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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Horror of Neo-Soviet Military Intentions

Edward Lucas, writing in the Daily Mail:

It was a chilling sight from a different age. Nuclear missile launchers and scores of tanks rolled across Red Square yesterday for the first time since the end of the Cold War. The military hardware - including Topol-M ballistic missiles and T-90 tanks - may be a reminder of the days when the Soviet Union's nuclear arsenal cast a shadow over the world, but in truth there is little reason for us to fear the corrupt, decrepit husk of the Russian armed forces. Yet we should be deeply alarmed about the politicians who command them, greeted with the traditional chants of "Ura! Ura!" (Hurrah! Hurrah!) by the 8,000 troops who goose-stepped through the ceremony, which marks Stalin's victory in the Second World War.

There they stood on their podium, the great leader, Vladimir Putin, and the new president, Dmitri Medvedev. Mr Putin, now prime minister, is credited with rescuing Russia from chaos and poverty, while Medvedev will supposedly add the ingredients of freedom and the rule of law. So those hurrahs from the Russian troops - known as the Red Army until 1946 - in Red Square yesterday are echoed by the Kremlin's supporters abroad too, who maintain the country is on the verge of a golden age.

But keep the cork in the shampanskoye (Russia's sickly tank-fermented version of champagne).

The grim military parade reflects the Kremlin's increasingly ruthless approach to politics - and the direct threat it poses to to Georgia, a plucky western ally on Russia's southern flank. Even if Mr Medvedev wants to change the style of Kremlin rule, and dares to try, how will the brooding steely figure of the prime minister, his political mentor and the darling of public opinion, react? Mr Putin has said that no big changes in Russia's policies at home and abroad should be expected. He has come close to humiliating Mr Medvedev over the tiniest perceived differences of opinion. It is his hands that will stay on the levers of power.

Never has the gap between deeds and words seemed bigger. Mr Putin claims to have stepped down out of respect for the Russian constitution, which allows only two successive terms. Yet he remains the most powerful person in the country. Mr Medvedev, a diminutive lawyer with - unusually for the Kremlin - no background in the military or espionage, talks about freedom and the rule of law, which Mr Putin and his ex-KGB pals have trampled into the ground. Make no mistake: Mr Medvedev's job is to put a presentable face on the sinister regime that runs Russia.

He may criticise, rightly, Russia's colossal corruption, shambolic public services, crumbling infrastructure, soaring inflation, grotesque abuses of power, sprawling bureaucracy, and overweening state intervention in the economy. But that does not mean he can or will do much about them. A system that has proved so hugely lucrative to the hard men in the Kremlin is not going to disappear over night, if at all. Mr Medvedev's "hurrah chorus" say that the ruthless tycoon-bureaucrats of the Putin regime will be pensioned off. They will either accept their "severance packages" of a few billion dollars or they can join Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the oil baron who was once Russia's richest man, in his prison cell near the Chinese border.

But for this to happen, Mr Medvedev will have to turn on his own. Nothing in his eight years in senior positions at Gazprom, Russia's biggest company, suggests he will do so. For a start, the firm epitomises the overlap between business and politics that he claims to despise. It would be better named 'Kremlin Inc (Gas Division)' for its unwavering support of Russian diplomacy. Nor is there any sign that Mr Medvedev will change Russia's prickly relations with the west, and its bullying of former captive nations.

Earlier this year he described the U.S. as a "financial terrorist" for seeking to impose its accounting standards on the rest of the world. Mr Medvedev has called the British Council, sponsor of folk dancers and well-meaning culture vultures, a nest of spies. His supporters stress he likes rock music and yoga. He has a glamorous and devoutly religious wife. Such clues are spun into an illusory blanket of good intentions. But those who have met Mr Medvedev speak of a pedantic, chippy figure, a nervous nitpicker ill at ease with the limelight.

He may change. Mr Putin did. I remember how he emerged into public view in 1999, looking more like Dobby the house elf from Harry Potter than a world leader. Many thought the third-rate spy with a taste for gutter slang would last months, not years. How wrong they were. It is now Mr Putin who dominates Russian politics. The clan of his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, is history. So are the "oligarchs", the overmighty tycoons who once ruled the political roost. Some are in exile. Others have kow-towed to the Kremlin, gaining even greater riches in return for obedience.

Under Mr Putin, elections have become a sham, dissent criminalised, the legal system part of the Kremlin, and assassination a tool of foreign policy. Many blame the Kremlin for the poisoning in London of Alexander Litvinenko, who fled to Britain after uncovering what he termed murderous corruption in the FSB, the KGB's successor. Since then Russia's relations with Britain have been in a deep freeze, thawed only by the recent "football diplomacy" in which both countries have relaxed visa regulations for each other's fans.

Changing Russia's increasingly hard-edged foreign policy stance would be a formidable undertaking for Mr Medvedev. And why bother? The current policy is working well. The Russian people delight in the stability and high living standards that the Putin era has brought - in contrast to the poverty and uncertainty of the 1990s. Many Russians are pleased too that their country is respected (or at least feared) by its neighbours. A muzzled, sycophantic media means that the country's real problems, and the corrupt, threadbare record of the Putin years, receives little scrutiny. Nor is there much to worry about abroad. The bullying of Georgia has brought only ineffectual bleats of protest from the EU and NATO. Germany's cosy ties with Russia have created a Trojan Horse in the heart of the west's two main alliances. Silvio Berlusconi's Italy and Nicolas Sarkozy's France adopt the same stance: accepting the riches of trade with Russia, while ignoring the political cost. The U.S. and Britain are too distracted by Iraq and Afghanistan.

Yet Lithuania, one of the smallest and poorest countries in Europe, is bravely challenging the consensus, insisting that the EU toughens its stance before starting talks with the Kremlin. Its neighbour Latvia is scraping together some symbolic diplomatic support for Georgia. Every new man in the Kremlin enjoys a honeymoon with the west. And in each case that is followed by bitter disillusion: Mikhail Gorbachev caved in to hardliners and proved ineffective; Yeltsin succumbed to alcohol and the corruption of his cronies; Mr Putin turned into a menacing autocrat.

How long before we learn our lesson?

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