Rapprochement with Russia?

Starting in July and running to the present day, there have been repeated calls from mainstream media, from leading statesmen and from diplomats, in the United States and in Europe, for some kind of rapprochement with Russia to be put in place.  This is remarkable given the continually escalating informational, economic, military confrontation between Russia and the US-led West over the past five years.  That confrontation has emerged in two waves of anti-Russian hysteria: the first, after the daring (or brazen) Russian reunification with (or annexation of) Crimea in March 2014, and the second, with still greater momentum towards war, following the November 2016 election of Donald Trump to the presidency, which was accompanied by allegations of Russian collusion with candidate Trump and other meddling in the U.S. election processes.

Since the United States initiated the New Cold War, it is only fitting that the first steps towards its resolution are coming from there. And it is not in the least surprising that these steps were taken in the aftermath of the April 2019 release of the Mueller Report, which showed that the allegations of Russiagate were without merit or not actionable.  Trump’s political enemies were compelled to move on to other issues of contention that would serve better in the next presidential campaign, which is quickly approaching.

That is the context in which I place the fairly amazing editorial of The New York Times dated 21 July 2019 entitled “What’s America’s Winning Hand if Russia Plays the China Card?”  The NYT, which along with The Washington Post, had been among the most fervent disseminators of Russiagate theories and of poisonous characterizations of the “Putin regime” now was calling for…re-establishing civilized relations with Russia in order to draw the country back from its growing alliance with China.

While the editorial opens by citing a recent Defense Department report on the serious security threat to the U.S. from any Sino-Russian alliance, the fact of such alliance in formation has been obvious to anyone following the growing cooperation between these two countries in energy, aviation, military exercises, common positions taken in the UN Security Council and much more. It was also obvious for years that a major factor encouraging the Russian-Chinese embrace was the political, military and economic pressure each was receiving from the United States going back to the administration of George W. Bush and running through the Obama and Trump administrations. What is new is only the Times’ using this impending geopolitical tectonic shift to justify an extensive reversal of U.S. policy towards Russia.  Now we read that “…President Trump is correct to try to establish a sounder relationship with Russia and peel it away from China.”

This is not to say that the NYT raised the white flag and abandoned its identification of Russia as a malevolent rival: “America can’t seek warmer relations with a rival power at the price of ignoring its interference in American democracy.”  Nor did it abandon its identification of Russia as a “declining power” which it very inaccurately ranks as “not even in the top 10” economies, when in fact Russia is close to taking the fifth largest economy slot when purchasing power parity is applied.

Specifically, The Times called for cherry-picking topics for cooperation with Russia such as space travel, managing the Arctic and arms control “especially by extending the New Start Treaty.”

I have taken time with this editorial because the reasoning did not come from nowhere.  Moreover, the same logic underlies most, though not all of the calls for rapprochement with Russia that  have punctuated the past two months on both sides of the Atlantic.

As for where it came from, I would put forward the name of Henry Kissinger, who exerted considerable influence on candidate Trump in 2016 and continued to have his ear in the early days of the new administration. There can be little doubt that Kissinger urged Trump to reach out to Putin precisely to halt the dangerous drift of Moscow towards Beijing under pressure from successive US administrations. After all Kissinger was Nixon’s man who drew China into an informal alliance with the United States, implementing the policy whereby Washington was closer to both Moscow and Beijing than either was to the other.  He did not need to wait for Pentagon white papers in 2019 to know what was afoot and what had to be done to avert the worst, which spelled the destruction of his single greatest achievement during his time in power.

At the same time, Kissinger would have been advising only selective cooperation with Moscow, not full-blown détente.  This is precisely the position that he and other ‘wise men’ from the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations urged upon both candidate Barack Obama and candidate John McCain during the electoral campaign of 2008, when relations between Russia and the United States were fraught with danger relating to the August 2008 war in Georgia. Their recommendations eventually became the “re-set” policy approved by Obama and implemented by Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton early in 2009.

“Re-set” achieved progress on the various select issues for cooperation chosen by the Americans, in particular on arms control, resulting in the New START that today faces expiration.  However, the ‘’re-set,’’ like what the New York Times editors now call for, did not begin to address the overriding issue driving the Russian foreign and military policy which the U.S. finds so unacceptable:  Russia’s exclusion from the security arrangements that the Europeans have put in place together with the U.S., an architecture that is in fact directed against them. That very issue was the subject of the single most important diplomatic initiative of Russia’s President in 2008, Dmitry Medvedev: his call for negotiations to establish new security arrangements for Europe, outside of NATO, where Russia could be an equal member.  That initiative met with no response whatsoever from either the United States or its European allies, and so the days of ‘’re-set’’ were numbered.

* * * *

In the period just before, during and after the G7 meeting in Biarritz on 24—26 August 2019 there have been several widely noted remarks from senior Euro-Atlantic statesmen on the need to improve relations with Russia.

A week before the summit, French President Emanuel Macron received Vladimir Putin for talks at his summer residence on the Côte d’Azur. Macron “played up efforts ‘to tie Russia and Europe back together’ and underscored his belief that ‘Europe stretches from Lisbon to Vladivostok.’….In his Facebook post [after the meeting] Macron said….’I’m convinced that, in this multilateral restructuring, we must develop a security and trust architecture between the European Union and Russia…” (The Moscow Times, 20 August 2019).

Before and during the G7, Donald Trump told reporters that Russia should be there with them. At the summit’s conclusion, he indicated he was thinking of inviting Russia to the meeting when he hosts the group in Florida next year. Implicitly this means reviving full lines of communications with Russia which were cut at the insistence of Obama to punish Moscow for its misbehavior in Ukraine.

On 27 August, the day after the G7 closed, in the course of a speech to the assembled ambassadors of France in the Elysée palace, President Macron spoke at some length about the need to ‘reconsider’ ties with Russia within the context of facing up to the major challenges of a world in which the West had lost its hegemony. He called the exclusion of Russia from the New Europe following the fall of the Berlin wall a ‘’profound mistake.”  He insisted that “if we do not know how to do something useful with Russia, then we will remain with a profoundly sterile tension, we will continue to have frozen conflicts everywhere in Europe, to have a Europe which is the theater of a strategic struggle between the United States and Russia, thus to have the consequences of the Cold War on our soil.” (www.liberation.fr).

Several days later, on 4 September, in an interview with the Financial Times,  Finnish Foreign Minister, Pekka Haavisto used his country’s current position as rotating president of the EU to make a similar point, saying “It’s very difficult to imagine a solution [to global crises] without Russia – or a solution that Russia is not somehow an active partner on.”

The FT deemed it worthwhile to quote him extensively:

“Mr Haavisto also said that the uncertainties created by Brexit and statements by US president

Donald Trump’s administration ‘distancing themselves from European affairs” meant EU states

needed to do more themselves to maintain stability in Europe. ‘It creates a space where

European countries need to think …’how can we guarantee security here and what can we

do…together?’ he said.”

It went on to note: “Finland’s thinking is significant both because of its EU presidency and its unique relationship with Russia.”

Finally, in this listing of statements by public figures advocating better relations with Russia, I call attention to another article in the Financial Times, dated 15 September setting out the contents of an internal diplomatic note written by EU ambassador to Russia Dr. Markus Ederer. Dated 3 September, the addressees of the report were Ederer’s senior colleagues, the managing director for Asia Pacific at the EU’s External Action Service, and the acting managing director for Europe and Central Asia. The paper sets out arguments and options for engaging with Russia ‘taking into account the political environment, but also Russia’s natural relevance for EU-Asia connectivity.”   It was drafted in preparation for the forthcoming 27 September meetings in Brussels on EU-Asia links to which Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been invited and in which European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker is expected to take part.

Among the choice quotations from the report which the FT shares with its readers we find:

“[The EU] would have everything to lose by ignoring the tectonic strategic shifts in Eurasia.”

“Engaging not only with China but with Russia, selectively, is a necessary condition to be part of the game and play our cards where we have comparative advantage.”

The FT article calls attention to five areas for prospective cooperation with Russia:  the Arctic, digital, the Eurasian Economic Union, regional infrastructure and the ‘Northern Dimension’ joint policy between the EU, Russia, Norway and Iceland. In these areas, the EU could ‘’engage effectively, on concrete, technical matters’’ with Russia.  The paper concludes that ‘’[t]he aim would be to set up a ‘framework of exchanges with Russia on longstanding issues in the EU interest’ involving European business and commission officials.”


* * * *

Considering where we stand today in relations with Russia, at a low point more dangerous than any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, all of the aforementioned calls for improving relations made by very prominent and influential heads of state, public officials and media deserve a round of applause. The wise saying “jawjaw is always better than warwar” attributed to Winston Churchill applies with equal relevance today.

Looking at all the calls for better relations cited above, I believe the leitmotiv of them all is geopolitical considerations rather than fear of war, particularly nuclear war between the major world powers.  Arms control is cited as only one of several objectives for cooperation.  Concerns about the future alignment of those powers around the global board of governors are predominant. If humankind is said to be driven by the contradictory emotions of fear and greed, it would seem that our global leaders are presently acting in the spirit of greed rather than fear.

In his 27 August speech to the French diplomatic corps, President Macron called for an “audacious” foreign policy, effectively one that would move outside the box of conventional thinking. Correspondingly, thus far he is the only advocate of improved relations with Russia from among world leaders who had broached the subject of a comprehensive détente with Russia rather than cooperation in selective areas of greatest convenience to us.  He is the only leader to have raised the question of revising the architecture of security in Europe to accommodate the fellow Europeans to the East.

Those who follow closely the political démarches of President Macron will object that his thinking about Russia has been all over the place since taking office.  And I am among the first to consider him a shallow opportunist rather than the tower of intellect that he styles himself.  The summit meetings he called with both Presidents Putin and Trump soon after moving into the Elysée palace had only one objective: to position himself as a prospective power broker in resolving the New Cold War in formation; they had no material content.

In the two years that have passed since he assumed power in France, Macron has been unlucky in domestic politics when his ill-considered fuel tax sparked the Gilets Jaunes movement.  But he has been very lucky in foreign policy, because the dominant personality in European politics for the past decade or more, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, entered into the twilight period of her reign and the path opened for Macron to take the lead of EU politics with what he now calls an audacious roadmap.

The specific concept that emerges from Macron’s recent statements is an entente between Russia and the European Union based on shared values and creating a third force in global affairs alongside the United States and China.  The alternative, which is looming absent any initiative such as Macron is proposing, will be for the EU to remain a junior partner to the USA and for Russia to be a junior partner to China while their two principals square off.  Let us hope that in the days and months ahead Macron can muster the consistency of purpose and powers of successful execution to see through to conclusion what he has begun.


©Gilbert Doctorow, 2019

Russian elections of 8 September: initial conclusions

Russia’s nationwide elections at the level of local government which took place on 8 September attracted extraordinary attention in Western media, given that, at best, they could be viewed as a very preliminary indication of popular sentiment towards the “Putin regime” midway between the presidential election of 2018 and the next Duma (parliamentary) elections of 2021.

In fact, nearly all Western journalistic attention was focused on the race for the Moscow city legislative council because that is where the so-called ‘non-systemic opposition’ led by anti-corruption activist and one-day presidential hopeful Alexei Navalny had chosen to make a stand against the Kremlin by all means fair and foul.

Navalny and others in the various anti-Putin movements denounced the disqualification of candidacies to the Moscow city council from their own midst by the electoral officials on technical grounds of insufficient numbers of signatures of supporters to qualify or of falsified signatures.  Whether or not such disqualification of candidates whose normal level of voter support among the general population of Moscow would have been on the order of one or two percent was justified or arbitrary, the confrontation it sparked between the non-systemic opposition and the government escalated from war of words to successive, unauthorized street demonstrations. Tens of thousands came out to protest in Moscow. Moreover, what began as peaceful demonstrations ended on several days in violent clashes with police that assumed significant political dimensions because of the numbers of participants involved and the allegations of excessive use of force by the authorities.


I have introduced this essay by reference to “Western media” coverage of the elections. From the very beginning, Western media saw in Navalny and his fellow-protesters champions of democracy against an authoritarian if not autocratic regime. On the other hand, from my own observations, the man-in-the-street’s opinion of these activists, at least outside of Moscow, was that they were the paid lackeys of the United States hell-bent on recreating the chaos of the 1990s when Russia was the ‘sick man of Europe.’  It remained to be seen on election day, 8 September, whether the broad electorate would be indifferent to the cause of the non-systemic opposition or be moved to embrace them by the harsh treatment they were receiving from the ruling establishment.


As it turned out, the Russian elections of 8 September were held in an atmosphere of relative calm, both nationwide and in Moscow.  There were no noteworthy scandals, no voting irregularities, and no necessity for run-offs to decide the victor in close races. The polling results were unremarkable for the country as a whole, though they certainly provided grist for the Putin doomsayers in the West as regards the city of Moscow.


Headlines of first reporting on the Russian elections in Western mainstream media carried the message that the Kremlin had suffered a major setback, that the Putin regime was unravelling and that the ‘liberal opposition’ had scored victory. The most surprising feature of this reporting was  identification of Duma parties (Communists, Fair Russia, Yabloko) which did well in the city of Moscow (taking 13 seats, 3 seats and 4 seats respectively to United Russia’s 25) as now constituting a veritable ‘opposition’ to the governing party. Over the years, they have all been characterized by the West as ‘Kremlin projects,’ tame parties allowed to exist solely to provide a semblance of democratic choice. This time, of course, was different. They, and particularly the Communists, had received the backing of Alexei Navalny in his ‘smart voting’ advocacy meant to bring down United Russia at any cost.


In the past, I never agreed with the notion that the Duma opposition parties were just “pets.” I always saw them as having and often trying to implement in the Duma, legislative programs at greater or lesser variance with United Russia’s as regards domestic policies such as health care, education, pension reform, etc.  Except for Yabloko, which is odd man out, these systemic opposition parties are supporters of Vladimir Putin’s energetic foreign policy defending Russian national interests. That is so not because they are appealing to the Kremlin but because they are appealing to the general population, which overwhelmingly supports that foreign policy.  The odd man out, Yabloko, can gather its several percent of the vote, as just happened in the elections this past weekend, and will do no better given their fifth column, anti-patriotic foreign policy stance.


Let me begin my own estimation of the 8 September elections with the contests in the ‘regions.’

The 16 races for governorships do not seem to provide much material for creative analysis. United Russia won hands down, without serious challenges. The only region where United Russia lost control of local government was in Khabarovsk where they were overwhelmed by the Liberal Democrats (LDPR), who held the governorship. Not surprising there, because Zhirinovsky’s appeal to patriotism above and beyond the level nourished by the Kremlin has a ready audience in the Far East and their man on the spot was exceptional.


Why United Russia won in the regions has to be examined in each separate case, of course, but there is an overriding principle which has not much to do with carousel voting or other possible abuses, or even with the party’s domination of media.  I know the issue very well from the case of acting governor Beglov in St Petersburg, where I am a frequent visitor. Bland as he may be, he represents Kremlin investments in the region:  elect him and major infrastructure projects will be financed, elect someone else and the region will go penniless.  That results not merely from top down hardball politics but from the sadder fact that Russian bottom-up government has very few sources of income not tied to the federal taxes. Sooner or later, Russia will raise the property taxes at the local level from their pitifully low level to something more serious and then when the regions are self-financed, the thumb of Moscow on the scales of local politics will weigh much less. But that reform will come only after the Center is persuaded that locally elected officials have the competence and the integrity to spend their revenues wisely, without a flow of directives and inspectors coming from Moscow.


The Moscow city council elections are a very different case. They were highlighted by Navalny and other non-systemic opposition for the purposes of mobilizing the general population and grabbing media attention, which they certainly did.


Yes, United Russia was humiliated, losing more than one-third of its seats.  But it is more problematic to say who won.  It is particularly difficult to assess the influence of Navalny on the outcome.  One could read in some Western outlets that his support for the Communists explains their tripling their results over the last council elections to win a total of 13 seats on the council.  That reckoning is debatable.  In fact, the line-up of “winners” is precisely the same as in Duma elections, with the Communists doing three or four times better than any one of the other Duma parties. That they did poorly in the last presidential elections was due largely to Zyuganov’s not having done due diligence on his non-party candidate Grudinin and the exposure of his property abroad and expropriation of assets from the farming cooperative he headed.


In any case, the idea put up by one leading Western newspaper that Moscow’s liberal opposition ‘held its nose’ and voted for the Communists at the urging of Navalny does not stand up to critical analysis. The Communists have their own loyal supporters, who number at least the share they received at the polls not counting any liberals who may have been sent their way by Alexei Navalny.

A separate issue is why in light of all the hullabaloo over the Moscow elections the turn-out there was just 21%.  I have not seen this issue discussed though it is critical to understanding what happened on 8 September.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2019


Letter from Orlino, August 2019

For the past several years, it has become a tradition for my wife and I to spend at least a month of summer at a house in the country south of St Petersburg. We settle down to a regimen of heavy gardening on a 1400 square meter property administratively designated for“subsistence farming” in the hamlet of Orlino, population 400, which falls within the Gatchina district of Leningradskaya Oblast.

Orlino is not just any destination. It is situated alongside a large lake of the same name measuring one half km by 6 km which has no big noisy beaches but many small coves for the enjoyment of local residents. Access to water is by way of 4 meter wide sand-bottomed corridors between reeds and water lilies or from boulders set on the shoreline.  With barely enough room on shore to lay out a beach towel, there are no barbecue parties coming here and consequently little or no litter to spoil the pristine nature.

Boating quays exist for those who come with inflatable rubber rowboats – no motor craft are allowed.  This attracts the usual complement of amateur fisherman who sometimes come away from a day “at sea” with a good sized pike, but more usually have to content themselves with minnows suitable to feed the cats. Their luck depends on the air and water temperature: the higher they rise, the more likely the large fish are to leave the shores for deepest parts of the lake which are fed by cold springs.

Swimming in the lake similarly depends heavily on days being sunny and warm, to heat up this large expanse of water that is permanently replenished with very cold subterranean waters.  With some luck, the surface water of the lake warms to well over 20 degrees Centigrade. This warm layer may first extend down to 20 cm, but after several consecutive days of true summer weather, may go as deep as a meter.  On the other hand, a day of strong winds can mix up the layers and attenuate the pleasure of a dip in the lake.

There being no bars, cafes or other places of socialization apart from the church and the library in Orlino, almost no teenagers set foot here.  Instead, youth is predominantly represented by toddlers and kindergarten age children, usually accompanied to the lake by grandparents or parents.  The librarian on her own initiative does what she can to amuse the older children of this cohort by organizing chess competitions, outdoor ‘concerts’ in the adjacent park and treating those who come to the library with cakes and candies.

Orlino enjoys an historic reputation as the site of an estate owned by the Counts Stroganoff, of which only the ruins of a tower remain.  The most imposing monument from the pre-Revolutionary past is the Orthodox Church, which is situated on a property, overlooking the water line, has magnificent golden cupolas which are visible from far out on the lake, and is both large in scale and quite active as a social center thanks to financial support from an unnamed oligarch living in the region.

The forests which still remain in this area once attracted Shishkin and other famous Russian painters of the late 19th century.  At a distance of 10 km from Orlino is the well-known 19th century resort town Siversk, which is memorialized on souvenir photos of that age by views of the fast moving Oredezh River that passes through its middle. Over the course of centuries, the Oredezh cut through red sandstone of the higher bank, exposing admirable geological formations to the many sportsmen who do white water canoeing down the river. In Soviet times, Siversk was a center for children’s Pioneer summer camps and so is well known to St Petersburgers of a certain age.

At a similar distance but in another direction is the family homestead of the Nabokovs at Rozhdestveno, where for about a year before the Revolution Vladimir Nabokov  was the owner of the large wooden manor house, today a museum, that had been built in the late 18th century by Catherine the Great to house her regional governor. The surrounding locale is described in his autobiographical volume Speak Memory.


At the conclusion of each annual sojourn in Orlino, I have established a corresponding tradition of writing up my experiences as they bear on the general wellbeing or otherwise of Russians living in the Northwest of the country. This year as I approached the task I wondered what I might talk about because the only outstanding news was meteorological.  The weather was disappointing though in no dramatic way.  We did not have record heat waves as in Western Europe about which to complain or philosophize over global warming.  Nor did we have weeks upon weeks of never-ending rain as happened here two and three years ago.  It was just overcast and cold for most of the six weeks of our stay.  A stable weather system over Western and Central Russia extending to beyond the Urals brought a cover of arctic air to the entire area.

Given the unseasonal and gloomy weather for much of this time, Orlino was very quiet.  No day visitors.  Only the local residents busy tending their potatoes and vegetables, taking their Saturday evening saunas and gossiping over fences.  The only noise to break the general silence was the high-pitched whining of gas-powered trimmers that every property-owner uses in lieu of lawn mowers, there being few if any proper “lawns” in the Russian countryside, the evening barking of bored or frustrated dogs, and the cacophony of swarms of crows surveying our fields from on high.

However, during the six sunny days when the temperature soared to 30 degrees C, Orlino instantly turned into a resort.  From morning to late evening, there were processions of visitors from nearby settlements coming for a refreshing swim.  Dozens of cars were parked along the sides of roads leading down to the lake. And the general store was doing a brisk business in cold beer and pre-packed single portions of ice cream.

Just as I was despairing of extracting something of political or socio-economic importance from our 2019 experience of rural life in the Russian Northwest, Le Monde Diplomatique plumped in my lap an article entitled “Dachas fall from favour as holiday homes. Russia’s vanishing summerfolk” by journalist Christophe Trontin to which I can now respond drawing upon latest first-hand impressions. See https://mondediplo.com/2019/08/10dacha

The teaser introduction to the article goes on to say: “The dacha, so familiar from Chekhov’s plays, has lost its appeal for most Russians, who now don’t have to grow their own produce and can often holiday abroad. Can the new downshifters save these unloved summer houses?”
I take my hat off to the author for doing his research thoroughly.  The half or more of the article that is devoted to the history of the dacha [country property] in Russia from the 18th century through Soviet times will be useful to those seeking an introduction to the subject. But the researched, that is to say secondary source nature of the given article is both its weakness as well as its strength. As for the present and future projections, it is based on economic and demographic statistics gathered by others, not on the author’s own experience of countryside life and conversations with people living there. Trontin relies too much on appraisals of the dacha market as determined by Moscow region real estate agents. The Moscow region may well be an important indicator of trends of this national market as it is of trends in other Russian markets, but Russia is vast and the country house phenomenon exists outside all its urban areas.

The author claims that “Russians are falling out of love with their dachas because there are so many other leisure options..” In particular he points to options for spending vacation time abroad  – “the middle classes opt for package holidays in Turkey, Thailand and the Red Sea, or cultural tours of Europe.”  And quite importantly the dacha no longer is needed to provide food on the table:  “…now that fruit and vegetables are available all year round in Russian supermarkets, a major attraction of the dacha has gone.”


I will begin my counter-arguments to the author’s overarching thesis with the last named, always basing myself on what I see around me in Orlino and not on abstract considerations.   The author is ignorant of an irrefutable trend among the Russian middle and upper classes: namely concern to live in ecologically pure environments and to eat organically grown food in which no pesticides or artificial fertilizers have been applied, which are not only GMO free but are coming from traditional seed pools as opposed to seeds merchandised globally by several (Western) multinational corporations.  The bio food trend largely explains the latest fad observable everywhere in the Russian countryside:  high technology greenhouses.

I noted the appearance of these greenhouses around me on Orlino properties last year.  This year the trend has continued so that many homeowners, including those who otherwise do not have the land or inclination to maintain potato fields, now own two or more such greenhouses in a compact area next to their houses. In these greenhouses they grow a profusion of fruits and vegetables which by their short shelf life or rarity are not sold by supermarket chains. Russian supermarkets, like supermarkets everywhere, depend on large scale and regular supplies of given produce that does not bruise easily, so that variety is always relatively limited.

The dachniki share what they grow with family; they tin the surplus, as applicable.  As one neighbor deeply involved in this process replied when I asked what he buys when he goes to the supermarket:  “bread.”  The rest he provides for himself. In this respect, growing produce is one more dimension of self-reliance, alongside having one’s own artesian well, own septic system, own log-fed heating system and “own” bottled gas for the stove. The only regular bills to arrive from the outside world are for electricity: the Russian countryside has yet to discover the merits of solar panels for house roofs, though one day it may well do so, more for reasons of pride than for economy.

As regards the less affluent, particularly the older generation of pensioners, I have often wondered why year after year they put in 600 square meters of potatoes, beets and onions when these commodity products are so cheap at supermarkets and when their own produce in these categories is undistinguishable in taste characteristics from what is commercially available.  After consulting with neighbors and friends, I conclude the reasons are love of tradition in what is undeniably a conservative society and creating a pastime that gives life purpose. As my regular taxi driver says about his mother living in the countryside, if she did not look after her extensive garden and process the harvest to gift to relatives and consume herself during the winters, she would spend the day watching soap operas on television and would likely lose her mental acuity.

Now turning to the question of travel abroad as a competing attraction to minding the dacha, I believe that Le Monde diplomatique journalist Christophe Trontin is out of step with the times.  To be sure, foreign travel is a significant factor when Russians choose how to spend their vacation time.  After all, more than 10 million, or about 7% of the general population go abroad every year now, 6 million of them having chosen Turkey in the last year.  However, judging  by the behavior of our St Petersburg friends from the intelligentsia and economic middle classes, I believe that trend has peaked.  Over the past decade, they have “seen it all,” traveled to all their dream destinations and returned home in the knowledge that there is no Eden abroad. Moreover, the Russophobia of Western Europe has turned our friends against return travel there. Instead, they are traveling around Russia,  pursuing their interests in cultural or religious travel in ever more remote places.

None of this travel, whether abroad or within Russia, impinges on time that can or should be spent at the dacha.  Looking after the land  on patches ranging between 600 and 1400 square meters is a weekend occupation, not a full-time task and it can be done intermittently.  In our own case, our property is essentially an orchard of apple, plum and Northern cherry trees, which can be left for months on their own and produce a remarkable harvest of commercially unavailable fruit varieties.

Since the author focuses attention on the bottom of the dacha market, meaning derelict or shabby structures without conveniences, it bears mention that there is an ongoing and significant wave of construction of country houses that resemble and have all the comforts of American suburban homes although their occupancy will be only a few days a year as suits the owner and his or her relatives.

On the outskirts of Orlino there is a growing settlement of such owners who decidedly do not keep potato fields.  The logic for these investments is specifically Russian:  the Russian city dweller, even in outlying districts of the city, lives in an apartment, not a townhouse or villa. The market price per square meter of Russian apartments is higher than in most European cities, and, accordingly, the living space is not overly generous.  By building a country villa, this Russian city dweller buys quality space at construction prices three or four times cheaper than in the city. In the country home, there is room for guests, whether extended family or friends.

While Russian capital markets offer few secure investment opportunities, investment in bricks, especially at knock-down countryside prices, is financially prudent.

For all of the above reasons which I have seen in life around me in Orlino, I believe the Russian country home has a secure future even if a noticeable transition away from its amenity-poor past is underway.


©Gilbert Doctorow, 2019

INF Treaty Expiration: Implications

Today’s media have duly noted that yesterday, 2 August marked the definitive withdrawal of the USA from the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty dating from 1987, about which they had given advance warning months ago in keeping with the provisions of that document.

In particular, our television news and newspapers of record carried the remarks of NATO General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg, who insisted that Russia is wholly to blame for the demise of the treaty, because of Moscow’s violation of its terms as first flagged by President Obama in 2014 through development and testing of a new land-based cruise missile with range exceeding the proscribed limits.

But the thrust of reporting is not so much on allocating blame for the repudiation of the treaty first by the Americans, then by the Russians. Russian claims that they had remained within the treaty constraints and their counter-charges against the U.S. over violation of the treaty are also reported.   Instead, the question that seems foremost in the minds of political analysts is where do we go from here:  what this removal of restraints on armaments means for the future?  are we entering a new arms race that will raise defense expenditures and heighten the risks of war?

In his own way, Jens Stoltenberg sought to play down public anxiety over the practical consequences of the loss of the INF.  He said that Europe will not enter into a new arms race. In this regard, we may be certain that Russia also will not be embarking on a new arms race, but for very different reasons:  Russia has been engaged in a very quiet, unpublicized arms race with the United States ever since 2004, and as President Putin indicated in his annual address to a joint session of the Russian legislature in March 2018 and reiterated with greater specificity in his address to the legislature in February 2019, Russia now has a whole array of advanced technology weapons that it believes gives it a ten-year advance on the USA and can provide a persuasive deterrent to any thought of aggression that Washington might harbor.

In what is especially noteworthy,  Stoltenberg announced yesterday that Europe will not allow American nuclear cruise missiles to be positioned on its territory. Such assurances are in fact addressed not only to EU citizens but to the Kremlin, which has said it will refrain from deploying cruise missiles capable of reaching European capitals so long as the American missiles are not installed on the Continent.

So far, so good.  But this discussion around the precise issues that the INF Treaty was meant to resolve misses the more general, and more important nature of that Treaty.   The INF Treaty, together with the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty dating from 1972 that the US unilaterally withdrew from in 2002, and together with the New START Treaty signed in 2010 (replacing the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty of 1991) regulating the numbers of warheads and delivery systems that the United States and Russia may each retain all had a common feature of engagement of the parties  on a permanent basis to limit, verify, discuss their strategic weapons.  Military-to-military, civilian to civilian engagement of the sides had the merit of preventing misunderstandings, clarifying intentions and building trust.

When George W. Bush announced the US decision to withdraw from the ABM Treaty in 2002, we may assume the logic was to free American hands from constraints on missile defense and prepare the way for what ultimately became the “global missile defense” that has encircled Russia and China with US missile installations that are nominally defensive but can easily be converted to offensive use.  The ultimate objective would be to facilitate a decapitating first strike against one or both of these potential adversaries, so that the intention was clearly to alter the strategic balance and ensure unchallenged American world hegemony, also known as  global leadership.

When Donald Trump announced the intended withdrawal from the INF Treaty, it fell perfectly in line with the policy of cutting all ties, all communication lines to and with Russia that President Obama put in place nominally as the US response to the Russian annexation of Crimea in March 2014. This feature of the action denies the mutually advantageous nature of the process of arms control, of arms reduction.  It is the far greater threat to world peace than any of the specific contents of the given treaties regarding qualitative and quantitative  limits on arms.


©Gilbert Doctorow 2019

Summertime: has Europe shut down for vacation?

In Western Europe, political journalists have few hopes of getting away from their desks before mid-August, if not later.  The political season just goes on and on this year.

This past weekend, Greece had its ‘snap election,’ which resulted in a change of government from the nominally far left Syriza to a resurgent center right party. Reams of analysis of the incoming administration are still to be written.

In the United Kingdom, there will be suspense until 22 July over the succession to Theresa May as Prime Minister: the voting of Tory party members to choose between the two remaining candidates, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt, will be finally tallied and announced on that date. The ramifications of their choice go well beyond Whitehall, since the candidates have opposing views on Britain leaving the EU with ‘no-deal.’ All of Europe will be watching closely.

And within the European Union itself, the crucial vote of the Parliament to confirm or reject the nominees to fill the four key positions of the European Institutions proposed by the 28 heads of state meeting in summit – Council President, Commission President, High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Defense, and European Bank President – will come only in mid-July, when decisions will also be taken on allocation of ministerial (Commissioner) portfolios among the leading parties in Parliament. Only after these votes are taken can we draw definitive conclusions on how the pan-European elections of 26 May really played out and what policies we may expect from the EU Institutions over the coming five years.

Against this background of high drama in the West of the Continent, the Russian political world and the state media that follow and report on it has just shut down.  To be precise, on 7 July, the highest official of Russian state news and anchor of its widely watched News on Sunday program, Dmitry Kiselyov informed viewers that he was leaving on vacation and this would be his last show until September. Over the coming six weeks, Kiselyov will be spending his time in the Crimea tending his vineyards.

Before turning out the lights, Kiselyov did one thing that was quite remarkable but seems to have gone unnoticed by our newspapers and electronic media in the West:  he spent about 10 minutes at the start of the show portraying Donald Trump as an idiot.  To be sure, he was not saying anything about Trump that you will not find daily in The Washington Post.  But then the publisher of WP, Jeff Bezos, was never said to be in a ‘bromance” with Donald, whereas we all know that Donald Trump was picked and carried into office in 2016 by the efforts of the Kremlin, just as we know that there is a personal chemistry between Donald and any authoritarian ruler he happens to be in contact with.

Be that as it may, Kiselyov selected excerpts from Trump’s speech on 4 July at the Lincoln Memorial, in particular his mention that America’s magnificent air force had defended the country’s airports since the time of the Revolution. Kiselyov suggested that Trump seemed to have forgotten that airplanes and airports came no earlier than the beginning of the 20th century. Kiselyov also heaped scorn on the military parade which Trump had personally ordered.  The tanks were already decommissioned models or if still current, they were in a pathetic condition as rated by Russian military experts. He chose to feature Trump’s inane remarks on how Americans would soon be landing on the Moon and on Mars, and his claim that in its recent wars no American planes have been shot down because the U.S. controls the air.

Though we can be sure that Vladimir Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov would tell us that the Kremlin takes no responsibility for what Russian journalists say or write, one would have to be naïve to believe that Kiselyov would dare insult the President of the United States, as he did, without a nod from the Boss.

Kiselyov and his colleagues at the top of the Russian journalistic world can take a well-earned vacation, because the month of June kept them on their toes reporting on a succession of major international and domestic events that the Kremlin either initiated or dominated during this period. I have in mind, in particular, the St Petersburg International Economic Forum from 6-8 June which had its largest ever visitor numbers from abroad including even an American business delegation that exceeded five hundred, and where the guest of honor was Chinese President Xi, who had arrived on a state visit that began in Moscow and used his three days in Russia to advance the growing geopolitical alliance with the Russian Federation.

Xi’s presence and the clearly close relationship he maintains with his ‘best friend Vladimir’ provided Russian and foreign commentators with days’ worth of material to speculate on the nature of the binational relationship and on the consequences of Russia’s tilt to the East for Europe, for the world.  The many meetings of Putin with individual state and business leaders at the Forum also received extensive news coverage.

Then on 20 June, Putin conducted his four hour televised Q&A program with the nation called Direct Line. In advance of that date, Russian news services spent more than a week informing the general public about possibilities for getting their questions, their videos to the attention of call centers across the nation, and interviewing call center staff for updates on the nature of questions coming in. The Q&A was followed directly by lengthy journalistic commentary and by talk-show discussion of what was new in the day’s proceedings compared to previous years, after which came several more days of reporting on how problems aired were subsequently dealt with by officialdom under the watchful eye of the President.

But the biggest and most demanding news event for Russian journalism in June was the G-20 in Osaka, Japan on the 28th and 29th.  Russian journalists at the G-20 provided their audience with one scoop after another.  They were everywhere and took the audience along like flies on the wall.  We followed their lead reporter down the corridors leading to the Trump-Putin side meeting. We saw the rivalry with American journalists to get to the scene of action first.  We heard the claim of victory when the Russian reporter slipped past an American security guard and under the dismissive nose of Mike Pompeo got his microphone over to Trump. Donald called off his protectors and responded to the Vesti question about how the meeting with Putin went: “he’s a great guy!”  This, we were told, was the very first direct “interview” of Trump by a Russian news agency.

Without having to try too hard, the story line that Russian state television presented to their domestic audience was that their President was the dominant personality at the gathering.  Indeed, one brief video was worth a thousand words: they showed Donald Trump sitting by himself contemplating his cufflinks while a couple of meters away Vladimir Putin stood surrounded by heads of state seeking a word with him.

However, the positioning of Putin as the most important leader in the G-20 began before the event opened and was not organized by Russian media. It came in the form of a lengthy interview with Putin by The Financial Times which was featured on page one of the newspaper including a half page photo of the Russian leader on the day the G-20 opened. The interview, which was taken the day before, was led by the newspaper’s editor, Lionel Barber, who has been at the helm there since 2005 and is arguably Britain’s most experienced senior journalist.

A full transcript of the interview was published in Russian and English on the Russian President’s website, kremlin.ru. It runs to 18 typewritten pages and covers a great variety of international and Russian domestic issues. The interview was video recorded and key moments were put on air by Russian state television.

Of these segments published separately, none was more impactful than Vladimir Putin’s comments on Liberalism, which he described as “obsolete” and “having outlived its purpose.” The comments generated controversy which was heightened still further by the pointed anti-Russian response they elicited from European Council President Donald Tusk, who was also present in Osaka and lost no time defending Liberalism before the cameras of the world’s media.

As Tusk had it: “Whoever claims that liberal democracy is obsolete also claims that freedoms are obsolete, that the rule of law is obsolete and that human rights are obsolete….What I find really obsolete are authoritarianism, personality cults, the rule of oligarchs, even if sometimes they may seem effective”.

The issue of Liberalism’s having outlived its age came up for further discussion on the closing day of the G-20 at Vladimir Putin’s press conference, when he clarified in greater detail what he had meant, namely that after becoming the official ideology in the European Union, Liberalism had shown itself to be intolerant of all other values and sought to dictate its terms everywhere; that Liberalism in power worked against the interests of the great majority of the population under its grip.

It is very interesting that Vladimir Putin has finally decided to weigh in on Liberalism as an ideology ensconced in power.  In the West, Viktor Orban has been the most vocal…politician and statesman on the subject. But the cause “Against Liberalism” has been set out most methodically and persuasively by a French political philosopher, Alain de Benoist, whose book bearing that very title I reviewed here not long ago.

The whole controversy kept Russian news busy for days afterwards and is still reverberating among Russia watchers and pundits in the West who never miss an opportunity to read malign intentions into any political statements coming from the Kremlin.

Lionel Barber opened his interview by asking Vladimir Putin to comment on the present fraught state of international relations so that readers might benefit from his insights as the longest serving head of state at the G-20 gathering. But Putin brought to the table not only experience and dazzling command of facts across the many subjects discussed. The depth of his thinking comes across clearly in many points of the interview.  We may be certain that his understanding of Liberalism as a political philosophy is a good deal more solid than that of Mr. Tusk, not to mention that of the myriad shallow detractors he has in Western media.

It will be interesting to see whether this debate flares up again in the autumn, when the flower of Russian journalism returns from their summer break.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2019

Where is consumer purchasing power headed in Russia? A question raised in Vladimir Putin’s ‘Direct Line’ program on 20 June

One of the key subjects in Vladimir Putin’s 4 hour televised session of Q&A with the Russian public on 20 June was pay levels, family income and purchasing power.  The generalized perception judging by the phone-in and internet communications with the President’s call centers across the country was that living standards have been eroding for the past 3 years or more, with no end in sight.

In response, Putin cited official statistics indicating that real, inflation-adjusted pay and pensions have in fact been going up for more than a year, though due to rising consumer debt on credit cards and easily procured bank loans, disposable family income has been impacted negatively by monthly interest and capital repayment.


It would thus appear that the problem in the broad population is rising expectations meeting head on rather modest, almost imperceptible improvements, leading to the grumbling we heard on the Direct Line program. So far this has not translated into any political trends: the latest public opinion polls in fact show a small rise in the popularity of the President, to well over 60% approval ratings.


The reasons for the seeming political neutrality of the issue of where living standards are headed is that the situation is genuinely hard to read with any degree of certainty.  In Russia, as most everywhere else, statistics can easily be misleading. And in Russia, the likelihood of error is all the greater, given the vast size of the country and regional variations in cost of living and earning power. The only thing that is certain is that wages are still very low by European standards, and in particular in a country aiming to be the fifth largest economy of the world in just a few years


In what follows, I will set out some of the confusing indications on the present condition of purchasing power in Russia, with a focus on the geographical area that I visit regularly, namely St Petersburg and the surrounding countryside of the Leningrad Oblast forming an arc of 80 kilometers from the metropolis. To that, I add some observations relating to spending habits nationally and to the flow of new consumer products to market,  pointing to the degree of optimism among Russian producers of industry, services and agriculture in the future growth of disposable income and future spread of discerning taste and demand.



Though it is obviously anecdotal in nature, I begin this review with mention of what I consider to be reduced customer traffic in St Petersburg urban and suburban shopping centers over the past year.  This is matched by reduction in the number of cashiers that stores employ, with many cash registers left unmanned.  Is this an indicator of lower purchasing power?  It most certainly is.


Meanwhile, I see the counter-indicator of continued expansion of retailing, that is to say the opening of new supermarkets in top, middle and bottom sectors of the consumer market both within the city and extending out into the countryside. To be sure, the biggest change in the retailing landscape here is the proliferation of outlets of an economy level chain called “Fix Price” (written in English, by the way). They are now moving out into the Leningrad Oblast and penetrating towns of 10,000 or fewer inhabitants. This particular retailer offers leading Russian and international brand products at prices suggestive that they “fell off the back of the truck.”


In some supermarkets, I see that high value and perishable products like fresh fish have been discontinued; but in others, they are improved with investment into better display equipment to ensure longer salability, and the goods seem to move well.


What is most impressive is the continuous expansion of product assortment and upgrading. Allow me to be very specific.  In the past year, I have noted the appearance in supermarkets of locally produced grated parmesan cheese in plastic packets for use with pasta dishes, or rillettes of salmon, of mackerel and other fish in either piquant seasoning or creamy with capers and dried dill.  Without meaning to be condescending, I doubt the average American will know about the French appetizer “rillettes,” which usually comes in the form of a duck spread.  Russians seem to have caught on, however, and a modestly priced and excellent array of such products has been brought to market by a Moscow food producer, sold in chilled displays in supermarkets at about 1.50 euros for a 100 gram jar, and bear the name “rillettes” transliterated into Cyrillic.


Then a recent addition to the fresh fish offerings is gorbusha (pink or ‘humpback’) salmon caught in the northern seas by the Murmansk fleet.  These one-kilogram fish which originally grew in the Pacific but more recently are found in European waters are fairly lean, but not dry and make an excellent alternative to the large Scandinavian farmed salmon (entering the Russian market from the Faroe Islands). The whole fish is priced at half the 20 euros per kilogram that the Norwegian steaks now cost.

The Murmansk fishing industry is continuing its penetration of Petersburg and northwest Russia with less elite but high quality wild sea fish such as flounder at often ridiculously low prices.  Their ability to expand in what has traditionally been pork and sausage country comes from the quality and price advantages of their products.

In parallel the fish farming in nearby Russian Karelia provides the Northwest with a steady supply of excellent quality and affordable lake trout weighing between two and four kilograms, making them a festive main course for dinner parties. These may be found on sale even in small towns in the hinterland.  I know of no such comparable fish on West European markets.

The municipal markets here, which had long been controlled by Central Asian and Caucasian traders, have for more than a year shown great commercial flexibility in sourcing, with supply moving from south to north as the season progresses.  A visit to our Pushkin/Tsarsoye Selo market a couple of days ago provided us with a dinner opening with superb wild chanterelle mushrooms brought in from the forests about 150 km southeast of here, in Tikhvin, where composer Rimsky-Korsakov and other notables had their dachas in the late 19th century.  And our meal progressed through baked Murmansk gorbusha, to mixed green salad coming from local greenhouses, to end with very fragrant strawberries coming from growers 100 km to the southwest of Petersburg, northern berries that put to shame the wonderful strawberries from Crimea that were on sale a couple of months ago.


The point about the municipal markets is that they are visited by the most discriminating consumers, not necessarily by the wealthiest.  Prices often are not very different from those in supermarkets, but the sourcing is often entirely different. The difference is clearly that the supermarkets are compelled to buy from large-scale suppliers who can fill their retailing networks, while the markets can choose from small-scale growers. And the continuing presence of their customers is another sign that the economic situation of the people on the ground is not really all that bad.


I complete this encouraging survey of new and high quality Russian food products put on offer notwithstanding the possibly stagnating purchasing power of the population, by a remark on beverages – on one beverage in particular, sparkling wine.  This category was always a favorite in Russia, firstly among women, but not only.


In the past week, I was surprised to discover a new premium Russian sparkling wine sold under the name “Lev Golitsyn” in a special “Coronation” edition and produced here in St Petersburg by the company Igristye Vina, one of the country’s largest and oldest manufacturers in this category. It is available in both Semi-Sweet and in Brut formulations. I bought the Brut and could not believe my good fortune:  this 7-euro wine has a floral fragrance and excellent balance, just as the label informs us (truth in advertising is not a strong point in Russia).  As a professional in the field from my 5 years serving as General Manager, Russia for two of the world’s largest international spirits corporations, I say with hand on heart that the product is superior to most French non-champagne sparkling wines, not to mention Spanish Cava and Italian Prosecco.


Why the name “Lev Golitsyn”?  Because that member of a princely Russian family, many of whose descendants ended up in France or in California, had created a champagne empire in the Crimea, at Novy Svet (New World) in the late 19th century and won international prizes for his products before the Revolution.  Why “Coronation”?  This is surely a reference to the coronation of Nicholas II in 1895 and sets the date of origin of the tradition being cited by the producer.


The discovery of this new product brought to mind my own experience in 1997 as lead investigator and negotiator on behalf of Joseph Seagram & Sons in a project to conclude a contract with a local co-packer who would produce a premium sparkling wine to our specifications and for sale via our distribution channels. On that mission, I met with the managing directors of several of Russia’s top sparkling wine manufacturers, including the Igristye Vina factory in St Petersburg,


At the start of our talks, the manager of Igristye Vina was not interested in cooperation because his operations had fallen to less than 10% of capacity due to the problems handicapping the entire Russian wine industry at the time: the lack of domestic wine stock due to the barbarous destruction of vineyards carried out a decade earlier under the direction of Mikhail Gorbachev in his anti-alcohol campaign, and the massive entry into the market of cheap and untaxed sparkling wines coming across the border from the Ukraine and other former Soviet republics.  With less than 10% of his factory in production, unit costs were prohibitively expensive and the factory had no time for us.   However, at our second round of talks six months later, the refusal to partner with us resulted from the opposite circumstances: state measures to put a halt to untaxed imports and to ersatz, largely German bubbly products, resulted in full occupancy of Russian market players.  Running flat out to supply their loyal domestic customers, they had no time to waste with finicky foreigners who wanted to change the raw inputs and process parameters to produce a relatively small special order in time for Christmas.


Now it appears that Igristye Vina have achieved exactly what we were proposing to them in 1997 without Western involvement and in response to an ever more discerning Russian consumer who is ready to lay out twice the price of standard Sovietskoye Shampanskoye for a bottle of premium product that has none of the yeasty flavor and quick spoilage of the Soviet GOST standard product though it is clearly being produced on the Soviet-era continuous production line as opposed to French Champagne’s batch method.  The difference is the quality of the base wines used and the attention to biologicals, including advanced filtration to assure longer shelf life.


The label on this product says nothing about the source of the wine materials, which, I assume, are largely if not completely imported – perhaps from nearby, as in the case of Moldova, perhaps from South America or elsewhere in the world.


I have taken the time to feature this product, because it makes the contrarian case that Russian consumerism at working class, entrepreneurial and managerial levels is becoming more sophisticated and producers like the wine factory in St Petersburg are moving in to fill demand that may just be starting, but which they expect to grow in the near future. At seven euros, this product is not directed at the affluent who can pay 50 euros for the French original, but to aspirational middle classes.


Now let us direct attention to another good indicator of well-being:  vacation travel.  During his televised chat at the G-20 meeting in Osaka last weekend with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, President Putin mentioned that over the past year more than six million Russians have traveled to Turkey on vacation, a new record, and they spent more than 5 billion dollars, meaning more than $900 per capita.  That is to just one tourist destination and it contradicts the notion of economic worries on the mind of the middle class Russian tourist who made that trip.


Meanwhile, the large majority of our intelligentsia friends in St Petersburg have this year and last foregone their traditional summer vacations in Western Europe – not because they lack the money but because this is their protest at the Russophobia they know predominates in EU countries today.  Instead they are taking their vacations within Russia, visiting the provincial towns that were long on their ‘to do’ lists. Their travels go well beyond the “Golden Triangle” of ancient Russian cities that foreigners know so well. They take in small towns on the Volga of great historical interest such as Uglich, distant monasteries that have been reclaimed by the faithful and manor houses on former noble estates that have been lovingly restored and often offer lodgings to visitors that vary in price from princely to modest depending on the importance of the given rooms.

Most of our friends come back very pleased with the improved, international level of accommodations and food catering they find in the Russian heartland.  However, some report that the new facilities are still under-utilized. That is to say, investors are pouring money into infrastructure for domestic tourism that is only beginning to gain traction.  This is a leap of faith on the part of investors and runs contrary to the notion of a stagnating or regressing economy.


In summation, the Russian economy and the standard of living of the broad population are very difficult to size up with any certainty. But one can say with certainty that there is some actionable optimism about improving conditions on the part of investors, manufacturers and service providers that contradicts the negative notes we all heard during Vladimir Putin’s Direct Line program on 20 June.


©Gilbert Doctorow, 2019

Post Script. Results of the European Elections of 26 May 2019 as translated into leadership positions of the EU Institutions

The “Americanization,” meaning the trivialization of European politics, is proceeding apace, as we saw yesterday when Council President Donald Tusk announced the nominations to the four highest positions in the European Institutions agreed by the 28 heads of state meeting in Summit.   Tusk directed attention to one feature relating to the nominees for Council President, Commission President, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, and President of the European Bank: gender equality. The candidates being put forward to the European Parliament for approval are two men and two women.

In news coverage of the nominations on both television and print media, both in Europe and in the United States, the headline remarks matched Tusk’s, though a few more elements in the horse-trading behind the given nominations were also mentioned, as I will detail in a moment..  We are told that for the first time in its history the EU is about to elevate women to the most responsible positions.

This attention to gender is precisely in line with the evolution on national politics in the United States over the past seventy years or more.  In the person of John Kennedy, Americans elected the first Catholic president. Barack Obama was nominated and was eventually elected as the first black in the nation’s highest office.  Insofar as there was a positive message in her campaign and not merely reproval of the misogynist and hate monger, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton ran on the expectation of being the long awaited first female president of the USA.

The commonality between the gender politics in the politically correct EU highlighted by Tusk and the promotion of candidates from “minorities” as a token of inclusiveness in the United States is the ad hominem nature of the reasoning.  Planned programs, policy orientation, not to mention relevant professional experience and track record or, dare we say it, competence are nowhere to be seen here.

To put it in a less kindly light, the way the nominations of candidates for the four leading positions in the EU were presented to the public amounts to intentional diversion of the European voting public from the essence of politics, which is how the pie is divided up, who in the population gets what from the economy, that is to say the social and economic dimensions.

In what was intended to be more serious analysis of the nominations in the media, the most critical comments concerned the lack of transparency in the decision-making process, which went on behind closed doors by the 28 heads of state meeting in their capacity as the European Council.  This we heard on the most widely viewed broadcaster in Europe, Euronews, in its “Raw Politics” program. The same commentators also sounded off on the question of non-adherence this time to the practice of nominating for the Commission President a so-called Spitzenkandidat, i.e. the person put forward by the party in the incoming European Parliament with the greatest number of seats, meaning the party able to muster a majority.  In this year, that candidate would have been Manfred Weber, of Germany’s Christian Democrats, within the European People’s Party bloc of the European Parliament. Weber had the backing of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

However, for reasons that are not yet clear, other than the known opposition to the candidacy by French President Emanuel Macron, Weber was sidelined and other candidates were placed before the Council for review. Among them, the apparent front-runner was the former Dutch foreign minister and current Vice President of the European Commission, Frans Timmermans, who was the Spitzenkandidat of the center-left coalition in the EP.  His appointment would have conformed to another EU tradition of alternation in office of politicians from center-left and center-right.

But Timmerman’s candidacy was opposed by the Polish and Hungarian heads of state, who could not forgive the Dutchman’s rebukes over the alleged recent degradation of judicial independence in both countries, acting in his capacity as Commissioner with responsibility for Rule of Law.

In the event, the Poles and Hungarians won the battle and lost the war. As it turned out, the nomination for President of the European Commission went to a German politician, a member of Angela Merkel’s cabinet and fellow party member of the Christian Democrats, Minister of Defense Ursula von der Leyen. Apart from being a political conservative by her party allegiance, the only political conviction to figure in The New York Times and other mainstream media accounts is that she is a strong advocate of greater European integration leading to the creation of a “United States of Europe.”  Thus, she is pulling in exactly opposite direction of the East European Euro-skeptics and defenders of national sovereignty.

We also hear on the BBC and Euronews, read in the Belgian and French newspapers of record that von der Leyen had the strong backing of President Macron.  But why Macron would have supported a member of Merkel’s cabinet that the Chancellor herself had overlooked is not explained.  Only a few hints are dropped. We are told that von der Leyen is a fluent French speaker, having been born and educated in Brussels. And we know that by promoting a German for the Commission President, Macron could expect to have a compatriot and fellow liberal banker selected to head the European Central Bank as a return favor, which is precisely what happened: the 28 heads of state approved the nomination of former French Finance Minister, current Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund Christine Lagarde to take over the ECB from Mario Draghi.

Intriguing as these personal details surrounding the nomination of Ursula von der Leyen may be, to which I might add, the often repeated remark that she is the mother of seven children, another irrelevancy that our journalists toss into the mix to heighten our appreciation of her femininity, there is a key political dimension to her nomination that they seem to omit systematically:  her position on EU integration and the very concept of a United States of Europe puts her directly in line with the views of the bloc in the European Parliament with which Macron and his République en Marche party is aligned: the Alliance of Democrats and Liberals for Europe, headed by former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt. This is not a small point:  it is crucial for any understanding of how the European Parliament will function in the coming five years during which the traditional ruling bloc of Center Right and Center Left parties has lost its majority in the 26 May 2019 election. They will maintain their control in combination with ALDE, which formerly held about 9% of the seats in Parliament, but now with better electoral returns in several countries this past May and with the infusion of circa 22 seats controlled by Macron, represents about 15% of the Parliament.

Let us recall that ALDE has a longstanding record of calling for the creation of a European Army, that its foreign policy might be described as neo-imperialistic, and that it has been regularly irresponsible in its anti-Russian grandstanding measures, going beyond mere sanctions to the passage of a European version of the U.S. Magnitsky Act.  In this regard, Ursula von der Leyen, who has often spoken out against Russia and might be described as a model Cold Warrior, fits the ALDE political profile to a tee.

Valuable as this insight may be, it does not exhaust the lessons on present-day European Union politics that we saw in the nomination of candidates for the four top executive posts.

In the nominee High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, namely the Socialist Foreign Minister of Spain, Josep Borrell, we see the resumption of an EU tradition.  Prior to the creation of the given office, the EU’s long time head of diplomacy and security was the Spaniard Xavier Solana.  And in the nomination of outgoing Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel to be President of the European Council, replacing Donald Tusk, we see a resumption of a role previously accorded to the Belgian who preceded Tusk in this office, Herman van Rompuy.

Both van Rompuy and Michel are being described by the European press as possessing particular talent in coalition building and striking compromises. Of course, within Belgium Michel is seen differently: as the willing stooge of his French liberal party’s larger coalition partner, the Flemish N-VA.

All of which brings us back to the question of one quality that I mentioned above in passing: the competence of those being promoted to head the key European institutions.

Let us assume that in every respect, Christine Lagarde is fully competent and experienced to fulfill the post of head of the European Central Bank.  About Michel, my negative remark is offset by the nature of Council President’s responsibilities: this is in fact a redundant executive post without any obvious powers. About the Spaniard Josep Borrell, I have no information to judge, as he has not been a prominent figure on the European stage. In his case, time will tell.

This leaves us with Ursula van der Leyen, whose new position as Commission President does have considerable power in setting and implementing the programs of the EU Institutions generally.  Here there are very serious questions that even our somnolent media have detected though they speak about them sotto voce and without drawing the obvious conclusions.

It was remarked by numerous commentators that her nomination received the approval of 27 out of the 28 Member States. The one abstention was her home country of Germany!  What normally would be a red flag was let drop, excused by the observation that there was a dispute within the ruling coalition of CDU and Social Democrats over her nomination.  However, the dispute was precisely over Ursula van der Leyden’s competence if not over her integrity as Minister of Defense.  Her Ministry has come under attack for very poor performance, and there have been allegations of nepotism and misconduct in awarding military contracts.  Thus, it is quite remarkable that she sailed through the nominating process on the strength of Macron’s backing and assorted horse-trading about which we can surmise only after all the Commissioners are nominated and approved in the European Parliament over the coming days.

The dry residue from all the foregoing is that the revolt against the elites, the Euro-skeptic movement that raised anxiety among the defenders of the political status quo in the days before the May elections to the European Parliament have been without effect.  The undemocratic habits of the past will continue unchanged under the new ruling majority hobbled together with ALDE.  And the predisposition of the European Institutions to wage a New Cold War will continue unabated even if we have new faces and new personalities wielding the reins of power.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.


©Gilbert Doctorow, 2019