Understanding Russia: Let’s not assume Medvedev is Putin’s Puppet

February 29, 2008

dmitry-medvedev.jpgRussia no longer makes headlines in the West. There are other evil empires to defeat. But this weekend we should be interested in Russia’s Presidential elections, and the intertwined fates of Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev

President Putin is set to become Prime Minister Putin. (Yawn). He steps down as President at the end of his second term. The overwhelming favourite to replace him is Dmitry Medvedev, a Business leader (Chairman of Gazprom), who in the West has been dismissed as some sort of Putin puppet.

In the West, we are much more interested in whether America will go for that nice Mr Obama, or pick their first woman for President, or maybe seek another good old-fashioned warrior in Senator John MacCain.

A Ritual of Pretend Democracy?

Are the Russian leadership elections a sham? Russia Today is overtly state-sponsored, and directed outwards. Its blogger, Peter Lavelle, or to give him his official title, Political Commentator, takes the issue head-on.

Many in the media have dismissed Russia’s presidential election as a charade and a ritual of pretend democracy. This is a mistake. The presidential election is clearly not exciting and there is a predictable outcome. But this does not mean the voters don’t have a choice. They do have a choice and I fully expect the electorate to act out the following logic: “If is not broken, why fix it?”

Russians will go to the polls on Sunday to vote on their future. There are four candidates on the ballot. One is well known and supported by the very popular President Vladimir Putin. Two are old hands in politics and the fourth is a relative unknown. For the “commentariat” in the West and some in Russia this all means a non-election. However, I submit this election is not about voting for someone, but about what kind of Country Russia can, and needs to, become.

Lavelle goes on to argue that Democracy is emerging in Russia, and that Putin has earned his popularity through his political leadership over his two terms of Office.

What does the West have to say?

Not a lot, as I indicated. The Guardian reflects the libertarian position in the UK. Luke Harding from Moscow reports the Civil Rights issues highlighted by Amnesty International.

President Vladimir Putin has presided over a major “roll-back” of civil rights in Russia, which has seen freedom of expression, assembly and association seriously curtailed, Amnesty International warned yesterday. In a report ahead of Russia’s presidential elections this Sunday the human rights group said the Kremlin was using new laws to persecute non-governmental organisations, forcibly break up opposition demonstrations and wipe out dissent.

The Kremlin claims it is committed to human rights and democracy. It accuses western governments of using rights as a political weapon to try to thwart Russia’s resurgence on the international stage.

The BBC at home and abroad

The BBC has been disappointing in its reporting for a home audience, while retaining some of its traditional excellent coverage internationally. On the eve of the elections, on Friday 29th February 2008, the BBC’s home news page on its website had as lead story Price Harry who has been serving in Afghanistan for the last ten weeks. No mention of the Russian elections.

In contrast, The BBC World News page did have the elections as a lead story. The focus was taken from an interview with Vladimir Churov, the head of the electoral commission.

Mr Chirov had ‘admitted media coverage was unequal’, but was further quoted as saying the Campaign was “fair but not equal”.

“That’s a problem not only for our country but I can agree that not all candidates have an equal number of news items,” However, the election chief argued it was legitimate for news programmes to focus on the activities of Mr Medvedev in his current capacity as first deputy prime minister, [adding] that he had no regrets that the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). Europe’s main election monitoring body, had decided not to send an observer mission, and that the world would form its own opinion on the legitimacy of Sunday’s election.

More of the Same, Please

More interesting was a series of interviews with Russian citizens on their views of the elections.

The interviews suggested one view on the current situation in Russia. Unlike the United States, there is no momentum building up for yet more change. However contrived the elections appear to be in Western eyes, the Russians interviewed seemed to be welcoming the prospects of continuity.

I have no way of knowing how selective are the comments, or whether it would have been impossible to obtain stronger oppositional views expressed. I am more confident that the BBC had been unable to secure any such views, which would have made a rather more interesting story. No change wanted is not the headline of choice.


Tit for tat diplomacy: Chess as a source of strategy insights

July 17, 2007

kasparov.jpgA dispute between Great Britain and Russia has blown up into tit-for-tat political gestures. We examine the process as a strategic game, using chess as a source of strategic insights

Tuesday July 17th 2007

In another challenge for the Government, the new Foreign Secretary David Miliband faces his first international incident. The episode can be traced to the death in London in mysterious circumstances of the Russian political dissident and activist Alexander Litvinenko.

Mr Litvinenko, a former KGB agent, died of exposure to radioactive polonium-210 in London in November 2006. The trail led to Andrei Lugovoi, another KGB agent still living in Moscow.

Efforts to investigate the case further led to escalation into a political dispute. On Monday July 16th 2007, The BBC reported that four Russian diplomats were being expelled expelled from Britain.

Mr Putin has already indicated strong rejection of the claims and the British actions.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry chief spokesman Mikhail Kamynin said:

“London’s position is immoral. Such provocative actions masterminded by the British authorities will not be left without an answer and cannot but entail the most serious consequences for Russian-British relations”.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitri Peskov said: “We don’t want to be provoked into a ping-pong game, although of course the Russian side will provide a necessary response.”

So where does chess come into all this?

Chess hasn’t come into the story all yet. I am just continuing to build a case that Chess is a powerful lens through which to examine strategic issues. Dmitri goes so far as to say that Moscow is not interested in ping-pong diplomacy. Quite right. That’s more the approach favored by Chinese leaders of recent memory.

But Chess. That’s different. Remember Ian Fleming’s celebrated tale of the Russian Grand Master hauled out of a chess tournament to bring his brilliant mind to bear on a tricky stategic problem? May even as I write, something like that is going on in Moscow. Although it sure as hell will not be Gary Kasparov at work. He is already bending his brilliant mind to strategies for opposing Mr Putin.

Incidentally, the image above comes from The Kuwait Times of April 15th 2007. It shows Gary (back to camera)engaged in his new career as a politician.

So what strategic insights might be revealed as we extend the chess metaphor? I must add that this is no attempt at black humour, and I do not deny the real-life seriousness of such a ‘game’ that led to the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, and arguably other murky activities and plans.

Assume the players are London (white) and Moscow (black). The game has been in play for a while and we pick up the position recently.

Move 1: Four Russian pawns are captured

The pawns were no direct threat to London. The move invites a reply from Moscow. Prior moves suggest that London would like Moscow to give up Andre Lugovoi. Moscow has indicated it will not make this move in response. London’s move is therefore to be viewed not as a direct threat forcing a reply, but as a move with a concealed threat or intention.

Moscow is expected to reply in a way which is seen to be a consequence of the London move. Sooner rather than later …


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