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.]

Une perspective belge des relations euro-atlantiques vis-à-vis la Russie

Premièrement, il faut préciser que “la perspective belge” en question, dans le titre de mon dernier livre et dans ce discours est une perspective personnelle et aussi une perspective que j’ai trouvé au beaucoup de belges avec qui j’ai discuté la situation géopolitique dans le monde. Je parle maintenant de la haute société francophone à Bruxelles, mais aussi de la rue.  Quand je suis de retour d’un séjour en Russie, je m’annonce au propriétaire du magasin de légumes du coin, un néerlandophone de 40 ans, qui me dit:  Poutine [le pouce en l’air]. La même réaction de mon facteur, un francophone de 60 ans. Oui, c’est en contradiction directe avec la perspective de nos élus, de la grande majorité de nos think tanks, comme, par excellence, l’Institut Egmont, et de nos médias, comme La Libre ou Le Soir.

Le Président DeGaulle a fameusement posé la question: Comment voulez-vous gouverner un pays où il existe 258 variétés de fromage ?  Et, chez nous en Belgique, où existent plus qu’une centaine de marques de bières avec une grande gamme de gouts et arômes différents?

La perspective alternative sur les relations euro-atlantique insiste que la Belgique, et l’Europe doit se libérer de l’hégémonie américaine, doit trouver quelques accommodements avec la Russie, parce que l’Europe ne peut  défendre ses intérêts entre le feu de l’Amérique et de la Chine qu’en liaison avec son grand voisin à l’est. Cette pointe de vue alternative et presque scandaleuse était exposé très clairement par Emanuel Macron, ni plus ni moins, dans son discours devant le corps diplomatique français le 27 août dernier. Et, il faut dire, que beaucoup des belges francophones libéraux admirent les positions du président français en général. Cette vue alternative dit aussi que Vladimir Poutine a accompli beaucoup pour augmenter la prosperité de son people, ce qui explique sa popularité (plus que 60%) parmi les russes et fait de lui un interlocuteur méritoire.

Un chapitre dans mon dernier livre traite la question de la qualité de l’alliance aujourd’hui. L’OTAN est en péril non à cause de la mort cérébrale, ni du niveau inadéquat des contributions européennes financières.  L’origine du problème est la rapide augmentation de la superiorité technologique de l’Amérique qui met en question le principe d’interopérabilité des forces alliées.  America First – ce n’est pas une invention de M. Trump. Ça existe depuis longtemps parmi les développeurs du matériel de guerre aux Etats-Unis.

Je cite les conclusions d’un article surprenant dans le journal de l’Institut Supérieur Royale de la Défense. L’auteur est un militaire belge, Alain De Neve. Il dit que dans une situation où l’Europe est laissé dans la poussière par les nouveaux systèmes particuliers, tels que le F-35, ou on achète américain ou on est mis à côté et devient simplement une boîte de pieces de rechange, mais pas un vrai partenaire et allié.

Si M. De Neve a raison, l’avenir est clair:  l’industrie de défense européenne est condamné a disparaître, et l’Europe restera pour toujours un esclave des américains dans tout ce qui concerne la défense et politique étrangère – y compris dans l’hostilité envers la Russie..

Alors, où est la solution?

Je vous dis qu’il n’y a aucune solution si l’Europe ne peut pas formuler une conception intégrale de ses défis stratégiques.  Le matériel de guerre est produit pour faire face aux ménaces précises  et la perception des ménaces et des missions de défense sont  depuis longtemps contradictoires parmi les états membres de l’Union.

Pour les Pays Baltes la ménace vient de la Russie. Même chose pour la Pologne et la Suède, qui ont été les concurrents de Moscovie, ensuite de la Russie pour dominance en Europe Centrale à partir du seizième siècle. Au même temps, les Pays Baltes et la Pologne sont depuis leur accession à l’Union les pions enthousiastes des Etats-Unis dans les conseils internes de l’Union Européenne. Ils possèdent le droit de veto sur chaque effort de trouver un modus vivendi avec la Russie.

“Old Europe”, dans le vocabulaire de l’ancien Vice Président américain Dick Cheney, c’est à dire les pays fondateurs de l’Union et les autres pays devenu membres avant la chute de la Mur, régardent les ménaces stratégiques autrement. En particulier pour la France, Italie et l’Espagne, la plus grande ménace vient du Sud, le terrorisme des pays Arabes et des pays de l’Afrique sous-Sahel.  Comme Macron a bien indiqué il ne faut pas regarder la Russie comme l’ennemi.

Ainsi, pas possible de parler d’une armée Européenne ou d’une politique étrangère constructive, réaliste and faisable sans une reconstruction de gouvernance dans l’Union Européenne.  On doit passer vers un Europe à deux vitesses et supprimer pour toujours le principe de l’unanimité dans la prise de décisions dans les deux domaines – défense et politique étrangère.  Il faut mettre fin au veto par les nouvels pays membres dans l’est de l’Europe, et particulièrement par les Pays Baltes et la Pologne, qui constituent un bloc des illusionnistes, fantaisistes et Russophobes confirmés.

Une fois la cinquième colonne des américains dans la Union est écarté des décisions cruciales, on peut réengager avec les Etats Unis pour définir des missions Euro-atlantique communes qui reflètes les intérêts des deux côtés de manière juste.

©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 de l 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.]

 

Making sense of Russia’s new cabinet

 

Yesterday evening, 21 January, the composition of Russia’s new cabinet was announced to the nation and the world. Russian state television was caught as unawares as any of us in the broad public when the names of the departing ministers, the names and biographical details of arriving ministers and the few changes in reporting lines were released to the wire services. Their correspondents hastened to find Duma members, think tank celebrities and others whom they hoped could make sense of the changes for their viewers.

Eventually, late in the night, a picture emerged of what the latest seismic wave in Russian politics means.  I will try to present the generalities here. I will not go into detailed examination of each minister, because such micro-investigation is neither my specialty, nor is it likely to interest an international readership for whom ‘which way the wind is blowing’ is quite sufficient.

Of course, in the past week, even the contours of political change have appeared inscrutable to Western media who could only fall back on the assumptions that whatever Putin is up to cannot be good. Hence, the flurry of articles following Mr. Putin’s address to the bicameral legislature a week ago which sought to portray the constitutional changes he promised as serving only one purpose: to perpetuate his dominance and control over Russian politics after his presidential term ends in 2024. That was so despite the fact that nothing whatsoever in his proposed reforms would facilitate the stated objective and despite the fact that the changes, which diminish his power when implemented, would come four years before he has to relinquish his office.

However, even the harshest critics of Russia and Putin are beginning to change their minds.

The New York Times’ “Morning Briefing” today told its online subscribers:

 

Quote

On social media, our correspondent writes from Moscow, Russian political analysts “have put forward so many different theories that they paint a picture of a nation in collective befuddlement.”
Case in point: Mr. Putin’s announcement prompted a string of high-level resignations and unexpected appointments. Yet the new cabinet, announced on Tuesday, includes the most prominent members of the last one.

 

Background: Many analysts initially thought that the constitutional changes were intended to allow Mr. Putin, 67, to take up a powerful role when his second presidential term expires in 2024. Now they aren’t so sure.

Unquote

 

 

Chapeau!  This is one of the rare instances when the editors of The New York Times have followed the facts to an inconvenient truth about Putin and Russia  –  and have shared with their readership what they found.

 

Surely the confusion in the minds of the Russian public, as well as domestic and foreign political observers, over how to understand all the changes and prospective changes in Russia’s federal government was not by accident, but by design. The intention of  Mr. Putin and of Sergei Kiriyenko, his close assistant in these reforms within his presidential administration, was surely to conflate two very different political disruptions: first, the introduction of constitutional reforms that rebalance the power sharing between executive, legislative and judicial branches of the federal government; and second, the change of cabinet to remove ineffectual and unpopular ministers, to bring in fresh blood from among the most successful administrative and technical talent operating at the higher levels of the federal government and groomed for succession these past several years.  Both very separate measures share one common feature: to lay the groundwork for the Duma elections scheduled to be held in September 2021. They will likely generate more excitement in the public and will be more consequential than would otherwise be the case.

 

As for the proposed constitutional changes, I believe they serve a very clearly defined purpose:  to prepare Russia for the post-Putin era by introducing checks and balances that will prevent any one branch of government, meaning the executive, from ‘running away with the show’ and changing the vector of Russia’s development and its orientation in the world as the result of the unforeseeable popularity and electoral victory by a candidate to the presidency put up by the Opposition, or even by factions within the Ruling Party and other ‘Duma parties’ in 2024 and thereafter.

Commentators have often speculated on whom Putin was grooming as his successor.  We now have the answer: no one. And this is a wise approach to the issue, because no one in Russia would be capable of filling the shoes of Vladimir Putin, who is a once in a hundred years political phenomenon. And so the shoes to be filled in 2024 and thereafter have been downsized via the power sharing provisions of the proposed constitutional reforms.

Now let us turn our attention to the new cabinet of ministers which Mr. Putin convened and welcomed last night.

In the past few days, many have asked why Putin prompted Dimitri Medvedev and his ministers to resign a week ago.  One of my fellow panelists in a Turkish international English television (TRT World) program yesterday devoted to Putin’s announced reforms offered the explanation that Medvedev was, in effect, forced out because he is so unpopular in the country. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZHSJk30TxPA

Indeed, unpopular he was, but that is not a new development.  Rather, I believe the fate of Dimitri Medvedev and his cabinet was decided in the presidential administration back in December when the weak results on implementation of the president’s high priority National Projects during 2019 came in and when it also became clear that GDP growth during the year had been anemic, trailing rather than matching or exceeding global trends. A government shake-up was already in the cards from that moment.

Medvedev’s loss of popularity in the past couple of years also surely may be attributed to the focused attacks directed at him by the anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny, who uncovered compromising material relating to the prime minister’s personal wealth and also to the unseemly abuse of rights to government transport and other resources by his wife. Nonetheless, his being sidelined at present does not necessarily exclude his return to positions of power in the future.

It must be remembered that during his tenure as president, Medvedev showed himself to be the most outgoing, the most friendly to the West of all Russian and Soviet heads of state in the last hundred years or more. It was a very regrettable mistake by Western leaders that his initiative to begin talks on revising the security architecture of Europe was spurned, and that he was intentionally misled about NATO intentions in Libya when the UN, with Russian support, voted to allow military intervention for humanitarian purposes.

Personal unpopularity or battle fatigue may explain the decision not to reappoint several members of the outgoing cabinet.  The first rule pertains to Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky, who is guilty of graphomania and has been filling a whole library shelf with his overly nationalistic and simplistic histories while in office. Moreover, he got embroiled in quite controversial issues of what is permitted as artistic expression, making many enemies.

Then there was the non-reappointment of Vitaly Mutko who had been the Sports Minister until 2016 and carried all the baggage of Russia’s shame over doping, of its strained relations with FIFA. Mutko had been ‘kicked upstairs’ to a deputy premiership more for the sake of defying Western allegations against him than because of any personal merit justifying his new position. Clearly it was time to move on and reward others more worthy.  As for Minister of Health Dr. Veronika Skvortsova, who was omnipresent in the country overseeing a vast reform program to bring quality health care to the rural population and also raise the level of diagnosis and early treatment for cardiovascular and oncological illnesses everywhere, the best guess is that she was simply worn down by the task and needed to pass the baton to someone else.

In my two essays on the planned constitutional reforms over the past week, I expressed the optimistic hope that President Putin would use the occasion of appointing a new cabinet to take the first step towards power sharing with the Duma. Specifically, I suggested that he might bring into the cabinet parliamentarians from the minority parties in the Duma, allotting to them portfolios in the more innocent domains such as labor, social welfare and culture, in effect forming a coalition government and thereby consolidating the Russian political landscape.

Reviewing the list of new ministers in the incoming cabinet, it is clear that quite the opposite has happened: the cabinet has been de-politicized. To be sure, nearly all members of the cabinet are members of the United Russia party. But they are what we may call just card-carrying members, whereas the former prime minister Dimitri Medvedev was and remains the head of United Russia.

The new cabinet members are concentrated in the ‘economic block’ and in the ‘social block’ of ministries, the two areas that rank very high in the fulfillment of President Putin’s pledges to the nation to raise living standards through fulfillment of his National Projects. They are what the Russians call хозяйственники or управленцы, which we may translate as highly competent managers with proven success in getting things done. Technocrats, by another name. One or two come from the administration of Moscow mayor Sobyanin, who oversees the country’s most successful municipality.  One or two come from among the Prime Minister’s former colleagues in the Federal Tax Service, which is a model of technological innovation and efficiency.

At the same time, the most experienced and successful ministers from the Medvedev cabinet have been kept on in their posts. In particular, I point to  Anton Siluanov at Finance, Sergei Lavrov at the Foreign Ministry, Sergei Shoigu at Defense, Alexander Novak at Energy. While Siluanov has been stripped of his rank as first deputy prime minister, he received moral compensation by being assigned the additional responsibility for State Property. I explain Siluanov’s removal from the deputy prime minister list as resulting from the ambitions of PM Mikhail Mishustin, who is himself a very experienced financial expert, to have free hands in this domain.

Now we will have to wait till just after the September 2021 Duma elections to see to what extent Mr. Putin intends to bring the lower house of parliament into the middle of national policy making by granting them seats in the cabinet.

©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.]

Further thoughts: Vladimir Putin’s planned constitutional changes

I had the good fortune to be among the first non-mainstream commentators to publish an in-depth analysis of the planned constitutional amendments Vladimir Putin set out on Wednesday in his annual Address to Russia’s bicameral legislature. “Vladimir Putin Plans His Succession” was a runaway success in readership, attracting many times the normal daily number of visitors to my website in a global audience that reached 82 countries. I owe this success in large part to the generous references to my article made by bloggers with large established audiences, in particular to investment analyst Tom Luongo of Gold, Goats ‘n Guns (re-broadcast by Tyler Durden’s zerohedge.com) and to the Canadian retired diplomat and active online commentator Patrick Armstrong, who commands several sites. The article was also re-posted in full by antiwar.com, who frequently carry my essays, as well as by Johnson’s Russia List, which has a select audience among U.S. universities.

Now, in these “further thoughts” I will address several important issues surrounding the planned constitutional reforms which I did not have the time or space to deal with in my first essay. Moreover, I must consider here elements of the ongoing flow of news from Russia bearing on any evaluation of the reforms, namely the results of the first meeting of the 75-member Working Group on constitutional change which Vladimir Putin convened already on Thursday and the exchanges between the incoming prime minister Mikhail Mishustin and members of the State Duma during and after his confirmation hearings.

I will deal in this essay mainly with significant matters that have not been discussed in the alternative media, not to mention in the establishment media, both of which have devoted a great number of column inches to the reforms since I first went to press.

With regard to the establishment media, it bears mention that within 24 hours of the President’s Address several newspapers of record in the United States and England published articles with a more open-minded evaluation of what is afoot than the universal opprobrium and suspicion with which Putin’s initiatives first met in the likes of The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Financial Times. Several of these articles which are more favorably disposed to Putin’s possible intent or are advocating “wait and see” were quoted in Johnson’s Russia List: the publishers include the Christian Science Monitor, The Independent (UK) and The Daily Telegraph (UK).

The Washington Post, which published a flurry of articles about the proposed constitutional changes, all negative, nonetheless permitted itself to give one article the following very restrained title: “Putin’s plans for post-presidency could see him wielding influence for life.” “Wielding influence” is a far cry from the stranglehold on Russian politics by which the Post and the great majority of its peers characterize the “Putin regime.” It would indeed be odd if a statesman of Putin’s accomplishments and popularity were to retire to a monastery after leaving the presidency.

At the same time, in defiance of more neutral and cautious positions emerging among some peers, other leading publications, including The Economist and The Financial Times have doubled down and yesterday published articles or editorials arguing why what Putin has presented as a move to greater democracy, checks and balances, hence “rule of law,” in actuality is merely a ruse to perpetuate his rule in another guise.

* * * * * *

But let us move on.  I wish to introduce here a couple of considerations, acid tests in my view, for whether we interpret Mr. Putin’s planned reforms in black, white or shades of grey in between. The answers will likely come in the next few days or weeks.

The first is how quickly the reforms will be promulgated and implemented.  The second is whether Duma members are drawn into the new cabinet that Prime Minister Mishustin is going to roll out.

Given that the President lost no time in assembling the Working Group of academics and scientists, sportsmen, musicians, other leading public personalities….as well as experts in constitutional law, it seems likely that he intends to proceed with the reform very quickly. An article in TASS which came out still on the 16th informs us that the plebiscite on the constitutional reforms is planned to be held before 1 May.  Other sources say with less precision that it could come “some time before the year’s end.”

In any case, the real question is when the reforms will take effect.  If they are implemented with immediate effect and Putin’s constitutionally stipulated powers are reduced while the parliament’s powers are increased accordingly, then we will be witnesses to his voluntarily rescinding power or sharing it with others for the sake of spreading the responsibility for successful governance and ensuring stable transition when he leaves office four years hence. That would put paid to any notion whatsoever of these reforms being a ruse.

The question of the composition of the Mishustin cabinet and of any future cabinet following promulgation of the reforms comes down to one point:  will it consist solely of specialists or generalists brought in to fill ministerial posts on the basis of their party affiliations or on the contrary, on the basis of their neutered status as technocrats, as has been the case in Russian governments ever since the 1993 Constitution was introduced by Boris Yeltsin, or will it include some living, breathing parliamentarians. In the former case, such a cabinet will be responsible to the parliament but will not represent a shift to full parliamentary democracy.

I am betting that Mishustin will nominate as federal ministers some leaders and/or members of the Duma from the minority parties, meaning the Communists, LDPR and Just Russia to sit alongside the strongest, most respected United Russia people from the outgoing cabinet of Dimitri Medvedev. If it were only a question of closer consultation with these parties over who is nominated from outside the Duma’s ranks, then there would be less sense to the enthusiastic backing all parties (except the Communists) gave to Mishustin’s candidacy when the vote was held in the lower house. Moreover, watching the behavior of Duma members appearing on Russian state television news in the past couple of days indicates a greater assertiveness and self-confidence than was ever the case till now.

It is very easy to consider extending invitations to the Communists or Just Russia to fill ministries in the social domain – education, culture, social welfare, even economic development.  In such ministries they might very well be more productive than the United Russia officials they would replace.  As for LDPR, although they have long called for Sergei Lavrov’s scalp, it is hard to see their taking over from the world’s most experienced diplomat who enjoys the full confidence of the President.  However, some ministerial position relating to the military industry, in particular I can imagine their replacing the rather dim-witted Dimitri Rogozin, who never exercised proper control of Russia’s corruption plagued construction site at the missile launch center Vostochny.  In all such cases, the changes would definitely enhance the authority and the determination of the Russian federal government and so play into the plans of Vladimir Putin in the closing years of his term of office.

 

* * * *

 

Although it is early to say with certainty how sincere Vladimir Putin is in his plan to further democratize Russian governance through a more balanced distribution of power between the three branches of government, there are a couple of irreconcilable problems with the notion that the announced constitutional reforms are all about the future political fortunes of one man, Vladimir Putin. These tend to turn all of the severe judgments of our mainstream media into gibberish.

Firstly, why would he propose changes in the Fundamental Law now, 4 years before he leaves office? Our mainstream media mention the maneuver by the President Nursultan Nazarbayev to hold onto guiding power in Kazakhstan by assuming a purpose created post when he resigned from the presidency in May 2019. However, that subterfuge was sprung on the public at the last minute.  Game playing of this sort four years in advance of departure would only be an invitation to all political forces in the country to outmaneuver the Leader and frustrate his ambition. They would have all the necessary time to mobilize and win.

Secondly, why if he has resolved to honor the constitutionally mandated limitation on two consecutive terms in office would Putin insist that the President retain supreme power of the executive including the right to remove his prime minister?  He would thereby be condemning himself to precarious tenure if indeed it was his intention to move back to the premiership after leaving the presidency.

These questions are not raised, let alone answered by our mainstream media for whom logic, like facts on the ground, is an irrelevancy to arriving at their predetermined conclusions.

* * * *

 

One of the remarkable changes in the Constitution that Vladimir Putin proposed on 15 January relates to qualifications to hold senior positions in the federal government, including deputies to the State Duma and Federation Council. They will be prohibited from holding foreign passports or permanent residency rights abroad.  Putin set still more stringent requirements for candidates to the presidency:  they must never have held foreign citizenship or residency rights, and they must have lived in Russia continuously for 25 years before becoming candidates for the nation’s highest office.

Our Putin-phobic international press and even some card-carrying members of the alternative media have seen this initiative as directed against several specific harsh critics of the President and his “regime.” In particular they mention Mikhail Khodorkovsky, former oligarch now living in exile in Switzerland but keen to reenter Russian political life, and Alexei Navalny, the blogger and anti-corruption crusader who once in the heady days following the faulty Duma elections of December 2011 rode the wave of mass street protests that turned ugly. Navalny might come under the ban for having spent time on a study grant in the USA.

Both gentlemen are the darlings of the Western liberal press that hubristically claims the right to decide for Russians who is the real Opposition to the “Putin regime” and who is just window dressing. No matter that they and other Liberals do not garner more than 1% in Russia’s national polls.

I see these restrictions as being directed instead against the great number of wealthy Russians who have that second or third passport to hedge their bets against some disaster befalling their homeland, such as for example a return of the Communists to power, even if only within the context of a parliamentary democracy. That goes also for their gilded youth who have been educated in Britain and elsewhere abroad and whose patriotism to the land of their birth might well be dubious.  Even putting aside that subjective factor, there remains the objective factor that Americans like so much to bring up with respect to Donald Trump:  these Russians with feet in both camps are easily subject to blackmail by a foreign government.

Moreover, there is still another dimension to the question that no one in the Russia Watch community has mentioned:   these proposed restrictions are not drawn from thin air; their relevance comes from the experience of the 2018 presidential elections when two prominent candidates fell afoul of the restrictions Putin is now proposing. These were Pavel Grudinin, the candidate of the Communist Party and of the united left, and Boris Titov, head of the Party of Growth.  In the midst of the campaign, when Grudinin’s star was rising and it looked as though he might win enough votes to force a second round in the elections, investigative reporting by Russian state television turned up the unpleasant fact that Grudinin’s wife owns a house in Latvia and has taken Latvian citizenship. Presumably, Latvia would be his chosen ‘emergency landing’ airport if he got into trouble in Russia.  That was not the only dirt turned up: it also appeared he had not declared a substantial personal holding of gold and cash in a Swiss bank, and he was charged with misrepresenting the source of wealth of the farming enterprise he heads in the Moscow suburbs, so that his electoral platform built on generalizing this success was fraudulent.  As for Titov, who otherwise is a genuine patriot as regards Russian agriculture, in which his personal fortune is heavily invested, and who is and has for some time been the Ombudsman for Russian business, there is also a dark side:  he did not participate in several of the televised debates during the month before election day, 18 March, because he was busy looking after his personal affairs in London, where his children live.

Here we have the real and concrete reasons for Putin’s proposals.  If these violations could take place under his nose, what kind of candidates for the presidency might we find on the short lists in the post-Putin future were there to be no constitutional prohibition as now will be voted upon.

 

* * * *

Finally, let us consider who is Mikhail Mishustin, the man whom Putin nominated Wednesday to replace Medvedev as premier.

To its credit, The New York Times online edition yesterday carried an informative portrait of the man written by The Associated Press:  “Next Russian PM A Career Bureaucrat With No Political Desire.”  The article is valuable because it details the very important administrative and technological reforms Mishustin has overseen during his ten years at the head of the Federal Tax Service which resulted in greatly increased tax compliance and revenue flows to the Treasury through implementation of Information Technologies. In fact, the Russian Tax Service is today one of the most technically advanced in the world. It has real time receipt and analysis of every VAT imposable transaction in the country, whether the sale of a cup of coffee in a hotel lobby or a multi-million dollar transaction by some major industrial company. Fraud and corruption have been virtually extirpated from its domain.

The author of the NYT-AP article correctly notes that Mishustin holds a doctorate in the IT field.  All of this gives him the expert knowledge to do what the technophile prime minister Dimitri Medvedev sought to do over the past six years, namely to bring Russian government and society into the digital age, though with very limited success due to his training as a lawyer, not a computer engineer or professional manager.

In this context it is interesting to note from an article posted on the news agency RBC’s website that at the top of the list of priorities named by Mishustin during his interpellation by the Duma prior to the vote on his candidacy is “the digitalization of the economy and conversion of the state into a “digital platform.” The National Projects that Vladimir Putin imposed on the government back in May 2018 at the start of his new term in office are in second place. Next came institutional reform, followed by removal of restrictions hindering business. Given these facts about the man , it would be naïve to speak of Mishustin as some sniveling bureaucrat.  We shall see in the months ahead whether he can finally give some traction to the long set goal of speeding up Russian productivity and gdp growth per capita, the precondition for growing prosperity in the broad population.

 

©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.]

Vladimir Putin Prepares His Succession

January 15, 2020 will be remembered as the start of the transition to a new political configuration in Russia that Vladimir Putin will leave behind when his term in office ends four years hence. The prospective changes were announced in the last third of Putin’s 75-minute annual Address to the Federal Assembly, Russia’s bicameral legislature. The seriousness and immediacy of the changes were confirmed by the announcement several hours later that Premier Dimitri Medvedev and the entire Russian cabinet had tendered their resignations so as to free the President’s hands to proceed with implementation of the intent of the announced constitutional changes at once, even before the Working Group on those changes was formed, not to mention the drafting of laws framing their implementation or the planned referendum on the changes to follow before their promulgation, which was also mentioned in the Address.

The result of these various developments was shock and awe in the broad community of Russia Watchers. But the commentators soon found their feet and speculation on what was pending came back with a roar.

Nearly all political commentaries that I have read over the past 24 hours have evaluated the intent of the announced changes in terms of the political fortunes of one man, Vladimir Putin. The searchlights have been pointed here and there to determine where in the new organogram Mr. Putin may sit after 2024. This is quite understandable if one considers the speculation over Putin’s alleged ambition to rule Russia for life.

Indeed, ever since his re-election to the presidency in March 2018, there has been heated speculation among Vladimir Putin’s many detractors at home and abroad over whether he would honor the constitutional prohibition on serving more than two consecutive terms in office.  Hence, his political enemies such as Mikhail Kasyanov used the occasion yesterday to crow that they had been right all along, and that we were witnessing yesterday step one to Putin’s holding on to a revised presidency.  Such assertions flew in the face of the President’s direct statement that he had no objection to the restriction on presidential service, which will remain in force. So the question naturally arose among other commentators: what will be his new perch?  Would it be as prime minister? As head of the to-be-strengthened State Council, an institution that till now has been off the organizational charts of the federal government? Or still somewhere else, as the head of a con-federal union with Belarus, for example.

 

In the analysis which I offer here, I will attempt to understand what is afoot more broadly, bringing in elements from the Address which bear on Putin’s intent but seem to have been ignored in the stampede to take the measure by one yardstick only.

What emerges from my approach as set out below is a tentative and still partially self-contradictory constitutional restructuring to assure continuity of a strong, centralized and deeply patriotic federal government with or without Mr. Putin. Most important of all, it is a restructuring that begins at once, so that it can consolidate in the coming four years of transition, allowing all the political actors to grow into new roles of greater responsibility and prove their mettle under the watchful eye of the sitting president.

 

* * * *

 

The proposed constitutional reform will re-calibrate the relations between the executive, legislative and judiciary branches of the federal government. The greatest beneficiary of these changes will be the legislature, particularly the State Duma, or lower house, which will assume powers closely approximating those in a parliamentary democracy.

Up to now, under the Constitution introduced in 1993 by Boris Yeltsin following his bloody suppression of a rebellious Duma, the Russian federal government closely resembled the tsarist state under Nicholas II when a parliament was first introduced in what had been an autocracy and the head of state retained the right to appoint the cabinet which was responsible solely to him.  Henceforth, per Putin’s revisions to the Constitution, the premier and federal ministers will be named by the Duma. The President will formally confirm them in office; he has no right to refuse the appointments, though he can later remove them for failure to perform.

There is no mention in Putin’s sketchy outline of the new order whether the cabinet will be drawn from among members of parliament or from outside, as is presently the case.  A tip-off on how open this issue remains is that the man Putin appointed later in the day to replace Medvedev as premier is precisely a technocrat, with no clear political affiliation or legislative experience, Mikhail V Mishustin, the long-serving head of the Federal Tax Service.  However, this may be merely a tactical measure to facilitate the filling of the cabinet with ministers from precisely the political milieu within the Duma. If so, it worked well, because we are told that Mishustin’s candidacy, which will be reviewed by the Duma today, met with general acceptance.

To understand what comes next, you have to take into account a vitally important statement which Putin made a few moments before he set out his proposed constitutional reforms. He told his audience that his experience meeting with the leaders of the various Duma parties at regular intervals every few weeks showed that all were deeply patriotic and working for the good of the country. Accordingly, he said that all Duma parties should participate in the formation of the cabinet.

And so, we are likely to see in the coming days that candidates for a number of federal ministries in the new, post-Medvedev cabinet will be drawn precisely from parties other than United Russia. In effect, without introducing the word “coalition” into his vocabulary, Vladimir Putin has set the stage for the creation of a grand coalition to succeed the rule of one party, United Russia, over which Dimitri Medvedev was the nominal chairman. It is highly relevant to note that, unlike Putin, whose popularity as measured by opinion polls has returned to well above 60% in recent months, the United Russia party has seen its popular support continue to erode so that its ability to hold a parliamentary majority after the next general elections is very much in doubt. The new grand coalition will ensure political continuity and stability in all eventualities.

This innovation at the level of federal ministers has its antecedents which the community of Russia Watchers, focused as it is on one man, has apparently failed to remark:  for some time now, there has been a certain power sharing with the minority parties at the level of committee chairmanships within the Duma.

This power sharing has existed at the party level and also in gender terms, with some chairmanships dealt out to women who happened also to be Communist, for example. I have in mind the chairwoman of the committee on family policy. Meanwhile, the chairmanship of the highly visible committee on foreign relations was, after the last parliamentary elections, removed from United Russia and handed to the nationalist party of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the LDPR.

We may see similar gestures of power sharing in the forthcoming announcements.  At the same time, it is highly likely that key figures in the outgoing cabinet such as Sergei Lavrov at Foreign Affairs and Sergei Shoigu at Defense will be reinstated in the new cabinet given the overwhelming support they enjoy in the Duma across most if not all parties.

I mentioned above that the constitutional reforms proposed by Vladimir Putin are self-contradictory. That arises from his insistence in the Address that, given its size and diversity, the Russian Federation requires a strong, indeed preeminent presidential power.  The point of possible conflict in future is his mention that the President sets the political agenda for the cabinet.  That potentially flies in the face of a power configuration wherein the cabinet is named by the lower house. How this works while Putin is in office is no guarantee of how it will work when he vacates the presidency and a person of lesser prestige takes over.

 

* * **

Overall, the constitutional reforms and tilt towards a strong, functional legislature mark a sharp break with the rule by decree and struggle for control between parliament and president that Putin inherited from Boris Yeltsin.  Except for the brief premiership of Yevgeni Primakov in 1998, during the whole period from 1993 until his resignation on New Year’s eve, 1999, Yeltsin had largely ruled by decree and in full defiance of the oppositional, Communist controlled Duma. Step-by-step, Putin has encouraged the parliament to take greater responsibility and to raise the professionalism of its legislative initiative and framing of laws. Evidently he now hopes to reap the benefits of that policy as his political legacy.

In closing, I add here an observation on the Address to the Federal Assembly itself.  Compared to recent years, it was shorter and was defined by near total concentration on domestic issues of immediate interest to the broad population. Aside from the usual complement of generalities on how the government will strive to improve the investment climate and raise GDP by more than 5% annually before Putin leaves office, there were numerous specific actions, some of them post-dated to January 1, 2020 that will put money in the pockets of the still largely underpaid Russian working class in government service and in private employment. These measures have all been budgeted for and are fully within the power of the President to implement.

The measures are specifically aimed at correcting Russia’s demographic challenge through enhancement to “maternal capital” disbursements. In effect, for families with two or more children, the total ad hoc allotment in cash and forgiveness of mortgage loans will amount to as much as 1 million rubles (nearly 15,000 euros), which is the equivalent of 50% of the cost of a typical apartment or house in provincial Russia. Other measures will ease the burden of child-rearing through age seven by monthly payments of 11,000 rubles (160 euros) per child to those at the bottom of the wage scale. Then there are promised goods in kind – universal provision of free hot meals to all children in elementary schools –starting in the new school year on September 1, 2020.  The importance of these measures taken together in raising the living standards of a large swathe of the Russian population cannot be overstated.

In effect, domestic concerns were the subject of 99% of the speech.  Putin devoted less than a minute to the international environment, foreign relations and military affairs, which in the past had consumed more than a third of his Addresses. He contented himself to remark that thanks to the achievements of Russia’s military renewal, meaning, of course, its new arsenal of hypersonic rockets, the country’s security has been assured for the coming decade or more.

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 web page to browse.]

Western media coverage of Russia as an exercise in propaganda

The notion of “fake news” has entered our vocabulary as a pejorative term for dissemination of bogus information, usually by social media, sometimes by traditional print and electronic channels which happen to hold positions contradicting the tenets of our conventional wisdom, i.e., liberal democracy. The term has been applied to Russian state owned media such as RT to justify denying such outlets normal journalistic credentials and privileges.

In this essay, I will employ the more traditional term propaganda, which I take to mean the manipulation of information which may or may not be factually true in order to achieve objectives of denigrating rivals for influence and power in the world, and in particular for denigrating Russia and the “Putin regime.”

The working tools of such propaganda are

  • tendentious determination of what constitutes news, which build on the inherent predisposition of journalism to feature the negative and omit the positive from daily reporting while they carry this predisposition to preposterous lengths
  • the abandonment of journalism’s traditional “intermediation,” meaning provision of necessary context to make sense of the facts set out in the body of a news report. In this regard, the propagandistic journalist does not deliver the essential element of paid-for journalism which should distinguish it from free “fake news”  on social media and on the internet more broadly
  • silence, meaning under-reporting or zero reporting of inconvenient news which contradicts the conventional wisdom or might prompt the reader-viewer to think for himself or herself. As a colleague and comrade in arms, professor Steve Cohen of Princeton and NYU, has said in his latest book War with Russia?:  the century old motto of The New York Times “All the news that’s fit to print” has in our day turned into “All the news that fits.”

 

Demonstrations of the arguments I present here could easily fill a book if not a library shelf.  However, I think for purposes of this essay, it suffices to adduce several examples of the three violations of professional journalism giving us a constant stream of propaganda about Russia and its political leadership by offering a few reports drawn from the very cream of our print and electronic media.  In particular, I have chosen as markers the Financial Times and the BBC.  The use of propaganda methods in their coverage of Russia is all the more telling and damaging, given that in a great many domains these channels otherwise represent some of the highest quality standards to be found in reporting anywhere today and consequently enjoy the respect of their subscribers and visitors, who little suspect they could be so prejudicial in their coverage of select domains like Russia.

* * * *

 

As 2019 drew to a close, many of our media outlets drew attention to two Russia-related anniversaries:  the just celebrated thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall with the retreat of Soviet armed forces from Eastern Europe that it touched off; and the soon to be celebrated twentieth year of Vladimir Putin’s hold on power in the Kremlin. Both subjects may be fairly called news worthy and so fully correspond to traditional journalistic values. What has been exceptional and unacceptable has come in the second category of violations listed above – lack of context.

Starting in October 2019, the BBC’s Moscow correspondent Steve Rosenberg did several programs dedicated to the fall of the Berlin Wall. During the Christmas to New Year’s period, the BBC aired one program which consisted of two parts. In the first half, Rosenberg considered the impact of the withdrawal of Russian forces from East Germany on the Russians themselves and interviewed the former chief of those forces, who explained at length how they “came home” to shocking living conditions in the provinces, how they were abandoned to their fate by their own government. The tone of the reporting was sympathetic to Russians’ hardships and it was good that their side of the story from the ground up was given the microphone. What implied criticism there was of the powers that be came from a patriotic source. However, the second half of the program was turned over to a certain Lilia Shevtsova, a very outspoken Putin-hater, formerly with the Carnegie Center Moscow, till she was finally booted out and moved to a more congenial and supportive think tank, Chatham House, in London, where her anti-Russian vitriol is encouraged and disseminated by her co-author, ex-British ambassador to Moscow Sir Andrew Wood. Among the gem quotations which Shevtsova delivered was the claim that Russia under Putin is a declining power which is capable only of disrupting the world order, a spoiler not capable of any creative or productive contribution. Of course, Shevtsova has a right to her opinions, however the BBC had an obligation to its audience to explain exactly who the lady is and, if they wanted to practice fair play, to offer an alternative interpretation of what Vladimir Putin’s Russia stands for on the global stage today.  They did not do either. The result was pure propaganda not news and analysis.

As for violations in the categories one and two above, a very good example arose following the recent publication of a study performed by the Levada Center public opinion polling organization in Moscow during October which showed that “53 per cent of 18-to-24 year-olds wanted to leave the country.” This was written about by many of our news peddlers, including FT. The decision to feature this factoid and use it to support claims that the Putin regime’ is a failure fits well with tendentiousness of our news coverage. Meanwhile, nearly all coverage of that study, including in the Financial Times, offered no contextual information whatsoever, when the context was begging to be told.

The article in FT which carried the Levada Center findings was published on 9 January as “Generation Putin: how young Russians view the only leader they’ve ever known.” The remarks on Levada followed directly on another statement begging for context: “Youth unemployment in Russia is more than three times the rate of the total population, according to 2018 data, compared with just twice the rate in 2000.”

First, as regards those 53% would-be “leavers,” one might ask: and so, why don’t they just leave?  Russia today is truly a free country:  anyone other than convicted felons who wants a passport can get it, and get it rather quickly. And thanks to the efforts of their remarkably hard-working Ministry of Foreign Affairs, most of the world welcomes Russian travelers without a visa requirement.  But for that matter, getting a Schengen visa for the EU is not so complicated either.

However, those 53% are, in fact, not going anywhere. They are just sounding off about their youthful disgruntlement with a world created and run by their parents.

At the same time, as the Financial Times editorial board knows full well, young, middle-aged and even old have been leaving the Baltic States, Bulgaria, Romania and other former Soviet Bloc countries in droves, for the past thirty years up to the present day.  That was the subject of an article published in the FT on the next day, 10 January 2020 under a title which speaks for itself:  “Shrinking Europe.” The states I mentioned here have seen 25 and 30% loss of their population to citizens voting with their feet and departing the shrinking economies and personal prospects which result directly from deindustrialization and economic colonization by Germany and other founding Member States of the EU since 1991. The issue appears in the news now because, as the FT explains, “Andrej Plenkovic, the Croatian prime minister, has decided to elevate population decline to the top of his agenda as Zagreb assumes the EU’s rotating presidency.”  Good for him! Now that the skeleton has finally come out of the EU closet, all the stories about Russia’s demographic crisis can be put in context – by those few who wish to do so.

Second, as regards unemployment in Russia today, I believe that similar ratios of youth unemployment to the general population unemployment can be found most everywhere in Western Europe if not in the world at large.  The fact that this ratio has worsened comparatively in Russia since 2000 may be explained by the anomalous situation in Russia prevailing throughout the 1990s in step with the economic collapse that accompanied the transition to a market economy.  Precisely the older generations, those over 40, were thrown into the street and their children or grandchildren were the first to be hired by the newly emerging industrial conglomerates, not to mention by Western multinationals settling in. What has happened since 2000 is merely a reversion to more normal distribution of employment and unemployment in the population as the Russian economy stabilizes.

Moreover, it would have been helpful had the author named the current level of youth and general unemployment in Russia. In fact, the general unemployment in Russia stands at something like 5%, so youth unemployment would be 15% by his reckoning.  I assure you that there are many EU Member States that would be delighted to have similarly low unemployment rates.  Here in Brussels the general rate has been over 20% for ten years or more, while youth unemployment has always been considerably higher.

Dear Reader!

For those who find my examples above too subtle to support my argument for egregious propagandistic treatment of Russia in our media, allow me to introduce violation number three, silence, in a way that should sweep away all objections to my thesis.

I draw your attention to an event that occurred in the past week about which you probably know nothing, or perhaps a wee bit from the odd man out reporting in the Wall Street Journal and a few other outlets. I am talking about the visit of Vladimir Putin to Damascus on Tuesday, 7 January. To their credit, the WSJ carried a short article in their 8 January edition, but went no further than to note this was the second visit by Putin since the Russians joined the fight in support of President Bashar Assad back in September 2015, turning the tide in the civil war his way. That is true, but only represents a tiny slice of what all our journalists, including the WSJ’s could have and possibly did learn from watching Russian state television on the 7th.  What our media chose not to report was passed over in silence because it shows the complexity of Russia’s policy in the Middle East that includes but goes well outside the domain of pure geopolitics. This is so not least because of the date chosen for the visit, which happens to be Orthodox Christmas.

On the evening of the 6th, that is to say on Christmas eve, by the Russian Orthodox calendar, Russian state television broadcast live coverage of the Christmas service in the Christ the Savior cathedral in Moscow officiated by Patriarch Kirill, with prime minister Medvedev present on behalf of the Government.  Then it cut to the service in St Petersburg, where Vladimir Putin sat in the congregation, as is his custom. The commentator mentioned in passing that the Patriarch’s father, a parish priest, just happened to be the one who baptized Vladimir Putin as a child where they all lived, in the Northern Capital.

The next coverage of Putin on state television was from Damascus on the 7th, where he obviously arrived on a night flight from Petersburg. I did not see video coverage, perhaps because the journalist pool was very limited for security reasons. But still photos and reports on state television informed us that Putin had not merely held talks with President Assad on the Russian military base outside the capital, but had strolled together with him down the streets of Damascus, had visited the main church in the (still existing) Christian quarter of the city, had presented to the Patriarch of Antioch an icon of the Virgin and had also gone on to visit the city’s oldest and largest mosque.

What you have here is precisely the second line of justification for Russian presence in Syria alongside military/geopolitical reasons: resuming Russia’s 19th century role as protector of the Orthodox population in the Holy Land and the broader Middle East.  A similar role was exercised back then by France on behalf of the Catholic populations, but that since has been totally negated by rampant secularism and multiculturalism in Western Europe.

It also has to be said that Putin’s visit to Damascus was back-to-back with other very high visibility political statements:  his visit to Istanbul on the 8th for the official opening of the TurkStream gas pipeline and for lengthy talks with President Erdogan that ended in a joint statement calling for a truce in the Libyan civil war for which Russia and Turkey support opposing sides; and his visit on the 9th to Russian naval exercises in the Eastern Mediterranean that included the launch of Russia’s latest hypersonic missiles, the reality of which U.S. and other Western experts have yet to acknowledge.

With this I rest my case on the unfortunate propagandistic behavior of our media which deprive the broad Western public of any chance to make sense of the most dangerous military and political stand-off of our age.

©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.]

Vladimir Putin’s Legacy

In his appearance at the Russian Cultural Center in Brussels a couple of weeks ago, the 86-year-old bard from St Petersburg Alexander Gorodnitsky objected to being introduced by the event organizer as “legendary.” Not appropriate, said he: I am still alive!

However, operating in a parallel domain, today’s political commentators do not wait for politicians and statesmen to shuffle off this mortal coil before starting the debate on their legacy. One does not even have to leave office for the starting shot to be fired.

Thus, lame duck Chancellor Angela Merkel is being subjected daily to this kind of critical analysis.  From my perspective, there is not much to argue over:  her policy of corrosive austerity in the face of one of the EU’s most severe economic and political tests following the crash of 2008 has yielded a legacy of several hundred billion euros in infrastructure underfunding in her own country alone, with Germany now possessing some of the worst highways and worst telecoms infrastructure in the EU.

In its latest print edition, Foreign Affairs magazine devoted space to evaluating the foreign policy legacy of Barack Obama.  They need not have bothered:  what little Obama may have added to the evolution of policy has been utterly shredded during the two years in office of his successor, Donald Trump.

As one of the most prominent and talked about statesmen on the European  and global stage in the past two decades, Russian President Vladimir Putin has also been the subject of speculation over his legacy, though almost always the discussion is framed in strictly ideological terms:  over the alleged gutting of Russian democracy which he received from the hands of the country’s founder, Boris Yeltsin, and its replacement by an authoritarian mode of governance that draws upon nationalism, upon populism, in a word on the worst instincts of his electorate.

It is not my intention to get into an ideological spat with the vast majority of pundits and area specialists who stand behind the generalizations I just set out.  I believe they are dead wrong on two counts. First, the Russia of Boris Yeltsin was democratic only in the eyes of his American and European backers, who found the chaotic and desperately weak Russia of Yeltsin’s watch congenial to their plans of definitively sidelining Russia and allocating it to a minor place in European politics.  In reality, Boris Yeltsin was not only the President who used military force against his Parliament in 1993 before rewriting the Constitution to give the executive power vast authority, he was also the President re-elected to office in 1996 with the help of oligarchs’ money obtained in exchange for the sell-off of the national jewels of hydrocarbons and other raw materials production for a song and with the help of massive electoral fraud. Moreover, after his re-election he ruled largely by decree and with utter scorn for the oppositional Duma.

The second fundamental error is the prevailing blindness to the positive achievements in governance during the Putin years, which have in many dimensions seen the flowering of civil society, the growing professionalism of the legislature, the dedication of monuments to the victims of the Stalin years and other signs holding the promise of a slow but steady evolution in a democratic polity that respects human rights, has one of the lowest rates of incarceration in general among major countries, with virtually no political prisoners to speak of.

But, let us put that dispute over Putin’s possible political legacy as democrat or demagogue aside and look at the legacy that is almost beyond challenge by his detractors: the vast and multifarious investments in the nation’s infrastructures contributing to the efficiency of the economy and to the enrichment of Russia’s cultural and spiritual life, infrastructures that will outlast Vladimir Putin’s time in office by many decades.

This is all the more relevant as a discussion point today, 23 December, when the railway bridge across the Kerch Strait connecting mainland Russia with the Crimea was officially opened to traffic. This railway bridge runs parallel to a four lane highway bridge that was commissioned in May 2018.  Construction on both began in 2016 and they have been completed within or ahead of the planned timelines.  At 19 kilometers, they are the longest bridges in Russia and, arguably, in Europe. They represent a magnificent engineering feat given the physical challenges of the site. They were designed and built entirely by Russian teams.

The four lanes of the roadway have carried as many as 35,000 vehicles a day since entering service.  The new railroad bridge is expected to carry around 14 million passengers in 2020 and also will carry around 13 million tons of freight. Regular passenger service between St Petersburg and Sevastopol, and Moscow and Sevastopol was opened today and will be intensified in coming weeks as more trains are put on line.

Remarkable as today’s event was, it was just one in a series of major engineering projects of national importance completed under the direction of the Kremlin during this past year. In the past six weeks alone there were two other projects brought on line that are well worthy of mention.

On 2 December, we witnessed the commissioning of the Power of Siberia gas pipeline which runs several thousand kilometers from the gas fields of Yakutia in Siberia to Blagoveshchensk in the Amur Oblast, where it crosses over and connects with the Chinese gas grid. Implementation of this project began in 2014 following conclusion of a gas contract between Moscow and Beijing foreseeing sales of $400 billion in natural gas during a 30 year period.  When it is operating at full capacity in 2025, the pipeline will carry 38 billion cubic meters of gas to China per annum.   Construction of this pipeline was a formidable task given the adverse climatic conditions and vast unpopulated territories though which it passes.  En route, the pipeline will also serve what will be one of Russia’s largest natural gas processing complexes now under construction, breaking the raw material into high value fractions for sale domestically and for export. An extension of the pipeline will take it to the Russian Pacific coast at Vladivostok for possible processing as LNG. And in the Russian regions though which it passes, it will bring ‘gasification’ to serve residential and industrial needs.

Together with the pipelines in the West of Russia, the Nord Stream-1 and Turk Stream, which itself is about to start up in January 2020, the Power of Siberia pipeline gives the Kremlin the option of directing its exports in the future East and/or West according to most favorable commercial and political conditions. This flexibility is further enhanced by the parallel development of LNG capabilities by the private gas producer Novatek and its various partners in Europe and China based on fields in the Yamal peninsula of the Russian North.  Though Yamal is not directly controlled by the Kremlin in the way that Gazprom projects are, its development is facilitated by legislation governing export rights and conditions. Construction of a second LNG installation on Yamal is now pending. The feasibility of commercialization for deliveries heading east to Asian markets is supported by the world’s largest and most modern fleet of conventional and nuclear ice breakers, the most massive and powerful of which is presently entering sea trials. These ships are entirely designed and constructed in Russia’s state-owned naval yards.

And if we go back just a bit further to 27 November, the big news was the opening of the ultra-modern high speed toll road connecting Moscow and St Petersburg, the M-11. This road is one of the most significant Public Private Partnership ventures to be launched in the country. Partnership with the French-based international concern VINCI Concessions has ensured that best practices have been applied to safety, durability, driver comfort and the other leading parameters. To put the significance of this new road to motorists in terms that car enthusiasts of North America can appreciate, the new road makes it possible to travel a distance comparable to the Northeast Corridor of Boston – Washington, D.C. in approximately 5 and a half hours!

The M-11 runs parallel to the old national highway M-10, with numerous interchanges allowing drivers to economize as they may wish to do by switching to the free highway where and when conditions are good or to make use of the many established gas stations, restaurants and rest areas along the old road.  The provision of such amenities on the new road  is the responsibility of the four regions (oblasts) through which it passes and will understandably take some time to fill in

The opening of this super highway has been criticized by some detractors of the Putin government for covering up the woeful state of the nation’s roads in general, especially at the local level.  Indeed, until recently there was a lot of grousing among the broad population, and it was largely justified.  I recall seeing a slogan pasted on the back window of one car out in the countryside: “I pay my taxes. Where are the roads?” That rhymes nicely in Russian: “Я плачу налоги. Где дороги?”  And most Russians have been quick to recall the witty description of travel in Russia by the novelist Gogol in the first third of the 19th century:  “Russia has no roads. It has only directions.”

However, with the launch of Vladimir Putin’s “national projects” in May 2018 following his reelection, the government has finally tackled this massive problem with appropriate money and federal guidance.  While the end results of the latest efforts to give Russia local and regional roads worthy of the name are by their nature not so easy to prove and photograph as a super highway like the M11, there are signs of real traction. The problem, it seems, is not insoluble.

The Kommersant newspaper is not known for tossing bouquets to those in power. Cutting sarcasm is its more customary journalistic style.  However, in its 19 November 2019 edition, the newspaper issued a 4 page supplement “Review. The Roads of Russia”, the first page of which carries the dramatic headline “The potholes are fading away into the past” summarizing the achievements of the National Project “Safe and High-quality Roads” in 2019.

I quote from the lead paragraph:
“In Russia a record amount of work is being done and financed within the National Project “Safe and High-quality Roads,” which has as its objective to increase the share of the regional road network meeting standards to 50%, and highways within urban areas to 85% by the end of 2024. This year they succeeded in establishing order at a significant number of sites: residents already can see the changes with the naked eye. A number of problems were revealed which must be solved in the immediate future, among them a shortage of regional managers and experience in precise planning.”

Now I will downshift from this kind of global generalization of the journalists to anecdotal evidence from my own experience.  At about the time the Kommersant article appeared, I made an end of season visit to our dacha in the countryside 80 km south of Petersburg.  The old federal Kiev Highway taking us to within 20 km of our destination was and remains in a good state of repair and it is gradually being replaced by a modern six lane road with median strip and with illumination that now reaches out to perhaps 40 km south of the city.  However, the local roads have been of variable quality, with the stretch from the village of Siversk, designated an “urban” settlement, to our hamlet of Orlino having fallen into lamentable disrepair over the past four years, with more temporary patches than original asphalt.  Over these 12 kilometers, which local buses also must traverse, incurring heavy maintenance costs, it was customary to see drivers regularly cross over into the lane of opposing traffic to avoid the larger and more menacing potholes.

However, on this November 2019 end of season visit, we were stunned to find that the whole road had been resurfaced in what they call “capital repair.” This was proof positive that the National Project is being realized and bringing benefits to where people live. Too early to see if this will be a “legacy” but it is a good start.

On a separate note, when speaking of infrastructure investments during the Putin years, one must consider also the renovated or new airports and train stations, as well as the new sports stadiums across many cities of Russia linked to the hosting of the FIFA World Cup this past year which is said to have cost $12 billion.  Then there are the massive investments in Sochi and the nearby Krasnaya Polyana winter sports complex dating from the Winter Olympics of 2016.  Many critics and naysayers at the time predicted that the 50 billion spent on these infrastructures would be just white elephant non-recoverable outlays. However, today’s reality is that Sochi has become the international year-round resort of the Russian Federation, enjoying very high patronage and offering world class facilities to all visitors.

Finally, without detailing the phenomenon which is to be seen all across Russia, the Putin years have given to the population new or reconstructed world class facilities for theater, symphony, opera, dance and the fine arts.  In St Petersburg alone, the complex of three performance venues of the Mariinsky Theater can be held up as fair competition to New York’s Lincoln Center or London’s Barbican Centre.

All of this is what I consider the most lasting and invaluable legacy that Mr Putin will leave to his nation upon his retirement. Kudos!

Postscript, 29 December 2019:

The build-out of Russia’s cultural infrastructure did not start yesterday.
Here is an excerpt from an interview with Valery Gergiev for the Lunch with the FT series dated late June 2000, just before the opening of a 5-week cycle of performances of the Mariinsky (Kirov) at Covent Garden:

… his plans for St Petersburg that are clearly his dearest ambitions. If completed – and it sounds as though they will need several hundred million pounds of investment – they will make the Kirov and its home, the Mariinsky Theatre, the centre of one of the largest cultural projects in Europe. Not only will there be a full restoration of the Mariinsky but also a series of related projects, including a new school for singers and instrumentalists, housing for the precious Kirov archives, new spaces for rehearsals and concerts, and facilities for the growing number of foreign visitors, drawn by the city’s musical life.

“…’I have seen what Lincoln Centre did to regenerate that part of the Upper West Side of New York. We can do this, too, in St Petersburg.’ The idea has already won the backing of the new Russian president, Vladimir Putin, a St Petersburger who has no doubt noticed Gergiev’s value both as a cultural icon and as a foreign-currency earner.

“’He even telephoned me, in the middle of the war in Chechnya, you know, for a long conversation about the Kirov. Putin knows the city and what it needs.’”
 
That was completed, of course, A project of similar ambition is now on its way to completion for the Eifman ballet company – school and performing stage – also in Petersburg.  I could name a dozen or more other cities around Russia where opera and dance complexes have been renovated or built from scratch in the past decade.  These tend to be in towns that otherwise are now economically flourishing either from hydrocarbons or from agricultural production. I know the places because among my friends is the chief stage director of the Mariinsky who puts on shows at these new venues.
Then, as I say, there are the new or improved art museums, concert halls and drama theaters.  The artistic results are variable, which is understandable given that so much depends on the talents of the local management teams.  But there are no white elephants.

 

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2019

[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.]

Launch of “A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs”

I am pleased to announce the publication of my latest collection of essays. The capsule description of the book carried on the pages of internet booksellers is as follows

“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.”

 

However, there is much more to the story that has relevance to its potential readers  set out in the Foreword shown below, starting with the several layers of nuance in the title itself.

 

Foreword

 

The title of this book has been chosen with care and a few introductory words of explanation are owed to the reader.

First, the notion of a “Belgian perspective” on international affairs may on its own seem peculiar.  In what way, one might ask, can little Belgium, with its population of around 12 million have a perspective that is unique and worthy of consideration? In the same vein, what perspective on foreign affairs in general can a lesser Member State of the European Union have when the most powerful Member State, Germany, denies that it has an independent foreign policy and defers to Brussels, specifically to the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, who,  formally, holds sole responsibility for these matters on behalf of the 500 million plus people from 28 nations? Indeed, in a recent interview relating to the publication of his latest book, the octogenarian former prime minister of Belgium Marc Eyskens pointed out that the rise of the EU Institutions has left national governments with a substantially reduced level of sovereignty and competence comparable to that of a major city rather than of a country.

Meanwhile and in parallel, as the seat of both the NATO headquarters near the Zaventem Airport and of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe in Mons, Belgium marches in lock-step with its US-led allies. Belgium’s mainstream media, both television and print media, traditionally support whatever policy line comes from the EU Institutions and NATO.

There have been rare exceptions to this solemn loyalty to the consensus.  In particular, in the run-up to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Belgium was one of the three “Old Europe” nations, alongside  France and Germany, that joined Russia in openly rejecting US policy.  For this the nation’s Prime Minister at the time, Guy Verhofstadt, paid dearly, being disqualified from appointment to head the EU Commission, for which he was a leading candidate at the time.

But the aforementioned facts constraining the political elites of Belgium are by no means imperative for Belgian society as a whole.  Indeed, as I detail in several essays in this collection,  at both ends of society, the high end in their dinner jackets and at the mass, man-in-the-street level, there is very little sympathy for the official foreign and defense policies and a lot of free-thinking going on.

All of which brings us to the question of who is the Belgian whose perspective is set out in this tome. The simple and direct answer is that I am that Belgian.

Readers of my articles posted in various platforms on the internet have seen me described in the past as an American and long-time resident of Brussels. Both statements were and are correct.  However, in August 2017 I also became a naturalized Belgian. This ‘second birth’ was more than seven years in gestation.  After its successful culmination, I found myself increasingly involved in intra-Belgian, intra-European politics. Consequently, I have written with greater frequency on issues that are specific to the Old Continent. By their nature, these articles have not been picked up and disseminated via the internet platforms based in the United States by which readers know me best. Moreover, in my new guise I have written some of these articles or speeches in French so as to better reach prospective readers around me where I live and practice politics.  These materials are also republished in this volume.

Notwithstanding the new elements, as in my preceding three collections of “nonconformist” essays published between 2013 and 2017, the major part of my writings is focused on present-day Russia and its relations with the United States and Europe.  Russia is my main field of interest and expertise coming both from book learning and from life experience as a frequent visitor to the country over many decades and also as someone who has both lived and worked there for eight years beginning in 1994. That is something very few of our commentators in the West can say before they launch into ill-informed vitriolic attacks on the “Putin regime” and Russians as a people.

Since all of the essays presented here have been published on the internet in one way or another, it is legitimate to ask what is the added value of republishing them as a book.  There are several answers to that question, ranging from the superficial but adequate to an answer that goes to the heart of how I see my social role in writing these pieces.

The superficial but adequate explanation is that everything is transient, nothing more so than the internet, where  digital platforms are here today, gone tomorrow, where even one’s own blog site lasts no longer than the latest annual fees payment.  And while e-books may be no more durable than the publishing company maintaining and distributing the digital files, physical books deposited in libraries will be accessible to the curious public and to researchers as long as the human race continues on its way, which may or may not be eons depending on your degree of pessimism inspired by this and similar works by my fellow “dissidents” on international affairs.

The deeper explanation is that influencing public opinion towards détente, towards self-preservation and away from confrontation with Russia that can easily end in catastrophe presently does not appear to be actionable. This is so for banal but understandable reasons that have to do firstly with the way the United States is governed internally and secondly how the United States rules over “the free world.”

Over the past twenty years or more, repeated polls taken by Pew and other research institutions have shown that the American public does not support foreign military adventures or a world gendarme role for their country.  However, the political establishment pays no heed whatsoever to this clear disposition of the electorate just as the views of the electorate on a great many other issues are ignored by Congress and by the Executive branch. This follows from the financial dimension of getting and staying in power.  By campaign funding and lobbying, a tiny number of exceedingly wealthy individuals and corporations effectively make policy at the federal level, and accommodation with the world is not on their agenda.

Meanwhile, whether as a result of awareness of their powerlessness or for other reasons, the broad American public is apathetic as concerns foreign policy. People just don’t want to disturb their peace of mind by contemplating the aggressive, bullying behavior of their government on the international stage.  “Our boys” are not being killed abroad in significant numbers.  The budgeted military expenses of the USA are being financed by others who buy Washington’s Treasury notes.  There is nothing to force a reckoning with what is being done in the name of America abroad.  Least of all, with respect to Russia, which has taken with surprising equanimity the sanctions and other punishments meted out to them over their alleged bad conduct in Ukraine and Syria, over their alleged meddling in American and European elections. The notion that the West might be crossing their red lines at some point, that the economic and informational war might spill over into kinetic war that escalates quickly – such thoughts could not be further from the minds of people in the States or in Western Europe, including those who take a real interest in public affairs and think they are au courant.

This is not to say that the essays published here and similar writings by my comrades-in-arms have no readers.  On the contrary, our works are republished by portals other than our own. They are referenced on social networks and attract considerable numbers of “hits,” meaning individual readers.  Some of the essays in this book have reached an audience numbering in the tens of thousands.  But so far the dry residue of this relative success remains inconsequential.  No broad-based political movement championing my/our principles of détente has emerged. There are no demonstrations on behalf of peace, while there are American and worldwide demonstrations to fight for renewable energy and for programs to combat climate change, or to fight for gender issues and equality of pay.

So, why write? why publish?

This takes us to the question of self-definition and social role.

We are living through Dark Ages today, notwithstanding all the technical achievements of our science and technology and advanced medicine.  At the moral, social and political levels, these are bleak times when “progressive” values trample upon traditional moral and ethical, not to mention religious values, when freedom of expression and other civil liberties have been gutted for the sake of public security and to serve demagogic purposes.

In this context, these writings are intended to be an eyewitness account of the prevailing moral and political decadence for the edification of those in future generations who will have their own battles to fight to safeguard cultural traditions and freedoms. In assuming this role of a chronicler, I seek to continue the work of those who passed this way half a century ago or more and who left behind their own writings of the day, which gave me spiritual encouragement and purpose when I came across them.

At the same time, I do not abandon the hope that my compatriots in America and now also in Europe will come to their senses and explore these writings and the writings of my fellow dissidents to find an antidote to the propaganda about the recent past and present being dispensed by government, by mainstream media and by all too many scholars in the field.

One straw in the wind was a July 2019 editorial in the hawkish, till now fanatically anti-Russian New York Times calling for a rapprochement with Russia before that country aligns definitively with China and recreates a global threat to American interests.  Or I refer to the publication of an article co-authored by former Georgia Senator Sam Nunn in the September-October edition of Foreign Affairs magazine, another standard bearer of U.S. hegemony, stating in detail the existential risks we incur by having cut lines of communication with Russia and by entering into a new, uncontrolled arms race with that country. As the Chair of the Senate Committee on Armed Services from 1987 to 1995, he was a leading figure in arms control negotiations. In the new millennium, Nunn has been one of the generally recognized “wise men” in the American political establishment, alongside Henry Kissinger, George Shultz and James Baker.

There is also an impulse for optimism coming from the latest declarations of French President Emanuel Macron, who is striving to assume leadership of the European Union’s policy agenda now that control is slipping from the hands of Germany’s Iron Lady, Angela Merkel in the waning days of her chancellorship. In his speech to French ambassadors following the conclusion of the G7 summit meeting in Biarritz on the weekend of 24-25 August, Macron stated very clearly that Europe must put an end to its policy of marginalizing and ostracizing Russia because the Old Continent needs to work cooperatively with Moscow if it is not to become a powerless bystander to the growing conflict between the United States and China.

Such signs of sobriety and concern for self-preservation suggest that all is not lost in the cause of détente.

For those who have not read my earlier works, I repeat here that my essays are often devoted to major events of the day, but are not systematic or comprehensive. I wrote only when I believed that I had a unique perspective, often from my direct participation in the event as actor or firsthand witness. I have not taken up subjects where all of my peers were piled up on the line or were basing themselves on secondary sources.  I consider my own writings to be primary sources in an extended, autobiographical genre.

However, they do not constitute pure autobiography. That is something I am writing in parallel in a book devoted to Russia in the wild 1990s, which I saw at ground level as the country General Manager working from offices in Moscow and St Petersburg  for a succession of major international producers of consumer goods and services.

 

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©Gilbert Doctorow, 2019