Archive for March, 2011

Who’s Crusading Now?

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011

MOSCOW — Those scouring the tea leaves for hints about how Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin shares power with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev were richly rewarded on Monday with a rare bit of public sniping between the two.

As bombs rained down on Libya, Putin toured a plant east of Moscow that makes Russia’s array of ballistic and intercontinental missiles, like the Bulava and the Iskander. A worker asked Putin what he thought of the situation in Libya, and the prime minister told him, as bluntly and saltily as ever.

“This resolution of the Security Council is clearly incomplete and flawed,” he said, referring to U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973, which authorized the use of “all necessary measures” to stop Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi’s attacks on civilians, short of an occupation of Libya. Russia, along with the other BRIC countries and Germany, had abstained from the vote. Putin didn’t stop there, though. If you really read the resolution, said Putin, “it becomes clear that it allows anyone to take any action against a sovereign state.” He went on: “And anyway, it reminds me of a medieval call for the Crusades, when someone would call on someone to go to some place and liberate something.”

A few hours later, Medvedev chastised his partner. “It is unacceptable to use language that, in essence, can lead to a clash of civilizations, like the Crusades and such,” he said, while bemoaning the loss of civilian life in the coalition airstrikes. “It is unacceptable.”

Unacceptable? Did Medvedev, clearly the junior member in the ruling “tandem,” really publicly call Putin’s words “unacceptable”? Was this a rare indication that Medvedev has a political backbone of his own and might be capable of standing up to Putin’s more steely will? And, because there is only a year left until the presidential election — er, decision — of 2012, what does this mean for both candidates’ backroom plans? Was it a sign that Medvedev would want to remain in the presidency, and contest Putin’s rumored plan to take back his seat?

No such luck, dear tea readers. Although public disagreement in the tandem is a rarity, this is not the first time the two heads of state have sparred. (Whenever they do so, it’s also worth remembering the good-cop, bad-cop setup of the ruling tandem.) Moreover, the verbal disagreement seems much bigger than it actually is, given Russia’s generally permissive position on Operation Odyssey Dawn. Russia could easily have vetoed Resolution 1973, but chose to abstain, thereby enabling the operation.

So why is Putin so upset? The abstention puts Russia in an uncomfortable position. Russia does not like it when “someone” tells “someone” to go and “liberate something.” In 1999, for instance, when a NATO coalition bombed Yugoslavia to stop the ethnic cleansing of Kosovars, Russia took its complaint to the United Nations. It tried to pass a resolution stating that “such unilateral use of force constitutes a flagrant violation of the United Nations Charter.” The bid was unsuccessful, but the Western intervention in that war continues to rankle Russia, which still feels threatened by the expansion of NATO, an alliance that was created to confront (Soviet) Moscow.

Perhaps because of this history, any intervention seems to hit a Russian nerve, however reflexive, that it could be next in line. But it also bears mentioning that there are frequently rubles at stake: The countries invaded are often Russian allies, and lucrative ones at that. Qaddafi was such an ally. Under his auspices, Russia and Libya forged a fruitful economic alliance. Just a year ago, Libya bought nearly $2 billion worth of weapons in a high-profile deal. Sources have told the Russian daily Kommersant that not only was Libya expected to be one of the first buyers of Russia’s new generation of fighter planes, but that another $2 billion in planes and anti-aircraft weaponry was in the pipeline. Russian Railways, one of the biggest government monopolies, had just won a $3 billion tender to build a railroad linking Libyan cities on the Mediterranean coast. Now, U.S. and European rockets are landing dangerously close to the Russian Railways factory at Ras Lanuf. They could also threaten to damage the installations of Gazprom and oil company Tatneft.

It’s no coincidence that Putin spoke at a factory that could be hurt by any drop-off in Russian arms deals: He promised workers at the factory, Russia’s main rocket producer, that he would double government orders, partly to compensate for any drop-off in smaller arms deals with Libya.

“[Putin’s] trademark colorful rhetoric was to compensate constituents who lost money because of the Security Council resolution,” says Masha Lipman, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center. “This was absolutely for internal consumption.”

Medvedev’s response, on the other hand, was for external consumption. It was also no coincidence that he stepped into the fray just as U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was speaking to Russian Navy officers in St. Petersburg, praising U.S.-Russia cooperation and the Kremlin’s decision to abstain rather than veto the Security Council resolution. There were even reports that Medvedev was leaning toward supporting the resolution.

Clearly, the Kremlin’s calculation was that there was no use propping up Libya’s sinking ship at the risk of seriously alienating Europe, still Russia’s biggest trading partner, and the United States. Russia was never going to support the intervention in Libya, but, in this case, it clearly calculated that remaining silent would reap the far bigger fruit. Not to mention all this disorder has sent the prices of oil and gold — two major Russian commodities — through the roof, and Russia has a not insignificant budget deficit to fill.

Major decisions like not vetoing in a classic veto situation are not generally reached without the agreement of both halves of the diuumvirate. “Of course they would have reached the decision together,” says Gleb Pavlovsky, who runs a think tank closely linked to the Kremlin. And, at the end of the day, with such a major guest wheeling around the country, the message for external consumption won out. Russian television covered only Medvedev’s statement. “On the whole, this resolution reflects our understanding of the situation in Libya, which is why we didn’t use our veto power,” the president said, after registering the standard reservations about the futility of using force. (Russia also took the unusual step of abruptly firing its ambassador to Libya on the eve of the Security Council vote, for “not having an adequate understanding of Russian interests in Libya.” Allegedly, he was advocating for Russia to veto the resolution.) Medvedev’s press secretary, Natalia Timakova, as well as others close to the administration, tried to paper over the difference between the two leaders, saying that the president’s anti-Crusades slap was not aimed at Putin at all. “He meant Qaddafi and everyone who uses such expressions,” Timakova said. (Qaddafi had earlier called the attack on his country a “colonial crusade.”)

As for Putin’s statement on the Crusades, it was simply his personal opinion, his spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters. Russia’s position on these things is the one voiced by Medvedev, Peskov said, “which is why he is more balanced in his reasoning on this topic.”

Who’s Crusading Now? [FP]

Reset 2.0

Friday, March 11th, 2011

MOSCOW — You can’t really blame U.S. Vice President Joe Biden. It was the end of a long visit to Moscow. For two days, he flitted from meetings to receptions to meetings; he had to see to the happiness of his wife and granddaughter Finnegan, whom he had brought along; and, on top of it all, he had a cold. He was tired. By the time he delivered a major policy speech at Moscow State University on March 10 laying out the Obama administration’s vision of the reset’s next phase, he seemed barely there. And by the time he got around to getting tough with the Russians and invoking the case of imprisoned oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Biden froze. “Over the past few months, our administration has spoken out against allegations of misconduct,” he began, “in the trial of, uh, uh, uh, the uh, excuse me, uh, Kamero … Kerminsky!” he sputtered. And then, by way of apology: “You can tell I didn’t do very well in Russian.”

The linguistic flops aside — Biden said he had brought Finnegan to see the home of the Russian cultural giants, all of whose names proved impossible — the speech was a greatest-hits compilation of everything Barack Obama’s administration has done and has wanted to do, has said publicly and has said privately, vis-à-vis Russia. New START? Check. Shipments of supplies to Afghanistan via Russia? Check. Cooperation on Iran? Check. Fostering an atmosphere of increased trust, starting to build economic ties, gently pressing Russia on rule of law and human rights issues? Ditto. Since last summer, and especially since New START treaty was ratified by the United States in December, the two countries have been working on the economic side of the relationship, with Washington quietly pushing Moscow on rule-of-law issues. Biden’s speech, though, marked a more high-profile appraisal of the reset and in some ways a road map as to where it is headed next. “This reflects what we’ve been talking about since the beginning of the reset,” said a source involved in the trip’s preparations. “The only change is that we’re now building the next phase.”

The next phase is a two-pronged approach, using the trusted carrot and stick. “The next frontier in our relationship,” Biden said, “will be building stronger ties in trade and commerce that match the security accomplishments of the last two years.” In other words, this means Russia’s long-overdue accession to the World Trade Organization and the equally overdue repeal of the Jackson-Vanik amendment, a 1974 law built to punish the Soviet Union for not allowing Jews to emigrate but which now prevents Russia from having normal trade relations with the United States.

In turn, that should mean a wave of American investment in Russia, like PepsiCo’s recent purchase, for $4 billion, of Wimm-Bill-Dann, Russia’s largest juice and dairy conglomerate. (In Biden’s mind, though, this was more a fruit of Obama’s political capital: “Imagine, five years ago, the likelihood that an American company could buy the largest anything in Russia.”) There have also been recent big-money deals involving ExxonMobil, Chevron, John Deere, Microsoft, and Alcoa. And on March 9, with Biden and Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov watching, the Russian airline Aeroflot signed a deal buying $2 billion worth of Boeing planes, at a 20 percent discount. (Likewise, there have also been significant investments in the United States by Russian companies like Evraz, a steel company, and Lukoil.) But, as Biden pointed out, Russia was America’s 37th-largest export market last year. “We’ve got to do better,” he said. “We’ve got to do better.”

Then came the stick. “But you in this room know as well as anyone that even if liberalizing our trade relationship, Russia’s business and legal climate are frankly going to have to improve,” Biden said to an auditorium full of business people. “Because right now, for many companies, it presents a fundamental obstacle.” Then he quoted President Dmitry Medvedev’s description of Russia’s problem of “legal nihilism” and used a maneuver he often resorted to in the speech: “Not my quote,” Biden said. “His quote.” (Message: I’m not Bush; I’m not lecturing.)

Biden went on to mention lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died in jail in 2009 after exposing a scheme used by three Interior Ministry officials to defraud the Russian treasury of $230 million, and invoked poor, garbled Khodorkovsky. (The latter, the vice president said, was imprisoned “on a political whim.”) Biden’s point, and one Russia watchers have been making for years, is that you can’t simply will investors to Russia. “No amount of government cheerleading, or public relations, or U.S. support, or rebranding will bring wronged or nervous investors back to a market they perceive to have these shortcomings,” he said. “I’m not here to lecture; I’m not here to preach; and I’m not here to tell Russia what to do,” he added, but if Russia wanted foreign investors to come back there was only one thing it could do: “Get your system right.”

The vice president’s team was at pains to portray the speech as nothing out of the ordinary, as one that simply advanced the reset agenda. “We now have a record of achievement on security,” said a senior administration official. “This trip was about one piece of the reset that’s underdeveloped, and that is trade and economic ties. What the vice president said in his speech are messages we’ve been consistently sending, through White House statements on Magnitsky and Khodorkovsky; we’ve had half a dozen statements on Strategy 31 [the movement that protests on the 31st of every 31-day month for freedom of assembly]. In our opinion, we’ve had a consistent message.”

But to everyone who heard it — and to the people who interrupted Biden’s speech to applaud — it was new, because a White House statement that barely registers on a news wire is not the same thing as a vice presidential policy speech, delivered in Moscow. It was also unusual for another reason, as the Obama administration has so far been reluctant to take this tone, at least publicly. Although there have been discussions behind the scenes about the Khodorkovsky case and official boilerplate statements, policy speeches, like Obama’s in Moscow in July 2009, usually limit themselves to abstract “universal values” or focus instead on strategic cooperation, like New START and Iran.

The stranger thing, though, was the fallout from the speech. Namely, there wasn’t any. There was some bluster from the corners that are expected to bluster, like Duma deputy and foreign-policy hawk Sergei Markov. “From what I understand, the subtext of Biden’s speech was ‘Basically, I have to follow Obama’s orders, but basically I hate Russia and I hope that the reset blows up,'” he said, adding that he has yet to see any tangible benefits for Russia from the reset.

In general, though, Biden’s speech passed like the life-advice talk your well-meaning uncle gives you on the sidelines of a family dinner. It’s nice and maybe a little annoying, but it’s nothing you haven’t heard before and you’d rather just go back to drinking with your cousins.

Russian media ignored it, just as Biden largely ignored Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s out-of-left-field suggestion, at their meeting earlier that day, to just drop visa requirements between Russia and the United States. (Biden, a bit taken aback, was reported to have said it was a “good idea” and promised to think it over.) But his speech, in itself, is a massive sign of progress. A similar speech by someone from George W. Bush’s administration — or, God forbid, former Vice President Dick Cheney himself — would have triggered a vicious rhetorical war. But Biden’s critique was calmly received, due in equal parts to the tactful phrasing, the two years of public deference to Russia, and perhaps the uncertainty about who will be leading the two countries after 2012. It’s also a signal of a deepening familiarity between Russia and the United States, notes Fyodor Lukyanov, the well-connected editor of Russia in Global Affairs. “This is the Chinese method,” he explained. “Obama said all kinds of things in China, and China didn’t react. There was no publicity, no change in Chinese policy. Now, in Russia, there’s an understanding that the Americans have to say it, that’s their style. Fine. They want to talk? Let them talk.”

As for the commercial ties, Lukyanov is equally skeptical. “America and Russia will never be major economic partners; it will all stay in Europe,” he said. And in Europe, talk is very different. “The Europeans have to say this stuff about human rights and democracy in public,” Lukyanov explains. “But in private, it’s only about business.”

Reset 2.0 [FP]

Defender of, um, Women

Wednesday, March 9th, 2011

‘Twas the second night of a long holiday to celebrate International Women’s Day, on March 8, and Moscow honored them the best way it knows how: by smearing them with glitter, taking their tops off, and having them bounce in honor of the country’s macho ubermensch Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.

The resultant Putin Party seemed a throwback to the best of the golden days of Putin’s (official) rule, all bread and sparkly circuses. There were the outlandish gogo dancers and the sparkly eunuch working the tightrope. There was the acrobat in red tights splitting apart the clear plastic shell that spun her over the crowd with the sheer force of her split; the spinning, airborne bed on which a scantily clad pair reenacted the over-under coital acrobatics that go on in most happy homes. There was the obligatory show, with sequined candelabra-head aliens and cabaret girls with a banner that says, “It’s shitty without Vova,” using the casual version Putin’s first name. And, it goes without saying, that the décor was top-tier swanky: cheap plastic leanders and a giant snake head – and a lady rubbing her breasts atop a replica of Putin’s desk.

Putin would’ve been proud.

But everyone, especially the journalists covering the event, had a question: what did this all mean? Was this the first salvo in the prime minister’s campaign to retake the presidency, in March 2012? Had the event been organized by the nutters at the Kremlin youth group, Nashi? (The speech bubbles floating around the party with slogans like, “Vova, I’m with you!” were, after all red and white, the colors of Nashi. Plus, one of the bartenders said so.) And what of the weak outrage shown by Putin’s press secretary that the party had no relation to the Prime Minister, whose name was being used in vain? If he were really so outraged and so against the idea, surely one phone call could’ve shut the place down. Doesn’t that mean that Putin was actually behind it all?

These were interesting questions, ones we continued to discuss while fending off the other journalists with cameras. (“We’re also journalists,” we told each other. “You don’t need us.”) The rest of the public couldn’t have cared less about the politics or the non-politics or the simulacra politics covering the decoy politics. They were there to dance, or stare at boobies.

In reality, the answer is much more simple, and much more Russian. The Putin Party was held at Rai (“paradise”), a club that was once the hottest, most splashiest in Moscow but has now almost reached the final shore of washed up. The concept of the party came from someone else’s idea (of course), which had used ladies to celebrate another important Russian Federation holiday: Vladimir Putin’s 58th birthday, last October. To mark the occasion, one enterprising young journalism student at Moscow State University (“Russia’s Harvard”) decided to make a calendar for Putin. It would be of his fellow students in the journalism department, considered a bastion of liberal opposition to the Kremlin. These ladies, on the other hand, did not so much care. They were happy to get into fancy lingere and pose for the man with fun little slogans. “Vladimir Vladimirovich, they put out the forest fires, but I’m still burning,” said Miss March. “Vladimir Vladimirovich, how about a third go?” said Miss February, referring to a potential third term. “Vladimir Vladimirovich, I’d like to thank you in person. Call 8- 925-148-17-28,” said Ksenya Selezneva, Miss December. The calendar was a huge media success, and even Putin said he liked it, in public.

And so the owners of Rai, watching the media madness over the calendar and their own passing glory, decided to cash in. They summoned in the Moscow State calendar girls and threw a sexy Putin party, using the time-tested Russian knowledge that you don’t fix what ain’t broke. (In the promotional video for the party, Selezneva aka Miss December says, “Not only women love Putin. Men also adore Putin and they too want to dance at a party dedicated to Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.”)

“Our goal was to attract attention to ourselves,” said Andreas Lobzhanidze, the organizer of the party and Rai’s promoter, when reached by phone the next day. He denied that the party had been organized by Nashi, the Kremlin youth group. “Our goal was to show that we want to be part of the Olympics and Formula-1” – both events, in 2014, that Putin brought to Russia using his star-power. There’s a lot of money to be made, and Rai wants in. “We’re ready to be partners, as event organizers and the like,” Lobzhanidze said. And, given all the uncertainty and guessing in the run-up to Putin’s decision, in March 2012, whether he or Dmitry Medvedev will be president, the party was sure to create a very lucrative splash.

Despite the Putin Party’s success, Lobzhanidze sounded very irritated. “I’m on a romantic date with a lady, celebrating March 8th,” he said. “I don’t have time to discuss this party.”

Defender of, um, Women [The Daily]