Monday, June 04, 2007

Putin and Europe

Putin fostering hostility among G8


MOSCOW — Nine years ago, it looked like a union of like-minded comrades. When Russia was invited to join the G8 group of leading nations in 1998, the country seemed like a troubled but promising liberal democracy that was on its way to being a political and economic equal to Canada, the United States, Japan and the major European nations.

Today, the main thing Russia shares with its seven partners is hostility. On Wednesday, when the G8 leaders hold their annual meeting in northern Germany, the gathering will be dominated by one major theme: What to do about Vladimir Putin, who is making his last appearance with the group, and how to stop the escalating showdown with Russia, which burst into militant Cold War-style accusations and threats of a nuclear-arms race this week.

It is unlikely to be resolved because Mr. Putin poses a dilemma: Even as he has isolated Russia from the world, burning its relations with most allies and shocking observers with his aggressive suppression of democratic opposition, Mr. Putin, in the final year of a second term that the Russian constitution says should be his last, is at the peak of his popularity, with more than 70-per-cent support among Russian voters in recent opinion polls.

This is in large part due to Russia's lucrative oil and natural-gas exports, most of which are sold to Europe. The windfall profits — Russia's petroleum reserve fund now holds $113.7-billion (U.S.) and the country earns $600-million a day from energy sales — have created a new mercantile middle class and ended the chaos and poverty of Boris Yeltsin's rule in the 1990s, allowing Mr. Putin to take much of the Russian economy back under government control and to abolish most forms of political and media opposition without angering voters.
Russian President Vladimir Putin poses a dilemma: Even as he has isolated Russia from the world by burning relations with allies and suppressing democracy, his popularity at home has grown.

“Due to the high price of oil, the Russian government can raise pensions, pay wages on time and maintain some economic stability,” says Alexander Latkin, editor of the Moscow online newspaper Gazeta. “People live better and they link those improvements to the President. Well, yes, there is economic stability, but of a rather peculiar sort, characterized by the growing role of the state in the economy.”

Mr. Latkin describes it as a “soft nationalization,” in which the state slowly reclaims parts of the economy into regime-controlled hands. It's a contrast with the early years of Mr. Putin's reign, when he aggressively seized control of private companies like the energy firm Yukos, sending its oligarch-owner to a Siberian prison.

But if there is enforced stability within Russia, there is nothing but anger and hostility on the borders.

This week, Russia tested a new missile that could strike neighbouring countries, a move that Mr. Putin subsequently announced was a response to the “imperialism” of the United States. He is angered by the U.S. plan to install an anti-missile shield in Eastern Europe, which Washington says is aimed at preventing attacks from Iran on U.S. soil. It would include a radar base in Hungary and an anti-missile launch site in Poland.

On Thursday, Mr. Putin denounced those, presumably the U.S. administration, “who want to dictate their will to all others regardless of international norms and law.”

“It's dangerous and harmful,” he said.

“Norms of the international law were replaced with political expediency. We view it as diktat and imperialism.”

This language, reminiscent of Cold War Soviet rhetoric, echoed a speech he made in Munich in February, when he said that the United States “has overstepped its national borders in every way” and denounced “the economic, political, cultural and educational policies it imposes on other nations.”

Relations with European nations are equally bad. In recent weeks, Mr. Putin has denounced the European Union for its efforts to give independence to Kosovo, the former Serbian region that has been under United Nations control since the 1999 NATO war against Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic. He has sparred with Britain over a request to deport former KGB spy Andrei Lugovoi on charges that he poisoned his former partner, Alexander Litvinenko, in a London restaurant.

Gangs of Mr. Putin's supporters rioted in Estonia last month in response to a move by that former Soviet country and current EU member to remove a huge Stalinist statue from a central square.

And Mr. Putin has loudly and repeatedly denounced the democratic revolutions in neighbouring countries such as Ukraine and Georgia, describing them as Western imperialist plots and telling voters that similar “orange revolutions” are being planned by spies and plotters within Russia who are seeking to reverse the country's economic gains and impose foreign control.

Therein lies the dilemma for the other nations of the G8, whenever Mr. Putin lashes out at the West, his popularity rises.

“Domestically, it's received very well. The more confrontational Putin gets, the more he's supported by his nation,” says Masha Lipman, an analyst with the Moscow Carnegie Institute. “And nothing can make the nation happier than seeing Putin standing up to others in a way that puts Russia on a par with them. After years of humiliation and being treated as inferior, finally we can talk back. We can say, ‘You don't have the right to teach and preach, you have no right to meddle with our domestic affairs.' Whenever he says these hostile things about the West, and he's said this repeatedly over the past one and a half years, it is received very well.”

In Mr. Putin's early years, he shut down independent TV stations and newspapers, withdrew the licences of foreign-financed organizations and charities, prevented foreign investors from owning more than small stakes in major Russian industries, and used trials and police actions to shut down major opposition parties and organizations.

In the past year, he has begun building a new political system that has the appearance of a one-party state. He created well-funded and heavily armed youth groups highly loyal to Mr. Putin that patrol the country, rooting out any signs of Western-supported democracy movements.

And, in a unique move, he has created “opposition” political parties, loyal to his circle and led by hand-picked supporters, that are designed to capture voters who would normally support real opposition parties, especially the Communists.

For example, the party A Just Russia, which campaigns using Communist rhetoric opposed to Mr. Putin's policies and sometimes holds rallies against the official Putin-supporting parties, was founded by Mr. Putin's colleagues. It seems poised to drive the actual Communists out of parliament, creating a situation where both the ruling and the major opposition parties are controlled by Mr. Putin.

Vladimir Ryzhkov, an independent member of Russia's parliament, the Duma, says that Mr. Putin is attempting to consolidate his power by creating the public idea that Russia is surrounded by Western-backed forces of destruction from without and within. Human-rights activists are dismissed (and sometimes persecuted) as “Orange-ists,” backers of the sort of “orange revolution” that transformed Ukraine and moved it out of Russian hands.

“They are repeating an old tale about two enemies: There is an internal enemy, who must be destroyed, arrested and put into prison; and an external enemy, who is trying to destroy Russia from within with the hands of the internal enemy. … Under Stalin, there were Trotskyists, Bukharinists, saboteurs, and Japanese-British spies. Now there are Orange-ists, puppet-masters … spies, hirelings of [Boris] Berezovsky [the exiled Russian billionaire and dissident], extremists and terrorists. … The authorities, in the last seven years, step by step, have been abolishing elections, banning parties, taking under control television and concentrating property in their hands.”

There will, officially, be an election for the Russian presidency next March 1. Mr. Putin has said that he won't change the constitution to allow himself to run. But he is said to have groomed and positioned two of his most loyal underlings, Sergei Ivanov and Dmitri Medvedev, as candidates to succeed him. The Russian TV stations and newspapers, tightly controlled by the government, devote considerable time every night to the activities of these two men.

While none of it appears very democratic, it seems to have won the support of the Russian public. A poll this week by the Kremlin-backed All-Russian Public Opinion Research Centre showed that the largest group of Russians, 26 per cent, favours “a strong and socially oriented state” without a market economy, and the second largest favours “a strong state and a market economy” (19 per cent), followed by those who favour communism (12 per cent). A Western-style liberal state and free economy received support in the single digits.

Many observers have pointed out that Mr. Putin seems to have painted himself into a corner: He now has no allies among major nations, except on certain strategic issues. But, because this seems to work so well for him at home, and because his power over oil and gas reserves will likely prevent anyone outside Russia from posing a realistic challenge to his power, most people feel it's unlikely that Mr. Putin will change his approach.

“He doesn't believe in trust,” Ms. Lipman said. “He doesn't believe that trust exists. He doesn't believe in alliances. He believes in deals. And building trust is not his priority. His is pretty much a Hobbesian world, which is not how the world is today, actually. The West is about alliance, it's about trust; these other countries trust each other, even if they do not agree on things. He won't work this way.”

Original article posted here.

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