Monday, January 30, 2006

Yakovlev - An Architect of the Perestroika

On 18 October 2005, one of the great architects of the Perestroika, Aleksandr Yakovlev, passed away. In commeration of Yakovlev, I here publish my account of his lecture from a visit in Stockholm, Sweden, in March 2003.

Confronting the past
"Why delve into the past? Yes, why annoy people with what has been? What has been - has been." These questions were the starting-point of Aleksandr Yakovlev's Stockholm lecture. In analogy with L.N. Tolstoy, he pointed to the inability of himself and others to fathom the horrors of the past: "That will only happen when we admit that we are sick."

Over the past 15 years, Yakovlev has dedicated himself to the crimes of the soviet era; as chairman in the Commission for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Political Repression; and since 1993 through his own Yakovlev Foundation (Mezhdunarodny Fond Demokratsii). By this work, some 4.5 million innocently convicted have been rehabilitated, among those Raoul Wallenberg. Still 400,000 cases remain to scrutinise. The work encompasses documented cases, which have undegone legal trial and often been convicted in accordance with § 58 of the soviet penal code. Of course, a lot more people were executed without trial. The lack of documentation, however, complicates rehabilitation in these cases. Still, it is in the area of documentation that an important part of the work has been made. The Yakovlev Foundation has until now published some 30 volumes of historical documents, of which 16 are available on the Foundation website.

"Who is guilty?", Yakovlev asked. This recurrent question in Russia is often given a misdirected answer. When we point at Lenin, Stalin, and the Bolsheviks, we avoid to touch on our own guilt. We hide our heads in the sand, and pretend that it wasn't we that shot all those people; that it wasn't we that betrayed the neighbour to save ourselves. The truth is that the guilty are as much among us as they are in hell.

Although we succeeded in crushing Stalin's fascist totalitarianism, its heritage lives on. Then the book-fires burnt under supervision of Krupskaya. Then the churches were plundered. Then twelve-year-olds were sentenced to death.

The socialist construct - the great modernisation projects - rested on the shoulders of slave-labour. The camp system that arose from 1943, employed millions of people - from legislative system to camp prisoners.

An example of the continuity of the system was given at a visit in Magadan a few years back. Yakovlev, who was to inaugurate a monument to the victims of totalitarianism, got a cold reception. The explanation was that the liquidation of the Magadan camp system had led to massive unemployment. Of the 350,000 people in the camp system, 200,000 had been put into the street. "Why should they love you?" was the question confronting Yakovlev. In the same way, there is a "Magadan" inside us all.

It is not enough that our history is built on false documents. As we today are trying to get hold of the right documents, we are met by resistance from bureaucrats and passivity from the state. Many documents have also been burnt in individual attempts to cover ones own tracks. Other material was lost in 1941. Probably, we will not get access to all archives for a long time to come. This is not very strange. Just look how the US still hasn't opened up all the archives on the Kennedy assassination.

In the field
"History is made by coincidence." At Gorbachev's visit in Canada in 1983, it so happened that the host at a visit to a farm, was delayed. Yakovlev, then soviet ambassador to Canada, was given an opportunity to speak with Gorbachev between four eyes. The walk the two men made in the field, came to decide Yakovlev's role in the future reform process, which came to mean the end of the Soviet Union. While Gorbachev complained about the disintegration of the agricultural sector, Yakovlev got an opportunity to criticise soviet foreign policy. Three months later, Yakovlev was called back to Moscow to lead IMEMO. [On IMEMO's role in the change of soviet foreign policy see: Checkel, J, 1997, "Ideas and International Political Change", Yale UP, New Haven]. The role of Yakovlev and IMEMO, initially, was to produce analyses and alternatives for Gorbachev's action, primarily within foreign policy.

The road to power
The day Chernenko died, 10 March 1985, Yakovlev got a visit by Primakov, who informed him that Gromyko's son wanted to speak with him. Without involving his father, the son wanted to explore the possibilities for cooperation between Gromyko and Gorbachev. In a following discussion, it turned out how fed up Gromyko was with foreign policy, and that he would like to reatreat to a post in the Supreme Soviet. He was, therefore, prepared to nominate Gorbachev for Secretary General. Yakovlev, who didn't want to play a fool in a political game, however, agreed to speak with Gorbachev. The message was received as much with caution as with interest. Gorbachev was prepared to work with Gromyko, but asked himself whether this feeler in reality was a provocation. Yakovlev, however, thought that Gromyko had no room for such games. In further talks between Yakovlev and Gromyko, the message was sent that conditions for Gromyko's nomination remained. At the Polit Bureau meeting on 11 March, Gromyko immediately nominated Gorbachev for Secretary General. The proposal was seconded by Grishin, who had been subject to speculations as potential successor to Chernenko. The decision to elect Gorbachev to Secretary General was thus unanimous [Soglasny - vse]. Lack of discussion and unanimity in decisions was a social heritage within the party since Lenin's days.

The assumption that all proposals made, have been sanctioned from above, was eventually to become an important instrument for Yakovlev in the reform process. Ideology was, however, not the driving-force behind his reformatory role. Certainly, Yakovlev had been posted as ambassador in Ottawa because of his alleged liberalism. He was to be distanced from the ideological struggle. Yakovlev, all the same, doesn't characterise himself as an ideolgoue. He passed his exams in Marxism-Leninism, but that was all. Capitalism and socialism are words beyond his comprehension. Why put an ideological label on a country? Every country lives according to its own traditions. Instead, it was practice during Stalin that upset him.

Still, it was Yakovlev who introduced the concept of "Glasnost". He thought that the system would collapse, when people found out the truth about the crimes that had been committed. That was - as we all know - also what happened. How then, did we succeed in puttin down the soviet monster? A direct attack was unthinkable. One would be confronted by a "Magadan". If Yakovlev had been clear about his true intentions, he wouldn't have survived the day. Therefore, one had to deceive [obmanyvat] the nomenklatura. The party was convinced that reforms would renew and improve socialism; that the speed of development would increase. Only after a few years, they started to understand what was about to happen. The decision, on closed elections with several candidates, which was made at the January 1987 January plenary of the Central Committe, became an alarm-signal for the nomenklatura. The realisation that one was not about to be elected led to discussions on "Bolshevik principles". Of course, power was central.

What concerns the reforms, many mistakes were made. "We are masters at stepping on the rake." The fight against alcoholism is one example. Alcohol cannot be fought with slogans. The fight against corruption turned out to become an attack on old ladies selling carrots in the square. A system for quality control did not improve quality. Disappointment spread and the anecdotes also about this regime began to flourish.

One says that "time is a difficult companion." As soon as we are not in pace with time, misery overtakes us. The same thing happens as we are trying to catch up. The conclusion can only be that Russia is particularly difficult to reform.

The end
During 1991, the danger of a conspiracy became all the more apparent. As the August coup evolved, Yakovlev had already resigned. He warned Gorbachev four times - in writing - about what was to happen. Gorbachev, however, underestimated how enterprising and courageous his oppinents would be, and simply chose to go away on vacation. So the coup d'état and its failure came about.

It was obvious that the Soviet Union must be transformed into a confederation on a voluntary basis by agreement. The Belovezha summit was, still, illegitimate. Confronted by fait accompli, only the unavoidable decisions remained to be made. Gorbachev and Yeltsin met in the Kremling and Yakovlev was called there to assist. One hour before their meeting, Yakovlev was called for. He still doesn't know why. They sat another eight hours together. The nuclear portfolio and the top secret documents were turned over. It was generally a quiet and considerate discussion. Just think if they would have been able to cooperate like that all the time! Then, at least, the state divorce could have passed by in more civilised forms. The situation as it now was, mostly appeared peculiar. When everything had been finished, they all went for a meal. Gorbachev retired to rest a little. Yakovlev and Yeltsin sat on for a while, before Yakovlev joined Gorbachev. What struck Yakovlev was that the otherwise talkative Gorbachev, with tears in his eyes, only said "Vot tak, Sasha" [That's it, Alexander]. Thus, a great era had passed. To this day, Gorbachev's exploits are unrecognised in Russia. In due course, the young will though learn to understand and appreciate his role.

Power and future
During his time in the Polit Bureau (1987-1990), also Yakovlev experienced how it was when the people paraded by with his portrait. It was a feeling neither of joy or moral distancing. The human is weak and power transforms her. Subordinates are soon regarded as inferior. Therefore, it is better the more often people in power are exchanged. Regrettably, current developments are going in the opposite direction. The nomenklatura has learnt to win also democratic elections. The communists party has forgot its ideology in the strive for power. The important thing is to keep ones hold of the Duma. Accordingly, there are also discussions to allow the president to run for a third term. If one succeeds in that, there will soon be talk of a fourth term. It is all like a psychological disease, but Tolstoy also claimed that the state governs as one governs lunatics. Warning signs abound - from anthem to Dzerzhinsky statue - and tendencies are dangerous. Even if Yakovlev fears a re-totalitarianisaton, he holds it unlikely in today's information society. Steps towards a law-governed society have also been made, among which are that court decisions have become mandatory for arrests and that minors receive redcution of penalties. Thus, the future is as hopeful as it is worrying.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Russian-Ukrainian Gas Crisis: Profits vs Politics

The recent gas crisis between Russia and Ukraine has raised fears - not least in the EU - that Moscow is increasingly using energy as a political weapon. Such fears may be correct from a general perspective, when reviewing the political will of the Kremlin. An opposite case must, however, also be made for economics - that the crisis was more a case of profit than of politics.

An overarching question of the Russian élite since the late 1980's has been how to maximise ones own profits. The driving-force has been the individual desire for wealth. During Yeltsin's privatisation, such desires resulted in unharnessed "bandit-capitalism." Enormous fortunes were made by more or less doubtful means. Although president Putin seems to be trying to redistribute some of this wealth to his own political and private benefit, most oligarchs have been left alone as long as they don't meddle into politics. From the perspective of the mega-rich and major enterprise, trying to leave politics aside of making money has become a goal in itself, regardless of whether you are within or outside the walls of the Kremlin. To make profit in real money and to avoid being forced into economically worthless political deals should appear the obvious choice in rational terms for enterprise. Private interest comes before state interest. This, initially, may have been the motive of Gazprom - the Russian gas monopoly - in connection to the Russian-Ukrainian gas crisis. Still, many Western analysts claim that the crisis was politically motivated. Such analysis, however, leaves out the first logical step of analysis, namely that of making real money.

As the crisis arose in late December, Russian gas monopoly Gazprom demanded that Ukraine paid a price roughly equivalent to that, which Western European customers pay (some 230$ per cubic metre compared to the Ukrainian price of 50$). Raising revenues from exports to Ukraine almost fivefold, was - needless to say - tempting to Gazprom in order to boost the company's stock price. In June 2005, the Russian government became majority shareholder in Gazprom, which opened up possibilities to lift the state-imposed 20% limit of foreign investment in the company by year's end. This would also be in line with the liberalisation schemes of Gazprom and its aim to expand in the oil-market, creating - all in all - the basis for a shooting stock price and compensation for the failed merger with oil-producer Rosneft. This would indicate that the main reason for Gazprom's action against Ukraine was to attain higher profits.

In contrast to this, one may instead argue that the political side of Gazprom's action was too obvious to be ignored. Accordingly, Russia would - by means of Gazprom - want to put further pressure on Ukraine - possibly to destabilise or topple its pro-Western government - before the country's parliamentary elections in March. Furthermore, the mere fact that Gazprom's chairman, Dmitry Medvedev, is also Russia's vice Premier, would make for a strong case that Gazprom's action was politically motivated. This may well be the case, but judging from Medvedev's surprised reaction when confronted with the stern reaction of the EU, as Gazprom turned off gas supplies to Ukraine, he obviously was ignorant of the full consequences of Gazprom's action. Is it really possible that the Kremlin was ignorant of the possibility that cutting Ukraine's gas supply might also mean cutting down gas supplies to the West? Didn't Medvedev or someone in the Kremlin think of the fact that gas to Europe first goes through Ukrainian pipelines, thus making it easy for Ukraine to compensate a cut in their supplies with those that would have gone to Europe. This, evidently, was how Ukraine acted with the consequence that gas supplies to Germany, Hungary, Slovakia and other EU countries were heavily reduced, creating a crisis as much with the EU as with Ukraine. Russia was portrayed as an unreliable business-partner by international media, and European politicians called for reviewing and diversifying energy supplies. Even worse, Russia again became a source of threat to Europe. Gazprom's action thus heavily damaged confidence in Russia in political as much as economic terms. Trust between Russia and Europe was dealt a heavy blow.

So, the question arises: Are the masters of the Kremlin really so crude in their political thinking as not to foresee the consequences of their actions? Did they really not consider that the issue could develop into something more than a bilateral crisis between Russia and Ukraine. I, for one, would like to think that this is not the case if regarding Gazprom's action as a political issue. It is true that the Kremlin has made a series of serious political misjudgements and mistakes in recent years, but despite all blunders, I do hope that Putin and his entourage are not so much of political novices as to be outright stupid. Therefore, to the extent that the Kremlin was involved in Gazprom's action against Ukraine, some other factor than politics would appear to have blurred their judgement. This factor might be that profits preceded politics. The prospects of increased profit by raising the price of gas to Ukraine might explain why the Kremlin oversaw the possibility of negative side-effects for Russian credibility in relation to the EU. Thus, the economic analysis might have crowded out thinking in political terms.

The alternative - that Russian action was deliberate and informed - would truly be tantalising. This would mean that Russia has reached such a level of confidence and self-sufficiency in foreign policy terms, as to be willing to risk relations with Europe and to signal that the country has the power to put a threat to the EU by cutting energy supplies. It is true, that energy is increasingly seen as an intrument of Russian security policy, but it is as much true that this instrument so far has been used with some caution and only in relation to former soviet republics. Would it, however, be true that the Kremlin - having gained control of Gazprom - rationally foresaw the political consequences of the company's action, European calls to review Russia as energy-supplier should be taken very seriously. As long as this has not been proved, however, it might be more plausible to assume that Russian judgement was blurred for financial reasons. Thus, it appears that profit preceded politics and private interest came before state interest. Another unintended consequence is, of course, that keeping politics and economics aside failed, and that Gazprom - in contrast to its aim to liberalise - is now looking at much greater political involvement in and direction from the Kremlin. To conclude, how likely is it - all things considered - that the Russian-Ukrainian gas crisis was the effect of a Russian rational political decision?

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Russia restrains West on Iran's nuclear programme

As reported by international media, US and EU relations with Iran have recently turned for the worse because of Iran's unilateral decision to resume its nuclear programme. Iran thus becomes in breech of an EU-brokered agreement on a moratorium on its nuclear programme. As the US and EU - in fear that Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons - now consider turning to the UN Security Council to impose sanctions on Iran, Russia is actively trying to hold back the West. What is Russia's interest in this?

At his recent summit with German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, president Putin urged the EU to go easy on Iran, as concerns the country's resumption of its nuclear programme. However, there is no great disagreement between Russia and "the West" on the issue at hand - a critical stance on Iran's action. Still, Russian attempts to hold the West back continue. Only today, Russian foreign minister, Mr. Sergey Lavrov, heavily criticised any attempts to impose sanctions on Iran.

The reason for Russia's position on Iran is not mainly political but economic. Russia and previously the Soviet Union have been instrumental in the construction of Iran's nuclear programme. Russian nuclear exports to Iran has been a great source of income for a domestically faltering nuclear industry. Russian nuclear industry, headed by the nuclear ministry (Minatom), have seen exports as a way to survive the economic turmoil of the 1990's. Heavily oversized, Russian nuclear energy is, however, a sector which breathes a certain extent of optimism.

The reason for this is the same as the reason for Russia's position on the Iranian nuclear programme: Russia's nuclear industry is one of the few technically advanced sectors where Russia can still compete for shares on the international market with other technically developed states. Russia's ability to compete relates to a combination of low costs and high technical skills that no other actor on the arena may offer. Nuclear exports is thus of strategic interest for Russia. International action against Iran's nuclear programme would, consequently, hit Russia's position on the international nuclear energy market.

One may, of course, seek other reasons for Russian restraints on sanctions against Iran such as balance of power and preventing further US power in the Greater Middle East. At the end of the day, economic reasons are the most important. In Moscow, money talks and politics comply.