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Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Sunday Shell Game

Hero journalist Yulia Latynina, writing in the Moscow Times:

In mid-January, India refused to accept its Sindhuvijay submarine after it was refitted with Russian Klub cruise missiles at a shipyard near St. Petersburg. The reason for the refusal is that the Klub missiles failed to hit their target in six consecutive test firings.

The Kremlin, which did not want to be outdone by the snooty Indians, quickly retaliated with the single remaining strategic weapon in its arsenal -- the Agriculture Ministry's Federal Service for Veterinarian and Vegetation Sanitary Supervision. The agency immediately announced that it had discovered Khapra beetles in some sesame seeds that were shipped in from India; this served as Moscow's justification for banning Indian tea imports. The only problem was that these insects do not infest tea -- or sesame seeds for that matter.

Unlike when Moscow banned imports of Georgian wine on the grounds that it did not meet health standards, this time Russia faced the real threat of a multibillion-dollar recriminatory lawsuit from New Delhi for its strong-arm interference in international trade.

As soon as the Kremlin learned of the litigation threat, the Khapra beetles vanished from Indian sesame and nothing more was heard about it -- not from Federal Consumer Protection Service head Gennady Onishchenko, from state environmental inspector Oleg Mitvol or from any other agency that typically uses scare tactics in the name of protecting Russia's sovereign democracy.

In Moscow's response to India, it behaved like a salesclerk in a supermarket who, when told the fish is rotten, punches out the shopper rather than bringing fresh fish to replace it. Attacking the customer, of course, doesn't help convince anybody that the fish is fresh.

Russia must have been a little confused when it decided to fire these diplomatic shots from the big guns of the unsinkable dreadnought Onishchenko. The Kremlin apparently doesn't understand that India has long ago ceased being the type of Third World country that eagerly accepts Moscow's obsolescent technologies. Now the opposite is true: The booming Indian and Chinese economies are locomotives of global economic development.

Besides the Sindhuvijay fiasco, Russia was four years behind schedule in its contract with India to retrofit the Admiral Gorshkov warship. To add insult to injury, Moscow asked New Delhi last year for another $1.2 billion to finish the job.

Why do I mention this?

There have been a few major foreign policy events this past month. Russia has been excluded from the international negotiations over Kosovo. Moreover, the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly quietly sidelined Senator Mikhail Margelov. He had been slated to become the next president of the Strasbourg-based assembly, but the parliament's members had strong reservations about Russia's human rights record.

But what foreign policy events have the Russian media been covering lately? Most reports have focused on whether or not international election observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's democracy watchdog, the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, will monitor the presidential election on March 2. The question of whether Russian elections are democratic is certainly relevant, but the Kremlin is preoccupied with the less relevant question of whether the OSCE will insult Russia by criticizing the election.

This issue has nothing to do with whether the OSCE has the right to pass judgment on Russian internal affairs, but whether the elections stand on their own as objectively free and fair.

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