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March 2008 Country Archive


Our report on RUSSIA this month acknowledges that we already knew who the next president will be. The real question is what role will Putin, RUSSIA'S undoubted master, play in the new set-up? The next president Dmitry Medvedev has confirmed his continuing loyalty and has campaigned (in the sense that he has been well publicised in anything he has said), and promises to continue what he calls the "Putin Plan". We report and consider the outline of the plan in this issue. 

Apart from the safe ground of carrying on his predecessor's work, Medvedev did make comments of his own regarding democracy. "To be free," he said, "is infinitely better than to be unfree". We are not going to quarrel with that, but do not know what it could portend jn Russian politics. The leading challenger in this election had been Putin’s first prime minister, Mikhail Kasyanov. His candidacy was squelched by the Kremlin establishment (see "Russia Heading for Potemkin Presidency" Overview 04 February 08). We fear that now the election is behind us that he may suffer the fate of Mikhail Kordakovsky, and wind up in a Siberian jail. That may give him time to reflect on Medvedev’s maxim about freedom, which should be qualified to add,”…but never, ever, challenge the Kremlin”. He also said that the Russian courts of justice were no good, bribery-prone and do not enjoy the confidence of the population. We recall that Putin said the same things in both of his elections, just as he has also issued stern warnings about corruption. 

In the light of this it seems appropriate to draw attention to the allegations on which we enlarge in this issue, suggesting that President Putin has salted away some $40 billion by means of nominee shareholdings in some of Russia's biggest corporations. The whole point of nominee shareholdings, in such a situation, is that the true ownership is impenetrable, so the chances of that rumour being established as fact, are indeed slender. It may be no more than calumny. We would hope so, but don’t expect any quick answers. 

Another piece of unfinished business that may be left to history, but which won’t go away, is the manner in which Putin first took presidential power in the wake of invading Chechnya. Disturbing rumours about this quickly started to circulate, which later were picked up and relayed by dissident ex-spooks in the west, specifically the yet-to-be murdered Alexander Litvinenko and published jointly with the academic Yuri Felshtinsky as “Blowing Up Russia.” It was the story of the Moscow and suburban apartment block explosions with some 300 fatal civilian casualties and a credulity-stretching failed explosives ‘exercise’ by the FSB in the southern city of Ryazan. These were events that triggered Chechen War II, paving the way for prime-minister Putin to be launched into the post of president, with the incumbent Yeltsin retiring early. The allegation is that these explosions were organised by Russian State Security and were not the work of the Chechens – the fearsome Chechen warlord Shamil Basaev, as did all others, always insisted that it was not Chechens that carried out the apartment block bombings and whilst that obviously is not conclusive, it is notable that he had proudly claimed a long string of bombings and other even worse murders, involving Russian schools and hospitals, without remorse. So much for the dark shadows that history may dismiss, but what does not need apology nor dismissal, is that Vladimir Putin did not as he easily could have done, change the Russian constitution, thus enabling himself to remain in the top job. Many other FSU leaders have chosen exactly that course - the “president for life” syndrome, which Putin to his everlasting credit has scorned. 

Attention is now rightly concentrated on the new presidency with the world’s Kremlinologists reading the runes of Medvedev’s few published utterances, seeking signs of any new directions. It might be that he will concentrate on economic policy and he seems to favour changing the direction of the Russian economy away from a dependence on giant state-owned companies, which are still highly inefficient. The whole economy has been carried on a tidal wave of oil and gas exports which, with prices where they are, has enabled surpluses to be used to fulfill government spending programs, and cover up industrial deficiencies. 

He will be president for four years and probably for eight. The constitution giving President Medvedev major powers, has not against all expectations been changed. Whatever degree of control Putin may plan to exercise over his nominated successor, four years is a long time and it is reasonable to expect to see across a range of issues, a distinct Medvedev line emerging. But whilst the leaderships of Yeltsin and Putin have each in their different ways contributed greatly to the work initiated by Gorbachev with the USSR, all of them bringing distinct, but for their time equally important forms of leadership to their nation, we can now discover what this, the third Russian leader in the post- communist line, has to offer. 


(1) The Italian Job 
The International Herald Tribune in February published a CIA story, on the theme of who was responsible for the destruction of video tapes of CIA ‘harsh interrogation’ (torture), in which they also spoke of the “Italian Job”- this being in-agency jargon for the 2003 snatching off a Milan street of a Muslim cleric – a known ranter – and his immediate ‘rendition’ by CIA ‘plane to be tortured in Egypt. The Italians took a dim view and criminal charges were laid against 26 CIA operatives. This will not unduly discommode them if they stay home, but may restrict their lifetime choices of European work, or vacation destinations, perhaps even limit their overseas postings and visits to countries without extradition agreements with Italy. The scandal that causes this to come back to the news was not the recognition that no sovereign state is going to allow secret agents from another country, even a friendly one, to ignore all international protocols, like the need to convince magistrates to extradite, but instead to use muscle like gangsters, outside the law. The row making the news in the US this time it seems, is not about propriety but all about inefficiency - ‘tradecraft’ – like operatives staying in five star hotels and using traceable credit cards and cell phones - giving potential evidence to be used against them. 

It all serves to underline the immense gap in perception between what government employees of the most powerful nation in earth are authorized, indeed ordered to do, on George W Bush’s unilateral say-so, and what every other democratic nation considers unacceptable behaviour. So, how to describe such conduct? Some would say audacious. Others like us, as between friends, might call it gross impertinence.

Consider for a moment that a Chinese security team lifts a Chinese political refugee from the streets of Pittsburgh to be flown out of the country on a private aircraft, or a covert band of Russian agents does the same in San Francisco to a famous Russian dissident. Or for more exact verisimilitude, an undercover Italian army snatch squad grabs a suspect Sardinian freedom fighter, right out of a street of New York’s Little Italy, takes him off to a private plane and he is not seen again. 

Would there be any protest or outcry from the US government, or after their ‘Italian Job’ would they shrug and say - perhaps even sing, ‘Que Sera Sera’? 

(2) North Korea: Of Symphonies and Firing Squads
Our March report on NORTH KOREA gives its normal comprehensive account of what you might want to know about the state of play on the Korean peninsula. The highlight in a novel ‘joining of hands” relationship, was the concert played by the New York Symphony Orchestra, visiting the capital Pyongyang. That extraordinary event in a nation, which is also a prison, appropriately nicknamed the ‘Hermit Republic’, captured the world’s imagination and hope soared perhaps as high as the great music. But we also include in our report for this same month of February, this small item:-

“A different worry, concerns a boatload of 22 North Koreans found in Southern waters on February 8. The official version in Seoul is that while fishing for oysters, they drifted South by mistake and asked to be sent home – as they duly were, Pyongyang had demanded their return! 

Yet the make-up of the group – 13 were from one family – suggests a defection attempt more than a fishing party! 
One alarming rumour is that all 22, including 14 women and three teenagers, were shot soon after their return. 

Pyongyang denies this, claiming on February 21 that “our people, who drifted due to high seas, flatly rejected an enticement that they would be guaranteed a wealthy livelihood if they defected to the South, and now live normal lives in their homes after returning.”

Perhaps then it will now produce them? Otherwise, the idea of firing squads rather detracts from the sound of music. 

This is our 58th report on IRAQ. We have during this lengthy period seen little for our comfort, our concerns being for the emergence of a recognisable democracy out of the shambles of invasion, war, religious civil war, terrorist jihadism, and the chaotic jumble of inept and corrupt politicians. The assessment we present gives the up-to-date situation and records some rather amazing shifts from our early reports in this sequence. For example the once irreconcilable Shia militia of Muqtada as-Sadr, the man we have tipped from the beginning as the future ruler of IRAQ, is now being courted by the Americans as allies, as they have done with various Sunni militias. The as-Sadrists may be seeking protection from their enemies in Al-Hakim’s Shia group, which we report as paradoxically being supported by both the Americans and the Iranians! 

Another extraordinary lack of progress is in the oil sector - what the adventure was all about, according to many theorists on the real cause of the invasion, as it was clearly planned before there was any allegation of hidden WMDs, and long before 9/11. 

The Oil Law, the settlement of which caused President Bush last year to send high- powered emissaries to squeeze a conclusion from the Iraqis, has surprise, surprise, still not become law. We report that there are four different drafts of this law in circulation, but none supported by a majority (as we observe elsewhere in this issue, democracy is untidy). The point now is that there are more than seventy companies registered and waiting to compete for the spoils, but until the law is passed they cannot know on what terms contracts will be drawn up. 

IRAN: Maybe Things Are on the Move
We note that things may be on the move in IRAN. We are seeing that the 'pragmatic conservatives' are maneuvering to isolate President Ahmadinejad, and that he may well not prevail in the 2008 parliamentary elections from the resulting new alignments, from which a relatively moderate figure may appear as the next president. We look at the detail of these forthcoming 14 March elections

We would assess the effects of the international sanctions, as being that although IRAN is not nearing collapse, it is experiencing pain. The bottom line for us, is that if there is any will to negotiate by this US administration then we believe that the attitude of the Ayatollahs would be conducive. But the current beneficiaries of the economic siege, RUSSIA and China, may well continue to benefit as we detail, since the White House seems to believe that Washington’s stand-off way is best. New presidents in both countries might be the essential pre-requisite for progress. 

The predictable ugly scenes are being played out on the borders of SERBIA and the new stateless state of KOSOVO, 'stateless' in the sense that it is the result of a UDI in conditions of strong protest from the state from which it has been amputated. Also it is not a member of the UN and almost certainly its membership application would be vetoed at the level of the Security Council. In other words it would have a similar status to Taiwan, which also will not get UN membership for similar reasons, (but which is easily the most successful of all the stateless states). SERBIA is in international law in a strong position, bolstered by RUSSIA and several other countries including some of those in the EU who would be embarrassed by their own minority groups existing or potential UDI's, like Spain, Cyprus, Romania. 

But here the US and the big boys of the EU are supporting the new state, simply because there seems to be no other solution. The prospects of not doing so outweigh the disadvantages of doing so. To outside observers it does seem quite extraordinary, looking at the recent history of Serbia's southernmost province, that SERBIA or any of its people could believe for one moment that after what Milosevic did to them, that the 90% non-Serbian population could allow themselves to be so misruled by Belgrade, ever again. Until the early years of Milosovic, Kosovo had enjoyed a high degree of autonomy from Belgrade. Until then the Secretary of the Yugoslav Communist Party, he made his bid to re-invent himself as a Serb nationalist, starting with Kosovo (which rather like Dunkirk with the Brits - only more so), is identified with an epic historic defeat, but which retains an emblematic significance about 'nationhood'. Milosevic progressively withdrew the autonomy from a territory which was only possessed of a 10% Serbian population, and yet 90% ethnic Albanian. It was then however, legally a province of Serbia, unlike the other breakaway former Yugoslav republics who refused to accept growing Serbian hegemony under the Yugoslav flag. Whilst these were federated and chose to secede (not without having to fight as well), no such legal remedy was available to Kosovo. In this sense it is paralleled by Chechnya, which was and remains a part of the Russian Federation, never a constituent republic of the USSR whose fifteen FSU republics were free to go their own ways when the USSR dissolved. 

As is well known the Serbian army and police conducted a campaign of terror against the recalcitrant Kosovars, forcing more than a million refugees to cross the borders of neighbouring ALBANIA and MACEDONIA. NATO then militarily intervened and bombed the Serbian military inside Kosovo and then other targets within Serbia. Following that, UN forces took over the province and diplomats looked for a solution. There was no solution acceptable to all sides, so a UN commissioner, a former President of Finland was charged with recommending how it should be resolved. This was it! 

RUSSIA in the aftermath of the Kosovo UDI has been dropping heavy hints that it might change its approach to its client unrecognized stateless states, which only exist because RUSSIA deems it expedient. Two of these: South Ossetia and Abkhazia are in GEORGIA; and one Transdnestr, is a breakaway province of MOLDOVA. Moscow and some of their CIS minions may recognize the independence of these territories, which they have held off from doing for many years. To read more see our STATELESS STATES.

Another territory which is possibly going to be affected by the UDI, is the restless BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA component Republika Srbska, which wants out of that state, within which it exists as a result of the Dayton Agreement, that ended the frightful Bosnian civil-war. We report on all the above. 

All three states of the southern Caucasus- GEORGIA, AZERBAIJAN and ARMENIA have 2008 as an election year. In GEORGIA the sitting president, Saakashvili was re-elected on January 5th but there are a lot of unhappy Georgian citizens who feel that they were cheated. ARMENIA had elections on February 19th and no surprise, the result was beset by powerful allegations of cheating. AZERBAIJAN is due to go to the polls in October. Our reports on all three countries give more details. Frankly no change to the regime of Ilham Aliyev in AZERBAIJAN is anticipated, politics around the Caucasus doesn’t work like that. Probity is something they just don’t do, despite a lot of huffing and puffing by western ambassadors and institutions such as OSCE. It is not really conceivable in any of these three FSU republics – we have seen no indications that there can be any change of leadership, except by an arranged succession. Just such an event happened in ARMENIA where prime-minister Serzh Sarkasian was elevated to succeed the presidency of his friend and mentor, Robert Kocharian, also from the breakaway enclave within AZERBAIJAN of Nagorno Karabakh. Unlike the other two, ARMENIA without energy resources is a Russian dependent, but because of the long-term territorial quarrel with AZERBAIJAN, it is denied the transit-income it could otherwise probably obtain for pipelines from the Caspian going west. (The border with Turkey remains closed now after many years, due to Turkish support for the Azeris). It remains to be seen whether Sarkasian is as unrelenting over Nagorno Karabakh as his predecessor, because a resolution of this problem would be highly beneficial to both countries and their neighbours. 

Proof of the dictum that democracy is untidy has been demonstrated once again, this time in PAKISTAN. One could say that the most recent previous occasion was Palestine, where Hamas, the party democratically voted into power, does not govern more than the enclave of Gaza - and that in a state of siege! 

PAKISTAN has failed to give an electoral majority, or anything approaching that to any political party, so the conclusion is in fact no conclusion, but a desperate series of inter-party negotiations with differing priorities. Even if a coalition is stitched together it is altogether likely to unravel. Our March report for PAKISTAN looks at the detail of this. 

President Musharraf has rather gracefully publicly accepted the democratic outcome and those numerous shrill pre-emptive screams of protest by participants – and at full shrill from some western observers, against Musharraf, have suddenly stilled, as it seems that rigged polls really weren't a major issue at all! Those inside and outside the country who have become used to maligning Musharraf as a dictator, particularly the US liberal press, now overcompensating for misreading the IRAQ invasion, don't seem to want to apologise, but really - since when did dictators allow, indeed organise free elections and if they did, also omit to 'fix' the results? 

There was a mood prevalent with the western onlookers that all PAKISTAN needed was to get rid of Musharraf and get back to the elected politicians. Oh, happy day!
The leaders of both major parties, Nawaz Sharif of the PML (N) and the Bhutto widower Asif Ali Zadari, leader of the largest party, PPP are not themselves elected politicians at all, neither of them serving in the parliament because of their criminal records, so are running matters from the sidelines, or the smoke-filled back rooms of legend. A fine example of democracy that is!

That alone really should explain a great deal about how there was and remains a need for a president like Musharraf, intolerant of corruption and focused on fighting the Islamic threat. 

Perhaps he shouldn’t have called that state of emergency, but there obviously WAS a state of Emergency with near daily bombings and poor Benazir Bhutto murdered along with some twenty bystanders. How is it that the western media (who are probably as ‘leaders of the opinion pack’ more culpable in this matter than the State Department or the White House), fail to compare bomb-torn PAKISTAN with the former East Pakistan, now BANGLADESH? There our current March report describes events in a country which has been for thirteen months in a State of Emergency because of the need to secure honest elections, with the (unelected) Army Leader playing a no less critical role there, than Musharraf does in Islamabad. Double standards - or what? 

It is quickly forgotten that when the Chief Justice in Pakistan (apparently) was about to declare Musharraf’s re-election as President unconstitutional, the legal argument for which was over a quibble on timing, at that time Benazir was out of country with her family in Dubai, and had no electoral status, Nawaz Sharif was still in exile; the insurrection on the North west Frontier was in full swing, and the jihadists were bombing away in Pakistan’s cities. If Musharraf had stood down (if the court would in fact have ordered that), who then would have taken over government, whilst a new presidential election might have been ordered? It would have been like sending the experienced ship’s captain off the bridge in a violent storm, with the ship of state wallowing badly - without any other ships officers being on duty, or even present on the ship! 

We would say that out of this parliamentary election there is virtually nothing for the reassurance of those concerned for the country's seething struggle with radical islam, whose adherents are well rooted. One of the major party leaders, Nawaz Sharif an old time regional family chief, is also a wahhabi moslem and when previously in power as PM, attempted to force Sharia law on the nation. His Muslim League-N got the second largest tally of votes after the PPP of the late Benazir Bhutto, which received more, but nothing like enough to alone form a government. Since Nawaz Sharif is 'frothing-at-the-mouth obsessed' with seeking revenge on Musharraf, who expelled him from power and sent him into exile eight years ago, his political agenda is entirely fixated on the personal target of unseating the president, rather than dealing with the problems of the nation. The PPP are about to choose their leader in the parliament (unsurprisingly it's not to be the party leader "Mr 10%," Benazir's widower), and as the largest party they will be deciding with whom they might make a coalition. Nawaz Sharif ‘s party similarly has him as ‘non-playing captain’ being led in parliament by his brother, who comfortingly has just been declared innocent of murder - his accusers, parents of the dead victims - asked after the election results, that their charges against him be dropped. 

The state of Pakistan is rotten - and this matters because it is a nuclear- armed nation which could fall to the extremists. It cannot just be cut adrift and left to succumb to determined Islamists. What is desperately needed is a new generation of ‘clean’ political leaders in government and opposition, because without that, the situation cannot really improve. It needs the population as a whole to stand up to those religious mullahs who license and organize impressionable youth to kill mostly civilians, like those from their own families. Until these things come to pass, we hope that Musharraf, who can provide stability if the army continues in his support, can survive to 'hold the ring' until it does. 

The State of AFGHANISTAN regrettably is also rotten! On evidence to the Congress, the Kabul government we hear, controls only 25% of the country; the Taleban 10%; and the rest? The warlords and chieftains who have always controlled this tribal mosaic go their own way, and do as they have ever done. 

It is unlikely that the current US administration has the answers, so it looks though the incoming January 2009 government has got some fearful problems to resolve in this country, as elsewhere. Again, corruption eats at the heart of government but this is perhaps the only way the Afghan president gets his program up and running. The greatest source of money - apart from foreign aid, indeed almost the only source of funds in the whole nation are the illegal, mostly opiate drugs, which are grown, harvested, processed and despatched from here around the world. It is self-evident that this just could not happen without local, regional, and national government being some kind of partner in the process. 

Here again leaving the country to go to hell in its own way is not an option, as 9/11 showed very clearly. The major problem seems to be that the political class just does not throw up any heroes for the west to back, nor even admirable leaders with the capacity to run a nation. Leaders traditionally appear to be either warlords or mullahs, sometimes both. Politicians here, as a class as the Russians discovered, were and remain a grave disappointment. Mullahs can certainly give strong leadership, but they are mostly focused on interpreting and enforcing ancient scriptural injunctions, unless they are extremists, organising jihad. Warlords, as practical leaders of men, could be the answer but regrettably they show an overwhelming predilection for getting very rich and in this country what can approach the drugs trade in that regard?
What modern development has meant for Afghan leaders is really more efficient weapons and explosives and better means of getting narcotics to markets. 

Democracy far from taking root has shown itself to be an alien flower in this inhospitable terrain. Perhaps the solution to the NATO predicament lies in understanding that democracy cannot be grafted onto a non-receptive corpus. Maybe they will never be ready for it, but when they are, the desire for change must primarily come from them and not from western capitals. Before the Russian invasion the country rubbed along at the bottom of world economic league tables. It was run in a shambolic, timeless sort of way by traditional tribal rulers, and the said warlords and mullahs. Central government, the king etc; were always weak. There has been non-stop war in some parts of the country for over thirty years but that was nothing new for Afghanistan. Perhaps western leaders should address a national jirgah and give these leaders a choice - an exercise in stick and carrot options. That they can retain western help, providing they really shut down on the drugs trade and do not allow such social excesses, particularly against women, as the Taleban practiced in relation to daily life, (just not acceptable to western taxpayers who fund subsidies to the country). Otherwise they can have decentralised government, if that’s what they want, or central government if they opt for that. But they cannot any longer expect to get western funding and military assistance, particularly against physical interference by neighbouring states, unless they accept and observe minimum rules of treating with the outside world. 

Right now NATO is the instrument in applying western policy to this country. It is clear that NATO as presently constituted is politically coming under increased scrutiny from active member states. To expose its young servicemen and women to violent death or maiming, requires that the cause for which this might happen is widely understood and supported by the civilian populations (electors) of the member states. 

The highly publicized objective when the NATO nations stepped up their participation there, was to help to rebuild the war-torn nation in terms of roads, bridges, schools, hospitals. Also, weaning Afghanistan away from its economic drug dependence – it is now, by far, the worlds largest supplier of heroin and opiate derivatives. Fighting the Taleban apparently was to have been a sideshow, but events have shown that they thought otherwise. 

What now Is the objective? Is it possible to militarily defeat the Taleban, now recruiting from mountain tribesmen, on the pro-patria argument that this foreign army of non-believers should be expelled, as all predecessors have been from their country? Or is militarily containing the Taleban the best that can be done? 

It would be a reasonable assumption that whatever else, the US now established will not be leaving this country under almost any circumstances, certainly at any time soon. It is their only Central Asian military base and in their world–view essential to that military reach, which is so fundamental a part of their military doctrine. 

They may wish to employ NATO troops like Roman auxiliaries to ‘subdue the natives’, whilst the bulk of their US legions sit in their fortified MacBase, prepared to deploy to ‘bigger issues’ in the outside world.
Europeans and Canadians may or may not go along with this, but the public debate has never yet taken place – and it is not just about Afghanistan. 

The wider issue in the 21st century is what is NATO for? Like many other institutions, it joins questions about the value of a G8 that excludes China and India. Similarly, the veto-wielding permanent WWII membership of the UN Security Council. Truly, the incoming president of the USA, if they seek to exert the global leadership that George W Bush lost, is going to have a very full geopolitical policy agenda! 

This Overview and shortened versions of each of the country reports, plus several other issues are available for reader’s comments at our blog:

Clive Lindley 

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