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Tuesday, September 18, 2007

We Told You So

The picture above, taken from a Russian-language blog operated by a blogger known as "Drugoi" ("The Other") and noticed by Global Voices (which translates a number of the comments) states: "Putin's Plan -- Russia's Victory." The blogger asks: Does anybody know what this "plan" actually is? One might also ask how long it will be before enormous images of Putin himself adorn these neo-Stalinist messages, just as in Soviet times.

Eighteen months ago, in April 2006, this blog was founded for the purpose of sounding a clarion call of warning that a new Soviet Union was rising in Russia. Well ahead of its time, many scoffed at this idea. Now, it's conventional wisdom, as the following comprehensive review from t
he Times of London reports:

Moscow has been washed all summer by the northern sun, lingering over the gilded onion domes of St Basil’s and glowing softly off the cobblestones of Red Square. The shoppers are out until late in the elegant galleries and boutiques around the Kremlin wall. Green parasols shade open-air diners, and laughter drifts from the beer gardens. Moscow has never had it so good.

It is just little things, seen and heard, that jar. Posters, Soviet-style, with heroic figures and slogans in retro typefaces, advertise a Kremlin-backed youth group, Nashi. A sense of control is growing, on television, in business, even out driving. Traffic police no longer fine them for their own pocket, motorists say. Shakedowns are now professional, regulated from on high.

Lenin never vanished from Red Square. His mausoleum remains, his museum is being redecorated, and a lookalike has long stood at the entrance to the square, posing for photographs for a few roubles. Stalin was different: reviled as the killer of millions within three years of his death, his body plucked from its place of honour next to Lenin and secretly reburied in 1961. Stalin’s lookalike has now joined Lenin. That is very new, and the instinct on seeing him with his arm round smiling trippers is to duck, as if he is some still-lethal ricochet from the past. When the Beatles sang Back in the USSR nearly 40 years ago, the world was in thrall to the cold war, and the prospect of global meltdown was thermonuclear rather than climatic. Those days are here again, or so it seems.

A sea change is taking place in Russia. An ever-pricklier sense of national pride is seen across the board. President Putin mocks the notion of a “unipolar”, American-dominated world. The point was emphasised last month as he and the Chinese president, Hu Jintao, watched their troops assault “terrorists” in joint manoeuvres in the Urals, while a mini-submarine planted a titanium Russian flag on the seabed beneath the North Pole itself.

Relations with the West, particularly Britain, are at their worst in years. Moscow has suspended its participation in the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe. Under CFE, adopted in 1990, Russia moved most of its tanks and other hardware east of the Urals. It no longer has to keep them there. Military spending is running at a post-Soviet record. New nuclear submarines, missiles and aircraft have been commissioned.

Amid talk of a renewed arms race, a £500m all-weather missile-defence system was sold to Iran, £1.5 billion of hardware to Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela, and missiles to Syria. Bear strategic bombers are back over the North Sea for the first time in 17 years, reviving a traditional photo opportunity for RAF pilots as they see them off. A restored base in Syria will give the Russian navy a presence in the Mediterranean.

Pressure is put on neighbours, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, with threats to natural gas supplies. At home, psychiatric wards are again used to forcibly detain dissidents. Political opponents have been beaten up, journalists have been murdered. The British and Estonian ambassadors have been harassed by Kremlin-approved demonstrators.

It is the government itself that smacks most of Soviet days, however. The KGB, the old security force that spied and suppressed on behalf of the Communist party, is back. It has a new name, the Federal Security Service (FSB). It has emerged as the controlling element in the state. Its basic instincts are now Russia’s: the pursuit of power, suspicion, fear of encirclement, the equation of opposition with anarchy, and extreme sensitivity to slights. The FSB, and the new Russia, do not like to be dissed.

The siloviki, the “men of power” with backgrounds in the FSB and military, sit ever more comfortably in the saddle. They and their friends account for two-thirds and more of the upper reaches of the state. Soviet leaders had to seek consensus within the politburo and the party, and they kept a weather eye on the KGB, too. The siloviki have no such constraints. They run the Kremlin and the government. They control the provinces, where governors are no longer elected by local people, but are appointed by the Kremlin.

They own, run or control the media and large slices of industry. Every ministry now has its ZAO, a “closed shareholder society”, controlled by relations and friends of senior officials. These are used to privatise assets. The railway ministry, for example, controls thousands of advertising sites on stations, in carriages. Spin them off into a ZAO and the spoils are immense.

The FSB’s most famous alumnus is Vladimir Putin himself, a former KGB lieutenant-colonel, and head of the FSB under Boris Yeltsin. He has surrounded himself with men of the same ilk. Several of them, like Putin, are security-service veterans from St Petersburg: Viktor Ivanov, who runs the Kremlin staff, Igor Sechin, the in-house economy expert, Sergei Ivanov, the former defence minister, now first deputy prime minister, a modest-sounding role that gives little hint of his real influence. Sechin is also chairman of Rosneft, the state-run oil major. Viktor Ivanov is head of the board of Aeroflot, Russia’s national airline. Putin’s press secretary is on the board of the biggest television channel.

As well as personal wealth, as a group they control the billions of pounds earned by oil and gas exports. “Russia is well enough off with $40-a-barrel oil,” says an energy specialist. “At $65 and above, it’s head-turning.” Russia is the largest natural-gas exporter. In oil, it is second only to Saudi Arabia. Demand for its gold, platinum, nickel and copper is soaring.

This inflow of money assures Putin’s power base. Parliamentary elections are due at the end of the year, with the presidential poll to follow in March. The siloviki will retain unruffled supremacy. The constitution requires Putin to stand down (though he could return in 2012). Nobody is in any doubt that the transfer of power to his chosen successor will be seamless – he has yet to say whom he will support – and the changes in policy negligible.

Putin is hugely and genuinely popular, and so, by and large, is his muscle-flexing. He has 80% approval ratings, and with reason.

When he succeeded Yeltsin on December 31, 1999, Russia was near-bankrupt. The collapse of the Soviet bloc 10 years earlier had paid a “peace dividend” to the West, and opened up a vast new market and a treasure trove of natural resources for Western companies. But millions of Russians lost their jobs and savings amid the humiliations of a debt default in 1998. Pensioners, servicemen, teachers and scientists went unpaid. The bellhops in Moscow’s new Western-financed hotels were often PhDs.

The country was no longer that of the tsars and the communists. Great lumps were torn from it: the Ukraine, Georgia, the Baltics, Central Asia… Russians by the million woke to find they had become ethnic minorities on the wrong side of new frontiers. Nato and the EU expanded eastwards, as ex-Warsaw Pact members Poland and Hungary joined the old enemy: as, unthinkably, did the former Soviet countries Estonia and Lithuania.

Seven years of Putin, though, and self-confidence is rising like sap in spring. The pauper who went begging to Western investors has an investment-grade credit rating and the world’s third-largest foreign-currency reserves, £200 billion. The rouble, once shabbily printed, unloved and ever heading south, is strong and spruce. The economy is growing by more than 7% a year: a starry-eyed official report predicts that it will grow two-and-a-half times by 2020, to become the world’s fifth largest.

Rust-bucket towns still abound. A quarter of Russians were rated as poverty-stricken in 2002. But that is down to 12%, and falling. A lick of paint, flowerbeds and functioning fountains lift the ramshackle air of neglect from the cities.

A robust professional middle class has emerged, strikingly so in Moscow. The trickle-down effect from the super-rich in their black Hummers and Cayennes is evident in the colossal and crowded shopping malls.

It is this rare combination of popularity and prosperity that is giving Putin, and those close to him, the chance to reforge Russia with long-term impact. He has given three important insights into his mindset. None is reassuring.

“The demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” he said in his state-of-the-nation address two years ago. He added recently that it is time to “stop apologising” for Russia’s past.

He has made it clear, too, that he is deeply mistrustful of the West, which he sees as hellbent on belittling Russia and looting her resources. He gave the Americans a verbal kicking at the Munich Conference on Security Policy in February. “The United States has overstepped its borders in all spheres, economic, political and humanitarian,” he said, “and has imposed itself on other states.” US foreign policy, Putin believed, was a recipe for disaster. “The number of people who died did not get less but increased. We see no kind of restraint.” The Americans had “gone from one conflict to another without achieving a fully fledged solution to any of them”.

And he is proud of his KGB roots. “There is no such thing as a former Chekist,” he says. It is a revealing remark. The Cheka was the Bolsheviks’ earliest secret police, and Putin is fast declaring his loyalty to the founders of the police state.

Britain, more than most, is finding the reshaped Russia uncomfortable to live with, with eerie echoes from the past.

The BBC World Service disappeared from FM radio last month, after the last station that was retransmitting it, Bolshoye Radio, was told to drop it in a matter of hours or lose its licence. British Council offices have endured repeated tax inspections – the council’s English teaching is said to be a “commercial activity” – and threats of closure by fire-safety officers.

The traditional tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomats have resumed, and so have mutual accusations of spying. Our man in Moscow, Sir Anthony Brenton, suffered months of insults last winter from a rent-a-mob of members of the youth movement Nashi, both in the flesh and on a scurrilous website.

The ambassador incurred their wrath last year by attending a “fascist meeting” organised by the liberal opposition – but including an extreme-left group – to protest at the undermining of civil society in Russia. They got hold of a copy of his diary – a feat that suggests involvement by the FSB – and hounded him mercilessly.

“When I go out to buy cat food, they follow me and start waving banners,” Brenton complained. “Nashi’s links with the Kremlin are well known. Their leader has met with President Putin many times.” The Kremlin, he suggested, could have called them off if it wanted to.

The ill feeling with Britain goes beyond the support for Russia’s dwindling liberals. It was given a specific edge by the poisoning in London last November, with polonium-210, of Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB officer who had recently been granted a British passport. Britain claims that he was murdered by Andrei Lugovoi, another ex-KGB man. The use of hugely toxic radioactive material to kill a British citizen in London was seen as a shocking return to Soviet-era habits. The Russians have refused Britain’s demand for Lugovoi’s extradition on the grounds that their constitution forbids it. For good measure, they have repeated their own demand for the extradition of Boris Berezovsky. The billionaire ex-oligarch fled to Britain circa 2000, and was granted asylum, after a spectacular falling-out with President Putin, for whose overthrow he now calls. Berezovsky was close to Litvinenko and claims that Russian agents are trying to kill him, too. He is being tried in absentia in Moscow on fraud charges.

Putin displayed real anger when he discussed the Lugovoi case on television. He said that there were 30 people wanted by the Russians who were “guilty of enormous offences”, including terrorism, but who “are hiding there in London”. The presence in London of Chechens like Akhmed Zakayev, wanted in Russia for armed rebellion, murder and kidnapping, has long been a running sore.

“They give us insulting advice,” Putin said of the British. “They forget that Britain is no longer a colonial power and that Russia was never their colony.”

British companies are feeling the displeasure. “It’s no longer racketeers who are shaking down businesses,” says a veteran of the “gangster capitalism” that flourished a decade ago. “Now it’s men from the ministries and agencies and audit chamber, claiming back-taxes or fines for infringing regulations.”

Oil and gas are most vulnerable, as the Kremlin claws back control of the vital energy sector, the source of Russia’s new wealth and clout. The oligarchs who amassed their billions in the Yeltsin years, before the turn of the century brought Vladimir Putin to power, have been dealt with. They are safely at heel, have fled, or are in prison, like Mikhail Khodorkovsky, his Yukos oil empire dismembered in favour of the state-controlled giants Gazprom and Rosneft.

Foreign companies, the British to the fore, are charged with violating the terms of their licences. Oleg Mitvol, the enforcer at the Rosprirodnadzor natural-resources and environmental agency, is expert in the use of green issues as a weapon. So much so that he has been dubbed “the Kremlin’s attack dog”. (“I have been described as many things,” he replied, “but my resemblance to a rottweiler is minimal.”)

He has Shell’s scalp to his credit. He flew reporters to Sakhalin II, Shell’s £10 billion oil-and-gas project off Russia’s far-eastern coast. He accused the company of a string of violations: deforestation, toxic-waste dumping, soil erosion. His objections melted away once Shell ceded a controlling stake to Gazprom. Gazprom also took control of Siberia’s huge Kovykta gas field from BP in June. Mitvol is now expressing tender concern for foreign oil companies. Unannounced checks are being made on foreign concerns, whom he accuses of overstating their reserves. Five are London-listed oil companies.

American encroachment on Russia’s traditional spheres of influence is resented, in the Baltics, Central Asia, the Caucasus, Ukraine. Washington’s hand is seen in the “colour” revolutions that swept away Moscow-friendly regimes in Georgia and Ukraine after 2003. Poland and the Czech Republic have been warned that it would be “against their best interests” to allow parts of a new American missile shield to be sited on their soil.

The Kremlin insists that the myth of the pax Americana “fell apart once and for all in Iraq”, and the world must get used to a “strong, self-confident Russia”. It resists tough sanctions on Iran, and bristles at the UN plan to give Kosovo autonomy, Nato’s eastward expansion and the American missile shield.

The new line is backed by a defence budget that has jumped by a quarter to £16.2 billion this year. Sergei Ivanov has announced a £94.5 billion rearmament programme. It is aimed at replacing half of current military equipment by 2015. It includes new early-warning radar, new intercontinental missiles and a fleet of supersonic bombers. The navy is to get over 30 new warships, including new aircraft carriers. Three new submarines are being built. The first, the Yuri Dolgoruky, will be commissioned late next year or in early 2009. It will carry 12 missiles – its sister boats, the Alexander Nevsky and Vladimir Monomach, will carry 16 apiece – each with 10 warheads.

There are plans for a “fifth generation” fighter with a low radar profile and claims that one could be in the air by 2009. Putin claims that the new Russian intercontinental ballistic missile has stealth technology that will allow it to penetrate the American anti-missile shield.

At home, Stalinism, if not being rehabilitated, is certainly less demonised. The Russian Academy of Education has begun a substantial review of history textbooks. A book for teachers on postwar history praises Stalin as “the most successful leader of the USSR”. More than half of Russians aged between 16 and 19 believe Stalin was “a wise leader”.

Ten thousand youngsters went to Nashi’s summer camp at Lake Seliger, about three hours from Moscow. Most of its pleasures – kayaking, swimming, rafting, athletics, blaring techno music – were non-political. Others were not. The camp had its own “red-light district”, ablaze with billboards where the faces of opposition leaders, the former prime minister Kasyanov and the chess champion Garry Kasparov were superimposed onto the scantily clad bodies of glamour models and labelled “political prostitutes”. Lecturers warned campers to be on the lookout for “fascists”. The homegrown ones, they were told, cunningly disguise themselves as “liberals”.

Girl meets boy is part of the agenda, too. Putin has called on Russians to have more children. Nashi does its bit by encouraging members to get married in front of the assembled campers. After they have exchanged vows, the happy couples go to a “love oasis”, whose red tents are decorated with heart-shaped balloons, there, hopefully, to conceive the next generation. This is not some Nazi-style campaign to breed supermen, though, but the result of demographic crisis. The population is falling by 800,000 a year, with abortions thought to outnumber live births, in a country with living space and natural resources to burn. It could drop from 140m now to little over 100m by mid-century.

Opposition parties have lost ground. Only communists retain mass appeal. The others pose little threat to the establishment. Nonetheless, their members are sometimes pursued: the Kremlin, not as self-assured as it seems, takes them more seriously than the electorate.

State influence in the media is all-pervasive.

Ren TV, the last channel to have retained independence in its news coverage, was taken over by a bank friendly to the Kremlin in April. The month before, Ivan Safronov, an independent-minded defence correspondent, was found dead on the pavement below his flat. He had embarrassed the military with exposés of the cover-up of failings during the testing of the new Bulava missile. Last October, the journalist Anna Politkovskaya was shot dead in the lift of her Moscow apartment block. She had flayed the regime in her book Putin’s Russia, and was a fierce critic of the war in Chechnya.

Is the cold war on the way back? Have we real reason to fear the Bear?

The nuclear deterrent remains wholly credible. But many old Soviet arms factories are now in foreign countries, production has stopped for years; equipment has been looted. Plans for six new aircraft carriers, for example, look a pipe dream. Even converting an old Soviet-era carrier for the Indian navy is proving a nightmare for the yard that has the contract. No more Ukrainian NCOs or Kazakh infantrymen can be drafted to make up numbers. “Russia isn’t the Soviet Union,” a senior intelligence analyst says flatly. “It’s much smaller. It is no longer the leader of a bloc. The rot has stopped, but its military has suffered 20 years of neglect. Its capability has massively eroded.”

Why, then, the build-up? Partly, at least, it is a response to Western pressure. “The Americans are circling Russia with radars and installing antiballistic missiles close to our borders,” says the defence commentator Colonel Viktor Litovkin. “It’s a matter of serious concern. We are being provoked into a new arms race. That’s not in Russia’s interests. The Americans don’t want another competitor, and their moves to achieve global strike capability are quite provocative.

“Nato has assumed responsibility on a global scale for everything that happens. The West looks as if it’s imposing its ideology on others, just as the Soviet Union did. Fortunately, we’ve recovered from this disease, but the Bush administration has now caught it.”

Constant harping Western criticism – even the revival of the Orthodox church, BBC World said in a lead item last month, was “a matter of deep concern” to some Russians – is another factor. We gave away half of Europe, people say, and much of our own country, without a shot being fired. We answered every question asked of us, and our critics did not say as much as spasiba (thank you). And, if we sell weapons to win friends and influence people abroad, isn’t that exactly what the West does, too?

There is a renewed geopolitical drive, but it is pragmatic and less far-flung. “We can’t be the dead man at every funeral and the bride at every wedding,” says Asian-affairs specialist Dmitri Kosyrev. What concerns Russia most are the countries immediately to its south. The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) brings together China, Russia and four Central Asian states. SCO troops held last month’s manoeuvres in the Urals.

“It’s been a huge success,” says Kosyrev. “That’s because the Kazakhs and Uzbeks and others want aid and technical help and as many uncles as they can get. They don’t want lectures. The EU are doing badly in the region because they’re behaving just like mini-Americans, telling people how to live.”

Russia has real energy and financial clout, and is prepared to use them politically. It cut coal exports, timber supplies and freight traffic, for example, to show its displeasure with Estonia. The West does so with its boycotts, Russians say. Why shouldn’t they?

Europe is becoming increasingly dependent on gas from western Siberia. What the Kremlin will make of that remains to be seen. Technical expertise in deep drilling and big projects for liquid natural gas give the West bargaining chips. The Russians point out, too, that energy has always been synonymous with power – “look at the Gulf” – and that the West can hardly complain if market forces are coming into play.

“It was a different Russia, a different world when contracts were signed in the 1990s,” says Tatiana Mitrova, who heads world-market studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Energy Research Institute. “They were very favourable to foreign investors, and BP and Shell did not fulfil all their obligations. Gas prices to Ukraine and Belarus, for example, were heavily subsidised. That couldn’t go on for ever. Our own gas price will be linked to the European price by 2011.”

Global energy is in a transitional stage, and transitions can be awkward. “Opec once supplied and the West consumed,” she says. “Now Russia and Central Asia have become suppliers, and India and China have joined the consumers’ club.” Gas consumers are as dependent on transit routes and transit states as on the original producer.

Those who are most vulnerable to the Kremlin, of course, remain the Russians themselves. Post Iraq, it must be said, the West has lost much of its moral gloss. Its sermons are deeply resented by many. “Guided democracy”, with state control of media, and harassment of opposition and NGOs, is all but installed.

It is a far cry from the browbeaten past. People use the internet, they travel in huge numbers – Tuscany is the new discovery – and they connect with the West in all manner of wacky ways. Moscow has a chapter of Hell’s Angels, an Aerograf festival of stunningly painted cars, an annual stiletto race for girls in 9-centimetre heels.

If they also tolerate siloviki, and applaud strength, it is because the past is in the blood. The West often ignores this.

Senior Western army officers with direct experience of the Russian military emphasise the need to respect them. Patronise them at your peril. “The approach has often been unintelligent,” says one. “There’s been a tendency to belittle them. And to go on seeing them as the enemy. We’re proud of the history and traditions of our services. Well, so are they, and they have every right to be.”

That history is a thing apart, and explains much. A hill above the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk seems almost to groan under the weight of Russia’s past, and its sadness and grandeur. A polished granite stone records the names of Siberians killed in the foreign wars – in Africa, Indochina, even 1930s Spain – to which the Soviet empire despatched them. Another distils the horrors of Stalinism in six words with a date: “The Stalin Repression. The Kalmyk people 1943-57.” The Kalmyks were deported to Siberia. Half were dead by the time they were allowed back.

Couples add a splash of colour as they arrive to get married at the Troitsk church on the hill. Stretch Lincolns were once de rigueur, but the massive Zil, the old politburo limo, has made a comeback. The service, candles glinting in a darkness warm with deep chants of Orthodoxy, links the congregation to the old tsarist Russia that the Bolsheviks tried to kill off. The new leaders have reconnected with the Orthodox church: led by Putin, they attend the Easter liturgy at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, destroyed under Stalin and rebuilt.

Afterwards, the newlyweds go to leave flowers nearby at the eternal flame for the fallen of the great patriotic war. A 1940s tank, “To Berlin!” painted on its hull, stands guard. Inside, a long marble room with surnames and initials on the walls – 1,590 under “K” in this single memorial – reflects the scale of the sacrifice.

It is poignant that so many should, at the moment of marriage, remember those who fought so long before they were born. Revealing, too. In an unforced and intimate way, above all politics and posing, this is a sentiment and pride that all manner of Russians share.

More than any missile, or barrel of oil, that is where their strength lies.

In March, Putin steps down. He may bow out, though still young; he may become a puppet-master from behind the scenes. In any event, viewed from Washington or London, his successor is unlikely to be any less irascible. The Russians don’t see it like that, of course. They see it as defending their best interests.

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