Sometimes, a tree is not just a tree.
In the Moldovan capital of Chisinau, the pro-Russia communist President Vladimir Voronin (shown at left with Russian President Vladimir Putin) removed a Christmas tree put up by pro-Europe Mayor Dorin Chirtoaca, an advocate for strong ties with neighbor and new EU member Romania. Voronin said the tree should not be displayed until after the New Year, the traditional time for Russian Orthodox. But Chirtoaca fought to display the tree at a traditionally European time.
In a victory for the pro-European mayor, a Christmas tree now stands in Chisinau, about 300 meters from government buildings. But it raises the larger question encountered by members of the Commonwealth of Independent States during this holiday season: Are they to be Russian and abandon the freedoms of the EU, or tilt toward Europe and risk falling victim to the wrath of Putin?
Autocrats rejoice! The nasty spat between Russia and Belarus—so disheartening to those longing for a Soviet revival—has been patched up. Belarus gets cheap gas, and Russia gets support against American missile defense. (Still, revanchists didn't get everything they wanted: there had been speculation that Putin would announce a Russia-Belarus "union state", with Putin as its president.)
On Monday, the U.S.-EU-Russia "troika" is expected to report to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon that they have failed to negotiate a settlement on the status of the (for now) Serbian province of Kosovo. With negotiations having officially failed, Kosovo's ethnic Albanian leaders plan to declare independence within the next several weeks. Much has been made of a senior Serbian official's intimations that Serbia was considering going to war to keep Kosovo, but with 16,450 NATO troops active in the region, this seems unlikely. Indeed, the Serbian president ruled out the possibility of bloodshed today.
But as former FP managing editor Richard Holbrooke has pointed out, Serbia's nationalist Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica is unlikely to let Kosovo go without a fight, due to its cultural and historical significance and the presence of a large Serbian minority in the territory. (Kosovo tensions are also making the handover of Serbian war criminals increasingly unlikely.) The possibility that Serbia will institute a trade embargo against Kosovo or cut off its electricity have been discussed. The conflict will almost certainly drag on for months, if not years.
How the situation plays out — and how the troika respond to it — will be monitored closely by breakaway regions from Kurdistan to Basque Country, who hope that if the West recognizes Kosovo, it will provide a precedent for their own independence struggles. Watching with particular interest are those involved in the "frozen conflicts" of the post-Soviet region. Vladimir Putin has mused mischievously, "If people believe that Kosovo can be granted full independence, why then should we deny it to Abkhazia and South Ossetia?" Both are breakaway regions of Georgia supported by Russia. South Ossetian and Abkhazian leaders have already signaled their intention to use the "Kosovo precedent," and senior Georgian officials have voiced fears about "the misuse of Kosovo." The breakaway regions of Transnistria and Nagorno-Karabakh are eying developments in Kosovo as well.
Given Russia's support for these independence movements, why is Putin so hostile to the idea of an independent Kosovo? A domino effect of states in the region declaring independence would likely inflame tensions in Russia's own dormant territorial conflicts in the North Caucasus. Perversely, the possible consequences of Kosovo may have finally provided Russia and Georgia with a geopolitical issue they can agree on. Some analysts have suggested that the best outcome for Russia might actually be a long-frozen conflict in Serbia that would stymie further NATO expansion into the Balkans.
All of this suggests that, in the coming month, a fairly huge can of worms is about to be opened over a very tiny territory. This is one to watch closely.
Authorities in Chechnya—which until recently was in a state of armed rebellion against Russian occupation—is reporting a voter turnout of 99.5 percent(!) in Sunday's Russian parliamentary elections. A full 99.36 percent of the vote went to Vladimir Putin's United Russia party.
Chechnya wasn't alone. The rest of the Caucasian republics also reporting turnouts in the 90s. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov attributed the ludicrous turnout to "the great respect of the people for President Putin" and to the region's "special traditions" of political participation that "we have to respect." Local human rights activists weren't so sure, as the Moscow Times reported:
Oleg Orlov, head of the Memorial human rights organization, who was in Chechnya and Ingushetia for a week through Friday, said the turnout results were credible. But he argued that the reasons were rooted more in unfairness than tradition. [...]
Orlov said doctors, teachers and other state-paid workers had faced pressure to vote. Also, he said, there was fierce competition among rural communities. "No village can afford to trail in the statistics," he said.
An Ingushetian election official dismissed reports of pressure to vote, saying, "We mountaineers retain our free will."
One free-willed mountaineer, Farid Babayev, leader of the liberal Yabloko party in the Caucasian republic of Dagestan, was murdered in front of his home by unidentified gunmen last week after criticizing the local government for human rights abuses and electoral manipulation. He must have been a member of the minority: 92 percent of Dagestanians apparently voted on Sunday, with 89 percent supporting United Russia.
Last week, I thought one of the few good things about United Russia's dominance in the Russian parliamentary elections might be that the ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party would be shut out of the Duma. Parties needed to win 7 percent of the vote to be represented. Turns out the LDPR snuck in with 8.4 percent of the vote, just enough to win a seat for Andrei Lugovoi, prime suspect in the murder of ex-KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko in November, 2006. Along with his Duma seat, Lugovoi will now enjoy immunity from prosecution in the Russian Federation. Litvinenko's widow Marina was apoplectic:
Now Mr Putin and Mr Lugovoi stand together as the emblem of Russia — the two people linked by a murder," she said in a written statement.
For what it's worth, British prosecutors say they have no plans to drop charges against Lugovoi.
With zero polling stations reporting from zero districts, this blogger is now ready to call this coming Sunday's Russian parliamentary elections for... Vladimir Putin's United Russia party! We specialize in bold predictions here at FP.
United Russia is currently polling at about 64 percent and the Communists are likely the only other party that will pass the 7 percent threshold required for a Duma seat. (If there's a bright spot in all this, it's that suspected murderer Andrei Lugovoi probably won't be elected.) All the same, the virtually guaranteed landslide hasn't stopped the Kremlin from doing nearly everything possible to put down Russia's already weak opposition. Here's a roundup:
If United Russia would overwhelmingly win even a fair contest, what's the point of all this? It's clear that if Putin feels that if he is to remain in power when his constitutionally limited term runs out next year, he not only needs a win, he needs to crush the idea that meaningful opposition even exists. This election could just be setting the stage for a much more significant power grab next year, though it's anybody's guess how this will ultimately play out.
In Russia, they call this type of manipulation "political technology." Right now, the world is watching a master class.
With the anniversaries of both Ukraine and Georgia's "color revolutions" this month, Eurasianet's Salome Asatiani looks at the progress and disappointments that both countries have faced since casting out authoritarian governments and finds that they've followed very different paths. Here's how it breaks down:
"Rose Revolution": November, 2003
"Orange Revolution": November, 2004
Current President: Mikheil Saakashvili
Current President: Viktor Yuschenko
Progress: Georgia has been far more successful at pushing through much-needed economic reforms, thanks largely to the free hand enjoyed by Saakashvili in setting policy.
Progress: Despite inheriting a devastatingly corrupt political system and a linguistically and culturally divided population, Yuschenko's government has been able to establish a robust system of checks and balances in governance that has made political compromise possible.
Letdown: The same executive power that has allowed Saakashvili success in liberalizing the economy has also allowed him to demonstrate disturbing authoritarian tendencies, such as this month's crackdown on peaceful protesters in Tbilisi and the government's increasing control over the media.
Letdown: The rivalry between Yuschenko and onetime ally Yulia Tymoshenko has frayed the "orange coalition" and the continued influence of former president Viktor Yanukovych (he was briefly elected prime minister) has resulted in political stalemate. Few of the promised economic reforms have been accomplished.
The Russia factor: Saakashvili has been among the most vocal critics of Vladimir Putin's government, denouncing Russian involvement in the still-simmering regional conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. He has also been a strong supporter of George W. Bush and the war in Iraq, hoping to pave the way for future NATO membership.
The Russia factor: Although the Orange government came into power promising a Ukraine free of Russian influence, its leaders have been far more muted in their criticism while in office for fear of angering voters in Ukraine's Russian-speaking eastern region.
One analyst quoted in the story sees the contrast as one between "In the case of Yushchenko -- passivity and weakness... In the case of Saakashvili -- strong-headedness and, I would say, an overtly great desire to see things done right away, and only his way."
It's certainly too early to say for sure, but this month's events seem to indicate that Ukraine's frustratingly slow progress may be more sustainable in the long run.
Two weeks ago, when it was announced that Russia was only inviting 70 observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to monitor the election, I suspected that Russia's arcane visa process would prevent even that number from attending. Turns out I underestimated the good folks in the Moscow bureaucracy who have not, as of yet, sent any visas to OSCE, prompting the organization to cancel its mission altogether. Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to answer questions about the visas, describing it as a "rather technical issue". It always is, isn't it?
While this is pretty grim news, it may actually be for the best that OSCE is sitting this one out. A mere 70 observers couldn't possibly be effective in a country the size of Russia. Pretending otherwise would simply lend this sham more dignity than it deserves. Russian opposition leader and FP contributor Garry Kasparov told the New York Times that "Putin's regime has no interest in revealing its dark side."
With all due respect to Kasparov, I'd say it already has.
With yesterday's crackdown, Georgia became the second key U.S. ally to declare martial law this week. The autocratic tendencies of Pakistan's Pervez Musharraf have been evident for some time, but Mikhail Saakashvili's decision to declare a state of emergency and brutally disperse protesters is particularly disappointing because of the excitement that surrounded the 2003 "Rose Revolution," which brought him to power. The Columbia-educated businessman took office promising to put put his country on the path to reform and eventual NATO membership after years of corruption and Russian domination. Instead, the world is reading about scenes like this:
Georgia's human rights ombudsman, Sozar Subari, told reporters that he was among those beaten by police. "Although I told them that I am a defender of human rights, they told me 'This is precisely why the beating is so harsh,'" he said. [...]
Earlier in central Tbilisi, police dressed in black and wearing balaclavas repeatedly beat and punched protesters, witnesses said. Clouds of tear gas filled the area, choking the crowds.
"Only a fascist power could do this," Nana Abuladze, 56, said between bouts of vomiting.
As he has done in the past, Saakashvili is blaming the current agitation on Russian agitators. Georgia has recalled its ambassador to Russia and plans to expel Russian diplomats. While it is certainly possible that Russia has given support to the opposition, it seems absurd to suggest that Russia has the kind of influence in Georgia that would allow it to keep thousands of people on the streets of Tbilisi for weeks at a time. (Ironically, similar accusations were aimed at the United States during the Rose Revolution.) And it doesn't exactly bolster Saakashvili's case that the Tbilisi TV station that has been supporting the protests—and has now been shut down—is owned not by Russian siloviki but by ... Rupert Murdoch.
That said, Russia stands to gain from a divided Georgia. My old boss Ivan Safranchuk of the World Security Institute's Moscow office suggested to the Moscow Times that the Kremlin is likely biding its time waiting to see who comes out on top. "If there is a split and multiple centers of power emerge, then Moscow can play on this, supporting one or another," he said.
Saakashvili, until now, has maintained international legitimacy by betting that his anti-Putin, pro-American foreign policy would trump whatever shady dealings were going on at home. So far it has worked. But in this latest move, he has plunged his country into chaos and uncertainty. And the Russians couldn't be more pleased.
It says a lot about the state of Russian democracy that the most relevant political feud may be between factions of the secret services rather than between political parties:
The former head of the Soviet KGB warned on Wednesday that a conflict between rival Russian security services could lead to "big trouble" and urged feuding clans to unite around President Vladimir Putin.
It's just as well that the intra-secret service squabble has broken into the open, though, because it may be the only genuine political dialogue Russians will witness: Putin's United Russia party recently refused even to debate its struggling opponents on air.
While Kosovo, Chechnya, and Georgia's breakaway provinces get all the press, you might be wondering if there are any other post-Soviet regional conflicts that deserve your attention.
You're in luck. This week, the government of Moldova angered residents of its breakaway region, Transnistria, by outlawing dual citizenship (Many Transnistrians are also citizens of Russia or Ukraine) and proposing that the Transnistria army disband and join the Moldovan national army.
Also known as Pridnestrovie or Transdniester, Transnistria is a Russian-speaking region that declared its independence from Moldova in 1990 due to fears of Moldovan nationalism. A war of independence ended in stalemate, with a ceasefire declared in 1992.
Since then, Transnistria has existed in a state of international limbo, ruled continuously by former Communist apparatchik and Sean Connery look-alike Igor Smirnov. (You've got to love a place where the government's own Web site runs headlines like "(Some) international observers call elections free, democratic.") It has its own parliament, currency, and military, but is not recognized as a state by any other country, though Russia maintains a troop presence there and Hugo Chávez, of all people, recently pledged his support. Its economy has been mostly privatized but residents retain a odd fondness for Lenin.
Transnistria now finds itself caught between hostility from Moldova and neglect from Russia, as Douglas Muir of Fistful of Euros explains:
The country's rulers would love to merge with Russia, and much of the country's population would probably follow them. But Russia lacks enthusiasm for picking up another exclave. Especially one that is (1) hundreds of kilometers south of Russia’s current borders, (2) totally lacking in resources or strategic utility, (3) majority non-Russian, and (4) dirt-poor. Independence doesn’t make a lot of sense; Transnistria is small, ethnically divided, economically dependent on Russia, and geographically ridiculous.
It has also earned a reputation as a crime-ridden, mafia-dominated transshipment point for the international weapons trade, a role you can learn a lot more about from Illicit, by FP's editor in chief Moises Naim. And to keep up-to-date with Transnistria developments, check out The Tiraspol Times, which reads like a bizarro-world Fox News with headlines like:
Igor Smirnov: Communist strongman or courageous independence hero? We report, you decide..."
Russian President Vladimir Putin is known for bringing out in public his beloved dog Koni, a black Labrador retriever. In fact, he has even used his large dog to intimidate German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is reportedly scared of dogs due to a childhood biting incident.
Putin has also revealed a macho "my dog is bigger than yours" mentality in ridiculing U.S. President George W. Bush's Scottish terrier, Barney. When Bush once visited Putin's summer home, Koni came running out, and Putin said to Bush, "Bigger, tougher, stronger, faster, meaner—than Barney."
But Putin's little secret is that he has a special place in his heart for the most unmacho of dogs, his poodle Tosya. Putin has tried to keep his fondness for Tosya hidden, ever since news of the poodle made some Russian men perceive him as a wimp. (Today, Tosya is conveniently described as belonging to Putin's wife Lyudmila.) And the poodle is pampered. A 2005 interview with Tosya's hairdresser revealed that the poodle's fur is trimmed "in lion's style" once or twice a month for 150 euros ($213 at today's exchange rate) per trim.
Photos of Tosya have been extremely difficult to come by, but Scottish Terrier and Dog News, the authoritative source for news on Scotties and other canine-related matters, which has been following the story closely, recently announced that a photo has finally emerged. The photo, included here, shows Putin in the throes of affection with Tosya. So much for ridiculing Barney!
A brief word on Condi and Bob's Moscow trip.
There's a feeling in Washington that the window of options toward Iran has narrowed considerably in recent months. In March, Foreign Affairs published a widely-read piece by Ray Takeyh called "Time for Détente with Iran." Seven months later, it's hard to imagine Takeyh's argument for rapprochement gaining much currency at the White House, whatever its theoretical merits. Military officials in Baghdad have been complaining for months that the "Qods Force" of Iran's Revolutionary Guard is backing Shiite militias and supplying them with fancy IEDs. U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker says he has gotten nowhere in his (very limited) discussions with his Iranian counterpart in Baghdad. Presidential candidates and congresspeople have been falling all over themselves to condemn Iran, and the Senate even passed, with White House encouragement, an amendment branding the entire Revolutionary Guard as a "foreign terrorist organization".
This doesn't necessarily mean that bombs will be dropping on Tehran and Esfahan any time soon, however. As Michael Abramowitz reports for the Washington Post, Bush administration officials are trying to downplay rampant chatter on this issue:
U.S. officials have also been trying to play down speculation in the news media and among liberal blogs that Bush is preparing for airstrikes aimed at Iran's nuclear facilities, emphasizing that their focus for the moment is diplomacy.
(There's an important distinction between airstrikes on the nukes and punitive strikes on Qods Force facilities across the border, but that's another topic.) What does this have to do with Russia, you ask?
Let's look again at that last word in the quote above: "diplomacy". Most analysts would concede that a "grand bargain" with Tehran is not in the offing, because a comprehensive deal linking all issues of mutual concern would require an unlikely paradigm shift in both Washington and Tehran. What's more, the Iranians have rejected past proposals that an outside entity supply them with nuclear fuel for energy, not bombs. Decades of isolation have taught the Iranians to rely only on themselves, so it would take an enormous effort to get them to agree to such a thing. Plus, the Iranians seem confident they already have the knowledge to master uranium enrichment, if not yet the capability. They have said, moreover, that their nuclear program is now a technical and legal matter for the IAEA, not a political issue. Those arguing for grand bargain-style solutions to the Iran problem, then, are probably wasting their breath.
At this point, "diplomacy," for this U.S. administration, means lining up support for a third round of U.N. sanctions against Iran, or failing that, sanctions through the major EU powers, Japan, and a few other U.S. allies. But as Abramowitz's article makes clear, the price for Russia's support at the Security Council may well be the U.S. abandoning its quest for missile defense installations in Eastern Europe, and maybe even new international arms control and nuclear nonproliferation treaties. If the Bush folks are truly serious about preventing the mullahs from getting the bomb, they may well have to pay Putin's fee. "Show me the money," Putin is saying.
Of course, there is no guarantee that getting Russia's support will ensure success with Iran. During the 1980s, Iran resisted sanctions and international isolation at a time when oil prices were much lower. It doesn't seem likely Iran's hardline leaders would buckle now, with oil hovering around $80 a barrel. The good news is: There's still plenty of time. A new U.S. administration will probably have a window of opportunity to pursue genuine diplomacy with Tehran, and Ahmadinejad may well be gone by then. Let's hope the Bush administration or the Israelis don't pursue the military option before then.
Aras Agalarov, a wealthy Russian property developer, is building a unique housing estate outside Moscow for Russia's super-wealthy. Billed as the most exclusive housing estate in Russia, and possibly even the world, Agalarov's 850-acre estate will contain 150 to 200 mansions, an 18-hole golf course, 14 artificial lakes, waterfalls, a spa and beach resort, an exclusive private school, and some fancy architecture. Each individual property will be 2,000 square meters and contain a saltwater swimming pool. All for the bargain price of about $20 to $30 million each! ("The people who will live here are of normal social status," Agalarov insists.)
Russia boasts 53 billionaires, so there's definitely a market for the new homes. Wealth alone does not guarantee entry to the exclusive estate, however; potential buyers must not only sign a 30-page document agreeing to adhere to Agalarov's rules, they must also pass their personal interview with Agalarov himself. One question that Agalarov says he will use to rule out prospective buyers: Do you have a big dog?
Apparently, these McMansions are to be guarded by miniature schnauzers and chihuahuas.
Remember the buzz sparked by Hilary Clinton's "plunging" neckline? She's got nothing on the Poles.
In a new advertisement, several female candidates of the Polish Women's Party running for seats in next month's parliamentary elections posed nude, covered only by a sign that reads: "Everything for the Future ... and nothing to hide." According to novelist Manuela Gretkowska, head of the 1,500-strong party that was created this year:
This poster is intended to shatter stereotypes in the anachronistic world of politics, which is more often dominated by uncommunicative men with their black tie outfits. We are beautiful, nude, proud. This is not pornography, there is nothing to see in terms of sex. Our faces are intelligent, concerned, proud.
The party isn't expected to win any seats in the upcoming election, but its emergence shows growing opposition to the ruling Law and Justice Party, led by the Kaczynski twins—President Lech and Prime Minister Jaroslav. Since they came to power two years ago, the brothers have been accused of tapping the phones of journalists, fostering anti-EU (especially anti-German) sentiments within the country, and creating, as Der Spiegel put it recently, a "permanent sense of emergency." In short, they've turned the country far to the right, not unlike the Bush administration did in the president's first term (and it's telling that the Poles are among the president's closest allies).
But will the Polish electorate react the same way as voters in the United States did in the 2006 midterms? It's not likely. But as the, um, emergence of the Polish Women's Party shows, resistance to the Kaczynskis is getting more creative, at least.
NASA is seeking astronaut candidates to staff up the International Space Station and to carry out future missions to the moon (and beyond). Here are some highlights from the want ad posted on USAJobs.com:
Andrei Lugovoi, the ex-KGB man who has been charged by Britain for the murder of Alexander Litvinenko has accepted the nomination of Russia's Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR) to stand for State Duma elections in December. With the second-most senior spot on the party's ticket, Lugovoi (the man on the right) has a very good shot at getting elected. Lugovoi has proclaimed his innocence in the Litvinenko affair and Russia has refused to extradite him to Britain to face charges, but from the words of one Duma insider, his appeal is pretty clear:
It is important that most simple Russians view him as someone who has liquidated a traitor," Vladislav Ignatov, a former Duma deputy currently working in the Audit Chamber, said."
If you're not familiar with the LDPR, which is neither liberal nor democratic, it is the party of flamboyant xenophobe and half-Jewish anti-Semite Vladimir Zhirinovsky (the man on the left). It is also widely considered to be a Kremlin-organized front designed to distract attention from real opposition groups. Andrew Wilson's book Virtual Politics has a great section on the LDPR's origins.
Zhirinovsky summed up his feelings on Lugovoi with characteristic bluster:
There is our main enemy, the Anglo-Saxons," he said, pointing to Britain on a map of the world. "The UK is trying to rule the world. Andrei is now the point-man in a historic confrontation between our country and Britain."
Lugovoi's fledgling political career may be just be getting started. Less than hour after accepting the LDPR's nomination, he told a reporter, "Like any other citizen of the Russian Federation, I would like to be president."
As notoriously unpredictable as Russia's politics may be, that might be pushing it a little.
Nine months from today—June 12, 2008—is Russia Day, the country's national day. And the Russian region of Ulyanovsk, the birthplace of Vladimir Lenin, is hoping to celebrate by having lots of women "give birth to a patriot" on that day to bring up birthrates and reverse the country's population decline.
To help couples produce a baby on the national holiday, the region has declared today—Sept. 12—as the "Day of Conception" and is giving couples a half day off work to do what it takes to conceive a baby. Couples who produce a baby on June 12, when everyone is out celebrating patriotism, win prizes such as money, automobiles, refrigerators, washing machines, TVs, and video cameras. The grand-prize winning couple is selected by a committee based on their fitness to be parents. This year's (June 2007) grand-prize winning couple won a UAZ Patriot SUV.
This year is the third year that Conception Day is being held, and since the beginning of the campaign, birthrates in the region have increased. One has to wonder, though, if in the long run, Conception Days will just cause births to be concentrated in June rather than being more evenly dispersed throughout the 12 months of the year, resulting in little overall increase in annual birthrates.
Big changes are afoot in Russia, a country intent on reclaiming its place on the world stage. Passport asked Dmitri Trenin, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment's Moscow Center (Carnegie is FP's parent organization) and the author of Getting Russia Right, to weigh in on what Russian President Vladimir Putin's cabinet reshuffle means for Russia, for the presidential succession battle, and for the world. Below are his very interesting comments, sent via e-mail:
While Mikhail Fradkov’s appointment as Russian prime minister in March 2004 came as a bolt from the blue, his resignation today had been widely expected, almost to the day. This week has just seen the start of the parliamentary election campaign. The Duma election, due December 2, in turn, is stage one of the transfer of power in Russia to be completed in the presidential election set for March 2, 2008. Fradkov is an unlikely successor to Putin, but the position he had occupied until today is an important platform for someone who can be. After Fradkov’s resignation, the guessing game has intensified. Traditionally, most observers looked at the choice of the new prime minister as the announcement of Russia’s “president-select.”
This time may be different. Putin’s choice of Fradkov’s successor is as surprising as Fradkov’s choice was three years ago. Valentin Zubkov, 66, the present head of the Financial Monitoring Service, belongs to the narrow circle of Putin’s colleagues in the St. Petersburg mayor’s office, but otherwise is virtually unknown in Russia. One interesting thing that commentators have noted is that he is the father-in-law of Anatoly Serdyukov, the recently appointed minister of defense and another potential successor to Putin. The name-guessing game is not over; it’s only starting in earnest. The current front-runner Sergei Ivanov, the runner-up Dmitri Medvedev, the unofficial “third candidate” Vladimir Yakunin, Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Naryshkin, St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matvienko, and a number of even darker horses are still in play; only Fradkov, a long-shot hopeful, has dropped out for sure.
While Putin will probably beat any analyst at that game, the main features of the post-Putin regime are becoming slightly clearer. There will be a rotation of personalities at the top, but the positions of power will remain in the hands of a small group of people closely associated with the outgoing president. It is also clear that Putin will continue to exercise enormous influence after the formal handover of the presidency. This, however, will mean a de facto change of the Russian Constitution, which invests all power and authority in the reigning head of state. What is more difficult to assess is: Will this arrangement hold? If so, how long?
Russia’s political regime can be described as authoritarianism with the consent of the governed. Elections are important as the sole source of legitimacy for the political regime, but they turn into an institutionalized crisis every time the incumbent has to leave office. The top leader’s personal popularity is key to the system’s overall stability and in particular for managing succession. Putin’s is such that he can be sure that his choice is supported by the electorate. He can transfer power; he cannot, however, transfer popularity. In the absence of political institutions other than the presidency, the system’s risk level remains too high for comfort.
Whatever the personnel or structural changes in the Russian system of government, Russia’s foreign and security policy is likely to be shaped by the approach developed during Putin’s last three years. To wit: A great power seeking to enhance its international weight by means of stressing its comparative advantages (energy, arms, strategic military power); a ruthless competitor that believes cooperation is the product of successful competition; a lonely figure on the world scene that keeps a safe distance from the other major players in order to escape both entangling alliances and fatal attractions. The message to the West, specifically, remains: Accept us as we are; treat as equals, and let’s do business when and where our interests meet.
Maybe Rupert's not so bad after all.
Wall Street Journal reporters unhappy with their new boss should be thankful today, as a report in the Times of London indicates it could have been a lot worse. According to the Times, "an international oil and gas company" held private talks in July to buy the company for more than $5 billion dollars. Sources confirmed the unnamed company was Gazprom, the Russian-controlled energy giant.
It's highly unlikely the Gazprom bid could have succeeded—the U.S. government would have likely scuttled the deal, as it has in the past when it strong-armed Dubai Ports World into giving up its American holdings. That doesn't mean, however, that the bid is unimportant. It's yet another indication of Russia's increasingly aggressive international posture, and another attempt by Moscow to use Gazprom as a foreign-policy tool. It is also the second time in recent months that Gazprom has attempted to enter the U.S. market (the first being a potential deal with BP). But trying to buy Dow Jones, owner of one of the best newspapers in the world, a symbol of American capitalism? The Russians are nothing if not ambitious.
The latest news from Hungary:
Citizens suffering in the record heat this month will however have to keep paying for their refreshments as the [National Election Committee] earlier struck down a referendum proposal about making beer free in restaurants, saying it would have distorted the market.
I haven't read The Road to Serfdom since college, but I'm quite sure Friedrich Hayek would approve of the committee's actions here.
Russia's moves on missile defense and its decision to back out of a key arms control treaty are understandably gobbling up most of the news space devoted to Eastern Europe. But keep an eye on relations between Poland and Belarus, which claims to have busted up a Polish spy ring:
Belarus says it has smashed a spy ring which was passing information to Poland about a joint Belarussian-Russian air defence system, called the S-300. The head of the Belarus KGB security service, Dmitry Vegera, said four former Belarussian army officers and a Russian officer had been arrested.
The missile shield has clearly exacerbated relations between the two countries, but there are a host of other nettlesome issues. For months now, Poland has been broadcasting news into heavily-censored Belarus and accepting students who have been kicked out of Belarus's universities for political reasons. In their attacks on the thuggish and unpredictable Belarussian president Alexander Lukashenko, Poles frequently invoke their own legacy of Solidarity. Why does this matter, you ask? Because Poland is a member of NATO, more serious unpleasantness between the neighbors could quickly become another crisis between Russia and the West. And then things would really get interesting.
To set the record straight: No one in Albania stole U.S. President George W. Bush's wristwatch this weekend while he was visiting the Eastern European country.
Some news outlets had reported that when he was walking through a tight crowd of excited, cheering people, and reaching out to receive their grasping hands, someone swiped his watch. Both the Albanian police and U.S. embassy have confirmed, however, that the story is untrue. Photographs show Bush putting his hands behind his back so one of his bodyguards could remove the watch.
A YouTube video shows the entire sequence.
It all makes me wonder if Bush really needs a watch, given the entourage of personnel he has to keep him on schedule. Watches can also get you in trouble: In 1992, his father received a lot of criticism when he looked at his watch—seemingly out of boredom—during a presidential debate.
Most appraisals of Tony Blair's time in office have focused on his role in the Iraq war, and that will surely be a key part of his legacy. My strongest impression of him formed much earlier. It was the summer of 1997 and I was working in Sarajevo on refugee issues. The Bosnian war had ended 18 months before, and a large NATO force was struggling to implement the Dayton Accords. One hotly debated question was whether NATO troops should go out of their way to apprehend indicted war criminals. Many Western generals and politicians were nervous; they didn't want to incite an insurgency and they were content to monitor the fragile ceasefire. Disheartening reports of war criminals passing through NATO checkpoints became commonplace.
Blair had taken office in May. He sounded good, but I was skeptical. After all, Britain's Bosnia policy had been horrendous for years. Then, one day in the middle of July, news broke that British SAS commandos had confronted and shot a Serb war criminal in northern Bosnia. Almost overnight, the tenor of the Bosnia mission changed. The British operation stiffened the spine of the other NATO countries, and soon the power of Bosnia's extreme nationalists began to slip. It was a gutsy move for a brand new prime minister.
Currently smarting from their country's political implosion, the last thing Ukrainian partisans need is an entry in the Eurovision Song Contest that promises national humiliation in a form that only a drag queen named Verka Serduchka can deliver. And yet, that is precisely what they are getting:
Angry Ukrainian nationalists held demonstrations across the country Sunday, demanding that Ukraine pull out of Eurovision this year. [They] are furious about their country's entry for this year's Eurovision song contest, a drag queen who some feel denigrates their national character. Protestors have taken to the streets to demand the motherland withdraw from the contest."
Surprisingly, their objection to Ukraine's overwhelming vote in favor of Ms. Serduchka has less to do with the gender-bending and more to do with Serduchka's particular schtick:
Their beef with Serduchka, whose real name is Andei Danilko, is that she represents a stereotype of a stupid Ukrainian villager and her performance will damage Ukraine's reputation abroad."
In the end, though, the Ukrainian right may be able to find comfort in an odd place: The Russians are just as outraged! Why? Because the chorus to "Dancing," Ms. Serduchka's nominated song—which you can watch here—commands Ukraine to sing "Russia goodbye!"
The Washington Post has a rather credulous follow-up story on the shooting of a Russian dissident in Washington last week. The story thus far: Russian gadfly Paul Joyal was shot outside his suburban home last week, just days after giving an interview criticizing Putin. The Post's piece today tries its best to tamp down speculation:
The noted expert in Russian intelligence who was shot outside his house in Prince George's County last week—a crime that raised the possibility of international intrigue in the Washington suburbs—also was robbed of his wallet and briefcase, law enforcement sources said yesterday. That property was taken from Paul Joyal supports the theory that he was shot during a robbery rather than in retaliation for public criticism of the Kremlin, according to two sources who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing.
Now, I'm not normally inclined to conspiracy theories but, really, how hard would it be to grab the guy's briefcase and wallet and try to make the hit look like a run-of-the-mill robbery? Given the fallout from the polonium case, somebody behind the killings might well have decided that a bit more subtlety was in order this time.
Hugh nicely summarized the International Court of Justice's (ICJ) ruling on Bosnian genocide today. To my mind, the most remarkable thing about the ruling is that it is appearing in 2007, almost twelve years after the Bosnian war ended. Bosnia originally filed the case in 1993, but a variety of procedural maneuvers and jurisdictional questions delayed actual arguments until last year.
That time lag itself is quite a commentary on the impending irrelevance of the ICJ. Don't get me wrong: It's not that international law is dead, it's just that this particular court—which handles only certain disputes between sovereign states, and does so at a glacial pace—has little to contribute. The new International Criminal Court is handling crimes against humanity and genocide, and the World Trade Organization covers most economic disputes. The ICJ has become a dusty relic, and this verdict's tardiness is the proof.
As noted in today's Morning Brief, The International Court of Justice, the U.N.'s highest legal body, has cleared Serbia of direct responsibility for what it ruled was a genocide during the 1990s war in the former Yugoslavia. However, the court did rule that Serbia violated international law by not preventing the 1995 Srebrenica massacre of Muslim men and boys. The court, which rules on disputes between U.N. member states, has been deliberating on the case since May of last year. In a nuanced statement that took nearly two hours to read, British judge Rosalyn Higgins said the Srebrenica genocide "cannot be attributed to the respondent's (Serbia's) state organs."
Bosnia's case rested on the argument that Serbia incited ethnic hatred within Bosnia, armed ethnic Serbians, and actively participated in the war, which killed over 100,000 people between 1992 and 1995. Serbia has always denied the charge, insisting the war was an internal Bosnian conflict. Indeed, Serbia disputed the legality of the whole proceedings, as the U.N. had suspended Yugoslavia's membership at the time in question. Today, however, Judge Higgins ruled that Serbia had inherited Yugoslavia's "legal identity," and was thus bound by the Geneva Convention at the time of the massacre. It's doubtful that most Bosnian Muslims—who were looking for justice, not legalisms, and likely see an ethnic Serb as inseparable from the Serbian state—will be satisfied by this result.
Russian prosecutors are investigating claims that young conscripts are being forced into prostitution by senior officers for a "network of clients" in St. Petersburg. The older officers then keep the cash for themselves, according to the accusations. While a spokeswoman for the human rights group Soldiers' Mothers called forced prostitution in the Russian army "not at all unusual," the current investigations stem from the particularly brutal account of one 20-year-old:
He said he was forced into male prostitution by fellow soldiers who beat him and demanded that he earn money for them,’’ [Mothers spokeswoman Lyubov] Yezheleva said. She said the conscript was serving with the interior troops unit No. 3727, in the center of St. Petersburg near the renowned Hermitage art museum.
Accounts like this (another example being a notorious case last year where doctors had to amputate a soldier's genitals and legs after a beating) have made Russian military service deeply unpopular. The only thing saving the Army is required conscription, which applies to all Russian men between 18 and 27. Typically, however, all but 9 percent get out of it for college, health issues, or simple bribery.
Bill Gates visited Romania yesterday to hold a joint press conference with Romanian President Traian Basescu, marking the opening of a new Microsoft global technical centre.
But Gates was apparently left speechless when Basescu explained how Romania's IT sector was built on a foundation of pirated software.
"Piracy helped the young generation discover computers. It set off the development of the IT industry in Romania. It helped Romanians improve their creative capacity in the IT industry, which has become famous around the world ... Ten years ago, it was an investment in Romania's friendship with Microsoft and with Bill Gates."
Apparently Basescu hasn't seen Microsoft's latest anti-piracy cartoon, "Genuine Fact Files."
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