Kremlinology 2.0: is Vladimir Putin still in charge in the Kremlin?

This is not a question that figures in our Western commentary and analysis, since it is universally assumed that one man, Vladimir Putin, dominates Russian political life for a good reason: his unique ability to tame the contending factions at the center of power in Russia. He is the indispensable lynchpin.

However, I insist that this assumption may have become threadbare, and that there may well be a power struggle going on in the Kremlin today which Vladimir Vladimirovich no longer controls. Indeed, it appears he is receiving his script now from the stronger of the contenders around him and is not comfortable with his lines.

I hinted at this three days ago in my analysis of his address to the nation on the coronavirus, saying that perhaps “Putin’s command of the situation is faltering.”

Mary Dejevsky, a shrewd and experienced journalist who served as foreign correspondent in Moscow of The Guardian, the next day posted the following in her Comment on my article:

“Agree. especially on putin’s decline in authority – I thought his actual demeanour during nationwide broadcast looked less ‘in command’ than usual.”

In what follows, I describe a set of developments, some interrelated, some coming from unrelated contexts, but all pointing to Putin’s loss of control of the political agenda in Russia starting from his annual state of the nation address to the bicameral legislature on 15 January 2020.

* * * *

His state of nation speech was noteworthy for raising the question of amending the Russian constitution with an aim to rebalancing the powers accorded to the executive, legislative and judicial branches at the federal level, in effect reducing the imperial presidency put in place by Yeltsin in his 1993 constitution. This would introduce checks and balances that would reduce the possibility of some successor taking domestic or foreign policy in some wholly new direction. It would also make it easier for someone else of less stellar quality to fill Putin’s shoes at the presidency after he leaves office in 2024.

Exactly what would be conceded to the Duma was not clearly stated in Putin’s speech. Would the Duma actually name the cabinet. This was never stated explicitly but was implied by Putin’s saying that the president could not refuse them. His only hope would be to remove ministers after they took office and proved unable to implement the agreed policies.

This crucial nature of the proposed constitutional reform morphed into something quite different by the time it left the Duma and and was ready for presentation to the public in a referendum scheduled for 22 April. The reassignment of powers in the direction of parliamentary rule has disappeared. Instead the Constitution is being pitched to the Russian electorate as the embodiment of national values of a social economy, a country that upholds traditional family values, religion and patriotism, that provides employment with living wages, real inflation indexed pensions, universal free quality medical care and education. And into this “apple pie” recipe, at the very last moment before it was voted through by the parliament, an octogenarian deputy, first female astronaut, heroine from the 1960s who has hardly been heard from since, Valentina Tereshkova, added that missing element which explains and justifies the whole operation from the standpoint of the Kremlin: the ‘re-set ‘ of Putin’s service as president to zero so that he can enter the 2024 elections.

What happened to the Constitutional reform was, to anyone with any political experience, a sham, a staged process.  And it bore the fingerprints we have now seen on other key political developments, most recently when, on the day before Putin’s address on the coronavirus, Moscow mayor Sobyanin, was allowed to deride the official statistics on the infections in Russia and to announce on state television that Russia was facing a possible medical catastrophe similar to what is now going on in Italy or Spain, that has been widely reported on Russian media as if it had no relevance to Russia.  Sobyanin was now a play actor under the same stage direction as Tereshkova had been. He has no past role speaking on the national level. He has had great authority but at the municipal level only.

Meanwhile, in the period since Putin’s 15 January speech, there has progressively been a striking change in the programming of Russian state television. To be specific, the leaders of the opposition parties in the Duma and a great many other political celebrities have disappeared from view.

Note that immediately following that speech, these same leaders were interviewed by the television news and invited to comment on the prospect of greater role in shaping the cabinet. In anticipation of good things to come, they were quite upbeat.   However, as the weeks passed Sergei Mironov of Just Russia, Vladimir Zhirinovsky of the nationalist LDPR and Gennady Zyuganov of the Communists faded from view.  This disappearance was especially telling for Zhirinovsky who had been in the past a regular guest on the major political talk shows such as Evening with Vladimir Solovyov. No longer.

Instead, the only political leaders we see speaking on television regularly now aside from Vladimir Putin are Duma Chairman Volodin, Prime Minister Mishustin, Moscow mayor Sobyanin. Federation Council chairwoman Matviyenko is from time to time quoted. The long serving and well known Minister of Defense Shoigu, Minister of Foreign Affairs Lavrov, Minister of Finance Siluanov still appear in front of the cameras, but in vignettes, often silent.

Vyacheslav Volodin, former chief of Putin’s presidential administration, was until recently seen on television only on the dedicated once-weekly program devoted to parliamentary affairs.  Now he is a regular. Moreover, he is the one who so vigorously defended Tereshkova and her amendment giving Putin a free pass to rule until 2036 if he so wishes, more or less telling everyone else just to shut up.

Add to this Vladimir Putin’s answer to a question about his long term political plans put to him during one of his encounters with the general public. Does he intend to be president after 2024?  He said that he had no desire to stay president unless the people so mandated.  A bit too clever by half? Or the genuine admission by a man whose career path is now out of his hands.

* * * *

Twice in the past four years, spokesmen for the Russian government have asked who is in charge in Washington, the elected President or the Deep State. In Russian parlance, the Deep State means the intelligence services, the military, those who in Moscow are called the siloviki, or ‘power ministries.’

The first time when the Russians spoke publicly about their anxiety that the U.S. government was out of control came towards the close of Barack Obama’s second term, on 17 September 2016, to be precise, when under instructions from Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, U.S. fighter planes bombed the Syrian outpost in the southeast of the country at Deir ez-Zor, killing more than 70 Syrian soldiers and probably some Russian officers embedded with them. As was surely Carter’s intention, that attack sabotaged the just concluded Syrian ceasefire agreement negotiated by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry under the approving eye of President Obama.

The second time the Russians aired their nervousness over who is calling the shots in Washington came less than six months ago, when FBI agents detained and interrogated Russian State Duma deputy Inga Yumasheva who had arrived to participate in a conference on improving bilateral relations hosted by the Fort Ross Dialogue. She alone from among the invited Russian delegation was subjected to questioning, because she alone had received a U.S. visa; all the others were denied visas and stayed at home in Moscow.  As Sergei Lavrov now remarked, this harassment under the nose of the State Department made a mockery of the Trump administration’s stated goal of improved relations. He asked rhetorically who in fact represents the United States?

Now, as I said at the outset, the shoe is on the other foot: we can ask the same about Russia: who is really in charge in the Kremlin.

The problem we face as we approach this question is that nearly all of our Russianists and other generalist commentators are unprepared. They have either never studied Kremlinology or forgot what they once learned.  They have not been looking into Kremlin factions for years, because as we all know Vladimir Putin has consummate skills as broker and could keep the rivals in check by being indispensable to them all. Moreover, as we all know, Putin is power mad. To understand any given development in Russian politics we need only consider how it serves his personal interests.   Constitutional reform, you say?  It only serves the purpose of extending his rule beyond 2024 to 2036. Contradiction between what he said the reform entails on 15 January and what is in the proposition being offered to the electorate for the referendum?  You need only examine his thought processes, to find how the changing calculus of the political landscape compelled the changes.

I submit that this approach is rubbish and that we have to look beyond Putin to understand what is afoot.

Is it important to know who is really pulling the strings today?  Only in that way can the United States, Europe and other powers understand what reactions to expect from Russia to any given policy stand they assume and to understand the respective risks of war. Are ultra-nationalists calling the shots?  Or is it the pro-Western Liberal contingent from the Medvedev wing? Or yet some other unidentified group?

At this point, my objective has been to set up the question. For answers we all have to wait a bit longer for more evidence to emerge. But I can share this preliminary speculation.  Moscow gossips speak of a power struggle between the premier Mishustin and the mayor of Moscow Sobyanin. Sobyanin it appears has been given extraordinary powers to deal with the coronavirus threat.  Otherwise it is also likely that in Russia there is the same struggle of interests going on now between defenders of the economy and defenders of public health in the face of the coronavirus tsunami as we see in the United States or in Western Europe.

Decisions on preventive measures have been incomplete and contradictory.  On the same day as Putin delivered his address on the coronavirus, Russian media were carrying news of promotional airfares at 30 percent discount being offered by Aeroflot for domestic flights. Today it appears the government is about to issue a shutdown of those flights. This is not a tight ship.

And in the background we are told there is a deep divide in opinion of Kremlin elites over the oil production and pricing war being waged against Saudi Arabia at the initiative of Rosneft boss, Putin ally Igor Sechin. Does this explain the fade-out from media coverage of both Gazprom’s Alexei Miller and Minister of Energy Alexander Novak?

In light of these troubles around him, is it any wonder that the body language of Vladimir Putin during his speech on the 25th indicated to the Russian speaking analysts among us that he did not like the script he had been given to read and was possibly losing his grip.

 

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

[If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble, bol.com, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]

Pages from the personal archives of a Russianist – installment one

These days of coronavirus related lock-down in Brussels have had the benefit of my finally closing my door to the great number of distractions outside the home that beckoned in normal times and instead to spend hour after hour transcribing my six linear meter archive of diaries, correspondence, newspaper clippings in preparation for writing two volumes of memoirs.

The first will be devoted to the expatriate community in Petersburg and Moscow when I was a card-carrying member of management for multinationals setting up in Russia during the period 1994 to 2002. The times were extraordinary, and the newcomers to Russia were among the most ambitious and talented young people of the age. Moreover, their numbers were significant: over 100,000 families in Moscow alone.

The second volume will follow the more traditional, less concentrated pattern of ‘my life and times’ from childhood to retirement.  Among the more interesting single documents from among the several meters of archive files that will be used in the second volume is the following letter I composed during theU.S. presidential race of 1984. With a sidewise glance at today’s candidacy of Joe Biden, I believe it fits the rule of folk wisdom that ‘what goes around comes around.’

 

* * * *

 A letter to Walter Mondale dated 27 August 1984

Subject: Managing Foreign Policy

Your selection of Ms. Geraldine Ferraro as your running mate in the November presidential election demonstrates your ability to rise above tradition, to take reasonable risks while pursuing what you believe is both right and politically timely. May we hope that you will also be open-minded and bold in dealing with the deadly serious questions of war and peace.

The Democratic Party electoral platform advances a foreign policy plank whose virtues are easily arguable. Nonintervention in foreign disputes that are peripheral to US interests, withdrawal from untenable positions now held abroad, great emphasis on reigning in the arms race. All of these notions are reasonable taken separately. But in the absence of an overarching policy which reckons with the central factor in world affairs of our times, these points cannot succeed.

This central issue is the USSR’s striving for US recognition as equal arbiter of the fate of the world. Only political accommodation with the Soviet Union can assure the peace. Arms control and constructive great power cooperation to resolve regional disputes will follow from and not lead to that political accommodation.

The Soviets cannot be dealt with at arm’s length. President Carter’s hope that we could go our own way, draw closer to our traditional allies and let the Soviets stew in their own juice only aroused their aggressivity and condemned to failure his Administration’s exciting arms reduction proposals. The Soviets cannot be bullied into reasonableness. President Reagan’s arms buildup has not brought our adversaries to us on their knees. There is no sensible alternative to accommodation.

A policy of political rapprochement with the USSR must be boldly conceived and well crafted. It must be shaped by persons whose frame of reference goes well beyond the lawyer’s daily problem-solving, in –basket/out-basket turn of mind. It must be founded upon an historical sense of the current of world events, of where things are headed and what can be turned to our advantage by the exercise of will and intelligence. It must avoid narrowly technical solutions born of aseptic minds. In the foundation of global strategy alone can one hope to deal with an adversary who himself responds to events from the perspective of global strategy. This is not cynicism but creative use of power.

Historically important foreign policy decisions are no more risk-free than your choice of running mate. And a policy of accommodation with the Soviet Union will surely require risk taking, all the more so that it has been tried in the recent past under the name of détente and was dropped amid catcalls from a multitude of detractors. However, it is our only hope if we are to escape from the increasingly dangerous confrontation  course with the Soviets that we are now following.

I am not advocating a simple return to the détente policy of the 1970’s. President Nixon’s détente was not born in a vacuum. The international events at the time of its inception, the status and popularity of its midwives necessarily determined its specific characteristics and chances of success. The policy served President Nixon’s aim of restraining Soviet support for Hanoi so that we might prosecute the Vietnamese war to an acceptable settlement. It was burdened with the intense animosity that a large portion of the population felt for its authors due to that war, a fact which is especially relevant since those reviling Nixon should otherwise have been disposed to the essence of détente. And it was burdened with the failings of implementation that were characteristic of Nixon and his close associates and which are also to be understood in the context of the times: namely the President acted conspiratorially in foreign affairs, failed to inform the public on the costs of accommodation with the USSR and on practical limits to possible success. There was exaggerated optimism in the press over the political and commercial benefits of détente, followed by exaggerated disillusionment.

Nixon failed in his leadership role and détente foundered. The President was unable to deliver on his pledges to the Soviets. Amid the need for quick and easy foreign policy successes, Messrs Nixon and Kissinger pursued a course in the Mid-East which ran counter to the thesis of détente and sought to exclude the Soviets from one of the main areas of contention in the world. In Congress, President Nixon’s trade liberalization bill ran aground with the Jackson-Vanik amendment. Thus the Soviets were denied favorable access to American trade, technology, and investments, all of which had been intended to coax them into responsible behavior abroad. Then confusion in American political affairs during the Watergate crisis tempted the Soviets into flagrant adventurism in the Third World and irresponsible military build-up.

Notwithstanding these harsh words, there was much to détente which should be salvaged and integrated into a new foreign policy of accommodation. First, the recognition of the political nature of the contest with the USSR, hence of the chance for solutions of tension at the political level. Second, the recognition of dynamic change in the distribution of power in the world, the welcoming of the Soviets into the great power club and acceptance of their legitimate national interests.  Third, the idea of weaving a fabric of relations with the USSR which make ‘good behavior’ pay well for them and ‘misbehavior’ costly.

There can be no illusions that implementation of a policy of accommodation will be easy. The Russian bear hug itself can be embarrassing. There is an odious aspect to the Soviets’ wished-for parity: a condominium in which we jointly police the world and keep all lesser powers in their place. Such hegemonism is patently unacceptable to us. There is also the delicate problem of maintaining friendly ties with allies even while the               objectives of our alliance are undergoing re-definition. Because serious efforts at reaching an understanding with the Russians must inevitably place in question the existing military blocs and the validity of the post-war division of Europe. Finally, there is the psychologically demanding task of upholding America’s sense of purpose while drawing close to a nation with political traditions that are antithetical to our democratic and open ways.

The challenges in conception and realization of a policy of accommodation with the USSR are formidable, but your success in this critically important area will mark a turning point in modern history from the insanity of nuclear rivalry towards mature statecraft befitting our civilization.

 

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

[If you found value in this material, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble, bol.com, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s

Mr. Putin’s nationwide address on the corona virus epidemic

 

As is his custom, this afternoon Vladimir Putin delivered a well-constructed speech to the nation in which, after expressing the nation’s gratitude to its medical cadres and other front-line personnel dealing with the coming epidemic, he spoke next about the issue that everyone knew was at the forefront of his concerns, the 22 April referendum on the Constitutional Reform. The referendum will now be postponed indefinitely, pending recommendations from health experts. As Mr. Putin reminded his audience the lives, health and security of the nation are the highest priority of his administration. In and of itself, this is a rather comforting message that contrasts with the confusion over serving the economy and serving the public health that we find in many Western countries, including the USA.

Then Mr. Putin set out an extensive list of immediate government measures intended to deal with the oncoming epidemic, which has in the past few days shown an exponential rise in the number of proven infections, generally in line with the experience of China and most recently of Europe.  The need to act, the need to see the corona virus as potentially as devastating in Russia as it has shown itself to be in Italy, Spain and France, indeed the need for this address was tipped off yesterday by the televised remarks of Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin.

One may be certain that the Mayor was given the microphone to issue his stark warning precisely to set the context for today’s address. In previous weeks Russian media had pointed to the insignificant infection rate, while detailing the misery (Western) countries are now experiencing.  Sobyanin’s words were a transparently “corporate” maneuver. The same may be said of Putin’s donning a yellow space age anti-infectious disease suit and helmet with nano-filtration for his visit yesterday to the Kommunarka hospital treating corona virus patients. Corporate America should take off its hat to Vladimir Vladimirovich for this performance, worthy of the best top executives.

Among the key measures that President Putin mentioned in his speech this afternoon were the following:

  1. A week-long stay at home order for the population beginning this weekend except for essential services
  2. A substantial rise in unemployment insurance payments to those laid off due to the virus and its impact on the economy. These will rise from 8,000 rubles monthly to the legal minimum income (poverty level) of 19,000 rubles monthly (223 euros at today’s exchange rate)
  3. Speeding up the allocations of new social benefits to families with children announced during his state of the nation address in mid-January as well as accelerated payment of bonuses to veterans of WWII
  4. A moratorium on personal credit and mortgage credit repayments during this crisis
  5. Credits to be made available to small and medium businesses
  6. A temporary halt to bringing bankruptcy proceedings against businesses in default

Then, with special flourish, Mr. Putin used the impending crisis to fix several unpopular tax loopholes favoring the very rich, so that the proceeds of the new taxes may be used to offset some of the costs of the social protection measures now being introduced for the great majority of the working population, for families, etc.  To name one such abuse, he is calling for all remittances of dividends and the like by physical persons to offshore ‘tax havens’ where they go untaxed, now to be subjected to a 15% income tax in Russia. The double taxation treaties with those tax haven countries allowing this abuse will be amended accordingly.

Now let us consider what was missing from the speech.

First, and most importantly, there was not a word about the fate of the forthcoming May 9th  celebrations marking the 75th anniversary of the victory over fascist Germany.  Here we see that the Putin administration is taking the same head-in-the-sand position as the Abe government did over postponement of the Olympics that was finally agreed two days ago.

It is foolish to think that the same considerations of public health underlying the decision on the Constitutional referendum of April 22nd are not applicable to May 9th, when normally there would be the March of the Immortal Regiment bringing out a million or more civilians onto city streets in Moscow and in St Petersburg, and lesser but still very large public gatherings across the nation. If allowed to go ahead, these marches and the celebrations in restaurants that follow them will serve as a splendid platform for propagation of the corona virus.

There was also not a thought given to how the impending crisis might require a greater mobilization of society and greater creativity of approach than the technocratic Cabinet and the United Russia party majority in the Duma can muster.

I return here to my standing recommendation that the President move to create a government of national unity by bringing leading figures from the Duma opposition parties into the cabinet, starting with the position of Minister of Labor.

This is all the more relevant when we see that the latest legislative initiative of Duma Chairman Volodin to combat the corona virus is to establish criminal liability for those who violate the quarantine rules, thereby causing the infection and possible death of others.  The notion that this problem will be solved by putting quarantine violators in prison for five or seven years is foolhardy and will be totally ineffective. One might better ask why the Russian government and Aeroflot are doing so much to repatriate the 50,000 or so Russians stuck abroad on vacations which they took when the gravity of the global epidemic was already clear. These insouciant egoists are the greatest threat to Russian public health as they now return home at government expense.  Here is a flagrant violation of common sense.

In both the ‘corporate flair’ of the presidential administration and in the shortcomings of imagination at the Duma, we see that Putin’s command of the situation is faltering.  On the other side of the ledger, it is also true that Russia may be spared the “Italian scenario” for reasons very specific to its geography and to the extreme caution and prudence of its fiscal and monetary management over the past decade dealing with a sequence of ‘stress tests’ by which I mean sanctions.  The latter is self-evident. The geography related advantage requires a word of explanation.

Apart from Moscow, Europe’s most populous city, St Petersburg and Novosibirsk, Russian cities hover around one million and there are not many of them at that size.  An unusually large part of the population still lives in the countryside. Indeed, a still larger percentage of the elderly live precisely in the empty countryside, left behind when young males and other able-bodied folks went to town for jobs and contemporary life style. In this sense, the world’s largest country has intrinsic advantages compared to Western Europe, where population density is often very close to China’s.  We will see in a few weeks how this plays out

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

[If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble, bol.com, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]

Putin and other ‘Irreplaceable People’

I was delighted with the wide distribution given to my last essay on the ‘Tereshkova Amendment’ to the Russian Constitution which, when the reform of the Basic Law is approved by nationwide referendum, as widely anticipated, will set the presidential terms served up to now by Vladimir Putin back to zero so that he may run again in the elections of 2024 and 2030 if he so wishes.  My essay was reposted by several portals in the United States and links to the essay were published by still other outlets in Europe.

I was also pleased by the substantial number of reader comments, even though the great majority did not agree with my assertion that Putin was foolhardy to accept that amendment, subject to the Constitutional Court finding that it does not contradict the intent of the Fundamental Law. I had expressed the pious hope that Vladimir Vladimirovich would quietly direct the Court to do the decent thing and reject the amendment. However, by its decision of 16 March the Court has now approved the entire package of amendments. In light of this development, I feel free to move to the next level of discussion with my readers, responding to their objections and detailing why the very prospect of Putin in power to 2036 will undo his legacy of stable nation-building.  I will conclude by setting out an alternative scenario which is far more likely to ensure policy continuity after 2024 while moving Russia’s democracy to a new level of maturity. This path remains open to Mr. President if he rethinks the likely consequences of the Tereshkova Amendment and moves to correct his error well before the 2021 parliamentary elections, when the “regime” may suffer a humiliating defeat.

* * * *

The objections from readers to my stand on Putin’s running for the presidency again mostly came down to one point that had been raised by Tereshkova herself as justification for her initiative:  that the international arena is so volatile and poses so many threats to the country that Vladimir Vladimirovich’s proven experience and dedication to national welfare is and will be required and valued more than ever.  Some readers’ comments name the corona virus or the oil price war with Saudi Arabia, or the near war with Turkey over Syria as indicative of the pressing need for steady leadership by Putin into the distant future. Others point to the aggressive economic, military strategic and propaganda war against Russia being waged by the United States and its allies in Europe to justify the indefinite continuation in office of a leader who has so consistently and effectively foiled their ambitions to put Russia in its place under their heel and instead restored his country’s status as a great power.

All of the foregoing is true, of course.  We do live in extraordinary times and “revisionist” or “resurgent” Russia, to use the vocabulary of Foreign Affairs magazine, faces strong opposition from an “international community” intent on preserving the 1990s status quo when Russia was on its knees. However, the proposition that Russia has no one capable of taking over the baton from Vladimir Vladimirovich does not hold up to scrutiny.

It is all too easy to forget that when he took over from Boris Yeltsin just after New Year’s in 2000, Putin was a nonentity who had been chosen for his unquestioned loyalty to the family and who enjoyed the support of Boris Berezovsky and other oligarchs precisely because they believed he would be easy to manage. As for the nation at large, Putin’s only credit was his brutal conduct of the war in Chechnya which seemed to be bringing results and which proved his patriotism.  He had been an efficient assistant to the liberal mayor of St Petersburg Sobchak and did well with foreign, especially German business leaders behind closed doors. But he was an unimpressive public speaker and he badly failed his first exposure to the press when he answered reporters’ questions about what happened to the submarine Kursk with the flat statement: “It sank.”

From this weak start, Putin rose quickly and steadily to become finally the world’s leading statesman that he is today. A whole generation of administrators and political operatives has grown up in his shadow. I have no doubt that there are among them worthy successors if given the chance.

If I may invoke a bit of folk wisdom:  the cemeteries are filled with irreplaceable people.

* * * *

When he delivered his decision on the amendment, Putin added another line of argumentation in its favor, namely Russian traditions of governance. Some of my readers have taken that up and expanded upon it in their comments.  They look to Russian history, with its millennial tradition of autocratic rulers to justify keeping the incumbent tsar on his throne. Some place Putin in the ranks of Russia’s Greats:  Peter and Catherine in the 18th century to plead his case.

My critics argue from exceptionalism, which is always risky, and second, they fail to appreciate the value of institutions over people in the life of nations.

On the subject of exceptionalism, Vladimir Putin himself has always been equivocal. On the one hand, he regularly denounces American exceptionalism of the variety first formulated by Madeleine Albright in her description of the nation that stands taller and sees farther than others, all of which was later hand delivered to the Kremlin by Barack Obama when he sought to explain to Vladimir what was what.

On the other hand, Putin has always defended the special traditions of each nation and the right of each nation to preserve its uniqueness without interference from others. Yet, Putin has also acknowledged certain universal rules of political science, in particular the value of alternation in power of competing political forces. So it only comes down to when that can be implemented.  To this, I respond: there is never a good time, there are always mitigating circumstances one can claim against applying the rule.  And for this very reason, the rule of alternation should trump all other considerations without discussion.

I will not take the reader’s time belaboring the obvious:  an unlimited time in power means institutionalized corruption.  “The bums” are never given the boot. And, what is less commonly seen, incompetence is the reverse side of the corruption coin. This is a non-negotiable issue.

* * * *

Looking beyond my own readers and considering more broadly the analysis which so many Western commentators have published these past few days regarding Putin’s decision on 2024, I find a certain commonality of approach which is entirely consistent with how our Russianists have been writing and lecturing for decades now:  all focus on Putin, the man as if he were the alpha and omega of Russia, the country and its polity. That is to say, these commentators apply to Russia the same personalization of politics which they use at home in the United States, where identity has long replaced policy on the ballot. We vote by gender, by race, by ethnicity and not by pro- or anti-labor positions, by redistributive or wealth-protecting policies. They vote for good or bad autocrats.

In the same spirit, instead of considering what this decision on terms in office means for those Russians who believe in rule of law, or in the commitments of their leader not to hang onto power into his dotage repeated many times in the past and as recently as on 16 January 2020, our commentators try to delve into Putin’s thought processes and to explain the flip-flop on 10 March.  Since no one has yet placed a microphone under the pillow of the Russian President, all of the commentary we read is pure and idle speculation, whereas the views of Russians on the decision taken can be sampled, as I will do in what follows.

I have a residential base in St Petersburg and in normal times I am there for two weeks out of each couple of months. My wife and I have many contacts among Russians at all levels, from our regular taxi driver to our neighbor and fix-it man at our country dacha, to intellectuals and professionals in both Petersburg and Moscow. To a man, or woman, our friends and acquaintances are all Russian patriots. Several have served their country in the performing arts, in journalism, in design of launch vehicles for space missions and in other ways. They have all been pro-Putin, until now…

The trigger for the change of heart of many is deep disappointment over the deception, the fraudulent nature of the upcoming referendum on amendments to the Constitution now that the whole exercise seems to have only one purpose: to extend Putin’s time in power. To be sure, this rabbit was pulled out of a hat once before, when Vladimir Putin and Dimitri Medvedev switched roles in 2012. But that trick conformed to the letter of the law, even if it was, shall we say, sneaky.  The decision to set Putin’s time in office back to zero now is an insult to the intelligence and so doubly offensive.

That the maneuver is unseemly is supported by the obnoxious way in which it has been defended, something which none of our Western commentators seems to have picked up.

After coming under attack from various political activists and even from her own home town where she had a street named after her for her achievements in outer space, Tereshkova defended herself and her amendment, saying that she has been getting letters of support from “simple people” all around Russia. In the same vein, Chairman of the State Duma Vyacheslav Volodin declared that “those who are against Tereshkova are against Russia.”  But then this former head of the presidential administration is the same man who said previously that “if there is no Putin, there is no Russia.”  I think it is fair to call this type of argumentation from both Tereshkova and Volodin unashamedly Stalinist in nature.

And that is exactly what one my close friends has written to me using colorful terminology that mines the treasures of the Russian language in the same manner as Putin himself so often does.  I offer here a free translation.

“Like you, we are not delighted by the presidential terms of Putin being turned back to zero. Society is tired, people are tired of this. It looks like he has decided to beat Stalin’s record. But the main thing is that this is being done in a clumsy way, in the spirit of Soviet propaganda – ‘upon the request of the workers.’  Tereshkova tells us that every day she is receiving packs of letters expressing gratitude for her initiative. This is propagandistic Soviet primitivism.

For the moment, we don’t know if we will take part in the voting. But if we do go to the polls, of course, we will vote against the amendments and the reset on terms in office.”

 

It is widely assumed in the West that there is no opposition to Putin and Putinism in the State Duma, only in the so-called non-systemic opposition of people like Alexei Navalny and Ksenia Sobchak who never made it past the 5% minimum level of support to enter the Duma. And, I must concede that when the Tereshkova amendment came up for a vote, two of the Duma parties which have regularly put up candidates to run against Putin in the presidential elections, Sergei Mironov’s A Just Russia and Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s LDPR spoke in its favor.  However, what is largely overlooked by our Russianists is that one party, Gennady Zyuganov’s Communists, had the courage and persistence to speak against the amendment. These are the same Communists who have traditionally been the fiercest competitor of United Russia and of its centrist predecessors; the same Communists who narrowly lost to Yeltsin in 1996 because of flagrant electoral fraud assisted by U.S. agents over fears for democracy in Russia. And yet today, ironically, the centrist parties have defended a Stalinist vision of Russia’s presidency while the Communists were backers of full-blooded democracy, meaning alternation in power.

That is not all.

On 10 March, when Tereshkova introduced her amendment on resetting the terms in office of the sitting president, another deputy introduced a bill calling for early Duma elections. Though this was rejected out of hand by Vladimir Putin when he spoke to the chamber a couple of hours later, it is this bill which better deserved his backing. Early elections were supported by one party alone, again the Communists, who said they had nothing to fear. Such elections were likely put an end to the majority position of United Russia, which has lost substantial support in the population ever since the retirement age was raised a year or so ago. This is why they said no. However, their loss of a majority is precisely what could trigger a new balance of power and the scenario for political consolidation that I am recommending.

* * * *

When he spoke about his intended changes to the Russian Constitution during his annual “state of the nation” address to the bicameral legislature on 15 January, Vladimir Putin suggested that his intention was to re-adjust the balance of power among the three branches of government by raising the rights and prerogatives of the legislature. By trimming slightly the powers of the President in this process he would, in effect, make it easier to find someone to fill his shoes. Moreover by bringing the Duma into greater consultation in formation of the cabinet, he would be raising their commitment to the system in exchange for greater responsibility.

At the time, Putin mentioned specifically his impression from regular meetings with the leaders of the Duma parties that are all patriots. The logic from this was that when the Medvedev cabinet peremptorily resigned following the presidential address, some of the leading parliamentarians from outside United Russia should have been invited to take up ministerial portfolios. That did not happen. Instead the cabinet itself was de-politicized and filled with technocrats.

Assuming that Putin wishes to ensure that the broad lines of his policies continue after he leaves office, whatever that date may be, I believe that the recent missed opportunity should be revisited and preparations made for forming a government of national unity that distributes ministerial portfolios to all of the Duma parties.  By their service in the intervening years, this would provide the best indications of who will deserve to run in the presidential election of 2024 in which Putin will choose not to take part.  It will remove the present cynicism and disappointment of many patriotic Russians over the way high politics is evolving and provide a renewed interest in elections with optimism for the future.

Over the long term, coalition governments or ‘power sharing’ have their down sides, I know only too well from the experience of the Kingdom of Belgium, or in neighboring Germany. These include  inconsistencies in the various domestic and foreign policies implemented and possible incompetence of individual ministers and their teams.  However, in the short term it is worth taking the risk to avert mass demonstrations when the 2021 Duma elections come, not to mention the presidential elections of 2024.  This is a crucial step in Russia’s march towards mature democracy that should not be ignored.

* * * *

Post Script:    The view that no worthy successor to Putin exists is founded on unwarranted pessimism about the distribution of talent and leadership capacity in the political elites.

People shape events and events shape people. For anyone who doubts the wisdom of this observation, I direct their attention to what the corona virus crisis has done for us in the Kingdom of Belgium these last two weeks.

This country has not had a properly installed Government ever since the last cabinet resigned in December 2018 over internal disagreement about Europe’s immigration policy.  The parliamentary elections of May 2019 produced deadlock, with leading parties in the North and South of the country, on the right and left of the political spectrum unable to hobble together a majority coalition in parliament.

Accordingly, by all normal reasoning, Belgium should have been in a woeful situation going into the stress test of the corona virus epidemic.  It was this very weakness in parliamentary government that Vladimir Putin highlighted in his public statements following the launch of his planned constitutional reforms in Russia, saying that Russia, given its size and complexity, could not allow such disarray at the federal level as months or years without a proper Government.

Fine for theory. The facts have proven quite the opposite as regards the alleged hopelessness of democracies.  The decisiveness and humane principles guiding what acting Prime Minister Sophie Wilmès  has proposed to her fellow cabinet members and leading politicians of the country won their backing for draconian confinement measures that are among Europe’s toughest, matched by measures of economic relief and by measures to bring order and compassion into the dispensation of intensive care services to the critically ill, which are being ramped up with all possible speed. All of this has aroused cries of ‘chapeau’ (hats off) from the media and from the general public.

Wilmès was a political non-entity until this challenge presented itself.  Now there is widespread belief that in six months she will be confirmed in her position as Prime Minister heading a minority government that will be supported by Opposition parties.

By the way, Wilmès is from the same Center Left party as the former Prime Minister Charles Michel who was moved to the European Institutions where he is now the president of the European Council, a fine sinecure for a talker, not a doer. Good riddance!

The same principles of hidden talent waiting to be tapped apply everywhere.  The Russians should take note.

 

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

[If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble, bol.com, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]

The Tereshkova Amendment and “Friends of Russia”

There are many in mainstream media who insist that the dissonant voices about Vladimir Putin’s Russia whom they derogatively call “useful idiots” are no more than propagandists for the Kremlin.

As a card-carrying member of the “friends of Russia” club, I have in the past never hesitated to acknowledge that perhaps 10% of our number indeed have no interest in following the facts wherever they may lead and spreading truth as they see it. Instead they argue from “the end justifies the means” reasoning or “what-about-ism.” I said as much in reporting on my participation in the international election monitoring of the 18 March 2018 presidential elections where I and 20 other foreigners were sent to the Crimea and delivered our conclusions that same evening at a press conference in one of the mayoral buildings in Simferopol.

However, I believe that the majority of my peers in “friends of Russia” strive to be objective and seek the microphone only in order to denounce the rampant Russophobia and dangerous vilification of Mr. Putin in the major media of the West, all of which has greatly increased the chances of a war, unintended, unwanted but apocalyptic. Sometimes they even decide to speak truth to power, and it is in that spirit that I deliver my verdict below on the amendments to the Russia’s Fundamental Law now being prepared in the Duma and Federation Council under the watchful eye of Vladimir Putin. The document which emerges is going to be put to a nationwide referendum on 22 April, a vote which once again I may be watching on the spot as an international observer.

* * * *

From the moment President Putin delivered his annual state of the nation address to Russia’s bicameral legislature in mid-January announcing plans for revising the Constitution, there was heated speculation in the West that the sole purpose of the exercise was to secure his continuation in power after the current mandate expires in 2024.  In fact, such a conclusion had no basis in the sketchy plans for updating the Constitution mentioned in the president’s address. What stood out in that was the wish to readjust the balance of power between the legislative and executive branches of the federal government in the direction of a “responsible” cabinet which the legislature would henceforth help select. This was not yet parliamentary government, but it would amount to a very significant shift away from the imperial presidency which Boris Yeltsin enshrined in the 1993 constitution which he rammed through over the ashes of a rebellious Duma. Other new privileges would be ceded to the upper house, and the judiciary also stood to gain in stature from Mr. Putin’s brief overview of 15 January.

In all of this, the president would be voluntarily giving up some of his political might with four years still remaining in his term.  It was easy to argue, as I did in my first analysis of the planned reforms, that he was motivated by the long term interests of the country rather than by his own personal interests. By reducing somewhat the prerogatives of the presidency, he was ensuring that the job could be performed by followers of less stellar qualities than his own. Essential checks and balances would be introduced into the system.

The only reform item which did not fit well with my judgment on the selflessness of Putin’s reform initiative was the mention of some new, still unspecified role for the State Council, a deliberative body consisting of the governors of the administrative ‘objects’ of the Federation which has met only once or twice a year. Our pundits quickly focused on how Vladimir Vladimirovich might choose to pilot the ship of state after 2024 from such a body, assuming he did not remain in the presidency by hook or crook.

Step two in the preparation of the Constitutional amendment was the formation of a committee nominally drawn from leading personalities from patriotic society such as virtuoso pianist Denis Matsuev and Hermitage Museum director Mikhail Piotrovsky, as well as legal experts to consider amendments in addition to those first named by the President. Step three has been the review in the legislature of a draft text on amendments which Putin approved with an eye to both the committee’s recommendations and to the great many suggestions sent directly to his administration from the general public or passed along to him during his numerous consultations with ordinary people in the countryside at the Russian equivalent of town hall meetings.

The net result of all the suggestions which were adopted into the draft law on amendments to the Constitution as it made its way to the Duma and through the Duma has been to introduce a great many social, cultural and identity politics propositions into the Constitution. These include the traditional definition of marriage as the union of a male and female, mention of God and ancient national traditions, specifying Russian as the national language, guarantees of pension indexation and social benefits, a prohibition on giving up any territory of the Russian Federation, establishing the primacy of national legislation over international law, and much more in a similar vein.

Critics in the West have remarked that all of these points are calculated to appeal to broad swathes of the population, thereby ensuring a heavy turnout at the voting urns in April and an enthusiastic “yes” majority, when the reform would also contain, they predicted, a key point on Vladimir Putin’s political future. That was only cynical speculation…until an event two days ago, on 10 March, when the draft law on amendments to the Constitution reached a milestone in its final “reading” in the Duma.

In this last stage, a couple of United Russia legislators pitched to the house changes having great significance, so much so, that Vladimir Putin was called in to deliver his opinion on their suitability.  One would have required that the State Duma be dissolved and new elections be called if the constitutional reform passes the referendum.  This Putin decided was unnecessary and inappropriate, since the sitting Duma was duly elected and fully competent.  The other, presented to the house by the celebrated woman astronaut turned politician Valentina Tereshkova, called for either removing the limitation in the Constitution to two terms in office for the president or to set back the clock to zero following passage of the amendments on 22 April, so that the incumbent might remain in office until 2036.  Here Putin rejected the first idea but tentatively accepted the second, subject to its being examined and approved by the Constitutional Court.

All of this was shown in full on Russian state television which, over the past couple of weeks, has given extraordinary live coverage to the Duma deliberations on the amendments to the Constitution, so that the reform finally bypassed Ukraine as the television subject of the day.

Some analysts in the “friends of Russia” camp have called attention to the seemingly impromptu decision of Putin on serving in the presidency after 2024. However, he spoke rather extensively on the subject before the house, suggesting, to my mind, that this was all well choreographed in advance.

In particular, Putin explained in what we may consider advanced dialectics both why a lengthy stay in office by a president might be justified by circumstances and why eventually this might prompt political elites to put an end to open-ended rule. He spoke about both sides to the question with reference to Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the United States: a president who took office at a time of national crisis, the Great Depression, followed by World War II. These emergencies required a firm hand on the tiller.  But at the end of FDR’s four terms, the American political establishment decided that alternation in power was the greater virtue for normal times and set a limit of two terms in office.

Putin likened the national emergency in Russia following the collapse of the Soviet Union to the situation that justified FDR’s long tenure. And he intimated that given the turbulence in the world today having a guarantor of continued stability within the country remained paramount. He also invoked historical traditions of Russia which always favored a strong ruler such as he has been. The sugar coating which he chose to offer is that he might continue in office only if he won ‘competitive’ elections for the office, not by acclamation. However, there are more than a few critics who will find the notion of competitive presidential elections in Russia to be utterly unconvincing so long as Putin, the father of his country, is on the ballot.

Meanwhile, these arguments for his continued rule after 2024 fly in the face of Putin’s repeated denials that he would remain in power into his dotage, repeating the sad experience of Leonid Brezhnev.

Some of my peers are “flummoxed” by what has occurred this week. I am merely saddened by this show of human folly.

I will say unequivocally that by agreeing to a constitutional amendment resetting his time in office to zero, Putin has enraged many members of the ruling elites and armed his long time opponents with real and not invented reasons to be rid of him. The result will likely be domestic strife and instability, quite the opposite of what he intends. Indeed it will put in question his entire political legacy.

Let us hope that Vladimir Vladimirovich will pause to reflect on this decision and quietly instruct the Constitutional Court to do what is necessary: declare the proposed amendment invalid.

 

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

[If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble, bol.com, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]

 

The Valdai Rest Home and “Gagarin”

I open this essay about the Russian middle classes at leisure with one essential definition.

If you go to www.booking.com and type the transliterated Russian name of the establishment from which I am writing, “Dom Otdikha Valday,” in the Search box, you will be surprised by what you find.

The word for word translation from the Russian, namely “Valdai Rest Home,” can lead speakers of English into confusion. That this is NOT an old folks home, you will see at once from the photos on the website. It would better be described as a hotel and wellness complex. Let us just say that Russian can be as quaint in its own way as the “Ye Olde” term so widely used in tourist English.

This year-round resort has a rich history dating back to Soviet times when it catered to Communist nomenklatura. About a decade ago, it was reconstructed and expanded to world class four or five star standards in preparation to receive what has become Vladimir Putin’s annual gathering of political thinkers, mostly academics, from Russia and abroad known now as the Valdai Discussion Club. But the swelling numbers of invitees outgrew the physical capacity of the 250 seat conference hall in Valdai after the very first event there. The place name remains while the de facto location for the meetings has been in Sochi these past several years

Nonetheless, Valdai has retained its association with the President of the Russian Federation to this day. Its location in the middle of a nature preserve of the same name situated half way between Moscow and St Petersburg is the secret to its allure. Putin has a dacha in the area which he visits from time to time except in the late spring during the blooming of birch trees whose pollen he is allergic to.  A special railway spur to that dacha was recently completed to provide a safer and less conspicuous access than by helicopter or motorcade.

The Valdai “rest home” is 15 km from the district town of that name in the hamlet of Roshchino. It is surrounded by a mixed birch and pine forest and it is adjacent to several interlinked lakes

In winter it offers cross-country skiing trails through the forest or, if there has been a long cold snap, across and along the lakes.

Last year the forest trails were encumbered by a lot of fallen branches and other debris carried by strong winds while the lake was well and truly frozen allowing for pleasurable long distance skiing on its flat surface. This year once we had a fresh 5 cm snowfall the forest trails were magnificent whereas the lake had only thin ice and was off limits.

In the summer, the lakes offer quiet boating and fishing. Due to the elevation and prevailing winds from the northwest, the water rarely rises above18 degrees Centigrade and is swimmable only for hardy souls!  But the attractive rooms of the main residential complex and the luxury fully detached “cottages” or dachas overlooking the lake find enthusiasts in all seasons. Many of the cottages have their own quays at lakeside.

According to one receptionist, the guests are split 50:50 between Muscovites and Petersburgers. In this sense, the two couples with whom we spend this vacation time in Valdai fit the average perfectly.  Guests are also evenly divided between commercial visitors, like us, and federal or municipal employees who are given concessionary rates. The range of incomes goes from lower middle and middle middle class in the main hotel building, where rooms with full board for two cost slightly more than 100 euros a day in winter, and upper middle class in the cottages, which can rent for several hundred euros a day when they are in demand, meaning in summer.  There are almost no foreigners.

At Valdai, the emphasis is on a healthy life style. There are no smokers and no drinkers. Not only do guests observe the no smoking rules indoors, but I have never seen a cigarette butt lying on the ground outdoors.

It must be emphasized that family values prevail.  Most of the guests are young couples, probably in their late 20s, early 30s with their one, and more commonly two children, aged from toddlers to perhaps eight or ten years of age. Single women or men are exceptional. Gray heads are also exceptional and mostly belong to grandmas who are tagging along, or perhaps footing the bill, and are keeping an eye on the grandchildren during mealtime.

The cuisine might be called Institutional Russian. This is traditional fare that you will find in most any simple eatery or “stolovaya” across the country. For those who have not been to Russia and might imagine that it is one big “borscht belt” with caviar and pancakes thrown in for a touch of luxury, I aim to bring them back down to earth.

The cuisine is “light” in the sense that there is virtually no red meat. Instead, there is chicken and fish served as fillets or as patties, an occasional pasta dish and some hot specialty items made from low fat cottage cheese. There are lots of cold salads served nature, i.e., without mayonnaise or dressings. Soup is a must at lunch. Three types of hot cereal are on offer both at breakfast and supper. Indeed, the difference between the buffet assortment at breakfast, lunch and dinner is negligible. You take what you like when you like it. That said, coffee is provided only at breakfast, perhaps in keeping with the wellness principle.

The chilled beverages tend to be concentrated in berry juices, in sugared and unsugared variations, and in fermented milk products, meaning kefir, ryazhenka and liquid yoghurt. If there is any linkage between Institutional Russian cuisine and what Jewish emigrants brought to the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the first quarter of the last century, it would be precisely these sour milk concoctions, which at one time were the stock in trade of New York “milk bars” lasting into the ‘50’s.

Desserts are modest, the most common and tasty being freshly made thin pancakes that you top with honey or jam or condensed milk (!) to suit your taste.

On balance, this diet is not fattening even if it is taken in copious amounts by the diners, who are otherwise exercising quite energetically either outdoors or in the splendid indoor pools.  This is not to deny that a fair number of hotel guests are chubby. But very few are seriously overweight and none, not one during our stay three years in succession, could be described as obese. The heftier males may be assumed to be doing weightlifting and other workouts regularly, and quite possibly are body guards in their working lives.

As for entertainment, there is an extensive lending library. All the rooms have satellite television, 20 channels to be exact, including BBC World in English, which is not particularly commonplace in Russian hotels which have few or no foreign guests. This is complemented by daily film screenings in the conference hall, at 5.30pm for kids and at 8pm for adults.

So what is the resort management showing to its clientele of middle class Russians from the nation’s capitals who have come for a good time in family surroundings?

There are some American films, to be sure, and some Central European offerings, such as the prize winning Illusionist that was projected a couple of nights ago, but they are outnumbered by the works of the Russian cinema industry. Russian films came back to life in the past twenty years. They offer high quality animation much appreciated by little kids and some surprisingly well balanced social and political satires for the adults.

In this closing third of my essay, I direct attention precisely at the films being shown because of what they say about the audience, its degree of self-awareness and sophistication.

The President’s Vacation (2018 release)

This film, which was very unkindly described as ‘trash’ by the website Meduza, is noteworthy as a splendid example of the mistaken identity genre of farce handed down from 18th and 19th centuries in Western Europe. Like the plays of Feydeau, it informs as well as amuses, and it tests the limits of social and political criticism of the Putin regime in a good humored yet probing discussion of corruption and other social ills.

We see a presidential administration keen on keeping the Leader in a bubble of Potemkin Village misinformation about the true state of the nation. This he tries to escape from by going off on vacation incognito without the usual cohort of body guards and sycophantic handlers. His lieutenants disobey his order to stay away but mistakenly take an unemployed fraudster and deadbeat for the President in his disguise, leading to promulgation of several scandalous presidential decrees during the week of the vacation while the real Vladimir Vladimirovich learns firsthand how people live and what the general population thinks of the St Petersburg gang (shaika) of assistants he has brought to power.

 

Gagarin (2014 release)

Our intelligentsia friends declined to join us for the screening of Gagarin, which they expected to be a straightforward piece of propaganda, the sort of cheap patriotism they scorn. That is a pity because the film proved to be complex, with several layers of messages addressed to different segments of the expected theater audience.

Yes, at one level it was sports arena patriotism and nostalgia for Soviet culture. But at other levels it was celebrating the human courage of concrete historical personages in very trying circumstances. I have in mind here both the astronaut and Sergei Korolev, the rocket designer and leading figure in the Soviet space program of the time.

Most importantly, the film underlined the awful poverty of a country that was basking in the triumph of having launched the first sputnik five years earlier and now, in 1961, was beating the USA, becoming the first to have launched a human into orbit and brought him back alive.

For Russians who were adults in the 1960s, still more for Russians who were active in the space industry back then as one of our friends had been, their country’s poverty both in comparison to the great competitor of the time, the USA, and absolutely, is second nature and elicits no reflection. However, for an outsider, the producers’ decision to bring this into high relief is one of the most surprising features of their film which raises questions about the Russian people that are highly relevant to the present day geopolitical situation.

In his post-acquittal hour long televised speech, Donald Trump remarked that from the moment he was elected in November 2016 all we heard was Russia, Russia, Russia thanks to the efforts of the Democrats to bring him down. The power of the Kremlin to wreck democracy, to frustrate the whole of US foreign policy and much more has been blown out of all proportion by our politicians, by our mass media.  It is easy to forget that in the midst of the Cold War, i.e. the time setting of Gagarin, Russia was also made a boogeyman with a frighteningly vast military force and hostile intentions.

Today even as we see Russians under every rock our official policy line is that theirs is a declining power which acts as a spoiler. Thus, Russia’s conventional and nuclear military might are played down rather than up.

The value of Gagarin is that it shows how the very successful Soviet space program, like the country at large, hit way above its weight. Korolev says at one point that he did not want the Americans to see what he actually had for equipment lest they show their contempt.

It is commonplace today to stress that the GDP of the Russian Federation is ten times smaller than that of the USA. However, as we can see in Gagarin the reality of the respective economies was likely similar back in the midst of the Cold War if we look at what these economies actually delivered after deducting the inferior manufactured goods and the heavy losses in agriculture from farm to shop shelves. Thus, it is arguable that the Russian Federation, with half the population of the Soviet Union, is a much more potent adversary than the USSR ever was.

Gagarin underlines the personal qualities of its heroes, who were in fact even more extraordinary than shown. The producers held back, for example, that Korolev had spent five years in the Gulag before he was plucked out and promoted to the crucial position in the space program.  The sense of duty and love of country of these personages is comparable to the merits of Russian soldiery in WWII. This factor of motivation and talent and self-sacrifice and idealism is what our foreign policy community in its hubris and bean counter approach to national greatness misses entirely.

That the Soviet Union in its poverty could yield the deeds of cutting edge engineering and human spirit of Gagarin is what made it a great power.  That Russia today, with a military budget ten times smaller than America’s, could come up with its great equalizers in new strategic weapons systems like its hypersonic rockets now in service is testimony to the same enduring national traditions that we ignore at our peril.

 

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

 

[If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble, bol.com, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]

Speech to the Press Club Brussels, 28 January 2020

Excellency, Members of the European Parliament, distinguished guests, friends. Thank you for coming this evening!

My name is Gilbert Doctorow and I am the author of the book being presented, A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs.  I will say a few words about myself in a moment. But first I want to introduce my co-presenter, ambassador Michel Carlier.  Over the course of a full career in the Belgian diplomatic service, he held posts of increasing responsibility at Belgian embassies in more than a dozen countries, including Poland and Hungary. Hence, his particular interest and qualifications to speak about this book.

Tonight’s presentation will be bilingual. I will continue in English. Ambassador Carlier will deliver his talk in French. When we move on to take questions, you may ask them in either language.

Anyone who has leafed through my latest book will find there is no “about the author” page, and you may well wonder who I am.  As regards the title of the book, it is highly relevant to know that I am a Belgian, a naturalized Belgian of two and a half year’s standing, as well as an American.  I am also a Russian expert by education and by life experience in international business.  From 1994 to 2002, I lived and worked in Moscow and St Petersburg, most of that time as country general manager for several multinational corporations in the consumer goods and services sectors.

Being a Russian expert has had its hemline issues of popularity waning and waxing. As from the end of the Cold War in 1989, demand for this profession was on a steep decline. Following 9/11 that decline seemed to be terminal given the shift of attention by intelligence services, by the military and by the general public to the Middle East – Farsi and Arabic affairs. The heightened tensions with Russia ever since 2007 have marked a steep increase in demand for Russia expertise, pushed still further in 2014 by Russian actions in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. In the electoral year 2016 I became the darling of domestic Russian state and commercial television for whatever insights I could offer on Mr. Trump. I wrote about my insider’s experience of Russian media in my previous collection of essays, Does the United States Have a Future? and again it appears in updated form in the latest collection, in a long essay written in French that was originally a public lecture I delivered here in Brussels last fall.

In the past couple of weeks I have re-emerged on Russian television and in global media as an analyst and interpreter of Mr. Putin’s constitutional reforms and of his new cabinet of ministers.

Now let me say a few words about my latest book, A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs.

If you go to Amazon.com or bol.com or fnac.com and look up my book you will find the following summary of what it is about:

“The essays in this book deal with major political, social and cultural events primarily in Europe and Russia during the period 2017 – 2019 in which the author was a participant or eyewitness and has personal impressions to share. Several of the essays are drawn from other genres including travel notes, public lectures and reviews of particularly insightful books on key issues of our times like immigration, Liberalism and war with Russia that have not received the broad public exposure they merit.”

 

Meanwhile if you read the March-April print issue of Foreign Affairs magazine, you will find an advertisement for the same book which reads as follows:

 

“Essays address the technical and equipment disparities between the United States military and its NATO allies that put in question the soundness of the alliance, the prospects of an emerging arms race, the identification of an ideological dimension which makes the U.S.-Russian confrontation look ever more like a full-blown cold war, the global significance of the Russian-Chinese strategic alignment.”

 

In that same advertisement, there is a quotation from Jack Matlock, US Ambassador to the Soviet Union, 1987-91 and principal adviser to Ronald Reagan during his summit meetings with Mikhail Gorbachev:

“Doctorow’s essays are a needed corrective to the widespread distortions peddled by much of the mass media in the U.S. and Europe.”

So which of these statements properly characterizes my newest book?

The answer is that they all do.

If you purchase the book today, and I have a few copies here with me, or if you simply use the “Look Inside” button on the book’s Amazon.com page, you will find that the table of contents lists 88 “chapters”, meaning essays, which cover a very broad number of issues.  Among the many chapters which are based on personal participation in the events described I would highlight my reports on the March of the Immortal Regiment in St Petersburg, 2018 and 2019 editions – this is the march of family members commemorating their parents and grandparents who fought in WWII or were engaged in the war effort on the home front – it is the civilian dimension of May 9 celebrations throughout Russia. Then there are my Letters from Orlino, describing country life on our dacha 80 km south of Petersburg.  Or my report on the 18 March 2018 presidential elections in Russia in my capacity as international observer of those elections in Crimea.

To put it in terms of the publishing industry, my book is a collection of essays and not a monograph.

Monographs are academic, scholarly works investigating a single issue in depth. However, this often means that they spend the first third or more of text on summaries of the past of that issue from time immemorial. How much space is allotted to fresh analysis of the current situation and prognostication of its future development depends on the author-researcher.

Collections of essays are by their nature much less focused, but carry less dead weight.  Mine is intended to be thought provoking, to challenge the conventional wisdom on numerous aspects of our present confrontation with Russia by introducing facts, reports that you will not otherwise find in our mainstream print and electronic media. I say this not to claim any particular brilliance or exclusiveness for myself, but to point out the sad state of journalism in our internet age and in an age of high partisanship when the truth is ignored or ridiculed by our politicians for the sake of what is mistakenly believed to be some greater cause.

 

This evening by way of introduction to my book I call your attention to three of these mental teasers:

  1. The fractures in Belgian society over relations with Russia – I have in mind the deep contradiction between the positions held by our political classes and high society, in particular French-speaking high society of Brussels, which I have come to know fairly well from the inside
  2. The relevance of American technological superiority and exclusiveness to the functioning of NATO as an alliance. Here I draw on an unexpected source of professional analysis from the heart of the Belgian military establishment
  3. My essay on the insights of Lev Tolstoy’s War and Peace as they bear on our present situation vis-à-vis Russia

 

My two long essays in this book sharing my impressions as a participant in gala Russian Christmas themed dinners at one of the top French speaking gentlemen’s clubs of Brussels, in 2018 and 2019, are a key justification for my insistence on presenting a Belgian Perspective on International Affairs that is at sharp variance with what you will hear from the Royal Egmont Institute, or for that matter from reading La Libre or Le Soir every day.

General DeGaulle famously presented the rhetorical question: how do you govern a country like France with several hundred varieties of cheese?  The same could be said of Belgium and its several hundred beer brands. Therefore it should come as no surprise that on matters of foreign policy and defense policy, Belgians are individualists, they have a great diversity of opinions even if these do not appear in media. In this sense, Belgium stands out against a background of very conformist nations like Germany, most of Scandinavia and, of course, the United States.

The gala dinners were fully subscribed by an enthusiastic and varied guest list from high society that enjoyed immensely the Cossack singers and rounds of vodka passed to the top VIPs to be downed to cries of ‘пей до дна’ – bottoms up’ in Russian. Over cocktails ahead of dinner, at the table and over coffee following dinner I heard sharp criticism of the subservience of Belgium and its fellow Member States of the EU before the American hegemon.  At the same time, I assure you that I have found similar views out on the street among work-a-day Belgians.

Not every Belgian federal institution is ruled by self-imposed censorship and has to repeat the party line on US global leadership. One chapter in my book explains how rapid advances in U.S. military technology have put in question the viability of the NATO alliance. This material comes not from my own observations – since I am just a layman in military matters.  It comes from a Belgian expert in the armed forces and was published in the journal of the Royal Higher Institute of Defense. Unless the European members of NATO buy American, as for example the F35, with its unique and exclusive communications gear, they could become collateral damage in any joint mission.  This logic condemns the European defense industry to extinction. And in the meantime Europe is viewed in the Pentagon as just a spare tool kit, not a full-blooded allied force. Read this and get ready for a shock.

Finally, let me share a word with you about my chapter on the relevance of Leo Tolstoy’s novel War and Peace to our present-day confrontation with Russia.

This is the second Tolstoy novel that I have analyzed for readers to highlight views that could have been written in our own day, not 140 years ago, as they are timeless and insightful.

The first novel I dealt with was Anna Karenina, which I presented in my last collection of essays, directing attention to the final quarter of the novel, which should perplex readers because it continues the narration following the suicide death of the heroine, when nearly all novels normally would end. In these pages Tolstoy recorded how society had been swept up by Pan Slav feelings and bellicosity which prompted a large contingent of volunteers to go off and join the Balkan wars and eventually got the state embroiled in a war with Turkey that the country won militarily but lost diplomatically at the peace conference.  Tolstoy describes the way enthusiasm for the cause was fanned by the editors and their newspapers of the day which all quacked in unison like so many frogs.  Does this sound familiar?  That particular essay had a successful run on the internet and I received a very complimentary letter from a Russian literature professor at Brown University in the US for extracting what is usually ignored in the classroom.

My new essay on War and Peace similarly brought out an element in Tolstoy that is generally passed over by those who enjoy the author’s romantic and tragic story of Natasha and Prince Andrei to the exclusion of so much else. What they tend to overlook is the philosophical musings of the author about great men – Napoleon and Alexander – about the forces of history, about free will and determinism.  These thoughts are all brought together in the Second Epilogue, about 75 pages long, which publishers sometimes omit precisely because it is a message from the author directly to the readers and not coming through his characters.

What you find when you look at these philosophical observations of Tolstoy is his grappling with the fact that the whole of Europe was marching East against Russia, not just France.  Marching east to spread its revolutionary ideology in what they construed as the heartland of autocratic Asia but also to rob and pillage. It does not take too much imagination to see in Napoleon’s Grande Armée the present day forces of NATO or to understand the hazards of underestimating Russian determination, strategic depth and innovative solutions in devising asymmetric defenses that overwhelm their foes.

This particular essay has also had a very successful international run. It was translated into several European languages.

With that I end my brief introduction to my book. I turn the microphone over to Ambassador Carlier.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

[If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble, bol.com, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]