2007 Country Archive
RUSSIA’S NEW POLITICAL MAKEOVER
It was said of the KGB in the old USSR that it was ‘a state within a state‘ Undoubtedly true! It is also said in Putin’s New Russia of it’s successor, the FSB, that it IS the state.
Also probably true, since Putin’s success in consolidating his nation over the past ten years has been through the agency of numerous FSB highfliers in many critical roles both in central government, and across this enormous nation. Certainly there is an atmosphere of cut-to-the-quick ruthlessness, and supremely little indication of any ‘milk of human kindness’ in evidence. Witness the rough treatment given to the liberals and intellectuals of the relatively tiny minority parties seeking to march in Moscow and St Petersburg- this in the light of the fact that their small parliamentary representation is about to be completely expunged by President Putin’s new election rules, designed for that purpose.
December is the month when the Duma elections take place and is the first stage of the latest political make-over that Russia is due to receive, the next event being in March ’08 when the presidential elections are due. Whatever the outcome of either and both elections, upsets are not expected – these are carefully, precisely even, managed elections. (Compare with our UKRAINE report where a somewhat chaotic electoral democracy is flourishing in rambunctious style).
It is believed beyond reasonable doubt (not least because he himself says so), that Vladimir Putin, who has presided for eight years over a highly successful return of RUSSIA to the world’s top tables, will still be immensely powerful despite his declared intention to hand over the presidency at the end of his constitutional term next March. And most Russians want it that way. We described in some detail in “2008 - A YEAR OF DESTINY” just how Putin has restored RUSSIA to become perhaps the world’s second power, behind only the USA.
In the highly interesting run up to these elections, when observers and commentators have been trying to get a fix on Putin’s intentions, what has emerged is a political party – a potential colossus which resembles its CPSU predecessor in too many ways for comfort. United Russia, effectively the sole party with any prospect of power, looks to be the vehicle to occupy the space once filled by the Communist party whose General Secretary outranked, indeed appointed (and dismissed) presidents and prime ministers. He will lead the party with a suitable title as party leader – surely nothing so unsubtle as ‘General Secretary’ - Chairman perhaps (it was good enough for Mao). We forecast a popular election victory of overwhelming proportions to claim the legitimate democratic mandate (remember Hitler and his National Socialists in Germany initially were elected). The electoral opposition will be stomped and locked away – here the police will continue to do the necessary. There will be a new president whose present enormous constitutional powers must presumably be bridled, and then Vladimir Putin remains master of Russia as long as he cares to be so.
He certainly offers his full quota of ambiguity – the old ‘enigma wrapped in a puzzle’ type of riddle. Apart from his uncharacteristically coy non-declaration about how he plans to exert post-presidential power (as he says he is entitled to do and few disagree), he also unburdened himself of what might be recognisable by some as a stab at ideology, a feature notably absent from United Russia’s presentation. This was when he recently told the worlds ambassadors to Moscow, that his country was set on a course of “evolutionary development” and threatened that “we will not allow any external interference in the process.” No indeed – if only we knew what was meant by such opaqueness!
It is a given that Putin has had little interest in implementing what the western world had hoped that he might, a steady series of measures that collectively would add up to something resembling western democracy. Far from it. He has used several glaring departures from democracy - mostly but not all, those of the current US administration, to demonstrate his disdain for western democracy. Instead, he has taken advantage of his good fortune in Russia’s massive hydrocarbons windfall, to underwrite his policies and indeed the future – a process which has restored RUSSIA as a great power - even if now called an 'energy superpower'. [It demonstrates that whether a massive economy (Japan), or blessed with enormous growth and potential stretching into the future (China), or as in his case, an abundance of oil and gas for export, there is more than one criterion for the superpower description, than that of the USA’s unchallengeable military dominance, and mighty yet vulnerable economy].
Right now President Putin at the end of his eight years can take credit for restoring his nation’s pride in themselves – for which they love him. That ‘respect’ is what they miss from the old soviet days. Today’s RUSSIA not only is nobodies stooge, but it proudly asserts it’s point of view and shows for those who want to follow, a real leadership. The price it seems is that like that of the soviets, once again the favoured Russian system is to be uncompromisingly authoritarian, to crush the opposition, hurt the protestors, and still the Russian people will vote for it.
UZBEKISTAN: “GREAT KHAN LIVE FOR EVER”
An FSU republic that can even beat-out the Russian way of democracy, as readers can verify from this and previous issues, is UZBEKISTAN, infamous for its boiling alive recalcitrant prisoners. It is ruled by its latter day central Asian 'Khan', Islam Karimov, on the same absolutist lines as his predecessors of centuries back, and particularly as it has been since it was a Soviet colony and he was the local party secretary.
SERBIA AND KOSOVO: DECEMBER DEADLINE
This month the vexed issue of KOSOVO reaches a climax when the UNSC are due to decide on its status and bid for independence. Our report gives the current situation but the trends suggest that RUSSIA, following its role of ‘patron’ to SERBIA which is likewise both Slavic and Orthodox Christian, will veto the recommendation for a conditional form of independence, which would have the effect of severing this Serbian province which ethnically is 85% non-Serb. It has been ruled by the United Nations after the military intervention which following their excesses, drove out the Serbian army from the territory. As we read the way in which this drama is unfolding, we observe that the Serbian people are greatly opposed to independence for Kosovo, partly because they have latched on to a semi-mystical, historical event, the 1389 battle of the ‘Field of Blackbirds’ in Kosovo.
There the invading Ottomans comprehensively defeated a coalition of Christian forces led by a Hungarian Prince, where the Serbs and their Hungarian allies were joined (about which they keep quiet now), by Albanian forces led by their princes who fought shoulder to shoulder and died with them, at the hands of the triumphant Turks.
Over the long centuries of occupation many Albanians (but not all – the saintly Mother Teresa was Albanian), opted to become Moslems whilst the Serbs clung to their emblematic Orthodox faith and treated Kosovo as similarly emblematic of Serbian nationhood. It had, in truth, over the five centuries of occupation been settled by both Serbs and Albanians and it was the centre of the Albanian revival. But it was granted to Serbia out of ‘the carve-up’ of Ottoman European territories as recently as 1913, when the modern Albanian state was founded and Balkan frontiers were redrawn.
A great deal outside the Balkans depends on the outcome of the Kosovo impasse as well as the likely future of the highly restive Republika Srbska component of neighboring BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA. Russian-sponsored unrecognized statelets (one in MOLDOVA; two more in GEORGIA) are further cards in RUSSIA’s hand which they are threatening to play. But apart from that, SERBIAN politics are currently divided between those who look to a future in the European Union, and those whose nationalism draws them to RUSSIA which has been shrewdly investing in SERBIA and neighbouring MONTENEGRO. Thus Kosovo is truly a geopolitical problem.
SYRIA – JOKER IN THE PACK
The very fact of a conference held at ministerial level in Annapolis in late November represented a success for Condaleezza Rice and the State department who have been reasserting themselves since she became Secretary of State. She has been able to bring the conduct of foreign affairs back from its disastrous hijacking by V-President Cheney, who had with GWB’s ear, bypassed Colen Powell’s State Department in the critical areas of US policy, insofar as it touched upon Mesopotamia and the Levant.
The Middle East discussions at Annapolis have been attended by the key Arab League players including SYRIA. The declared objective of the three main parties – Israel, Palestine and the US, is to achieve a Palestinian state before the end of 2008 – and Bush’s term of office, but few will underestimate the problems to be resolved. That still leaves SYRIA whose demands have not changed. They want their sovereign territory, the Golan Heights back, and only agreed to attend on condition that this topic would be on the Annapolis agenda. If this requirement were to be ignored in the general settlement, their capacity for interference in any accord over the setting up of the Palestinian state cannot be exaggerated. Hezbollah in the Lebanon are largely logistically dependent on them and Hamas in Gaza and elsewhere (whose leader lives in Damascus) would be very short of back-up if SYRIA could be taken out of the equation of Israel’s enemies. What an opportunity this is!
NORTH KOREA JUSTIFIES ‘STATE’
The apparent success of the NORTH KOREAN diplomacy stands in contrast to IRAN, where the White House has stood in the way of negotiating an acceptable solution, which Foggy Bottom, on present form is probably competent to do, if only given the chance
The decision to negotiate with NORTH KOREA, although condemned by outraged neo-cons led by V- President Cheney, is as our December report suggests, going remarkably well. Condaleezza managed to persuade George.W Bush over Cheney’s objections that it was time for diplomacy, even if that was reverting back to Bill Clinton. Both she and George W. certainly need something in their record to weigh against the IRAQ debacle. The NORTH KOREAN nuclear weapon was anyway more immediate than IRAN (after all, they demonstrated that they actually had these weapons), developed ironically throughout the long years that Cheney’s ‘no talks’ policy was pre-eminent. So despite plenty of room remaining for things to not go smoothly, the fact is that currently they are going that way.
With this example and the decision at Annapolis to seek an acceptable solution for the Palestine state to coexist with Israel, another major exercise in diplomacy is at last under way, to the delight of peace-mongers worldwide.
IRAN – WHAT NEXT?
A new kind of reflexive assumption is surreptitiously gaining currency in relation to IRAN, that in the US, it is now being assumed almost as a given, that IRAN is threatening its neighbouring Arab states, which is what we are being told, brought them scurrying to Annapolis to sign up for the ‘allies’ for a middle-east settlement – a cause which is fully deserving of itself. It is probably a part of the brain-washing, similar to that experienced in relation to pre-invasion IRAQ, but nobody goes further to explain why IRAN would wish to threaten its neighbours – what it could hope to achieve, given the west’s firm commitment to oil producing allies - from such a policy? It is of course linked to IRAN’s seeming attempt to become at least a small nuclear power, but it is far from obvious how even having a small nuclear device would allow IRAN suddenly to bend its neighbours to its will. SAUDI for example may have no bomb, but you can be sure that if it were threatened, it would swiftly involve it’s de facto friend and ally PAKISTAN, IRAN’s Sunni neighbour to the south, who do indeed have weaponised nuclear devices. There are of course more obvious reasons why IRAN would seek to join the nine existing nuclear states.
Following the UN’s inability to agree on turning the screw on sanctions and the report from the IAEA that IRAN now had the critical 3000 centrifuges in place, nobody should be too surprised from this time on, if at a non-obvious time – Christmas – perhaps, the IAF were to unilaterally try to take-out IRAN’s current nuclear installations. Israel’s position is relatively uncomplicated. They are already a nuclear-armed state. Iran seeks to become one. IRAN’s president has taken a position that they will continue to develop their nuclear capacity no matter what, and by the way, he the leader of the nation, says openly that he wants to see Israel utterly destroyed. Israel is a client of the USA but at the end of the day they will not put their fate in the hands of even the US, if in their own judgement, their survival is seriously threatened. The UNSC may remain ‘a hung jury’ on this issue, which implies no UN action; at which point Israel may be expected to hang back to see what its US patron will do. Perhaps that would extend to the new US administration of January 2009 – perhaps not!
Of course in the case of Israel acting alone, no-one would believe that it was unilateral and the US and the west would be up for full-frontal retaliation. That would be deeply unpleasant for anyone concerned about future oil-pricing, or indeed a new world initiative in suicide-bombing– a tactic originally invented by Iranians in their war with IRAQ.
Why then, one is entitled to ask, are State not being given a similar opportunity as with NORTH KOREA and Israel-Palestine, to find a diplomatic solution to this remaining nightmare problem confronting the world, that of de-escalating the IRAN nuclear crisis, by negotiation? We report our view in this month’s IRAQ update, that IRAN, by scaling back its involvement over several months now, in competing with the US for influence within its neighbour Iraq, is signaling that it is ready to talk.
How, or even is the US responding?
The USA was it is true, humiliated in the takeover of its embassy and hostage-taking of its diplomats and other staff, by Iranians engaged in their revolution of 30 years ago. The senior Iranian politicians of the time are long since dead, or otherwise out of it, but this embassy episode has undoubtedly coloured reactions to their successors, in a way that has not been repeated elsewhere in the world. It is easy to forget now that earlier - prior to the time of the embassy occupation, the USA had been up to its neck in the Iranian coup that destroyed Mossadeq, a Iranian patriot who had tried to nationalise Iranian oil in the face of the international oligopoly, represented above all by the giant corporations of the US and the UK. The imposition of the Shah was to provide a leader that the west could live with, but as it turned out, the Iranians could not. Seeing himself as an absolute ruler, he brought with him his SAVAK secret police, quite as dreadful as the evidence shows, as any Gestapo or KGB, who hideously rewrote the book of torture.
The overthrow of the Shah seen as the west’s stooge, involved no small amount of street politics which eventually spilled over into attacking and occupying the embassy of the nation which the mobs – and student occupiers in particular, held responsible for the tribulations to which their country had been subjected. In doing so they submitted themselves to the only acceptable group to offer them leadership then, the mullahs.
THE TIME COULD BE NOW!
The occupation of the embassy was the result of ‘engineered’ mob rage, which had been seen before in Persia in earlier centuries, with similar outrages happening historically to both the British and the Russian embassies. But times change. As our Update on IRAN in this issue demonstrates, the time for diplomacy may well be here. Ahmadinejad is under attack at home by two previous presidents, a likely future presidential candidate, and other powerful voices in IRAN, for his economic policies and his unnecessarily pugnacious and ill-informed attitude towards conflict with the USA.
STATES OF EMERGENCY
It was notable in mid- November that whilst the western Press was busy lambasting President Musharraf of PAKISTAN for suspending their constitution, almost simultaneously a clear western favourite, President Saakashvili of GEORGIA did the exact same thing. The high moral tone of western editorialists faltered whilst they absorbed this unscripted blow.
Our reports on both countries explain more, but the Georgian state of emergency was lifted on November 16th whilst that of PAKISTAN is to finish on December 16th. In both cases there are to be early elections. PAKISTAN is undoubtedly a more complex puzzle than GEORGIA - which itself is in no way a simple problem. It has long been a high foreign policy priority in Moscow to bring GEORGIA back into their orbit – a glance at the map of the Caucasus explains why. This is particularly the case now that it is the essential transiting nation of the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline and the key link in the planned route for future pipelines bringing Caspian and Central Asian oil and gas from KAZAKHSTAN, as well as from AZERBAIJAN. It would be right to see the hand of RUSSIA in any such recent unrest as was experienced in GEORGIA, but that might just be Russian opportunism as the political demonstrations appeared to have too wide a base for such an easy explanation.
PAKISTAN on the other hand is deeply complex just as it has been for a long time, but brought to a head by the constitutional need to have elections. Their experience of democracy has been singularly unfortunate with two large political blocs based on region, tribe and clan rather than political programmes and wide-ranging national support. Both are notable for their self-serving corrupt leaderships – recently and stretching far back. Apart from the rather brave street protests of the legal profession, (although it was ill- advised for some of them to heave rocks at the police), much of the protest is from the political classes including the dispossessed politicos (snouts out of troughs), of the former main parties.
The two former prime ministers, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif are screaming for democracy – the opportunity to at least get back to the trough, whilst the army until now led by the President Musharraf, is engaged in a hot war against well- armed tribesmen from the ungovernable border lands with AFGHANISTAN. They are taking far more casualties daily than NATO in Afghanistan or currently the Coalition in IRAQ!
On top of the frontier fighting, there is within the towns and villages a powerful undercurrent of activity by Islamic jihadists, quite ready to suicide-bomb and totally unconcerned about innocent lives – a factor of small concern to heaven–bound them.
Western opinion was clearly affected by the retreat from the constitution and the recent round of the long battle between leading members of the judiciary and Musharraf - the former Supreme Court Chief Justice is under house arrest, shortly to be released. Meanwhile other justices newly declared in office have confirmed the legality of the presidential election, and a general election has been set for January 8th.
Although there has been hand-wringing aplenty in the western media, no one, as far as we know, has advanced the alternative scenario if Musharraf’s presidential election had been pronounced unlawful, on what many would have regarded as a legal technicality. What should we have expected then? The house-confined Chief of the Supreme Court holding power until a new presidential election, excluding Musharraf? Mrs Bhutto taking control whilst her rival Nawaz Sharif was still overseas in Saudi Arabia? The next most senior general in line, taking a firm non-constitutionalist grip - and for how long? How the Islamists would have relished the situation whilst the North West frontier rebels perhaps over-ran the country.
Musharraf has walked a narrow line but emerges as still the master of the nation. He has kept his word to take off his uniform and is now the confirmed civilian President –which constitutionally leaves him as Commander-in-Chief. The two main political parties are circling each other, each with an ebbing commitment not to stand in the February national elections unless their conditions are met, primarily being the lifting of the state of emergency in the run-up to the election – now announced.
Of course they don’t trust each other. Neither will stand back to give the other a walk-over, when both leaders have been deprived of the sweets of power for so long. But whilst it is probable that if Benazhir Bhutto can form a government, that she and Musharraf could work together, it is altogether a different scenario if the awful Nawaz Sharif defeats her. Neither is likely to get an overall majority, but they are unlikely to be able to work together.
If Nawaz Sharif were to form a government he would be obsessed with getting Musharraf out of office. He is an ugly politician in his methods, a rich populist, a Wahhabi and closely connected to PAKISTAN’s fundamental islamicists – he even attempted to introduce Sharia law when prime minister. Be warned!
He was a disciple of the repulsive former military dictator, General Zia, who went a long way towards ‘islamising’ the Pakistani army. It was in Sharif’s time as PM that A.Q. Khan, the world s first ‘nuclear entrepreneur’ prospered!
Musharraf is still the key player in PAKISTAN but it cannot be said that he is stronger – more accurate perhaps that he has survived - yet he is still the best hope that PAKISTAN can successfully confront its Islamic threat which is (or ought to be), the world’s primary concern. He can also tackle better than the other politicians, the tribal confrontations in what have always been seen as the ungovernable frontier areas. Pervez Musharraf‘s great and as yet unfulfilled mission, has been to seek to drag his nation into the 21st century, truly a giant task. The events of the past months have set him back in terms of prestige, and giving up the uniform has to an extent eroded his power. But he must believe that PAKISTAN might just come through, inspired as he is by how things were in TURKEY ninety years ago, when Kemal Ataturk the military president created a secular state.
Somewhere amongst all of that, PAKISTAN may slowly move towards becoming a functioning democratic state. It probably never was that in its sixty year history, despite the ballot and the flawed politicians who ‘talk the talk’ of democracy, but treated public money as a header-tank for their own corrupt purposes.
EVEN MORE STATES OF EMERGENCY……..
The PHILIPPINES managed in late November to move into the ‘State Of Emergency Stakes’ with a coup attempt (coups are hardly a novelty there – there have been three of them attempted during the seven years of President Arroyo’s tenure) .
It was extraordinary even by Filipino standards because the same mutineers, a group of army officers had attempted an earlier coup , five years ago , called the Oakwood mutiny, in 2003. Some of them had actually been on trial for this, that very morning and had walked out of the court accompanied by their military escorts, and then walked into a luxury hotel where they set up shop and called on the President to resign. Apparently they hoped that there would be a mass movement to coalesce around the theme that she had failed to assuage poverty in her nation (neither has anyone else in history), but it was not to be.
TV cameras were quickly there and most citizens got off the streets and went home to canned beer and potato chips and to watch the drama unfold on TV. Some thirty rebels, mostly uniformed army officers, including a Marine Brigadier, were there ensconced in a mezzanine conference room and until that time no violence. Then a massive fifteen hundred strong special- forces assault took place, with an APV smashing through the hotel’s main entrance, captured them all as they did not themselves resist or use firearms, hurried them away and proceeded to rough -up the numerous journalists and TV crews in attendance , many of them inside the hotel. We tell a fuller story in our report on the PHILIPPINES.
WHATS IN A NAME?
In a world as fraught as ours, where life and death issues are often the daily currency of international relations, one of the really bizarre disputes is that between GREECE and (here it comes): “The Former Yugoslav Republic of MACEDONIA”, or as the locals prefer, the Republic of MACEDONIA. When that state became independent of the federation run by SERBIA from Belgrade, it was (with MONTENEGRO) one of only two such components to gain that status without the bloodshed of SLOVENIA, CROATIA and BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA.
GREECE, the big boy on the Balkans block, a NATO and EU member, was generally welcoming to its newly independent neighbour, except in the important national considerations of the flag and the name. The newcomers naturally called themselves Macedonia, and chose their flag based on the banner of Phillip of Macedon, conqueror of much of Greece and father of the ‘world conqueror,’ Alexander the Great. The problem was that Greece already had a province by the same name - Philip’s kingdom spread over both territories and much more- and their reaction was first and subsequently to emphatically oppose the name and symbol of their new neighbour. The new state then obligingly changed its original design of the sunburst flag, (our Easy Finder flags page shows their new one), but they jibbed at carrying the “Former Yugoslav” description into the future when like most new nations it was trying to carve out a new identity for itself.
Observers believe that GREECE’s real motivation is that it acquired its province of Macedonia in the last of the Balkan wars of independence from the Ottomans in the early 20th century. There was a scramble to claim former Ottoman possessions by the Bulgarians, the Serbs and the Greeks, who for their part grabbed this largely Slavic territory. They then pursued an energetic policy of ‘de-slaving,’ it, moving parts of the population out, and ethnic Greeks in; changing the teaching language in the schools from Slavic to Greek and over time, gradually denying that it had ever been Slavic. In the wake of the collapse of the Yugoslav federation, what the Greeks so fervently did not want was the unlikely event of some renaissance of Slavic identity in their like-named province and perhaps a move for reunion with the new republic. Our report this issue updates the story.
HIS EXCELLENCY, MR UBIQUITOUS
There have been many stories, some true, of how a western adventurer has gone to a third-world country and there assumed the top job, armed by his audacity, courage and superiority in technology, firepower or whatever. One such true story is that of the well-known dynasty founded by the White Rajahs of Borneo’s Sarawak. How then to compare with the tale now current in AFGHANISTAN, that Zalmay Khalilzad the US ambassador and ‘viceroy’ both there and more recently in IRAQ, might be considering a presidential bid in Kabul for 2009. He has re-emerged there from his most recent posting to the United Nations, as we tell in this month’s update on AFGHANISTAN.
IRAQ OIL PRODUCTION: OPTIMISM NOT WARRANTED
This is our lead-story in this month’s review of IRAQ. Leaving aside the production data, there is still no Oil Law – the primary neo-con justification for the invasion, for reasons that are all too clear. It is of course with BIG OIL mostly about money and the local realisation that once they have signed over the oil rights to the multi-nationals, they will not thereafter be able to ensure their personal fortunes, let alone increase the share the IRAQ government might get. Meanwhile in the north, the Kurds just keep on signing oil deals, regardless of the centre.
There was an outraged moment in the USA back in the summer, when it emerged that the Iraqi parliament was awarding itself a summer vacation period which seemed to some, like the ‘boots’ on the ground, to be excessive, given what needed to be done. We report this month that only 25 out of 40 members of the Cabinet are attending its meetings. There is more about PM Maliki, and what he is trying to do about Muktada As - Sadr (whom we tipped years ago to be IRAQ’s coming Mr Big, after the occupation is ended), and how the Kurds are preparing the ground for an ever increasing autonomy.
BANGLADESH: THE WAKE-UP CALL
Before the world has really experienced any length of time of the global warming phenomenon, unfortunate BANGLADESH has been undergoing one of the worst of its periodic assaults by nature. We report in this months Update some of the economic effects, but it is the human tragedy that grips the imagination. Because this is the way it’s going to be, not just for this low-lying and overcrowded nation, now experiencing a wake-up call on behalf of the world, but incrementally for residents of coastal cities, ports, river-deltas and low-lying land everywhere.
It is significant that some of those in the firing-line, in Europe specifically the Netherlands, of which a third of their territory is below sea level, have not waited for international treaties to be signed or repudiated by distant world politicians. They have invested massive amounts in greatly improving their already famous sea-defences, an example that many other nations perforce will need to follow, sooner rather than later indeed if global warming trends continue.
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