Thanks to improvements in law enforcement, Georgia's criminals are all heading north to Russia, according to President Mikheil Saakashvili. And he's just fine with that:
Our main export to Russia is not wine, but 'thieves in law" and other criminal elements," Saakashvili said at the opening ceremony of the new building of the Georgian Interior Ministry in Tbilisi on Tuesday.
Today, Georgia has almost gotten rid of organized crime and criminal ringleaders thanks to the police, who are not corrupt like they used to be, he said.
Last week, I blogged that Andrei Lugovoi, prime suspect in the Alexander Litvinenko murder, is running for mayor of Sochi, the Black Sea resort town that will host the 2014 Winter Olympics. [Update: Looks like Lugovoi's out.] But Lugovoi's only one of the 25 fascinating characters (including some Passport favorites) running in what's shaping up to be one of the world's more interesting political contests.
Liberal opposition leader and political sex symbol Boris Nemtsov is running, and got ammonia thrown at him by pro-Kremlin hooligans a few days ago. Ex-KGB oligarch Alexander Lebedev is in the running, as is freemason lodge leader Andrei Bogdanov, who we last met when he was waging a high-profile beef with far-right leader (and Lugovoi's boss) Vladimir Zhirinovsky during his highly suspicious presidential run.
But there's more! Former Bolshoi ballerina Anastasia Volochkova is running, as is porn star Yelena Berkova, and local wrestling promoter Stanislav Koretsky. Then, of course, there's the guy who will most likely win, Anatoly Pakhomov from Vladimir Putin's United Russia Party.
A lot of these candidates have fairly minimal connections to Sochi, which doesn't seem to be a huge problem in Russian politics. Though the Communist Party's candidate did gripe about Lugovoi, "Maybe he vacationed here once.”
So why does every egomaniac in Russia want to be mayor of Sochi all of a sudden? First, the upcoming Olympics makes the race a perfect opportunity for self-promotion. Second, for the slightly more serious candidates, a recent upset in Murmansk, where a United Russia incumbent was defeated in a mayor's race by an independent candidate, has the Russian opposition sensing blood in the water.
Has the financial crisis broken United Russia's seemingly invincible grip on Russia's regional politics? Let the games begin.
Photos: Getty Images
Today's Johnson's Russia List e-mail featured an Interfax account of the only-in-Russia story of a state-directed activist group (Nashi) picketing a state-controlled bank (Sberbank) over (what else) excessive executive bonuses:
Nashi spokesperson Kristina Potupchik said that the demonstrators demanded that Sberbank managers voluntarily refuse to accept
the bonus payment for last year. "We believe that such a lavish remuneration at a time of crisis is an open challenge to the state and society," she said.
Sberbank in the fourth quarter of 2008 paid the board members bonus payments totalling R933m (28m dollars at the current exchange rate), increasing the salary and bonus payment to the managers by 5 per cent from R892m in 2007. The payment rise is linked with the increase of the number of board members, the bonus payment for one top manager in 2008 was reduced over 2007.
Few countries have as enduring a national cliché or tourist tchotchke as pervasive as Russia has with nesting dolls. So it's not exactly shocking that the matrioshka industry has been deemed too big to fail by the Russian state:
The state will place about 1 billion rubles ($28.4 million) in orders for crafts such as nesting dolls and hand-painted dishes and could reduce taxes to support craft makers whose sales have plummeted, the Industry and Trade Ministry said last week Thursday.
It's been a tough couple of months for nesting doll makers:
Polikarpov used to sell 400,000 rubles ($11,300) worth of dolls per month in Russia and had exports of $10,000 to $15,000 — mainly to Britain, Argentina and the United States.
Now, he said, the company’s warehouses have enough stock to cover sales for the next 1 1/2 months without producing anything. Dyuna had no profit in January and February and has just paid its employees for January. The company cut production by 30 percent this year and has started producing wooden toys such as robots.
Better that the government buy matrioshkas than missiles I suppose.
(Hat tip: Johnson's Russia List)
DMITRY KOSTYUKOV/AFP/Getty Images
Radio Free Europe's Brian Whitmore shares this photo, which many are claiming depicts an encounter between now Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (the blonde man on the left with the cameras) and U.S. President Ronald Reagan in Moscow's Red Square. In case you're wondering why the then-KGB Colonel would be dressed like a dorky tourist, the official White House photographer recalls the encounter to NPR:
Souza recounts a story from a trip to Russia with Reagan. He shot photos of Reagan as the president toured Moscow's Red Square with then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Gorbachev introduced Reagan to various tourists, who asked the American president pointed questions about subjects such as human rights in the United States. Souza says he remembers turning to one of the Secret Service agents standing nearby. "I can't believe these tourists in the Soviet Union are asking these pointed questions." The agent replied, "Oh, these are all KGB families."
Update: Because this post is getting a lot of attention, I feel I should clarify that I didn't mean to imply that the man in the photo definitely is Putin. I thought that phrasing the title as a question as well as the phrase "many are claiming" would make it clear that I was just sharing some interesting Internet speculation, but I should probably have been more explicit. Sorry if anyone was confused.
With three weeks to go until the G20 Summit, the British government is assiduously preparing to host the world's leaders. It's beefing up security. It's passing out press credentials. And, like any shrewd party host, as shown by a memo obtained by the Financial Times, it's naming the in-crowd.
The document solicits bids from public relations firms, asking them to help create "moments of drama for the media" around the Summit. In a section entitled "Target Audiences," it splits the G20 countries into "tier one" and "tier two," spelling out who's worth some extra attention.
Early indications suggest that the following are our priority countries and will be the focus of intensive diplomatic lobbying and engagement:
- US, Japan, France, Germany (key G8 countries) and Italy (as next G8 President)
- China, India
- South Africa (as the only African nation)
- South Korea (as the Chair of the G20 after the UK)
- Brazil (as the main South American nation)
- Saudi Arabia (as the only Middle East nation)
Tier 2 countries include other G20 members, non G20 countries, regional groups and developing countries.
Who falls into "tier two"? Russia, Australia, Argentina, Mexico, Indonesia, Turkey, and Canada.
A Tory spokesman immediately responded:
"The downgrading of some participants before they have even set foot in London sends completely the wrong message. In particular it is wrong for Commonwealth countries such as Australia and Canada to be put into the so-called second tier. So too are some of the world's developing countries whose people will potentially be among those hardest hit by the global crisis."
Looks like its Gordon Brown's turn to be called an ungracious host.
Photo: Carsten Koall/Getty Images
Russian MP Andrei Lugovoi, who is Britain's chief suspect in the murder of dissident ex-spy Alexander Litvinenko is considering running for mayor of Sochi, the Black Sea resort city that will host the 2014 Olympic Games.
Scotland Yard's prime suspect needled Britain last May, by attending a soccer game played by two British teams in Moscow. I have to imagining that attending an Olympics hosted by Lugovoi himself has to be a pretty infuriating prospect for the U.K.
Alexey SAZONOV/AFP/Getty Images
It seems the world won't get to see Georgian vocal group 3G (left) perform their Putin-mocking single "We don't wanna put in" at the Eurovision song contest in Moscow. The politically charged dicso tune was a little too hot for organizers to handle:
The contest's oversight committee said in a statement on the Eurovision web site that the song violated a statute in the contest's charter stating that songs must not bring the contest "into disrepute" and banning "lyrics, speeches [and] gestures of a political or similar nature."
The committee has given Georgia until March 16 to select a new entry or "change the lyrics of the selected song" so that it complies with the rule, the statement said.
I call BS on this. Ireland's Eurovision entry last year, sung by an obscene turkey puppet name Dustin, poked fun at a number of other countires, was purposely designed to mock the contest, and nearly set off a diplomatic incident in Macedonia. And Arab-Israeli singer Mira Awad has angered Palestinian nationalists with a pro-reconciliation Eurovision duet with a Jewish singer.
Whether it's a kitschy song contest or the Olympics, geopolitical rivalries are inevitably part of any international competition. It's very sad to see Eurovision's organizers compromise the integrity of this august institution by bowing to Russia's objections.
This morning Kommersant reported (in Russian) that a prominent council of religious associations will, for the first time, be chaired by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. The decision represents a major victory for the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) and is another sign of the church's increasing influence over the Russian state.
The Kremlin is seeking church support as a rapidly disintegrating economy has fueled internal dissent. The newly annointed Patriarch, Kirill, is believed to be more liberal and politically ambitious than his predecessor and may become a major player in the Russian government.
If Russia Today is to be believed, out of 12,000 dogs competing at the recent Eurasia-2009 dog show in Moscow, President Dmitry Medvedev's three dogs just happened to all win top prizes:
The president’s two English setters, Joly and Daniel, got first place in their individual classes, while his golden retriever, Aldu, received a silver medal at the Eurasia-2009 dog show.
I find this about as convincing as a Chechen election, but one audience member swears that the presidential pooches deserved their honors:
“I understand that some people may think that the president’s dogs only won because of their master, but his dogs really performed well. And they are beautiful.”
Whatever. The judges are just lucky Putin's dogs Koni and Tosya weren't competing. Awkward.
DMITRY ASTAKHOV/AFP/Getty Images
If, as is looking more likely, the Obama administration moves to delay or cancel the deployment of a missile defense shield in Eastern Europe, one possible diplomatic downside could be the effect on U.S. relations with Poland and the Czech Republic, the two countries that signed agreements with the Bush administrations to host parts of the shield. On a visit to Washington, Poland's Foreign Minister seemed to give Obama a bit of an out on this issue:
“What we would like to be honored is what went along with” the missile-defense system, [Radoslaw] Sikorski, 46, said in an interview yesterday during a visit to Washington that included a meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. “We paid quite a political price for the agreement, both in terms of internal politics and in our relations with Russia.”
State Department political director William Burns has also indicated that missile defense might be one area where the administration is willing to compromise with Russia and will certainly be on the agenda when Hillary Clinton meets her Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov next week. The administration might feel a more productive relationship with Russia is worth some damage to its image in Eastern Europe, but it would be nice if they didn't have to make the choice.
DOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP/Getty Images
The three men accused of playing a role in the 2006 murder of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya were acquitted today. While it would be great to see Politkovskaya's killers brought to justice, that clearly wasn't going to happen at this trial anyway. None of the three Chechen men on trial were accused of actually killing the journalist, who was known for her fearless and critical coverage of Russia's war in Chechenya. The L.A. Times' Megan Stack wrote shortly before the verdict:
There is a pervasive sense that the trial is tangential, that the evidence is patchy and that the Russian government has only skimmed the edges of the crime rather than dug at its roots.
Conspicuously missing from the cramped courtroom is anyone accused of pulling the trigger or ordering or paying for the slaying. Lawyers say evidence has linked the crime to the FSB, domestic successor of the KGB, but has failed to reveal how far up the ranks of intelligence services the plan to kill Politkovskaya reached.
Whether these men played a role or not, a conviction in this "chaotic, confused and even farcical" trial would probably have actually set back the campaign to find and prosecute the actual killers. Politkovskaya's newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, is currently conducting its own investigation. That one may aim a little higher.
BORYANA KATSAROVA/AFP/Getty Images
Georgia's entry in the 2009 Eurovision Song Contest, which will be held in Moscow in May, is a pretty obvious jab at Russian Prime Minsiter Vladimir Putin. The peppy disco number by vocal trio 3G with guest vocalist Stefane, is titled "We Don't Wanna Put In" and features the chorus:
We don't wanna put in/the negative move/is killing the groove
Imma try to shoot him/some disco tonight/boogie with you.
Check it out:
"We need to send a message to Europe and first of all to Moscow. It's important for us to say what Georgia wants to say as a country."
Considering that their states are still technically at war, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso got along remarkably well during their summit meeting in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk on Wednesday. While palling around on Sakhalin Island at the opening of a new $22 billion LNG plant (the first such plant in Russia), Aso and Medvedev praised the economic cooperation that has helped Russia and Japan strengthen their relationship over the past ten years.
Annual trade has now reached $30 billion, tripling in size since 2004. The first phase of the massively expensive ESPO pipeline, connecting oil reserves in Siberia with Russia's Pacific coast, has been completed and the construction of phase two has been announced. This is rare good news for two economies that have been hit particularly hard by the global financial crisis.
But it's still not all smiles between the two countries. The violent reaction of Vladivostok's workers to the imposition of a tariff on Japanese vehicles in late December displays the importance of Japanese commerce to Russia's remote Far East provinces. More seriously,a Japanese ship carrying ¥12.8 million worth of medical aid at the request of Russian residents on the disputed Kuril Islands was turned away in January because the Japanese delegation refused to show disembarkation cards, a move that the Japanese consider tantamount to recognizing Russian sovereignty over the Kurils. T
The Japanese claim that the Kuril islands -currently under Russian control - are historically Japanese and were seized illegally by the Soviet Union at the end of World War II. The dispute over the islands has prevented Russia and Japan from signing a peace treaty and officially ending the war.
Until the Kuril issue is resolved, Japan and Russia will continue to be in the contradictory position of building ever closer ties while still officially fighting World War II.
NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP/Getty Images
It looks like the Sochi games might be a somewhat more modest affair than planned:
The 2014 Winter Olympics in the Russian city of Sochi will cost 15 percent less than originally anticipated as initial budget estimates exaggerated the projected cost, a top official said on Tuesday. [...]
Russian officials have warned that the country's budget deficit could reach around 8 percent of GDP in 2009. A deputy minister warned on Tuesday the economy would contract by 2.2 percent in 2009.
Yet to conduct the sports event on the balmy Black Sea coast, Russia needs to spend lavishly on upgrading Soviet-era infrastructure and building new facilities in the hitherto quiet mountain resort of Krasnaya Polyana.
The report said local authorities were recently forced to extend tender deadlines for Olympic-related construction contracts due to lack of interest from companies hit by financial difficulties.
Authorities also faced mounting difficulty in acquiring land necessary for construction of Olympic infrastructure in the southern Russian city of Sochi because owners were refusing to sell at prices offered by the government.
Doesn't seem very encouraging. But given all the ink and pixels that were spilled (including by some of us here) predicting that air pollution and protests would turn the Beijing Games into an embarassing catastrophe for China, I'd be cautious about predicting doom for Sochi quite yet.
ALEXEY NIKOLSKY/AFP/Getty Images
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov gave an interesting interview to Der Spiegel today. He expresses some optimism about relations between Russia and the United States, attributing the thaw to the need to address the financial crisis:
The global financial crisis is forcing all countries to focus on the real problems. It's actually a simple task....We can no longer afford the luxury of little geopolitical games, because we all face challenges that directly affect our citizens. So we should no longer ideologize problems, we should instead honestly express our own national interests, understand the legitimate interests of our partners, and have no more hidden agendas, where one thing is said while something else is done behind someone's back. The signals that we are receiving indicate that our Western partners are aiming for the same objectives.
Lavrov also denies (though not quite explicitly) that Russia put any pressure on Kyrgyzstan to close the Manas air base:
Lavrov: This is a decision by the Kyrgyz leadership. There were many incidents that caused dissatisfaction: Once an American soldier shot a Kyrgyz citizen and the police were not allowed to investigate the case; on another occasion, an American ran over pedestrians without legal consequences. In another incident, tons of jet fuel was dropped on Kyrgyz villages, and once again no one was held responsible. The Americans have even damaged the official state aircraft of Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev.
SPIEGEL: Now Russia has agreed to grant significant loans to Kyrgyzstan -- are you saying this is just a coincidence?
Lavrov: We have signed the corresponding agreement. Kyrgyzstan is one of the poorest countries and an ally. We treat an ally the way it should be.
ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images
It's hard to be a Russian billionaire these days:
The number of Russian billionaires has halved since last year, according to an annual ranking by Finans magazine, and the missing names read like a brief history of the financial turmoil over the past six months.
The ranking of Russia's 400 wealthiest individuals puts the number of dollar billionaires at 49, down from a record 101 last year and just below the 50 counted in 2006.
In all, the country's 10 richest people saw their combined wealth shed $75.9 billion since the magazine's survey last year, as oil prices plunged, financial markets skidded and the ruble fell, Finans said.
Aluminum tycoon and favorite oligarch of the British political elite Oleg Deripaska (pictured) has also apparently lost his spot as Russia's richest man.
ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Image
The Russian central bank appears to have avoided a currency crisis this week, at least temporarily. Policymakers virtually painted a target on the ruble by announcing in late January that they had established a new floor on the currency in order to stabilize its slide. In fact, the opposite happened. Within days investors pushed the currency's value down against the floor, threatening to cause another large selloff of foreign exchange reserves in its defense.
After losing over a third of the country's reserves since August and having the government's debt rating lowered by Fitch last week, the central bank made a change of course by tightening interest rates, making speculation more costly and easing the pressure to draw down official reserves. The move even caused the ruble yesterday to make its biggest gains against the dollar and euro in the past two years, signaling a temporary stabilization.
While they are not out of the woods yet, the Russians seem to have finally taken a step in the right direction. And at time when everyone is focused on the mounting woes in the world economy, any good news on the economic front is welcome.
ALEXEY SAZONOV/Getty Images
Putin took a few hours off from dealing with the financial crisis late last month to dance to hits like "Money, Money, Money" performed by the ABBA tribute band Björn Again in a private concert for the prime minister and a group of friends, organizers of the show told The Moscow Times.
"Putin and his colleague friends were all dancing and getting involved with the choreography," Björn Again founder and creator Rod Stephen said in a telephone interview from London.
Putin and the others waved their hands in the air during a rousing rendition of the Swedish group's "Super Trouper" and pointed their fingers during "Mama Mia," Stephen said.
The Jan. 22 show took place in a concert hall at a Kremlin residence near Valdai Lake, in the northwestern Novgorod region, said Stephen, whose band charged ?20,000 ($29,000) for the performance.
A source involved in the concert said it was organized by the Kremlin for Putin but that no state funds were used in arranging the show.
"ABBA is popular, and [Putin] likes them," said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
I can understand why the source was worried. We may have just discovered the one area where the Deep Purple- and Pink Floyd-loving Dmitry Medvedev is more of a badass than his prime minister.
Update: It just occurred to me that if known ABBA-lover John McCain had been elected, the two leaders could have used this common interest to move past their differences and usher in a new era of U.S.-Russia cooperation. Oh well.
Russian officials may be walking back a bit on earlier hints that they were suspending the deployment of missiles to the Kaliningrad region in response to Barack Obama's more conciliatory tone. Voice of America is reporting that senior Russian military officials have called the reports "premature":
They said Russia has not taken any practical steps to deploy the short-range Iskander missiles and therefore one can not speak of a suspension.
The earlier reports stated the Russia had made its decision after a phone call between Dmitry Medvedev and Barack Obama in which the U.S. president promised to reexamine the U.S. missile shield program on its merits.
Previous statements indicate that Obama isn't a big fan of missile defense, but it would be hard for him to scrap the program entirely without looking weak and angering the Czech Republic and Poland, who have signed treaties to host the system.
The two leaders will likely discuss the issue in person at the G20 summit in April, but an unspoken arrangement in which the U.S. is in no particulary hurry to set up the shield and Russia is no particular hurry to set up its missiles without any options being taken off the table, might be the best conceivable outcome.
Photo: DMITRY ASTAKHOV/AFP/Getty Images
RFE/RL's Power Vertical blog reports on one of the recent "insensitive elite" scandals coming out in the Russian media:
[T]he story that is most galling and probably holds the most symbolism emerged on January 9 from the snow-covered mountains of Russia's Altai region. On that day, a helicopter with three crew and eight passengers crashed on a mountainside, setting off an intense, two-day search-and-rescue operation.
Only four people survived the incident, and among the dead were President Dmitry Medvedev's representative to the State Duma, Aleksandr Kosopkin; the deputy head of the presidential-administration department on domestic affairs, Sergei Livshin; and Viktor Kaimin, chairman of the Altai Republic's Committee on the Preservation and Exploitation of Natural Resources. The helicopter was operated by Gazpromavia, one tentacle of the state-controlled natural-gas conglomerate that Medvedev headed before becoming president.
Over the next few weeks, details of the incident began to trickle out. First, it was revealed that the men died while engaged in the "sport" of shooting at game animals with powerful rifles from the side of the helicopter. A few media outlets published stories about how popular this "sport" is among Russia's ruthless rich and how organizing such junkets is one way Altai and other regions keep their budgetary needs near the top of the Kremlin's agenda.
Hunting from helicopters is, technically, illegal in Russia, but the rich evidently prefer to bag their mountain goats without getting their loafers wet.
This kind of thing usually doesn't look good during times of economic hardship. Can't help thinking that these guys should have avoided scandal by hopping over the Bering Streit to Sarah Palin's Alaska where helicopter hunting is not only allowed, but financially encouraged.
Past FP contributor Dmitri Trenin has an interesting piece in the Moscow Times sketching out some of the early Russia challenges President Obama will face. While he urges Obama to make a more serious effort to engage Russia on issues of mutual concern, he doesn't see a close relationship between leaders of the two countries as being all that important:
President George W. Bush's jovial camaraderie with then-President Vladimir Putin simulated -- rather than stimulated -- the relationship between the United States and Russia. The promise of a strategic partnership in the wake of Sept. 11 was mindlessly neglected because at the time preparing for the invasion of Iraq became the sole focus of the Bush White House. [...]
You will not need to aim for a close working relationship with your Russian counterpart. All too often, these attempts are treated suspiciously by the public and not adequately supported by the bureaucracy. You would do wise, however, to appoint an informal "Russia tsar" to direct U.S. relations with Russia.
Aside from the unfortunate title "Russia tsar," I think this is good advice. While world leaders should probably be able to work together constructively, it doesn't actually seem all that advantageous when they become personally close.
Bush always seemed frustrated that Putin, who he got along great with personally, was such a thorn on his side politically. On the other side, the close relationship between Bush and Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili seems to have given both leaders unrealistic expectations about how the other would behave in the run-up to last summer's war.
When Jon Stewart pressed Tony Blair about his continued support for Bush on the Daily Show, the former prime minister somewhat meekly responded, "I like him." In hindsight, many Britons would probably prefer that Blair hadn't gotten along so swimmingly with his American pal.
When leaders think a personal bond can be the basis of a bilateral alliance, they tend to wind up disappointed. Harry Truman's first impression of his Soviet counterpart at Potsdam was, "I think I can do business with Stalin. He's very honest, but he's also smart as hell."
Obama doesn't need to be friends with Putin. They don't even have to like each other. What the citizens of both countries should be hoping for is that they're clear with each other about national interests, especially when these interests are competing. And as Trenin points out, dialogue at the head of state level is of limited usefulness if its not backed by cooperation in the bureaucracy.
To my eyes at least, Obama's basketball-playing regular Joe act has always seemed a bit forced and at odds with the pricklier personality in his early writing. That's not necessarily a bad thing. After eight years of gregarious Texas charm which never led to particularly effective diplomacy, a bit of cerebral Chicago cool might be a welcome change.
Photo: Artyom Korotayev/Epsilon/Getty Images
Hunting, fishing, fighting, kissing babies, Machiavellian political maneuvering, ruling with an iron fist...and painting? Is Vladimir Putin the most complete human of the 21st century?
Putin's debut painting, a delicate if somewhat rudimentary water color based on a Nikolai Gogol story, will be auctioned for charity this weekend. The work is part of a collection of paintings by celebrities to raise money for a cultural fund in St. Petersburg. The painting has some weird resonance with current events, the Telegraph reports:
According to organisers, Mr Putin popped into the exhibition unexpectedly on Boxing Day where, after drinking some mulled wine, he agreed to reveal his previously hidden artistic talents by contributing a painting of his own.
According to the rules of the exhibition, Mr Putin was required to paint an image related to the Night Before Christmas, a story by the Ukrainian born author Nikolai Gogol, the bicentenary of whose birth is celebrated this year.
Set in Dikanka, a village in central Ukraine, the story tells of events on a blizzard-swept Christmas Eve thrown into chaos because the Devil has stolen the moon.
With Russia locked in a bitter gas dispute with Ukraine, the theme is replete with ironic symbolism with even the frost encrusted windows unwittingly suggesting freezing homes across central Europe after Mr Putin ordered all supplies through Europe to be cut.
I have a feeling the mulled wine bit is journalistic embellishment. Putin is, famously, a light drinker or at least unlikely to appear sloshed in public.
Rather than a drunken whim, this seems like a well calculated move to soften Putin's already sufficiently manly public persona. Not everyone's buying Putin's sensitive side though:
"A leader who demands that the world play by our rules could hardly have painted such a picture," said one painter, who asked to remain anonymous for his own security. "It looks as if it was painted by a sentimental woman. It is too sweet; you can feel it in the brushwork and the palette. The core theme is feminine too."
The charge was denied by exhibition organizers. "He did the painting all by himself, but he was given advice by a lady artist," said Polina Vavilina, press secretary for Tsarskoe Selo.
I have to say, Vavilina's explanation really raises more questions than it answers.
When Russia ceased natural gas flows into Europe through Ukraine on Jan. 7, many people -- and animals -- in southeastern Europe got left in the cold. At the Sofia Zoo, about 1,300 animals were left without central heating, and electric heaters, such as the one Larry is with here on Jan. 12, were brought in. The zoo’s four Siberian tigers, however, appear to be enjoying the colder temperatures.
Georgia and its pipelines may be central to plans to bypass Russia as Europe's main gas supplier, but the country may soon be partially dependent on Russia for its own power supply.
Georgia has sold a partial management stake in the hydroelectric plant that supplies almost half the country's power to a Russian state-controlled energy firm for $9 million. The plant straddles the border between Georgia-proper and the Russian-occupied territory of Abkhazia. Even though Russia is now paying for electricity that Abkhazians and nearby Russians were already using for free and Georgia will maintain ownership, Georgian opposition leaders smell hypocrisy:
Salome Zurabishvili, leader of the opposition Georgian Way party, sharply criticized the move. “The government is a traitor, which says, on the one hand, that Russia is an occupier, and on the other hand makes deals with the same country.”
Even though this seems like a decent deal for Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili's government had to expect to take a hit from the public. It may be a sign that while top Georgian officials continue to decry the Russian occupation of their territory, in reality they're learning to live with it.
Yeah, it's great to have Drezner and Lynch on board, but at the next FP staff meeting, I'm definitely suggesting that we add Dmitry Medvedev's vlog to the new site. Russia's president opened up his already succesful video blog to comments this week and the initial response, according to his staff, has been pretty big:
As of 5:00 p.m., 3,519 people had registered on the website, and 168 were refused registration due to the blog's rules," the spokesman said. "Another 443 are waiting for confirmation of their registration."
By Tuesday evening, there were 603 comments left on the site and another 132 were waiting to be edited, the spokesman said.There are 10 employees who handle the traffic on the president's website.
Not too shabby. Then again, maybe if we had "10 employees who handle the traffic," Passport would be running up Perez Hilton numbers. It also helps to already be a president and have access to scenic backdrops:
On Friday, Georgia and the United Staets signed a strategic partnership agreement in what foreign minister Grigol Vashadze called a "stepping stone which will bring Georgia to Euro-Atlantic structures, to membership within NATO, and to return to the family of Western and civilized nations." The agreement can be considered the Bush administration's final friendly gesture to one of its staunchest allies.
I got a chance to speak with Vashadze at the Georgian embassy shortly after the agreement was signed. He had a number of interesting things to say about the U.S.-Georgia relationship, but seemed a bit perturbed when I referred to the disputed territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as "conflicts":
We are not speaking about conflicts. We could speak about conflicts before the August war. Now this is not a conflict; it's an occupation. From one point of view, it's absolutely dreadful because you wake up and 20 percent of your territory is occupied by an unwelcome neighbor. From another point of view, Russia played all their aces. Everything is called its proper name right now: Russia is not a peacekeeper; it is an occupier. We're not talking about ethnic conflict; we're talking about the cleaning of those territories of their core population to build up Russian military bases.
So we have a very simple question: Can Russia use those occupied territories as an instrument of influence? As this charter shows, and as the world's attitude changed, we see that, no, Russia cannot do that anymore.
Read the whole interview here.
The Washington Post's Walter Pincus has an analysis of Robert Gates recent articles and media appearances. He writes:
A longtime Russia analyst during his years with the CIA, Gates today sees Moscow as less of a threat than do many inside and outside the U.S. military establishment.
Pincus is referring to statements like this one, from Gates' piece in the new Foreign Affairs:
Russian tanks and artillery may have crushed Georgia's tiny military. But before the United States begins rearming for another Cold War, it must remember that what is driving Russia is a desire to exorcise past humiliation and dominate its "near abroad" -- not an ideologically driven campaign to dominate the globe. As someone who used to prepare estimates of Soviet military strength for several presidents, I can say that Russia's conventional military, although vastly improved since its nadir in the late 1990s, remains a shadow of its Soviet predecessor. And adverse demographic trends in Russia will likely keep those conventional forces in check.
Good point, but do "many inside and outside the U.S. military establishment" really disagree with it? I find it hard to believe that even those who think the military is neglecting conventional threats by focusing on counterinsurgency would argue that Russia today is a comparable threat to the Soviet Union.
If there actually is a real debate about this, I'm glad Gates is the one in charge. Here's hoping he and his colleagues continue the recent strategy of basically ignoring Russia's pointless military posturing and focusing their attention where real damage can be done.
Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Another cold Russian winter, another dispute about Russian gas prices. Time's Yuri Zarakhavich has a useful summary:
In the buildup to Dec. 31, Russia accused Ukraine of having arrears of more than $2 billion on its expired gas contract. Ukraine said that it had paid all its debt. Moscow said it would start charging a new price, which it presented as both the "market" price and a "preferential" rate—just $250 rather a sharp rise on the 2008 price of $179.5 per 1000 cubic meters of gas. Ukraine said that it could pay $201.
In response, Gazprom, Russia's state-run natural gas monopoly, dropped its "preferential" offer and said it would have to charge the real "market" rate of $418. It also insists that Ukraine still owes Moscow $ 614 million, and, at 10am on Jan. 1, turned off gas taps to Ukraine.
Pretty much the same thing has happened for the last three winters. Worried about its own supply, the EU is anxiously working to broker a compromise between Ukraine and Russia. As a European Commission representative said:
"Since we are the main market for Russian gas ... we have an obvious interest in applying pressure on these parties to reach as soon as possible an agreement which is definitive."
It's easy enough to cast Gazprom -- a state monopoly with a penchant for heavy-handed ultimatums -- as the villain in this recurring drama. But that lets Europe off the hook a bit too easily. As energy investor Jérôme Guillet wrote for FP during the 2007 edition of the dispute, Gazprom doesn't behave all that differently from any other company and its demonization is a convenient way for European leaders to divert attention from their lack of a coherent energy policy:
[I]t’s a bit rich to see the supposedly pro-market Westerners calling for heavy subsidies. And a country like Ukraine that’s angling to join NATO (an organization that Russia understandably perceives as anti-Russian) can hardly expect a discount on its gas. So why is Russia getting demonized for defending its interests? The answer lies with European leaders, who are trying to distract the public from the mess they’ve made of European energy policy. Europeans themselves are to blame for their dependency on Gazprom, which is doing what any company would do in its place. [...]
As for European leaders, they have no one but themselves to blame for turning worrying domestic gas problems into a major international crisis. Europe, led by the United Kingdom, has made a conscious choice to rely on gas as its main new source of energy at a time when its domestic supplies are declining—and declining a lot faster than everybody expected. And Europe’s economic liberalization encourages market players to build easier-to-finance gas-fired plants, thus feeding demand for more gas. If political leaders were really worried about gas supplies from Russia, they should change that structural feature of the market rather than wailing about Gazprom’s clumsy—but ultimately harmless—fights with its neighbors.
Two years after Guillet wrote that, Europe is still just as dependent on Russia for its energy supply, meaning that this New Year's tradition is likely to continue. If the corner store continually rips you off, yet you continue to patronize it, can you really keep blaming the store?
Photo: SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images
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