Twitter Updates

    follow me on Twitter

    Friday, February 29, 2008

    The elusive 72 per cent

    Stop the presses! The Guardian is reporting the shocking news that the Kremlin is planning to tamper with the results of Sunday's election.

    The Guardian (Tom Parfitt, one of the story's authors, is a friend and a hell of a reporter) quotes election officials around the country who say they've been told that they need to deliver anywhere from 65 per cent to 88 per cent of the vote to Dmitriy Medvedev, with the overall national figure landing somewhere around 72 per cent for Vladimir Putin's sidekick.

    For months, ever since Putin announced that he was backing his long-time aide Medvedev to succeed him, the only question about the election was how big a margin President Medvedev would win by. Now we know.

    Bizarrely, the target is exactly the same as the one the Kremlin set in 2004. After Vladimir Vladimirovich won a second term with a resounding 71.3 per cent of the vote, several of his spin doctors confirmed to me that the 72 per cent had been the officially mandated target (tsk-tsk to those who let down the nation by failing to deliver the additional 0.7 per cent).

    Why? Because it was a wide enough win to make clear to the Kremlin's enemies at home and abroad that Putin was a juggernaut: 72 per cent made it clear that Putin embodied the will of the nation, and those who opposed him were unpatriotic. The lunatic fringe.

    But quietly conscious of criticisms that Russia was sliding away from democracy, the puppet masters (Gleb Pavlovsky, Marat Gelman, Vyacheslav Nikonov, Sergei Markov et al) determined that a higher figure - Putin had been flirting with 80 per cent in some pre-election polls - would seem improbable.

    To their minds, 72 per cent would show the world that a real vote had taken place, and the Kremlin's man had defeated his weak and divided opponents. Eighty per cent smacked of the bad old days where there was only one name on the ballot.

    I'm impressed the Kremlin is still working this hard to try and pretend that democracy is alive and well in its realm.

    My question is, what happens if Medvedev does reach 72 per cent, or (gasp!) 71.4? Does that mean he's more popular than aspiring Prime Minister Putin? Is that allowed?

    A nation holds its breath.

    Saturday, February 16, 2008

    The Kosovo conundrum

    It sounds increasingly like Kosovo is going to unilaterally declare independence from Serbia tomorrow.

    Whatever you think of the arguments for and against Kosovo becoming an independent state, it's a dangerous step that could provoke fresh violence not only in the Serbian areas of Kosovo (if Serbia is divisible, why isn't Kosovo?), but in ethnically divided Bosnia-Herzegovina as well. Leaders of the "Respublika Srpska" could be forgiven for wondering why - if Kosovo is allowed by the international community to go its own way - they can't also declare independence or push again for union with Serbia.

    Russia's foreign ministry once more earned itself the enmity of Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili last week when it linked the fate of Kosovo with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Georgia's two breakaway regions. But the Russian stance has some merit: Why are the Kosovars more worthy of independence than the Abkhaz or the South Ossetians?

    (It's worth noting here that many Georgians see the logic in what the Kremlin is saying: "Today there is no bigger problem for Georgia than possible recognition of Kosovo," Kakha Dzagania of the opposition Labor Party was quoted as saying yesterday. "That may become a precedent for recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.")

    There are those who will argue that the Abkhaz and South Ossetian separatism movements are not genuine, that they are manufactured by the Kremlin as a way of maintaining influence over its former colony. While there's certainly some truth to this, you could say the same about Kosovo, which has been nurtured and protected by NATO since 1999.

    My point here is not to argue for or against independence for Kosovo. But I do find myself wondering how the United States and the European Union find it reasonable to argue that the Kosovars deserve the right to determine their own fate, Serbia be damned, but other peoples of Eastern Europe in similar situations do not.

    If Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence is going to get the support of the international community, let's make the right of national self-determination the new global standard. Let's set about determining the real will of the Abkhaz and the South Ossetians and back open and fair (not Russian-sponsored) referendums on whether they want to remain in Georgia. Then let's help them enforce the results.

    Hell, while we're at it, let's do the same for the Transdniestr, the Respublika Srpska , Chechnya and the Crimea. If we're going to open this Pandora's Box in Eastern Europe, let's open it all the way.

    Anything less looks like the West is picking favourites to suit its geopolitical agenda. And that's just begging for trouble.

    Friday, February 8, 2008

    It's not always Russia's fault

    Here it is - that one one big issue on which I wholeheartedly agree with Vladimir Putin: there is a New Cold War, it didn't have to happen, and Russia didn't start it.

    There. I said it.

    Russia and the West are strategic adversaries again because:

    1) During the 1990s, the West treated Russia as a weakling (it was) whose interests it didn't need to pay attention to.

    2) Since 2000, the West has treated Russia like a hostile entity. It was a self-fulfilling prophesy.

    The second point is the one the New Cold Warriors in Washington and Brussels are most likely to take issue with. But the common Western narrative - that Putin is KGB to the soul and was always going to be hell-bent on avenging the collapse of the USSR - overlooks Putin's initial moves to befriend the West after taking office, particularly his overt willingness to help after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

    True, he was motivated by his own interests - getting the West to see his dirty war in Chechnya as part of a wider "war on terror" - but the steps he took were genuine. By easing the way for the U.S. to establish airbases in the former Soviet republics of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, he greenlighted the first-ever NATO military presence in an area that had been Russia's zone of influence since the time of the Tsars. Russia also offered to share its intelligence and advice on Afghanistan, something that perhaps should have been of more interest to the U.S. and its allies, since we now find ourselves just as bogged down there as the Red Army was in the 1980s.

    What did Russia get in return? American troops in Georgia. The eastward expansion of NATO all the way into the Baltic states, with talk of Ukraine being eventually added as well. The planned missile defense shield based in Poland and the Czech Republic.

    None of these moves is necessarily threatening until you combine them with the West's refusal to talk seriously about including Russia in NATO, or the White House's stubborn refusal to contemplate a missile shield based in Azerbaijan (the country closest to the alleged Iranian threat) instead of Eastern Europe.

    "It's not our fault, we didn't start … funnelling multi-billions of dollars into developing weapons systems," Putin said today in announcing that Russia would join what he defined as "a new arms race."

    He went on: "We drew down our bases in Cuba and in Vietnam. What did we get? New American bases in Romania, Bulgaria. A new third missile defence region in Poland." That's not just how the Kremlin and its ultranationalist friends view it - that's how most Russians see things.

    It's worth noting that as Putin gave his speech, NATO was meeting in Vilnius, the capital of ex-Soviet Lithuania. If NATO is not an anti-Russian alliance, why does it expand up to the Russian border without inviting Moscow to join? If the missile shield is not directed against Russia, why not base it in Azerbaijan?

    The West - after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of communism - laughed at its defeated adversary and ignored its concerns. Now that Russia is resurgent and has the funds to rejoin the fight, that arrogance comes home to roost. We treated it as an enemy until it became one.

    It didn't have to be this way.