Tag Archives: putin

Why the ‘brosé summit of 2015’ was more about Russia than the United States

US president Barack Obama and Russian president Vladimir Putin share a toast Monday at the United Nations. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
US president Barack Obama and Russian president Vladimir Putin share a toast Monday at the United Nations. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The way the US and international media portrayed Monday evening’s meeting between US president Barack Obama and Russian president Vladimir Putin, you might think that the diplomatic maneuvering at the United Nations General Assembly over Syria’s civil war amounted to a fight-to-the-finish struggle for the two countries, both of which are permanent members on the UN Security Council. UNSyria Flag IconRussia Flag IconUSflag

But that’s just not true because the stakes in Syria for the United States are far, far lower. It is tempting to view every disagreement between the United States and Russia as a zero-sum game, with a clear winner and a clear loser, but that’s false.

Here’s why.

Why Syria matters so much to Putin

Consider how important Syria and, in particular, Bashar al-Assad, is to Russia. Assad, these days, doesn’t control much of Syria’s territory, but he does retain power throughout many of the coastal cities where most of Syria’s weary population still resides. That’s important to Moscow because the Syrian coast hosts the only warm-water port for the Russian navy at Tartus.

A look at which groups control Syria, as of September 2015. (Wikipedia)
A look at which groups control Syria, as of September 2015. (Wikipedia)

But it’s so much more.

While the United States continues to project influence on a global basis and while China has expanded its regional reach into south Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and even parts of Latin America, Russia’s post-Soviet influence is more limited. The battle lines between Russia and the ‘West’ are no longer Vietnam or Afghanistan or even Poland or Hungary, it’s skirmishes within former Soviet republics like Ukraine and Georgia or fights over influence in central Asia.

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RELATED: One chart that explains Obama-era Middle East policy

RELATED: The idea of a nuclear war with Russia is absolutely crazy

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Syria, however, retained the strong ties with Moscow that it developed under Assad’s father Hafez in the 1970s. Outside the former Soviet republics, there is virtually no other country that you could consider anything like a Russian ‘client state,’ with the exception of Syria. That’s a big deal for a country resentful that it has gone from a truly global player — culturally, technologically, politically and economically — to regional chump with fading commodity exports, crumbling physical and social infrastructure and an economy one-tenth that of the US economy.  Continue reading Why the ‘brosé summit of 2015’ was more about Russia than the United States

Why Kazakhstan should have won the 2022 Winter Games

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It’s official — the International Olympic Committee has awarded the 2022 Olympic Winter Games to Beijing.China Flag Iconkazakhstan

Ultimately, China’s successful bid faced little competition after Oslo and several other finalist cities withdrew from consideration after cost considerations and other hassles. Beijing, which was bidding to become the first city to host both the Summer and Winter Games, already hosted the 2008 Summer Games as a way to prove its mettle as a host city, and it has already built much of the Olympic infrastructure it would need to host again — sparing its sole competitor, Almaty, from the task of building stadiums that, as in most Olympic host cities, lay fallow for decades thereafter. Kazakhstan has relatively little experience at throwing international events, and it certainly doesn’t have the budget that China (or Russia’s 2014 Sochi Winter Games) could have promised.

Nevertheless, Kazakhstan would have been the first central Asian country ever to host either the winter or the summer games, and by 2022, it will gather experience through hosting the 2011 Asian Winter Games and the 2017 Winter Universiade. It also had the benefit of offering real snow, unlike Beijing, a fact that its proponents reiterated throughout the competition.

While Almaty’s selection might have raised more uncertainty than Beijing’s, it would have more greatly fulfilled the Olympic Charter’s stated purpose:

The goal of the Olympic Movement is to contribute to building a peaceful and better world by educating youth people through sport practised in accordance with Olympism and its values.

Central Asia has long been overshadowed by its neighbors Russia (which controlled the region when all five of its countries were swept into Soviet Union) and China (which is home to the region’s largest and most dynamic city, Urümqi). But its location has made it incredibly important to global trade and geopolitics — and, in the 21st century, to Russia, to China or to the United States, a leverage that Kazakhstan and its neighbors have used to great effect, and it that’s what Kazakh diplomats mean when they speak about their country’s ‘multi-vector’ foreign policy.

It’s hard to think of a region of the world so little understood and even more rarely considered than central Asia, and Almaty’s selection as the site of the 2022 Winter Games would have drawn a rare and welcome spotlight on Kazakhstan, specifically, and central Asia generally — warts and all.

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RELATED: As Putin blusters over Kazakhstan,
what follows Nazarbayev?

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And there are a great many warts. Kazakhstan has been ruled by the same man, the 75-year-old Nursultan Nazarbayev, since 1989 when the country was still a republic in the Soviet Union. Despite duly conducted show ‘elections,’ it’s not a democracy and, also like China, it’s received harsh international condemnation for human rights abuses. Under Nazarbayev, Kazakh nationalism (vis-à-vis Russian nationalism) has been a greater priority than ethnic or sexual minority rights. Its sudden oil wealth, developed over the past two decades, has boosted the odd architecture of Astana, the country’s new capital, and widening corruption (it ranked 126 in the latest Transparency International rankings of corruption perceptions — worse than China’s ranking of 100 but better than Russia and the other four ‘stans’ of central Asia). Its dependence on petrodollars, as oil prices remain subdued, demonstrates just how much the economy should diversify. Its record on press freedom is very poor, but not quite as poor as Beijing’s. On balance, Kazakhstan is no worse than China when it comes to human rights and democracy and, on many vectors, it’s a less repressive country than China.

Of course, Kazakhstan (a country of 17 million people) doesn’t boast one of the world’s largest economies. Yet, at between $212 billion and $231 billion, it’s more than three times larger than the closest central Asian alternative, Turkmenistan. For all of Nazarbayev’s failings, he personifies Kazakh pride at clawing back their own nation-state after centuries of Russian colonization and economic subjugation that began in the early 1700s. Nazarbayev has used his petro-fueled bully pulpit to call for more ambition among the Muslim world, scolding the World Islamic Forum in 2011 for dragging its feet on modernizing. He’s a hero among the nuclear non-proliferation set because of his decision to give up Kazakhstan’s nuclear weapons — a policy that Nazarbayev has skillfully used to generate goodwill on the global stage and in the international media.

Perhaps most importantly, with Russian designs on its near-abroad ever more menacing in president Vladimir Putin’s third term, from Ukraine to Georgia, central Asia has also felt some uneasy pressure from Moscow. Leading Russian politicians hungrily eye Kazakhstan, especially the northern plains where many ethnic Russians currently reside (ethnic Russians comprise nearly 24% of the population). There’s a real question as to whether Kazakhstan will remain a stable, independent country in the coming post-Nazarbayev era — Putin could easily take advantage of turmoil if the political transition to the next generation of leaders isn’t smooth.

Almaty, still the country’s mountain-dazzled cultural and financial center (but no longer the capital since 1997), lies in the far southeastern corner of the country, closer to China and Kyrgyzstan (and even Tajikistan and Uzbekistan) than Russia. That’s one reason why the country, just six years after independence, moved its capital to the northern steppe, transforming sleepy Akmola into a city of over 850,000 today — that’s certainly some feat for a country aiming to erect Olympic infrastructure in the next seven years.

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Moreover, choosing Beijing doesn’t rid the Olympic committee of its woes with respect to human rights and autocracy — China’s record is arguably worse than Kazakhstan’s on both counts. Given that there are around 50 Chinese cities with populations at least as large as Chicago, it’s somewhat disappointing that Beijing wants two bites at the same Olympic apple. China is far more diverse and culturally engaging that its urban eastern coastline. Urümqi, in Muslim-majority Xinjiang, or the mountainous (and snowy) Tibetan plateau, one suspects, were off-limits due to the government’s anxiety that separatists might try to hijack the games for political purposes.

Critics note that the 2008 Beijing ceremony, like the 2014 Winter Games in Russia, did little to promote human rights, and they point to the egregious conditions of foreign workers in Qatar, which is (for now) hosting the 2022 World Cup, despite the ongoing tumult over corruption at FIFA. Handing the 2022 Games to Beijing will do just as little to influence Chinese behavior.

But there’s a strong case that Kazakhstan would have been more susceptible to international influence — it’s not a member of the United Nations Security Council, for one, and Nazarbayev has gone to great lengths to portray his rule as just, if not always liberal or democratic. He’s sensitive to international pressure on democracy and human rights, considered renaming the country to eliminate its status as ‘just one of the ‘-istans’ in Eurasia, and his government nearly went into a tailspin when a comic mock-u-mentary portrayed the country in a silly, provincial light.

Of course, the 2022 Winter Games would have been a Nazarbayev legacy project, from start to finish, but no less than they’ll now be a showcase for China’s ruling Communist Party — in 2022, China’s leader Xi Jinping (pictured above with Nazarbayev) will be prepared to step down after a decade in power.

But they’re also a project that could have bolstered Kazakhstan’s independence and transformed the image of central Asia worldwide. It’s difficult to think of another Olympic ceremony, short of the Barcelona Summer Games in 1992, that could have had as much transformative value — not even the pending 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, the first games to be held in Brazil or in South America.

Handing the 2022 Winter Games to Almaty would have highlighted a region with has a unique culture and a storied Silk Road history at the crossroads of world history. This more intimate understanding is precisely why the Games exist, and Beijing’s selection marks a wasted opportunity to further fundamental Olympic goals.

Primakov’s legacy lives on in aggressive Russian foreign policy

primakovPhoto credit to AFP.

In an alternative universe, with just a twist in Russian politics, Yevgeny Primakov might have died, at age 85 late last month, as his country’s president.Russia Flag Icon

Instead, he’ll be known for what the international community remembers as ‘Primakov’s loop’ — his order that a Washington-bound plane across the mid-Atlantic reverse course and turn back to Moscow upon hearing the news that the United States had launched military action against Russia’s ally Serbia in 1999. Though it was ultimately a nationalist gesture that did nothing to stop the eventual NATO-led action in Serbia and the de facto independence of Kosovo, it was the highlight of Primakov’s turbulent nine-month tenure as prime minister.

Russian president Boris Yeltsin turned to Primakov in a moment of crisis, after the collapse of the Russian ruble and an economic collapse that left the once-proud country even more at the mercy of international institutions. Despite narrowly winning reelection over a cast of misfits, nationalists and washed-up communists in 1996, Yeltsin failed in his second term to restore the kind of economic prosperity that capitalism seemed so loftily to promise in the heady days following the Soviet Union’s breakup. Privatization of public industries amounted to a botched firesale of national assets, delivering wealth into the hands of a few lucky and well-placed businessmen who made obscene fortunes in the process.

A former spook who started his career as a writer for Pravda in Cairo in the 1960s, Primakov would become the chief Russian strategic on Middle East affairs across a career that spanned the Khrushchev, Brezhnev and Gorbachev eras, reached its apex under a wary Yeltsin and concluded with a turn as Russia’s chief envoy to Iraq in the lead-up to the 2003 US invasion. Primakov, not surprisingly, vociferously opposed US military action and had nurtured a decades-long relationship with Iraq’s president Saddam Hussein. Continue reading Primakov’s legacy lives on in aggressive Russian foreign policy

Saakashvili makes a political return — to Odessa

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The last we’d heard of former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili, he was enjoying a hipster lifestyle in Williamsburg. Georgia Flag IconUkraine Flag Icon

Increasingly, though, Saakashvili has become a persona non grata in Georgia, where he held power between 2004 and 2013, ushering in liberal reforms to a country sorely in need of liberalization. When an umbrella coalition of opponents, led and financed by Bidzina Ivanishvili defeated his ruling party in late 2013, Saakashvili recognized the loss and facilitated the ensuing political transition, which coincided with the constitutional change from a strong presidential system to a parliamentary system.

So it was quite a surprise to see Saakashvili emerge last weekend in Saturday as the newly minted governor of the Odessa region.

We live in an era where Stanley Fischer can obtain Israeli citizenship, lead its central bank and then return to the United States to become vice chair of the Federal Reserve — or where Mark Carney can switch roles from heading the Bank of Canada to the Bank of England. So why shouldn’t a well-regarded former president be permitted, especially at the young age of 47, to take on a politically difficult role in a nearby country — especially when the struggles facing Georgia and Ukraine are so similar?

In order to assume the role as Odessa’s new governor, Saakashvili was obligated to give up his Georgian citizenship and accept from Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko an offer of Ukrainian citizenship. Saakashvili previously refused to do so when Poroshenko earlier offered him a position as deputy prime minister.

A post-presidential exile from Georgia

As Saakashvili himself has noted, however, Georgian citizenship entitles him to little more than six square meters in prison. That’s because the current government has charged Saakashvili with multiple offenses, all of which seem precariously motivated by politics, not the rule of law. Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev called the announcement a ‘circus,’ but the reaction from Georgia’s current leadership was even more incendiary. Tina Khidasheli, the country’s defense minister, attached Saakashvili for treason, and the country’s president, Giorgi Margvelashvili, called the move an ‘insult’ to Georgia and its government.

The step could complicate Saakashvili’s plans to lead the opposition in the 2016 parliamentary elections in Georgia or compete for the presidency in 2018.

As president, there’s no doubt that Saakashvili reduced corruption and improved the underlying Georgian economy and, in stepping down with grace, established a strong precedent for democratic transition and the rule of law. His largest miscalculation came in 2007 and 2008, when he escalated military and diplomatic tensions with Russia. With high hopes for NATO and European Union membership, and believing Western forces would ultimately come to his aid, Saakashvili’s clash with the Russian military led to the quasi-annexation of two breakaway republics — Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Many of the current government’s criminal charges against Saakashvili today spring from the debacle. Continue reading Saakashvili makes a political return — to Odessa

What are the chances of snap elections (again) in Greece?

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It’s a sign that fiscal affairs in Greece are bad when the sensible Plan B to cover the Greek government’s looming shortfall involves loans from Moscow (despite protests to the contrary).Greece Flag Icon

Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras has dismissed European sanctions against Russia, and he met Russian president Vladimir Putin in Moscow earlier this week, signaling to the European Union that Greece is keeping its options open if ongoing debt talks fail. Though Tsipras didn’t seek any financial assistance from Putin, he failed to convince Putin to lift a ban on Greek agricultural exports.

The even more outlandish Plan B involves demanding reparations from Germany for World War II damages, amounting to €278.7 billion. Perhaps not coincidentally, that’s just a little more than the €240 billion in financing that Greece has received in the last half-decade under two bailout programs from the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

Today, Greece’s government, not even three months old, will repay a €460 million portion of its debt to the International Monetary Fund. But that doesn’t mean that all is well in Athens, where last year’s green shoots of economic recovery are now obscured by the uncertainty of a leftist administration that’s engaged in brinksmanship over Greece’s financing and, ultimately, over the wider question of national fiscal sovereignty in today’s eurozone.

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RELATED: EU should give Tsipras a chance to govern

RELATED: What a Eurogroup-brokered deal with Greece might look like

RELATED: Seven lessons from the Greek election results

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 Why Tsipras can’t (and won’t) make a deal on Berlin’s terms

Without a deal, Tsipras will go down in history as the prime minister who led Greece out of the eurozone, willingly or not. Politically, however, Tspiras can’t agree to any deal that the Eurogroup seems to be offering. That’s increasingly a recipe for Tsipras to call fresh elections early this summer, but there’s no guarantee the results will solve the Greek-EU political quagmire.

Tsipras and his anti-austerity SYRIZA (the Coalition of the Radical Left — Συνασπισμός Ριζοσπαστικής Αριστεράς) were elected three months ago on a pledge to renegotiate the terms of Greece’s debt with its European lenders and end the harsh austerity measures that have exacerbated Greece’s contracting economy and growing unemployment. But the EU’s leaders, including Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, German chancellor Angela Merkel and, presumably, ECB president Mario Draghi, no longer fear the ‘contagion’ effect of a Greek eurozone exit.  Continue reading What are the chances of snap elections (again) in Greece?

Obama’s top two foreign rivals could be vanquished in one week

putinnetanyahuPhoto credit to Kobi Gideon / GPO / Flash90.

It’s still irresponsible chatter to suggest that Russian president Vladimir Putin’s nine-day absence from public view is anything more serious than the flu.USflagRussia Flag IconISrel Flag Icon

But as Julia Ioffe wrote Saturday in The Washington Post, even if Putin’s absence is, as very likely, caused by something as mundane as the influenza epidemic currently sweeping through Moscow, it is becoming a more serious event because of the highly personalized system of Russian government where everything has become so micromanaged by Putin and his close allies. The longer Putin’s absence, the greater the chances of an internal coup or putsch, perhaps by the internal security forces, the siloviki, upon whose support Putin rose to power in the 2000s:

You can see why some in Russia are panicking right now—or veiling their discomfort in humor. It certainly doesn’t help that Putin’s disappearance comes at a particularly nervous time for the country. It is at war in Ukraine, its economy is shuddering under sanctions and historically low oil prices, and the opposition leader, Boris Nemtsov, was recently gunned down steps from the Kremlin. There is a sense in Moscow that the wheels are coming off. To Moscow’s chattering class, Putin’s disappearance confirms that impression.

Meanwhile, on Tuesday, in national elections, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s center-right Likud (הַלִּכּוּד) is set to win fewer seats in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset (הכנסת) than the center-left Zionist Union (המחנה הציוני‎) of Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog and former justice minister Tzipi Livni. Though it’s too soon to write off a third consecutive mandate for Netanyahu, the March 17 vote is the toughest electoral fight for Netanyahu since he lost his first bid for reelection in 2001.

Even if Israeli president Reuven Rivlin, a former Likud speaker in the Knesset, convinces Likud and the Zionist Union to form a national unity coalition, polls show that Herzog, and not Netanyahu, would become prime minister. That would place deadening pressure on Netanyahu’s leadership of Likud, where capable replacements, such as former interior minister Gideon Sa’ar, are waiting in the wings.

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Remarkably, that means that US president Barack Obama’s two most nettlesome rivals in international affairs could be sidelined in the course of the same week — or even the same day. Continue reading Obama’s top two foreign rivals could be vanquished in one week

On the matter of the ‘Cotton Letter’ to Iran

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J. William Fulbright.USflagIran Flag Icon

One of the great contrasts lurking underneath the latest outrage of the day in American politics is that Arkansas, the state that produced as its senator throughout the late Jim Crow era was a progressive Democratic voice and a crucial dissenting clarion on Vietnam. Fulbright, whose name is synonymous with thoughtful foreign policy in the 1960s and the 1970s, a multilateralist who helped midwife the United Nations and who stood up to the tyranny of Joseph McCarthy’s deranged anti-Communist witch hunts. He also thought the segregation of African Americans was perfectly fine, he joined the filibuster against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and he opposed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He served as the head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 1959 to 1974. He was rumored to be John Kennedy’s top choice to be secretary of state, ultimately disqualified by the his shameful support for segregation.

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On Monday, Tom Cotton (pictured above), the heir to the other Arkansas seat in the United States Senate, and who won the seat as the darling of the ‘tea party’ movement on the American right, drew verbal missiles from much of the American left (and quite a few moderate Republicans) for organizing a purposefully inflammatory letter to Iran, just as US president Barack Obama and his administration enter a crucial period in negotiations over international sanctions against Iran, a country of over 77 million people, and its desire to build a nuclear energy program.

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FROM THE ARCHIVES: As Rowhani takes power, US must now move forward to improve US-Iran relations

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The chasm between Fulbright and Cotton is amazing. It’s a lesson in the dynamism of American politics or, really, any political system. The same jurisdiction that just 60 years ago produced a Fulbright can today produce a Cotton. The same jurisdiction than seven years ago enthusiastically supported hard-line conservative ‘principalist’ Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, with his venal anti-Semitic rhetoric, can today embrace the liberal reforms of Hassan Rowhani.

It’s also a lesson that no single political leader or official is right all of the time. Just as Fubright’s record on civil rights appears to us today as inhumane and unjust, Cotton could one day emerge as a thought leader on any number of issues. (Though probably not on Iran, if his Monday letter is any indication).

Yes, Tom Cotton’s letter is basic

No one will remember this stunt a year from now or a decade from now. It probably won’t even have much of an impact by the time March 24 arrives, the latest artificial deadline established by the ‘P5+1’ group of countries reaching for a workable deal in respect of Iran’s nuclear energy program.

Part of that has to do with the letter’s amateur-hour tone: Continue reading On the matter of the ‘Cotton Letter’ to Iran

A look at Nizhny Novgorod, where Nemtsov began his career

nizhniyPhoto credit to The Moscow Times.

In the aftermath of Boris Nemtsov’s shocking assassination, his friends in Russia and abroad are remembering him primarily for his role as a liberal opposition leader in the Putin era and for his short-lived tenure as first deputy prime minister under former Russian president Boris Yeltsin. Russia Flag Iconnizhny

Nemstov’s appointment as deputy prime minister lasted just four months, however, when Yeltsin dismissed him and other top government officials in the tempest of the 1998 ruble crisis. It was a sharp fall for someone that even Yeltsin hinted might one day be his successor.

nizhnyPhoto credit to BBC.

Instead, Nemtsov’s more enduring legacy in Russian government involves the six years he spent as the first post-Soviet governor of Nizhny Novgorod oblast in the Russian heartland that lies hundreds of miles to the east of Moscow — it lies north of the Caucuses and the Turkish-Iranian border.

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RELATED: Nemtsov’s shocking assassination rocks Moscow

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The oblast is home to Nizhny Novgorod, once Russia’s third city after Moscow and St. Petersburg. Named Gorky (after the writer Maxim Gorky) from 1932 until the fall of the Soviet Union, it plays an important, if shrinking, role as a hub for the Russian industrial heartland. The city, which rests at the point where the Volga river meets the Oka river, dates to the 13th century. During the Soviet era, it was a center of military activity and, accordingly, foreigners were prohibited from visiting the city. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, Nizhny opened both to tourists and capitalists alike.

Nemtsov, a bright and charismatic physicist who first engaged public policy in protest over the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, was appointed Nizhny Novgorod’s governor in November 1991. In December 1995, when Russia was still an emerging democracy (and not a failing democracy, or a puppet democracy or an outright autocracy), Nemtsov was reelected at a time when privatization and liberalism had become so unpopular that Yeltsin himself was struggling politically to defeat communist and ultra-nationalists.

As governor, Nemtsov enthusiastically embraced the wave of liberal reforms that Yeltsin and Anatoly Chubais, first deputy prime minister before Nemtsov, were introducing across the country. Unfortunately, however, those policies also caused massive economic dislocation and cultural disorientation. Nevertheless, Nemtsov won praise from free-market advocates like former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher and from Western bankers keen on the investment opportunities in a newly opened Russia. He was close not only to the young group of market-oriented reformers in government, but also to opposition liberals, most notably the liberal, pro-democratic ‘Yabloko’ bloc, then led by Grigory Yavlinsky, who advised Nemtsov on economic reforms in Nizhny Novgorod and who remains the intellectual godfather of the Russian opposition movement (here’s a recent interview with Novaya Gazeta).

In his book Resurrection: The Struggle for a New Russia, the inimitable David Remnick writes that Nizhny Novgorod was a bright star in the Russia of the 1990s:

Beyond Moscow, the most encouraging region is centered around Nizhny Novgorod, where young and progressive politicians like Boris Nemtsov have made good on their promises to create ‘capitalism in one country.’ One of the biggest problems with the Soviet economy was that it was so heavily militarized; Nizhny Novgorod, the third-largest city in the country, has been one of the most militarized of all. And yet not only has the city managed, through privatization, demonopolization, and bond issues, to create thriving service and production economies, it has also managed to convert 90 percent of its collective farms to private hands.

But today, Nizhny is a case study in just about everything that’s wrong with the country — a confluence of the economic, environmental and demographic tragedies that are afflicting Russia in the 21st century. The oblast’s population has fallen from 3.71 million in 1989 to just 3.31 million in 2010, and the city is shrinking by around 15,000 annually as the death rate far exceeds the birth rate. Nizhny is now the fifth-most populous city, eclipsed by cities like Novosibirsk in Asian Russia.

As the prolific writer Anna Nemtsova (no relation to Nemtsov) has chronicled, her home city of Nizhny is not only one of the fastest shrinking cities in Russia, it’s one of the fastest shrinking cities in the world:

In 2014, [Nizhny] achieved an ­unenviable distinction: in the first six months of the year, 26,350 people died and only 18,700 babies were born – the population of Nizhny shrunk by 7,600 people in six months, its highest ever death rate. No bombs fell on the city during the period, no epidemics hit, no natural disasters struck its population. For the past two years Nizhny had been the fifth fastest shrinking city in the world.

In Siberia, of all places, cities like Novosibirsk and Krasnoyarsk are growing, even while Nizhny is failing. That’s not all Nemtsov’s fault who, after all, hadn’t been responsible for its government in nearly two decades. Moreover, as grim as Nizhny now appears today, it might have been even worse without the effects of Nemtsov’s shock therapy in the 1990s.

Nemtsova also writes about the city’s current mayor, whose wife spends much of her time in southern France. Valery Shantsev, the oblast governor since 2005 (one year after the Kremlin ruled that governors will be appointed directly and not elected) previously served for a decade as a former deputy mayor of Moscow under the fabulously corrupt Yuri Luzkhov.

Even as the region’s current leaders seem more like neo-feudalist, criminal vassals of Putin’s Kremlin, it’s clear that Nemtsov, in the 1990s, fell short of the economic miracle he was trying to achieve, and it’s important not to omit that failure from his legacy. It will be tempting now to remember Nemtsov for all his qualities as an opposition leader since the rise of Vladimir Putin, to paint him in broad strokes as a pro-democracy, pro-reform dissident and a man of principle. Nemtsov, of course, was all of those things.

But it’s not quite that simple, because he shares responsibility for  the wave of creative destruction unleashed throughout the Russian economy in the 1990s. Even if the Yeltsin-Chubais-Nemtsov reforms were a necessary step in Russia’s transition from a top-down communist state, they engendered economic suffering unknown to Russia for decades, scars that still afflict Russian collective memory today. The failure, in aggregate, of the reformers to establish broad-based economic prosperity, and the even more damning perception that they created a new class of oligarchic robber-barons set the conditions for Russia’s slow march back to autocracy.

Nationalism, the state security apparatus, a culture of corruption. All of these things are to blame for the rise of Putin-era illiberalism. But to understand the genesis of the Putin regime today requires a blunt and unflinching assessment of the failures of the regime that preceded it. After all, it was Yeltsin himself who plucked Putin out of relative obscurity in naming him as his fifth and final prime minister in August 1999.

Putin came to power, not in a vacuum, but into a specific context of economic, political and cultural conditions that Boris Nemtsov helped shape, both for better and for worse.

Estonian election results: Reform Party wins third term

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Estonia’s parliamentary election proves what is becoming a nearly iron-clad thesis about Baltic politics: so long as social democratic parties in the Baltic States nurture ties with Moscow and pitch themselves to the narrow pool of ethnic Russian voters, centrist and center-right governments will continue to win elections and govern.estonia

So it was in Estonia on March 1, as it became clear that the center-right Eesti Reformierakond (Estonian Reform Party) would win its third consecutive national election, the first under its 35-year-old prime minister Taavi Rõivas (pictured above in Ukraine last year), who is expected to continue leading Estonia’s government.

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RELATED: Russian threat dominates Estonian election campaign

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Despite polls that showed that the center-left Eesti Keskerakond (Estonian Centre Party), led by former prime minister and Tallinn mayor Edgar Savisaar might emerge as the leading party, Reform bested the Centre Party by nearly 3%.

Nevertheless, both the Reform Party and its junior partner in government, the Sotsiaaldemokraatlik Erakond (Social Democratic Party), lost some ground — the two parties will, in aggregate, lose seven seats and six short of an absolute majority in the Riigikogu, Estonia’s 101-member unicameral parliament.

Estonia 2015 Riigikogu 2015

Luckily for Rõivas and the Reform Party, there are two new parties in the Estonian parliament, and one of them is a strong fit for a three-party coalition. The liberal Eesti Vabaerakond (Free Party), founded last September by Andres Herkel, an Estonian intellectual, could easily find common ground with Reform. Continue reading Estonian election results: Reform Party wins third term

Russian threat dominates Estonian election campaign

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With the world’s attention on a political assassination in Moscow, voters in the former Soviet republic of Estonia go to the polls tomorrow, March 1, with the threat of Russian aggression looming on its eastern border. estonia

Three days ago, US troops, as part of NATO exercises, paraded in Narva, one of Estonia’s largest cities, resting on the Russian border, and Russian troops reciprocated with a similar show. Though it felt like a Cold War throwback, the demonstration highlights just how seriously Estonia, a member of NATO since 2004, and other NATO allies are taking the possibility of a Russian incursion in the Baltics.

Under that tense penumbra, voters will elect all 101 members of Estonia’s parliament, the Riigikogu, where the center-right  Eesti Reformierakond (Estonian Reform Party) currently controls the largest bloc of seats and governs in coalition with the centrist Sotsiaaldemokraatlik Erakond (Social Democratic Party).

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Some polls show, however, that the center-left Eesti Keskerakond (Estonian Centre Party) narrowly leads the Reform Party, with the Social Democrats and the conservative opposition party, Isamaa ja Res Publica Liit (IRL, Pro Patria and Res Publica Union), trailing close by in third and fourth place.

It’s the first time that Estonia’s youthful new prime minister Taavi Rõivas (pictured above) will lead the Reform Party into an election. When longtime prime minister Andrus Ansip stepped down in March 2014 after nine years in office, the idea was that he would switch jobs with former Reform Party leader, prime minister and European commissioner Siim Kallas. That worked out for Ansip, who’s now Estonia’s representative to the European Commission with a ‘super-portfolio’ for the digital single market.

Kallas, however, was tripped up by a scandal dating to his days as Estonia’s central bank president in the 1990s, and he stepped out of consideration for the premiership. Other heavy hitters like former foreign minister Urmas Paet also demurred.  That meant that the challenge fell to the 35-year-old Rõivas, whose government experience included just two years as social affairs minister. Married to pop singer Luisa Värk, Rõivas has been a member of the Estonian parliament since 2007 and is generally seen as close to Ansip.

The Centre Party’s leader, Tallinn mayor Edgar Savisaar, is nearly three decades older, and he served briefly from 1991 to 1992 as Estonia’s first independent prime minister. During the campaign, he’s made much of Rõivas’s relative inexperience. Continue reading Russian threat dominates Estonian election campaign

Nemtsov assassination rocks Moscow

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Throughout the Putin era, it hasn’t been uncommon to see political opponents harassed or even killed.Russia Flag Icon

Anna Politkovskaya was gunned down in 2006 in the elevator of her building in central Moscow after writing several highly praised books detailing the dark side of life in Russia under president Vladimir Putin.

Officials in the United Kingdom protested furiously when, as if out of a Cold War thriller novel, former Russian secret service agent Alexander Litivinenko was apparently poisoned with the radioactive polonium-210 a month later.

Alexei Navalny, who rose to prominence more recently as a critic of Putin and the corruption of Russian government, has been harassed and imprisoned on politically motivated charges.

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RELATED: The idea of a nuclear war with Russia is absolutely crazy

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Business leaders like Boris Berezovsky and Mikhail Khodorkovsky were exiled and imprisoned after Putin’s government decided that they amassed too much wealth in the fire sale of the 1990s when Putin’s predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, sold many of the former Soviet Union’s public assets.

But the assassination of opposition figure and former Yeltsin-era deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov is the most brazen attack yet. I’m sure no one will ever be able to tie Nemtsov’s murder to the Kremlin, which is already officially condemning the murder. The attack — an audacious murder on the streets of Moscow when Nemtsov was otherwise on a Friday night stroll — sends a chilling message to everyone in Russia who opposes Putin’s increasingly autocratic rule (not to say that Putin’s rule was even incredibly liberal or democratic).

Nemtsov’s assassination seems certain to subdue a planned opposition march scheduled for Sunday.

Don’t think for a moment that this isn’t exactly the gruesome image the Kremlin wants its critics to see — a dissident gunned down in the back just footsteps away from the Kremlin walls: Continue reading Nemtsov assassination rocks Moscow

A Russian bailout may have always been ‘Plan B’ for Tsipras

junckertsiprasPhoto credit to ELTOS/ELTA.

It may have seemed odd that, within hours of taking office, Greece’s new prime minister Alexis Tsipras struck out at the European Union to delay and ultimately weaken the bloc’s resolution to extend sanctions against Russia and certain actors within the Russian government.Greece Flag IconRussia Flag Icon

The incident shed light on an under-explored element of policy preferences of Greece’s new governing party, the leftist SYRIZA (the Coalition of the Radical Left — Συνασπισμός Ριζοσπαστικής Αριστεράς), including its reluctance to embrace NATO and the traditional military and security alliance that links the United States and the European Union. Tspiras, who has visited the Kremlin several times, has forcefully opposed the EU sanctions against Russia stemming from its involvement in the unrest in eastern Ukraine.

Furthermore, Tsipras’s choice to form a coalition with the right-wing, anti-austerity Independent Greeks (ANEL, Ανεξάρτητοι Έλληνες), and to appoint ANEL’s leader, Panos Kammenos, as defense minister, brought into government a brand of right-wing nationalism with roots in traditional Greek Orthodoxy and plenty of euroscepticism.

Throughout the campaign and, indeed, for years, Tspiras has publicly evoked confidence, if not outright cockiness, that he would be able to negotiate a deal to lighten Greece’s debt load if elected to power. Presumably, many commentators believed that meant Tsipras was willing to engage EU elites, including German chancellor Angela Merkel, in a game of ‘chicken’ over Greece’s potential exit from the eurozone. That’s probably still true.

But the common view among most economists is that Greece’s leverage on this point is growing weaker. Merkel and others have privately briefed that the eurozone is much stronger now than in 2012 when the ‘Grexit’ issue first became a real concern, and they don’t believe that the contagion from a Grexit today would be considerable. Greece’s turmoil can be isolated, but caving to the demands of the Tsipras government could embolden radical leftists elsewhere in Europe, especially in Spain, where the leftist Podemos movement now leads polls in advance of elections later this =year. The European Central Bank last week essentially backed Merkel’s view by announcing that it would refuse to accept Greek bonds as collateral, pushing the burden of risk on Greek debt exclusively upon the Greek central bank. Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis clashed publicly with German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble last week as well, noting that he didn’t even ‘agree to disagree’ with Schäuble over the Greek debt standoff.

But Kammenos’s comments yesterday about Greece’s ‘Plan B’ make it clear that the Tsipras government believes it has another, potentially more explosive card it can play:

“What we want is a deal. But if there is no deal – hopefully (there will be) – and if we see thatGermany remains rigid and wants to blow apart Europe, then we have the obligation to go to Plan B. Plan B is to get funding from another source,” he told a Greek television show that ran into early Tuesday. “It could the United States at best, it could be Russia, it could beChina or other countries,” he said.

The United States is certainly not going to undermine Merkel and the EU leadership, especially to bail out a far-left government in Greece. Furthermore, China’s recent history demonstrates that it very rarely makes splashy political moves in foreign policy outside regional Asian politics (such as in Bhutan or Sri Lanka).

That, of course, leaves Russia, which shares a common form of Christianity with Greece in Orthodoxy, and which also happens to be in the middle of the most high-stakes geopolitical struggle with NATO since the end of the Cold War. Continue reading A Russian bailout may have always been ‘Plan B’ for Tsipras

Why the West shouldn’t root for Russia’s rouble freefall

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It might be tempting today for policymakers in Berlin, Washington, Brussels and London to have a moment of schadenfreude at the Russian currency crisis, which seems to deepen by the hour.Russia Flag Icon

But as Russia’s economy significantly weakens, those same officials might regret their glee if it causes Russian president Vladimir Putin to double down on the nationalist rhetoric and geopolitical aggression that’s characterized his third term in office. The Guardian‘s Larry Elliott declared that with today’s collapse, the West has won its ‘economic war’ with Russia and otherwise christened it ‘Russia’s Norman Lamont moment,’ a reference to the British pound’s collapse in 1992:

Back in September 1992, the then chancellor said he would defend the pound and keep Britain in the exchange rate mechanism by raising official borrowing costs to 15%, even though the economy was in deep trouble at the time.

European and US governments slapped economic sanctions against several top Russian officials earlier this year, largely in retaliation for Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula in March and the Kremlin’s continued role supporting separatists in eastern Ukraine. Even today, US president Barack Obama indicated that he would support even more economic sanctions against Russian weapons producers and other companies tied to the Russian defense industry after the US Congress overwhelmingly passed a new anti-Russia bill with bipartisan support.

The last Russian financial crisis in 1998 coincided with slowdowns across the developing world, an ominous sign for the struggling Brazilian, Indian and Chinese economies. It may have even precipitated the 1998-99 Asian currency crisis.

Much of Putin’s support in the last decade and in his first stint as president from 2000 to 2008 rested on the economy’s strong performance. After the embarrassing and impoverishing experience of the Soviet Union’s collapse, the Putin era brought an end to the grinding poverty that characterized the presidency of his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin. Buoyed by rising demand for Russian oil and gas, Putin presided over a boom in the mid-2000s that materially raised incomes across Russia, especially in cities like Moscow and Saint Petersburg.

That continued even through the presidency of Dmitry Medvedev, when Putin, barred from a third consecutive term, instead served as prime minister. But since returning to the Kremlin in 2012, Putin has faced an increasingly precarious economy, and as Max Fisher and other commentators have convincingly argued, the political basis for Putin’s government has shifted from economic grounds to increasingly nationalist and populist rhetoric. That explains the Kremlin’s machinations in Ukraine and its growing political standoff with Europe and the United States, a stand that’s boosted Putin’s previously flagging approval ratings.

If that’s true, though, the risk of Russian aggression is actually rising as its economy deteriorates. There are now several potential catalysts — the currency crisis could easily engender a wider economic recession, oil prices might continue their drop, or the United States and Europe could implement deeper sanctions. In such case, Russian president Vladimir Putin may respond by intensifying his saber-rattling against not only Ukraine, but the Baltic states, southern Europe, Moldova and Kazakhstan, to say nothing of Belarus, Georgia or elsewhere. Continue reading Why the West shouldn’t root for Russia’s rouble freefall

One solution to Moldova’s problems? Just join Romania.

moldovaPhoto credit to adrianhancu / 123RF.

By just about any measure, Moldova’s first quarter-century as an independent state has been inauspicious long before last weekend’s parliamentary elections.moldova

Emerging from the Soviet Union as a new state engaged in a war with separatists in Transnistria, Moldova is today the poorest country on continental Europe, and successive governments have left the country with antiquated and corrupt institutions that culminated in widespread protests (pictured above) and a political crisis in 2009. In 2014, no country in the former Soviet Union, including Ukraine, is perhaps more at risk from Russian aggression.

Though a coalition of three relatively pro-European parties appear to be moving forward to form a governing coalition, the winner in last Sunday’s vote was the Partidul Socialiştilor din Republica Moldova (PSRM, Party of Socialists of the Republic of Moldova), formed in 1997 and a fringe party until it received an endorsement from Russian president Vladimir Putin. The Socialists will enter Moldova’s 101-member Parlamentul (parliament), with 25 seats, the largest of five parties in the chamber.

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The Socialists benefitted chiefly from a decision on November 29 by Moldova’s supreme court of justice to uphold a lower court’s decision two days earlier to disqualify the pro-Russia ‘Homeland’ Party after it was found to have accepted foreign resources. Continue reading One solution to Moldova’s problems? Just join Romania.

Putin tops world power rankings

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It’s far from scientific, but less than 24 hours after Republicans appeared to defeat US president Barack Obama in midterm congressional and gubernatorial elections, Russian president Vladimir Putin defeated him to the top spot on Forbes‘s 72 Most Powerful People in the World.USflagRussia Flag Icon

The rankings don’t really mean that much in the grand scheme of things, of course.

The Forbes rationale?

We took some heat last year when we named the Russian President as the most powerful man in the world, but after a year when Putin annexed Crimea, staged a proxy war in the Ukraine and inked a deal to build a more than $70 billion gas pipeline with China (the planet’s largest construction project) our choice simply seems prescient. Russia looks more and more like an energy-rich, nuclear-tipped rogue state with an undisputed, unpredictable and unaccountable head unconstrained by world opinion in pursuit of its goals.

Hard to argue with that, I guess.

But the rankings represent a nice snapshot of what the US (and even international) media mainstream believe to be the hierarchy of global power. Though I’m not sure why Mitch McConnell, soon to become the U.S. senate majority leader, isn’t on the list.

So who else placed in the sphere of world politics this year?

  • Obama ranked at No. 2 (From the Forbes mystics: ‘One word sums up his second place finish: caution. He has the power but has been too cautious to fully exercise it.’).
  • Chinese president Xi Jinping, who took office in late 2012 and early 2013, ranked at No. 3. (Tough break for the leader of the world’s most populous country!)
  • Pope Francis, ranked at No. 4, even though Argentina lost this year’s World Cup finals to Germany.
  • Angela Merkel, ranked at No. 5, third-term chancellor of Germany and the queen of the European Union.
  • Janet Yellen, ranked at No. 6, the chair of the US Federal Reserve.
  • Mario Draghi, ranked at No. 8, the president of the European Central Bank.
  • David Cameron, ranked (appropriately enough) at No. 10, the Conservative prime minister of the United Kingdom, who faces a tough reelection battle in May 2015.
  • Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud, No. 11, the king of Saudi Arabia.
  • Narendra Modi, No. 15, India’s wildly popular new prime minister.
  • François Hollande, No. 17, France’s wildly unpopular president.
  • Ali Khamenei, No. 19, Iran’s supreme leader, especially as Iranian nuclear talks come to a crucial deadline this month.

Continue reading Putin tops world power rankings