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Many western politicians have harbored deep suspicions of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Vladimorovich Putin since he first emerged on the Russian political stage in 1999.
This is hardly surprising, given his KGB background, though those with longer historical memories will recall that Yuri Andropov came from the same organization and that the West grudgingly found a way to work with him.
While the worst aspects of the Cold War faded away with the peaceful collapse of the USSR in late 1991, twenty years later, trying to figure out Kremlin politics remains as vital an exercise as ever, and the “Putin era” has provided Washington analysts desperately reinventing themselves to hang on to their jobs with rich fodder.
What does seem to be apparent, with last week’s announcement that current President Dmitrii Medvedev would stand down in next year’s presidential elections, is that Putin is a shoe-in to recover the Russian Federation’s Presidency, and that, since the term has been extended to six years, Western governments will perhaps have to learn to live with him helming the Russian state until 2026.
But one aspect of Russia that has eluded most Washington pundits since 1991 is the fact that Russia a) has developed a free press of sorts, certainly in comparison to the Bad Old Soviet days, and b) that Putin is genuinely popular with many Russians, an observation that many Western liberals find more than a tad irritating.
But to return to basics – what Putin represents is an awareness that dawned late in the USSR, only with the advent of Gorbachev – the power of the media.
In a weird reversal of perceptions, while Gorbachev essentially ignored domestic opinion to cultivate a Western image of “a man with whom we can do business,” to quote Margaret Thatcher, Putin has turned the media equation on its head, appealing to his constituency while essentially ignoring western attitudes.
Suitably miffed, the Western media has rounded on Putin, deriding his efforts to construct a “macho” image a la Indiana Jones, riding horse bare-chested through Siberian rivers, practicing karate, etc. etc. etc.
But there is another audience for Putin’s bravado that the West remains at best dimly aware of – the post-Soviet space. And it is here that his efforts have deeper resonance than most Western observers understand.
In May 2005 while President Putin told Russians that the collapse of the Soviet empire “was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” leaving the denizens of the fourteen other nations to emerge from the Soviet debris field wondering exactly what he meant.
On 4 October Putin suggested that ex-Soviet states form a "Eurasian Union" in an article which outlined his first foreign policy initiative as he prepares to return to the Russian presidency, commenting that the organization would build on an existing Customs Union with Belarus and Kazakhstan which beginning in 2012 will remove all barriers to trade, capital and labor movement between the three countries.
Needless to say, Putin’s suggestion has unsettled conservatives worldwide, who believe that he is trying to reassemble the Soviet Union by stealth.
A more dispassionate view of Putin’s proposal indicates that it actually contains more than a modicum of sense.
First, except for economists of the Soviet era, few understand that the collapse of the USSR tore apart a country where economic development was geared to the union as a whole, rather than its constituent republics. To give but one example – all the electric meters for buildings were produced in Lithuania, so after 1991, a Kazakh, Azeri, Russian or Kyrgyz constructing a building and wanting to measure its electrical usage had to deal with – Lithuania.
Given the way that resources, both natural and man-made were distributed across the USSR, the collapse of the country produced consequences which are still playing out.
Secondly, it is more than passing strange that Western capitalists, fierce advocates of “free trade,” should see a darker purpose in Putin’s suggestion – after all, NAFTA in the Western Hemisphere and the EU have developed similar trading principles. In NAFTA, the U.S. is obviously the dominant power, and Germany occupies a similar economic position in the EU, yet few argue that either is seeking to dominate its fellow states.
Last but not least, the reality for the bulk of the post-Soviet space, and including the USSR’s former protectorate over Eastern Europe, the Russian Federation remains Eurasia’s dominant energy superpower, with the exceptions of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, and only Azerbaijan has managed to wiggle out from under Moscow’s thumb for its energy exports to the West.
And even those are subject to Russia’s pressures, as the brief August 2009 Russo-Georgian war indicated.
The economic integration of the European Union has hardly led to increased military tensions between EU members – accordingly, for Western observers, they should at least adopt a ‘wait and see” attitude towards Putin’s “Eurasian” suggestions, as closer economic integration could in fact benefit former Soviet states who sign up.
But, at the end of the day, Western negativity towards the proposal may well be grounded in fears that Western investors may find the dynamics of the playing fields in the post-soviet space shifting. The litmus test in the case will be Kazakhstan, whose booming energy sector in the last two decades has attracted more than $120 billion in foreign investment, and whose President Nursultan Nazarbayev had given his support to the “union.”
One of the most striking developments in the post-Soviet space has been the rise of nationalism, and there is little in Putin’s remarks to indicate that he intends to send Russian tanks rolling to reassert Kremlin control.
Sometimes, to quote Sigmund Freud, a cigar is just a cigar, and a customs union is just a customs union – and Moscow has other interlopers to worry about besides Western capitalism – like China, who even the Kremlin’s Marlboro Man has yet to figure out how to counter.
If the last two decades have shown anything, it is that the new nations of the USSR would prefer to interact with the European union, or, better yet – the United States – but the former seems solely interested in their energy assets, while the latter is interested in buying everything that is not bolted down while delivering hectoring human rights lectures to boot.
And Moscow, is, after all, the devil that they know – but Beijing has the yuan, not dollars.