Friday, September 15, 2006

Death of a Russian Hero?

Yesterday, deputy head of the Russian Central Bank, Andrei Kozlov, died from gunhot wounds protracted when shot down by armed assailants in central Moscow Wednesday evening. Kozlov is the highest ranking official murdered during president Putin's reign and his assassination now sparks indignation and raises doubts about Russia's fight against organised crime.

Kozlov was responsible for cleaning up the Russian banking sector and closed down several banks involved in money laundering schemes and violations of Central Bank regulations. In 2004, Kozlov closed down Sodbiznesbank and this year Neftyanoi bank in high-profile cases against organised crime in Russia. In 2006, the Central Bank has stepped up efforts in the fight against the financial activities of the Russian mafia and banking licenses have been revoked almost on a weekly basis. Therefore, Kozlov was an obvious target for retaliation from criminal elements. That Kozlov refused having bodyguards regretfully facilitated his murder.

Kozlov's death is a tragic blow against Russia's efforts to clean up criminality within the financial sector. The importance of his work cannot be overestimated, while it targeted the core interests of Russian organised crime, restoring a sound Russian economy by legal means. Such efforts by grey bureaucrats are exactly what hit hardest at the mafia as has been demonstrated by both US and Italian efforts to fight organised crime. However dull Kozlov's work might have appeared, his efforts were of great importance in restoring the legality and transparency so much needed in contemporary Russia. His eulogy might therefore read "death of a Russian hero."

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Ukrainian Lighthouses & Landmarks

Little more than a month after becoming Ukrainian Prime Minister, Viktor Yanukovich, seems poised to break his pledge to president Viktor Yushchenko of Ukraine's continued western integration. Visiting Brussels on Thursday, Yanukovich put a moratorium on Ukraine's plans to join Nato, saying that: "Because of the political situation in Ukraine, we will now have to take a pause," according to International Herald Tribune.

However, what should be clear by now is that NATO and EU accession has become a parallel process in the integration of former Eastern bloc countries. Therefore, Yanukovich "pause" effectively means a halt - or at least a severe delay - for Ukraine's western integration.

That NATO and the EU are different organisations and deal with different issues should not disguise the fact that a majority of EU-members are also members of NATO. Combined with the backlash of the Orange revolution, Yanukovich statement is likely to further put off western leaders from any real association with Ukraine. Trust in Ukraine is at a low and the only real motivation for western efforts is to keep the country out of Moscow's orbit.

Still, Yanukovich's decision on NATO is logical. Popular support for NATO-membership has never reached any substantial levels, so his excuse to "play it safe" rather than to rush into something that Ukrainians will not accept is natural. This has tacitly been accepted by NATO-officials as a statement of facts rather than intent. At the same time, questions are raised what role Russia might have had in the decision. Yanukovich has previously declared that he would like Ukraine to be a "reliable bridge" between Europe and Russia, and NATO-membership seems incompatible with such a role. Russia has adamanttly opposed Ukrainian rapprochement to the Atlantic alliance.

Relations with Russia continue to be strained. Only yesterday, a Ukrainian court ordered that authorities should take control over 22 lighthouses in the Crimea that have been leased to Russia's Black Sea Fleet, BBC reports. As late as in June, Russia and Ukraine failed to reach agreement on settling the Kerch strait border dispute, which has been going on since 2003, according to RIA Novosti.

Ukraine's relations with Russia on the one hand and the West on the other have often been simplistically depicted as balancing between East and West. A similar balance accordingly applies to Ukraine's domestic scene - between Russian and Ukrainian speakers. As anyone who has dealt with Ukraine knows, realities are much more complex.

Still, the image of a Ukraine split between East and West lingers on in the minds of international leaders and is also exploited by a variety of actors. At a time when there are great doubts in the West as for Ukraine's willingness and ability to integrate, there is little room for a more straightforward public policy.

Yanukovich might have pursued a declaratory policy on NATO and EU membership at the same time as deepening relations with Russia. As long as no real steps towards NATO-integration were to be taken, such a situation might have been acceptable both to Russia and the West. That would have kept doors open for Kiev - both towards Brussels and Moscow.

Now, Yanukovich is closing the NATO-door and thereby - in a longer perspective - also the EU-door. This might however not open the door to Russia any wider, simply because the Kremlin has never accepted its loss of influence over Ukraine. A loss that one has not accepted is not regarded a real victory once it is regained.

Public postponement of NATO-integration is thus simply not a good idea at a time like this, when Ukraine needs the best of both worlds. The paradox is that what would probably serve Kiev's interests best at this point would be to say one thing and do the other, that is pledge western integration and cooperate more closely with Russia. In that way, Ukraine might have maintained safeguarded by the West at the same time as it could have remained part of the East. Now instead, Yanukovich has set a landmark in Ukraine's modern political history by giving away an important foreign policy instrument for no obvious reason. Cui bono? What does Ukraine or Yanukovich stand to gain from self-imposed alienation when one needs all the help one can get?

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Putin's Presidential Pseudo-News

Putin will not run for a third presidential term in 2008. This is a message that he has been repeating every other month over the past years. Still, it was one of the top stories of international media today. Why is it that this is considered so important news as to reach the headlines of respected news sources throughout the globe next to every time that Putin says he will step down from power in 2008? The answer might be that this is the effect of a well-orchestrated media-coup by Putin's political spin-doctors - the political technologists.

News should always be considered critically by those who receive it. What essentially constitutes news should also be filtered by those whose profession it is - journalists and editors. As the mere term indicates, news should also present something new to its audience. How is it then that something which is news to nobody is repeatedly treated as such?

Should not any journalist in his sound mind defer from reporting what everyone already knows: That Putin does not want to remain Russia's president after 2008. On the contrary, if Putin would declare that he will run for a third presidential term and thus change the constitution, then it would be news of great significance. Until then, this is not the case.

Putin's repeated denial of furher presidential ambitions is perhaps - paradoxically - the main reason why journalists are so susceptible to this message. A climate has been created in which Putin's statement of facts becomes a crescendo of denials in anticipation of the orgiastic eruption when he finally comes out of the closet: "Yes, I will run for a third term! Yes, I will change the constitution! Yes, I cannot live without power! Yes, I am dizzy with success!" Putin's "No" becomes a resounding "Yes!!!" in the ears of media and the public.

That journalists and political analysts alike miss to comprehend Putin's "No" is partly explained by all the rumours that have reverberated throughout Moscow over the years. The question whether Putin will stay in power after 2008 has been a recurrent theme in all political discussions. Still, the answer has been the same all along, namely that the president respects the constitution and thus has no ambtion to change the fact that his tenure of power will end once his term runs out. So, rumours to the opposite must originate from somewhere else. One source might be the president himself by proxy of his "political technologists."

Why might this be the case? Putin has set before himself three tasks: to create and maintain political stability, produce economic growth, and gain control over strategic resources. Here, political stability is perceived a prerequisite for the latter two. In the political area, it is in the best interest of power that a climate of uncertainty prevails on whether Putin will continue in power. As long as this is the case, potential contenders will keep a low profile and nobody of significance will challenge Putin as long as he retains apparent popular support. Thus, Putin avoids running the risk of becoming a lame duck, and his political succession may be handled in an orderly manner by the Kremlin entourage that forms his basis of power. A measure of uncertainty for the public thus becomes an instrument of certainty for power, and thus the political tools for developing economic growth and gaining control over strategic resources is maintained.

Personally, it actually appears that Putin is weary with power and the constant obligations it involves. Associates at times describe him as disinterested with the chores of his office, allocating an increasing amount of time to activities normally not associated with the exercise of power. Also, Putin does not seem to be the sort of politician that thrives on power - to the opposite of what is often claimed in view of his extremely power-oriented policies.

Here also his KGB-background is regarded a reason why Putin would cling on to power, because KGB by essence epitomises power. To assume so may however be to miscomprehend the Chekist culture from which Putin originates. Chekist power tradition sets the system before the individual, and if Putin is true to these ideals he will also be loyal to the constitution as long as power to the system is ensured. His lack of ethics might also be construed in a Chekist context and not as evidence of self-perpetuating personalised authoritarian power.

Finally, why would Putin want to risk another period in office? His presidency has been more successful than what he himself might have imagined. Putin has restored the Russian state as an important actor both domestically and internationally. The country's economy thrives on the enormous incomes from oil, and a measure of stability has been restored to society. Why should Putin risk jeopardising an apparently favourable judgement as the great restorer of the Russian nation that the Russian people and history might pass on him, when the future is uncertain?

So, the question should perhaps be rephrased: "Why should Putin not step down from power in 2008?" So far, few substantial reasons have been presented why he should stay in power, so the assumption must naturally be that he will leave office.

Still, international media continues to report that Putin will leave power in 2008, in the anticipation that somewhere along the line he will change his mind. This does not only mean that the press runs the risk of a gigantic anticlimax once Putin actually leaves office. It above all serves the interests of Kremlin's perpetuation of authoritarian power while preventing democratic debate on the future of Russia. Wherever you turn, it seems that laughs will be on Putin in 2008, if he continues to pull off this game of ambiguities.

Comment: The full text of Putin's appearance is available at Financial Times.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Kazakhstan: Diverted Mind Diverts Rivers?

Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev is considering reviving old plans of diverting Siberian rivers to the Central Asian region, according to Interfax. Thus, Kazakhstan would get a greater inflow of fresh water for agricultural production, as was the intent with similar projects historically.

During a meeting with his Uzbek colleague Islam Karimov in Astana the other week, Nazarbayev claimed that "diverting Siberian rivers will not have a negative impact on the environment" and that "populist statements that this is dangerous were wrong."

Plans for diverting the flow of Siberian rivers have been long-lived. In the 1960s, there were even plans to do so by using atomic bombs. River diversion has however shown catastrophic consequences when employed. A Soviet decision to divert river water to cotton farming hastened the dispersion of the Aral Sea, causing social, economic and environmental disaster.

During Perestroika, Mikhail Gorbachev permanently put a stop to similar plans. However, the megalomanic idea of turning rivers have remained popular among some people. As late as in 2004, Russia appeared to be reviving its old river diversion plans, but thankfully enthusiasm seems to have petered out. Let us hope that this will also be the case with Nazarbayev's folly.