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Friday, November 30, 2007
I was on NPR's Here and Now on Tuesday to discuss the upcoming Russian elections. You can listen to that segment here.
Thursday, November 29, 2007
Monitor, observe, flinch, forget
Nov 29th 2007From Economist.com
Providing fig leaves for a sham democracy
NOBODY’S perfect. That is the short answer to the contested question of why some western observers are monitoring Russia’s parliamentary elections on Sunday and others are not. The dispute involves nuances in political jargon, and obscure outfits with bewilderingly cumbersome names.
Hands up: who knows the difference between observers and monitors? Or between the 55-country Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE, based in Vienna), its Copenhagen-based Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA) and its Warsaw-based Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR, pronounced Oh-Dear)? Don’t forget the 47-member Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE, in Strasbourg), which is quite different from the European Parliament, sometimes to be found in the same city. A full understanding of which of these matters in what contexts and why is probably a sign of a sad life.
One protagonist in the row is ODIHR, which, depending on your viewpoint, is either a meddlesome and amateurish American puppet, or the continent’s most expert source of thorough election monitoring. The Russian authorities take the former view, and obstructed ODIHR's efforts until it pulled out.
On the other side are the two parliamentary assemblies, OSCE PA and PACE. Their joint 110-member delegation is observing the election, to the fury of ODIHR, and also of Bruce George, a veteran British politician and election-watcher. He thinks that the Russian authorities will use the observers’ presence to claim spurious legitimacy for the result.
Furthermore, foreign politicians may know a lot about elections (at least if they come from countries where they are free and fair) but they are unlikely to be experts on Russia, or to become so during a brief visit. Nobody is saying so openly, but the willingness of some foreign politicians to accept Russian hospitality, regardless of the consequences, could be seen as a sign of how Kremlin influence is penetrating the central institutions of western democracy.
The parliamentary assemblies vehemently reject that, and decry ODIHR observers’ supposed expertise. “Most of these people appeared to be part-time consultants, unemployed academics and retired people. …. Few if any have parliamentary or political experience in their own countries” sniffs an internal OSCE PA document. Critics also say that it is unclear in some cases who pays for ODIHR’s monitors’ lengthy pre-election stays. Some observers may be spies, retired or even serving.
But the row is not really about a turf war between little-known international institutions. It is about Russia’s future and western influence on it. David Wilshire, a British MP who will be observing the elections in Vladivostok for PACE, says he makes “no apologies for trying to do my little bit to help Russians transform themselves from their totalitarian system of the past to a 21st century democratic system—keeping in mind that it took my own country many hundreds of years to make that journey.”
Spencer Oliver, the secretary-general of the OSCE PA, says “It is better to engage than to disengage.” René van der Linden, the president of PACE, says “It is always better to be part of the process and have a profound discussion afterwards.”
If things were improving in Russia, these would be strong arguments—indeed they were frequently used by most Western governments during the vote-rigging and corruption of the Yeltsin years. But Russia now is abandoning western political practice, not converging on it.
The observers will give their verdict on Monday, probably a tough one, condemning the harassment, fraud and other abuses that characterise the Kremlin’s “sovereign democracy”. That will sharpen the question further: at what point does the spectacle of sham democracy become too repulsive to merit outsiders’ attention—or, worse, their tacit collusion?
Friday, November 23, 2007
Interesting news about Chechnya. The London-based foreign minister Zakayev is now PM of a soi-disant govt-in-exile, whose members will be announced in the next two weeks. This has been elected by 21 surviving members of the last freely elected (pre-war) parliament. It appears to have broken links with the remaining military resistance in Chechnya which should improve its ability to lobby in the West and may help it shake off the stigma that associates the Chechen independence cause with terrorism and organised crime.
I was at a meeting yesterday to launch a posthumously published book of Alexander Litvinenko's writings. The panel included his father, plus Oleg Gordievsky, Vladimir Bukovsky and Zakayev.
The highlight of the afternoon was Bukovsky's speech. From my notes
I know that I will not be allowed to register [in the Russian presidential election].. The central election commission said I would 'never ever' be allowed to participate even before they had seen a single one of my documents...My task is like it was 50 years ago [when he was a dissident risking imprisonment and psychiatric abuse], to come to the scared disheartened country...say that we were even fewer then and they were stronger, but now we are alive and they are dead...the best thing you can do is stand up and say "I am not afraid". I don't know what the response will be but will try and try and try again until either they kill me or they give up [power]
On the West's response to the murder of Litvinenko, he said
In the 19th century the Royal Navy would have sailed to St Petersburg and bombarded it..it was casus belli. Even in 20th century we would have withdrawn our ambassador. Britain never admitted even that [the murder] was an act of aggression. It should have invoked Article V [of the Nato charter] We should kick Russia out of all international organisations. All NATO countries should have visa ban for Russian high officials. Shamefully, the policy was appeasement.
Thursday, November 22, 2007
Nov 22nd 2007
Time to look past archaic disputes
FOR anyone who cares about peace in the Balkans, few things matter more than keeping intact the country most of the world calls the “Republic of Macedonia”. Its perilous stability will wobble more with looming independence for next-door Kosovo, which will delight Macedonia’s Albanian minority, and stoke the Slav majority’s fears.
In theory, no rich country should care more about Macedonia than neighbouring Greece. Yet relations are hampered by an arcane dispute about nomenclature. Greece insists that “Macedonia” was, is and can only be part of Greece. The name’s use by a region of Yugoslavia was, it maintains, part of a communist-era plot aimed at destabilising Greece. Greece therefore insists that the country be called “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” (FYROM).
Extremists on both sides use rhetoric (seen, among other places, in clumsily made presentations on YouTube) so ill-phrased and comical that Borat himself could claim authorship. They share the unspoken but absurd assumption that the features of the entity known as Macedonia in ancient history should be of decisive importance in modern ethnography or political geography: because an ancient kingdom called Macedonia existed, only one modern entity can claim that name. The region is still waiting for a statesman to pick that assumption apart.
It is a close call, but the extreme Macedonian nationalist position, which argues that most of northern Greece is “theirs”, is perhaps the battiest. It is as if the Greeks insisted that unicorns were pink while the Macedonians maintained, even more absurdly, that the horned beasts were of a colour found nowhere on the conventional spectrum: moonlight, perhaps.
Greek twitchiness about even mythical controversies was more understandable in the early 1990s, when the whole future of the southern Balkans was alarmingly fluid and unpredictable. Amid disputes over Macedonia’s future involving Serbs, Albanians and Bulgarians, the Greek objection to the name was part of a wider pattern of worries about borders and minorities.
But the Macedonian nuts have little effect on their government’s policy these days. The country has changed its flag and constitution in order to accommodate Greek sensitivities. The forward-looking government in Skopje is into flat taxes, e-government and attracting foreign investment (paradoxically, in large measure from Greece).
Greece, however, still insists that the mere existence of a next-door country called Macedonia “is directed against the cultural heritage and historical identity of the Greeks” and “there is no question of its neighbour acceding either to the European Union or to NATO under the name Republic of Macedonia”.
A lobby group called the “Association of Macedonians” has issued an appeal this week noting that Greece does not fully recognise Macedonian passports and that Macedonia’s state airline cannot fly to Greek airports. That, they say, adds insult to injury.
Slavophone people in northern Greece have had a tough time, not only with mass deportations in 1949 but also in their treatment by the authorities on issues such as surnames and schooling ever since. (Greeks saw the slavophone minority, with some justice, as a security threat during the Cold War, and Greek minorities have been abominably treated too in other countries. But even multiple wrongs don’t make a right).
The great tide of EU and NATO expansion that has served the continent so well in the past ten years is already running worryingly slack. Pushing ahead with Macedonia’s applications to both bodies will change the mood in the whole region. Prosperity and stability in the Balkans will benefit Greece hugely. It is time to relegate the name issue to the backwaters of bilateral diplomacy, and highlight the benefits to Greece of Macedonia’s stability and prosperity—and the dangers of its disintegration.
Two interesting things have crossed my desk recently. One is a memo apparently from the Putinist campaign threatening a coal company that has failed to cough up a campaign contribution.
The other is an eavesdropped mobile phone conversation apparently (I stress) between the Georgian and Azeri interior ministers which casts both in a highly unflattering light. I leave it to your imagination, dear readers, to work out who might have bothered to bug and then leak this, or else to contrive and plant what would be a remarkably clever fake.
Unfortunately I cannot upload it here, but it is available to subscribers to my weekly mailing (email email@example.com)
Tuesday, November 20, 2007
From The World in 2008 print edition
For eastern Europe the EU’s “halo effect” is set to fade
The ex-communist countries of eastern Europe will start the year with some good news: on January 1st most of them will join the Schengen passport-free area, removing the last obstacles to frontier-free travel within the European Union. That will help remove the lingering feeling that the eight new member-states from the region that joined in 2004 are second-class citizens.
White-hot speculation has sent prices and rents soaring
The EU’s decision will be followed by yet more good news in the spring, when Congress will vote to give the citizens of many ex-communist countries visa-free travel to America. That will remove another lingering feeling: that their help in Afghanistan and Iraq was taken for granted. As other allies depart from Iraq, the east Europeans—notably Poles, Romanians, Georgians and Bulgarians—will stand out as America’s most resolute European friends.
The dying months of the Bush administration will also be marked by another attempt to establish some kind of “legacy” in eastern Europe, by setting Georgia, along with Croatia, Albania and Macedonia, further on the road to membership of NATO. That will infuriate the hawks in the Kremlin, who will use it as an excuse to edge closer to America’s rivals and bugbears such as China and Iran.
But the big story of the year will be a different one: of popping bubbles and slowing economies. In 2008 the truth will start to hurt: the ex-communist countries have botched reform, made sham improvements and fudged hard choices. For four years, that has been covered up by the “halo effect” of joining the EU, and by exceptionally favourable external conditions.
As liquidity drains away from global markets, the ex-communist countries’ lack of competitiveness will become increasingly exposed. Fast wage growth means that they are no longer sources of cheap, unskilled labour. Simple manufacturing and services are moving elsewhere—to Morocco and Ukraine, for example, where workers are more plentiful. Employers in industries that add lots of value, such as sophisticated services and high-tech manufacturing, are worried too: they complain that east European universities are not turning out the graduates they need. These disadvantages will be underlined in 2008 by the lack of progress in other areas, such as roads (especially in Poland, the biggest country in the region) and bureaucracy (almost everywhere).
The sharpest pain will be in the economies that have seen the most furious growth, notably the Baltic states, and particularly in property, where white-hot speculation has sent prices and rents soaring way above comparable cities in western Europe. The foreign banks that own most of the ex-communist world’s banking system will find themselves bailing out local subsidiaries that have lent rashly. Their shareholders’ willingness to suffer for local managers’ imprudence will provide a big cushion. If that fails, disaster looms for countries such as Latvia, whose inflation hit 11.4% in September 2007 and where the current-account deficit was over 22% of GDP.
Rocketing growth has fuelled inflation, killing the ex-communist countries’ hopes of joining the euro any time soon (though in 2007 Slovenia squeaked in). The good news from the 2008 slowdown will be that the best-run countries will have at least some chance of getting inflation down to the low single digits needed to be allowed into the single-currency zone. That may be unwelcome news in parts of rich Europe, where many feel that the euro area has too many wobbly members already.
Wise politicians in the region will use 2008 to restart reforms, chiefly of an education system which is all too often fossilised and ridden with cheating. But they will be the exceptions: squabbling, self-indulgence and short-termism are the defining characteristics of post-communist politics now. Western Europe may be little better—but it is richer and can afford bad government. Regaining eastern Europe’s competitiveness will require the hard choices that usually stem from a real crisis; 2008 is unlikely to provide it.
Edward Lucas: central and eastern Europe correspondent, The Economist; author of “The New Cold War” (to be published in February by Palgrave and Bloomsbury)
Has an entertainingly scabrous attack on me and my forthcoming book. One small factual correction though: I barely speak Estonian.
Thursday, November 15, 2007
A soldier's tale
From The Economist print edition
WAR stories are necessarily gruesome, but by any standards Arkady Babchenko's first-hand account of Russia's wars in the breakaway province of Chechnya makes harrowing reading. Within the first few pages the reader is introduced to such horrors as the taste of water tainted with rotting human flesh, the merciless beating of new recruits and the killing of a pet dog for food.
A conscript in the first Chechen war (1994-96), Mr Babchenko volunteered to fight in the second (which started in 1999) for reasons he leaves unclear. In between he gained a law degree. Unlike the provincial cannon-fodder who make up most of the Russian army, he is able to describe what he saw in lean but vivid prose. He spares nobody, least of all himself. The officers are venal, violent and incompetent, systematically pilfering the soldiers' rations. Everyone sells army munitions to the rebels at any opportunity. The soldiers are ill trained and chiefly preoccupied with finding food and shelter. The Chechen insurgents appear only as shadowy, vicious figures, slitting their captives' throats or trading them as slaves. Both sides treat civilians atrociously.
Mr Babchenko dispassionately describes the resulting humiliation and brutalisation, not only his own but also of the million soldiers and support staff who have passed through the Chechen meatgrinder since 1994. Only the fierce loyalty of close pals provides a redeeming feature.
Like the murdered journalist Anna Politkovskaya, the author—who now works for Novaya Gazeta, in which she had a column—sees the war as a microcosm of his motherland's ills: corruption, brutality, hypocrisy and pointlessness. Like Ms Politkovskaya, he is stronger on telling bleak, startling stories than stringing them together in a structured narrative. The reader has to infer the chronology from what mostly reads like random and sometimes repetitive pages from a diary kept in the field. The lengthy snippets of soldierly conversation, salty and despairing, sound just right, though they necessarily can be only reconstructions of the real thing.
Mr Babchenko may be weak on analysis. But Russian politicians too have signally failed to answer the deep questions about their country and its people that underlie such tales of brutality.
Nov 15th 2007
From The Economist print edition
Mikheil Saakashvili's crackdown has outraged his friends. What should they do now?
MOST ex-Soviet countries have already abandoned the idea that rapid economic and political reform can bring a future based on openness, freedom and legality. Some (such as Ukraine) are stuck in political stalemate. Others (such as Russia) have turned to what the Kremlin calls “sovereign democracy”—crony capitalism laced with nationalism. Now Georgia, which until recently was one of the few bright prospects left, risks turning into yet another ill-run country with a corrupt elite squabbling over the spoils of office.
This is not a total surprise. Since the 2003 “rose revolution” that swept him into power, President Mikheil Saakashvili's weaknesses have included impetuousness, self-indulgence and a reliance on too narrow a circle of advisers. But until now these seemed to be outweighed by his drive, vision and charm—and the spectacular successes of his deregulation and free-market reforms.
Now the balance has tipped. Unleashing riot police on demonstrators, leaving dozens in hospital, then declaring a state of emergency, seem an inexplicable overreaction to protests that posed no threat to public order. Blanket bans on demonstrations and on anti-government radio and television are tactics that would raise blushes even in the Kremlin.
Mr Saakashvili claims his country was facing a putsch organised by outside provocateurs. Though Georgia has certainly suffered much from Russian mischief-making, he has produced no convincing evidence that it has played a decisive part in recent days. Having cried wolf, he may find it harder to win outside attention when his country faces a genuine threat.
His decisions to call an early presidential election on January 5th and to lift the state of emergency (see article) are not big concessions. The election looks like a cynical stunt to capitalise on the opposition's divisions and unpreparedness, in conditions in which the contest can hardly be free or fair. Although the opposition has now found a candidate, the president's command of the media and the state's resources is likely to assure him an easy victory; it will not be a democratic mandate. Rigged elections are a favourite tool of tyrants.
Is anybody paying attention?
The West has been shamefully slow to condemn the abuse of power by its protégé, “Misha”. America and the European Union have expressed some regret and called for calm, but they have not said bluntly and publicly that the Georgian authorities' use of force is unacceptable. They should. It would also be worth investigating how the foreign aid showered on Georgia has been spent. It is not just that some may have leaked away on mistresses and Mercedes cars. It would be a sad business if American tax dollars had paid both for the security forces' training and equipment and for the broadcasting facilities that they recently smashed up.
Georgia's friends should also urge Mr Saakashvili to postpone the presidential vote, and instead hold a fair, internationally supervised parliamentary election in the spring. The speaker of parliament, Nino Burjanadze, who retains the statesmanlike image that Mr Saakashvili has lost, should convene talks between all political forces, at first to reach agreement on election rules, then to discuss constitutional changes. A new parliament should take back some of the powers that the presidency has recently misused. Until that happens, Mr Saakashvili should be in political quarantine. Any planned official visits to Western capitals, and particularly to Washington or Brussels, should wait until Georgia has returned to normal.
This is not just about salving Western governments' wounded feelings. Failure to criticise Mr Saakashvili's mistakes will undermine the West's cause throughout the region. Russians will wonder whether outside support for Georgia in recent years was a cynical bit of Kremlin-bashing and energy politics, rather than good-hearted help for a country yearning for security and freedom.
Yet even as they urge Georgia's leader to change course, Europe and America should also bolster the country's security. One reason for twitchiness in Mr Saakashvili's inner circle is a feeling that Georgia faces a threat from a resurgent Russia, and the West is a wobbly ally. The latest shenanigans must not send the Kremlin a signal that Georgia is up for grabs. A NATO summit in Bucharest in April is due to consider the conditions for Georgia, eventually, to join. Any offer must not give Mr Saakashvili a free ride. Membership would require not only continued development of Georgia's well financed armed forces, but also the entrenchment of NATO's central values: the rule of law and political pluralism. The path to membership is likely to be longer and tougher, thanks to Mr Saakashvili's blunders. But these must also not give Russia any veto over Georgia's future.
Nov 15th 2007
Ex-communist politicians now face demanding voters
THE gloomy story of east European politics goes like this. Politicians are out of touch and voters don’t care; outside pressure can be safely ignored; reform stalls or goes backwards. That certainly has seemed the case in many new member states of the European Union, and in countries queuing to join. It looks like the story of Georgia now.
But the real trend may be a different one: voters are increasingly impatient with inept, heavy-handed or corrupt governments. Last month Polish voters threw out the brusque and incompetent Law and Justice party, overturning their own reputation for cynicism and apathy in the process.
Supposedly passive Latvians have successfully defended one of the country’s strongest independent institutions, an anti-corruption agency known by the acronym KNAB (which stands for Corruption Prevention and Combating bureau). The business-friendly coalition government of Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis had tried to sack KNAB’s director, Aleksejs Loskutovs, ostensibly because of trivial book-keeping irregularities. The real reason seems to be KNAB’s success in investigating campaign-finance abuses that it says involve Mr Kalvitis’s party.
Mr Kalvitis’s pressure prompted the largest demonstrations since the dying days of the Soviet Union. A recent one was joined, rather unusually, by the country’s president, Valdis Zatlers, who said that the government should resign soon.
Now Mr Kalvitis says he will stand down, and has backtracked on the suspension of Mr Loskutovs. Whatever the outcome, the days when Latvian politics was stitched up by a handful of tycoons, each with a political party in his pocket, seem to be over.
Though the crackdown in Georgia reflects dismally disappointing misjudgment at the highest level, the story behind it is rather more encouraging. The opposition demonstrations of the past weeks may have been in part financed and stoked by outsiders, and they sometimes sounded hysterical and silly—demanding the return of the monarchy, for example.
But some of the grievances expressed were real. The gains of the economic boom did indeed seem to be too narrowly shared. The highest reaches of officialdom seemed to have developed a culture of impunity. It would have been truly worrying if Mikheil Saakashvili’s personal popularity and grip on power meant that nobody was bothered that some things were going wrong, and it is a sign of Georgia’s deepening civic culture that its citizens chose to do something about it.
Similarly, the protests against the state of emergency now reflect commendable public concern, which the West should endorse, not ignore. In Georgia and Ukraine alike, the real legacy of revolutions against corrupt authoritarian rule is not the immediate flowers, which soon wither, but the way that the democratic sub-soil is enriched and deepened. Nothing like this was visible in the dim days of Mr Saakashvili’s predecessor, Eduard Shevardnadze. His ability to buy off and sideline any putative opposition was a depressing feature of Georgia’s underdeveloped democracy.
Biffing governments is one thing. Providing alternatives is another. Georgia’s opposition does not look like a credible potential government. Its destiny for now may be to stimulate better behaviour by the authorities, not to take power itself.
Latvia’s opposition consists of a freemarket party led by the eccentric Einars Repse (nicknamed “Martian”) and a pro-Russian grouping seen by many Latvians as little more than a Kremlin puppet. In Poland, it is too early to tell whether the Civic Platform government will show real vision, competence and integrity, or founder like its predecessor.
The role of money is still the most worrying question. How can poor countries’ political systems stay open and fair when some of the players are billionaires? As western Europe’s failure to stand up to Kremlin lures shows, maintaining honesty and public-spiritedness in the face of huge bribes is a hard task.
Monday, November 12, 2007
I moderated this debate two weeks ago in New York.
Here is a link which will lead you to the edited (50 minute) version, courtesy of NPR.
And this will take you to the transcript
Friday, November 09, 2007
Dear Blog Readers
This is the first of what will be quite a few messages asking for your
help in promoting "The New Cold War" which will be published in
February in Britain and America, and in a dozen other languages in
Europe later in the year.
The immediate thing I need is details of mailing lists of people
interested in eastern Europe, such as (to take some fictitious
examples) the "Association of Cold War Intelligence Professionals" or
the "International League of Kremlinologists" or the "World
Finno-Ugric Movement". My publishers will probably be offering
specially discounted rates to members of such associations and groups.
So, please, all the thousands of people who read this blog, have a think of any ethnic, academic, political or social group that you belong to which might be prepared to give my book a mention in a mailshot or email listing.
Nov 8th 2007 | TBILISI
From The Economist print edition
The president tries to face down protests from the opposition
IT WAS exactly four years ago that Mikheil Saakashvili, then a youthful firebrand leader of the opposition to President Eduard Shevardnadze, brought his supporters out into the streets of Tbilisi. The protesters were complaining that Mr Shevardnadze had staged and won a rigged parliamentary election. The demonstrations were peaceful but, because they went on day after day, also intimidating. Within days, Georgia's “rose revolution” had driven Mr Shevardnadze out of power and installed Mr Saakashvili in his place.
Four years on it is Mr Saakashvili who has been confronted by the biggest protests since the rose revolution. The most recent ones, in central Tbilisi and in front of the parliament building, have attracted crowds at least 50,000 strong. The protesters object to Mr Saakashvili's forceful, hands-on style, complain that the benefits of the boom (annual GDP growth is close to 10%) have been too narrowly shared, and demand fresh elections.
Yet unlike Mr Shevardnadze four years ago, Mr Saakashvili seems determined to hang on. He claims the demonstrations are part of a Kremlin-backed putsch against him. “High-ranking officials in Russian special services are behind this,” he said, adding that several Russian diplomats would be expelled. Georgia's ambassador to Moscow has been recalled.
Certainly Russia has systematically provoked Georgia, with trade and energy sanctions, harassment of Georgian migrants in Russia, and—most recently—mysterious air raids. But Mr Saakashvili's response will do little to help his country's reputation as a shop window for the West in the former Soviet Union.
On November 7th police forcefully dispersed the protesters, using tear-gas and water cannon. Scores of people were reported injured. Among those beaten was Georgia's human-rights ombudsman, Sozar Subari. The government then declared a 15-day state of emergency. Riot police stormed the main opposition television station, Imedi, and took it off the air.
Countries that normally support Georgia against Russian bullying are aghast. Many have been worried privately for some time about cronyism in Mr Saakashvili's inner circle. Last month the secretary-general of NATO, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, underlined the need for greater political transparency and a stricter rule of law if Georgia wants to progress towards membership. Outsiders worry that state influence on the media is too strong. Many think that the government mishandled a spectacular bust-up last month with the firebrand former defence minister, Irakli Okruashvili, now in exile.
Yet the opposition's stance can sound hysterical and sometimes outlandish (hanging the president in effigy and demanding the restoration of the monarchy after a 200-year interregnum). Given the shambles that Mr Saakashvili took over in 2003, the obstacles he has faced and the progress he has made, criticisms of him may seem harsh. The opposition's motives are open to question too. Badri Patarkatsishvili, a tycoon who fled from Russia, openly bankrolls some of the protesters, no doubt for admirable reasons. That raises questions about the influence of big money in poor countries' politics. An adviser to Mr Saakashvili says those backing the opposition want Georgia to be a weak state that big business can manipulate.
Western countries will be urging Mr Saakashvili to return political life to normal as soon as possible. If he cannot produce proof of Russian involvement, many will feel that he has cried wolf, using his country's geopolitical significance for narrow domestic advantage. Ketevan Tsikhelashvili, a Tbilisi-based analyst, comments that Mr Saakashvili and his government have survived, but adds that “in the longer term I cannot say his perspectives look very good.” At the very least this week's events have shown how disillusioned many Georgians now are with Mr Saakashvili's commitment to the rose revolution's ideals: freedom, legality and international respectability.
Over a barrel
Nov 8th 2007
The oily politics of silence
TIME was when a word from Washington, DC made wheels turn on the other side of the world. Not any more, as shown by the case of Enayat Fatullayev, a jailed Azeri journalist.
The authorities in Baku have just tried and sentenced him to a further eight-and-a-half years for terrorism, incitement to ethnic hatred and tax evasion; Mr Fatullayev, one of Azerbaijan’s best-known journalists, was already serving a two-and-a-half year sentence for defamation, stemming from an internet posting he says he didn’t write.
His swashbuckling style of journalism had made him plenty of enemies, but what seems really to have annoyed the authorities was his investigation into the still unsolved murder in 2005 of his former editor, Elmar Huseynov.
The case has been taken up by all the main international press watchdogs. Jo Glanville of the London-based Index on Censorship says his prosecution is “transparently political”. She and others want America to intervene.
And indeed it has. America’s top diplomat dealing with the region, Dan Fried, raised Mr Fatullayev’s case during a visit to Azerbaijan earlier this month.
America can say all the right things. The point is that Azerbaijan does not take them seriously. Just like the Kazakh authorities across the Caspian Sea, the leaders of Azerbaijan have the West pinioned.
One rope is energy security: the only hope for independent gas supplies for Europe from central Asia and the Caspian is the Nabucco pipeline through the Caucasus. A row with Azerbaijan would harm the already flimsy chances of that, leaving Europe even more dependent on Russian gas exports, with all the attendant political risks.
Secondly, Azerbaijan is a dependable western listening post and operations base in a region where America is dismally short of such things. When America objected to Uzbekistan’s grossly disproportionate attack on demonstrators in Andijan in May 2005, the dictatorship of Islam Karimov moved sharply closer to the Kremlin and closed an important American air base. Not much gain for the West there.
If America wanted to, it could pick fights over human rights with every Western ally from the Balkans to the Indian Ocean. It is hard to argue that such a policy improves anybody’s chances of promotion or re-election.
In the short term, these manoeuvrings can be justified. Gains in realpolitik and hard cash are tangible; betraying principles bears little immediate cost. If the main aim is to counter Russian imperialism, then tolerating the imprisonment of a few journalists in Azerbaijan (between seven and 11, in fact) may be the price paid.
In the long term, it makes it all the harder to differentiate the West’s supposedly law-governed multilateralism, based on respect for political freedom and individual rights, from the “sovereign democracy” promoted by the Kremlin.
This approach stresses non-intervention and moral equivalence. But the decline in credibility compounds itself: the weaker and more selective the West’s protests seem to be, the less seriously anybody takes them.
Moreover, when dictators do fall, the people who replace them tend to remember who their backers were. The opponents of the Azeri regime may look pretty marginal now; one day, perhaps, they won’t be.
The best hope for Mr Fatullayev is not official Western protests but the desire for international respectability. For all the Azeri leadership’s billions, that is something that they cannot buy. International rankings for good government and judicial integrity give the country a dismally low standing. The only way to improve that is better government—a trend not in evidence in Azerbaijan.
The shamefully onesided and heavy-handed treatment of Mr Fatullayev will simply underline outside perceptions that Azerbaijan is a corrupt petro-state run solely for the benefit of its proprietors.
Friday, November 02, 2007
THE week ended in Prague, at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), and a conference marking the first anniversary of Anna Politkovskaya’s murder. The radio’s building originally housed the sham parliament of communist Czechoslovakia. In 1989 your diarist watched as its glum-faced members voted themselves out of the jobs they had occupied since the “normalisation” that followed the Soviet invasion of 1968. Now, on a huge screen, staff and guests watched the editor of Politkovskaya’s old paper, Novaya Gazeta, talk gloomily on a video linkup from Moscow about the battle to survive. The Kremlin does not need to use the wide-ranging extremism law, he explained. It is enough just to intimidate the advertisers.
The journalists and analysts of RFE/RL have two distinct audiences. They produce vernacular-language broadcasts and internet material for ex-Communist countries and south-west Asia; and English-language research for outsiders who watch the region (including the American government, which pays their salaries). As usual, management and budgetary upheaval are in the air. Yet it seems to have little effect on the content: incisive, dependable and original. A recent report on jihadist use of the internet was a model of its kind; a follow-up on officially endorsed extremism on the Russian internet—provisionally entitled “Two clicks to fascism”—is keenly awaited.
The margins are often more interesting than the proceedings of such conferences. Even after umpteen rounds of deplorable cuts and shakeups, RFE/RL is still a treasurehouse of expertise on obscure subjects, such as the “semi-clandestine” meetings of the Belarussian government-in-exile, or the criminal records of offbeat oligarchs.
Your diarist was soon happily ensconced with the inimitable Viktor Yasmann, the station’s veteran analyst of Russian spookery and of the nascent ideology of “sovereign democracy”. Questions discussed included: how far do the people running Russia really believe in the noxious mixture of anti-Westernism, nationalism, autocracy and semi-religious hokum that the state propaganda machine spews out? What lasting effect is it having on public opinion? And will it change after March when (supposedly) President Vladimir Putin’s successor will be elected?
Over coffee, participants competed to cite new outrages in the pro-Kremlin press. A prime example was an article in the October 18th edition of the official Russian government newspaper, Rossiskaya Gazeta, on the subject of the massacre of thousands of captured Polish officers at Katyn and other locations in April 1940.
It was a defining moment in the Gorbachev era when the Kremlin admitted the murderers were not—as the Stalinist falsehood asserted—the Nazis, but the NKVD. Now that clock is running backwards: the September 18th article, by one Aleksandr Sabov, asserts that the evidence of NKVD involvement is flimsy and unreliable. That is roughly akin to a German government newspaper (if such a thing existed) promoting Holocaust denial. Oddly, the article is not on the Rossiskaya Gazeta website (although PDF copies are available on the internet). Perhaps the editors are ashamed of what they printed.
Such things stiffen the ex-communist countries’ resistance to Kremlin blandishments. But it would help if their supposed allies would get their act together too. Atlanticist opinion has been bruised and battered by American blunders in presenting the case for missile defence bases in the region.
The latest fiasco was when American officials said Russian military experts could be based at the planned anti-missile radar station in the Czech Republic. Given that the Kremlin’s occupation forces left barely 15 years ago, the return of Russian soldiers of any kind would be a ticklish proposition at the best of times. But it turned that the American announcement was the first the Czechs had heard of the notion. Having hung their allies out to dry, the Americans then changed their mind. For eastern Europe’s loyal Atlanticists, the end of the Bush administration cannot come soon enough. But perhaps they should be careful what they wish for.
Thursday, November 01, 2007
Moldova looks for a deal
Frozen conflict hits sell-by date
IT IS not quite the land that time forgot, although the division of Moldova into the breakaway self-proclaimed republic of Transdniestria and the rest of the country is certainly anachronistic. It is certainly the land that most of the rest of the world forgets most of the time. Unlike Georgia, which has two similar frozen conflicts dating from the breakup of the Soviet Union, Moldova straddles nothing more strategic than a river, the Dniestr. Georgia, by contrast, is the West’s best (and indeed only) hope of busting the Kremlin’s pipeline monopoly .
For years, talks with the separatist authorities in the mainly slavophone territory of Transdniestria have got nowhere. Too many people benefit from a customs black-hole in a region where most countries have high tariff barriers. Publicly frosty, ties between the ruling elites in Transdniestria, Moldova, Ukraine and Russia are often privately tight.
But outsiders who follow the conflict, including Vladimir Socor, a veteran Munich-based analyst for the Jamestown Foundation, detect signs of movement. A European Union (EU) monitoring mission on the border with Ukraine has made smugglers’ lives a bit tougher. A new customs regime in Moldova has made it more attractive for Transdniestrian exporters to register themselves with the authorities there. Legal and predictable business may be less profitable than smuggling, but it is easier on the nerves. That undermines the separatist authorities’ grip.
Attitudes on the Moldovan side are changing too. This summer, the president, Vladimir Voronin, privately flirted with a private peace deal that gave the separatists guaranteed representation in a new federal parliament and government. That produced lots of protest—from patriotic Moldovans who thought the terms too soft, and from outsiders who feared that it would end up giving the Kremlin too much sway in the new country.
The hostile reaction to that plan seems to have reassured Mr Voronin that the West’s sometimes fitful support can still be relied on. He seems now to have abandoned any thought of private back-channel negotiations with the Kremlin, and has launched a new diplomatic push, centred on demilitarisation, noting that both the Moldovan and the Transdniestrian armies are—as he bluntly puts it—“entirely useless”. Moldovan troops number only 6,500; the separatists have 10,000, and some heavy weaponry obtained from the Russian arsenal left in Transdniestria when the Soviet Union collapsed.
The demilitarisation of both sides would have to include the withdrawal of the remaining Russian “peacekeepers”. They would be replaced by a force of international monitors. In return, Mr Voronin has offered a series of attractive proposals to the Transdniestrian authorities. They include allowing Transdniestrian firms to use the rights Moldova has gained to export to the EU; modernisation of transport links and sharing of revenue from them; setting up a joint television station to be run by independent journalists; and accrediting Transdniestria’s university so that the degrees it awards have some international recognition.
All this would be nice for the people of Transdniestria. Perhaps more pertinently, when it comes to changing minds in officialdom, Mr Voronin also says he would lobby the EU to lift the travel bans imposed on some of the senior figures in the separatist regime.
In return, the “supreme soviet”, or parliament, in the separatist capital, Tiraspol, has voted to cut taxes on imports from Moldova, and removed the “migration tax” levied on those crossing between the two regions of Moldova.
These are small steps, and plenty can still go wrong. But if the Kremlin is truly tiring of its expensive puppet regime, the way to a settlement is looking clearer than for many years.
In Russia's shadow
The rebels of Red Square
THE Tallinn military cemetery is home to Estonia’s most controversial statue, the Bronze Soldier. A Soviet-era war memorial, originally in the centre of Tallinn, it replaced one blown up by in 1946 by Aili Jurgenson, then 14, and Ageeda Paavel, 15. Both girls then spent many years in the Gulag. It epitomised the view that the Soviets “liberated” Estonia (Estonians themselves reckon they replaced one occupation with another).
In April, for a mixture of reasons, good and bad, the Estonian authorities decided to move it to the cemetery, prompting rioting by some local Russians in Tallinn and a spectacularly counterproductive temper tantrum by the Kremlin.
Except for the lack of any public information (the Occupation Museum should organise a notice board showing the cemetery’s layout and history) the monument’s new setting is perfect.
The Estonian war memorials and tombstones destroyed by the Soviet occupants have now been rebuilt, and stand next to hundreds of Red Army headstones set in neatly mown grass. Small black slabs mark a score of British casualties in the War of Independence of 1918-1920 (when the Royal Navy helped Estonia fight off both the Germans and the Russians).
After the Soviets had destroyed the British headstones and ordered that the ground be turned over for new graves, the cemetery attendant of the time, the late Linda Soomre, pluckily camouflaged it with piles of swept leaves. The remains, forgotten, stayed undesecrated. Soomre received the Order of the British Empire from Queen Elizabeth II in 1994 and died two years later.
An anonymous Latvian (or Latvians) showed similar spirit, safeguarding the brass nameplate of the prewar British legation in Riga for 50 years. In 1992, when the embassy reopened, someone walked in off the street, left it with a receptionist, but gave no name. A warm thank you is waiting if they get in touch.
A tasteful cemetery alone will not save Estonia. The current approach of smug passivity is a recipe for disaster. Policy towards Russia and local Russians needs pepping up, urgently. One new idea is to raise money to restore the cemetery in the Russian town of Ivangorod, a town that was part of Estonia in the prewar era. It is thus the only big cemetery in the Russian Federation that was not part of the Soviet Union during the 1920s and 1930s. It contains the graves of some distinguished White Russian émigrés, who wanted to be buried as close to their homeland as possible. Many are in shameful disrepair.
A wider plan—suggested by Anne Applebaum—is to highlight positive aspects of Russian history that the Kremlin ignores, such as the fact that it was Russian dissidents in the 1960s who invented the modern human-rights movement. A good place to start would be proper commemoration of the heroic but largely forgotten handful who demonstrated against the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.
Just for the record (and for the 40th anniversary next year): on August 25th 1968 Tatyana Baeva, Konstantin Babtsky, Larisa Bogoraz, Vadim Delaunay, Vladimir Dremluga, Viktor Fainberg, Natalya Gorbanevskaya and Pavel Litvinov assembled in Red Square with a Czechoslovak flag and banners reading “For your freedom and ours” and “Glory to free and independent Czechoslovakia”.
They were arrested within minutes. Bogoraz was sentenced to four years in Siberia and became chairman of the Moscow Helsinki Group in 1989. She died in 2004. Delaunay was sentenced to two years in a labour camp. He emigrated to France in 1975 and died in 1983. Mr Litvinov was sentenced to five years exile in Chita. He emigrated to America in 1973 and still lives there. Viktor Fainberg was pronounced insane and spent five years in psychiatric hospital. It is nice that Tom Stoppard’s “Every Good Boy Deserves Favour” is dedicated to him. But a more comprehensive memorial would be well-deserved.
AT A conference session in Tallinn, chaired by your diarist, the big donors who support good causes in eastern Europe were puzzling over the question of whether it was better to train lawyers and journalists, to hand out grants to charities and campaigns, or to promote “democracy” explicitly.
Given that President Vladimir Putin calls himself a pure democrat (comparing himself in all seriousness to Mahatma Gandhi), it is clear that the word risks losing its meaning. Some might think that happened some years back. The Soviet-occupied zone of eastern Germany declared itself to be the “German Democratic Republic”. The monsters in Pyongyang call their slave-state the “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea”.
Democracy also has specific (and largely negative) connotations in Russia. The myth assiduously stoked by the Kremlin is that the anarchy of the Yeltsin era proved that Western-style “democracy” (meaning a multi-party parliamentary system) did not work in Russia. Indeed, Russians sometimes use the punning term “dermokratiya” (shitocracy) to express their distaste for the looting and weakness that those years have come to epitomise. Worse, the costly failure in Iraq has discredited, in many eyes at least, the whole idea of “democracy promotion”. Pushing that hard in Russia risks backfiring.
So maybe it would be better to use other terms: the rule of law, political freedoms, environmental awareness, public spiritedness (or in the jargon term, “civil society”). It is, after all, not what happens at elections that counts, but what goes on in-between them. Elections can only be rigged successfully when public and private institutions are too weak to object. “Democracy” alone does not prevent mob rule, winner-takes-all sectarian rivalries, and the rewarding of campaign contributions from the political pork barrel.
The discussion ended, appropriately, with a vote. But this being Estonia, home of e-government, it was no mere show of hands. Linnar Viik, Estonia’s internet guru, coached the donors in how to use handheld black gadgets that he described as “Estonian comfort pillows: small and hard”. These allow the moderator to pose impromptu questions and get instant feedback from the audience. The result, projected on a big screen: democracy won, but only just.
Across the corridor Anne Applebaum, the author of “Gulag”, was in full swing. Her Estonian publishers had not bothered to sell copies at her talk; everyone has read it already, they say. That may be true: “Gulag” has been a big hit in the Baltic states. Afterwards, Ms Applebaum and your diarist (who were both Economist stringers in eastern Europe in the late 1980s) headed to the Occupation Museum. On the site of what used to be the Soviet military headquarters in Tallinn, this is a model of its kind, and all the more powerful for the restraint it shows. Visitors are not bombarded with tales of suffering and heroism, but left to infer them from the images and artifacts on display. A dozen cabinets, each with a trilingual video display, tell the story of what seemed to be inevitable national extinction.
“It was the West’s failure to support the Hungarian uprising in 1956 that really broke morale. People realised that the white ships were not coming”. Mart Laar, an historian by training before he ran governments that introduced Estonia (and the world) to flat tax and e-government, has arrived. He and Ms Applebaum have long admired each other from afar: face to face for the first time, they got on famously. This was most gratifying to your diarist, who arranged the meeting. Before taking us to lunch, Mr Laar pointed out tiny, fabric patches in faded blue, black and white fabric: banned Estonian flags, made by Gulag inmates and kept as talismans even at the risk of hellish punishment if caught.
FIVE years ago London was no place to be a Russia specialist. These days the meetings and cabals are so plentiful that, if you are an anti-Kremlin voice, you get unlimited coffee and biscuits; if you are pro, you get caviar and champagne.
The subject of the morning seminar at which your diarist spoke recently was, “What should the West do about a resurgent Russia?” The likely answer is “nothing”. But old cold-war hawks are finding that their beaks and talons, once dismissed as anachronistic, are back in fashion. Ideas that would have seemed outlandish only a couple of years ago are discussed seriously: suspend Russia from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), ban “Kremlin Inc” from Western capital markets, end the farce of the G-8 meetings, crack down on visas, and so on.
A senior Conservative foreign-policy figure at the meeting took another line, floating the idea of a grand bargain. The West should give Russia a guaranteed say in the future of Ukraine and Georgia (along the lines of post-war Austrian neutrality) in return for co-operation on Iran. He did not, quite, use the word appeasement.
“Are British Conservative politicians working for the Kremlin, or are they just stupid?” A few hours later the discussion was over a lively liquid late-evening seminar in Tallinn with a bunch of worried Russia-watchers. It is damaging enough that the British Conservatives have such neurotic hangups about the European Union, explained a gloomy top official. But now they are going to put in a former KGB man as head of PACE.
PACE is a misleading moniker. The assembly should really be called DRAG. It is a talking-shop even less relevant to the continent’s future than the European Parliament. But it sounds important, and having the top spot will be a most useful pulpit for the Kremlin to denounce Europe for its hypocrisy, arrogance, weakness, Atlanticism, greed, malevolence and general failure to follow the constructive, reasonable and disinterested policies of the former German chancellor, Gerhard Schröder.
The reason for this bizarre behaviour by the British Tories is chiefly their phobia about co-operation with the continental Christian Democrats (dangerous federalists to a man). In the European Parliament the Tories are joined with the Christian Democrats in a loveless marriage called the European People’s Party. The chief reason for the Tories staying in is the perks they would lose if they went off on their own.
If one is being charitable, another reason may be the embarrassment some of them might feel by sitting alongside the nutters and deadbeats of the parliament’s right-wing fringe. But in PACE they have more options. There the Tories are in another grouping of right-wing parties, the European Democrats, of which the biggest member is the United Russia. That party’s list of candidates for the December parliamentary elections is headed by Vladimir Putin.
The PACE presidency is usually allocated on the basis of rotation between the parties (yes, honestly). Now it is the European Democrats’ turn. That is excellent news for Mikhail Margelov, the grouping’s candidate. A former KGB language instructor, highly articulate in both English and Arabic, he is a formidable representative for the Kremlin in any international forum. His likely victory is less good news for the Baltic states and Georgia, which already feel that they are on the sharp end of Russian propaganda attacks (and more besides).
The gloom of a Tallinn winter evening deepened over the assembled Swedes, Finns, Balts and exiled Russians as they heard news of the morning seminar in London. “Would a British Conservative government support our NATO application if the Russians objected?” asked a plaintive voice from a neutral country. Once you start making grand bargains, they may become a habit. Conversation then became detailed and revealing on the similarities between the Saudi and Russian approach to subsidising allies and neutralising critics. Names were named, but English libel laws do not permit their publication.