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Archive for December, 2010

The Second Khordokovsky Trial and the “Virtual Mafia State.”

Posted by democratist on December 31, 2010

31st December 2010,

From time to time Democratist enjoys dipping into Truth and Beauty, an intelligent if cynical pro-putin blog run by Eric Kraus, the (fairly openly) mercenary Moscow-based French investment broker who maintains a natty sideline as a sort of ersatz financial Machiavelli among Russia bloggers.

Democratist tends to see the opinions in T&B as a cleverly distilled reflection of the prejudices of the Russian elite, aimed at gaining this critical constituency’s approval, whilst also talking-up foreign investment through Kraus’ own firm.

As such, we found T&B’s recent musings on the second Khordokovsky trial both instructive and informative. These can be summarized as follows;

  • Khordokovsky is a brutal crook, guilty of complicity in a number of murders, and deserves to be in prison.
  • However, he has not yet been charged with murder, perhaps because the Russian government is holding this in reserve so it can continue to threaten him later.
  • Khordokovsky is no more guilty than the worst of his oligarch peers, but unlike them continued to threaten the Russian state after Putin came to power, and has therefore faced the consequences.
  • Putin is being disingenuous when he claims he does not have evidence against the other oligarchs. He does, and can use this kompromat to keep them in line.
  • The West is just as corrupt as Russia, only in a different way: Russia has “honest corruption”; well-stuffed envelopes and fee-for-service, without hypocrisy. In the West, the media are “bought” through the influence of PR men and lobbyists.

In pointing out that Mr Khordokovsky was (to put it mildly) no saint, admitting the political motivation for the original trial, and underlining how the case has served as an important constitutive element in the creation of the of the current political system, Kraus is surely correct.  For Democratist however, his main failing is his clearly false, nomenklatura-flattering insistence that Russia and the West are two sides of the same coin in terms of corruption.

In a competitive political environment, politicians, voters, PR men, lobbyists, civil society do-gooders, journalists, bureaucrats, judges, lawyers and others are forced to constantly fight it out for political influence.  The result is a system which, while far from perfect, retains a considerable resistance to political and judiciary corruption, and in which policies and legal decisions are usually tested by criticism, and face possible correction.

In contemporary Russia there is no longer any political competition; corruption flourishes to an extent unseen in any other major industrialized country, and the rule of law is open to the kind of selective application (as a warning to others) demonstrated by the second Khordokovsky trial. Under Putin, murder and blackmail have been subsumed into the fabric of the political system rather than quashed by it. The predictable result has been, in the wikileaked words of the US State Department, “a corrupt, autocratic kleptocracy…in which officials, oligarchs and organised crime are bound together to create a virtual mafia state.”

It will be very interesting to see how many foreigners will be keen to invest their money into such a country in 2011.

Posted in Democratization, Human Rights, Russia - US Relations | Leave a Comment »

Russia: Counter Espionage as Foreign Policy

Posted by democratist on December 29, 2010

December 29th 2010,

Some of our readers may remember that back in September Democratist suggested the strong likelihood that Russia would need to place an increasing emphasis on military and industrial espionage over the coming years in order to compensate for a lack of domestic innovation and FDI.

We argued that such a trend is more or less inevitable, given the country’s extraordinary corruption, very little foreign investment, and historical precedence.

Democratist readers may not therefore be too surprised to hear that, in an Itar-Tass article published on 28th December, SVR Chief Mikhail Fradkov is reported as having stated,

“In the foreseeable future, the SVR’s workload will not be diminishing…the SVR provides active assistance to the task to modernize our country…the intelligence service is making a palpable contribution to the development of the national science, technological and defence potential.”

Evidently Fradkov is doing his best to pander to the expectations of both Putin and Medvedev (who is, despite his “liberal” image a keen advocate and supporter of Vorsprung durch Spionage).

Since the US-Russia spy exchange in July, Democratist has become more sceptical about the SVR’s abilities. It appears a mere shadow of the KGB’s “First Directorate” (Первое Главное Управление), has evidently been penetrated by the CIA several times in recent years, suffers from seriously lax personnel security (stemming from corruption), and is likely to face similar problems in the future.

Nonetheless, we feel that the West should do everything in its power to exploit Russia’s evident weakness in the sphere of innovation; while the opportunities to reverse-engineer Western military gadgets may be limited given Russia’s industrial backwardness, the more apparent national military-industrial weakness becomes to the nomenklatura over the next decade, the more likely we are to see calls for genuine political and economic reform (as opposed to the current sham). Additionally, a militarily weak Russia is preferable for the West, given the potential for the current regime to take on a more nationalistic and revanchist hue.

In this regard counter-espionage in relation to Russia needs to be seen not just as a function of Western national security, but also of foreign policy, and deserves a commensurate increase in attention and resources.

Posted in Russian Espionage, Russian Liberalization, Western Foreign Policy | 3 Comments »

Moldova’s New Government: Still on a Knife-Edge

Posted by democratist on December 27, 2010

27th December 2010,

The month following the 28th November 2010 parliamentary elections in Moldova has proved fascinating in terms of Moldova’s own domestic coalition-building, but equally because the EU and Russia have both been jockeying, more or less openly, to influence that process.

With the first session of the new parliament due to take place tomorrow, and the election results finally approved by the constitutional court, horse-trading among the parliamentary political parties has reached fever pitch over the last couple of days.

The situation is on a knife-edge, and hard to predict, but following a period of several weeks during which it seemed that Marian Lupu’s Democratic Party might be able to form a coalition with the Communists (PCRM), those talks have stalled, and the main focus appears to have shifted back towards the reestablishment of the Alliance for European Integration (AIE), which has ruled the country since September 2009.

Although rarely reported in the mainstream Western press, these recent negotiations in Moldova have been closely observed by both EU and Russian diplomats; a Communist MP until 2009, Lupu has always been markedly more pro-Russian than the other two AIE leaders, and the PCRM themselves have retained their traditional pro-Russian stance with leader Vladimir Voronin stating in early December that Moldova might accede to Russia’s proposed customs union (as Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus recently agreed to do), as well as engage in a “deeper strategic partnership,” should the PCRM manage to form a coalition.

As such, it was hardly a surprise that Russian presidential chief of staff Sergey Nariskin visited Chisinau a few days later, offering cheaper gas and a resumption of banned Moldovan wine imports if the parties were able to form a pro-Moscow government.

Meanwhile, the EU have also played their hand in the form of a subsequent visit by Swedish and Polish Foreign Ministers Carl Bildt and Radek Sikorski, apparently designed to shore-up support for a pro-EU coalition.

Bildt is reported as having later commented, “What there is on the European agenda for Moldova is the association agreement. If you look at what the Moldovan economy needs, it is deep and comprehensive free trade with the EU. That is what can over time lead to a better development of what is today the poorest country in Europe. I’m not saying that cheap gas is bad, but economies and prosperity can’t be built on cheap gas.”

So both sides have mapped out their visions of Moldova’s future. Democratist (unsurprisingly) recommends the adoption of the European model as the best option for eventual political and economic reform, but the situation remains fluid, and coalition negotiations could still go either way.

Posted in Elections, European Union, Moldova, Russian Foreign Policy | 1 Comment »

Book Review: Strange Days Indeed, The Golden Age of Paranoia by Francis Wheen

Posted by democratist on December 24, 2010

24th December 2010,

In line with our policy of writing book reviews for titles that have already been available for some time (a result of both sloth and impecuniosity), Democratist recently acquired a copy of Francis Wheen’s excellent Strange Days Indeed: The Golden Age of Paranoia. (4th Estate, 2009) through the good offices of, and for the very reasonable sum of £0.01 (plus £2.75 post and packaging).

Strange Days is essentially a political and social history of the 1970’s, focused principally on the US and UK, which seeks to highlight the developing “mélange of apocalyptic dread and conspiratorial fever” that characterized much of the decade, as the optimism of the 1960’s came face to face with (among other things); Watergate, the 3-day week, Baader-Meinhof, the IRA, the growth of religious cults, and the popularity of conspiracy theories.

As such, the book provides an especially interesting re-introduction to the decade to those of us who were born during it but were too young to understand much about what was going on at the time (and which was considered too recent for us to be taught as history at school).

The pages dealing with the origins of the “troubles” in Northern Ireland were especially revelatory in this regard; Democratist grew up under the very real threat of IRA bombs, but was only faintly aware of the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland in the 1960’s and 1970’s, or the 1972 “bloody Sunday” massacre (for which the UK government has only recently apologised).

However, while Democratist strongly recommends Strange Days to our readers, from our own particular perspective, we have to say that we think the book might perhaps have benefitted from a few extra paragraphs about the role of the Soviet bloc during the period.

This is firstly because the USSR and its satellites were a political arena in which paranoia played a key role, not just in terms of the KGB’s repression of the Soviet people, or the commonly held views about capitalist/Zionist conspiracies of their senior staff (see “The Mitrokhin Archive“), but also in their tendency to pander to the Kremlin’s paranoid fears of western aggression in their intelligence reporting, culminating in participation in operation RYAN in the early 1980’s, which in turn led to tensions over the NATO Able Archer ’83 exercise, that brought the possibility of nuclear war closer than it had been at any time since 1962.

The second reason to bring the Soviets and their fellow travelers into the picture is that, in a number of cases, their hand is visible in stoking political instability in the West, as well as the fires of paranoia initially lit by Watergate (and other US intelligence abuses). The promotion of instability is clearly demonstrated in the case of Baader-Meinhof, who had extensive help from the East German Stasi after 1977. More subtlety, the KGB was involved through its program of “active measures” in the promotion of numerous conspiracy theories throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s (especially in relation to the Kennedy assassination) which did much to heighten the “conspiratorial fever” to which Wheen refers.


Posted in Book Reviews, Russia - US Relations, Russia Propaganda, Russian Espionage, US - Russia | 1 Comment »

Belarus 2010: An “internal matter.”

Posted by democratist on December 20, 2010

December 21st 2010.

Democratist is disappointed and upset, but not especially surprised to learn of the results and fallout of yesterday’s presidential election in Belarus.

Since the signing of a series of economic agreements earlier this month, the Russians appear to have decided, in the words of Prime Minister Putin that “the Belarusian leadership has taken a clear course towards integration with Russia,” and suitably mollified, their desire for Lukashenko’s ouster has fallen by the wayside – for the moment at least.

Subsequently, reading between the lines of the OSCE’s sensibly diplomatic preliminary statement (which nonetheless provoked the ire of the newly confident Lukashenko), it appears that it was business as usual for the Belarusian electoral administration over the last few days, and the incumbent has been returned to office with just under 80% of the vote, according to the highly questionable official results.

Subsequently, seven of the nine opposition candidates that stood against Lukashenko have been arrested (including one who was dragged from his hospital bed after a police beating) along with 600 of the several thousand protestors brave enough to demonstrate against this charade of an election in Minsk last night.

While the Belarusian authorities have behaved abominably in both their conduct of the election, and the violent crackdown that has followed it, the reaction of the Russian government has served to underline their own extraordinary cynicism, and more specifically, Dimitry Medvedev’s real attitude towards the democratic process to which he paid so much rhetorical homage earlier this year.

According to Reuters, when asked, Medvedev described the Belarusian elections as an “internal matter,” and did not comment on the police crackdown.  He is quoted as saying, “I hope that as a result of these elections, Belarus will continue on the path of creating a modern state based on democracy and friendship with its neighbours.”

And for all its “strong condemnation” of the fraud and violence, and demands that the opposition candidates be freed, the West is left looking weak and ineffectual, with Lukashenko and the Russians the only game in town.

For the time being then, it seems that Belarus will only change when Russia changes its mind about Lukashenko. However, real support for democratization in Belarus (or indeed Russia) in Moscow is lacking, and will continue to be so, regardless of whether Putin or Medvedev wins in 2012.

Posted in Belarus, Elections, Electoral Fraud, Human Rights, OSCE, Russia 2012 Elections, Russian Foreign Policy, Russian Liberalization | 5 Comments »

Of dissembling and Disinformation.

Posted by democratist on December 12, 2010

12th December 2010,

While it is usually fairly easy to spot the various forms of Russian disinformation campaigns in state-controlled media such as Russia Today, it is rare for the public at large to have an opportunity to examine a piece of Russian diplomatic dissembling, as practiced by an expert.

However yesterday an example of the genre came to light, courtesy of Wikileaks and The Guardian.

Dissembling is the art of concealing one’s true intentions, or seeking to arouse sympathy for a cause by the spreading of falsehoods or rumours. While the use of the mass-media for this purpose might be termed “macrodisiformation”, in as far as it is aimed at as wide an audience as possible in the hope that some will believe it, dissembling is a form of “microdisinformation,” practiced on a individual-to-individual basis, and is generally targeted at smaller groups, such as journalists themselves, or the diplomatic communities that one finds in most national capitals throughout the world.

In each case the end goal is the same; that the targeted individual(s) will repeat the rumours that you have fed them, thereby influencing the perceptions of others. In the case of diplomatic dissembling, the expectation might be that the target will repeat the rumour in a cable back to their Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), and that this will cast enough doubt on alternative versions of the event being described (where the truth is not yet fully established) to influence decision-making in one’s favour, or at least temporarily prevent potentially unfavourable decisions being taken.

This surely, was at least partly the logic behind a reported meeting in Paris in late 2006 between Russian special presidential representative (and former intelligence officer) Anatoliy Safonov, and US ambassador-at-large for counter-terrorism (and ex-CIA bureau chief) Henry Crumpton, shortly after the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, during which Safonov told Crumpton that “Russian authorities in London had known about and followed individuals moving radioactive substances into the city, but were told by the British that they were under control before the poisoning took place”.

Democratist suspects that the Safonov’s main motive was to try to forestall potentially negative US actions in support of the UK during the tense period that followed the Litvinenko murder by; i) implying that the FSB was not involved, and that the murder was the work of non-state actors and, ii) perhaps seeking to imply that the British spooks allowed the murder to take place because they had their own agenda, and they could later use Litvinenko’s death as a cause célèbre.

Interestingly, the Russians have sought to use a very similar (albeit more open) tactic in relation to the recent Zatuliveter case. In the same article, the Guardian reports, “Alexander Sternik, chargé d’affaires at Russia’s embassy in London…denounced the move [to deport Zatuliever] as a “PR stunt” designed to mask Britain’s own problems. “These problems are many over the last couple of months,” Sternik said. “You can cite the unflattering leaks from WikiLeaks and [England’s] unsuccessful [World Cup] bid.”

While no hard evidence of Zatuliever’s guilt has come to light so far, Sternik’s explaination of the UK’s actions lacks credibility when seen in the context of the KGB/SVR’s history of dissembling, as practicsed by Safonov.

Posted in Russia - US Relations, Russia Propaganda, Russian Espionage, wikileaks | 1 Comment »

Belarus 2010: Electoral coercion and fraud techniques.

Posted by democratist on December 11, 2010

12th November 2010,
Electoral coercion means pressuring people to vote for your prefered candidate. Electoral fraud is the falsification of results.  Both techniques have been used extensively in Belarus, and both are facilitated by a deliberately opaque legal context.
 As is generally the case, the election administration in Belarus follows a pyramid structure.
At the top is the Central Election Commision (CEC). This is based in Minsk, and is responsible for overall control of the election process.
The next layer is composed of the 155 Territorial Electoral Commsions (TECs) . The TECs work at the regional level, and are responsible for organizing the work of the Precinct Election Commissions (PECs) and for the preparation of the voter lists.
Lastly, there are the 6346 Precinct Electoral Commisions (PECs). These are essentially the committees which run the polling stations. The PEC staff  will be directly in charge of organizing the vote and vote count on election day.
Elections in Belarus at the regional (TEC) and polling station (PEC) levels tend to be run by the same cadre of people in successive elections. Some Belarusian NGO’s have claimed that, for these forthcoming elections, up to 80% of the members of the current TECs have served in previous elections.
Officially, TEC staff are drawn from different political parties and from “civil society”. Ultimately however, local administrations decide upon the nominations, usually appointing regime loyalists from among their own ranks (and from other state bodies, including state enterprises) in a process which is both informal and unaccountable.
As such, only 14 of the 200o TEC members for the forthcoming Presidential elections have been selected from representatives of opposition parties (0.7%). This means that the opposition is only represented on 14 of a total of 155 TECs, leaving the other 141 regional bodies with no representation from the opposition at all.
At the PEC level (i.e. in the polling stations) a total of 183 candidates from opposition parties have been permitted to serve. This means that opposition members will be represented in less than 3% of all PECs.
The large majority of domestic Belarusian election observers are also essentially appointees from the ranks of the nomenklatura, and genuinely independent observers are fairly rare.
So opposition or independent presence within the election administration is almost negligible. And whilst the appointment process for these elections was conducted in line with national legislation (which is deliberately vague), the resulting TECs and PECs are not impartial or unbiased, and the interrelationship between the local administrative structures and the Territorial Electoral Commisions especially, is at the core of how electoral coercion is managed in Belarus.
How is this achieved in practice?
Firstly, the regime can abuse its huge influence and monopoly of power within local administrations to both ensure a good turnout, and encourage or coerce individuals to vote for the incumbent.
The local administration does this by abusing its control over resources such as jobs, equipment and education.
In this regard, employees of state enterprises (who make up about5o% of the workforce in Belarus), may be brought into a meetings with their managers, and told that their jobs might be on the line if the President is not re-elected. The many people who work for local authorities (hospitals, clinics, water, roads, sanitation) will receive similar talks from the mayor or another senior figure. Collective farm workers will be told that, if they vote “the wrong way,” the collective farm will not provide them with agricultural vehicles for the harvest, or will not provide feeding stuff for animals. Soldiers will be told that they will not be granted leave, or they will face other sanctions.  University staff and students will be threatened with expulsion.
It is to be noted that those voting will typically be afraid that the authorities have the ability to find out who they voted for by checking the ballots cast against counterfoils (regardless of whether this actually happens).
As an example of this kind of coercion, the Belarusian  “Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections” NGO recently noted the use of these so called “administrative resources” in order to ensure mass early voting:
During a meeting at the Belarusian State University of Informatics and Radioelectronics, Rector Mikhail Batura is quoted as having stated;
“We have a great upcoming political event, the presidential election. I cannot ignore the issue. I urge you all to take part in this election. Moreover, I even advise you on the candidate for whom to vote. This is the incumbent head of the state, because everything good that was done in this country was achieved in the years of his presidency. Therefore, I urge you all to take part in the election….We have always encouraged our students to go to early voting…Therefore, early voting will be held from December 13, and I urge you to take part in it.”
So those are all ways of using local authority influence as a means of electoral coercion.
Secondly, the fact that Belarus allows for “early voting” for a five-day period between 14th-18th December (during which typically 30% of the total number of votes will be cast), and that this takes place before most international observers have arrived in area, has in the past facilitated ballot-box stuffing, because the ballot boxes remain under the protection of polling station staff outside voting hours during the early voting period, and this has made it easy for senior PEC staff to cast additional votes for the incumbent after the polling has closed, as well as falsify signatures on the voter register to legitimize these votes.
It is to be noted that the CEC has recently changed the law to make this practice harder (for example, ballot boxes are to be sealed at the end of each day) but the extent to which the change in the rules will be followed on the ground, and the possibility of working around these changes remains to be seen. For example, one way to work around such changes would be to stuff mobile ballot boxes, which officially exist to provide the old and infirm with the opportunity to vote. These individuals are unlikely to complain that their vote has been stolen because they are vulnerable fear retribution. If they do complain, this will not be covered in the official media.
Additionally, in the past, international observers have not been permitted to watch the counting of votes too closely, and are forced to sit at a distance that makes it hard for them to see the marks on the ballots (again the CEC has apparently passed a resolution to allow then to observe more closely this time).
In a more obvious form of fraud during the count, especially when international or other independent observers are not present, in some cases the “wrong” ballot papers can simply be torn and thrown away, and the “right” ones filled in and added, since PECs possess spare ballots which can be used for this purpose.
Furthermore, in 2006 the OSCE reported that, in a number of instances, the completed election results forms were filled in using pencil (which can of course be changed later).
In conclusion, the Belarusian electoral administration is designed to facilitate voter coercion and fraud in order to return the incumbent.  Over the last weeks this system appears to be working towards fulfilling that goal as per normal. It is therefore likely that, even though Lukashenko apparently now has less than 50% support according to independent polls, he will be returned to the Presidency with more than 75% of votes in the first round. Future political developments will depend on how the population choses to react to this in the days following the announcement of the official results.

Posted in Belarus, Electoral Fraud | 4 Comments »

Russia 2012 Predictions: An Update.

Posted by democratist on December 9, 2010

9th December 2010,

Some months ago Democratist made the prediction that,

“From Putin’s perspective then, given that he has the domestic situation pretty much wrapped up, the challenge is to leverage the forthcoming elections in order to achieve the somewhat contradictory goals of maintaining internal stability, encouraging growth, innovation and foreign investment (in what has become a tougher international climate), and improving Russia’s international position and military capabilities….One way of moving towards achieving at least some of these disparate and contradictory goals (as well as preparing a future path for the longer-term achievement of the others) would be to use the 2012 elections to gain the regime increased international legitimacy by enhancing the ongoing illusion of Russia’s “democratic development” through a poll that apparently offers more genuine political competition than was the case in recent times (although one in reality whose parameters have been carefully determined in advance…In line with the image of a “limited” democracy that Russia is now promoting for itself internationally,  Democratist suspects that the 2012 elections will present a superficial electoral choice between an emphasis on ”stability” or “modernization”; which is to say a choice between Putin or Medvedev.

At the time, even we thought that we might have indulged in a spot of crystal ball-gazing too far, and that we would soon have to bury the offending piece deep within our archives, in the hope it would soon be forgotten.
But not so quick with the shovel: On Tuesday, Vedmosti came out with the following quote, at the end of an article speculating that Putin will lend his name to the United Russia party ticket for elections next year;
“Interviewed while on the visit to Poland and asked if he intended to run for the president again, Medvedev announced that it was possible indeed since he always stood for continuity. “There are others, however… people who might participate in this political process too,” he said without giving any names.”
An odd statement. Medvedev evidently does not just mean that there will be other candidates for the Presidency (it’s kind of obvious). He means that there are others who actually stand a chance of winning who might participate.

Who could that be?

Posted in Elections, Russia 2012 Elections, Russian Liberalization, Russian Politics | Leave a Comment »

Mike Hancock: Not-so-useful idiot.

Posted by democratist on December 6, 2010

7th December 2010,

Nice to see Democratist’s old chum Mike Hancock MP is back in the spotlight once again. We think he has come off rather well so far, under the circumstances.

As the wonderful Ed Lucas (who we suspect has been recently whispering with someone wearing dark glasses and a trilby in the back of a pub somewhere) points out in the Daily Mail, so far Hancock appears as a sort of “useful idiot,” (a politically motivated idealist who can be manipulated to do the Kremlin’s bidding) rather than corrupt, or a full-on traitor.

Nonetheless, his enduring support for the Russians in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) over many years, an interesting choice of questions in the Commons, and his actions and statements as a PACE election observer in Azerbaijan in 2008, imply that more information may be forthcoming.

With regard to the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, the SVR, this all looks like yet another PR disaster (neatly topping off an extraordinarily bad year) which will doubtless provide the staff at Russia Today with a couple more hours’ overtime.

Perhaps a spot of tit-for-tat petulance is also in order, and we might expect to see some hapless Brit hauled onto a plane at one of the Moscow airports (or something similar) at some point.

Nonetheless, the Russian spooks once again come across as inept and perhaps rather desperate, since they chose to run someone working for an MP whose actions were certain to draw attention and arouse suspicion. Evidently, the Security Service have been on to Zatuliveter for some time.

Perhaps the SVR are no longer really that worried about the bad publicity that this kind of public unmasking engenders. They should be. After all, who’s going to want to sell their services to a bunch of people who keep getting caught?

As for the rest of us, Zatuliveter’s arrest feeds into the kind of spy mania so beloved and eagerly sensationalized by the UK media, which at least has the effect of making the population more aware of the potential threat of espionage, and therefore makes the UK a tougher prospect for the SVR in future.

British parliamentarians will also be getting the message, and will hopefully be less eager to be seen employing lissome young Russian women as “assistants” over the coming years. Even so, perhaps it is time for the government to bite the bullet, and impose tighter restrictions on the employment of Russian citizens in potentially sensitive posts in the UK? 

And not just in parliament. As Democratist has underlined, while political and strategic material apparently made up much of Zatuliveter’s reporting, Russian’s main focus is likely to remain on military-technological developments, as they attempt to modernize their armed forces in the face of growing industrial backwardness exacerbated by corruption.

Posted in Russia Today, Russian Espionage | Leave a Comment »

Belarus 2010: Another view.

Posted by democratist on December 3, 2010

3rd December 2010,

Democratist has been discussing the prospect of Lukashenko being overthrown by the Russians in the  upcoming 19th December 2010 Presidential elections in detail with one of our many very clever, anonymous friends.

He writes;

“I suspect it [overthrow] is not as easy as some would like to hope. The information war has produced a lot of noise but has limited impact in Belarus itself. There is no clear Kremlin candidate in the administration who could mount an internal Russia-backed palace coup – the siloviki are pretty much linked to Lukashenko junior (Viktor) now and the technocrats are allegedly more and more ‘economic nationalists’ who liked subsidised energy but fear an influx of Russian business interests. The Kremlin lobby in the elites was pretty much purged in the mid-naughties. Tacitly fostering a violent overthrow, as some claim was the case in Kyrgyzstan earlier in the year is pretty much a non-starter (despite some of the cries from the national democratic opposition ranks). So far Russia has not particularly reached out to the opposition, although the leading candidates like Nekliaev, Sannikov and Romanchuk are the least anti-Russian (compared to the likes of the Popular Front and Christian Democrat candidates who seem to have rather low poll ratings so far).

Maybe if there are some big (by Belarusian standards) public protests after the election they might seek to help ferment them somehow. Despite all the talk of Russia not recognising the election results, I get the feeling they are not actually going to go that far. Obviously there is economic pressure, but it might require a step change from just charging market rates for energy to actively blockading or introducing sanctions against Belarus. Also Russia is entering her own election cycle in 2011-2012 – what are the risks in destabilising a ‘fraternal’ neighbour? I don’t think there will be a quick fix which sees Russia able to get rid of Lukashenko within a year or so, they probably need to nurture ties with potential forces/allies in the longer term or towards the next election cycle.

There is lots of chatter that the economic situation over the next 18-24 months as Russian tightens the screws will precipitate the endgame for Lukashenko – but similar predictions were being made in 2007 and 2004. However, Lukashenko’s room for manoeuvre is narrowing and the traditional game of muddling through is getting increasingly difficult to play. He has always been a consummate politician when it came to exploiting the little leverage he had over Russia – e.g. threats to withdraw from regional bodies such as the CSTO or SES could be embarrassing for the Kremlin (Russia’s closest ally turns against her?). The end of socio-economic stability was supposed to see the collapse of support for Lukashenko within the ruling elites and society at large, but although the economic situation has deteriorated over the past 3 years or so he has managed to avoid getting most of the blame. With more ad hoc western loans, limited liberalisation to appeal to the EU and others as well as ties to the likes of China and Venezuela, the regime might stagger on for longer than expected. However filling the gap left by Russia withdrawing generous economic support will be very difficult. The EU has limited influence in Belarus but does offer a potential (though risky) alternative – if Russia is seen as too aggressive/coercive could propping up Lukashenko be seen as a least bad option – ‘better the devil you know’?. Could Lukashenko step down early on his own terms, rather than be ousted – he is cunning enough that he might actually pull it off!

As always, lots of maybes! I think the usual balancing act (over a minefield)/tango of convenience (on a tightrope)/chess game (with ever-changing rules/players) is going to get more difficult, and Lukashenko may well be off the scene in a couple of years, but if anyone can pull off holding on somehow for a bit longer despite all the commentary on his inevitable fall, Lukashenko maybe the man who can get away with it! Having said that, I’ll no doubt be proved wrong and it will now turn out he will be voted out in the first round by such a margin that no amount of vote rigging and fraud can cover it up!”

Posted in Belarus, Electoral Fraud, Revolutions, Russia Foreign Policy | 1 Comment »