Sunday, March 02, 2008

New Cold War

I am interviewed in Spanish here

And assailed by the Exile (Moscow's English-language satirical paper) here

You can hear me discussing the book in (heavily-accented) Russian here

A review by my former colleague, and now blogger Stephen Hugh Jones here

You can hear an interview on NPR here (though it was edited to make me sound much less hawkish than I am)

And this piece (abbreviated) ran in today's Sunday Telegraph

What hope for reform under Medvedev?

By Edward Lucas
Last Updated: 12:30am GMT 02/03/2008

To call it an election is insulting to countries that have real ones. Russia's political event today, in which Dmitri Medvedev, the lawyerly sidekick of Vladimir Putin, will romp home against token opposition, is both predictable and mystifying. Everyone knows who will win. But nobody knows what it means.

For Russia's political system is not only closed to real competition; it is also all but impenetrable to outsiders.

We are back to the era of Kremlinology, when analysts of Soviet politics would scrutinise every nuance in Pravda for faint reflections of the power struggles in the Communist Party's politburo.

For all its faults, Russia's political system under Boris Yeltsin was both open and unpredictable. Would the president be impeached? [You could] phone a powerful Russian politician or top tycoon and find out.

Now things are different. Kremlinology - which only a few years ago seemed to be an obsolete skill - is back. Russians and outsiders alike are reduced to reading the tea leaves.

How seriously should we take Dmitry Medvedev's reformist rhetoric? If he is sincere, does he have a chance of making it happen? Will real power rest with Mr Putin, or will it be shared? If so, will that double act, the first of its kind in Russian history, be stable?

We are told that Mr Medvedev is a pro-Western liberal, on the grounds that he likes rock music and the internet. Maybe he is. Or maybe he is the preferred candidate of the former-KGB people who seized power in Russia in 1999, and who want to put a presentable face on a system that has made them multi-billionaires.

Rather than using the mental equivalent of a flint axe to cut our way through the jungle of Russian politics, it may be more helpful to think in terms of films. The fundamental question is, are we watching Casablanca or Gone with the Wind?

Believe the latter, and today's poll is part of a carefully scripted melodrama in which the audience may be in suspense, but the actors know the ending. Mr Putin has neatly sidestepped the two-term limit stipulated in the Russian constitution, but achieves his other objectives, chiefly a speedy return to power in a few months or years.

The script ties up lots of other loose ends, too. The youthful and soft-spoken Mr Medvedev will repair an international image scarred by the hawkish rhetoric coming from Russia in recent years.

The intricate networks of power, money and personal favours that make Russia work may twitch, but will not be ripped apart. Russia's secret-police tycoons will continue to run the country, squashing public protest and making haphazard stabs at reform.

And cinema-goers, hoping to see their favourite characters in action again, will flock to the sequel, starring a "positively final appearance, due to overwhelming public demand" by Mr Putin, the man Mr Medvedev has served so faithfully for 16 years.

As so often in the past eight years, Russia's rulers will have preserved the letter of legality and political propriety, while trampling on the spirit.

The Russian people cannot possibly be trusted to make a real choice between real candidates in a free election. Instead, it must all be carefully stage-managed and scripted. The pay-off line is simple: "Democracy my dear? Frankly, I don't give a damn."

But suppose this political epic is not neatly plotted but hurriedly improvised - more like Casablanca, where for most of the film's production Humphrey Bogart (Rick) and Paul Heinried (Victor László) had no idea who was going to end up in the arms of Ingrid Bergman (Ilsa) at the airport.

On this reading, the choice of Medvedev was a desperate stop-gap move, the product of unmanageable feuding among the Kremlin clans. His election may give a glimmer of hope to the beleaguered economic reformers in Russia's government. It might even mean the sidelining of the incompetent ex-spooks who infest the heights of political and economic power.

That would truly be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

•Edward Lucas is a former Moscow bureau chief of 'The Economist' and author of 'The New Cold War: how the Kremlin menaces Russia and the West' (Bloomsbury, £18.99)

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