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    Thursday, December 20, 2007

    Person of the Year?

    So the illustrious Time Magazine has named Vladimir Putin its Person of the Year, adding him to a list of winners that includes a few people he admires (his role model, Yuri Andropov, shared the title with Ronald Reagan in 1983), a few people Putin has never quite seen eye-to-eye with (George W. Bush and Lech Walesa, to name a couple) and, well, me.

    Does he deserve the prize? As Time notes in its explanation, the honour is not a popularity contest, nor an endorsement. Here's the offered explanation:

    At its best, it is a clear-eyed recognition of the world as it is and of the most powerful individuals and forces shaping that world—for better or for worse. It is ultimately about leadership — bold, earth-changing leadership. Putin is not a boy scout. He is not a democrat in any way that the West would define it. He is not a paragon of free speech. He stands, above all, for stability — stability before freedom, stability before choice, stability in a country that has hardly seen it for a hundred years. Whether he becomes more like the man for whom his grandfather prepared blinis (Stalin) — who himself was twice TIME's Person of the Year — or like Peter the Great, the historical figure he most admires; whether he proves to be a reformer or an autocrat who takes Russia back to an era of repression — this we will know only over the next decade. At significant cost to the principles and ideas that free nations prize, he has performed an extraordinary feat of leadership in imposing stability on a nation that has rarely known it and brought Russia back to the table of world power.

    Putting judgements aside, as Time has, it's hard to argue that Putin hasn't transformed Russia in a very short period of time. Eight years ago, he inherited a nearly failed state and now Russia, while it still has dangerous internal problems, is a force to be reckoned with on the international stage again.

    A test of Putin and the new Russia looms next in Kosovo, where Serbs are looking to Putin as the only person willing to stand up for them as the West throws its weight behind the Kosovar Albanian leadership as it moves towards declaring full independence. More on that later...

    Tuesday, December 18, 2007

    A tale of two prime ministers

    It's fitting that Yulia Tymoshenko should finally become prime minister of Ukraine one day after Vladimir Putin declared he would be Russia's prime minister under a President Dmitry Medvedev.

    Both have been prime minister before, Tymoshenko for a short and tumultuous period in 2005 before she was fired by President Viktor Yushchenko, Putin for a controversial six months in 1999 before Boris Yeltsin stepped aside to hand him the presidency. They have open distaste for each other stemming from the long and ongoing Russia-versus-the West struggle for Ukraine's soul, in which Tymoshenko has played (at least in the Western media) Princess Leia to Putin's Darth Vader.

    The way the two old foes were named to the PM's chair this time around says much about the comparative state of democracy in their respective countries today.

    For all Ukraine's instability, Tymoshenko's dramatic return to power - establishing herself as a third power centre beyond both President Yushchenko and his rival Viktor Yanukovich - shows how vibrant and pluralistic Ukraine's political scene now is. Yes, all of the main parties are tinged with corruption and are too close to big business, but Tymoshenko's election victory two months ago stands as proof that no politician can rule Ukraine without the consent of the people.

    More good news: even though her party emerged as the de facto winner of the Sept. 30 elections, Tymoshenko only became prime minister after a long process of bartering and coalition-making. No one force can dominate Ukraine on its own anymore, as Leonid Kuchma and his allies did until the 2004 Orange Revolution.

    None of the above can be said about Russia. Vladimir Putin stands alone in Russia as the sole centre of power. If he says the unheralded Dmirty Medvedev shall be president, then Mr. Medvedev it will be. If Putin says he wants to be PM, only a fool would bet against him achieving that aim.

    As I have frequently pointed out in the past, Putin does all this largely with the consent of the Russian people. But that doesn't make it any more democratic. The institutions needed to make and keep Russia great - a free media, serious opposition and a real parliament - have been systematically eliminated during his eight years in power. For all its oil-fuelled economic growth and new swagger on the international stage, the country is inherently weaker as a result.

    Today may look like a triumph for Putin and Putinism. But one day, when he's gone, Russians will come to rue the system they watched him build.

    In the meantime, at least future summits between the Russian and Ukrainian prime ministers will have a touch of drama to them.

    Monday, December 10, 2007

    President Dmitry Medvedev

    So now we know. It will be Dmitry Medvedev, not Sergei Ivanov (and not Vladimir Putin) who succeeds Vladimir Putin. Putin, it's just been announced, "fully supports" Medvedev's candidacy to replace him when he leaves office after his second term expires in the spring.

    So all hail President Dmitry. There is, of course, the small matter of elections to be sorted out, but you can be sure that the Kremlin - unless this decision creates a major rift behind the red walls - will make sure Putin's man is elected. The liberal opposition is self-destructing anyway, choosing not one, but three candidates to run for the presidency in April.

    So what can be deduced from this, in these first minutes after Putin's announcement? To me, it says that Putin, instead of choosing someone else from inside the siloviki, the cadre of security service veterans who run the country, has chosen someone personally loyal to him. Medvedev is not a chekist (ex-KGB agent) like Putin and Ivanov, he's a Putinist.

    Medvedev has been at Putin's side since the early 1990s, when Putin was chief of staff to St. Petersburg mayor Anatoliy Sobchak and Medvedev was a foreign affairs advisor.

    As Putin rose to power, Medvedev followed. First he was chief of staff to Putin after he was appointed prime minister in 1999 by Boris Yeltsin. Then he ran Putin's 2000 presidential election campaign and afterwards became deputy chief of staff to President Vladimir. Next he was installed as chairman of the board at Gazprom, the giant gas company that Putin has turned into the Kremlin's most effective foreign policy tool.

    When Alexander Voloshin quit as Putin's chief of staff over the sordid Mikhail Khodorkovsky affair in 2003, Medvedev was brought in to replace him and get the Kremlin back on course. Two years ago, in the first hint that this moment might eventually come, he was made First Deputy Prime Minister (along with Ivanov).

    What does all this mean? Two things.

    The first is relations between Russia and the West may yet recover some. The 42-year-old Medvedev is seen as more liberal and pro-Western than the hardline Ivanov. Ivanov was the tough guy you always saw in military fatigues noddling gravely at the testing of new Russian military hardware. Medvedev was the mild-mannered man in the suit that you rarely saw at all until he was made deputy PM in an effort to build up his public persona (although he was theoretically also the guy who made the decision to turn off Gazprom's taps to Ukraine and Belarus when those countries bucked the Kremlin's will...).

    The second is that real power will remain in the hands of our old friend, Vladimir Vladimirovich. Putin's choice was between a man unquestionably loyal to him (Medvedev) and a man unquestionably loyal to the system (Ivanov). He chose the former.

    Medvedev owes Putin everything. If Putin asks him to do something - to make him prime minister, or even to relinquish the presidency because Vladimir Vladimirovich misses the comforts of the Kremlin - he'll do it.

    Monday, December 3, 2007

    Russia chooses authoritarianism

    It was, as Vladimir Putin has proclaimed the morning after, a "doubtless success." According to official results, his United Russia party won upwards of 64 per cent of the vote in yesterday's Duma elections. According to Vladimir Vladimirovich himself, that translates into 315 of the 450 seats in parliament.

    That two-thirds majority in the Duma allows Putin and his acolytes to alter the constitution. They can abolish term limits so that Putin can run again in the presidential vote this spring. They can rename the country Putinistan.

    There's no question now that Vladimir Putin will continue to dominate the Russian political scene after his term ends next year. If he doesn't find a way to retain the presidency (and I remain convinced that he will), he'll be the most powerful prime minister Russians have had since the post was created. If he's neither president nor PM, he'll be the man who yanks the strings on both.

    It all seems so anti-democratic. And yet, yesterday's election results - and the passivity with which Russians went to the ballot boxes to lend their endorsement to what's going on - reminds us again that Putin has done all this with the consent of the vast majority of Russia's 142 million citizens.

    Never mind the weak protests from the OSCE and American-backed NGOs like Golos. The West can kick and scream all it wants (with justification) about media manipulation and suppression of dissent under Putin. But take a drive 100 kilometres outside of Moscow - or better yet, fly to any city east of the Ural Mountains - and you'll see that the liberal elite whose rights we're so concerned with don't represent more than a tiny minority of Russians.

    The masses voted for Putin yesterday - and will again if he finds a way to run for president - because their lives are far better now than they were under the Western-sponsored "freedom" and "democracy" of the Boris Yeltsin years. They, like the country, are back on their feet again economically after the economic chaos of the 1990s, and they give Putin nearly all the credit for the turnaround.

    (A recent Kommersant examination of the Putin era found that "the country’s history has hardly seen another period when the prosperity of the population improved at such a fast rate." The newspaper reported that Russians' real incomes had grown from 6,087 rubles a year in 2000, the year he took office, to 11,425 in 2006.)

    That Putin could preside over eight years that included the Kursk submarine disaster, the Nord-Ost theatre siege debacle and the Beslan school massacre and still be seen as a "stability" president speaks to how disastrous the Yeltsin years - and Western policy towards Russia immediately after the end of the Cold War - really were.

    Much has been made of the Kremlin's near-complete control over the airwaves, and rightly so. The fact that most of the country gets little news beyond what they see on state-controlled television has definitely warped the Russian political map in Putin's favour. But whenever I travelled in Siberia and suggested as much to the reputedly brainwashed people who lived in the Russian heartland, they'd scoff indignantly. They're not stupid, was the reply. After decades of living in the Soviet Union, they know when they're being told the truth and when they're not. Better than any Westerner, they can spot propaganda when they see it.

    My argument here is not that the elections were "free and fair." I've written just last week about what a fraudulent process this election is. No one can or should believe that 99 per cent of Chechens voted for United Russia, as Ramzan Kadyrov and his thugocrats are claiming.

    What I'm saying is that Russians aren't fooled as easily as many seem to think. Rather than rising up and demanding better, they went to the polls yesterday and cast their ballots. By doing so, whether they voted for United Russia or not, they tacitly backed what Putin's been doing, and whatever he'll do next.

    Yes, there were instances of intimidation, but so far such reports are few and far between. With far more thought and experience than most outsiders give them credit for, the majority of Russians have chosen resoundingly chosen to back Putin's vision for their country's course.

    They've chosen security and oil-fuelled economic growth over freedom and democracy. Likewise, they've backed an independent, often anti-Western course on the international scene rather than bowing to Washington's leadership.

    A day after Putin's "doubtless success," it's time the West accepted that, together with all its many implications.

    (For more on this theme, Mikhail Gorbachev, in a fascinating interview with the Wall Street Journal, said he supports Putin and the "transitional democracy" he believes Putin is creating. Gorbachev also claims Dick Cheney once admitted to him that the West wanted to keep Russia on his knees. For those without a WSJ account, lawyer-blogger Robert Amsterdam has posted a full transcript here.)

    Sunday, December 2, 2007

    Election Day

    The polls are now open in the Duma elections.

    I've got 50 rubles on United Russia. Any takers?