Archive for category Russia

The Russian-Ukrainian Trade Spat

In mid-August, Russia blocked virtually all imports from Ukraine. Although the cross-border flows between the two countries have since resumed following a week of heightened tension, the issue is far from over. On the contrary, the trade spat was probably just the first warning shot in what could escalate into a full blown trade war, the ultimate aim of which would be to prevent Ukraine from signing an Association Agreement with the EU at the Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius in late November, thereby preventing further economic integration with the European Union and steering it in a Eurasian direction instead.

It is in Ukraine’s political interest to sign the Association Agreement, containing a free trade component, with the EU, while maintaining the existing free trade agreements it has with other post-soviet states, including Russia. Although a country can have multiple free trade agreements and such an arrangement would be a win-win situation for Ukraine, Russia is adopting a more zero-sum stance towards the matter. This is primarily due to the fact that, once Ukraine signs the Association Agreement with the EU, it will no longer the able to join the Russia-led Customs Union – or the proposed  Eurasian Economic Union – due to the differing standards and tariffs in place. An EU-Ukraine free trade deal will mean greater access for Ukraine to the EU market through lower customs and non-tariff barriers, higher export quotas for certain sensitive goods, and the adoption of EU standards in a wide range of domains.

Until recently, Russia was relatively at ease, feeling secure in its belief that the EU would not sign the already finalised and initialled Association Agreement with Ukraine as long as former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko remained in jail, and that President Yanukovich was unlikely to release his main political rival a year and a half before the next presidential elections, due in early 2015. However, in the last few months there has been some progress made, with the European Commission putting forward a proposal for a Council decision on the signing of the Agreement, and the EU and its member states working more actively to seal the deal with Ukraine in Vilnius. Read the rest of this entry »

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Ukraine’s gas loop

For many years, most countries in central and eastern Europe – from Bulgaria to Latvia, from Ukraine to Hungary – have complained of their dependence on Russian gas. All have tried to reduce this dependence through a combination of the development of new infrastructure (interconnectors, compressor stations for reverse gas flow), frantic searches for alternative gas suppliers (Nabucco, Norway), anti-trust procedures against Gazprom (as launched by the European Commission), and regulatory changes affecting the sale of gas in Europe (the ‘third package’).

An interesting sideshow of this struggle is now occurring in Ukraine. While most analysts assumed that a decreased dependence on Russia would come from access to non-Russian resources – in the form of shale gas, liquefied natural gas (LNG) or Norwegian gas – Ukraine and the German energy giant RWE seem to have found a way to limit Gazprom’s sway over Kiev, while continuing to consume Russian gas. Read the rest of this entry »

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Updating Russia’s repressive software

The massive street protests, which started in December 2011, have proved a very considerable stress-test for Russia’s autocratic political system, built and steered by Putin for over a decade. Russia-watchers in Europe and the US debated how the Kremlin would respond. A few months ago the usual cohort of useful wishful thinkers argued that Putin, swayed by the rising middle classes, would accelerate Russia’s modernisation. In a sense they were right. Putin is modernising, but his efforts are directed at the repressive apparatus of laws and, possibly, institutions, rather than at the economy or the political system.

Tightening the screws

During 2005 and 2006 Russia adopted swaths of legislation designed to prevent events like the 2004 Orange revolution in Ukraine or the 2003 Rose revolution in Georgia. Electoral laws were toughened in ways that strengthened the pro-Kremlin ‘United Russia’ and weakened potential alternatives; thuggish pro-Kremlin youth groups such as Nashi (‘Ours’) were established; new restrictions were introduced, seriously complicating NGO activities and election monitoring; and vaguely defined legislative provisions against ‘extremism’ that could then be used against opposition activists were adopted.

Under Medvedev’s presidency the bulldozer of state repression was used with less enthusiasm. Sometimes it actually receded. Earlier this year it even seemed that the authorities might actually embark on liberalising the political system in response to the street protests. Instead, the protests seemed to have sparked a new round of attempts to tighten the screws and refurbish the repressive apparatus.

It started with the legislative software. Read the rest of this entry »

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Putinism under Siege: on the nationalist-democratic alliance

Journal of Democracy has just published a special issue on ‘Putinism under Siege‘ with contributions from Lilia Shevtsova, Ivan Krastev & Stephen Holmes, Denis Volkov, Sharon Wolchik and I. My piece is on The Strange Alliance of Democrats and Nationalists .

The article looks at three broad themes:

1) How Russian nationalism is evolving from an expansionist, Eurasian, and imperial version into something that is primarily anti-immigrant, defensive and sometimes non-expansionist.

2) How nationalists started to adopt some pro-democracy rhetoric in the belief that a more democratic system based on majority-rule would make state policies closer to their policy prescriptions.

3) How some Russian democrats sometimes entered into ad hoc alliances with nationalist groups on an anti-Putinist platform, but also how a much deeper fusion of democratic and nationalist views starts to be espoused by various political players. This phenomenon is still in its early stages, but could be a sign of things to come. Read the rest of this entry »

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Russia’s lightweight government

The last few months saw speculation of two possible behavioural models for Putin. The usual wishful thinkers were hoping for a Putin 2.0 (or maybe 3.0 or even 4.0) who was supposed to have got the message of the street protests and was supposed to engage in (swiping) reforms to modernise Russia and gradually and slowly liberalize the political system to let some steam off. The alternative camp of usual alarmists were saying that Putin will return with even stronger determination to tighten the screws and things will be much worse in terms of repression before they get better. And both camps waited for the new government to get a sense of what will come next. With the government announced here are a few things to note:

1. On the surface three fourths of the government were changed, but the changes were rather (and unsurprisingly) conservative. The composition of the new government suggest neither a strong reformist push, nor a centralising backlash, but rather more of the same. Especially given that several key former ministers just joined Putin in the Presidential Administration as his advisors, but are likely to exercise more influence over specific policies than many of the new ministers.

2. Overall the government looks unexpectedly ‘Medvedievist’ – in the sense of having a good presence of soit-disant ‘liberals’. Read the rest of this entry »

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Russia in Reverse

Project Syndicate, 7 May 2012: Vladimir Putin has just been inaugurated for a third term as President of the Russian Federation. But the event’s pageantry could not mask that his return to the presidency, after a four-year stint as Prime Minister, is far from triumphant. On the contrary, Putin, who has been in power since 2000, represents the specter of stagnation that haunts Russia – a specter that wants at least another two six-year terms as President.

The contrast between the transition at the Kremlin and China’s upcoming – and strictly choreographed – power transfer could hardly be starker. This autumn, all nine members of the Politburo Standing Committee, including the country’s president, Hu Jintao, and premier, Wen Jiabao, will step down, and at least 14 members of the 24-member Politburo will retire, making way for a new generation of leaders.

So, although China has the more authoritarian system, it is moving forward. The same cannot be said for Putin’s Russia.

Unlike China, a one-party state, where real power is insulated from direct voting by layers of Communist Party structures, Russia has a multi-party political system, with regular elections at most levels of government. To be sure, not all parties or candidates are allowed to run, and elections can be manipulated. Still, there is more room in Russia than in China for opposition voices to express themselves.

Indeed, Russian civil society and protest movements are more assertive and politicized, while protests in China are crushed without remorse. The Russian media, particularly newspapers and radio, have more freedom as well, and openly disparage Putin, whereas Chinese journalists can take on issues like corruption, but may not criticize the Party. Likewise, the Internet is not censored in Russia as it is in China.

Given that China is significantly more authoritarian than Russia, it seems counter-intuitive that China’s political system manages to produce some rotation of leaders, however imperfect and even tense, whereas Russia does not. In this way, China takes advantage of one of democracy’s key benefits – leadership turnover – without the risk of popular accountability.

Read the continuation of this commentary on Project Syndicate

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US-Russia: from reset to upset

A year or so ago, while doing research for the post-BRIC Russia report, I spoke to a US diplomat dealing with Russia about the ‘reset’. He sounded (naturally) very positive about its effectiveness. Among its two key achievements he mentioned cooperation on transit to Afghanistan and  halt of anti-US propaganda on the Kremlin-controlled media and a subsequent decrease in anti-Americanism in Russia society.

With Putin’s return, protests in Russia and the US elections all talk is now about the end of the reset. In the last few months anti-American propaganda made forceful comeback in the Russian media. Many thought it was just electioneering in the run-up to the March presidential elections. But that was too optimistic, it seems. In the last few weeks things became even more heated. NTV, a Russian TV channel owned by Gazprom Media, has been following US ambassador Michael McFaul pretty much everywhere, which lead to an outburst of indignation from McFaul, as well as accusations that his phone (and therefore calendar) is hacked, and a formal US State Department protest over the harassment of the US ambassador. McFaul also claimed that upon arrival to Moscow last January he felt like he was back in the Cold War and that ‘it has been surprising that there was so much anti-Americanism, because we thought we were building a different kind of relationship, and it makes some people nervous that it could so quickly and reflexively go back to – in terms of rhetoric – an era that we thought was behind us’. Then, on a different occasion, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov called McFaul ‘arrogant’. In other words, the dismantlement of what was considered a key achivement of the reset is well advanced.   Read the rest of this entry »

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Rogozin’s travails in Moldova

Brussels might have started to get used to the sharp-tongued former Russian ambassador to NATO Dmitry Rogozin, but Moldova is only in the early stages of doing so. After a stint in Brussels, Rogozin moved back to Moscow last December to be appointed deputy prime-minister in charge of the military-industrial complex. Rogozin is a Russian populist nationalist politician with huge  (rumour has it that presidential) ambitions. A couple of weeks ago he was also appointed special representative of the Russian president on Transnistria (rather than on conflict settlement in Transnistria) and co-chair of the Russian-Moldovan intergovernmental commission on economic cooperation. The move was badly staged. The Moldovans learned about it from the media. The appointment came in the same package as the nomination of two Russian regional governors (of Krasnodar Krai and North Ossetia) as ‘special representatives’, read overseers, for the adjacent Abkhazia and South Ossetia. And Rogozin on the third day of his new appointment called Moldova a ‘hencoop’ on his twitter account.

The Moldovans are worried, the EU unimpressed and both irritated. Clearly the appointment of Rogozin shows a much higher Russian political interest in Transnistria. The trouble is that when Russia would rather put up a show instead of cooperating – Rogozin is the right person to (mis)handle dossiers. Given that in the last couple of months there have been some hopes regarding conflict settlement in Transnistria after the long-serving Transnistrian leader Igor Smirnov lost power to the younger Evgeny Shevchuk and Moldova finally elected a president, the appointment of Rogozin is an ever bigger nuisance. Rogozin is likely to be more concerned with self-promotion than pursuing conflict-settlement. Read the rest of this entry »

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Power and weakness in Putin’s Russia

The result of the Russian presidential election brought two months of euphoria to a shuddering halt. The expectation that Putin would return with a weaker mandate was crushed by his unexpectedly high 63% of support. And even allowing for massive fraud – a lot of it well documented – Putin emerged from this election stronger than many predicted. Most of even his staunchest critics concede that he probably obtained more than 50% of the vote even without the rigging. But while Putin is jubilant, the Russian opposition is more demoralised and disorientated than at any time since December. Between euphoria and depression, it is important to understand where Russia – its government and society – stands after this election.

The weakness of the strong 

Putin is both weaker and stronger. He is stronger because he ran a successful election campaign, managing to mobilise his voters through a combination of bribing specific social groups and playing on their fears of instability and animosity towards better off Muscovites. He also (out)played the opposition at its own game by organising even bigger rallies and speechifying at meetings.

The institutions built up by Putin over the last 12 years may not be strong enough to fight corruption, improve the business climate, modernise Russia or fight forest fires, but they have proved capable of delivering vote rigging on an industrial scale, getting people into the street, and disorientating  and discouraging his opponents. This machine has also learned to adopt the opposition’s weapons, such as mass rallies, and reproduce them on a similar or grander scale. Read the rest of this entry »

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Putin is weaker, but not weak

All authoritarian regimes are based on a mix of coercion and inspiration, fear and promise, trickstery and grand narrative. But to be successful, authoritarian leaders need to stand for something. The more convincing their ideational offer, the less coercion they have to use and the cheaper and more lasting the system is likely to be. Thus, the autocrats of this world routinely use various ideologies – from Islamism to communism and from monarchism to anti-colonialism – as their ideological foundations. But the moment they exhaust their ideational drive, their countdown starts. This is the situation Vladimir Putin, the Russian leader, finds himself in.

What Putin stood for?

Over the years Putin became associated with a set of ideas he stood for and campaigned on. These ideas were convincing and appealing to most of the Russian public. When he came to power in 1999-2000 Putin’s key selling point was the promise of wiping out terrorism and fending off threats to Russian territorial integrity. With a new war in Chechnya raging and bombings of apartments blocks in several Russian cities including Moscow this was both urgent and salient.

In the 2003-2004 election cycle Putin launched and then rode a wave of anti-oligarchic sentiment with promises to fight corruption, clean up the economic system and squeeze the super-rich. As part of that campaign Khodorkosvky was put in prison. The 2007-2008 campaign season was all centred on Russia’s newly found geopolitical greatness and ‘standing up from its knees’, as the phenomenon was advertised by pro-Kremlin loyalists. It was all expressed through intense anti-Western hysteria invoking the dangers of US-sponsored a colour revolution and geopolitical encirclement. This is how over the years Putin chipped into the ideological profile of what could conventionally be termed as Putinism.

Reality Checks

But Putin has nearly run out of ideational appeal. He has preciously few new ideas to oil his frailing political system. Read the rest of this entry »

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