After Russia’s Election, Expect Economy to Putter On as Before

This blog draws on a report written by Yuval Weber for FPRI’s Russia Political Economy Project, titled Running In Place: The Latest Round of Russian Economic Modernization.

In the two months between Vladimir Putin’s virtually assured victory on March 18 and the presentation of the new government in mid-May, Russia’s president will need to address three very different economic proposals. He’ll need to oversee enough change to satisfy the public without alienating an elite that has done exceedingly well through corruption and insider access.

It is economic policy where many Russians hope to see the most immediate change after the election. Opinion polls show the public wants to reverse several years of increasing poverty, falling real incomes, and cuts to health and education spending.

To develop ideas about economic reform, Putin has tapped ideologically distinct bureaucrats.

The person most familiar to the Western financial community, former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, is a fan of classically liberal ideas and orthodox monetary policy. Kudrin’s plan, the main points of which were released in May 2017,identifies excessive state intervention into the economy and socially inefficient spending as the main reason for poor economic performance. He would reduce the size and impact of the government: cut defense spending, redistribute government resources to health and education to raise human capital, increase transportation infrastructure spending, lower inflation and budget deficit targets, reduce the government workforce, and raise the pension age. To benefit future generations, Kudrin would undercut the interests of powerful elites in the military-industrial complex, the security services, and big business.

On the opposite end of the ideological spectrum is a plan offered by Boris Titov, the state business ombudsman, and Sergei Glazyev, advisor to the president on Eurasian regional integration. Whereas Kudrin sees the problem as too much state, Glazyev and Titov see the problem as insufficient demand that can only be addressed by the state. They advocate large-scale government stimulus, looser monetary policy, government intervention and subsidization in the food and medicine sectors, and reduced taxes and tariffs for exporters. They directly contradict the outward-facing arms of the government: the Ministries of Finance and Economic Development, the Central Bank, and mainstream economists.

In the middle is the government’s current plan. Presented to Putin by Minister for Economic Development Maxim Oreshkin in April 2017, the plan identifies low productivity and lack of political stability as the impediments to faster growth. As the person currently responsible for boosting growth, Oreshkin advocates staying the course and allowing existing policies, including import substitution, to raise growth rates and allow businesses to plan better. This status-quo plan would benefit the current elites scared by Kudrin’s plan. It would also continue to harm the great middle of Russian society: small- and medium-sized businesses and individual borrowers.

Which of these three plans is Putin likely to select? Several clues were planted in his recent state of the nation speech. More than half of the speech was devoted to economic issues, specifically addressing poverty, wages, and reduced health and education spending. Yet where the interests of the elite were most concerned, Putin’s promises were less forceful.

“The state must gradually reduce its share in the economy,” Putin declared. “The state has taken over a number of financial assets in an effort to revive the banking sector. These initiatives are headed in the right direction and have my support. That said, these assets should be put on the market and sold without delay. […] We need to get rid of everything that enables corrupt officials and law enforcement officers to pressure businesses.”

It was standard Putin: vague assurances of action eventually.

This suggests a continuation of the playbook of recent years: change just enough to stay in place. After the election, expect the government to select some of Kudrin’s ideas, but mostly maintain the status quo. Success for Putin means mollifying the public and creating the perception that corruption is declining and services are improving. But stability above all is key. Reform is good, but not so much reform that the privileges of business and security elites are threatened.


This article was originally published by Eurasianet on March 15, 2018. Geopoliticus has republished the essay, without further editing, with permission from Eurasianet.

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The Mixed Feelings of Russian Voters

This article has been translated into English from Russian by Maia Otarashvili, Deputy Director of the Eurasia Program at FPRI.

On March 18, a significant number of Russian voters will go to the polls with mixed feelings. On the one hand, they want to vote for Putin—at least out of habit—but they are not very happy with the idea that Putin’s reelection means nothing will change in their lives for the subsequent six years. On the other hand, they are afraid to vote against Putin because they think that without him everything will come crashing down in Russia.

Formally, the president’s ratings remain as high as they were three years ago when Putin’s popularity increased to an all-time high after Crimea. However, data from focus groups show that people are far less enthusiastic now. The standard of living continues to decrease, and the system continues to benefit the rich at the expense of the masses. This discontent is not yet political; however, the voters just want something in their lives to change for the better. Paradoxically, they are also deathly afraid of change. This is mostly because the memory of the traumatic experiences from economic restructuring and reforms of the 1990s is still fresh in their minds. The Kremlin has run a successful propaganda campaign promoting and exacerbating this fear, instilling in the Russian voters the idea that change does not lead to an improvement of the situation, but rather to its deterioration.

Putin, of course, will win. But the votes he receives will be mainly driven by negative emotions. His victory will be based not so much on the voters’ faith in the future, but on their fear of the future. In such election campaigns, regimes rarely come out strong. Usually, fatigue and disappointment end up dominating the atmosphere.

Putin could change all of this. In order to do so, it would be enough for him to say that his next presidential term would be radically different from the previous one in that the government’s focus will shift from foreign policy to domestic policy. He could say that the central task of his third presidency—strengthening Russia’s image in the world—is now successfully fulfilled. Putin could tell the Russian people that going forward the world will not ignore Russia’s international interests; therefore, immediately after the election, the government will focus on domestic policy—reforming the economy and addressing social issues. He could tell his voters that moving forward his goal will be to improve the living standards of the Russian population. If the Kremlin announced that in the upcoming election Russians would be, in fact, voting for Putin’s new domestic focus, it would see an overwhelming voter support for such a re-arrangement of priorities, and the voter turnout would not have to be enforced through administrative measures. Russians would start to line up in the polling stations early in the morning, and a burst of universal enthusiasm would even put the organizers of Stalin’s first Piatiletka (five-year plan) to shame.  Why won’t Putin do this? Because the Russian economy is deteriorating and he knows that there are no great prospects for its future. Putin knows that he must make some unpopular reforms, like raising the retirement age and abolishing certain social benefits. Putin cannot afford to create overly high expectations for the people of Russia because it does not play into his personal long game.  

With the election less than a week away, Putin and all of Russia understand that they must move past the election and its results as soon as it is over. Probably, this is the best thing they can do in the current situation. 


Abbas Gallyamova former speechwriter for Russian President Vladimir Putin, is a political consultant in Russia, and comments on Russian domestic policy in Moscow’s leading daily newspapers as a political scientist. Mr. Gallyamov previously held the position of deputy head of the Rustem Khamitov administration in Republic of Bashkortostan, Russia

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Putin’s Reelection Won’t Fix Poverty and Pensions

This blog draws on a report written by Sarah Wilson Sokhey for FPRI’s Russia Political Economy Project, titled Buying Support? Putin’s Popularity and the Russian Welfare State.

Russians are growing frustrated with poor healthcare, underfunded schools, and increasing poverty, a recent poll shows. As President Vladimir Putin prepares for his fourth term, he is making promises and boosting pensions. But he has a mixed record delivering enduring social goods. And in the past, benefits like pensions were often reversed soon after the vote.

The newspaper Vedomosti highlighted common complaints in a widely shared article last year: “10 unfulfilled promises of Putin and Medvedev.” For example, the number of Russians living in poverty since Putin’s last election in 2012 has increased by several million people. Putin tried to reframe this situation during an address this month; while acknowledging some recent declines, he emphasized that the number of Russians in poverty is still much lower than it was in 2000 when he first took office. Putin is right that things are still better than in the late 1990s, but the new group of 18-year-old voters in 2018 – and even those a bit older – may not be well persuaded by “the 90s were much worse” argument.  

Poverty was far from Vedomosti’s only complaint. Average wages have increased slightly, but rising prices and the devaluation of the ruble have undermined any gains. In education things are no better: Salaries for teachers still lag behind average wages and, contrary to Putin’s promises, the number of schools has declined by about 7,000 since 2012. Spots in kindergartens and preschools are still limited in some parts of the country. On top of this, utility costs – especially heating and electricity – are nearly 50 percent higher than they were in 2012; the cost of hot water has risen 57 percent over the same period. Mortgage lending rates, another common complaint, increased slightly between 2011 and 2016.

Can Putin survive this decline in economic and social conditions? For now, he has manipulated them to ensure an easy victory on March 18 and to boost turnout – which seems to be the Kremlin’s chief concern. The president has followed through on some specific promises; for instance, subsidizing mortgages for families with two or three children. He has also indefinitely postponed raising the retirement age. Although there were never any concrete plans to increase Russia’s retirement ages of 55 for women and 60 for men, some policymakers and economists have long cited the necessity of doing so; Putin has repeatedly reassured Russians he will not back such proposals.

And, as is standard practice for Russian leaders, Putin has boosted pensions in the run-up to the election. In 1996, Yeltsin oversaw a series of pension increases ahead of his reelection; he also doubled the minimum pension just a month before the vote. In early 2000, then acting-President Putin oversaw a 20 percent increase in pensions a month before his first election. In 2008, Medvedev ran for president; just before his election a presidential decree increased veterans’ benefits and made a one-time additional pension payment for all retirees. And in 2012, the last time Putin ran, pensions were re-indexed to benefit the elderly just before the presidential election; the benefit was reversed a year later.

These are stop-gap measures, not long-term fixes. Attempts at more fundamental pension reforms have failed. Early in Putin’s tenure, in 2001, he oversaw a potentially transformative reform. Often referred to as pension privatization, this measure took mandatory social security contributions and put them in individual accounts which could be privately managed and invested. But in 2012 and 2013, immediate fiscal pressures motivated the government to first temporarily, and then permanently, redirect these social security contributions away from individual retirement accounts. The system introduced in 2001 has been virtually eliminated. The Russian government today plans on a much more short-term basis.

Putin may be able to survive a few more years with this lackluster approach to social policy, but what happens then? Polls show that though Russians’ top concerns are corruption and the economy; issues like pensions, education, and healthcare are among their top 10 worries. Putin’s mixed record fulfilling promises bodes poorly for his and his regime’s legitimacy and legacy.


This article was originally published by Eurasianet on March 13, 2018. Geopoliticus has republished the essay, without further editing, with permission from Eurasianet.

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Effectiveness of Economic Sanctions on Russia’s Economy

In early 2015, Western leaders thought they had Russia cornered.  A year earlier they imposed on Russia economic sanctions, which ranged from restrictions on access to Western capital markets to bans on the export of oil-production technology, to punish it for its role in dismembering Ukraine.  Those sanctions and the Russian boycotts that followed threw Russia’s economy into turmoil.  With some justification, President Barack Obama declared that “Russia is isolated with its economy in tatters” in January 2015.  But two years later, Russia has stabilized its economy, annexed Crimea, and kept its “little green men” in eastern Ukraine.  What went awry?

Peak Pain

In financial terms, Russia felt the most damaging impact of the West’s economic sanctions within the first year of their imposition.  Suddenly, Russian companies, holding dollar and euro-denominated debt, had to repay their loans without the ability to refinance them.  Russian banks targeted by Western sanctions saw their overseas assets frozen.  That created a cash crunch.  Many companies were forced to suspend operations and slash jobs; some even required government capital injections to survive.  But they did survive.

Commodity Price Stabilization

Unfortunately for Russia, the West’s economic sanctions coincided with a steep drop in global oil prices.  That, more than anything else, exacerbated Russia’s economic woes, since much of the country’s economy depends on the production of commodities, primarily oil.  Oil prices plummeted from over $100 per barrel to under $35 per barrel in late 2015.  But then they began to recover the following year.  So too did the prices of other major commodities that Russia produces, including iron, aluminum, and copper.  No doubt global economic growth, which boosted commodity prices, helped Russia to better ride out Western sanctions.

Floating Currency

But the stabilization of commodities prices did not save Russia’s economy.  With economic sanctions darkening the country’s outlook, the value of the Russian ruble was cut in half.  At first, Russia’s central bank tried to defend it, consuming $200 billion in foreign exchange reserves in the effort.  But ultimately, Russia’s central bank took a leaf from the International Monetary Fund’s market-based playbook and allowed the Russian ruble to float.  That freed Russia’s central bank from having to defend the ruble and prevented an even greater outflow of hard currency that would have further undermined Russia’s economy.

Moreover, since commodities are generally priced in dollars, the sharply devalued ruble meant that though Russian companies faced falling prices for their goods, the dollars they did receive could be converted into more rubles.  That softened the economic blow—enough so that Russian energy companies could continue to reinvest in their businesses.  As a result, despite the sanctions on oil-production technology, Russia is able to produce more oil today than it did before the sanctions were imposed.

Inflation Control

With shortages of imported goods and more rubles in circulation, inflation became a real threat.  Rising prices ate away at the purchasing power of ordinary Russians.  But rather than reflexively enact price controls, Russia’s central bank used another market-inspired lever.  It raised interest rates, up to 17 percent by December 2014.  Credit naturally dried up, further depressing the Russian economy.  But fortunately for Russia, inflation was quickly brought under control.  That allowed Russia’s central bank to gradually lower interest rates to 10 percent, giving Russian companies much-needed breathing room to recover.

Fiscal Discipline

In the depths of its economic recession, Moscow could have increased government spending to boost economic activity.  But with falling revenues from Russian oil production, a surge in spending would have pushed Russia’s government budget deep into the red and fueled a potential economic crisis.  Instead, Moscow exercised fiscal discipline.  It held its spending in check and ran a budget deficit of only 3 percent of Russia’s GDP last year.  When more funds were needed, Moscow raised taxes and dug into its two sovereign wealth funds, draining a third of their assets before oil prices stabilized.

Wavering Western Resolve

Meanwhile, European companies, particularly German ones, gave Moscow hope.  They were never keen on the economic sanctions against Russia.  From the start, they lobbied German Chancellor Angela Merkel to water them down.  After they were imposed in 2014, German direct investment into Russia evaporated.  But only a year later, German companies returned, investing $1.8 billion into Russia.  Last year, they invested another $2.1 billion, more than they had in the year before economic sanctions were imposed.  Such continued investments have encouraged Moscow to question the strength of Western resolve.

Conclusion

The West’s economic sanctions have bent but did not break the Russian economy, despite its structural vulnerabilities.  What steadied it was a combination of several factors, the most important of which were the stabilization of global commodity prices and the market-oriented policies implemented by Russian authorities.  They made Russia’s economy more resilient and prevented an even deeper recession.

Ultimately, economic sanctions can make countries more vulnerable to global economic forces.  But rarely do they deliver a knockout blow themselves.  Western economic sanctions against Russia have proven the rule, rather than the exception.  Ironically, the West’s success in spreading open-market ideas at Russia’s central bank may have inadvertently weakened the effectiveness of its own economic sanctions.  If so, the further spread of such ideas could make economic sanctions even less effective in the future.

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Is Trump Russia’s Manchurian Candidate? No. Here’s Why

 

“Is Trump a Manchurian Candidate?” The Trump as “Manchurian Candidate” scenario has been a constant query for my colleagues and I since we published our warnings in August and November last year about Russia’s influence campaign on the U.S. presidential election. This loosely plays along the plot line of the 1959 novel and follow up 1962 movie where a communist conspiracy tries to install a dictatorial president in the U.S. In the most dire conspiracy theories today, Donald Trump is portrayed as a covert Russian operative ceding control of America to an ascendant Vladimir Putin. Trump’s supporters instead see the inverse – a new populist president focused on “America First,” seeking to make deals and secure peace through a worldview and foreign policy similar to Russia. Evidence for either of these scenarios remains scant, and conspiracy theorists on both sides of the political spectrum should consider that reality likely rests somewhere in between. Trump’s Russia connections and Putin’s overt support for “the Donald” should be evaluated not as dichotomous positions, but as the ends of a spectrum of four possible scenarios (Figure 1).

 

Scenario #1: “Natural Ally”

President Trump and many of his supporters contend that the new administration represents nothing more than the natural alliance between two men seeking their own country’s interests through toughness. Trump’s affinity for Russia dates back to the late 1980s by some accounts, and his business pursuits in the country have been well documented.

 

The “natural ally” explanation for Trump’s Russian affinity would only make sense if the president had an enduring worldview and foreign policy stance over several electoral cycles that justified and explained why an alliance with Russia would be both good for America and put “America first.” President Trump may know business, but foreign policy is not his bailiwick. Prior to his jump into the presidential race, Trump didn’t espouse any clear foreign policy stances suggesting his national security views in general, particularly in regards to Russia. On rare instances where Trump stated foreign policy views prior to his presidential run, he often contradicted himself (i.e. U.S. invasion of Iraq). Trump’s alignment with nearly every Russian foreign policy objective grew in increments, eerily coinciding with the entrance of key aides and advocates into his campaign, not through his own study.

 

Scenario #2: “Useful Idiot”

Russian influence of Trump most likely falls into the category of what Madeleine Albright called a “Useful Idiot” – a “useful fool” – an enthusiast for Putin supportive of any issue or stance that feeds his ego and brings victory. Russian intelligence for decades identified and promoted key individuals around the world ripe for manipulation and serving their interests. Trump, similar to emerging alternative right European politicians, spouts populist themes of xenophobia, anti-immigration, and white nationalist pride that naturally bring about a retrenchment of U.S. global influence. By spotting this early, Russia could encourage Trump’s ascension and shape his views via three parallel tracks. First, Russia led a never before seen hacking and influence campaign to degrade support for Hilary Clinton and promote Trump among a disenfranchised American populace. As a “useful idiot,” Trump not only benefited from this influence effort, but he urged Russia to find Hilary Clinton’s missing emails – a public call a “Manchurian Candidate” (see Scenario 4 below) would not likely make. Trump even fell for false Russian news stories citing a bogus Sputnik news story at a presidential rally – a glaring and open mistake that would reveal a true “Manchurian Candidate.”

 

Second, political operatives of other Russian campaigns mysteriously surfaced as close advisors whispering Kremlin lines in Trump’s ear, modifying his world view, sliding in Russian foreign policy positions as mainstream American positions, and even altering the Republican platform to support a Russian position over a Ukrainian ally. Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign manager who previously worked in Ukraine on behalf of Russia, mistakenly cited a debunked Russia false news story about a terrorist attack on Incirlik airbase in Turkey as a final show of Russian influence before being fired. Carter Page, a Trump campaign linkage, denies being an agent, but has waffled on his meetings with Russian diplomats. The ex-MI6 agent’s dossier alleged secret meetings between Trump officials and Russian agents, but these have yet to be confirmed.

 

Third, Russia used overt influence and ultimately compromised key Trump advisors and appointees. The former MI6 officer’s dossier noted Russia’s deliberate attempts to sway Green Party candidate Jill Stein and Trump’s first National Security Advisor retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn. This verifiable claim surfaced in the lead up to the presidential election with Flynn’s paid attendance at an RT event and the fact that he sat next to Russian President Vladimir Putin called into question the zealous general’s allegiance in his vengeful rants against an Obama administration that fired him. Flynn then lied about his conversation with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak prior to the inauguration which lead to his resignation. Now, Attorney General Sessions has potentially lied during confirmation hearings about meeting this same Ambassador Kislyak during the presidential campaign resulting in his recusing himself from all issues regarding Trump’s ties to Russia. Trump aides have also allegedly been pushing for a back channel deal between Ukraine and Russia, a maneuver between liaisons more typical of a “useful idiot” rather than “Manchurian Candidate” scenario. This sort of meddling provides the Kremlin plausible deniability and still achieves Russia’s objectives: breaking up the European Union, dissolving NATO, and weakening of American influence.

 

Scenario #3: Compromised

President Trump has been bullish on ISIS, China, and Iran, but has curiously been quite amenable to Russia. One explanation put forth regarding his toughness on all American enemies except Russia is that he is compromised – vulnerable to blackmail by the Russian government due to sexual compromise or financial entanglements. Under this scenario, President Trump would not be doing the bidding of Putin on a day-to-day basis, but would bend as needed to a Russian foreign policy position in order to protect himself from public disclosures and the resulting political backlash.

 

The former British intelligence officer’s dossier made salacious claims of sexual misconduct by Trump during a visit to St. Petersburg. But rumors of sexual compromise have yet to bring forth any real evidence of misbehavior. Furthermore, Russia would have a hard time sexually compromising a president who has been married three times, who may have bragged about his sexual prowess while posing as his own publicist, and who was caught using misogynistic speech in a leaked video. President Trump compromised himself in this fashion, and the voters didn’t seem to care. Should Russia release the alleged provocative video tape now, they would only confirm their meddling and achieve nothing – the dossier leak and U.S. government discussion of the dossier likely inoculated the president from any compromise on a sexual basis if anything even existed.

 

Trump claims no financial ties to Russia, but these allegations still remain open due to Trump’s refusal to show his tax records and the media’s failure to show any discernible financial ties to Russia. This situation may change in the future and could damage the president. More recently, President Trump’s son appears to have received $50,000 from a pro-Russia group in the weeks leading up to the election. This revelation, alongside absent tax records, suggests that President Trump and his family might be currently or in the future financially compromised through business interests that have not been properly divested by the president – business interests tied to or manipulated by Russia without the full knowledge of the First Family.

 

Scenario #4: Manchurian Candidate

On the other end of the spectrum, those most traumatized by Trump’s victory have questioned if the U.S. has fallen under the command of the world’s most cunning authoritarian: Vladimir Putin. A “Manchurian Candidate” Trump would be a deliberate plant commanded by the Russian government, aided during the campaign with both a hacking-influence campaign – equipped with key Russian advisors – and funding to help him take the White House.

 

This scenario is unlikely to be the case for several reasons. Trump’s behavior and policy positions sway with the wind. The famous former British intelligence officer dossier argued that Trump’s behavior in the lead up to the election caused unease amongst Kremlin leaders backing him. Trump openly discusses Russian connections and seems to be unaware of his closest aides ties and contacts to Russian diplomats and intelligence assets. Even Trump’s unfounded tweet storm about the wiretapping of Trump Tower would pose a threat to Russia under the “Manchurian Candidate” scenario. A Russian-directed U.S. president would be more deliberate in policy positions and would conceal rather than discuss connections with Russia. To date, no direct financial or physical contacts and communications can be directly tied to President Trump.

 

Most importantly, a Manchurian Candidate scenario, if it came to light, would likely result in direct war between the U.S. and Russia. The Russians started their second Cold War with the U.S. years ago, and they are winning. They don’t need a Manchurian candidate; that’s higher cost and higher risk to their efforts. They prefer systematic, indirect, asymmetric engagements that incrementally achieve their goals rather than provoking the U.S. into a direct clash militarily and economically – a fight the Kremlin would likely lose.

 

 

What are the implications of these Russian connections for Trump and America?

Regardless of President Trump’s relationship to Russia, the repeated disclosure of Russian influence and connections to his campaign and staff have created considerable turmoil in the White House and America as a whole. Trump’s loose style of alliances and tactical actions make him ideally suited for the “Useful Idiot” scenario of Russian influence as he takes on advisors and positions based on perceived loyalty, yet without a clear understanding of his advisors connections to Russia. Any traditional politician would have sensed the danger implicit in surrounding oneself with people so closely connected to Putin’s intelligence agents.

 

More importantly, President Trump appears strongly influenced by those in his inner circle. So if they have connections to Russia, whether President Trump knows it or not, he will, at times, be Russia’s pawn on foreign policy issues.

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Turkey: From “NATO’s Anchor” to What?

On Monday, the Turkish newspaper Hürriyet Gazetesi published the backstory to President Recep Erdoğan’s meeting in St. Petersburg with Russian President Vladimir Putin on 9 August.[1] The report credited two persons for acting as go-betweens in the eventual “rapprochement,” Ramazan Abdulatipov and Cavit Çağlar. A number of Russian[2] and regional[3] media outlets published accounts of the Hürriyet Gazetesi report.

Welcoming Turkey’s “restoration of legitimate and constitutional order,” Mr. Putin said in St. Petersburg, “We have always opposed anti-constitutional actions.”[4] The Kremlin used that same term—anti-constitutional actions (antikonstitutsionnykh deystviy)— in its official statement after Mr. Putin spoke to Mr. Erdoğan on 17 July in the aftermath of the attempted coup (a conversation, the Kremlin hastened to point out, Russia initiated):

“Vladimir Putin…stressed the principled position of Russia regarding the categorical inadmissibility in the conduct of public affairs of anti-constitutional actions and violence.”[5]  

Turkish press reports emphasized Mr. Putin’s “decisive opposition to unconstitutional actions”[6] against Mr. Erdoğan’s government, some repeating Mr. Putin’s phrase verbatim.[7] That phrase is also the same one Mr. Putin used after Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s ouster.[8] It was echoed then by other members of his government—for example, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s condemnation of “radical unconstitutional actions of Ukrainian oppositionists.”[9]

The Hürriyet Gazetesi account of events leading up to the meeting in St. Petersburg is worthy of a spy novel, and Ramazan Abdulatipov and Cavit Çağlar are among its central characters. Mr. Abdulatipov is said to have taken his directions from Yury Ushakov, a long-time Russian diplomat and aide to Mr. Putin. In September 2013, Mr. Putin appointed Mr. Abdulatipov to his second four-year term as Head of the Republic of Dagestan, a Russian federal republic located in the North Caucasus.

Mr. Abdulatipov ‘s counterpart, Cavit Çağlar, is said to have taken his directions from General Hulsi Akar, Turkey’s Chief of the General Staff since April 2015. Mr. Çağlar’s usual description as “a Turkish businessman” does not do him justice. In 1999, he was a central figure[10] in a covert operation in Kenya conducted by the Millî İstihbarat Teşkilâtı (Turkey’s National Intelligence Agency, aka “MIT”) to interdict and capture Abdullah Öcalan, a founding member of Turkey’s outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party known as the PKK (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê‎). Mr. Çağlar’s private aircraft was used to spirit Mr. Öcalan from Nairobi to Turkey. In late April 2001, he was arrested by the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation in a parking garage at New York’s JFK Airport and extradited to Turkey, which had issued an Interpol Red Notice pursuant to his conviction in the collapse of Turkey’s Interbank. 

The precursor to the St. Petersburg meeting was President Erdoğan’s letter to President Putin. In it, Turkey apologized for the 24 November 2015 downing of a Russian warplane in Turkish airspace that was taking part in a combat mission in Syria.[11] Hürriyet Gazetesi reported a 30 April meeting in Istanbul, during which President Erdoğan authorized General Akar and Mr. Çağlar to open discussions with Russia about “normalizing” relations. Messrs. Abdulatipov and Çağlar then spent several weeks shuttling successive drafts of the letter (written by prior agreement in Turkish and Russian, not English) back and forth, with the support of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev. This led to a 24 June meeting in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, where President Putin was scheduled to meet President Nazarbayev at the conclusion of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit. The Kazakh ambassador to Turkey contacted an aide to President Erdoğan, Ibrahim Kalyn, to set the meeting in Tashkent. After several last minute hitches—there were problems reconciling the Turkish and Russian versions of the letter, and Uzbekistan had closed its airspace due to the SCO summit so Kazakh President Nazarbayev had to ask Uzbek President Islam Karimov for permission to fly “his friends from Turkey” (whose aircraft, low of fuel, had landed in Shymkent) to Tashkent—President Putin and President Erdoğan agreed to the final wording. The timing was uncanny, coming a fortnight before the attempted coup in Turkey. As the Hürriyet Gazetesi report points out, the first leader to phone President Erdoğan with a message of support was President Putin.

The St. Petersburg meeting, write Gallia Lindenstrauss and Zvi Magen,[12] “is likely to be a beginning of a new phase in Turkish-Russian relations.” It may very well mark the beginning of something wider, given the pivotal Kazakh and Uzbek roles in brokering the rapprochement between their neighbors. There is another, less noticed factor as well: as Mr. Erdoğan met with Mr. Putin in St. Petersburg, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu declared his country would suspend its migration agreement[13] with the European Commission unless the Commission established a definitive date to abolish visa requirements for Turkish citizens.[14] Where that goes is anyone’s guess. What is certain, however, is that Turkey’s traditional role as NATO’s “anchor” on the Black Sea is indeed ripe for revision, exactly how much and to what extent nobody today can know.

NOTES

The translation of all source material is by the author.

[1] ” Türk-Rus krizini bitiren gizli diplomasinin öyküsü.” Hürriyet Gazetesi [published online in Turkish 8 August 2016].

[2] See for example: “Ramazan Abdulatipov yakoby okazal sodeystviye v vosstanovlenii otnosheniy mezhdu liderami Rossii i Turtsii.” Seryy zhurnal [published online in Russian 9 August 2016]. http://kopomko.ru/ramazan-abdulatipov-yakobyi-okazal-sodeystvie-v-vosstanovlenii-otnosheniy-mezhdu-liderami-rossii-i-turtsii/. Last accessed 9 August 2016.

[3] “Negocieri secrete. Cum au reuşit Turcia şi Rusia să-şi restabilească relaţiile.” Publika.md [published online in Romanian 9 August 2016]. http://www.publika.md/negocieri-secrete-cum-au-reusit-turcia-si-rusia-sa-si-restabileasca-relatiile_2708501.html. Last accessed 9 August 2016.

[4] “Putin: Rossiya i Turtsiya vystupayut za vozobnovleniye dvustoronnikh otnosheniy.” Novaya Gazeta [published online in Russian 9 August 2016]. http://www.novayagazeta.ru/news/1705969.html. Last accessed 9 August 2016.

[5] ” Putin v razgovore s Erdoganom zayavil o nedopustimosti antikonstitutsionnykh deystviy.” TASS [published online in Russian 17 July 2016]. http://tass.ru/politika/3462009. Last accessed 9 August 2016.

[6] ” Putin’den Erdoğan’a telefon.” Hürriyet Gazetesi [published online in Turkish 17 July 2016]. http://www.hurriyet.com.tr/putinden-erdogana-telefon-40150943. Last accessed 9 August 2016.

[7] See for example: “Putin’den Erdoğan’a: Anayasaya aykırı hiçbir eylem kabul edilemez.” İleri Haber [published online in Turkish 17 July 2016]. http://ilerihaber.org/icerik/putinden-erdogana-anayasaya-aykiri-hicbir-eylem-kabul-edilemez-56902.html. Last accessed 9 August 2016.

[8] For example see: “Putin po telefonu obsudil s Merkel’ i Netan’yakhu ukrainskiye sobytiya.” Vesti.ru [published online in Russian 16 April 2014]. http://www.vesti.ru/doc.html?id=1483262. Last accessed 9 August 2016.

[9] “Ukraina na krayu. Vozmozhnyye stsenarii razvitiya sobytiy.” Vechernyaya Moskva [published online in Russian 24 January 2014]. http://vm.ru/news/2014/01/24/ukraina-na-krayu-232373.html. Last accessed 9 August 2016.

[10] One of the best descriptions of the events surrounding Mr. Öcalan’s flight and capture was published in the United States Central Intelligence Agency’s Studies in Intelligence series. See: Miron Varouhakis (2009). “Fiasco in Nairobi: Greek Intelligence and the Capture of PKK Leader Abdullah Ocalan in 1999.” Studies in Intelligence. 53:1. https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/csi-publications/csi-studies/studies/vol53no1/fiasco-in-nairobi.html. Last accessed 9 August 2016.

[11] A Russian language report about the Hürriyet Gazetesi article stated that the language of President Erdoğan’s letter in Russian used words that were ” stronger than ‘sorry’ but not as strong as ‘apology’.” Mr. Putin, it wrote, “approved the text, despite the fact that he found it a little closer to the Turkish position, because he read it as a request for forgiveness.” See: “Ramazan Abdulatipov vsplyl v istorii s izvineniyami Redzhepa Erdogana pered Vladimirom Putinym.” On Kavkaz [published online in Russian 9 August 2016]. http://onkavkaz.com/articles/2781-ramazan-abdulatipov-vsplyl-v-istorii-s-izvinenijami-redzhepa-erdogana-pered-vladimirom-putinym.html. Last accessed 9 August 2016.

[12] Gallia Lindenstrauss & Zvi Magen (2016). “The Russian-Turkish Reset.” FPRI E-Note 8 August 2016. http://www.fpri.org/article/2016/08/russian-turkish-reset/. Last accessed 9 August 2016.

[13] According to the European Commission Fact Sheet dated 4 April 2016, “On 18 March 2016, EU Heads of State or Government and Turkey agreed to end the irregular migration from Turkey to the EU and replace it instead with legal channels of resettlement of refugees to the European Union. The aim is to replace disorganised, chaotic, irregular and dangerous migratory flows by organised, safe and legal pathways to Europe for those entitled to international protection in line with EU and international law. The agreement took effect as of 20 March 2016.” It provides for unauthorized migrants to be returned to Turkey and for Turkey to block “nee sea or land routes for irregular migration.” In exchange, Turkey received a payment in the amount of EU payment of €3bn (USD3.3bn). http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_MEMO-16-1221_en.htm. Last accessed 9 August 2016.

[14] “Turtsiya postavila EC ul’timatum po bezhentsam.” Lenta [published online in Russian 9 August 2016]. https://lenta.ru/news/2016/08/09/stop_implementing_agreement/. Last accessed 9 August 2016.

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The West Needs to Stop Obsessing About Putin

Whether the Western media views Russian President Vladimir Putin as losing or winning, as strong or weak, as having a plan or lacking one entirely, it focuses almost exclusively on him as the driving force behind everything that happens in Russia and everything Russia does abroad. For good reason. Putin’s aggression is one of the top foreign policy challenges today. From Ukraine to Syria, no one stands in starker opposition to the Western world order.

Thus, Putin must go.  Focusing on the man, however, ignores the system that he’s put into place, and that system is the key to understanding today’s Russia and how we should deal with it.

The West’s Putin obsession feeds the misconception that if Putin were to step down tomorrow, Russia would be able to democratize and retake its place in the international community. Perhaps at one point in the early 2000s the removal of Putin would have made it possible for Russia to avoid a darker path. But that thought is no more than fantasy today. Putin is the central figure in the government apparatus, and members of his government cannot envision a Russia without him. Yet he has made the political future of Russia unstable by co-opting its political system, twisting it to serve himself and the elite who serve him, instead of the Russian people, and forging a system of rule that will, paradoxically, survive him and hinder democratization.

Putin’s regime is not an effective, responsive government. He has based his authority on corruption, the negation of basic political rights, the alternating appeasement and subjugation of the oligarchs, and manipulation of his people through control of the media. Even if Putin felt secure enough to appoint a successor who would guarantee him immunity from prosecution, as Putin did for Yeltsin, that successor would face problems simply by not being Putin.

This does not mean that Putin must stay for the sake of stability, or that his presence guarantees stability. Russia is not a stable country under Putin. Since the invasion of Crimea, the ruble has lost 50 percent of its value in relation to the dollar, Russia’s GDP has dropped by almost 1 trillion dollars since 2013, and Russia’s oil and gas industry has a bleak future. Russia is not a status quo international actor, as its mischief-making in Ukraine and muscle-flexing in Syria demonstrate. And with xenophobia and propaganda-induced nationalist hysteria on the rise, it could get worse, especially if a more erratic, nationalist politician were to succeed, or supplant, Putin.

If democracy is to have any hope in Russia, change must be organic, with the Russian people at its head. Democratic reformers hope that Putin’s powerbase, with its reliance on economics and the menace of external enemies, eventually crumbles and collapses under its own weight. Putin’s increasingly unpredictable behavior, spinning from crisis to crisis as he tries to maintain momentum and keep his people’s attention away from the country’s economic downturn and the population’s lack of basic rights and democratic freedoms, does not seem sustainable in the long term. Democratic hopefuls may get their wish.

An implosion may not bring about a positive outcome, however, as Russia’s own experience with the dismantling of the Soviet Union shows. The chaotic end of the Soviet Union, and the subsequent rollercoaster of what the West called reform, but many Russians called ruin, had frightening consequences. It largely discredited democracy in the eyes of Russians. They do not want to go through anything similar again.

The sad truth is that only time and more failure can push Putin from his throne. Direct external pressure will only serve to ignite the volatile mix of nationalism and fear—of the past and the future—that reigns in Russia. The West must do its best to make Putin an anachronism, to show Russians that there is a better world. If the United States wants to see Putin out of power, it must be ready for a Russia without Putin and a period of turmoil that could make the end of the Soviet Union look downright peaceful in comparison. The media can help by focusing less on Putin as an epic villain and more on the system that he’s created, how that system blights Russia’s present, and the problems it is likely to bequeath to our common future.  

Simon Hoellerbauer is a research intern with the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Project on Democratic Transitions and a graduate of Kenyon College. He can be found on Twitter at @hoellerbauers. Melinda Haring is a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. 

 

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Putin’s Hidden Victims

It has been nearly three years since Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law banning American families from adopting Russian children.  Many viewed the law as retaliation for the Magnitsky Act, which the US Congress had passed the month before, rebuking the Russian government for its terrible human rights record. Putin’s tit-for-tat response brought Russia’s deplorable human rights situation— especially in Russian orphanages—into focus.

Harvard Law professor and child welfare expert Elizabeth Bartholet described the ban as “cynical and brutal.”

But the outrage was not limited to the international community. Even within Russia there was a significant backlash.  Shortly after Putin announced the ban, 20,000 Russians marched with protest signs, shouting “Shame on the scum!”  Putin’s political game unfairly victimized children and condemned many to live out their childhoods in state-run institutions.

Putin responded to the criticism coyly. “We must do all we can so that orphaned children find their families in their home country, in Russia,” he said.

Today there are approximately 700,000 children in the country’s orphanage system. Nearly 95 percent have at least one living parent.  These children are not “orphans” in the traditional sense; the government coined the handy phrase “social orphan” to describe children whose parents have relinquished their parental rights.  According to official statistics, more than 100,000 children are abandoned annually.

Prior to Putin’s draconian ban, Americans adopted the highest number of Russian children each year.  In 2011, Americans adopted more than 1,000.

While developed countries rejected orphanages decades ago—placing children in adopted families or foster care—Russia has maintained its vast labyrinth of institutions, which house children from birth to the age of emancipation (generally age 17). The orphanage system and the physical buildings themselves are holdovers from the Soviet Union. Children are typically undernourished and receive inadequate medical care. International human rights organizations have documented physical abuse and neglect of the children in Russia’s residential care, including the widespread practice of tying children with ropes or rags to their cribs, leaving children lying on floors for hours at a time, and medicating children with sedatives to get them to sleep.  

Children in orphanages are isolated and hidden from view.  They do not attend regular schools, and the education they receive within the orphanage, if any, is insufficient. The official protocols state that children in residential care should not visit family members for fear that they may get used to the attention and become “spoiled.”

The situation for children with disabilities is even worse. Disabled children spend the vast majority of their day in so-called “lying down” rooms—rooms with cribs where children are left in cribs or on floor mats, unable to move. They have few, if any, opportunities to play outside, interact with other children, or play with toys.

State officials and doctors often pressure parents of children with disabilities to relinquish their parental rights, making the false claim that state institutions can provide better care for children with special needs. This pressure accounts for why more than 40 percent of children in residential care have some form of disability.

Back in 2012, as Russia banned US adoptions, the government promised to ramp up its efforts to de-institutionalize children and place them in families. But for the hundreds of thousands of children trapped in the system, Putin’s promises have amounted to very little.  His adoption ban, ostensibly aimed at harming the United States, has denied thousands of children the opportunity to escape Russia’s orphanages and become part of a family.

If Putin’s administration wants make good on its 2012 promise, it should take three steps immediately: first, it should increase the resources for programs and initiatives to keep families together and prevent children, especially disabled children, from entering the orphanage system; second, it should accelerate the process of de-institutionalizing children by increasing the number of adoptions both domestic and international and encouraging Russian citizens to become foster parents; and third, it should improve the care children in state institutions receive, ensuring that children are not abused and that they receive adequate nutrition, medical care, and education.

It’s time to put an end to the horrific treatment of Putin’s hidden victims and demand that Russia modernize its backward orphanages.  

Shonda Werry is an expert on Russia and international adoption. Melinda Haring is a Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.  

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Georgia’s Former President Saakashvili appointed the New Governor of Odessa: Implications for Georgia and Ukraine

President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko has appointed Georgia’s former President Mikheil Saakashvili the new governor of Ukraine’s key Odessa region. It is difficult to decipher the bizzare news, but considering the implications this move could have for both Ukraine and Georgia, the issue merits some meditation.

      

How are Georgians reacting?

What caused the biggest outrage in Georgia was the fact that by accepting the Ukrainian citizenship (required by Ukrainian law in order for one to take office in government) Saakashvili automatically lost, thus deliberately gave up, his Georgian citizenship. It is certainly an unorthodox move for a former president of one country to first give up citizenship of his own country, and second take political office in another country, especially a position that is of much lower rank than that of a presidential office.

Georgian citizenship is something Georgian politicians have taken lightly for a long time,[1] but we’ve seen it used as a tool of political maneuvering recently. In the 2012 parliamentary elections when the Georgian Dream Coalition was formed under the leadership of billionaire oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili, his lack of Georgian citizenship became an issue. According to Georgian citizenship laws, one automatically loses Georgian citizenship when accepting another. However, it is viewed as a mere technicality, as Georgia allows its citizens to have dual citizenship, which is achieved by requesting to be “granted Georgian citizenship by law of exception.” Ivanishvili had become a Russian and a French citizen, and had never reapplied for Georgian citizenship. Legally he was not allowed to run for office. He later gave up his Russian citizenship and asked for Georgian citizenship—a process that was dragged out for months, and put on a public display by Saakashvili’s government, adding to the already high pre-election campaign pressures. To be sure, this was a process Saakashvili himself was directly involved in, as granting Georgian citizenship is the president’s job there.

Ukraine on the other hand does not allow dual citizenship. Whoever becomes a citizen of Ukraine has to give up his/her other citizenship within two years of obtaining Ukrainian citizenship. In a recent interview given to the Georgian television channel Imedi, Saakashvili, among many other things, explained the reasoning behind this move. It appears that: (1) he sees the issue of citizenship as a technicality to comply with the bureaucratic requirements of taking political office in Ukraine; (2) he does plan to return to Georgia with the hopes of reentering Georgian politics; and (3) he believes in his Georgian supporters more than they believe in him. He thinks all of this will be undone soon, with support of his Georgian voters.

In the interview Saakashvili said that “taking away my Georgian citizenship is the [Georgian] president’s prerogative [this would be in the form of the president rejecting Saakashvili’s application for being granted Georgian citizenship by the law of exception]. If he decides to take my citizenship away, I am sure, this will not be a deciding factor, because for the moment when I return to Georgia, and this will happen much sooner than many imagine, people will make them rescind the indictments against me as well as the act of stripping me of my Georgian citizenship.” Moreover, he went on to explain how he does not see the lack of citizenship as an obstacle. “Eduard Shevardnadze was not a Georgian citizen when he went to Georgia and became its leader; nor was Ivanishvili, when he was running around, conducting his pre-election campaign and became the leader of Georgia. Thus citizenship issue was never an obstacle for anyone, why should it become one for me?”

While he may be technically correct, Saakashvili may have strongly miscalculated this move. Let us set aside for a moment the implications this move will have on Ukraine. All along, Saakashvili has still believed that a comeback as Georgia’s leader was possible for him. He has been counting on the incompetence of the current government—if they bring enough poverty and setbacks to Georgia (which the current Georgian government has already partly achieved), Saakashvili and his party would then regain the people’s confidence, and would be “obligated” to return by popular demand. The Georgian Dream Coalition government may be losing approval ratings due to the worsening economic conditions in the country (the lari has been plummeting since November 2014), but this does not automatically mean that there will be popular demand for Saakashvili in Georgia any time soon (a recent National Democratic Institute poll shows that only 16% of Georgians would vote for Saakashvili’s party). Additionally, if there was any possibility of Saakashvili regaining popularity in Georgia by some miracle, those chances have now been severely diminished thanks to his Ukrainian venture.

The president in exile waited for the Georgian officials to drop charges, but ran out of patience. As he expressed,

…what does Georgian citizenship mean to me today?! Today for me Georgian citizenship means sitting in a prison cell, along with my other friends… therefore, this is purely a matter of formality, although I wanted to avoid it. … I cannot go to Georgia, whether I am a citizen or not, what difference does it make. Therefore as soon as the people make them [the government] void the indictments, when the time comes, they will also resolve the issue of my citizenship. I will distance myself from this formality, but I will always be nearby, whenever the Georgian people desire, if they need me for anything.

Browsing local headlines, this move appears to be seen as a betrayal by many Georgians. Saakashvili and his team are infamous for their impeccable PR skills, yet for someone who wants to return to Georgian politics one day, this is a huge miscalculation. Even his supporters, or what is left of them, are seeing this as a negative move. Georgian government officials have openly condemned his actions. The current president Margvelashvili called it “dishonorable behavior,” saying that with this move Saakashvili has “disgraced the country and the institution of presidency. … A former president should not have given up Georgian citizenship. … Values are more important than career, and these values include being a Georgian citizen. His behavior is incomprehensible to me.”

What does this mean for Ukraine?

So, what is Odessa inheriting from Georgia in Saakashvili? His reforms took Georgia from a nearly failed state to a booming tourist destination with a rapidly growing economy. Foreign direct investment began pouring in thanks to the highly favorable investing conditions Saakashvili created. Rampant corruption and crime disappeared and gave way to high GDP growth rates, free and fair elections, and westernization. The rapid reforms came at a high price for Georgia’s democracy, however. Saakashvili was never able to let go of the power that he had to concentrate in his own hands in the first place in order to effectively implement the reforms. Towards the end of his presidency it became clear that crucial democratic reforms had taken a backseat to the president’s insatiable appetite for contemplating and implementing major development projects in Georgia. At some point Saakashvili swapped out, or even mistook, development for democracy and became unapologetic about being the sole decision-maker in Georgia.

As we’ve already seen, American, Georgian (Saakashvili’s teammates), and Lithuanian individuals were granted Ukrainian citizenship since Poroshenko came into office, so they could take key positions in government. Saakashvili himself was Poroshenko’s advisor on a freelance basis until recently. He had been offered official government positions in Ukraine but had not accepted them. When asked why he turned down these jobs he cited various reasons. Sometimes it was the fact that he did not understand Ukrainian political culture and did not think he could be a part of it. He also said that he did not want to give up his Georgian citizenship (as he was still hoping the charges against him would be dropped and he would return to Georgia after the long exile). And lastly, in an interview earlier this year he expressed that he had reservations over the idea of “having to play nice with others” by working with other political actors in order to achieve consensus to get things done. It looks like the complete autonomy of power is something that Saakashvili is still strongly keen on. Based on Poroshenko’s speech announcing Saakashvili’s appointment, it looks like Saakashvili got exactly that, a full carte blanche to do what he pleases with Odessa, as long as he achieves there what he achieved in Georgia—rapid development and modernization through even faster and effective overnight reforms.

Putting the issue of democracy aside, Saakashvili is likely to achieve these goals in Odessa, but as with Georgia, what will be the cost of this success? Odessa is a region of high strategic importance for Ukraine, but also for Putin’s strategic agenda. Appointing Saakashvili as the head of that region is a direct insult to Putin who infamously despises Saakashvili.[2] If this is not a step back in Ukraine’s attempts at ending the war in its eastern territories, it is certainly not a step forward either. Additionally, now there is a new scenario where Saakashvili could be setting himself up for losing another war with Russia, this time in Odessa.

Yes, Ukraine is desperate for immediate reforms, and there is not enough capacity domestically to implement them effectively. Thus the international community should gladly welcome any bold steps that Poroshenko takes towards achieving that goal. However, the most baffling part in this story is that all of Saakashvili’s competence and expertise could be very effectively utilized from behind the scenes had he chosen to do so, without risking further worsening of already lethal Ukraine-Russia relations.

Notes


[1] Vast number of Georgian government officials, current and past, have dual citizenships. The practice of “bringing back” a successful Georgian from abroad and awarding them Georgian citizenship before appointing them to a government position was one that Saakashvili used quite frequently.

[2] For the second half of Saakashvili’s presidency Georgia and Russia did not even have diplomatic ties. The August 2008 war between Georgia and Russia got very personal between the two leaders and since then they do not attempt to conceal their hatred for each other in public. 

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A weekend in the life of Ramzan Kadyrov on Instagram: his wisdom on marriage, anti-terrorism, and the conspiracy surrounding Tsarnaev’s sentencing.

About a year ago my colleague Alex Fisher and I wrote about Russia’s homegrown terrorism problem. In our article we argued that if the two Chechen wars of the 1990s did not actually create the terrorism problem in the Russian North Caucasus, they certainly helped worsen things a great deal. The inhumane tactics used by the Russian government and its cronies in Chechnya to hunt down rebels left the North Caucasus mountains infested with terrorist groups in hiding. The self-declared “Islamic State of the Caucasus Emirate” is responsible for countless terrorist attacks in many Russian towns including, but not limited to, Grozny. The moral of our story was that Chechnya (as well as Dagestan) is Russia’s ticking bomb. Currently it is stable, but entirely unpredictable. Putin has poured a lot of money into achieving this seemingly stable state in Chechnya. He has heavily invested in local actors who carry out his zero tolerance policy when it comes to dealing with terrorists in Russia. One such noteworthy local actor is Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of Chechnya who has quickly risen to international fame for many reasons, foremost of them being his close relationship with Vladimir Putin.

Now, with the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Chechnya and the North (and even the South) Caucasus in general have been receiving renewed international attention. There have been continuous reports of foreign fighters pouring out of the region to join ISIS (as of February 2015 there were approximately 1700 Russian nationals fighting alongside ISIS). Additionally, Putin’s actions in Ukraine and elsewhere have drawn a great deal of attention to Russia itself. For example, when the world became outraged over the news of Boris Nemtsov’s murder[1] in Moscow, Kadyrov made headlines as many had connected the murder to his terrorist-fighting elite paramilitary security forces “Kadyrovtsy.” An article by The Moscow Times argued that Putin had overly spoiled Kadyrov and was not exactly in full control of him anymore. There have also been reports that Kadyrov has risen to higher ranks within Putin’s team and may eventually end up at the top of the Russian government. 

For those of us who closely observe the region, following the Chechnya news has been made somewhat amusing thanks to Kadyrov’s excellent social media skills. He happens to be an avid Twitter and Instagram user, frequently making media headlines across the world with his posts. For example, quite often he posts pictures of Putin on Instagram declaring his love and allegiance to him. This past winter he wrote that he was willing to die for Putin. 

However, this past weekend was especially eventful for Kadyrov on social media. He used his Instagram account to comment on two major events: a controversial wedding in Chechnya and the Tsarnaev sentencing.

Earlier this month Kadyrov received scrutiny for approving of and participating in a wedding of one of the members of his administration, who married a 17 year old–reportedly against her will. The wedding video shows a grim bride, barely saying “yes” to marrying the man during the civil ceremony. Later she is seen standing aside, not taking part in, the wedding celebrations where the honorable guest, Mr. Kadyrov, joyfully dances Lezginka with other guests. The Daily Beast reports that this is the second wife for the 47 year-old Nazhuda Guchigov, who has children older than his 17 year-old bride Louisa. Moreover, there were stories reporting that the bride’s family was blackmailed into allowing this marriage. Kadyrov defended this union in a long post on Instagram saying the allegations of forced marriage were incorrect.

Yes, the wedding video may simply be showing a shy Muslim bride, nothing out of the ordinary for local customs. And even if this wedding was a result of threats and blackmail, marriages like this are very common in that part of the world, and have been for centuries. However, this wedding resonated with many Russians, outside of Chechnya, who condemn polygamy. The practice is unlawful in Russia.

Watching this video, Russians began to ask, “is Chechnya not Russia?” This ultimately shows that Kadyrov is not accountable to the rule of law in Russia, but would he be the only Russian official who blatantly disregards the law? Between the Putin’s government’s unorthodox economic measures to bail out Russian businesses during the ruble crisis, to issuing laws that severely limit freedom of speech in Russia, to the widespread abuse of human rights especially when it comes to the rights of the LGBT community, Kadyrov is not exactly leading by example, he is simply following the one set by Putin. 

After addressing critics of this “wedding of the millennium” as he referred to it, Kadyrov went on to share his opinions about Dzokhar Tsarnayev’s sentencing last week. On his Instagram page, Kadyrov posted a picture of Tsarnayev. The long caption to the picture offers some wisdom from an experienced terrorist hunter and reads like this: 

“Dear Friends, Dzokhar Tsarnayev was sentenced to death. This news comes as no surprise… …Yes, I am in support of aggressive war against terrorism.” The seemingly supportive sentiments take a strange turn when he adds: “any person with evil intentions should be neutralized … But I don’t like it when a spectacle is played out under the guise of fighting terrorism. … Tamerlan Tsarnayev was killed under very strange circumstances. Ibrahim Todashev was shot during interrogation. Dzhokhar Tsarnayev was put behind the bars. … He was quickly charged under three dozen articles.” This is where Kadyrov’s comments begin to sound like he is hinting at some sort of conspiracy. He goes on to say that the brothers came to America at a very young age, they studied hard, took up sports, music… The older brother married, had a child… “The ideal biography for a gubernatorial candidate.” Kadyrov asks, “Who made them terrorists? Who taught them to so skillfully prepare bombs, plan the attack without getting found out? … I do not believe that Tsarnayevs were able to do this without knowledge attained from the US Special Forces, if they even did this at all. … If the US and Europe are really committed to antiterrorism, why are they spreading it in the Middle East?” Finally he asks “yes, if they put Tsarnayev to death, what guarantee do we have that they won’t find him innocent later on? This happens often in the United States. … He was nine years old when he came to the United States. And America, in which he believed, made him into a terrorist.”

***

So, what are some of the takeaways here? First, it is clear that even under the watch of Putin’s close ally, Chechnya is still not Russia. It appears that while Kadyrov may be willing to give up his life for Putin, he would not give up the autonomy of his power so easily. Between that and the fact that Chechen terrorists are still well and alive[2], Chechnya continues to be a problem area for Russia–and one that merits close monitoring.

Second, the anti-American sentiment is so prominent among Russian leaders that even on an issue like anti-terrorism, arguably the only thing the two sides could see eye-to-eye on at the moment, there is very little hope for cooperation. Conveniently for the Russian government, Kadyrov takes a dual position: he comes out strongly against terrorism in order to discourage it within Russia, but on the other hand he also manages to maintain the anti-US position that Russian leaders would approve of, accusing the US for turning Tsarnaev brothers into terrorists.

 


[1] Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was shot to death in Moscow on February 27, 2015. The assassination sparked major international outrage, many accusing Putin’s government of ordering the murder.

[2] There was a suicide terrorist bombing in Grozny as recently as October 2014. Five people were reported killed and 12 injured.  

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