and the rise of fascism.

Those who see history as essentially cyclical might have expected another global war to occur in or around 2014. The idea of ‘long cycles’ of war and peace, explored by several scholars, could have suggested this. And if one believes, as Robert Gilpin wrote some years ago, that “even though some states occasionally come to appreciate the mutual benefits of international cooperation, unfortunately all states have yet to learn the lesson simultaneously,”[i] then the occurrence of another world war would not have been out of the question. Obviously, however, it didn’t happen on the centenary of World War I. Why not?

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The Duck Civil War over Russia…

…has escalated. First, Jeff took his argument to Foreign Affairs.  Now I’ve retaliated—and brought in Alex Cooley in an attempt at establishing escalation dominance.

These interpretations dangerously misread contemporary geopolitics, however. Putin’s appearance of strength is, in reality, a function of Russia’s relatively weak international position. Russia lacks a global network of allies and partners and denounces the United States’ leadership. But Moscow cannot decisively influence the rules, institutions, and norms of the international order. By contrast, what many diagnose as U.S. weakness is a symptom of its exorbitant geostrategic privilege. Prudent foreign policy requires Washington to manage its extensive and heterogeneous security commitments and global relationships carefully. This makes Putin’s style of boldness not only less difficult to pursue but also often reckless—sacrificing longer-term position for short-term gain.

Go check it out (paywalled).

The Costs of Irredentism

In For Kin or Country, the basic idea is to explain a set of policies that is always expensive.  When one tries to take the territory of another country, there tends to be a response.  While folks dismissed Obama’s line about Putin’s moves having a cost, it turns out that he was right.

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Doing the Stability-Instability Dance

The stability-instability paradox is a concept from nuclear deterrence land: that if two sides both have nuclear weapons that can survive a first strike, it might just create deterrence at the strategic level AND free up both sides to engage in violence at lower levels.  Sounds just like an air-headed theory that would never happen in reality because, you know, NUKES!*

* To be clear, I have not studied deterrence theory closely since grad school, so I may not have this entirely right, but I am pretty sure I have the basics.

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Russia’s Dubious Place in the BRICS: A Response to My Critics

putin crossbow

My original post suggesting that Putin’s bogus reelection might be cause to eject Russia from the BRICS got a lot of traffic and comment (both here and on my own site). It’s gotten to the point where it’s just easier to summarize my responses to a general set of critiques. It seems there are three main criticisms: 1. I exaggerated; Russia is still a great power. 2. I didn’t provide enough data and links. 3. I don’t really ‘get’ Russia, or I’m just recycling western propaganda.

(In passing, I find it curious/frustrating as an author that what I think is my more creative and fresh work in the last few months [this or this series] didn’t get nearly so much attention, whereas lamenting Russia’s postimperial decline, which so many have done before me [see all the links below], got an explosion of interest. Not quite sure what to make out of that…)

1. I overshot in saying Russia isn’t a great power anymore.

Ok, but not by much. I’ll agree that it was probably gratuitous to call Russia a ‘joke’ as a great power. But then again, be honest with yourself and tell me you didn’t laugh: when Putin rode around shirtless on horseback, when Putin stage-managed a discovery of ‘antiquities’ while scuba diving, when Putin claimed the State Department and Secretary Clinton were fomenting the Moscow protests, when Zhirinovsky “backed free vodka and the reconquest of Alaska,” when the president fired a minister on live TV (!), the minister refused (!!), and Medvedev responded with farcical lecture on Russia’s globally-regarded ‘constitionalism’ (!!!). Or just read this from Gawker on Putin the crossbow-toting whaler (pic above) and tell me you don’t burst out laughing – over a head of state with superpower pretensions?
 
These are the sorts of howlers and hijinks we expect from leaders like Qaddafi, with his retinue of female ‘bodyguards,’ or Idi Amin, with so many gold medals on his uniform you could store it in a bank vault. But modern states, desirous of global prestige, seeking to be taken seriously at the highest levels of the game, just don’t do this stuff. Could you imagine Wen Jiabao doing he-man photo-ops? You’d laugh, right? Well… Putin’s become a punchline, regardless of Russia’s other strengths, which is ultimately what motivated the original post.

Here’s Niall Ferguson last December, “Russia—who cares? With its rampant voter fraud and declining population, the country is careening toward irrelevance. …Russia isn’t quite “Upper Volta with missiles”—West German chancellor Helmut Schmidt’s immortal phrase. But it’s certainly a shadow of its former Cold War self. The U.S. economy is 10 times larger than Russia’s. Per capita gross domestic product is not much higher than in Turkey. Male life expectancy is significantly lower: 63, compared with 71 on the other side of the Black Sea. And the population is shrinking. There are nearly 7 million fewer Russians today than there were in 1992. By 2055, the United Nations estimates that the population of Egypt will be larger. Remind me: why did Goldman Sachs group Russia with Brazil, India, and China as the “BRICs,” supposedly the four key economies of the 21st century? Give me Turkey or Indonesia any day.” That’s exactly right (I know people think Ferguson is a neo-victorian apologist for empire, but hold that thought), and it should deeply worry and embarrass Russians that the rest of the planet thinks this way about one of the world’s great cultures. I wrote something similar last fall when Putin announced his re-taking of the presidency, and the whole world shrugged.

Here is more from the Duck of Minerva comment section on the original post:

“My interest was more developmental than realist-theoretical. On re-reading the post, it was a bridge to far to say that Russia isn’t a great power anymore. It still is, by the skin of its teeth. Nukes compensate for other areas of decline, I suppose, as you are suggesting. De Gaulle saw this, as did N Korea.

My real goal was to developmentally differentiate between Russia and the other BRICS. That BRICS moniker is to imply some level of cosmopolitan comfort with the modern world economy and rapid growth to greater weight within that economy (hence my reference to Parag Khanna). The other 4 BRICS capture that upward trend – as do other economies like Turkey, S Korea, Mexico, or Indonesia (hence my preference for Khanna’s term ‘second world’). But Russia really doesn’t. Russia is slipping, not rising and has been, more or less, since the late 1970s. That’s quite a hegemonic decline. Its internal rot is pretty severe now. Its Transparency International score in 2011 is a staggering 143 out of 182, putting it in the company of Nigeria, Belarus, and Togo, and obviously calling into question not just its BRIC credentials, but its great power ones too. And the shirtless one’s return puts off a turn-around for another six to twelve years. Given that China rose to the ‘G-2’ in just 30 years, 20+ long years of Putinism (after 10 years of Yeltsin chaos plus late Soviet stagnation) portends a disaster for Russia. This is the real reason for the Moscow protests. They see this now.

Rotation at the top is just one marker for BRIC normalization, but other obvious red flags include the relentless xenophobia of the Putin regime, the alienation from the WTO, the huge missed opportunities of globalization, the blow-out levels corruption and state capriciousness including the murder of journalists, the third worldish reliance on carbon and weapons exports, the 19th century ‘spheres of influence’ obsession with countering the West in Eurasia, the confiscatory attitude toward private wealth most obvious displayed in the Khodorkovsky case, or Putin’s laughably ridiculous throwback-to-Kaiser-Wilhelm bravado of hunting on TV with a crossbow or fighting stage-managed martial arts contests. Does that sound like a BRIC or Khanna’s ‘second world’? Not really. It sounds like Venezuela or Iran. It sounds like an angry, Weimar-style pseudo-democracy high on petro-dollars with a ‘postimperial hangover,’ as Vice-President Biden once put it. Hence the argument that BRIC/second world is the wrong developmental category for Russia. For more of this, ‘should the R be taken out of the BRICS’ debate, try here and here. For a similar write-up on how Putin’s return will critically aggravate so many of Russia’s outstanding problems, try here.

2. I didn’t provide enough data.

Ok, so here you go. It’s pretty easy to find. Please read the links above and these below. From the earlier commenting:

Actually there’s lots of data on this that’s pretty easy to find with Google. I suppose I should have included more links originally, but I thought a lot of this was common knowledge at this point. Anyway, here you go; all the following links come from the last few years:

a. On demography, I was thinking of Nicolas Eberstadt’s work. He’s been writing on this for a long time now, most recently November 2011 in Foreign Affairs. His title, ‘The Dying Bear,’ is pretty blunt about the population contraction. For more, try this.

b. On corruption so high, it’s probably incommensurate with being a great power, here’s that Transparency International score again.

c. It is downright heroic, if not irresponsible, to suggest that alcoholism is not a huge problem in modern Russia and severely impacting men’s health and mortality: here or here. Just look at those estimates of average male lifespan – around 60! Gorbachev even thought alcoholism imperiled the very existence of the USSR and launched a major government campaign against it.

d. On the brain drain, try here. Note the big listed reason – problems with the Putinist regime – and their profile: “vast majority of those who admitted wanting to leave were under 35 years old, lived in a major city, and spoke a foreign language.”

e. On the economic overreliance on carbon and how weak the economy really is under the hood, try this from the Financial Times just this week. More generally try this and this from the Economist how post-‘reelection’ dysfunctional.

For what it’s worth, this wasn’t intended to be ‘anti-russian gloom and doom.’ I studied in Russia for a bit and spoke it reasonably well once; I’d like to think I am sympathetic. But simply denying Russia’s internal decay is not really a response – as the Moscow protestors themselves understand.”

3. I am not sympathetic enough to Russia’s unique condition/I’m just spinning western propaganda.

Maybe, but I did study there for a bit, and I could speak the language pretty well once. Anyway, none of that really changes how Putin is dragging Russia down.

“On my ‘lack of empathy,’ try this, which I wrote in 2009, long before this flap. I noted how Americans vastly underestimate how much Russia did to win the Second World War and that our Spielbergian self-congratulation leads us to overlook the huge suffering of Russians at the hands of the SS: “I didn’t really realize this much until I went to Russia to learn the language and travelled around. The legacy of the ‘Great Patriotic War’ is everywhere. Everyone lost someone, and frequently in brutal circumstances Americans can’t imagine. Every Russian guide you get will tell you how Americans don’t know much about war, because we were never invaded, occupied, and exterminated. The first time I heard that, I just didn’t know what to say. You can only listen in silent horror as the guides tell you about how the SS massacred everyone with more than a grammar school degree in some village you never heard of before, or how tens of thousands of those Kiev PoWs starved or froze to death because the Wehrmacht was unprepared for such numbers and the Nazi leadership just didn’t care.” Please note that a Russian even graciously commented there about how rare it is for Americans so say stuff like that. I did study in Russia; I did have friends there; I do have some language and culture skills. So I’d like to think of myself as a sympathetic critic. My real concern is that Putin’s awful misgovernment of Russia is pushing it towards irrelevance, per Ferguson above, and as I think the protestors intuit. Putin has become a global laughingstock, and he’s pulling Russia down with it.

I don’t disagree that Russians have deep social energies that we miss by focusing on Putin and the Kremlin, but one could say that about almost any country. Most peoples like to think of themselves as proud, energetic, innovative, unique, etc. Americans love to call themselves exceptional, and Koreans regularly tell me how the ‘miracle on the Han’ proves how Korea is the most awesome, cohesive, energetic, team-work society in the world that can overcome anything. Ironically, the most consequential grassroots/civil society movement in Russia is the anti-Putin protests, which fits my argument.

Finally, you raise an interesting question about whether all the issues I discuss combine into real momentum for decline. I wonder how that could not be the case, unless the leadership changes. Russia’s traditionally been a top-down place. It’s hard to see turn-around coming from below. (Again, this is why the protests are so important; they’re trying to change that.) Russia’s been slipping for three decades now. I agree it hasn’t fallen off a cliff, like, say, the end of the Ming dynasty or something, but a generation’s worth of negative trends is slowly chewing away at Russian power. I have stepped back from the original statement that Russia is not a great power; that was overreach. But the margins are narrowing.”

Friday Putin fix

In case you haven’t seen it yet….

Why the Kremlin worries (but not too much…yet)

The BBC:

Thousands of people have held rallies across Russia protesting against what they describe as the government’s mismanagement of the economy.

The biggest demonstration took place in the eastern city of Vladivostok, where protesters demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

In the capital Moscow, police arrested a number of people at an unauthorised gathering by a radical party.

Meanwhile, government supporters also held their rallies across the country.

Protests on such a large scale were unthinkable just a few months ago as the economy boomed with record high oil prices and as the Kremlin tightened its grip over almost all aspects of society, the BBC’s Richard Galpin in Moscow says.

But now with the economy in deep trouble, there is real fear amongst ordinary people about what the future will hold, he says.

He adds that unemployment is rising rapidly, as are the prices of basic food and utilities.

I cannot emphasize enough how much of the Kremlin’s legitimacy rests–either directly or indirectly–on good economic performance.

There’s a lot more to write about recent developments involving the Russians. I hope to get around to it soon.

The Russia-Ukraine Gas Row

I haven’t found a great many voices claiming that the Russia-Ukraine gas dispute is some sort of Russian power play. Which is a good thing, because, as a friend recently explained to me, it isn’t. While some of its dynamics are fairly complicated, there’s also a very simple process at work here.

Gazprom is badly over-leveraged from its many acquisitions–some driven by its apparent goal of becoming a Russian zaibatsu.

Gazprom itself is mired in debt, and was recently included on a list of companies eligible for a government bailout. Its shares, which once valued the company at over $300 billion, making it the world’s third largest, have fallen 76% since the financial crisis hit in September.

Gazprom’s wholesale contracts put it in an even worse spot, as Steve LeVine explains:

Regarding the latter, Gazprom’s troubles go far. It doesn’t produce much of the gas it ships to Europe, but markets gas it buys mostly from the Central Asian state of Turkmenistan. In order to obtain long-term rights to that gas, and not have it siphoned off by a covetous West, Gazprom has agreed to pay the Turkmen about $340 per 1,000 cubic meters.

Given market prices, that means that Gazprom might be forced to sell to Europe this year at a loss, unless it unilaterally cuts the price it pays to the Turkmen, who in that case could respond by withholding supplies.

“Gazprom is in a tough spot,” says Kenneth Medlock, a natural gas expert at Rice University’s James A Baker Institute for Public Policy, who helped me with the calculations for this article. If Gazprom loses the Turkmen supplies, Medlock said, “they are going to have trouble meeting their contractual commitments” to Europe.

So it isn’t surprising that Gazprom very much wants to collect what it says are back payments owed by its Ukrainian client, or that we’re seeing a revival of the perennial dispute over how much Ukraine pays for natural gas.

To complicate matters, Ukraine’s gas company, Naftogaz Ukrainy, claims it paid RosUkEnergo, itself half-owned by Gazprom, and that whether Gazprom gets paid is RosUkEnergo’s problem. This kind of stuff is, I imagine, part of why Jerome of The Oil Drum characterizes the dispute as mainly about the distribution of loot among oligarchs.

Gazprom, moreover, seems to be using the quarrel as an excuse to scapegoat Ukraine for its possible implosion. Rumor has it, in fact, that the Kremlin is already funneling money into Gazprom to keep it afloat.

In other words, best to see what’s going on not as a sign of Russian muscle, but of Russian weakness.

The bigger question, frankly, is how serious Russia’s rentier-state blues will be, and what this will mean for Putin’s regime.

Breaking news from Russia – updated

Do I write of Russian reaction to the US decision to cancel a proposed US-Russian civilian nuclear cooperation. No, I bring to your attention an important story in the Moscow Times:

Putin Sexy but not the Most Sexy

Be sure to check out the Putin cheesecake photo.

And note the mention of Putin’s brave rescue of a television camera crew from a Tiger. British carping aside, it probably did happen. As a friend points out, if the whole thing had been staged, we would expect there to be video of the actual event.

The US to the left, China to the right….

Russia encircled by enemies plotting against it?

CNN’s summary of its interview with Putin, passed along without comment:

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has accused the United States of orchestrating the conflict in Georgia to benefit one of its presidential election candidates.

In an exclusive interview with CNN’s Matthew Chance in the Black Sea city of Sochi Thursday, Putin said the U.S. had encouraged Georgia to attack the autonomous region of South Ossetia.

Putin told CNN his defense officials had told him it was done to benefit a presidential candidate — Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama are competing to succeed George W. Bush — although he presented no evidence to back it up.

“U.S. citizens were indeed in the area in conflict,” Putin said. “They were acting in implementing those orders doing as they were ordered, and the only one who can give such orders is their leader.”

Medvedev, meanwhile, thanks the SCO for its support. But Kommersant’s analysis is less charitable:

The RF President Dmitry Medvedev has expressed gratitude to his colleagues in Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) for understanding and objective evaluation of peacekeeping efforts of Russia. Medvedev made the respective statement during the SCO summit in Dushanbe.

The common standing of SCO nations, Medvedev said, is a strong signal to those attempting to justify Georgia’s aggression against South Ossetia.

Meanwhile, the experts didn’t miss that the response of the SCO nations to Russia was too cautious all understanding notwithstanding. Except Russia, none of them confronted the West and recognized independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Nowadays, the standing of China appears the most advantageous. In the new political environment, that state will endeavor to strengthen in Central Asia, aggressively promoting projects in ex-republics of the Soviet Union.

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.

Elections, Democracy, and USFP

Last week there were two major elections, in Venezuela and Russia, and looking back on them together offers a moment to discuss democracy and US foreign policy of democracy promotion.

This allows us to ask the question—are Russia and Venezuela really democracies? The US has been highly critical of Hugo Chavez and his political revolution in Venezuela, and somewhat less critical of Vladimir Putin and his power grab in Russia. Both purport to be democracies, but the US is challenging that assertion in each case. The elections mark a chance to interrogate our notions about the definition and status of democracy.

In some respects, the mere having of elections might be sufficient to label them democracies. One thing that I’ve noticed of late is the tendency to dumb-down democracy to the mere holding of elections. If you are elected, then you are the legitimate leader, and therefore anything you do is legitimate. As an illustration, recall the declaration of emergency rule in Pakistan. It was roundly condemned in the US, but differently by various people. I had my class do a short discourse analysis assignment on this, and one thing that came up was the difference in how the democrats vs. Bush called for a return to the status-quo ante. Bush simply said: take off the uniform and be elected as a civilian president. Others, however, called for the restoration of the constitution, the restoration of the Supreme Court, and the freeing of jailed opposition leaders. Bush did not. Likewise, think back a few years to Iraq, the purple finger day as they voted in the present government. Iraq had an election and that secured US victory. They voted for a government, and that was all that mattered. Bush, and thus the US, seems to be saying that so long as you are elected, you are a legitimate democratic leader.

This inclination by the Bush Administration has emerged in domestic politics as well, as Bush says don’t question my methods on anti-terrorism, torture, or domestic spying. Don’t oppose my appointments or my war. I won the election, I get to do what I want, end of story. This assertion of executive power has been a stated agenda of VP Cheney, and has served to annoy many a member of Congress.

What is lost in all this is the more nuanced, complex, and messy definition of democracy that includes representative government, rule of law, separation of powers, individual rights, and fairness and equality of all before the law. Bush certainly doesn’t talk about any of this in Iraq. We talk about security, violence, and the elected government. Not discussed is the status of the rule of Iraqi law or the development of national political institutions. These elements are important constitutive elements of a functioning democracy. Democracy is not just about how one attains power (election) but also how one exercises power (laws, institutions) and the limits of that power (laws, rights, checks and balances). Most importantly, democracy locates the source of power within the people, not the leader, allowing the people to transfer power to an opposition without compromising the integrity of the state.

It seems that we’re learning that Chavez’s Venezuela some important parts of this—much more so than Putin’s Russia. Both Chavez and Putin had turned the respective elections into mechanisms that would allow them to hold onto power longer then they are currently allowed under the present rules. Chavez offering constitutional amendments that would permit him an additional term, Putin offering his name at the head of his party’s list such that he might become prime minister after his presidential term is through.

One of the most important moments in a democracy is allowing power to flow back and forth between opposing factions vying for power. It is why George Washington is deservedly an American hero and icon—he set the tone of voluntary giving up the office to a successor, of peacefully passing power from one leader to the next. With his acceptance of the legitimacy of the No vote on the current round of constitutional ‘reforms,’ Chavez has allowed the opposition to win. That’s a positive signal. Putin, on the other hand, bullied and harassed opposition parties he was already poised to trounce.

The real question about the status of democracy in both countries can only be answered at the end of each presidential term. Does each man give up power and pass it on to a successor? Can you really see Chavez handing over power to an opposing government after losing an election. Putin? As much as many didn’t like it (and I’d imagine he really didn’t like it), Clinton gave power to Bush, just as Bush will give power to Clinton or Obama or whoever wins the upcoming US presidential election. Genuine democracies recognize the value of the system and the rights of others to play fairly within the system.

The great failing of the US which occupies so much of the discussion here and elsewhere on this front, is to extol so much of the virtues of democracy, like Bush’s second inaugural, and then abandon those principles in the face of immediate gain or need.

But, I think its valid to ask, so what? Is the US the only country, is Bush the only leader, who offers platitudes of freedom and democracy and then turns on those statements the next day? Why do people get more upset when the US fails to live up to its words than any other country in the world?

I think there are 2 reasons for this.

The first is US Hegemony. The US is not like other nations, its the one that set up this system where Democracy is the preferred system of government, and only the can really change it. The US, as an agent of a liberal hegemony, has made it so that all major international institutions, forums and agendas advance the banner of democracy. Consequently, the US version and views and statements of democracy matter more than others.

The second is disappointment. Despite the fact that so many people don’t like the US (check any global opinion survey) many still want to move here or send their kids to school here. Why? Because, I think, people know that many Americans are largely good folks, and that in daily life, these principles of democracy are better expressed here, by the average American, on a routine basis than just about anywhere in the world. Despite all the structural impediments to advancement often discussed, it is still possible for anyone here to succeed in a way that simply isn’t possible nearly anywhere else in the world. I think people are more disappointed in US failures to live up to those foreign policy platitudes because they know we can, and sometimes do, when others just cannot. Its not all idle talk from the US, and hence the disappointment and betrayal when it can’t live up to the standards it sets for itself and others.

In other words, lots of nations are hypocritical in foreign policy statements, but few to the degree that Americans are. The US always criticizes in the name of such democratic ideals, the US calls for action in the name of such ideals, and much more so than other states who are much more comfortable talking about interests instead of ideals. So, the US talks an idealistic game, but then shirks away in the face of criticism that it violates its own ideals by alliances with Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the like.

Or, perhaps there’s a third reason—people really do believe in these American principles of democracy and are deeply pained and hurt to see them thrown under the bus in the name of interest and stability. It certainly could lead if we, as a nation, truly believe those principles, or if those who do are simply fools and patsies for taking them seriously. Indeed, if more Americans were genuinely troubled by compromises in our democracy principles, perhaps the US wouldn’t violate them so much.*

Which brings us back to Chavez and Putin. In both cases, the US will criticize the general direction of the government of each country—probably more heavily Venezuela than Russia. And yet, Chavez, for all the criticism by Bush, is probably the more democratic of the two (or three, if you want to toss in Pakistan—really, more than a lot of US allies) while Putin is the more authoritarian, and taking his country down a more authoritarian path. But, really, what can the US do to Russia? What can the US do in Pakistan? Iraq? Iran?

Democracy is more than just holding elections. Its messy, its hard, and it takes a while to figure out and put into practice. In that time, polities can and do develop the institutions, structures, and processes that make a genuine democracy feel democratic, even in non-election years. Its not something that one can adequately judge moment to moment, it requires a close look nuance and the chain of unfolding events. Perhaps its time to put some of that nuance back into US foreign policy.

*significant debt owed to anonymous friend for inspiring this discussion

Guardian: poll fraud underway in Russia

Maia blogged on the curious situation in Russia. Despite Putin’s and United Russia’s overwhelming popularity, the government seems intent on ensuring an even more crushing victory for the party. Now Luke Harding and Tom Parfitt of The Guardian report on major “fraud, intimidation, and bribery” in the run up to the election.

They also offer some possible answers as to why the Russian government seems intent on manipulating an election that United Russia should be assured of winning.

1. Putin’s popularity may be smoke and mirrors:

The president’s personal popularity remains high. But support for United Russia is less solid. Independent experts say the party’s true ratings are around 35% – well below the 55% figure suggested by state-controlled opinion polls.

In a leak to Russian media this week, one senior election official said that regional governors had been told to deliver at least 65% of the vote for Putin’s party, an “unrealistically high” total that could be achieved only through electoral fraud and by compelling people to vote.

“The elections are going to be falsified,” said Mikhail Delyagin, an economist and the director of Moscow’s Institute on Globalisation Problems. “The elections that took place in the Soviet Union were less falsified than this one.”

Of course, even if Putin “true approval” is at 35%, the opposition is so disorganized that, even without suppression and manipulation, they could hardly be expected to mount much of a challenge to United Russia. Thus:

2. The writers endorse the theory that the government wants to ratchet up the numbers to justify establishing Putin as leader-for-life:

Analysts say the pressure is designed to ensure a resounding win for the United Russia party and for Putin, who heads its party list. The victory would give him a public mandate to maintain ultimate power in the country as “National Leader” despite being unable to stand for a third term as president in March. […]

The Kremlin has cast Sunday’s State Duma vote as a referendum on Putin. Although Putin is obliged to step down as president next May, a landslide victory may be used to legitimise his return to power, possibly as early as the summer. […]

Putin’s decision to associate himself with United Russia’s election campaign – and to stand as a candidate at the top of the party’s federal list – has contributed to the scale of the fraud, analysts said.

“The scale of pressure is due to nervousness within the Kremlin administration since it announced that this is no longer a parliamentary election but a referendum on Putin,” Fyodor Lukyanov, editor-in-chief of the journal Russia in Global Affairs, said. Lukyanov said he believed the amount of fraud on polling day would be small. “This is normal in contemporary advanced authoritarian systems. They are smart enough to organise the vote in quite a proper and correct way,” he said.

This last point is analytically interesting. Political analysts have paid increasing attention to so-called “electoral authoritarianism” over the years. And there’s good reason to believe that the Russian Government, like many quasi-democratic regimes, has been adapting to the recent failures of similar regimes.

In other words, making things difficult for poll workers, and harassing the opposition, represents a perfectly rational strategy for avoiding any risk of what’s been going on around Russia’s periphery in countries like Ukraine and Georgia.

Mark Beissinger, by the way, has a great article (behind pay wall) on this in Perspectives on Politics: “Structure and Example in Modular Political Phenomena: The Diffusion of Bulldozer/Rose/Orange/Tulip Revolutions.”

Now, the Russian Federation is, by my estimate, at zero danger of falling prey to a “colored revolution” in the immediate future. But why take any chances, particularly if the regime aims to produce such an overwhelming mandate that it can “democratically” justify alterations in its de jure or de facto constitutional structure?

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.

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.

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