Special Reports
 
 


2008 - A YEAR OF DESTINY
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2008 - A YEAR OF DESTINY

With the summer behind us, it is not too soon to consider 2008, when the most powerful job in the world will change hands and also what is perhaps the world's second to the top job, a contender for the next most powerful presidency - because Russia's leader must be in the running for that distinction. Within no more than seventeen years from the collapse of the USSR - when Putin's eight year presidency terminates, the crippled federation of nations that emerged from the wreckage is looking transformed today. When Putin came to power, the centre was a shambles - close to anarchy with many of its 89 constituent republics going their own way and its economy in the hands of oligarchs, who with state connivance had acquired control of the commanding heights of financial power. Many of its citizens had forfeited their life savings - victims of an economic shock therapy that led to meltdown. Few of the faults of the soviet command economy had been rectified and Russian manufacturing was at its lowest ebb. Right across the vast expanse of the world's largest nation, gangsters had become the new aristocracy, the rule of law had given way to the rule of the gun, indeed it was widely called by involved westerners, "the Wild East". The nation was close to becoming a basket case. 

It is hard to fully appreciate how fundamentally things have changed. Putin, relying on his trusted cohorts from the security services and the military, as Cromwell did with his major generals, has turned things around. It is true that deep corruption remains a fact of life, just as it was in Soviet days. It is also true that violence on the streets has certainly not been cured, with murder stalking independent journalists and political opponents in particular. There is such an unimpressive arrest and conviction rate in too many unsolved crimes, that it inevitably leaves the impression, true or not, that these were informal state-commissioned executions, rather than simple criminal murders. 
But Moscow today is just a little less like Chicago in the 1920's than it was, and the feeling of incipient anarchy, never far away before Putin's time, seems not at all close now. In this, the world's largest nation, the rulers of the component republics of the federation have largely been brought to heel. Moscow, the center, is once again, as throughout Russian history, back in control - both politically and in every other respect. 

Within the center, the Kremlin has taken back financial control from the oligarchs, some of whom have been exiled, others made to toe the line after the example of Khordakovsky, who took on the Kremlin and lost. He lost his liberty - now he rots in a Siberian jail serving a lengthy sentence - and his massive fortune has gone, back to the state from whence in truth, it mostly came. 

Politically, the parliament has become a cipher for the Kremlin's wishes, just as much as were the old Soviets. Even the existing handful of independent or liberal democratic members of the Duma, will probably no longer be there after the next election. All membership is to be from party lists, and the minimum threshold for a party has been raised to 7% of the electorate. That level of a bar, the Kremlin believes, probably correctly, is high enough to terminate the annoying gadfly role, the persistent questions on sensitive matters, which is all that the genuine opposition can aspire to, and to smooth out the dissident wrinkles from an assembly for whose compliant members, rich pickings will be available. 

The media has been prised from the hands of the oligarchs. Their companies that owned the TV channels and big newspapers, are now the vassals of state controlled industries, or allied industrialists, with the result that there is no longer any independent mass- media to either inform the public, nor lead any potential opposition to the will of the center.

The key elements in all of this has been the single-mindedness of the leadership, in taking such a firm grip on every aspect of the state, a process enabled by the massive good luck of a combination of a middle-eastern crisis, showing no signs of abatement, just as the early investment in developing oil and gas reserves and new pipelines, had begun to bear fruit. The former event pushed world prices up beyond all records; and the latter meant that Russia was uniquely placed in the world to transform its economic status, so much so that it is now referred to as an energy superpower, a description little used prior to this time, of any nation. The superpowers then - and there were only ever two, were of course the Soviet Union and the USA.

The criterion then was primarily military power. After the Soviet collapse, Russia inherited the dispersed Soviet nuclear weapons - a lot of them - and in terms of conventional forces, although not in any league comparable with the USA, which stands militarily well clear of all others, Russia still has sufficient presence to be reckoned with. 

Meanwhile the planet's appetite for fossil fuels and Russia's ability to supply them, gives this energy superpower geopolitical leverage, of which we have already seen the early, ugly, indications in Latvia, Estonia, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, etc. 

In summary then, the ability to either supply or to cut off energy, might come to outflank military force as the predominant deciding factor in the world of the immediate future. Thus for Putin to pick up and run with 'OGEC', his invention to consolidate gas supplies as OPEC organizes petroleum, would be to further underwrite the re-emergence of Russia as an indispensible player now in all matters relating to energy. 

Foreign Relations
Geopolitically, Moscow has seen a consolidation of its 'near abroad' - after that wandering off into limbo of the fourteen other FSU republics, since the break-up of 1991. The territory of the USSR cannot be reclaimed, but in this classic instance of political de-colonialism, the next phase- that of economic colonialism follows, and is doing so convincingly. 

Whilst the three Baltics are gone forever, Ukraine, which is far more important to the Kremlin, briefly appeared at the time of the 'Orange revolution' to be slipping away from Moscow's hegemony. It now looks as though it will remain at least close for the immediate future, and possibly available even for becoming reabsorbed. The EU, Ukraine's only alternative international economic and political grouping, has become something of a busted flush in terms of expansion, for the foreseeable future. That looks unlikely to change in any timescale helpful to Ukraine, due to the last-ditch chauvinism of certain important member states, particularly the UK; and the present 'immigrant indigestion' of France, Germany and the Netherlands. There is not even an horizon for Ukrainian entry, which may well be ranked as a major lost opportunity by future historians of Europe. Also, as in Russia itself, the proven, unscrupulous appetite for big money, demonstrated by many of Ukraine's elected politicians of all parties, has shown that together with Russian ability to put such rewards their way, many politicians regrettably can be bought.

Kazakhstan by contrast, is successful enough not to need Russia's financial inducements and as at present, it is likely to continue to plough its own furrow to become the acknowledged Central Asian leader, including sharing the pan-turkic leadership in Asia generally, if Turkey is prepared to tolerate that. It's rival for this distinction, Uzbekistan, with the relevant history, a larger population but a much weaker economy, does just not compare in economic or political strengths. Eventually when the Uzbeks have the inevitable change of leadership, which anno domini will eventually deliver, new rulers there may well become supplicants of Astana, rather than rivals. 

Nevertheless, the five Central Asian FSU republics will probably relate to Russia from a position in some ways comparable to how Latin America relates to the USA. There may well be resentments about being exploited or patronized, but guest workers and students will go to Russia, and Capital from the Russian Federation will continually seek investment opportunities in Central Asia- they will in all essentials rub along. In the FSU as a whole, Russia has the cultural, military connections, and in most former soviet republics also has significant covert political power - hard to evaluate but nevertheless there - all of which means that they will continue to be unchallenged as top dog. 

With Georgia and Azerbaijan it is too early to say how the future will play. Both have US patronage, but power in these countries is so much in the hands of ruling clans and individuals, that a change at the top can bring the whole edifice tumbling down. Armenia is a Russian dependency, as is Belarus. Moldova is an economic dependency currently being punished for its flirtation with the west. But it is isolated like Ukraine, by the EU's expansion having over-reached the media-fanned prejudices of its members' domestic populations.

Apart from its 'Near Abroad,' Moscow's relations with its most important neighbour China, are perhaps better than they have ever been. The oil & gas supplier / customer relationship, for both of them is infinitely more useful and rewarding than the sterile old hostilities of the past. They are also united in their determination to resist, by all peaceful means, the US hegemony which they identify as seeking world domination, (apparently a US neocon objective). Putin's Russia is for the foreseeable future, proof against this, simply because it is the possessor of 3000 nuclear weapons, with the means of delivery. Terrorists aside, Russia is not going to be attacked. 

So it can be said, near to the conclusion of Putin's two presidential terms, that he leaves his country immeasurably stronger economically, with the concomitant spin-off, military and political, that this brings. Russia has not ever been democratic but under western tutelage immediately after the collapse of the USSR, did amongst the anarchic chaos of the Yeltsin years, show tentative signs of moving in that direction. Yet, the courts were never free and independent, and still are not. The oligarchs owning the independent media used it's support as a bargaining chip for concessions from the Kremlin - they had their price. But somewhere in amongst all that corruption, there was substantially more than a glimmer of independence, sadly now stifled. As to free elections, again with the exception of a small number of genuinely independent lawmakers, the central and regional apparatchiks never lost power, which was and is reflected in the make-up of the State Duma, where they continue to stack the benches. 

The Bush Years - And After
The supreme leverage the US was perceived to have, to achieve the neocon agenda of world domination, was first and foremost its military power. Yet after an amazingly short period in human history, in this new century, force of arms is no longer the key criterion for a nation's potential standing, except for the USA itself as the dominant military power. For the rest, since there is no combination of powers that can defeat America, even should they wish to do so, it follows that there will be no trial of arms, other than on a limited, localized, basis. Judgements of an individual nation's importance will emerge based more on economic criteria and their degree of success - and the sheer numbers attached to their reserves of oil and gas, or ability to acquire it. 

But Bush has interpreted US military superiority in terms of his doctrine of pre-emption - that he will take up arms against any nation that he believes constitutes a threat to the United States. Not that is, "an imminent threat" ( thus exceeding his constitutional powers). 

Iraq, his first target, was not a threat at all, with no air force or navy, a mainly conscript army, no missiles other than glorified artillery, and as is now famously known, no weapons of mass destruction - which after all, is only what the independent UN inspectorate had been reporting all along. This country Iraq, as can now be seen, was a victim of a plot, however one wishes to describe it, 'framed', 'fitted- up', with responsibility for the outrages of 9/11. So much so, that at the outbreak of the invasion, well over a year after 9/11, 70% of Americans still believed that it was Iraqis rather than Saudis who flew the suicide missions, and that it was Saddam who ordered it. Even today, many Americans still believe that. 

That of course is an indictment of sections of the US media as well as the presidency. Apart from perhaps some advertising sheets in the boonies, the US media, both print and TV knew the real story, but chose to obfuscate, even now some of them, choose not to make it clear to all Americans. 

G.W. Bush had said, by way of further mystification, that 'there was nothing to choose between Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein', although the first, still alive and obviously kicking, had planned and executed an audacious attack on the US mainland causing thousands of American deaths and other casualties, as well as grievous assaults on US embassies and a warship. The late Saddam, although a tyrant to his own people (like many another in the world), in fact had never attacked the US at all, nor its embassies, citizens, nor economic interests overseas. But notwithstanding that balance sheet, the US intervention got him executed and left Osama bin Laden defiantly at large. 

Since the hitherto widely admired US intelligence services got it so wrong on Iraq, or were perhaps overwhelmed by political insistence from the vice-president's office, (it comes to the same thing in the end), how can any American president be expected, (or trusted) to get such a delicate matter as an unspecified 'threat,' right in the future, as the basis for a first-strike, executive ordered attack? Pre-emption against third-world military tiddlers like Iraq, even a more formidable if non-nuclear Iran, is one thing. But if the president of the time is as feckless as GWB, what if he is told that nuclear-armed Russia constitutes that threat - there are still cold warriors around, east and west, and both countries have their military-industrial complexes? 

In other words, if the nation which a US president under this doctrine, chooses to interdict, is also a nuclear-armed power of the second tier of military nations after the US, like Russia or China, could that mean anything other than world war? The US founding fathers, in order to avoid an over-mighty president, ordained that the Congress was the branch of government whose decision it would be, after proper and considered debate, to wage war or make peace. That constitutionally remains the position, but Bush claims the right as Commander-in-Chief to override that. 

When the presidential decision on Iraq was a revenge attack devised in the White House, the US having been the victim of an assault by a religious terror group, entirely unrelated to the nation of Iraq, that means that that at the very first fence the doctrine has fallen down! Probably the appropriate response would have been for the Congress to impeach Bush / Cheney, but with a republican majority as it then was, in both houses, impeachment would not have carried. 

What a strange old place the Congress of the United States is, to be sure. They wanted and tried to impeach Clinton, because of an essentially minor matter of 'inappropriate' office sex. It was victimless and of no consequence to public life in any grown-up terms. They set out to destroy the president, not because the senators and representatives are themselves men devoted to the truth, or of high sexual morality, or financial probity - our daily papers tell us differently. But simply as a tribal thing, a device to destroy the leader not of the enemy, but of their own nation, democratically elected by their fellow citizens over their candidate, within that same nation. 

Yet those same lawmakers sought no impeachment for causing, by this illegal intervention in Iraq, the deaths of what will probably amount to hundreds of thousands of truly innocent civilians, who happened to be foreign children, women, and men, not American ones. No recognition of 'framing' Iraq. Not even an apology for taking the nation and the coalition to war on a false prospectus, putting the US and allies' own soldiers into harms way, for a war that was, at best a mistake. The only good likely to emerge from these unpromising facts, is if the Congress unambiguously takes back its constitutional right to make war and to make peace. 

The dangerously irresponsible doctrine of presidential pre-emption, must surely be repudiated by the next president. The near universal hope is that American citizens will in 2008 step away from the brink that Bush /Cheney represent, and bring back the exercise of 'reason' and transparency as the core of US and world policies. 

Similarly it was not until this presidency that probably for the first time in the history of the USA since it became a world power, there was a period when democratic allies caught the first whiff of just how offensive the ugly side of a rogue US administration can be. The democracy-threatening aspect of US government in the hands of thick-skinned bullies of the ilk of Cheney and Rumsfeld, set off alarm bells. These men were the pragmatic cutting edge to the political theories associated with the neo-cons. Simply, having spent the Soviet Union "under the table" and brought the evil empire to an end, the arms race still continued to the great benefit of corporate wealth, but now with just one runner. 

That put the US so far away from much of the rest of a world happily beating swords into ploughshares, that the temptation to the hawks to use this military power, became irresistible. We speak of Iraq, but the lessons cannot fail to have been picked up by a US which witnessed this administration make an unnecessary war. And to do it, inventing a false narrative which lacked even the cold war fears and rationale of 'the domino theory,' of its disastrous predecessor, Vietnam. 

New Forms of War - and PeaceLow intensity warfare renders some expensive sophisticated machines of war rather immaterial, except that they are very bad news indeed for civilians anywhere in the vicinity of the fighting. That could graphically be seen in the recent Israeli attack on Hamas in Lebanon, and it has been the case throughout in Iraq. 3800 plus US troops have been killed since fighting began, the tally now for Iraqis, mainly civilians, killed varies according to estimates by at least three serious methodologies. During the same period of four years these currently are between perameters of 100,000 and 655,000. 
In Vietnam, over ten years, 58,000 young US servicemen died at a time when three million Vietnamese, the vast majority of course civilians, also died as a result of the war in their own country. However dreadful it is to lose your own young men, it can be seen that the decision to go to war using today's highly lethal but indiscriminate weaponry, is a total unmitigated disaster for the non-combatants who just happen to live there. 

It was always the case that armies prepared to take casualties, particularly when the fighting was in their own country, had an edge over those whose citizen soldiers, a long way from home and with minds of their own, looked to find ways of surviving. The combination of these two modern factors: mismatch of the most sophisticated weaponry in situations of the least sophisticated confrontations. (F15s or tank guns against snipers in houses) - or no confrontations at all - just more or less blind attrition, where death follows remote or pressure-exploded roadside munitions. 

There is therefore a reasonable expectation that the next and future US administrations, will, until the current lessons are forgotten, go back to the time honored US policy of 'speaking softly and carrying a big stick'. In other words war as a last resort, and not an early option. 

The route the economy has taken too, has shown that the US electorate have been sold 'a bill of goods' through the persuasive power of special interest money, buying TV adverts costing immense sums, that their opposition cannot match. It's hard for non-Americans to understand the enthusiasm with which overworked (many with just two weeks a year vacations), debt-ridden citizens, often doing two or more jobs to keep up, can support massive tax-cuts for the already richest- rich in the world (Cheney said, "this is our due"); and vote against good quality universal free health care, standard now throughout the whole of the western world. Meanwhile, the nation as a whole during the Bush/Cheney years has seen the national surplus left by Clinton of $5 trillion, become a $4 trillion deficit. It speaks to the power of politicians buying their way into the electronic altar in the corner of the room. 

The recent devaluation of the dollar bodes ill for the US economy so dependent on international borrowings, and by extension many others. It is after all sustained foreign debt from asian countries led by Japan, China and Taiwan and other foreign governments that lend about 25% (about two trillion dollars) of the US public debt, that has paid for the US consumer boom. 

Consider the hit these overseas investors have taken in the reduced value of that debt - and won't they be looking for other homes for at least some of their savings, to spread the risk, other than just US bonds? Another danger signal carefully ignored by the US, as well as many western governments, is the massively enlarged volume of hedge funds, the supreme example of opaque investment where really nobody, (not just governments), knows what's happening. It was significant at the G8, when the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel attempted to persuade her fellow leaders to adopt some controls over hedge funds, that the idea was shot down in flames by her heads of government colleagues, led by the USA. Somebody then at least, is alive to the danger. 

Changes at the Top
So the lead-up to the fateful decision to be taken in November next year will tell us who the protagonists will be in the US and what their policy platforms are expected to produce. We will know before that the outcome of the presidential elections in Russia. Unlike the US however, one cannot describe it as a race. It is quite clear that the Kremlin candidate will win and so effective a leader has Vladimir Putin been, that he can and will anoint his successor. He is giving tantalising glimpses of his choices, even to the extent of bringing in a previously unregarded candidate to the post of prime minister, the very springboard from which he himself vaulted into the presidency eight years ago. It has been little commented upon that the Russian constitution requires the Prime Minister to assume power in the event of the president's death - so until Putin stands down, Viktor Subkov is merely a heart-beat away from supreme power right now. The tensions within the Kremlin are beginning to show. Officials that serve Putin are by no means politically neutered, as can be seen by the recent political arrests which are assumed by many to be the outward manifestations of rival Kremlin factions, jockeying for position in the regime which is to follow.

Putin's two leading deputies Sergei Ivanov, and Dmitri Medvedev, may or may not know their master's intentions, let alone the 'kremlinologists' that have come back into the world of relevance. We have done a bit in that arcane science ourselves, having been following the story of modern Russia for over twenty years -(reported through 320 archived essays in our associated "RUSSIA EXPRESS" published in Newnations.com simply as RUSSIA).

There was a school of thought that Putin would surprise in a different way, by allowing the tame State Duma after all, to persuade him to allow them to amend the constitution, so that he might continue in office. One reason we inclined against that view, was the scorn he publicly heaped upon President Lukashenka of Belarus, who did exactly that to extend his term. They have never been friends since.

Putin has announced that he will 'assume' a parliamentary seat, which he does effortlessly by being first on the party list. He has suggested that he might retain control this way by becoming prime minister, no doubt changing the constitutional powers, which if he does do, will be the clearest signal. Such powers currently are heavily weighted towards the incumbent president. Turning that office into a formal and powerless head of state with the prime minister becoming the real chief executive, rather on the British model, would tell the world what his intentions are. This way Putin would be able to enjoy power in this tame 'stacked' legislature for a political lifetime, rather than be subject to the tedious constraints of a mere two consecutive terms of four years. 

The president to prime minister swap, is now the most likely scenario, but if he doesn't change the relative constitutional powers, he might merely be taking a seat, as some senior retiring British politicians do in their Upper House, with few duties but the right to intervene and speak on any subject of concern to them.

A frequently aired opinion, before he announced that he will be entering the Duma, was that he is taking a sabbatical, and will stand again as he is constitutionally able to do, having left office for a four year term, or until his successor resigns. The problem there is that his successor might like and want to keep the top job, and become popular. It doesn't sound like the secret policeman that Putin was, to take such risks, unless the elected president was no more than a puppet, which means that the constitution would need to be changed before the election.

In the old USSR the president was usually a figurehead and the prime minister little more than a general manager- the chairman of the national management committee. Power actually lay with the party First Secretary - the party leader, the role that Stalin and his successors occupied for so long. True that there is no longer any monolithic party as such - although that could be changing if Putin decides so - but power then was the Kremlin, and power now is the Kremlin. 

Putin himself, the unknown from Leningrad was chosen by Kremlin insiders, satisfactorily tested with various top jobs and selected over other contenders to become Prime Minister. From there it was a shoe-in to succeed Yeltsin, who obligingly abdicated to give the Kremlin candidate 'the jump' on any rivals for the top job.

It seems fairly obvious that Putin and friends have steadily resurrected the machinery of the Russian state, by applying the lessons they all learned from their lifetime experience within the Soviet Union. Their statist political model, looked at not pejoratively but objectively, is reminiscent of prewar fascism, rather on the lines of the early Italian version, but with neither racial overtones, nor the lethal competition of a communist rival. A powerful sense of nationalism and 'destiny' lies at the heart of it, and as a system it is energized above all, by a cult of leadership. That self-evidently exists, which means that even after 2008, Mr Putin can continue to call the shots, anyway that he chooses, given that he controls the Kremlin insiders. 

The Judgement of History
How will history judge these two retiring leaders? How do they judge themselves? Putin rides high in opinion polls. But clearly the goal the west wanted for him - to adopt their model of democracy - has been of little interest to him. 

After his second election in 2004, he said in answer to an interviewer, that his mission in office was to raise his people out of their poverty. We will be examining that in more detail at the appropriate time, but it is clear that Putin's period of leadership has seen a massive increase of prosperity in Russia, compared with what went before; and significantly for the future, the advent of an economic middle-class. 

George Bush, who cannot enjoy hearing of his opinion poll ratings, also disclosed his mission when he spoke at the National Cathedral in Washington, three days after 9/11. There, with characteristic overreach, he proclaimed to a congregation of Washington sophisticates, that his "responsibility to history was to rid the world of evil." 

In the face of such a statement, it may be customary to conclude by saying that "time will tell" or that "history will judge. "But really, given such banal absurdity, we don't need to wait that long.


Clive Lindley - Publisher