Putin’s Port Project to Divert Russia Urals Oil to Baltic

In a move to further expand Russia’s market into the world system, Moscow commissioned a port to be constructed on the Baltic Sea, thus creating a route in which oil from the Urals could be traded more easily in the European market.

Concerns over expected future production levels — Russia’s current volume has been deemed unsustainable when compared to overall project cost — have been leveled against Moscow. Shifting the route further north and away from the Ukraine and Belarus will afford Russia the opportunity to manage price controls and ensure the product’s secure transportation routes are not undermined by political disagreements. Read more “Putin’s Port Project to Divert Russia Urals Oil to Baltic”

Our Man in the Kremlin Wins Another Election

Technically, he has yet to win reelection on Sunday, but in Vladimir Putin’s “managed democracy” there is no doubt who will be Russia’s president for the next six if not twelve years.

Considering the alternatives, the West should be relieved.

There is a good chance that Putin will win up to 60 percent of the vote which would save him the embarrassment of a second-round runoff against probably the Communist Party candidate who is set to win around 10 percent.

As in December’s parliamentary election, when the ruling United Russia party lost 77 seats but maintained a majority, there will be fraud but not on a massive scale. There is no need for it. Putin’s approval rating has hovered north of 60 percent for nearly all of his interregnum four year premiership. His party (although he isn’t formally a member) has lost some credibility but Putin remains Russia’s most popular politician by far. Read more “Our Man in the Kremlin Wins Another Election”

Putin Rallies Against Soft Power, Humanitarian Interventions

Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin, who is likely to be reelected president on Sunday, has alleged that Western countries use nongovernmental organizations as tools of their foreign policy in an effort to undermine unfriendly regimes.

In an article that was published in Moskovskiye Novosti and translated by The Moscow Times, the Russian leader observes the increased use of “soft power” which, he writes, “implies a matrix of tools and methods to reach foreign policy goals without the use of arms but by exerting information and other levers of influence.”

Although aid and charitable organizations that “criticize the current authorities” are perfectly permissible, “the activities of ‘pseudo-NGOs’ and other agencies that try to destabilize other countries with outside support are unacceptable,” according to Putin.

I’m referring to those cases where the activities of NGOs are not based on the interests (and resources) of local social groups but are funded and supported by outside forces.

Russia has longer been critical of Western NGOs that seek to support civil society and foment democracy abroad. In Moscow’s view, such organizations aided the color revolutions that swept former Soviet satellite republics in the early 2000s, including Georgia’s 2003 Rose Revolution and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004. In both instances, a pro-Russian leader was replaced by a pro-Western counterpart. Read more “Putin Rallies Against Soft Power, Humanitarian Interventions”

Putin Spells Out National Security Strategy

As part of his campaign for the presidency, Vladimir Putin has been publishing a series of articles on various themes. On Tuesday, he turned to national security and specifically the Russian military. Since the full text is available in English, I won’t spend much time describing what is in the article but will just comment on some themes that caught my attention.

I have to say, of all the articles Putin has published as part of his electoral program, this one is one of the best. It’s not a terribly high standard, given that at least one of them was found to have been plagiarized from other sources, but still.

The first part of the article provides one of the best justifications I have seen for the military reform that the government undertook starting back in the fall of 2008. Had this statement been made this clearly and forcefully back then, I think Putin, defense minister Anatoliy Serdyukov and company might have had an easier time convincing the expert community that they knew what they were doing. (Back then, the reform was rolled out without a clear plan or explanation, which generated a lot of criticism.) I’ve been a fan of the main ideas behind the reform effort from the start, so I’m glad to see this all spelled out so clearly by Putin (or, more likely, his ghostwriter). Here are the key points justifying the reform:

Previous experience proved that the potential for developing the military system inherited from the Soviet Union had become depleted…

It was not possible to build up the military simply by adding personnel and equipment partly because it didn’t solve the inefficiency problem and partly because the country lacked both the human and financial resources. Most importantly, that system did not meet contemporary and long-term requirements. We could eventually have lost our entire military potential and we could have lost our armed forces as an efficient mechanism.

There was only one way out. We had to build a new army. We had to establish a modern and mobile army which could maintain permanent combat readiness.

This is followed by an equally clear discussion of accomplishments to date. These primarily have to do with changes in organizational structure, including the transition from brigades to divisions and from military districts to unified strategic commands. Read more “Putin Spells Out National Security Strategy”

Putin Warns Russians: Après Moi, Le Déluge

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin warned Russians on Monday that without him, ethnic tensions could tear the country of 140 million apart.

Putin, who is likely to be reelected as president in March, is the most popular politician in Russia by far with an approval rating over 60 percent.

Opposition to the two time president and his ruling United Russia party is mounting however. Especially older people for whom the collapse of the Soviet Union — and event that Putin has called a “disaster” — hasn’t produced a significant improvement in living standards increasingly sympathize with the communists who doubled their share of the vote in last year’s parliamentary elections. Read more “Putin Warns Russians: Après Moi, Le Déluge”

Putin Didn’t Suffer a Resounding Defeat

After Sunday’s parliamentary election, there have been accusations of voter fraud, protests in Russian cities and headlines in Western press of Vladimir Putin’s ruling party suffering a resounding defeat at the polls. It’s not true.

There has been fraud and there have been demonstrations but United Russia is still dominant and Putin likely to win next year’s presidential election. His approval rating hovers safely north of 60 percent but his party’s popularity has declined in the last couple of years from more than 60 percent in late 2009 to just over 50 percent today.

At the polls Sunday, United Russia won less than half of the vote which corresponds roughly to the party’s performance in opinion polls. Unless one believes they were all rigged as well, it’s difficult to imagine that the election fraud that’s been reported in foreign news media was pervasive. Far more likely is that half of the Russian electorate still has confidence in United Russia and a majority of Russians by far like their prime minister who is soon to be president again.

What’s received less attention than the humiliation of United States in the West is that the communists doubled their share of the vote up to 20 percent. Read more “Putin Didn’t Suffer a Resounding Defeat”

Medvedev Urges Russians to “Vote for the Future”

President Dmitri Medvedev urged Russians on Friday to vote “for the future” and stability in electing a majority for the ruling party. United Russia is expected to win the upcoming parliamentary elections which would clear the way for Medvedev to succeed Vladimir Putin as prime minister next year.

The Russian leaders announced their power switch in September. Putin, who served as chief executive for two consecutive terms between 2000 and 2008, is almost certain to win the presidential election in March although his party’s approval ratings have declined modestly, dropping from roughly 60 to over 50 percent in two years.

United Russia will retain its majority but it will be a less comfortable one. It will probably no longer be able to enact constitutional reforms without opposition.

President Medvedev tried to rally support for his party in a televised address, referencing the political chaos of the 1990s when the legislature was bitterly divided before United Russia surged. “Will this be a legislative body that is torn by irreconcilable differences and is unable to decide anything,” he wondered, “as we have unfortunately already had in our history?”

Or will we get a functioning legislature where the majority are responsible politicians who can help raise the quality of life of our people, whose actions will be guided by the voters’ interests and national interests?

Despite vocal opposition from political activist who accuse the ruling party of nepotism and corruption, Putin is still by far the most popular politician in the country with an approval rating north of 60 percent. United Russia dominates television coverage which is overwhelmingly loyalist but online and in newspapers, criticism of the Kremlin and the ruling party is regularly published. More than 30 percent of Russians have Internet access.

The communists will probably secure the second largest parliamentary faction in Sunday’s election. They currently poll at 20 percent. The social democrats could clear the 7 percent election threshold while minority liberal parties are unlikely to win any seats.

Medvedev, Putin to Switch Places Next Year

Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin told his United Russia party on Saturday that he will stand for the presidency in 2012 which would return him to the post he vacated in 2008 after serving the maximum two consecutive terms.

Incumbent Dmitri Medvedev is expected to become prime minister after the power switch next year. Putin said to be confident that his protégé could “create a new, effective, young, energetic management team and head the government of the Russian Federation.”

Putin told party members in Moscow that the two men had reached agreement on who should hold which post “a long time ago, several years back.” Speculation abounded in recent months nevertheless about who would seek United Russia’s presidential nomination for March’s election. The party dominates Russian politics and is certain to deliver the next government.

A constitutional amendment recently enacted allows Putin to serve two new terms of six years each instead of four so he could be in power until 2024. Read more “Medvedev, Putin to Switch Places Next Year”

The Kremlin Two-Step

“Westerners often see Russian politics in terms of a high-level struggle between liberals and conservatives,” observes Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, writing for The Moscow Times. For instance, under President Boris Yeltsin, reformers fought nationalists while under Vladimir Putin, economic liberals opposed the siloviki — a class of politicians that originally served the security services and stresses national interests.

That view, argues Trenin, is a simplification of Russian politics and it fails to properly account for the Putin-Medvedev relationship.

To dismiss Medvedev as a mere Putin puppet — a constitutional bridge between Putin’s second and third presidential terms — would be both unfair and wrong. […] Conversely, portraying Putin as “a man from the past” and Medvedev as “a hope for the future” exaggerates the differences between them and omits the more important factors that unite them.

Dmitri Medvedev does appear to be more of a reformer, noting last November that the “country’s prestige and national prosperity cannot rest forever on past achievements.” Medvedev proposed modernization. Democracy, transparency, and a clean and healthy service economy were supposed to do away with a past of authoritarianism and heavy industry. All this is “borrowing massively from Putin’s vocabulary of 2000,” according to Trenin.

Medvedev was installed in the Kremlin as part of “Putin’s plan,” the substantive part of which was known as the “Strategy 2020,” a blueprint for renewed economic growth and diversification. Although last year’s financial meltdown hit Russia hard, it has only made Moscow modify and sharpen its scheme. “Medvedev is a key agent in its execution” and Putin chose him carefully — not only for his loyalty, “vitally important as that is.” The former president truly intends to move Russia forward. He “wants Russia to succeed in a world of competing powers.”

He has both money — the government’s budget and the oligarchs’ fortunes — and the coercive power of the state firmly in his hand. He is the arbiter at the top and the troubleshooter in social conflicts below. His most precious resource is his personal popularity, which adds a flavor of consent to his authoritarian regime.

That isn’t good enough though. An overwhelming majority of Russians support Putin but those are largely the people reminiscing about the Stalin era, longing for what Trenin calls “the preservation of a paternalistic state.” The best and the brightest aren’t among them.

Enter Medvedev. His Internet surfing, compassionate and generally liberal image helps recruit a key constituency — those beyond the reach of Putin himself — to Putin’s plan.

But in order to fully modernize Russia, the Putin-Medvedev twosome has not only to appeal to young urban professionals; they need to offer them actual modernization as well. They “must break the stranglehold of corruption, establish accountability and free the media.” At some point, argues Trenin, the Kremlin will have to decide between steady marginalization and opening up the system, putting the established order at risk. “Given the weight of geopolitical factors in Russian decisionmaking, it is difficult to foretell which path they will choose.”