Books on Russia
Update No: 324 (02/01/08)
THE POTEMKIN PRESIDENCY
There has always been something of a mystery about why Putin has not just done
the obvious thing and abridged the constitution to permit him to run for a third
term, as President Nursultan Nazarbayev has done in Kazakhstan.
Nobody doubts that he could have done so or that it would have been
overwhelmingly popular had that happened.
The twin presidencies
He has a rival - that is why. And this rival is not in Russia, nor even Eurasia.
He is in the US in the White House.
Both the US and Russia are holding elections to their presidencies this year. In
both cases the incumbents have to step down. That is the key.
It would not look good if Putin did a Nazarbayev. He wants to look America in
the face, indeed the Western world as a whole.
But of course Russia is not really a Western power at all. Everybody knows what
Putin has been up to of late, curbing the press, circumscribing civil society,
curtailing regional independence, etc.
Something very Russian to impress the West is required.
The Potemkin presidency
Putin has agreed to step down, indeed is effusive in doing so, in favour of his
deputy, Vice-Premier Medvedev, who is due to become the new president on
election in March. That is about a powerful an indication as can be, that little
will change in Russian policies.
Putin will not relinquish the presidency until May.
In a most important announcement on December 17, Putin agreed to become
Medvedev's PM in the eventuality of his election, making it for certain. He
insisted at the time that this would involve no derogation of the powers of the
presidency to the advantage of those of the premiership.
Nobody doubts who will be real ruler. Why the rigmarole or hocus-pocus?
Well, appearances have to be observed.
Falling out with the West; a Cold War by proxy
There is an extraordinary disruption going on between Russia and the West. Putin
is doing it by proxy.
He has decided to break off with the UK, which is curiously the Western country
that Russia has had most to do with. It is losing many of its best and brightest
- and half a million of them have headed to the UK. London is now called
Moscow-on-the-Thames by Russian expatriates.
It has several things going for it -
A) the English language
B) the City of London
C) it is the headquarters of most of the world's multinationals
Yet there are grave problems. Putin despises the subservience
of UK foreign policy to the US. He is not alone in that.
But Brown is not Blair. It is clear that there is a different direction of
policy since the change-over. The UK is pulling out of Iraq. It is staying in
Afghanistan; but then so is the UN.
So why the continued animosity?
The post-Blair effect
Brown is partly paying the price for Blair's legion of mistakes. Blair went to
Moscow in 2004 insisting that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq
after all. These never turned up. He then received a series of public rebukes
from Putin that put their relationship into cold storage. You pay a price for
being perceived as US poodle number one, including the contempt of the US
president himself ("Yo-Blair"). Why not also of the Russian president?
Saddam's Iraq was something of a client state of Russia, owing it $8-9bn, while
most of its army was Russian-trained. Why should any Russian government have
welcomed its overthrow?
There is the ongoing saga of each government demanding the extradition of those
held responsible for crimes, Boris Berezovsky, oligarch in exile for one, and
Andrei Lugovoi, a suspect in the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, for another,
the associate of Berezovsky's who was poisoned by the Russian security services
for sure in November 2006
Litvinenko also had the impertinence to point the finger at those same security
services for committing the bombings of apartment blocks in 1999 that were
immediately made the pretext for the Second Chechen War, that catapulted Putin
to supreme power. Litvinenko was regarded as a double traitor with a dagger
poised at the very heart of the legitimacy of the Putin regime. That a defector
from the security services like him should consort with their associates is
remarkable for its naivety.
There have been a series of mutual expulsions of diplomats accused of being
spies. Shades of the Cold War.
Blair himself appeared naïve when it came to geopolitics and history, to a
degree that was scarcely credible. Brown may be a different story having a
degree in history, and is well aware of the waywardness of Muscovy and its new
Tsar. Unlike Blair he has made no public overtures to Putin, about whom as a
democrat he must have reservations. He is well aware that BP and Shell have been
bustled out of big energy projects in Russia. Russia has recently shut down
branches of the British Council, the UK overseas cultural agency which didn't
happen even in the days of the Soviet Union. To add insult to injury, an
exhibition of Russian paintings at the Royal Academy in Lodon has been noisily
cancelled by the Russian authorities in a blaze of publicity, withdrawing their
This is all reminiscent of the Cold War.But of course the UK is not the US,
merely its sidekick. It is once again Cold War by proxy.