2008 Country Archive
RUSSIA: Putin’s ‘Secret Fund’
Not withstanding Vladimir Putin’s power which almost uniquely in Russian history is not the result of bayonets, cossacks, commissars or whatever form of repression, he was and is the creature of the Kremlin, as all Russian leaders have been, at least up to the point when they achieve the supreme position. His career, suddenly gathered momentum when he was plucked from a secondary level job in the administration of St Petersburg, following a career in the KGB foreign division, from which he retired with the rank of Lt Colonel – a high rank certainly, if not a stellar one. He came to Moscow after being recommended by Yeltsin insider, Chubais, and his first appointment there was as assistant to the notoriously corrupt Kremlin property ‘fixer,’ who had long ‘looked after’ the hierarchs of the communist and successor governments. From there he gravitated to Yeltsin’s inner circle, at first apparently as the minute-taker at Yeltsin’s Councils of State. He did sufficient things right to go back to the renamed KGB, the FSB, but this time as the commander of that vast organisation. He remained high within the inner circle of power – Yeltsin’s state council, and after others had been tried out, he was next appointed prime minister. From here he was launched into the presidency by the sudden and helpful abdication of Yeltsin, unhorsing potential opposition, many months before his term was up.
His two terms as president have undoubtedly shown him to be an outstanding Russian leader who has regained for his nation - with the timely help of massive revenues from the sale of hydrocarbons - the respect of the world.
But he is still the creature of the Kremlin, dominant without doubt, but still not entirely independent of the faceless men. His proposal in 2008 is to shed power only incrementally. This time to another bright and powerful candidate, also talent-spotted (by himself) and brought into the inner circle now nominated as the incoming president. Notwithstanding his constitutional powers, Dmitri Medvedev is almost certainly expected to behave in a subsidiary role to his current boss Vladimir Putin, for the foreseeable future.
It is these realities that make the story of the ‘Kremlin Billions’ (a suggested 40 billion dollars) fascinating, as it is said to be under Putin’s personal control – but rather as the Pope might control immense funds- not necessarily the same thing as his having purloined it - at the least a massively powerful tool for certain contingencies.
After all, measured in terms of personal wealth, Putin whether as head of state or prime minister – active or retired - already has all the conceivable appurtenances of great wealth at his disposal – private aircraft, palaces in delightful places, large staffs, the entrée to anything or any place that he might wish. This is appropriate to a ‘tsar’, even if he eschews the flummery of state enjoyed by those western hereditary monarchs with far less actual power.
The story grows in complexity but in such a way that a US Israeli attack seems much less likely. The judgement of the US intelligence community that IRAN has not pursued a military nuclear programme since 2003, has really reshuffled the cards in terms of perceptions of the threat of a nuclear Iran.
The key fact now is that IRAN is defying a UN resolution to stop enriching uranium – which it insists is for its civilian programme – and that is what sanctions are directed towards. If the Iranians are genuine and if the US is not intractable, then a negotiated solution should now be achievable. Surely a high priority for the west now should be to encourage IRAN away from ever resuming a military nuclear program. So: guarantees; UN inspections; the civil nuclear power the Iranians are entitled to under the non-proliferation treaty; end of problem. If only!
Condaleezza, it is reported, is now saying she will negotiate, but that she has pre-conditions, presumably insisted upon by the White House, which are likely to be the barrier to that actually happening. This was similar to the situation before the earlier negotiations with North Korea, to which apparently insurmountable barrier, a solution was found.
Other developments bear on the overall situation. RUSSIA has swiftly agreed to sell IRAN a sophisticated air-defence system and this, whilst not in itself being capable of totally preventing a determined aerial attack, does change the calculations. The degree of overstretch of the US army indicates that any military moves against IRAN would surely exclude ‘boots on the ground,’ other than small, special-forces missions. Such is the sophistication of US air forces and missiles that hitherto, it could reasonably have been assumed that they could strike at will, rather as they did when deployed over SERBIA, without suffering any significant losses. But any political decision to launch aircraft against IRAN now would have to assume losses, perhaps even severe and risk the US public already sick of the IRAQ war reacting badly against a government and party that initiated this attack. Impeachment might be tabled, particularly in the light of publicly revealed US intelligence saying Iran cannot be considered a nuclear threat for at least ten more years.
MIND-BENDING IRANIAN SCENARIOS
Another factor is the acceleration in the instability of IRAN’s southern neighbour PAKISTAN, a military nuclear power. The worst case scenario seen from Tehran, would be that just as they did when overthrowing the Shah, if Pakistan’s militants succeeded in the prevailing near-chaos and set up an overtly Islamic government in Islamabad, (but this time armed with existing nuclear weapons), that this would likely be fanatically Sunni as the Wahhabis certainly are. They could next be confronting Tehran and the equally fanatical Shia Iran, with no nuclear response capability and therefore no deterrent. [it may be remembered that Osama bin Laden in one of his TV addresses aimed at Sunni followers in the early days of the IRAQ invasion, encouraged them to attack the Shia ‘heretics’ that were, he said, worse than the American invaders]!
So the mind-boggler is, would the US give a guarantee of deterrence against a nuclear threat to IRAN, as a q p q for not proceeding down the nuclear military road? Then how would that sit with Israel?
From here the bizarre extraordinary circumstances could be that the US – (or failing that, RUSSIA), might have to intervene on behalf of IRAN! Now there is a wild card which should banish sleep from Pentagon war rooms!
THE AGONIES OF PAKISTAN
[As we publish it is not yet known if the general election planned for Jan 8th will be postponed].
The untimely death of Benazir Bhutto has obviously set back the prospects of an orderly return to the relative stability that marked the early years of Musharraf’s military government . That government’s concern with the constitutional requirement for elections was the catalyst for everything that has followed. The two former prime ministers, both in exile, both with a great shadow of criminality hanging over them, wanted to re-enter the electoral fray. One, Benazir, if elected as PM, would have been able to work with the new demilitarised president. Indeed that was the favoured international scenario prior to her murder. The other, Nawaz Sharif, who was dethroned and exiled by Musharraf is his sworn enemy, and is dedicated in turn, if he becomes prime minister to destroying Musharraf. In addition, in his previous period as PM he tried to introduce Sharia law by disgraceful gangster-like methods and was frustrated only by the Upper House of Parliament refusing to submit to his bullying. He heads the Muslim League and is himself a Wahhabi Moslem of that extremist Saudi Islamic sect. He had said that his party would not take a part in elections planned for January 8th but they reversed that when it became clear that the PPP was opting for the early date. However, it was far from clear if he himself could anyway legally stand, due to earlier criminal convictions.
The only stable feature is Musharraf, now the elected civilian president who has somehow to make sense of this disastrous political scenario (with no doubt a massive input of interference from the US). Western media ‘readers of the runes’ are openly speculating whether the newly ‘demobbed’ but elected president Musharraf, will be set aside (by Washington), in favour of the freshly minted supreme military chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, who succeeded the ‘president general’ when he relinquished military command. Why it might be thought that this general with no political experience, could do a better job than Musharraf after eight years ‘at the Islamabad coal-face,’ is not obvious.
He is however the former chief of the ISI which held by many to be responsible for just about everything bad that happens, both in PAKISTAN and its neighbour, AFGHANISTAN. Such a move would be widely seen as the abandonment of democracy and a relapse into straight military dictatorship with no end in sight.
There are those who amongst all this frenzied speculation have pointed to Musharraf as responsible for Benazir’s tragic death, either by commissioning it, or ‘allowing it to happen’. Leaving aside the absurdity of such a charge as ‘allowing it to happen’ from the media of a nation whose renowned security services failed to prevent the shooting of Presidents Kennedy and Reagan, or of a presidential candidate in Robert Kennedy, those who speak this way betray a lack of understanding about what kind of society Pakistan actually is.
A significant portion of civil life and the prevailing religion there can quickly become homicidal, life is held cheap, personal armaments are commonplace and the fanatics amongst them seek to turn back the clock to the seventh century. Apart from the Taleban and the Al Qaeda militants who claim to be on a permanent jihad, a large part of mainstream Islam in Pakistan is heavily influenced by Wahhabism, and the Saudi money that has facilitated the spread of this extreme form of Islam. Benazir's main political rival Nawaz Sharif is a Wahhabi and some believe that his strings are pulled from Saudi Arabia.
Religious terrorism in such a society is not, in the final analysis, down to the failure of the military or the police, rather it might be laid at the door of the Islamic "priesthood," the senior religious scholars and prayer leaders who continually fail to condemn and issue binding fat was against terror killings. In a fanatical climate like this, religious violence has become endemic. That leads on to the political violence which has long marked this nation (the separation from the former East Pakistan provinces– today’s Bangladesh, which gained independence in 1971 was particularly bloody). In terms of the perennially ungovernable north-west frontier with AFGHANISTAN, both forms of violence blend, so tribal independence comes with religious justification. It is unsurprising that these backward mountainous areas where tribalism is strongest, is also the home of those most likely to be recruited into the ranks of opposition to central government, and / or the Taleban, particularly when this is flavoured with an intense religious conservatism and rejects modernity (except in weaponry). This applies on both sides of the mountainous border between these two ‘stans’, perhaps the most backward area of Asia. Throughout history they have successfully rejected central authority and have been largely ungovernable
In marked contrast to India from which it separated in 1947, Pakistan has been wracked by this propensity for violence in public and private life which long predates any formation of the nation state. A man’s ability to defend and revenge himself and his own, goes alongside what many consider a barbaric treatment of women, particularly in rural areas where they are regarded as chattels. [No surprise then that given the frequent riots the police are rough and worse, and the army constantly engaged in restoring order, frequently find themselves fighting their own citizens].
Where it is normally the mark of a civilised society, certainly of the democracies that the state has a monopoly of violence, for which it is then accountable to its members, in Pakistan as with Afghanistan, that has never been the position.
As to any possibility that Musharraf was directly responsible for the murder of Benazir, as some believe: in the first place he is himself the survivor of three full-scale terrorist attacks - he has arrested more al Qaeda suspects than in any other nation on earth; secondly nothing in his personal history would suggest he was or would in any way be complicit with the cowardly assassination of a woman civilian. Thirdly, as elected president he could have worked with Benazir as prime minister whilst it is highly unlikely that he can have any dealings with Nawaz Sharif, a man whose main political objective if elected would be to destroy Musharraf.
There is another ‘test’. The apparent two assassins of Benazir Bhutto, one with a pistol (seen pointing it on film), the other that blew them both apart and many around them, with a prepared explosive device. Political assassins sent by one or another political player might do it for the money, or for preferment, but why would they deliberately kill themselves in doing so? Jihadists yes, who are led to expect paradise and a full quota of virgins, but politicians, or employees of the ISI? – Hardly!
Western media have been falling over themselves to represent Benazir as a St Joan of Arc figure – and certainly no one can fault her courage – but the squalid aftermath in choosing her husband “Mr 10%” as the new party leader, apparently in perpetuity? As a minister in her government he had corruptly ensured the family fortune and warrants for his arrest are extant in various western countries. It tells anyone who has eyes to see, what the vaunted Pakistani democracy actually is, in the way that this, the nation’s most powerful party, through a few ‘aristos’ in a back room appointed him, and their 19 year old undergraduate son, as joint leaders of the PPP. Then they had the brass neck to deliver lectures on democracy that even the liberal western press have been lapping up.
Musharraf, almost without comparison amongst modern Pakistani leaders, appears himself to be free of corruption. With his instincts to modernise and secularise Pakistan, as Kemal Atataurk did ninety years ago in Turkey, he remains the best hope for his nation, and remembering this is a nuclear- armed nation, the issue of leadership involves the world (see IRAN).
POLAND: ONWARDS AND UPWARDS
The change of governments in Poland following the recent elections means that the prime-ministerial half of the Kaczinsky ‘power twins has gone, the presidential twin (with little power in Poland’s constitution) remains. The changes are being reflected in improved relations with the successor governments of the two nations that within living memory so cynically invaded them.
The Kaczinsky regime seemed to want to dwell in the past and their policies were coloured by the bitterness of this history. But this new government is forward-looking and relations with Germany have quickly improved, assisted no doubt by the fact that the frontiers between the two nations have come down, thanks to Poland joining the Schengen agreement and the more European attitude now prevailing in Warsaw.
RUSSIA too has thawed somewhat, partly because Warsaw has been prepared to discuss the contentious missiles planned by the US to be based in Poland. The two neighbours have again become trading partners with RUSSIA having lifted its previous hard-line ban on importing Polish pigmeat, and other products very important to an agricultural nation, as POLAND is.
A side issue on this is that the previous Russian ban was purportedly based on hygiene standards, which quickly disappeared as soon as agreement was reached. Since it is exactly that kind of reason that they give for banning Georgian wines and Moldovan agricultural goods, it can be seen that the so-called health concerns are merely a veil over political differences (these ex-colonies having the audacity to seek genuine independence), it is obvious that they could disappear with equal facility, given an improvement in relations with GEORGIA and MOLDOVA (of which there is little indication).
UKRAINE HAS A RESULT – BUT!
Yulia Tymoshenko is one of the most resilient women politicians in public life today. She has by a hairs breadth once again become prime minister of Ukraine, with her majority (of one) comprising the forces that turned Ukrainian politics around with the Orange revolution.
SOUTH AFRICA: A CHALLENGE TO DEMOCRACY
The worst fears of many South Africa observers seem to have been realised by the apparently unstoppable rise of Jacob Zuma. The new President of the ANC sees himself firmly set on assumption of the ultimate rewards of office over the republic of South Africa, once the current President M’Beki’s term is completed. This is the major stepping stone to replacing M’beki as the nation’s next President. He has been able to get the backing of the South African Communist party, itself incapable of winning a South African election; plus the overwhelming support of the 1.9 million strong COSATU, the combined trades Union group that makes up the most powerful contingent within the ANC.
There is now a very real prospect of a split in the ANC which has until now enjoyed overwhelming political superiority in electoral terms and such a split would largely be about the way forward for the nation. Zuma is a rather uncomplicated African “big man” who is in politics for the power it brings. His leftist allies see him as the vehicle for the same sort of socialist agenda – nationalisations etc; already tried and failed in Europe. But more than that the senior functionaries see his success in national politics could be the means to give them ministerial power and access to the government payroll, before they get too old to enjoy such fruits of office. In some ways Africans may need to find out for themselves that socialism is not going to make their people prosperous. That will take time – wasted time realistically, but no one can impose on them alternatives – they just have to discover for themselves that no multinational is obliged to invest there, after all there are any amount of alternatives - and that an old fashioned socialist system will be a big disincentive to inwards investment and the jobs that could flow from that.
But overlaying all of that is that Jacob Zuma is a big time corrupt politician, who is lucky not be in jail already. His man of business who acted as his bagman is already serving a 15 year jail term for collecting the large bribes paid for Zuma’s influence on a massive arms contract – it is after all a familiar story in African politics, (except that unusually someone went to jail for it). Zuma has not been brought to trial as yet due to a series of legal technicalities, against a backdrop of his supporters threatening violence if he is brought to trial – in what appears to be an open and shut case.
So the democratic separation of powers is now a parallel issue to that of the leadership. If he somehow avoids the system of justice, then South Africa will be shown to have been unable to sustain the democratic constitution on which so many of its supporters had such high hopes at the end of apartheid. Zuma had recently faced a rape charge from which he emerged with no credit, but where the case was conducted openly and apparently fairly, and the evidence was considered on its merits insufficient to find him guilty.
If he is tried on the corruption charges it would be a Houdini-like escape for him not to go down. But what is utterly depressing is that the leaders of Cosatu and the Communist party who are whatever else, men of the world, but at least earlier in their careers they would have claimed to be ‘men of principle,’ are now clearly prepared to cynically promote this corrupt politician as the nation’s leader. That plus their attempts to block the trial which they know well is a direct consequence of big-time greed.
NORTH KOREA UPDATE
After the rather successful early stages of detente in the 5+1 negotiations which started anew exactly 12 months ago, we report a slow-down, the possible reasons for this; and interestingly what happened with the highly publicised "Christmas letter" that Dubya sent to a Dear Leader.
January 2008 Reports now
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