Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Russia, Germany, the EU and the US

Bush and his soulmate "Pooty-Poot", Dear Leader's reported fond nickname for the Russian leader Vladimir Putin


The Iraq War is understandably consuming a great deal of political, Congressional and media interest and is the central national political issue in the United States right now.

But bad things are also happening in terms of Russia's relations to the West. Putin's regime, which always had an authoritarian streak, had cooperated to a surprising extent with the Bush administration's "global war on terrorism". The Russian government muted its objections to the Baltic states (Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia) entering the NATO military alliance. It also accepted the establishment of extensive US military bases in countries formerly parts of the Soviet Union.

Part of the motivation was its own "terrorism" problem, especially with Chechnya. And the Western democracies did cooperate by muting criticism of the Putin government's brutal military policies toward the rebel Muslim Republic, which is still part of the Russian Federation.

But more recently, Putin has taken a harder line against internal dissent and press freedom. The German-language press has been using the word "Gleichschaltung" to describe Putin's establishment of authoritarian control of the press, in large part by having the Russian state oil company Gasprom buy various media outlets. Although Gleichschaltung isn't a specific "Nazi" word, it is the name that the Hitler government used in the early months to suppress the independent press, labor unions and other institutions of the kind we now call "civil society" organizations.

And the Putin government is putting down its foot on a number of issues. Through Gasprom, it has played hardball with energy sales, resulting in a confrontation with Ukraine earlier this year. Ukraine is now potentially on the edge of an actual civil war, with the pro-Western President Viktor Yushchenko pitted against the pro-Russian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych . The secret police are reportedly supporting the prime minister, while the armed forces and regular police are lining up with the president. On Saturday, Zushchenko
sent troops to threaten the capital city of Kiev, a crisis defused for the moment when he and the prime minister agreed to a September 30 date for elections. This event merited a whole paragraph at the Los Angeles Times Web site. Yushchenko's "pro-Western" position means more specifically he wants to bring Ukraine into the European Union and even NATO. Putin's government opposes such developments.

Relations with the United States are so poor at the moment that Putin didn't even bother to hang around for the customary farewell photo when Condi-Condi paid him a visit recently. See
US takes a harder line with Russia by Howard LaFranchi The Christian Science Monitor 05/10/07. The official US position, as summarized bz La Franchi, goes: "The White House is getting tough with Russia, concerned with what it perceives as Vladimir Putin's retreat from democracy and a willingness to use petropolitics to reassert regional dominance."

Since the Bush administrationrepresents the energy industry invested with state power, as James Galbraith memorably described it, Russia's willingness to take a harder line in "petropolitics" is undoubtedly upsetting to them. But the Cheney-Bush outlook is essentially nationalistic and even xenophobic, an outlook that inevitably sees threats and enemies everywhere and never lacks urgent reasons for expanding the military establishment and its lucrative spinoffs for Halliburton and other big players in the military contracting business.

Appropriately for the Dark Lord, it is Cheney who explicitly articulated the "darker vision" of Russia not long ago, as La Franchi explains:

The tone of Bush administration policy since 2001 was set by Bush's famous comment that he had looked into Putin's soul and was pleased with what he saw. But it appears that the administration has taken a second look, and likes less well what it's seeing now.

The darker vision was outlined by Vice President Dick Cheney in a speech last week in Vilnius, Lithuania, in which he said that a regressing Russia has "a choice to make" between "a return to democratic reform" and "greater respect among fellow nations" or more "unfair and improper" restrictions on Russians' rights.

Deliberately making his point at a democracy conference in a former Soviet satellite attended by the presidents of several other former Soviet dependents, Mr. Cheney also said Russia is using its vast energy holdings "as tools of intimidation or blackmail" on its neighbors.

Somehow, LaFranchi doesn't get around to mentioning that the US plans to deploy Star Wars anti-missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic, moves clearly aimed at escalating military pressure against Russia. The Russians are obviously aware of the shortcoming of the Star Wars system, i.e., that the [Cheney]ing thing doesn't work. The latest test was also a flub (Officials abort anti-missile test Ontario [CA]Daily Bulletin/AP 05/26/07).

German Chancellor Angela Merkel had a more successful visit to Russia this month in her capacity in the EU's rotating presidency. Her Grand Coalition government is trying to strike a position somewhere between the hostile stance of the Cheney-Bush government and the previously warm relations between Germany and Russia under Gerhard Schröder's red-green government. Her visit was more successful than Condi-Condi's, although that's obviously not saying much.

Angie did scold Putin publicly about his restricting demonstrations around her visit. Not a very clever idea. Putin replied by referring to Germany's recent zeal in restricting protest during the G-8 summit.

The EU is currently blocked from negotiating a comprehensive trade treaty with Russia because Poland as an EU member has the authority to veto any such formal negotiation. Poland's beef is literally beef: the Putin government is limiting Polish meat exports to Russia.

Putin got a friendlier reception in Austria. The Austrian government was happy to proceed with various business deals

The big question for Americans and the West: do we want to have a new Cold War with Russia over Polish beef exports? Over stationing useless Star Wars weapons in Poland and the Czech Republic as further corporate welfare to the companies that profit from the worthless things? Over Russian energy prices disputes with Ukraine?

Failing impeachment, we have to assume that Cheney and Bush will be in power for the next year and a half. They can still do a lot of damage during that time. Congress and the public need to think about how much of their messes we are willing to assume the burden of cleaning up. Better to limit the damage beforehand.


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