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June 2007 Country Archive


With the unfortunate years of the Bush Cheney presidency now in the descendent, the historical indictment of his years in power will presumably have the invasion of IRAQ at the top of the list; and the failure to follow through militarily, after the Northern Alliance victory in Afghanistan, probably a close second. But longer term, when perhaps the gaze is steadier and perspectives more clear, it may well be that both of these and other policy failures, will rank behind another, even more serious mistake, which was the entirely avoidable decline in the relationship and virtual parting of the ways during the Bush years, of the west with RUSSIA. It is surprising to some degree, since Condaleezza Rice, a Russian speaker and something of a specialist on that country, has always been at the right hand of GW Bush since he came to power. Perhaps the Cheney/neo-con influence on GWB to leverage events, post- 9/11, was just too strong for her to be heard, or for him to divide his limited powers of concentration. 

But there was a fundamental mistake made from the very beginning, in fairness shared with the European governments and most commentators (we nearly all got it wrong), in misreading events and expecting too much from RUSSIA, in applying our own standards to our expectations of them. Powerfully in America and to a lesser extent in the west generally, there was a visceral belief that RUSSIA, the successor to the collapsed USSR had been ‘defeated’, that they were losers, and despite their immense nuclear arsenal they could safely be patronized (as they were made to feel). Not only that, it was generally believed that with the repressive communist regime now a thing of the past, they would be wanting to share with us in the good things at the table of democracy. In other words, they would want to be like us! 

In retrospect it has long been obvious that the ideology of post-communist RUSSIA, as with the USSR, was simply about achieving and retaining power. Those who hold power never willingly give it up unless they are forcibly removed, which after the collapse of the party, they never were. The seats around the top tables in RUSSIA and most of its former all-union republics, were simply reshuffled or renamed. Somehow the starry-eyed west assumed that from top to bottom the new people who emerged as leaders, the population generally, would want to move on to adopt the institutions of democracy. We were aware at an early stage of courageous intellectuals, exiles and others, who had told us how it should and was going to be, and allowed ourselves to assume that they were representative of the people and the power-holders. 

The immediate post-Soviet years in fact were quite chaotic. A disastrous economic course was set with western compliance, that deprived very many people of their life savings. With the full connivance of the state, there was simultaneously a massive grab for wealth by a small number of brilliant and well-connected opportunists, who incredibly quickly came to control the commanding heights of the economy and the media. Law and order in the streets, of the rigorous police-state type, broke down with gang wars, and frequent murder in those streets. Pensioners, civil servants, teachers, doctors, even policemen couldn’t get paid, often for many months – the money just didn’t arrive! Corruption – omni-present in communist days, if anything got even worse. 
“So this is the vaunted western capitalism,” was the natural reaction of those who lived through this series of disasters, who had been used to calmer, better-ordered days than these. 

On top of all this, citizens who had never known or expected anything but oppression from their rulers, were still imbued with the ‘Russian Idea’. They had always had pride in their nation’s considerable achievements, principally that they effectively controlled nearly half the world and their nation was respected for its scientific prowess and feared for their military might. All of this had suddenly gone, and in addition to the almost intolerable burdens described above, Boris Yeltsin their first post-communist leader, formerly admired as a strong man, had visibly disintegrated as the state was doing, and gone sliding down the familiar Russian chute of alcoholism.

It was indeed for RUSSIA a millennial change in fortune, when the events surrounding the apparent world shortages of oil and gas, plus the sudden instability of the middle-east hitherto the epicentre of world supply, turned their economy right around. They found that they now had a new kind of leader, chosen for them as always, by the Kremlin. He was simply representative of the power-holders that had never gone away, just as they continue to rule in perhaps the majority of the former satellites. It was entirely predictable that the new leader, Vladimir Putin, should have been a leading spook and security policeman – the very able representative of a clever, internationally well-informed elite, that had few, if any scruples, and got things done. He, like the other core Kremlin insiders, had nothing more to play for except position - of himself and his peers - and indeed patriotism. The very fact of having this kind of power gives access to all the perquisites of wealth. 

Now Vladimir Putin too, like George W Bush is within sight of the end of his term, and a very different verdict seems possible in terms of what he has done for his country. We review his remarkable record in this month’s RUSSIA Update. But the criteria for bettering the lot of the Russian citizen have been quite different from their own perspective, than as seen by the proponents of western democracy. Perhaps indeed, if RUSSIA continues to prosper, then one day, the democratic institutions that we take for granted – an independent judiciary and fair system of justice; free media, the protection of human and political rights, may eventually emerge. The advent of a middle class - which is happening – is a prerequisite. But they will have to want those things badly enough that their time will come – even if not on any timescale that would suit the rest of us. 

The reality is that since the collapse of communism, the mistaken notion was, that having emerged from seventy four years of one-party rule and now calling themselves democratic, that they were like us. Thereafter, on the frequent occasions that decidedly undemocratic events take place, every time this would provoke anxious criticism and unflattering comparisons by western observers, which can be seen to be pointless. 
Why, is the key question, do we hold a different set of standards for how we believe RUSSIA should behave, than we do for Saudi Arabia? 

It was always wrong and a bad mistake of the west, not just to accept RUSSIA with all its differences - what its history has made it, exactly on the same level that we accept China, Nigeria, or Saudi Arabia as powers, trading partners and suppliers, without continually and aggressively lecturing them about their corruption, lack of democracy and absence of those institutions that we take for granted. Not to look the other way certainly, and by all means to expose the hypocrisy if they try to represent themselves as democratic, or incorrupt, or as dispensing impartial justice. But when publicizing and considering the facts, better to accept that RUSSIA is a self-regarding nation state, complete in itself, that is answerable only to its own citizens, and certainly not to the long-advantaged part of the world community, from whom it absolutely does not wish to hear on these matters. 

Better by far for us to be friends and neighbours, able to tease rather than to goad about the differences. Better to shrug and say, there they go again, than to freak them out by delivering public reprimands on their poor behaviour, as Chancellor Angela Merkel did recently at a meeting at which Putin was present. It is in fact like having an unruly younger brother who really deep-down knows the difference between right and wrong, but is so fixated on what he wants, that he will do it anyway and justify everything on what is in his self- perceived interest. You do not exclude your younger brother; you bear with him. You maintain a relationship. You do not continually lecture- that is boring, or even threaten – that is surely counter-productive. You get to a point that because he knows you have thoroughly checked him out, that you have absolutely no illusions, he might become amenable to your kind of approach. 

It is not the duty of the west to turn Russia into a democracy. Highly desirable certainly, but we have our own lives to live. Democracy cannot be imposed by the pointed disapproval of one’s peers in the comity of nations, any more than through the barrel of a gun in IRAQ

Yes, we witness numerous examples of crude power-plays involving ex-colonies, or penalizing western companies that invested early and control something like gas and oil reserves that the government now want for the state, but these are so transparent, it is pointless being indignant about them. Each has to be approached on an ad hoc basis rather than elevated to the status of a class-action. And in commerce and finance, ‘caveat emptor,’ is still a sound motto. 

As to their former satellites, better by far to actively assist those countries that strive to be independent – and doubly assist those that seek to be genuinely democratic, whilst never losing sight of the fact that much, although not all, of the former soviet empire is still run in each nation by a local power elite, who have often merely successfully adapted to new political circumstances. 

It does not help that when the US president or his people speak of western democracy, the Russians can and do counter with the fraudulent conduct of his brother’s administration in the Florida elections of 2000, which put Bush into the White House; the politically-appointed Supreme Court Judges that then voted along party lines to confirm his victory; the breaching of international law whereby IRAQ was invaded without a UN resolution; the false prospectus and the manipulation of ‘evidence’ of the WMD ‘threat’ for that invasion. They speak of the death penalty (which they don’t have); of ‘extraordinary rendition’- to torture suspects in secret prisons in countries outside the protection of US law. Now they can add to this the UK government’s shutting down of a big-time corruption investigation probing an arms deal with the Saudis. It could fairly be said that it does not at this time behove the US or its UK subsidiary, to give lectures on this topic, even to a clearly democratically-deficient society like that of RUSSIA

They are what they are, but that includes pride and ambition to succeed, even to be admired. In time this will bring them, in a generation perhaps, not to want any longer to just accept for example that their children are growing up in a country where journalists and opponents of the government can be shot down in the street, with no likelihood of any arrest, let alone a conviction. As other nations democratically progress, they will not want to be regarded as that nation that couldn’t grow up, to be badged as their tsarist forbears once were, as the most reactionary regime in the world. 

SERBIA – Pariah, outcast, misfit? Apparently it is not true. This troubled nation out of step with the rest of Europe over its warmongering within the former Yugoslavia, and its intransigence over the inevitable separation with its province of Kosovo, turns out not to be hated by its fellow Europeans at all. It took an event as banal as the Eurovision Song contest to demonstrate that most Europeans have no animus against them and actually liked their song and their singer the best, when a majority of those voting amongst the one hundred million viewers, supported Serbia to win the pan-European competition. To most of them SERBIA is just another of the many nations of Europe, about which they have nothing other than neutral feelings. The political knock-on effects of this may turn out to be wholly beneficial, and even in the short term as we relate, there has been a significant advance for the forces of democracy in the Serbian parliament. 

Is how the national Police chief described the Philippines elections. This time only 114 people had died before the polls closed, of which 59 were candidates, compared with 2004 when 189 were killed. Does that mean that things are getting better? Our reportage of the parliamentary elections gives all the details and we spell out what it means for the government of Mrs Arroyo who has three more years of her term as president, still to run.

It was mildly surprising that before the dust of the recent legislative elections has settled, various external sources have been congratulating them on the conduct of these elections which seems to be exemplified by a lack of violence on election day, and no initial evidence of outrageous electoral fraud in the polling booths. It sounds good, except that the opposition parties and some civil society leaders and journalists are protesting. We describe the events and quote those who, referring to the congratulations from the US embassy, observed ”If this is an international standard, we can honestly say that we don’t need these international standards”. It could be that the US embassy is very keen to be able to pay over some instalments of the currently blocked award of $236 million from the Millennium Challenge Account, the recipients for which are supposed to be squeaky clean. It was always surprising to observers, such as us, that ARMENIA, where rampant corruption, political violence and electoral fraud is not unknown, was the first, indeed the only FSU communist nation so far to have ‘qualified,’ until one remembers that the Armenian lobby in Washington is second only to the Israeli lobby in terms of its effectiveness, and the Bush administration badly by now needs something good to show over this courageous policy initiative going back to 2002. 

This most corrupt nation (which is saying quite something when considering some others of the 45 countries which we cover), is actually having a quite profound makeover before the elections, under the supervision of a non party-political interim government, which it must be said is doing a fine job. Both the leaders of the old parties, Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League; and Khalida Zia of the BNP who were exiled, have been allowed to return to Bangladesh. But in returning, they place themselves in jeopardy of prosecution for corruption, extortion and even complicity in murder. They may have cause for regret that they didn’t keep away when they had the opportunity.

Extraordinarily, whilst hardly anybody outside ESTONIA noticed, the world’s first nation-to-nation hacking war has been taking place. It isn’t reported what the computer savvy ESTONIA has achieved defensively in this conflict but it is well reported that an unacknowledged cyberwar has been taking place directed from RUSSIA, which has a beef with the small Baltic state, which we explain. But it is a sign of things to come. It has been predicted that any future world war would initially be fought by teams of skilled-at-gaming teenagers, in the basements of their appropriate war ministries, bowed over computers, seeking to shut-down targeted countries by turning off all of their essential services. We tell how far this one has gone and what is the damage so far.

For seven years, five Bulgarian contract nurses and a Palestinian doctor have been kept in jail under sentence of death in oil-rich LIBYA, accused of deliberately infecting 426 of their child patients with AIDS. We have consistently reported this case (no LIBYA report from us could be complete without it - all to be found in our archives), but for some time we have maintained that it is now and perhaps always was, a simple matter of blood- money. The AIDS epidemic had already broken out in the hospital before these contract medics got there, but being foreign they qualified as scapegoats. Somebody had to pay blood-money to the families and for that they had to be culpable. So state interrogators got to work on these foreigners from minor countries, and eventually and unsurprisingly obtained confessions. Since the Libyan court sentenced the medics to death, the three interrogators have claimed personal damages for the accusation by the nurses that they had done anything so gross as to use torture, to get the nurses to sign confessions that they had deliberately injected the children with AIDS virus. 

The good news is that the Libyan court of appeal has just thrown out that opportunistic rubbish, which now gets back to what deal can be cut on the blood money for the infected children, and what kind of ingenuity will be employed to find a solution which each side can claim completely exonerates them. We continue this bizarre and tragic story, which is now showing indications that it just possibly might be drawing to a conclusion.

We now know who the opposing candidates are for the 2008 presidential election in this important Asian country so very successful economically (the only nation whose economy was wholly resistant to the ‘Asian Flu’ – the financial typhoon that whipped through Asia only a few years back). Politically it is a more ragged story, although as strong advocates of democracy we note that without outside interference, TAIWAN moved itself from military dictatorship, through single party totalitarianism, to full democracy, really because it was obvious that this was the best model of government for them. That is a great advertisement for the democratic system, particularly when contrasted to the motherland across the Taiwan straits. We will continue to report and analyse events as they roll out. 

The month of June witnesses the visit to INDIA of Brazil’s president Lula da Silva and we report on the agenda – which includes civil nuclear developments - as we will on the outcome. This budding friendship actually includes a third leg, that of SOUTH AFRICA. These three nations, as a glance at any world map will demonstrate, each and collectively have a great significance. They are all big players in whatever league they find themselves in. It is also a very healthy conjunction that these large and democratic southern nations, well respected in their own continents, should seek parallel relations with each other, as well as the inevitable bi-lateral ties to the USA, and separately to Europe. ‘Healthy,’ because any progressive approach away from the dangerous unipolar world of the Bushies is to be welcomed. Few would need to argue that each of these three may individually be expected to blossom during the 21st century, so when together on such issues as UN security council reforms, their collective voice can be powerful indeed. 

This month’s issue reports current events, including that there is deadlock between the US Co-ordinator of Counter Narcotics, now arrived in this country, with the involved European governments, who greatly dislike his plans for aerial eradication but are unable to come up with a convincing alternative themselves. Once more we offer our suggestion (AFGHAN POPPY BLOG) that the Kabul government authorises intervention-buying of the whole crop, (so the farmers don’t starve), but at a lower price than they could get for grain or any other viable crop, so as to wean them off replanting the poppy. The poppy harvest then to be divided into what can sell commercially in the world’s pharmaceutical industry, and the rest to be torched. Better than spraying some kind of Agent Orange with its dangers, as demonstrated in Vietnam, to future generations of human and other species. 

A nasty turn-up for BIG OIL patiently waiting for their reward in amongst IRAQ’s oil fields, is that some Iraqi legislators are seeking to adopt the Iranian model of contract where existing proven oil fields should only be leased to oil companies, with short-term service contracts. Very unpopular with the international oil companies working in IRAN - which of course excludes all US oil companies – but none had ever expected that kind of barrier to their exploitation of the oil in IRAQ. No doubt vice-president Cheney’s ‘phone will be busy as he fields the complaints from his pals. Only for new fields very sensibly, would longer-term contracts, more favourable to the oil companies be adopted, to acknowledge the risk, according to this group of lawmakers. 

Meanwhile, “the man born to be king,” Moqtada al-Sadr, whom we have long tipped as the next Saddam Hussein when western forces finally withdraw, is back in IRAQ. This is after a lengthy sojourn apparently in IRAN, no doubt charging his spiritual batteries or whatever Shia clerics do, when they cross the border to visit their big neighbour. Whatever he says, has to be taken account of, if only because he has played such a clever game in careerist terms since the invasion. Currently he is telling his large Shiite following, no longer to fight against the Sunni or perceive them as an enemy. He has soft words also for the Christians, mostly of the Assyrian variety, who are a small but significant component of Iraqi society. He was not this time ordering his fighters to kill Americans – in so many words, but he was saying unequivocally that they, along with Satan should be gone. He remains the man to watch. 

In posing the question : is the outside world “talking up” the level of the political crisis in Pakistan we have to be aware that the western media in particular are easily influenced by the supporters of the dynastic candidate Benazhir Bhutto, who had high hopes of getting back into power at some level, after the forthcoming legislative elections. Her chances of being allowed back into PAKISTAN without being arrested on spectacular corruption charges relating to her period in office, are presently dashed, which is not to say that it won’t change again. It is often revealing in such circumstances of unrest, to look at a nation’s financial markets, normally a barometer of the seriousness of the national mood, and see what they are telling us. As we report, the ongoing political crisis – including a recent alarming loss of life in street clashes- shows no signs of affecting the economic and financial situation, which is on the ‘up,’ as we detail. It hardly sounds as though revolution is just around the corner! 

What is not in doubt is that Musharaff is hard-pressed, partly through the widespread ignorance in parts of the western media that suggests that somehow, fanatical islamists of which Pakistan has too many, have an interest in democracy, and that Musharaff’s perceived anti-democratic moves, like the suspension of the Chief Justice, confirm that restoring to power the corrupt political parties of his predecessors, would go a long way to solving the problems of returning Pakistan to a mythical golden age. The truth is that the nation’s problems are highly complex, as are its relations with neighbouring AFGHANISTAN. Pakistan’s madrassahs are perceived as the principal recruiting grounds for Islamic militants not just domestically, but for export to the world. But Pakistan is a devout Islamic country and many of those madrassahs are not teaching jihad and offer the only education that many youngsters are likely to get. So a general closure is not viable. What remains unclear is how the clan-based politicians that mismanaged this country for half a century, would face up to these challenges when their whole history was one of avoiding tough decisions of the kind that Musharaff has not ducked.

The divisions in WDC about how to approach the Iranian confrontation have grown, as it becomes clear that the Bush-Cheney presidency with their time running out, have failed to solve the incredibly difficult problem of restraining Iran’s nuclear program. As a knee- jerk reaction the administration has rejected the typically sage advice of the UN’s Mohamed ElBaradei on how to deal with this. But he has not been forgiven by Cheney for being right about IRAQ, when the vice-president was so spectacularly wrong. 

Even the hawkish Fox TV type of nostrum – “bomb the nuclear installations”, could not guarantee more than a slowing down of the process of development and would precipitate a state of war declared or otherwise, with consequences completely off the map. Interesting that Iranian diplomats have recently been insisting that IRAN does not actually want to destroy Israel – an impression that their president had made indelibly clear in his rantings. But attending the Arab summit in Riyadh, and other major regional conferences in Sharmh el Sheikh and on the Dead Sea, it must have been obvious to the Iranians issuing these honeyed words, as to others, that despite the gang wars in Palestine, peace parties are currently in the ascendant where Israel-Palestine are concerned. It may not have escaped them also that if those negotiations were to succeed, then in the long fruitless search for regional stability there would be room for a whole new chapter in international relations. They are well aware that there is immense suspicion of them amongst their Arab neighbours, particularly given the political rise of the Shi‘ites in Iraq, and they presumably do not seek to fan the flames of regional aggression. So we arrive at a kind of interregnum where diplomacy has a chance to show what it might achieve. 

As a foil perhaps to such weighty matters, the conjunction of two such unlikely allies as BELARUS and IRAN has been counterpointed by pictures in the press of the immensely tall, cadaverous dictator of BELARUS striding along in his lounge suit, in what appears to be north European countryside, alongside the much shorter and more compact, neat but tie-less figure of the president of IRAN. The one serious aspect of this new friendship is the possibility that BELARUS might be a proxy for RUSSIA or UKRAINE in shipping arms to IRAN. No doubt the spooks of many nations will be crawling all over that possibility. 

There were in May powerful echoes in Lebanon of Jordan’s ‘Black September,’ and their subsequent civil war - parallels that we draw in this month’s SYRIA Update. It is all very recent and as ever there is more speculation (which we repeat), than hard facts. Nevertheless, when a new and very violent group of new islamists hits the world’s news, as Fatah al-Islam has done, drawing a powerful response from the Lebanese army, then inevitably speculation is rife, particularly as to SYRIA’s part in it, if any. Of course, as in all such matters, getting at the truth is bedevilled by SYRIA’s intrusive history in Lebanon. Those who have suffered from it are quick to blame them – viz the Druses and Hariri fils. Similarly, there are external forces, no friends to the Syrian administration, in the US and Israel, that will always seek to blame SYRIA for all of the woes of Lebanon. 
But all the evidence that we can review as we present it in this issue, discounts the possible patronage of SYRIA for these classic jihadists, holed up in Palestinian refugee camps. It is we believe, yet another manifestation of a wretched state whose government has failed to achieve a monopoly of violence within (or without), the rule of law. 

We report divisions within the al-Saud royal family, where influential members of the clan are disturbed by recent political positions taken by King Abdullah. There does seem to be a pro-Bush Cheney position exemplified by those who were not amused by the King’s characterisation of the IRAQ invasion as illegitimate, when addressing the Arab summit in Riyadh in April. But since that is what all the Arab states actually think of going to war without UN authorization, by this statement he qualified himself and his nation to fill the leadership vacuum within the Arab states. That in itself should be greatly to the advantage of the US government, given the fundamental closeness between Washington and Riyadh, particularly if the US genuinely seek a resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict. 

Since we last reported, the Saudis have elicited information, which we pass on, from some of the 172 men they arrested as a part of an islamist plot. No doubt torture would have been employed, which always taints the veracity of the information (this is one of the countries that the US outsourced interrogation to, in the bad old days of ‘extra-ordinary rendition’). But the great advantage for the government here, in combating fanatical islamists, is that they are able, particularly in such a large group, to insert double-agents, in a way that western governments can seldom do.

The powerful winds of change have dropped since the February 2007 deal was done. Agreement was reached then that NORTH KOREA would close its Yongbyon nuclear site in return for many goodies, but the whole to be contingent on the US ending a freeze of North Korean funds in a Macao bank – this following US Treasury allegations that NK had been making and smuggling forged US dollars, bigtime. Thus it was agreed. But here we are, in early June and the funds are not as yet unfrozen. Unsurprisingly, Yongbyon also is not closed, and there things remain, in the expectation that it shortly may happen. 
Except that there is now a bizarre twist about the allegations of forged dollars on which we report. On May 21st a Swiss police report cast doubt on the matter of NORTH KOREA counterfeiting the USD. Their world-class experts on counterfeiting, say that NK’s own currency is of such poor quality that it must be incapable of making high-grade so-called supernotes (fake $100 bills) on old printing presses, dating back to the 1970’s. The Swiss authority also noted that after an 18 month investigation, the US Treasury department has yet to make public its detailed accusations against Pyongyang. Shambolic – or what? 

It is characteristic of dictators that their relatives are untouchable - beyond the law. The most famous recent example were the two lovely boys of Saddam Hussein, whose excesses were infamous and almost beyond credence. Covering all the central Asian ‘Stans’ as we have long done, it seems that the various presidents-for-life have spawned their fair share of bully boys, one of whom is Rakhat Aliyev, the son-in-law of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, of the republic of KAZAKSTAN Our current issue reports on his being dismissed from his home-turf and sent to Austria as ambassador, but now he has been fired and an international arrest warrant issued by Astana, obviously with the sanction of his father-in-law. The warrant cites the disappearance of two senior bank officials, one of whom is still missing and feared dead. Aliyev is alleged to have had them kidnapped and then beaten into signing over their families’ interests in the bank. Now these alleged crimes (he denies involvement), took place early this year, but it is interesting that it was not until last week, when Aliyev publicly criticized his father-in-law (hubris or what), after Nazarbayev changed the constitution to be president-for-life, that Aliyev was then dismissed from his ambassadorial position, with an arrest warrant following on rather promptly. 


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