Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Luzhkov Bans Moscow's Pride

Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov has decided to ban the city's first ever gay pride parade, despite vows to end discrimination, the website GayRussia reports. The Moscow Pride '06 festival was to take place 24-28 May, but now organisers are unsure whether they will be able to go through with the event.

The ban does not come as a surprise to the Russian gay movement. The situation for gays in Eastern Europe is generally poor. In June last year, the Polish gay movement ignored a ban on their Pride parade and marched through Warzaw. In July, the Pride parade in Riga, Latvia, was interrupted by protesters. Moscow is, therefore, not unique in its intolerance towards gay people.

All the same, western human rights' advocates have acted to lift the Moscow ban. Among others, Human Rights Watch, protests against the decision in a letter to mayor Luzhkov, and urges him to reconsider. It, however, seems unlikely that the golubye and rozovye will march the streets of Moscow in May.

I am perhaps naïve, but I simply cannot see what it is with homo-, bi- or transsexuality that provokes so deep reactions in Eastern Europe. This sort of bigotry, surely, does not belong to modern society, as it appears to me. I mean, what do they have to fear? An alternative way of life or general dissent from the social norm? OK, I surely do not understand everything that the HBT-movement is up to and generally take little interest in it. However, they have as much a right to freedom of speech and expression as I have. Thus, governments in Eastern Europe simply have to deal with the issue of equal rights to their citizens regardless of political affinity, religion, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation. Then they will have something to pride themselves of.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Chechnya - Bloody Harvest

Sun was shining over the freshly harvested fields. Was this really Chechnya, the reign of terror that he had heard so much about? Thoughts of the idyllic picture before his eyes were interrupted by his Chechen companion's comment: "It's the new cluster bombs. Their razor-sharp projectiles shave the face of the earth clean."

This story of a western journalist, travelling through Chechnya a few years back, serves to illustrate how difficult it is to comprehend the infathomable realities of daily life in this war-ridden country.

Only today, Sveriges Radio (Swedish State Radio) reports on a mysterious illness that has struck the population - mostly children - of Chelkovskaya, a village some 70 kilometres from Grozny. Symptoms with difficulties breathing and stomach-pains have led the local population to assume that the illness is caused by Russian troops dumping nerve gas or some other poison near the village. Russian authorities, however, claim that symptoms are wholly psychosomatic, and that there is no ground for the dumping allegations.

Last Friday, UN Human Rights Commissioner, Louise Arbour, said that there is "a climate of fear" in Chechnya, caused by the "very serious shortcomings of the law enforcement system," BBC reports. The area "has still not been able to move away from a society ruled by force to one governed by the rule of law," according to Arbour. Having finished a week-long trip to Russia and the Northern Caucasus, Arbour met with president Putin to discuss human rights issues. It is not hard to imagine that the two - despite diplomatic decorum - had difficulties sharing a common view on the situation.

Needless to say, regular talks on and visits to Chechnya, by representatives of the international community, are important to highlight the situation in the republic. The question is to what extent they help to lay the foundations of peaceful conflict resolution and reconstruction of Chechen society. Not even the Russian government seems able to grasp the situation in full - blinded by their "war on terror" and society's rampant racist sentiments towards Chechens. Also, it seems unlikely that the West will grasp realities and act on them for a true change of the situation. Regrettably, it is safe to assume that - also this year - the only harvesting the Chechen people will see, is that of the great reaper.

EU Funds Broadcasting to Belarus

On Friday, RFE/RL reports that the European Union will be funding independent broadcasting to Belarus in the amount of 2 million Euro over at two year period. Radio transmissions begin on February 26 and will mainly emanate from Poland and Lithuania. Despite the source of funding, radio stations are to be independent from the EU. This is less than a month before the 19 March presidential elections in Belarus, and Lukashenka's regime will be sure to see it as an EU provocation.

Targeting a youthful audience, European Radio for Belarus and Radio Baltic Wave are to give Belarusians alternative access to information in the same manner that RFE/RL did during the Cold War. Programmes will be in both Belarusian and Russian, and be broadcast on the FM band and via the Internet.

Already in January, EU Commission spokeswoman, Emma Udwin, declared that "There will be specific TV and radio programs dedicated to the elections broadcast ahead of the election date," EU Business reports.

The new radio stations are, however, not the only independent foreign media targeting Belarus. For long, Radio Racja had regular transmissions to Belarus, but in the end had to stop sending due to lack of funding. By this project, however, Radio Racyja seems to have been adopted by the new European Radio for Belarus. Also, Deutsche Welle, has been targeting programmes at a Belarusian audience.

Rumour also has it that president Lukashenka, during a recent visit to China, took great interest in Chinese authorities' methods to control the Internet by banning and screening information. Although this may be too late for the upcoming 19 March presidential elections in Belarus, we will be sure to hear more about such measures by Lukashenka during his third term in office.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Global Voices Review

Following up on my survey of the Swedish Blogosphere on "Eastern Europe," Global Voices yesterday included a reference to the piece in their Global Roundups.

It is not the first time that they have reviewed my blog over its three months' existence. Earlier this week, their ever so diligent Nathan Hamm - also known for his Registan.net - referred to my critical comment on ICG's recent report on Uzbekistan.

I am the first to admit that there is a narcissist element in getting referred to for what you write. The greater good, however, is that the volunteers of Global Voices do the same for a multitude of other blogs. This is perhaps not news to most of you, but an éloge must be made to all the young men and women who take the time to review various aspects of the blogosphere. Without them, we would be at a loss to find our way on the global blog scene. Now, instead, bloggers around the world can be in touch with what others write and comment about, and ultimately enter into dialogue. For me, that is what it is all about. Writing for the fun of it and having fun seeing what others write, and - perhaps - to find people with common interests with whom one might exchange views and ideas.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Swedish blogs on "Eastern Europe"

It is safe to say that the blog scene reflecting "Eastern European" events is quite limited as compared to "hotter" regions such as the Middle East. True to its ambition of commenting and promoting quality blogs, Global voices makes efforts to introduce its readers to most aspects of the blogosphere and also to Eastern Europe, Russia, Caucasus & Central Asia. As for the many country-specific blogs on "Eastern Europe," there is, however, little information to be found. Therefore, I here try to account for Swedish blogs on the region.

One of the most frequently visited blogs is Tobias Ljungvall on Belarus. Ljungvall, a liberal with a deep commitment to freedom and democracy in Belarus, here makes his "observations of political developments in and around the Republic of Belarus." The blog also advertises Ljungvall's book Kontoll - Rapport från Vitryssland (Control - Report from Belarus). The blog is updated every Sunday. Needless to say, Ljungvall is not welcome any longer in Belarus under the current Lukashenka regime. All the same, he is probably one of the most well-informed people in Sweden on the situation in Belarus.

Allt om Georgien (in Swedish) is an anonymous blog dedicated to tell "all about Georgia" - as its title indicates - to a Swedish audience. It thus informs about, comments on, and promotes current events in Georgia, and things related to Georgia in Sweden. As for its anonymity, it is no hard guess that Göran Dalin and his lovely Georgian wife Ekaterine are behind this blog. The couple seems to have formed the hub of Georgian community in Sweden during recent years - correct me if I am wrong - and this, I believe, is just another of their ventures. As for contents, the love and devotion to Georgia is quite apparent in the blog.

I think many of us may recognise familiar things and phenomena on Camilla Bondareva's blog Ad notam (in Swedish). She writes and reflects on everyday life in St. Petersburg and Russia, and many of her texts are illustrated by her own photos. Bondareva is a free-lance communication manager. In addition to the texts, the general layout and impression of the blog is very nice.

A Swedish expat in Tajikistan - Erik Petersson - actually has two photo blogs on the region. The reason is simple - he started up in Moscow and then moved on to Dushanbe. The Moscow blog (in Swedish) - Samtidigt, i Moskva - depicts Moscow life with Petersson's own pictures and accompanying comments. His Tajikistan blog (in English) - Dushanbe pictures - is so far simply a photo blog with few comments. The pictures themselves may, however, need no further comment. Some of the black-and-white pictures bear the hallmarks of a professional photographer.

Wictoria Majby - a Swedish Institute teacher in Murmansk - runs the blog Ryska Rövarhistorier (in Swedish). Its Swedish title means "Russian cock-and-bull stories" and that is perhaps more of an ironic ambition than reality. Majby simply writes and reflects on various phenomena of her daily life and chores as a foreigner in the Russian north. Those of us who know her, will find her frequent comments well in tune with her vibrant personality.

A UN intern in Abkhazia - Carl Gustaf Erixon - tells about his experiences during out-of-service time on CG Bloggin' (in Swedish). The blog mainly features his reflections from this conflict-ridden part of Georgia. He also runs a photo blog - cgerixon's photos - to post pictures, which there is not enough space for on his regular blog.

Then there is Fredrik Nejman's Ukraina-blogg (in Swedish), which forms part of the Swedish Union of Journalists' website. The aim of Nejman's blog is to inform about the union's ongoing cooperation with the Ukrainian journalist trade union. As such, it is somewhat particular to the ongoing project, but that is also its purpose and aim.

Under the pseudonym of "Annabengan," a Swedish woman serving with the IOM in Albania tells us about her experiences there and elsewhere on her blog Annasblog (part Swedish - part English). She is careful to point out that: "Everything on this website is purely my own thoughts and in no way reflects the policies or thoughts of the organization I'm working for."

Finally, there are a couple of blogs that are not specifically dedicated to "Eastern Europe" but where one might regularly find comments on the region. First, there is Andreas's blog, (part English - part Swedish) by Swedish liberal Andreas Ribbefjord. Last, but not least, mention must be made of former Swedish Prime Minister's, Carl Bildt, blog - Bildt comments. With his great interest in international affairs, liberal-conservative Bildt every once in a while writes something about Russia and other parts of "Eastern Europe." It may often be worthwhile to read his blogs on these issues.

As may have been gathered by now, the Swedish blogosphere on "Eastern Europe" is limited. This is somewhat strange, as there is quite a lot of people in Sweden with an interest in the region. It has apparently so far not resulted in any greater urge to blog on issues related to "Eastern Europe." A question, however, lingers on: Have I missed something? Is this really the case?

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Belarus - The Tacit Triumph of Totalitarianism?

Hits, blows and kicks - the eternal language of totalitariansim - today confonts the people's inalienable right to freedom and democracy. This is Belarus - the centre of Europe - in February 2006. Here, evil old times still reign. With the grip as of an iron fist, president Aleksandr Lukashenka rules the country as a last remnant of soviethood. The outcome of the upcoming 19 March presidential elections seem predictable for the pre-ordained president in power.

A few days earlier, on March 15, the democratic opposition of Belarus may want to commemorate the country's first democratic constitution - that of 1994. However, few will probably dare to demonstrate for a democracy that has become defunct. This is so while, since then, Lukashenka leads a regime with increasing totalitarian expressions.

The people is denied not only democracy, but also the right to national identity. As a gesture of omnipotence, Lukashenka introduced Russian as the official language and forbade national symbols at an early stage of his presidential tenure. Oppression of national identity is one element of the nomenklatura strategy to hold on to the power and privileges of soviet times. Leading oppositionists are jailed or disappear in a country where the secret service still is called the KGB.

From democracy to dictatorship?

The road to democracy for Belarus was barred when Aleksandr Lukashenka in 1994 was elected president. Within a year, Lukashenka eliminated potential opposition from legislative power by staged parliamentary elections and a referendum that jointly gave him unrestricted powers. This was the first of a series of elections which legitimacy have come to be rejected by the Council of Europe, the OSCE and the international community in general. By power of decree and manipulated referenda, the president himself has been able to set the limits of his rule. A third presidential period was ensured in 1999 by way of changes in the constitution, and in 2004 all bars for presidential term limits were removed.

As Lukashenka now inevitably seems to be up for his third presidential term, one might ask what characterises Lukashenka's leadership? Several former associates question the mental health of the president. His demagogics express populism as well as paranoia. In the country that during WWII lost the highest percentage of its population, anti-semitism and admiration of Hitler seems awkward to say the least. Still, this has been part and parcel of presidential personality in Belarus. The international isolation of Belarus is explained by a conspiracy directed by the US and NATO. This was far from true when Lukashenka first aired such thoughts, but by provocative domestic and international behaviour, he has become l'enfant terrible of European politics. Today, western governments would cheer to see Lukashenka ousted from power. Conspiracy or no conspiracy - this is the simple fact. The veracity of Lukashenka's madness may probably be questioned. His policies may likewise be considered a shrewd calculation that he would never be able to make it, if Belarus were to become party to European integration. However, it seems clear that he suffers from a distorted sense of reality, which hardly can be explained by unrestricted power or international isolation.

That the country's opposition is fighting an uneven battle has numerous reasons. They may be sought in remnants of soviet mentality and lack of freedom for the press. Still, there is greater freedom now than during the dark ages of soviet rule. As long as the power of the president remains unchallenged, the opposition has been allowed to act within restricted limits. One early example of the opposite were the 2001 presidential elections. Of Lukashenka's two opposing candidates one was in jail and the other in exile. Several mysterious deaths have also occurred among leading oppositionists. The question is also who are the legitimate representatives of the people. Is is the 1990 Supreme Soviet or the 1995 parliament? Neither the opposition nor Lukashenka's regime may lay claim to public support on the basis of free and fair democratic elections. A number of attempts at dialogue between regime and opposition have been made, primarily by the OSCE. So far, all efforts to fill the country's democratic vaccuum have failed.

Market socialism?
Belarus is located where historic trade-routs between east and west meet. When the country gained its independence in 1992, it had the highest level of education and the most modern economy of the former soviet republics. Prospects for a transition to market economy initially looked bright. Positive developments were, however, interrupted when Lukashenka implemented "socialist market economy." What this meant more than chaos and arbitrariness still remains an enigma. Thereby, Belarus joined other East European economies in free fall. However, contrary to its neighbours, Belarus never succeeded in turning development to the better. Official figures, as far as they went, indicated that only some 20% of the companies made ends meet. The apparent failure of economic policy ended in implicit liberalisation by simple popular disregard in order to get by. The abusive greed of the regime is also satisfied by other means. Thus, Belarus has become a centre of international arms trade since the 1990's.

The Chernobyl heritage
The 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster meant that 70% of radioactive downfall ended up in Belarus. Some 130,000 people were permanently evacuated from a zone the size of Wales. Long-term costs and consequences of Chernobyl are hard to estimate. Still, Lukashenka keeps silent on the effects of the catastropy on environment and health. That the Chernobyl issue, at times, has been able to unite opposition, has not facilitated the situation. It is becoming increasingly clear that democracy is a prerequisite to limit the long-term effects of Chernobyl.

Moscow and Minsk

Since the 1990's, Russia and Belarus have been knit closer together by a series of union agreements. Lukashenka's ambitions to one day become leader of a resurrected union has provoked irritation as well as ridicule in Moscow. It is also quite obvious that Russian president Putin despises Lukashenka as something the cat has dragged in. Putin has also met with representatives of the Belarus' opposition in a futile attempt to explore the possibilities of an alternative to Lukashenka that would be favourable to Russia. Returning to union plans, leading Russian politicians criticised the cooperation at an early stage. Russian policy towards the "near abroad" - the former soviet republics - initially set EU economic cooperation as an example. The realisation that the soviet empire was advantageous neither to Russia nor to the republics is easily counterbalanced by Russia's strategic interest in retaining Belarus within its sphere of influence. Neither the economic burden of Russian subsidies nor the knowledge of what happens in Minsk are important as long as Moscow keeps control over Belarus' security policy. Still, it is Russia that sets the limits of Lukashenka's rule. Russian support for his authoritarian regime is both untactical strategy and unstrategic tactics. In view of the country's size and location, Belarus might have the potential to become a bridge between the economies of Russia and the EU. A future democratic Belarus is Russia's window to Europe.

The Tacit Triumph of Totalitarianism?

What do the affairs of Belarus concern us? For most, Belarus remains a far-away country of which we know nothing. Despite western efforts to turn developments in Belarus towards democracy, next to nothing has been achieved. The lack of unity towards Belarus between the US and the EU, and among EU members themselves, has made western policies erratic and ineffective. It is also likely that any solution to the "Lukashenka problem" must involve Russia, while the west itself has imposed Moscow's droit de régard on the issue of Belarus. As external support by the joint and concerted efforts of the US and the EU, as well as perhaps - unlikely as it might be - Russia, are necessary to create conditions for change, such measures are far from sufficient to overturn the Lukashenka regime. True change can only be brought about by the people of Belarus itself. As long as neither external nor internal conditions exist, Belarus will remain a black hole in the middle of Europe.

As oppression against the opposition mounts for the upcoming March 19 presidential elections, the west may - to no avail - holler in protest at the top of its voice, if this is not accompanied by a sincere will to apply the measures necessary for change. For as long as the people of Belarus cannot exercise their freedom of speech and liberty of choice, totalitarianism tacitly triumphs in the Europe of 2006.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Who/How are you, Ivan Ivanovich?

In the 1970’s, Finnish foreign minister Karjalainen was to welcome his American colleague Kissinger to Helsinki. The problem was that Karjalainen hardly knew any English. In great haste he was taught at least some fundamental phrases. In the limo from the airport, Karjalainen, however, had great difficulties to remember a single word of this new language. In the end it came to him. With a smile, he lent over to Kissinger and asked: “By the way – who are you?” – Instead of an “How are you?” Karjalainen’s mistake turned out to be one of the basic questions of international relations – that of identity.

In his National Self-Images and Regional Identities in Russia (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2001), Bo Petersson deals with the issue of Russian identity. By doing so, he unveils new perspectives of how to explore the empirical basis of national identity.

As for the theme of the by now five year old book - that of centre vs. periphery in Russia, it is motivated to question what relevance such a publication may have in these days of Putinist centralisation. However, the overarching juxtaposition of identity and relations between Moscow and the regions, still makes it a study of interest.

Over the last decade there have been numerous studies trying to grasp Russia’s ‘Self’ (e.g. Neumann, 1996; Prizel, 1998). Most of them share with Petersson’s study the theoretical tenet of symbolic interactionism. Few, however, turn to Russians themselves to disseminate individual and collective identities. Therefore, the great merit of Petersson’s approach is that he doesn’t hesitate to go into the trenches to dig out the lacunae of national and regional self-perceptions. Juxtaposing national self-images and regional identities, the author puts relations between centre and periphery at the fore. Thus, “tensions within and between the national self-images [---] in the regions” (2001:18), would show whether there are “any chances of attaining a viable sense of civic nationhood in this extensive country” as contrasted by “centrifugal tendencies and regionally based identity structures” (2001:16).

From a theoretical perspective, Peterson holds that: “National self-images are cognitive and affective conceptual lenses, organising devices and information filters which partly represent, and partly inform national identity” (2001:7). From this perspective, politicians in Khabarovsk, Perm, St. Petersburg and Volgograd are interviewed to discern differences in regional identities and national self-images. They represent an average stratum of political society by age, ideology and regional distribution. Confronted by Petersson’s questions, their answers illustrate how regional politicians perceive the country’s present, past and future as well as its internal and external relations. The study encompasses a period from 1997 to 1999 when the perspective of centre and periphery is becoming increasingly acute in Russian politics.

Therefore, Petersson’s results are immensely interesting by combining self-images and identities with centre and periphery to illustrate Russia’s general political development, leading up to Putin’s seizure of power in 2000. By studying respondents’ perceptions of what Russia was, is and ought to be, Petersson points to viable factors for common and unifying national self-images. In analysing external others (the U.S. and China), an ambivalent relationship is found in positive and negative reflection. Internally, however, the strongest negative reflection is found in regions’ relations with the centre. Moscow is, by all standards, Russia’s negative internal ‘Other’. Results are even so far-reaching as to indicate that regional identities – to the extent they exist – are actually formed by negative reflection of Moscow. The single exception is St. Petersburg, being the only example of a positively defined regional identity.

To sum up, regional identities may form by distrust in Moscow being stronger than uniting national self-images. In order for the centre to remain control over periphery – the regions – a strong positive image must be displayed to unite the Russians. Today, we might witness this in Putin and his centralising policies. Finally, what the author shows, is a viable approach to the empirical study of national self-images and identities. In essence, by asking the intended “How are you?” Petersson’s query also answers the accidental “Who are you?”

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Uzbekistan: In for the Long Haul

Last week, International Crisis Group issued a new policy brief on developments in Uzbekistan - "Uzbekistan in for the Long Haul." In it, ICG gives a dark picture of future developments in the country, after the May 2005 Andijon massacre. As western relations with Tashkent have been frozen ever since, ICG advocates long-term measures to deal with the Karimov regime, partly based on a regional perspective. As for US-Uzbeki relations, one may, however, question whether ICG's analysis may be wholly correct.

In its analysis, ICG claims that "Uzbekistan is well down the path of self-destruction," where the "elite prospers while the majority lives in worsening poverty." The country is marred by political repression and economic misrule, and president Karimov has stopped any further attempts at political and economic reform. "Religious and political repression and worsening living standards have raised domestic tensions and provoked violence," ICG reports.

Uzbekistan is also depicted as a regional threat. Primarily, the country is a source of trafficking in drugs and people, and thereby complicates regional measures to deal with these problems, in relation to Afghanistan and the region as a whole. Furthermore, the threat of violence that Karimov poses to his own citizens may spark a refugee crisis if political and religious repression would peak and things would come to the worst. That Tashkent consistently tries to spoil any attempts at regional cooperation only adds to the picture of Uzbekistan as a potential threat to Central Asia. Already at this point, Karimov-imposed border closures and trade restrictions on neighbour countries, significantly hampers regional development. Furthermore, Uzbekistan has thus far been negative to cooperate with its neighbours on common concerns and resources, such as water, energy, and infrastructure. All in all, ICG claims that "Uzbekistan could well become the centre of instability in Central Asia in the medium to long term."

Despite this dark picture one may only agree with ICG that the "government in Tashkent is not at risk of imminent collapse." However, on the regional level one should perhaps pause to ponder whether ICG is completely right in its concerns and predictions. It is true that western policies towards Uzbekstan have failed. Support to develop "political and economic openness" was simply not in the interest of Karimov's regime. The question is whether this was in the interest of the US. It is quite obvious that western sanction policy imposed after the Andijon massacre remains a resounding failure. Thus, ICG reports that "relations with Europe and the US are the worst since independence in 1991." As far as this may be correct regarding Europe, one should perhaps be cautious to draw the same conclusion as for the US, as indicated above. The main question is whether the prospects of a volatile process of democratisation in Uzbekistan is in the interest of US policy in Central Asia.

By now, it would appear a well-established fact that democracies are stable but democratisation is shaky. Therefore, one might, contrary to ICG's argument, assume that the US is quite happy with the current situation. The Andijon massacre gave the US a convenient excuse to get the issue of democratisation off the agenda, thus avoiding further confrontation with Karimov. The situation allows the US and Uzbekistan respectively to go about their own business without the fear of interference by the other. On the official level, relations may well be frozen, but this this also leaves room for informal cooperation and tacit agreement on matters of mutual importance. One may also question whether it really is so important for the US to have "influence with the Karimov government" as long as conditions for US policy in Central Asia remain stable. Given this, who rules Uzbekistan is of little interest to the US. That the US implicitly has chosen to acquiesce with the situation is probably because further confrontation might have posed a threat of instability to the US position in Central Asia. For Washington, it is better to leave things as they are rather than rocking the boat.

Such an argument would also challenge ICG's assumption that Uzbeki instability could "prompt an aggressive Russian intervention in the region." Firstly, Russia has - for long - abandoned the alternative of armed intervention in post-soviet space, while Moscow has realised that it has much more effective - mainly economic - means at its disposal. Secondly, Moscow and Washington see eye to eye on the importance of stability in Central Asia. This shared realist view, is likely to make the US and Russia act in concert to avoid instability in the region.

Then, one should rather consider ICG's assumption that political and religious repression could "stimulate the undercurrents of Islamic extremism that so far have been more of an irritant than a major threat." That would be more in line with an argument linked to the dangers of future socio-economic collapse in Uzbekistan spiralling into increasing and small-scale conflict and confrontation rather than outright revolution. Such developments might well strengthen extremist movements in Central Asian societies. Extremism is born by extremities - something people turn to out of despair and desperation. It is from this perspective, that one is likely to agree with ICG that "Uzbekistan could well become the centre of instability in Central Asia in the medium to long term."

As for ICG's policy conlusions, one cannot - as a soft European caffe latte liberal - but agree on them. This "lifeboat strategy to maintain political activity, civil society and educational opportunities in the expectation of future change" may perhaps not be the most effective way to support change in Uzbekistan, but it is the means at our disposal. Long-term measures within education, good governance, civil society etc, combined with socio-economic support as well as assistance to neighbouring countries to solve outstanding problems with Uzbekistan, is what one can reasonably do. On this nomative level, one is likely to agree with ICG. The thousand dollar question is, however, whether conclusions would be different if taking a different - more realist - view on stability into account.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Russia as a Great Power: Dimensions of Security under Putin

Everyone who has done it, knows how much works it takes to write or edit a book. As the editor with main day-to-day responsibility of Russia as a Great Power: Dimensions of Security under Putin (London: Routledge, 2005), I was happy and relieved to finalise a year's work on the volume, and getting it accepted for publication by Routledge. Little did I know that it would take another year for it to appear on the market. Being an anthology, with contributions by 14 different writers from 7 European countries, I was and still am very pleased that we succeeded in staying in line with the general theme of the book, viz. that of Russia as a Great Power foreign and security policy actor. Whether this is really the case is, however, up to the reader to judge.

The book covers four dimensions of Russian policy: external security, regional security, internal security, and terrorism.

After a period of relative weakness and instability during most of the 1990s, Russia is again appearing as a major security player in world politics. This book provides a comprehensive assessment of Russia's current security situation, addressing such questions as:
  • What kind of player is Russia in the field of security?
  • What is the essence of its security policy?
  • What are the sources, capabilities and priorities of its security policy?

One important conclusion to emerge is that, while Russian foreign policy under Putin has become more pragmatic and responsive to both problems and opportunies, the growing lack of checks and balances in domestic politics makes political integration with the West difficult and gives the president great freedom in applying Russia's growing power abroad.

Monkeys & Tigers of Putin's Foreign Policy

What are the major characteristics of Russia's Putinist foreign policy? What is obvious is that the growth in oil incomes is parallel only to the growth in self-confidence and self-reliance in foreign affairs. Thereby, the "multivector policy" has finally got off the ground. Current Russian foreign policy strategy may, however, turn back with a vengeance on Russia. Solitude is not a succesful recipe for international affairs.

Threats to Russia
The long-term security policy threats to Russia are terrorism, militant Islamism, the spread of weapons of mass destruction, a stronger China, and instability due to the spread of "open society". These are serious problems that demand serious answers. Instead, Russian foreign policy is characterised by increased self-confidence and a walk it alone mentality.

Multivector policy
Since 2003, the drive for co-operation and partnership with the West has been abandoned. Current "multivector policy" avoids stable relations and partnership with other powers. Moscow exploits Western weakness - the EU crisis and US endless engagement in Iraq. Russia tries to be a "monkey on top of a hill, overlooking the tigers fighting on the plain".

The near abroad - a chain of instability
Dominance over the "near abroad" is still the overarching goal of Russian foreign policy. Moscow's increased self-confidence obscures the setbacks in Georgia and the Ukraine. The danger of current policy is that the risk for new crises and revolutions in the Russian sphere of interest is underestimated. The contradiction between personified power and weak systems in post-soviet states constitutes a latent risk of instability in Russia's backyard for the coming 10-15 years. Here, elections counterposes self-perpetuation of personified power and political legitimacy. It is the soft authoritarian hybrid regimes - as previously Ukraine and perhaps Armenia next - that are the weakest links in the chain of instability, which runs through Russia's proximity.

Central Asia - the Great Game revisited?
In Central Asia, there is danger of escalating tension between Moscow and Washington. Russia and China jointly try to act as regional stabilisers, at the same time as increased Chinese influence contributes to growing conflict potential between the two countries. Post-soviet space constitutes an unstable, volatile and fluidous region in the vicinity of the EU.

Making it alone - a recipe for disaster
As Russia is all the more turning into a unilateral and uncooperative actor, one must realise that Putinist foreign policy will face great challenges. Perceived threats to Russia are based on traditional views, which may not be entirely in tune with times. If Moscow continues to pursue the multivector policy, such threats may, however, become a self-fulfilling prophecy. To abandon cooperation with the West is tantamount to losing a potential partner in solving the problems facing Russia in post-soviet space. Moscow's support for weak regimes - undemocratic and illegitimate - will only serve to amplify instability in the "near abroad". As an effect, revolution may turn on Russia as well. Finally, Russia is treading a delicate balance-act in Central Asia, where a new "Great Game" may evolve, if not being careful. In all, Russia is applying a traditional policy on untraditional problems, which cannot possibly succeed in the long run. Therefore, it is likely that the image of monkeys and tigers will prove an act of self-deception. Instead, Russian foreign policy may prove a recipe for disaster if the monkeys were to: "Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil". This is, however, the path Russia currently is heading with its multivector policy.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Whatever happened with the vodka crisis?

A few weeks back, headlines of western newspapers warned for a coming "vodka crisis" in Russia. The country was to turn dry due to a clerical error. Reminiscences of Gorbachev's anti-alcohol campaign in the late 1980's, made us recall images of people drinking whatever liquor they could get hold of. Then, nothing more was heard of this potentially dangerous crisis. Why so?
The reason is simple. Consumer is king - in Russia as elsewhere. As long as there is money to be made, any problems may be solved. And, lo and behold, how much money wouldn't be lost if Russia dried up? This was simply unthinkable, and the problem - if one may speak of a real problem - was quickly solved.

Then, what was the problem? Apparently, a special print-shop making tax-labels for vodka bottles was late with a delivery to vodka factories. Thus, vodka factories would not be able to put out their products on the market. Strangely enough, it never appeared to western media that there might be other print-shops to do the job, or that this particular print-shop might catch up on production. No, the story was simply too good to be passed, regardless of the unfeasability that Russia would run out of vodka.
Today, many liquor stores are very service-minded. In major cities, it might even happen that a store that doesn't have a special brand, might get hold of a bottle for you within a few hours and then deliver it to your home - sometimes at any hour of the day. So, regrettably, the "vodka crisis" once more turned western media to focus on an obvious haux, which was well in line with western prejudice towards Russia as a wholly backward country. It stands out as a true paradox, that the alleged vodka crisis almost got as much attention in western media as the recent NGO-bill. The list of Russia's problems is long - democracy, civil liberties, media, human rights, corruption etc - but lack of vodka is not one of them.