News & Current Affairs

September 15, 2008

Insight: Who runs Russia?

Insight: Who runs Russia?

Vladimir Putin (L) and Dmitri Medvedev

Vladimir Putin (L) and Dmitri Medvedev must agree policy decisions

Getting to the bottom of the shadowy depths of Kremlin decision-making is tricky. Machiavellian power struggles, dark paranoia of security chiefs and long fingers of corruption can turn seemingly rational and transparent explanations inside out.

But even public signals are instructive, and in the wake of the Georgia crisis, Russia’s leadership is taking stock and has several messages for the West.

The first key question about Russia is – who is really in charge?

The standard answer is President Medvedev as Commander in Chief. He, and only he, ordered Russian troops across the border to hit back when Georgia attacked on South Ossetia.

But presidential power is now the tip of an iceberg. What murky currents swirl beneath the surface is less clear.

Dmitry Medvedev says he was caught unawares and admits his relative inexperience.

“I was on holiday on the Volga when the defence minister called,” he said at a conference of the so-called ‘Valdai Club’ of foreign academics and journalists who specialize in Russia.

“I’ll never forget that night, knowing the consequences there would be when I gave the order to return fire… especially when I’d only been president for 95 days,” he said.

But what about Russia’s ex-president, now his prime minister, who was also at the conference?

“However much authority I have, whoever I may be talking to, none of the troops or tanks would have moved an inch until President Medvedev’s order,” was Vladimir Putin’s attempt to deny his own importance when we asked about his role, thereby indicating that his clout and involvement were considerable.

Bridget Kendall
1998 to present: BBC diplomatic correspondent
1994-98: Washington correspondent
1989-94: Moscow correspondent

What is more, at the outset of the crisis, when Mr Putin was in Beijing for the opening of the Olympic Games, he was already thinking about Russia moving swiftly to recognize the two enclaves at the heart of the crisis.

He had taken the time, he told us, to inform the Chinese leadership that Russia would understand if Beijing chose not to react.

Double act

It begs the question – who is really driving policy, the president or the prime minister?

The choreography and timing of our audiences with both were instructive.

A pair of three-hour meetings, two elegant luncheon settings, two declarative statements for Russian TV cameras at the start, and even two carefully informal blue suits with matching ties.

All to signal, perhaps, that their status is equal – a dual leadership exercising power in tandem.

I never thought I’d need to use harsh rhetoric when I began this job. But there are some moments as president when you are left with no choice
Russian President, Dmitri Medvedev

Indeed one senior government official made a point of emphasizing the duality, constantly referring to them in the same breath.

Policy decisions had to be cleared with both, he said. And what was wrong with that? A double act surely strengthened, not muddled governance, requiring a green light from two instead of one.

We met Mr Putin first. Almost the entire discussion was devoted to foreign policy.

He was burning to give his point of view. He seemed supremely confident, engaged and in charge. His anger at the way he felt Russia had been treated in recent years blazed through, as though it was his own personal animosity which is now firing and fuelling current policy.

It was hard to remember he was no longer president.

Economic policy, supposedly at the heart of his new job as prime minister, came up sporadically and he admitted he is still mastering his new brief.

When he did comment directly on Dmitry Medvedev, the impression he left was curious.

Mr Putin seemed to want to play up the differences between them, as though suggesting a “good cop, bad cop” routine.

He described himself as “conservative” and with an uncharacteristic flash of self-deprecation admitted his penchant for blunt speaking was sometimes a liability.

Whereas he described Dmitry Medvedev as bright, young and highly educated, with modern and – he stressed this twice – liberal views.

“He’s a good lad,” said Mr Putin a touch condescendingly, as though recommending his young protege to a would-be employer for a new job.

The aim, it seemed, was to send a signal to the West that Dmitry Medvedev is indeed more flexible and reformist than Putin himself – and was forced to act tough because the crisis left him no option.

Moral high ground

So the US and its allies should understand they had made a big mistake by allowing this conflict to happen – and they would make an even bigger mistake unless they made the compromises Russia now wants.

When we met Dmitry Medvedev he underscored the point.

“I never thought I’d need to use harsh rhetoric when I began this job. But there are some moments as president when you are left with no choice,” he said.

“I very much don’t want the Caucasus crisis to destroy Russian co-operation with Europe and the United States,” he elaborated, and suggested he felt frustrated at his new role of “President of War”.

He’s a good politician, I think I have a better opinion of George than most Americans
Vladimir Putin on George W Bush

“A whole month has been lost on this war… I’d rather have been doing other things,” he said. “Yesterday when I met the defence and finance ministers, instead of talking about car and tractor production, we had to discuss where to deploy the Russian army. Priorities have had to change.”

So what, then, at this juncture does Russia want from the West?

The first message is that the Russian government is in no mood to compromise.

It insists it occupies the moral high ground in this crisis and sees no reason to give way.

This was tantamount to Russia’s 9/11, President Dmitry Medvedev declared to us, a defining moment in national policy and in relations with the outside world.

That conviction was echoed from top to bottom in our discussions with government officials, mainstream academics and journalists, all of them insisting Russia had no choice but to respond militarily and take South Ossetia and Abkhazia under its wing.

Any suspicion that Russia cunningly laid a trap that Georgia rashly walked into was dismissed as an outrageous lie.

The idea that by deploying troops deep inside Georgia and unilaterally recognising the two disputed enclaves’ independence Russia had gone too far was rejected out of hand.

The suggestion that by invading Georgian territory, and asserting its right to redraw the map, Russia made itself look like a bully, was also thrown out.

Instead President Saakashvili was blamed for triggering the conflict.

The United States had nudged him into it and rashly armed and trained his men while Europeans had looked the other way.

Any Western criticism to the contrary was hypocritical, given interventions in Kosovo and Iraq, and yet another example of anti-Russian hysteria and unfair stereotyping, based on prejudices left over from the Cold War.

Red line

Curiously both Mr Putin and President Medvedev were carefully respectful when it came to President Bush.

“He’s a good politician, I think I have a better opinion of George than most Americans,” said Mr Putin, at the same time complaining that he had twice tried to get the US president to intervene.

Instead it was Vice-President Cheney and the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, with their Soviet expertise, who were targeted as villains, suspected of fueling anti-Russian sentiment in the US administration and egging Georgia on.

“We need to get rid of stereotypes. The US president has too many Sovietologists in his entourage,” observed Dmitry Medvedev caustically.

A Russian tank crosses a main route in Georgia

Russia is keen to avoid accusations of annexing Georgian territory

The second message that came through clearly was that Russia’s “red line” – any move to extend Nato to Russia’s borders by seeking to incorporate Georgia or Ukraine – still stands.

What Russia really wants is a new discussion on European security arrangements to replace Nato with something else entirely.

But short of that, attempts by the United States or Nato to rearm Georgia or to extend formal invitations to either Georgia or Ukraine to join the alliance seem likely to prompt a furious Russian response.

“Russia has zones that are part of its interests. For the West to deny it is pointless and even dangerous,” said President Medvedev.

“It’s unjust, it’s humiliating, and we’ve had enough. It’s something we are no longer prepared to endure,” he said. “You have a very clear choice here. Let there be no doubt about it.”

What exactly Russia would do to try to prevent this further Nato enlargement was left unclear.

“We’ll do all we can to make sure it doesn’t happen,” said Mr Putin carefully, talking about Ukraine.

Although on Georgia he noted Russian tanks had been within 15 kilometres of Tbilisi and could have taken the capital in four hours.

Economic concerns

So the hints of a threat, but not exactly – and that is interesting. Because the third message that came through was that Russia would like to think a major East-West confrontation can still be avoided.

There may well be powerful forces in Russia’s military and security elite, ultra nationalists who would like to see their country retreat from global integration and rely once more on internal resources – economic and military – as in Soviet days, to reclaim influence geographically and show the outside world Russia’s might can no longer be ignored.

Roubles being sorted at the Goznak mint in Moscow

Russia’s stock market value has fallen by 50% since May this year

But diplomatic and economic isolation does not seem to be what the Kremlin leadership currently wants to embrace.

The haste with which both Mr Putin and Mr Medvedev shrugged off the notion that Russia might have to pay a price for this crisis was telling.

They denied that the loss of nearly 50% of Russia’s stock market value from its all time high in May had much to do with the Georgia crisis.

A far more likely cause, they argued – with some justification, given what is happening on Wall Street – was the impact of global financial instability.

In comparison to many other countries, they insisted, Russia’s economy was in good shape – signs of capital flight were temporary. Foreign investors would be back. Russia’s energy resources were needed by everyone and it had weathered economic storms before.

The fact only Nicaragua had joined Russia in recognising Abkhazia and South Ossetia was also dismissed as unimportant, even if the glaring lack of overt diplomatic support for Russia’s actions appears to be a sensitive point.

When the leader of South Ossetia told us he intended to follow up independence by amalgamating his tiny republic with North Ossetia and becoming part of the Russian Federation, he was hurriedly slapped down. Within hours he had issued a retraction.

Outright annexation by Russia of what is, after all, legally speaking Georgian territory is an accusation Moscow seems anxious to avoid.

Yes, Russia wants to claim that the ball is now firmly in the court of the US and its allies – that it is up to them, not Russia, to decide how this geopolitical crisis plays out.

But behind all the moral outrage, I felt there was also a nervousness, a worry that if Russia’s bluff is called and further tensions with the West ensue, it might force a stand-off from which neither side could back down.

“There is a chill in the air and a loss of trust,” said Dmitry Medvedev, “but I don’t think this is a corner turn that will lead to a long confrontation. This is not what we want. And it’s not what you want either.”

Advertisements

September 8, 2008

Russians ‘agree Georgia deadline’

Russians ‘agree Georgia deadline’

Russia has conditionally agreed to remove its forces from Georgian land – excluding Abkhazia and South Ossetia – by the second week of October.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said the pull-out would happen once 200 EU monitors deployed to South Ossetia.

Speaking after meeting French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Mr Medvedev said the withdrawal was dependent on guarantees that Georgia would not use force again.

But he made no mention of withdrawing troops from South Ossetia or Abkhazia.

And he defended Russia’s controversial decision to recognise the independence of both breakaway regions, saying the move was “irrevocable”.

Criticism of US

Among the measures announced after the Moscow talks, Mr Medvedev said there would be international talks on the conflict, which would take place in Geneva on 15 October.

And Russia agreed to remove a key checkpoint from near the port of Poti within a week.

NEW PEACE MEASURES
Russia to close checkpoints between Poti and Senaki within a week
Some 200 EU monitors in South Ossetia by 1 October
Russian forces to withdraw from undisputed land within 10 days of monitors deploying
International talks on the conflict to be held in Geneva on 15 October

Again Mr Medvedev made the pledge conditional on Georgia signing a pledge not to use force against Abkhazia.

Afterwards he said the EU delegation had handed him a letter, signed by Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, pledging not to use force.

The Russian president confirmed that his troops would pull out “from the zones adjacent to South Ossetia and Abkhazia to the line preceding the start of hostilities”.

“This withdrawal will be implemented within 10 days after the deployment in these zones of international mechanisms, including not less than 200 observers from the European Union, which must take place not later than 1 October 2008,” he said.

But he was uncompromising in his tone towards the Georgian government and the US.

“[Georgia] is trying to reinforce its military capability and some of our partners, especially the United States, are helping them in that.”

‘Fruitful’ talks

The two leaders took part in more than three hours of talks, which also involved the EU foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, and the European Commission head, Jose Manuel Barroso.

Mr Sarkozy, who was pressing Russia to meet the terms of a ceasefire agreement he helped broker on 12 August, described the meeting as “fruitful”.

Mr Medvedev and Mr Sarkozy in Moscow, 08/09

The two leaders were in talks for more than three hours

He said the exact details of the Geneva talks were still under discussion, stressing that the issue of refugees returning to their homes would be at the heart of the meeting.

Russia’s call for international talks on the status of the two breakaway regions – part of the 12 August ceasefire deal – proved highly controversial.

President Saakashvili flatly rejected attempts to throw their status into doubt.

Mr Sarkozy will now fly to Tbilisi and run through the latest deal with Mr Saakashvili.

Russian troops entered Georgia on 7 August after responding to Georgian attempts to reassert its control in South Ossetia.

The two regions have had de facto independence since a civil war in the early 1990s, and Moscow has strongly backed their breakaway governments.

September 3, 2008

Russia praises EU’s approach

Russia praises EU’s approach

Lavrov, left, said Russia did not discriminate against Turkey in trade relations [AFP]

Russia has praised the European Union for taking a “responsible approach” to its conflict with Georgia by declining to impose sanctions on Moscow.

But Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president, said the EU had failed to understand Moscow’s reasons for moving into Georgia and recognising the separitist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

“In my view, the outcome is double-edged,” Medvedev said at his summer residence on the Black Sea.

“This is sad, but not fatal because things change in this world. Another situation, in my opinion, is more positive.

“Despite certain divisions among the EU states on the issue, a reasonable, realistic point of view prevailed because some of the states were calling for some mythical sanctions.”

He later said that he does not consider Mikhail Saakashvili to be Georgia’s president, in an interview with a Russian television channel.

“For us, the present Georgian regime has collapsed. President Saakashvili no longer exists in our eyes. He is a political corpse,” Medvedev said.

EU leaders met in Brussels on Monday to discuss Russia and Georgia and threatened to postpone talks with Moscow on a new partnership pact if it did not withdraw its troops to pre-conflict positions in Georgia by mid-September.

The leaders were unable to reach a consensus on the sanctions that some members, including Britain and the Baltic states, had been pushing for, highlighting the bloc’s divisions over how best to deal with its largest energy supplier.

Cheney visit

Ahead of a visit by Dick Cheney, the US vice president, to US allies in the region, a Kremlin aide said he expected Washington would also opt against imposing sanctions.

Cheney, due to leave on Tuesday for Azerbaijan, Georgia and Ukraine, has been an outspoken critic of Russia, saying last month its push into Georgia could “not go unanswered”.

Sergei Prikhodko, chief foreign policy advisor to Medvedev, told reporters:”We hope that a positive agenda in relations with the United States will prevail.”

Cheney has been an outspoken critic of Russia since the war broke out [EPA]

The statements contained none of the strident remarks made by Kremlin officials in the run-up to the EU summit.

It also appeared designed to signal Moscow’s readiness to take a conciliatory stance with western countries if they also avoid confrontation.

Russia sent its forces against its southern neighbour in a brief war last month after Georgia tried to recapture by force its pro-Moscow, separatist region of South Ossetia.

It has drawn Western condemnation by pushing beyond the disputed area, bombing and deploying troops deep inside Georgia proper and recognising the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Russia said it was forced to intervene to prevent what it has called a genocide of the separatist regions by Tbilisi, and says it is honouring a French-brokered ceasefire deal.

The former Soviet republic of Georgia is strategically important to the West because it hosts oil and gas pipelines that bypass Russia.

August 16, 2008

Russia signs up to Georgia truce

Russia signs up to Georgia truce

Russian troops

Moscow’s troops continue to operate deep inside the Caucasus republic

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has signed a ceasefire agreement with Georgia after receiving it in Moscow.

The deal calls for all military activity to stop and for troops from both sides to pull back into pre-conflict positions.

The deal was signed on Friday by Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili.

But Russian forces remain deep in Georgian territory, and correspondents say many obstacles remain in the way of full implementation of the peace deal.

At stake is the future of Georgia’s breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

US-backed Georgia has vowed it will not accept any loss of its territory, but Russia insists that following the recent violence, residents are unlikely to want to live in the same state as Georgians.

The crisis, which began nine days ago, saw Georgian forces launch a surprise attack to regain control of South Ossetia, only to be decisively repelled by Russian forces.

Russian ‘advances’

On the ground in Georgia, Russian forces had moved forward overnight.

Russian forces still control Gori, which lies some 15km (10 miles) from the border with South Ossetia.

Several tanks and armored personnel carriers were seen in Kaspi, west of Gori and some 35km north-east of the capital Tbilisi – an advance of some 15km on their previous position. Lorries of soldiers were seen heading towards the town.

Meanwhile, Russian troops were seen patrolling in Zestafoni, some 100km west of Gori along a major highway.

The Russian army brought in a large number of irregulars, mercenaries… They go around drunk, aggressive, armed and do all these atrocities
Mikhail Saakashvili
Georgian president

Georgian officials also said Russian forces remained in the Georgian Black Sea port of Poti, the site of a major oil shipment facility, and a major Russian military contingent is further inland, at Senaki.

The crisis began on 7 August, when Georgian forces launched a surprise attack to regain control of South Ossetia, which has had de facto independence since the end of a civil war in 1992.

The move followed days of exchanges of heavy fire with the Russian-backed separatist militias. In response to the Georgian assault, Moscow sent armoured units across the border into South Ossetia to intervene.

Obstacles ahead

Scores of people have been killed by the fighting and tens of thousands displaced.

PEACE PLAN
No more use of force
Stop all military actions for good
Free access to humanitarian aid
Georgian troops return to their places of permanent deployment
Russian troops to return to pre-conflict positions
International talks about future status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia

The EU-brokered ceasefire agreement which both sides have now signed includes a pledge to pull all troops back to their pre-conflict positions.

It also contains a plan to begin international talks about the future status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who was in Tbilisi on Friday, has demanded the immediate withdrawal of Russian forces from Georgian territory.

But Russia argues its forces are there to ensure civilians face no threat from Georgian troops.

Mr Saakashvili has accused the Russians of committing war crimes.

A displaced Georgian woman rests just outside the town of Gori (15/08/08)

The UN puts the number of those displaced in the conflict at 118,000

“The Russian army brought in a large number of irregulars, mercenaries,” he said. “They go around drunk, aggressive, armed and do all these atrocities.”

He criticized the West for not granting Georgia membership of Nato, saying it could have prevented the fighting.

Diplomats have said that the UN Security Council is expected to vote this weekend on a draft resolution formalising the ceasefire agreement.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will meet the Russian permanent representative in New York, possibly on Saturday, because he has so far been unable to contact the Russian president, officials have said.

‘Watching with alarm’

President Bush is set to hold a video conference with some of his most senior staff, including Ms Rice and Defence Secretary Robert Gates, to discuss the crisis in Georgia.

George Bush (file)
President Bush said Russia had to act to end the crisis in Georgia

On Friday, Mr Bush said Russia’s actions in Georgia were “completely unacceptable”.

“The world has watched with alarm as Russia invaded a sovereign neighbouring state and threatened a democratic government elected by its people,” he said.

He called upon Russia to end the crisis or risk its credibility on the global stage.

Mr Bush said he would send his secretary of state to Brussels next week to discuss how to deal with Russia with Nato foreign ministers and EU officials.

But the president did not respond to comments from Russia’s deputy chief of staff, who said Moscow would be justified in launching a nuclear attack if Poland went through with its agreement to base US interceptor missiles on its territory as part of Washington’s controversial defence shield.

Map of region


Are you in Georgia or Russia? Have you been affected by the conflict? You can send us your experiences

August 8, 2008

Georgia surrounds rebel capital

Georgia surrounds rebel capital

Georgia says its troops have surrounded the capital of separatist South Ossetia as Russia warns further aggression would lead to retaliation from Moscow.

Fighting around Tskhinvali resumed overnight, breaking a ceasefire deal, and bombardments are continuing.

Georgian President Mikhail Saakasvili has called on reservists to sign up for duty and accused Russia of sending fighter jets to bomb Georgian towns.

At least 15 civilians are said to have died as well as several Russian troops.

Residents of Tskhinvali are reported to be sheltering in basements as massive explosions rock the city. Both sides blame each other for breaking the ceasefire.

This is very sad and very disturbing and, of course, this will provoke actions in response
Vladimir Putin
Russian Prime Minister

A spokesman for the Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia told Interfax news agency that Georgian shells directly hit barracks in Tskhinvali, killing several peacekeepers.

Irina Gagloyeva, a South Ossetian official in Tskhinvali, described the scene in the beseiged city overnight after the Georgian military action started.

“Virtually all the people of the city are in shelters, myself included. It started at midnight, and has barely stopped for a minute,” she told the BBC. “Can you hear? That’s rockets. All my windows have blown out. Thirty-five thousand residents of our capital have become the hostages of Georgian fascism.”

Russian fighters

Georgian Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze said Georgia had simply run out of patience with attacks by separatist militias in recent days and had had to move in to restore peace in South Ossetia.

SOUTH OSSETIA
Map of South Ossetia
Population: About 70,000
Capital: Tskhinvali
Major languages: Ossetian, Georgian, Russian
Major religion: Orthodox Christianity
Currency: Russian rouble, Georgian lari

Georgia accuses Russia of arming the separatists who have been trying to break away since the civil war in the 1990s. Moscow denies the claim.

Russia called an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council to respond to the crisis, but members failed to agree on a Russian statement calling on both sides to renounce the use of force.

Russian President Dmitri Medvedev has convened his national security council and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin promised a response to what he called Georgian aggression.

The BBC’s James Rodgers in Moscow says Russia has always said it supports the territorial integrity of Georgia but has also said it would defend its citizens. Many South Ossetians hold Russian passports.

Hundreds of fighters from Russia and Georgia’s other breakaway region of Abkhazia are reportedly heading to aid the separatist troops.

Mr Saakashvili’s claims of Russian jets bombarding Georgian targets have not been independently confirmed.

Georgia says its aim is to finish “a criminal regime” and restore order.

Georgia’s Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze told reporters on Friday the military operations would continue until there was “a durable peace”.

“As soon as a durable peace takes hold we need to move forward with dialogue and peaceful negotiations,” he told reporters.

Appeal for talks

South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity told Interfax news agency his forces were still in control of the city, but Georgia claims to have Tskhinvali surrounded.

The Russian envoy to the UN, Vitaliy Churkin, described Georgia’s actions as “treacherous”.

“The situation in the conflict zone has reached a dramatic line,” he told the emergency session, according to Russian Vesti TV news.

“Civilians, old people and children are under massive artillery shelling from Grad rocket systems, guns and large-calibre mortars.”

Despite failing to agree a text, many council members did call on the parties to pull back.

China, where the Olympic Games opens on Friday, called for worldwide truce during the sporting event.

A White House spokesman said “all sides should bring an immediate end to the violence and engage in direct talks to resolve this matter peacefully”.


Are you in South Ossetia or elsewhere in Georgia? Have you been caught up in events? Send us your comments

Blog at WordPress.com.