Archive for November, 2009

Ukraine’s Phantom Flu

Thursday, November 26th, 2009

The global swine flu outbreak has become something of a political football in every country where the pandemic has spread, but Ukraine’s response to the virus has achieved a new level of blatant politicization. According to a campaign advisor to Yulia Tymoshenko, the Ukrainian prime minister and presidential candidate purposely inflated fears of an ongoing swine-flu epidemic to aid her presidential run.

“We had to create a phantom and then have a white knight riding in to save the day,” Taras Berezovets, a senior campaign advisor for Tymoshenko’s BYuT bloc, told me in a Kiev restaurant, confirming widespread suspicions among Ukrainian journalists.

Since October, Ukraine has been in the grips of a full-blown panic over swine flu, complete with quarantines, school closures, runs on pharmacies. The Ukrainian health system, already badly dilapidated, was caught off guard and almost 400 people died of the flu in just three weeks.

Tymoshenko flew into action, organizing a delivery of the antiviral drug Tamiflu — and the requisite press conference — at the Kiev airport in the early morning hours of Nov. 2. She quarantined nine regions of the country, closed all schools and univeristies, and petitioned the president for $125 million in emergency funds to fight what seemed to be “the plague of the 21st-century plague,” as one Ukrainian put it. Incidentally, she also banned all mass gatherings and political rallies — after she had already had hers.

Although the World Health Organization concluded that “the numbers of severe cases do not appear to be excessive when compared to the experience of other countries,” the call for calm was drowned out by Tymoshenko’s drumbeat of action. Pharmacies ran out of surgical masks and medicines as panicked Ukrainians dangerously hoarded supplies.

The fracas couldn’t have come at a better time for Tymoshenko, the self-styled heroine of the 2004 Orange Revolution, who was losing the race to the very man the revolution disgraced: Viktor Yanukovich, the Russian-backed candidate. Tymoshenko’s second term has been marred by vicious backbiting with her onetime Orange Revolution ally, President Victor Yushchenko, her perceived pandering to Russia on gas deals, and her apparent inability to save Ukraine from the absolute implosion of its economy.

As GDP contracted by over 15 percent in the third quarter of 2009 and Tymoshenko continued to bicker with Yushchenko, her approval ratings plummeted from a high of 47 percent in the spring of 2005 to just 14 percent in October. (And that was an improvement from her summer numbers.) Yanukovich, on the other hand, a man few Ukrainians trust because he twice did jail time for unclear reasons and who was suspected of poisoning Yushchenko, has seen his numbers climb to double that.

Thanks to her vigorous response to a swine-flu panic she herself manufactured, however, Tymoshenko has been steadily catching up, nearly halving the gap in the polls. Outfoxed, Yanukovich tried to return the parry by ordering more surgical masks, but the damage was already done.

But with the WHO concluding that there was nothing unusual about Ukraine’s flu outbreak and the government ending the quarantine, saying that the epidemic had peaked after just a few weeks, journalists and political observers have long been questioning whether the swine flu actually affected Ukraine disproportionately or if this was simply a campaign ploy used by the prime minister, a suspicion now confirmed by one of Tymoshenko’s top advisors.

When asked for comment on Berezovets’s statement, a Tymoshenko spokesperson said, “I have not heard any such information. All I know is that Yulia Volodymyrovna used all the government’s powers to prevent the spread of swine flu and the visiting WHO delegation which was here yesterday gave her high marks.”

Some observers — including the WHO — point out that, spin job or not, Tymoshenko’s energetic response did help put Ukraine’s failing health system in some order ahead of an oncoming second wave of swine flu.

But for Tymoshenko’s people, the one true benefit is clear. As Berezovets put it, “We won in the media.”

Ukraine’s Phantom Flu [Foreign Policy]

Russia’s Staged State of the Nation

Friday, November 13th, 2009

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev delivered his second state-of-the-nation address before the Russian parliament on Thursday. The speech’s sternness and substance sounded like a sharp break with Russia’s political and economic stagnation under President-turned-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who was seated in the front row as Medvedev spoke. No longer could the country continue its “humiliating” resource dependency, Medvedev said; no longer could business make a living simply by trading in foreign goods; no longer could the crisis — which, Medvedev admitted, hit Russia especially hard — be blamed on others.

For an hour and 40 minutes, Medvedev went on in front of an increasingly fidgety audience, spotlighting with admirable candor the things that are slowing Russia’s progress into modernity. Some of his proposals — like reducing the number of Russian time zones and introducing dance instruction in schools — were bizarre. But the vast majority was amazingly spot-on, tough-love material more often heard in Western think tanks and opposition papers. Medvedev was telling Russians what they needed to hear: sink or swim. And, to the untrained ear, it sounded like a definitive break with the reign of Putinism, a legacy of corruption and autocracy to which Medvedev seemed to be setting himself up as a liberal foil.

But like many Kremlin initiatives, Medvedev’s new “openness” was a show, carefully staged and tested and re-tested. Two months ago, the president published an article titled “Onward, Russia!” in the online liberal newspaper, Gazeta.ru. It was a strange — and strangely critical — editorial, asking Russians why they clung to the past, to the addiction to natural resources, to corruption. It asked them, in an almost Obama-like way, to stop looking for blame abroad and to look for solutions at home, to move forward, to modernize. Medvedev even gave readers an email address where anyone could send their “practical plans for the development of our state.” “Modernization,” the editorial’s leitmotif, instantly monopolized Russian political discourse.

Over the next two months some 30,000 people responded — including one much-publicized futorologist. This was a signal from the Kremlin, a trial balloon for the November presidential address (much of which is generally passed quickly into law by the rubber-stamp Duma), and so there was daily speculation about what Medvedev would mention, and what he’d relegate to the radioactive bin. The essay’s unprecedented openness — or at least seeming openness — piqued the interests of the chattering classes.

By the time the speech came, there was a twin feeling of suspense — what will he say? — and absolute apathy – we already know what he’ll say.

The speech, when it came, was both surprisingly forthright and familiarly false-bottomed.

Modernity was the word of the day, as expected: Just as Russia once forged ahead through great sacrifice to become a major 20th-century power, Medvedev said, “in the 21st-century, our country again cannot do without all-encompassing modernization.” And modernization à la Medvedev means technological innovation and the establishment of a Silicon-Valley-type center of ingenuity; making sure that at least 50 percent of medicines are manufactured in Russia; tossing up more satellites into space; cleaning out the ranks of the corrupted police force; jailing corrupt bureaucrats and covering the country in a blanket of broadband Internet; raising pensions; supporting NGOs and opening the electoral system; strengthening civil society and improving the education system; getting a handle on the hurly-burly of the North Caucasus and putting an end to “puffing out our cheeks” in foreign policy.

And Medvedev had the courage to talk of reforming Russia’s essentially one-party, Kremlin-controlled political system, and even made a meaningful gesture — eliminating signature-gathering as a prerequisite for participating in elections (this is the main tool to disqualify unfriendlies). But all pretense fell away as soon as he said, “On the whole we can say that the multi-party system in the Russian Federation has come together.”

There were plenty of other double-take moments in the address. Medvedev’s proposals to promote technological innovation sound great — were it not for the fact that they were more of the same, old, Soviet methodology: top-down, mandated progress relegated to inefficient, bureaucratized production centers. He also offered federal representation for parties that didn’t meet the 7 percent threshold nationally — another key tool for keeping real opposition out of the federal parliament — but got over 5 percent in regional elections. It would have been a generous concession, were it not for the fact that not a single party exists that meets these criteria. (That, and one decorative seat in a parliament where the president’s party has enough votes to change the constitution, is cold comfort.)

Another head-scratcher came when Medvedev talked of supporting non-governmental organizations — just as two of Russia’s oldest human rights organizations, including Andrei Sakharov’s Helsinki Group, were evicted from their Moscow offices without explanation. And yet, if you read his speech closely, there was no contradiction: Medvedev talked only about the kinds of NGOs that deal with orphans, not with human rights abuses in Chechnya. To him, the latter class of NGOs are but wreckers and saboteurs.

And then came the real zinger. “Strengthening democracy does not mean weakening the social order,” he said, adding that “any attempts, under democratic slogans, to … destabilize the government and fracture society will be intercepted.” It sounded chilling enough to negate all prior talk of political thaw.

Even members of United Russia, the president’s own party, seemed skeptical for reasons beyond the speech’s contradictions. “These addresses are always good,” says United Russia Duma deputy Boris Resnik. “There are no bad ones. Everyone says the right words. We’d like to see these ideas brought to life, and there are many, many obstacles: routine, inertia, indifference, satisfaction with one’s little feeding trough.”

But those are not, actually, the main hurdles to achieving the ambitious reforms Medvedev laid out in his address. He spoke of nothing short of systemic change, yet much of what he proposed was either vague and impossible to implement, or overly specific and superficial. And, as the crisis has clearly demonstrated, Russia is beyond cosmetic help; Russia needs a quadruple bypass.

Furthermore, notes Masha Lipman of Moscow’s Carnegie Center, even if all the electoral reforms were implemented — as were the electoral amendments proposed in the 2008 speech — they may have very little effect on the ground. “You can pass any law you want — you have a constitutional majority in the Duma,” she says. “But what does it mean? Does the country live by the law? Any law can be gotten around.”

And, finally, what about Putin? The prime minister, seated in the front row, squirmed though the interminable address, vacillating between annoyance and boredom, and, just a hair too often, rolling his eyes.

But that was all for those of us watching for signs of a split in the so-called tandem, when, in fact, there is none. The two rule together, and Putin rules the two of them. Given this balance of power, this was no coup: Putin must have seen and signed off on the address before his successor delivered it. “I think it’s more of an evolution of Putinism into Putinism Lite,” says Alexander Kliment, an analyst with the Eurasia Group. “I don’t think of Medvedev as opposition to Putin in any meaningful way. He is simply the more liberal side of Putin’s brain.” And recent polls indicate that over 80 percent of Russians agree, interpreting Medvedev’s first year-and-a-half in office as a continuation of Putin’s policies.

Moreover, Medvedev can’t implement these reforms alone, even if he has a malleable Duma at his disposal. He needs the elites, and they, carefully distributing their loyalty between the two leaders, would be foolish to jump for Medvedev’s ship, given the very real chance that Putin could snatch back the presidency in 2012 — for 12 more years.

And the member of the elites Medvedev needs most is Putin himself. Next week, Putin will speak at the United Russia congress. What he talks about and any overlaps with Medvedev’s November 12 address will be the signals to Russian political players about the government’s real agenda. “Medvedev’s last word on everything is Putin’s,” says Kliment. “No one is under any illusions about this, not even Medvedev.”

Russia’s Staged State of the Union [Foreign Policy]