19 May 2007

Why Samara?

Not the least of the puzzles that surround yesterday’s EU-Russia Summit, which ended with a spectacularly “frank and open” press conference, is why it took place in Samara, a fairly large city on the Volga, whose history goes back to the sixteenth century. In fact, the Summit was outside Samara, in a sanatorium called “Volzhsky Utyos” (Volga Cliff, a direct reference to a popular Russian song).

It may be that Putin wants to remind his visitors of Russia’s turbulent and double-visioned history. Samara was originally built as a fortress during the early part of her expansion eastward and the continuing fight against the Tatars. For sixty years the city was called Kuybishev after a Soviet politician, to revert to its historical name in 1991. It was also the secondary capital during the Great Patriotic War, which is allegedly always in Putin’s mind, where the government was going to retreat if Moscow were taken by the Germans.

Or it may be that it was easier to prevent the arrival of opposition leaders, including Gary Kasparov, all of whom were stopped as they were trying to board the aeroplane.
"I'm concerned about some people getting problems in travelling here. I hope they will be given an opportunity to express their opinion," Merkel said.

One member of the The Other Russia coalition said he had been told the flight was overbooked while Interfax news agency quoted an unnamed transport police official as saying that the hold-up was caused by a discrepancy between the ticket and the passport of one of the leaders.

"Not one member of The Other Russia delegation... was allowed to board," Denis Bilunov, Kasparov's spokesman, told the AFP news agency.

Lev Ponomaryov, another opposition activist who was scheduled to have boarded the flight, said he suspected foul play.

"Uniformed men have taken our passports. They've taken 13 passports. I consider this is a criminal offence."

A presidential spokesman denied Kremlin involvement.
Well, he would, wouldn’t he.

Meanwhile, Nezavisimaya Gazeta (Independent Newspaper and it is, more or less) reports [link in Russian] that in the week preceding the Summit, various journalists and news photographers were arrested and charged with a selection of crimes and misdemeanours. Though none seems to have gone to prison, the threat was palpable.

Incidentally, NG also points out that when journalists from REN TV, the remaining independent broadcasting company wanted to go to Estonia to cover the events in Tallin, they were prevented by members of the youth organization “Nashi” from entering the consulate.

The same youth organization is threatening to hold demonstrations outside the EU mission in Moscow next week to protest the arrest of one of their members in Estonia. Their week-long picketing of the Estonian embassy and attacks on the ambassador we have already noted. But it is not “Nashi” who are arrested, though there is some indication that militiamen would not mind dealing with them, but the members and leaders of “Other Russia”, whether they actually get to the place they are traveling to or not.

President Putin, as expected, dismissed complaints about the treatment of “Other Russia” at the time of the Summit or during the recent demonstration when they were beaten up and dispersed by 9,000 heavily armed security police. Pshaw, he said, every country deals with demonstrators. Germany does not intend anti-G8 protesters to get away scot-free. The United States still has capital punishment and, anyway, there is Guantanamo. (It is, however, noticeable that the few Russian citizens who did not manage to stay on in Gitmo, much as they wanted to, have disappeared without trace on their return to the homeland.)

Unfortunately from Putin’s point of view, Chancellor Merkel is not Chancellor Schröder on whose support he could always rely. She firmly announced that people who are rioting, smashing shops and burning cars have to be arrested, clearly implying that the Estonian authorities were not precisely in the wrong, but those who have not even arrived at their destination can hardly be accused of bad behaviour.

Prior to the EU-Russia Summit there was a certain amount of international diplomatic activity or, as Der Spiegel puts it, “ruffled-feather-smoothing”. First German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier went to Moscow to ensure that the many obstacles that were going to make this Summit difficult were smoothed out ahead of the actual event. The success of his mission is self-evident.

Then there was a visit by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The purpose and, indeed, outcome of this remain somewhat mysterious. Theoretically, Condi was also smoothing the path for the Summit, though why she should care is not clear. In practice, there were other matters to discuss, particularly the proposed Missile Defence System that Russia is opposing vehemently even though it is Iran and North Korea that are supposed to be the aggressors against whom defence is needed; and then there is Kosovo and its possible independence.

Russia is opposing the nominal as well as de facto independence for Kosovo largely because it feels the need to support Serbia (though that might change if the Serbs change their government) and to oppose Western influence in the Balkans. There are, however, complications.

As it happens, Russia herself is eyeing one or two possible break-away regions, such as Transdniestria in Moldova as well as Abkhazia and South Ossetia, both in Georgia. The first has already voted in a referendum to break away from Moldova and, in all probability, join Russia. The Georgian regions continue to cause headaches for the Georgian government that veers from attempts at negotiation to security crack-down. Russia, meanwhile continues to foment the discontent and uses it to undermine the Georgian government, to the point of periodic military intervention.

The question is does Russia really want these regions to secede and, perhaps, join Russia? On the one hand this would mean Russian expansion at a time when it is unlikely to happen any other way; on the other hand, Abkhazia and South Ossetia will become Russian problems and the leverage on Georgia will disappear.

Then again, if Kosovo becomes independent, Russia could raise a clamour for Transdniestria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. There is another aspect to the whole problem: Chechnya and the surrounding republics, in particular Dagestan. The problems there have reached a point where no solution seems possible, not least because it is not clear what the Russians would like to see as an endgame, apart from killing all those nasty kavkastsy.

Chechnya has been relatively dormant thanks to the particular bandits that the Russians have put in as political rulers. To be fair, there has been a complete media black-out on the area with the few journalists who dare to write about what is going on being punished one way or another, up to and including assassination. On the other hand, the troubles have spread to neighbouring Dagestan. By no stretch of the imagination can the Caucasus be described as peaceful or the Russian authorities, particularly the army in control.

If Kosovo becomes independent, the demands from the Caucasian republics will redouble. All these considerations must weigh with Putin.

It seems that Secretary Rice’s visit did not produce any agreement on either of the two big issues but then she could hardly expect it. On the other hand, it did, rather surprisingly, brought a semi-apology from the Russians for the language they have been using about the United States recently.

In his May 9 (Victory Day) speech Putin appeared to compare the United States under President Bush to Nazi Germany. It seems that all those who thought so were mistaken and what Putin meant was that the Islamist terrorists were like Nazi Germany. Or maybe not. In any case, he seems to have promised not to use such language again and this makes one wonder whether that undertaking was Condi’s real aim or whether other, so far unrevealed, agreements were also made.

In the meantime the renewal of the EU-Russia strategic agreement remains questionable. The problem of Polish meat was not resolved. Russia refuses to buy it but that means that it is boycotting EU meat in general much to the Russian government’s annoyance.

Latvia is complaining about the fact that the oil pipe has been closed down by Russia, allegedly, because repairs are needed. It seems that the flow of oil and oil products to Estonia has been resumed.

Estonia has run into difficulties over that famous Bronze Soldier. She is also complaining about cyber attacks, allegedly originating from Russia, on numerous websites, none of them pro-Russian.

President Putin cannot see what the fuss is all about and has suggested that the EU sorts its internal problems out; stops worrying about Russia’s democracy, which is doing just fine, thank you, being of a variety that is superior to the Western one; and controls certain countries’ “economic egotism”.

None of this looks particularly good for Russia’s relationship with the West, particularly the EU and its member states. Of course, it is possible that President Putin had expected Chancellor Merkel to be as nice to him as her predecessor had been but as Yulia Latynina pointed out earlier this week in the Moscow Times [available on subscription only], Putin’s friends in the West are disappearing with Jacques Chirac being the last one. It is time for him to find some new friends, says the respected journalist, adding
The only thing left is for him to head east and to make friends with the guys who will never be voted out of office – the kind who only leave office in a coup.
Yes, he might just do that. Except that he needs to sell his gas and oil to Western Europe. According to Handelsblatt:
The notion of a two-sided dependency -- repeated so often lately in Berlin -- is a fairy tale. There are dependencies (in this relationship), but they are one-sided. Not even Germany would make it through the winter without Russian natural gas.

Of course Russia is interested in good relations with its customers. But it has a choice of customers -- and if the Europeans act fresh (which they won't), oil and gas can be re-routed to other parts of Asia.

There is no reason for the Kremlin to sign an energy treaty -- for the good of some vague contract with Europe -- that would only narrow Russia's freedom in its most important economic sector.
Up to a point. Re-routing gas is not as easy as it sounds. Russia may well have signed an agreement with Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan to build a new pipeline that would bring the Caspian oil and gas through Russia rather than some other way, which would have been preferred by the European countries and the United States but that will not be built for some years. The same applies to the long-discussed pipeline to China, which has not even been agreed yet.

In the meantime, Russia needs to sell her gas and oil because they are the only more or less certain bases of her economy.

There has been a good deal of swaggering by Putin’s spokesmen and various political leaders in Russia recently, all meekly accepted by the Western media. Russia is regaining her strength; her economy is strong, her army is second best in the world (amazing modesty, incidentally), she is becoming a power in the Middle East, China wants to do business with her desperately. Even the Russian Church, divided into the “Red” and the “White” has now reunited. So, look out world.
Is that really how Putin’s behaviour strikes one? I have always maintained, to the surprise of some of my interlocutors, that the best thing that could happen to the West and, particularly, to Europe would be a strong and self-assured Russia with a stable economic and political system. Sadly, we have not got that.

What we have is a Russia that is temporarily and relatively rich because of the gas and the oil but unstable and somewhat fearful of the future. The country is obsessed with America and the need to rival the only superpower, while as far as American politics is concerned, Russia is just another problem.

The economy is not looking all that good. It is not just that there is over-reliance on oil and gas prices – they are unlikely to fall too far – there is also the problem of production. It has been falling. Exploitation of oil in Western Siberia is beginning to show signs of ending and the necessary push into the riches of Eastern Siberia requires enormous investment into infrastructure. The Russian companies, by now all state controlled, do not have that kind of capital and raising it in the West has become more difficult since the Shell and BP cases. (Stupidly but quite predictably, western companies did not heed the warning that the destruction of Yukos ought to have been.)

Furthermore, a good deal of the gas and oil is consumed domestically, which makes Russia’s position in a putative “gas OPEC” somewhat difficult. In the past if there was a fall in production, domestic consumption was forcibly cut back. If that meant a famine, well so be it. This route is no longer open to Putin and for that, at least, we must be grateful.

The Russian armed forces are in a mess. I shall leave discussion of their toys to my colleague but other aspects of the problem are clear enough. Those vaunted military reforms did not happen. The army remains a large unwieldy body of reluctant and often badly bullied conscripts. Its performance in the Caucasus has been terrifyingly bad. Possibly, it could still roll across the European plain but event that cannot be certain and the repercussions might not be to any Russian leader’s taste.

In the Middle East, Russia’s role has been largely support, both political and military, for Iran, a hazardous policy as Iran is likely to pass the arms it buys on to the Chechnyans possibly and the Islamist fighters in the Central Asian Republics certainly. Indeed, there is some indication that the Russians are having second thoughts about their relationship with Iran.

There is, undoubtedly, a great deal of bullying going on and this, if anything, is the sign of a weak and unstable regime. Russia is using its position of energy supplier to threaten the former Soviet Republics that have broken away and some of the former colonies. Not much is achieved during these crises from Russia’s point of view except for some more swaggering.

The putative victims have, one and all, defied the mighty Bear with no noticeable ill effects. On the other hand, every time there is a crisis of that kind, Russia’s clients in Europe start looking fearfully at alternative sources of energy. One of these days they might actually do something about that.

In the end, all this posturing and swaggering is for domestic consumption. While being a long way from another Stalin, Putin has adopted one of that tyrant’s favourite methods: keep the fear factor up.

Russia, mighty Russia, far from being one of the strongest powers on earth, is, if one listens to the President and his various henchmen in the government, in his office, in the Duma, surrounded by enemies, such as Ukraine, Georgia, the tiny Baltic states, old uncle Tom Cobbleigh and all. Furthermore, the place is riven with internal enemies, such as the few hundred or, occasionally, couple of thousand oppositionists or, for that matter, a dozen young Communist activists.

All of which proves that the Russian people must be ever vigilant and the Russian government must remain authoritarian (though relatively benign). Whether it will mean a change in the Constitution that will allow a third term for President Vladimir Putin remains to be seen. I am not sure anybody knows the answer to that, not even Putin himself.