Tag Archives: magnitsky

Anti-Russia, pro-trade former journalist Freeland is Canada’s new foreign minister

Chrystia Freeland transitioned only four years ago from journalism to politics, but she’s now Canada’s top diplomat. (Facebook)

If there’s a polite Canadian way to let Donald Trump just what Canada’s government thinks of the incoming US president with just over a week before his inauguration, it must certainly be this:

Promoting to the rank of foreign minister — Canada’s chief diplomat and the key official tasked with US relations — a former journalist who has championed free trade, who last year finalized a landmark free trade agreement between Canada and the European Union and whose writings on Ukraine and Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea so offended Russian officials that they placed her on a sanctions list and banned her from setting foot on Russian soil.

Meet Chrystia Freeland.

Like prime minister Justin Trudeau, Freeland is technically very new to elective politics, entering the House of Commons after winning a by-election in Toronto only in 2013. But also like Trudeau, she’s spent her entire adult life steeped in Canadian and global politics.

As recently as last week, Freeland held up Canada as country open to both immigration and trade and a bulwark against rising populism and protectionism in the United States and Europe. As Trump prepares to take power to the south, and as a Conservative MP, Kellie Leitch, tries to win her own party’s leadership with an anti-immigrant and anti-elite message, voters haven’t lost faith in Trudeau’s approach. His post-election honeymoon is continuing into its 15th month, as the Liberal Party continues to enjoy a wide double-digit polling lead.
Continue reading Anti-Russia, pro-trade former journalist Freeland is Canada’s new foreign minister

Pre-Sochi required reading list: McFaul’s foibles and Putin’s Olympics


If you read nothing else before the opening ceremony of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, you could do much worse than these two brilliant pieces in Foreign Policy and Politico Magazine that explain in majestic scale the state of Russia today and the nature of US-Russian relations in the 2010s, even as journalists started arriving in Sochi earlier this week and reporting the (sometimes humorous) problems with infrastructure. USflagRussia Flag Icon

The first is a profile of Michael McFaul (pictured below), the US ambassador to Russia, who announced earlier this week that he will step down following the Winter Games in Sochi, after just two years as the US envoy to Moscow.  Just the second non-career diplomat in US history to hold the post, Michael Weiss writes in Foreign Policy about both McFaul’s successes and failures, but especially McFaul’s failures, evident from the first sentence:

The Kremlin, for instance, will be sad to see the nicest, most eager-to-please man to ever inhabit Spaso House quit the joint after only two years of floundering and squirming under the Kremlin’s systematic, Vienna Convention-violating sadism.


McFaul (pictured above with Obama), a  professor of political science at Stanford University, previously served as US president Barack Obama’s special assistant and senior director of Russian and Eurasian affairs.  The ‘reset’ concept with Russia at the beginning of the Obama administration was McFaul’s brainchild — though the US secretary of state at the time Hillary Clinton, memorably presented her Russian counterpart with a reset button inscribed with the word peregruzka (‘overload’) instead of perezagruzka (‘reset’).  But it’s important to remember that McFaul was also instrumental in the successful negotiations to enact deeper nuclear non-proliferation through the New START treaty with Russia enacted in May 2010.

Weiss’s piece makes clear just how difficult it was for McFaul to adjust between ‘advocate’ mode and ‘diplomat’ mode, and most of the major ‘gaffes’ of McFaul’s tenure relate to the gap between advocate and diplomat — over-reliance on social media; meeting with a wide group of the Kremlin’s political opponents for his first official meeting; dissembling over the Magnitsky Act (which ties US-Russian trade to human rights abuses) and encouraging Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization; or even the time he tweeted about ‘Yoburg’ (which translates to ‘Fuckville’ in Russian) instead of ‘Yeakaterinburg.’

McFaul had a style that was hard to account for or justify, as when he admitted, by way of an apology, that he was “not a professional diplomat.” This, too, had the merit of being true; but what, it prompted many to wonder, was he doing in the most difficult diplomatic posting on the planet advertising as much?

Though John Beyrle, the career diplomat who served as ambassador between 2008 and 2011, would not have made those same mistakes, he also wouldn’t have tweeted a message of support (‘I’m watching.’) to opposition figure Alexei Navalny last summer during a politically-motivated trial on trumped-up charges.  Part of the charge against McFaul is that he didn’t follow the rulebook of international diplomacy, but that runs both ways — one man’s diplomatic faux pas is another man’s bravery.  If, a decade from now, we look back at the August 2013 confrontation with Syria as the start of a successful model for US-Russian cooperation, the Obama-McFaul reputation on Russian relations will look drastically better  (of course, that depends mostly on the cooperation of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in dismounting his chemical weapons program and the ability of the OPCW and UN personnel to evacuate them from a country in the midst of a civil war).

Ultimately, though, the McFaul tenure coincides with what seems today like a stark deterioration in bilateral relations, even from the headier days of 2009 and 2010.  Here’s the devastating kicker:

Unfortunately, he’s leaving with the Russian media portraying America as a country that tortures orphans to death, brainwashes children into becoming homosexuals, supports al Qaeda terrorists in the Middle East, eggs on neo-Nazis to overthrow the government of Ukraine, and otherwise behaves as both a bumbling colossus and a serially defrauded and discombobulated mug in world affairs.

The second piece you should read is Leon Aron’s piece in Politico Magazine explaining how the Winter Games initially came to Sochi (partly a rare English-language speech from Putin to the International Olympic Committee in 2007):

But it mostly explains why, at a price tag of between $50 billion and $55 billion, they’re the most staggeringly expensive Olympics ever (more than even Beijing’s 2008 Summer Games and more than all previous Winter Games in Olympic history):  Continue reading Pre-Sochi required reading list: McFaul’s foibles and Putin’s Olympics

What to make of Khodorkovsky’s prison release


In connection with a wide-ranging amnesty bill that also freed the anti-Putin members of the punk band Pussy Riot, former Yukos president Mikhail Khodorkovsky was released from prison earlier this week.Russia Flag Icon

Though Russian media are hailing the move as an act of grace by Russian president Vladimir Putin, it’s  lot less magnanimous than it looks — after ten years in prison, Khodorkovsky was due to be released in 2014 anyway.

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, the two members of Pussy Riot, who were also due to be released in 2014 after their own political imprisonment, called the amnesty a ploy meant to whitewash Putin’s human rights record just two months before the Winter Olympic Games are set to begin in the Russian Black Sea port city of Sochi.  Tolokonnikova called Russia an ‘authoritarian’ state, and Alyokhina dismissed their release in equally emphatic terms.

“I don’t think the amnesty is a humanitarian act, I think it’s a PR stunt,” she said by telephone to Dozhd internet television channel. “If I had had a choice to refuse the amnesty, I would have, without a doubt.”

Khodorkosvky’s release, however, was even more unexpected, and in Khodorkosvky’s own words, featured the ‘best traditions of the 1970s.’  Brokered by former German foreign minister Hans Dietrich Gensher and former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder, a social democrat who often found common cause with Putin, the deal was more than two years in the making.  Though Khodorkosvky refused to admit guilt, he agreed to refrain from intervening in Russian politics in a letter to Putin asking for clemency to visit his ailing mother in Germany.  Upon his release, Khodorkovsky immediately flew to Germany in what amounts to his expulsion from Russia, and he may ultimately live in Switzerland, where he’s applied for a visa.

Nevertheless, his sudden emergence earlier this week in Berlin had the feel of something analogous to when Nelson Mandela left nearly three decades of imprisonment on Robben Island in South Africa.  Like Mandela, Khodorkovsky emerged from prison as a man transformed by his experience.  Khodorkovsky entered prison a decade ago as one of the most successful of several robber-baron oligarchs who were lucky enough to purchase the state assets that former Russian president Boris Yeltsin sold off at fire-sale prices in the 1990s.  Khodorkovsky bought Yukos, a top Russian oil producer, and the wealth from Khodorkovsky’s business empire made him the richest man in Russia in the early 2000s.  His wealth increasingly fueled political activism in the early years of the Putin era, and Khodorkovsky began openly criticizing the Russian political model and began funding opposition political parties.

That came to an end in October 2003, when Russian authorities arrested Khodorkovsky on a Siberian tarmac and imprisoned him after a show trial found him guilty of tax evasion and fraud charges.  After a surge of political activism from within his Moscow prison, including a plan to run for parliament, Khodorkovsky was transferred to the notorious Krasnokamensk labor camp near the Chinese and Mongolian borders in Russia’s far east, located next to the country’s largest uranium mine.  A subsequent trial in 2009 led to further convictions, this time for embezzlement and money laundering.

In Berlin earlier this week, Khodorkovsky calmly disclaimed his interest in politics or business, but hoped to help free other Russian prisoners: Continue reading What to make of Khodorkovsky’s prison release