Rebellion In the Ranks?

Russian President Vladimir Putin sacked 18 high-ranking security service types on Wednesday evening. The whole episode was done quietly with two simple announcements posted to the Kremlin’s website.   Eleven people were named in the first declaration, all from various regional offices of Alexander Bastrykin’s Investigative Committee (background here).

The second fired group consisted of five officers from the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD), the Deputy Head of the Federal Service for Drug Control [FSKN] of the city of St. Petersburg and Leningrad region, and Putin’s former Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo (short bio in English here).

Interestingly, the first decree was backdated 27 June 2014. Were these eleven individuals were discharged in late June, and Putin only now got round to signing the decree? If so, why?

One Belarusian news site posted the story and noted that a Putin press conference had been rumoured to take place Thursday night, but then was mysteriously cancelled. Putin’s Press Secretary, Dmitry Peskov, later denied that the meeting was set to take place at all. The website further speculated that the mass firing was connected to the Ukrainian security service’s earlier assertion that the shooting down of flight MH17 was an error, and the Russians had meant to shoot down a Russian Aeroflot plane as a pretext for a full-scale Russian invasion.

The theory of an attempted coup is, of course, making the rounds. Not one of the 18 people named in the two decrees was ranked under a Colonel. And Rushailo was well placed to implement such an endeavor. But a coup attempt seems unlikely mostly due to the late June date on the first decree, and the 6 weeks it took to officially implement it.

That being said, it is difficult to rule out the theory entirely. It is possible that the second decree consisted of individuals who were at least in discussions about the prospective coup. And the first group was just an internal cleaning up of Bastrykin’s Investigative Committee that had been in the works for some time.

Meanwhile, there have been more murmurings of discontent in the ranks. This past week, Deputy Economic Development Minister Belyakov resigned after publicly declaring on his Facebook page:

“I am ashamed of the decision to extend the moratorium on investing money from the national pension funds.”

Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s spokeswoman responded:

“If you are very ashamed, then you know what to do… A political decision has been made. Now it must be fulfilled.”

Belyakov replied, writing,

“We no longer feel shame. It is dreadful.”

Former Finance Minister, Alexei Kudrin, later wrote an article in Kommersant supporting Belyakov’s position, and arguing that the move “threatens the long-term stability of government finances and will reduce investment”.

Alfa Bank wrote: “This move breaches the ‘social contract’ between the state and society to develop long-term private savings.”

The newly imposed food import ban is also part of the ‘social contract’ Putin implemented with Russia’s middle class, where holidays abroad, and imported foods were allowed in exchange for certain other liberties. And this is where the rebellion comes from. It will not come from the likes of oligarch Gennady Timchenko and Rosneft’s Igor Sechin, who will still be able to find their favorite pâté, and prosciutto on the grocery shelves [photo gallery of other allowed items here]. It is the so-called second and third tier bureaucrats who have suddenly had their holidays abroad cancelled, and their imported salmon removed from the shelves of their local shops that will feel the pinch.

Putin is slowly but surely chipping away at the social contract he implemented. If he continues to do so, we can surely expect more coup attempts and public statements of rebellion.

Sanctioning Yourself

The Kremlin euphemistically called its proposed blanket ban on agricultural imports “special economic measures to provide for Russia’s security”. According to the decree, the ban will last for one year, and will include:

…a ban or restriction on foreign economic operations involving the import to Russia of particular kinds of agricultural produce, raw materials and foodstuffs originating in countries that have decided to impose economic sanctions on Russian legal entities and/or physical individuals, or have joined such decisions.

Included on this list of banned exporters are Canada, the United States, and the European Union, among others.

The announcement followed recent bans on dairy from Ukraine, fruits and vegetables from Poland, beef from Australia and Romania, and fruit from Moldova.

This move is a real political risk for Putin. In many ways he is targeting the same people who protested against him after he declared his intention to return to the Presidency in 2011. The so-called social contract that has propped Putin up for all these years has been that of certain economic guarantees in exchange for political freedom. Imported foodstuffs from the West were part of that guarantee. Yes, the foods were expensive (and the prices jacked up if you were shopping at Azbuka), but you could brag about the fact that you were shopping at Azbuka.

What happens when the middle class can no longer get the items they have grown to expect on a regular basis? Do they again take to the streets?

Russia’s Central Bank has been warning about inflation risks for quite some time. It reiterated its warning on Tuesday, saying that “the ban on importing cheap products from abroad could make it harder to control inflation.”

Russian “state statistics show Russia imported about one-third of its food from abroad in the past decade.”

For a more comprehensive look click on the link below [in Russian]:

The alternative argument is that Putin is appealing to another base, that of the small agriculture enterprises in the regions.

The Washington Post cited Grigory Golosov, a political science professor at the European University at St. Petersburg.

In the provinces… there is a popular conception that “if food imports were reduced, it would revitalize Russian agriculture.”

In a globalized world, things do not quite work that way, but the argument has some appeal amongst those who view their problems as being caused by globalization.

However, the list of banned imports has yet to be drawn up. The only guarantees given so far are that wine and baby food will not be on the list. In leaving the decision of what is to be prohibited open-ended, Putin has given himself enough of a loophole on this ban that he could backtrack by making it less comprehensive, and still look tough. But that is assuming rational thought, and at this point, that is a questionable supposition.

The Timchenko Interview

Gennady Timchenko, long-time friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and sanctioned by the United States, came out this week to give a rare interview. The lengthy (Itar-Tass divided it into 7 pages, for some inexplicable reason) question and answer session was mostly filled with questions that were probably pre-approved.

The interview starts with an anecdote about Timchenko’s dog, a Labrador who he claims was a gift from Russian President Vladimir Putin. This was meant to convey Timchenko’s close, personal relationship with Putin. [One more interesting fact about Timchenko’s dog: Romy’s mother, Koni, was a gift to Putin from Defense Minister, Sergei Shoigu.]

Timchenko then defends his dual citizenship, saying it was a decision based on necessity:

“I have never concealed the dual citizenship. You remember the 90s: a second passport was needed to move freely around the world…”

Like his friend, Vladimir Putin, Timchenko also professes to not use a computer. If he needs something he has employees to do it for him. “But I don’t read the news on the internet at night, and I sleep quite peacefully.”

On his relationship with Putin, Timchenko notes:

“Firstly, we do not see each other as often as many people think. Secondly, I never reach into areas which I do not understand. I am not a politician, and do not believe it is possible to speak on such questions.”

“[We have known one another] more than twenty years. But when asked about our friendship, I always tell them to ask Vladimir Vladimirovich. If I call myself his friend, it won’t look right.”

Timchenko also mentions the other ways he and Putin are connected. He brings up the judo club “Yavara-Neva” he co-founded with the Rotenberg brothers.

He then declares:

“In addition to Judo, Vladimir Vladimirovich and I also share other common interests in sports: hockey, skiing. And another subject – the Russian Geographical Society, of which I am a co-trustee.”

Timchenko is quite vocal on the subject of the sanctions against him, again bemoaning the fact that his wife’s surgery could not be paid for ‘although sanctions do not apply to family members’.

The European Union has not sanctioned Timchenko so far, but even so the sanctions are having an impact on his activities in Europe. He also complains about the fact that his Gulfstream jet has been downed due to the US sanctions against him. Timchenko complains:

“Even large private European banks are hostage to the global financial system, which is controlled by the United States. If desired, they can do what they want and with whom they want.

“If you call a spade a spade, it is blatant blackmail. From the State Department without the slightest hesitation call directly to top managers of European banks and dictate which of the Russians to block the bill. Many prefer not to risk performing urgent “advice” overseas partners…”

But even so, Timchenko defends Putin’s position on Ukraine, repeating:

“Russia is a sovereign state protecting its national interests.”

He also says:

“It is naïve to think we will back down.”

Finally, Timchenko also pulled out the Fortress Russia trope, saying:

“Sanctions are not only a problem but also an incentive. You cannot depend so much on the outside world. Whether it’s defense, finance, food security… We need to develop our own.”

Meanwhile, a Vedomosti editorial pointed out that while Timchenko voiced his loyalty to ‘the state’ quite ardently, he also suggested several times in the course of his interview that he expected something in return. That something is, of course, money. Timchenko made it very clear that he was unhappy with the budgets for the 2018 World Cup stadiums his company, Stroitransgaz, is expected to build. Stroitransgaz has been complaining about budget constraints for a several months, saying “that the costs set by the government are too low and need to be increased by a third” [to $575 million]. Timchenko generously dropped the sum he was asking for to $475 million, but complained, “There is no way that we can fit into the proposed cost sheet, and Stroitransgaz does not work at a loss.”

Whatever the goal of the interview, it was undoubtedly not something Timchenko decided to do himself. Was he attempting to prove his loyalty? Or did he have some other objective, as Vedomosti suggested?

Sanctions 2

I discussed previously the sanctions that the United States and the European Union have implemented against the Russian elite here.  You can also find a complete list of those sanctioned by the EU, US, Canada, and Australia here, but it is in Russian.

I want to dig a little deeper into the goals and motivations behind the targeted sanctions.  As I stated previously, the goal of the sanctions in their current form appears to be to create a split within the elite and to force either Putin to back down, or face a coup.

However, if this is the objective of the sanctions, it is a mistake. In many ways, it is reminiscent of the logic used when instituting the “Reset”. The “Reset” that failed miserably, and arguably brought us to where we are today: with Russia invading Ukraine.

Let’s step back and look again at the “Reset” policy that was implemented in the early days of the Obama Administration. Despite the inauspicious beginning when Hillary Clinton gifted Lavrov a button labelled with a mistranslation of “Reset” to “Overcharge”, the Obama administration persisted with the policy. The plan was based on the theory that then-President Dmitry Medvedev was a somewhat autonomous actor and capable of operating in an independent manner. Medvedev was feted by President Obama and the US State Department. The video below probably sums up the relationship the best

However, the “Reset” was officially killed off on 24 September 2011 with the public humiliation of Dmitry Medvedev, when Vladimir Putin proved to the world that the independence of Dmitry Medvedev was a sham.

Despite the abject failure of the “Reset”, it appears that the West is pursuing a similar line in dealing with the current crisis.

Here are the people who have not been placed on the sanctions lists:

Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev

It is pretty well established that Medvedev holds a weak hand, and cannot be relied upon to change course. There is not much more to say beyond what I wrote above about Medvedev.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov

Lavrov cannot be sanctioned because he is essentially the chief negotiator for Vladimir Putin in this conflict. It does not matter that he sounds crazy more often than not. I rather suspect that Lavrov has been given this role to play and he is playing it up for all he is worth. His motivation for this is not clear, and open to speculation. Whether it is from a sense of loyalty to Putin, a warped nationalistic feeling, or something more sinister does not matter. An envoy is needed to keep the conversation going. And, for better or worse, Lavrov is that individual.

Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu

Is Shoigu (great background here by Oleg Kashin) not on the list because the West thinks they can negotiate with? Or is he not on the list for other opaque reasons? I am not sure, to be honest. I think there may be various factors at play with Shoigu, including the fact that he is playing the long game. He has managed to stay in Government for nearly 25 years now. He has built a cohort around himself that looks to be largely loyal. Shoigu could potentially pull out the rug from under Putin and force some kind of coup. But the risks for him are that someone else may do it first, or that he could end up being the fall guy if Putin feels like he has to back down.

Sberbank President German Gref

Gref has long been viewed as a ‘liberal democrat’. What this means in the context of the current system is that he has advocated for certain economic policies. This was particularly true when he was a Minister in the Government. But rumor has it that Gref wanted out of the Government for a very long time before he was finally allowed to ‘leave’ in 2008. It seems hard to believe that he would or could leave now.

Finance Minister Anton Siluanov

I think Siluanov is in the same boat as Gref. He is not happy with the situation as it currently stands, and would like to leave, but cannot for various unknown reasons.

First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov

Shuvalov is also viewed as ‘liberal’, but this is a questionable proposition for several reasons. Shuvalov has recently been advocating Putin’s ‘deoffshorisation’ proposal to bring the money in ‘offshore’ accounts back into Russia. Certainly Shuvalov likes the money that the so-called ‘liberal’ policies have brought him. But what exactly are we counting on? That Igor Shuvalov likes the money in his alleged offshore accounts more than he likes Vladimir Putin and/or Russia? This seems far-fetched to me.

In implementing these sanctions we appear to be labling one group as ‘good’ and another as ‘bad’, in the hopes of pitting them against one another. But is that an accurate assessment? And what are we basing that on? The same faulty intel that said Dmitry Medvedev had the wherewithal to ditch his mentor, Vladimir Putin? These are relationships that have lasted for decades. How can you possibly expect somebody to betray and walk away from a relationship that has lasted that long? I just don’t believe that this is a winning strategy.

Shevarnadze

When I was ten my parents dragged my sister and me to the Richard Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, California to see Richard Nixon’s body.  We waited for hours in order to walk by the casket.  It was more about the experience than paying respects (whatever that meant to a ten-year-old).

So when the former President of Georgia, Eduard Shevarnadze, died a few weeks ago, and I learned that he would be lying in Tbilisi’s Sameba Cathedral, I knew that I had to go.  Not because of some particular attachment to Shevarnadze, but for the experience, and to say that I had done it.

Thinking about my previous experience with viewing a former head of state, I was prepared to wait awhile to do a quick walk-by.  I was, therefore, surprised to find that the cathedral was nearly empty.  There were more tourists viewing the famous cathedral than Georgians paying their respects.

Of course, I took photos.

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A guestbook was open for those who wanted to write something, and a few people gathered around it.

Shevarnadze’s body was covered by the Georgian flag that was adopted after he was ousted, and guarded by four men in traditional costume.

DSC00486 DSC00496

 

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Flowers and wreaths were placed along the walls of the cathedral.

 

 

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Outside the cathedral.

Victory Day

“…you’d better tell me, Bro, please honestly. Do you personally need Great Russia?”

“Of course! We are a Superpower! We defeated fascism!”

“Was it you who defeated it? I am brooding all the time… I don’t need this Superpower… don’t need… We should live honestly, Bro. Not forcibly.”

 

Even though it was ten years ago, I remember my first Victory Day quite clearly. I was in St Petersburg as a study abroad student, so of course, an excursion was in order. Liza said that she had seen fireworks shooting out of Lenin’s head, and nothing could possibly compete with that. To me, however, it was a magical moment. We stood on the banks of the Neva River with thousands of other residents of the city, and watched the fireworks coming from Peter and Paul Fortress. But what I really remember about that moment was the enthusiasm of those around us, repeatedly chanting, “Ro-si-ya! Ro-si-ya!” The excitement was catching, and I may have joined in for a few moments.

It took another story a few years later to make me realise that the holiday had its own dangers, and how pervasive the attitudes associated with the war were. A student in Crimea told me about how her grandmother had been in Germany during “The War”. She began to cry as she told the story, and it was almost as if it had been her own experience.

I understood then how sad it was for a society and culture to have nothing more to cling to than an achievement that had cost far too many lives to be truly worthy of such a victorious feeling. There is a point when a society becomes too fixated on their past. A point when a society is so infatuated with their past that they cannot move forward.

After that, the holiday was marred in some way, though I still enjoyed my experience the following year in Sevastopol. The martial air was palpable, even more so than my first Victory Day. This was to be expected as the Black Sea Fleet is docked there, and the whole city felt a bit like a military base. We were handed black and orange striped ribbons (commonly referred to as the Ribbon of St George [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ribbon_of_Saint_George]) to wear. The wearing of the ribbon gave some sense of solidarity. We were all together, and, in that moment, the same. My other memory about that holiday that year was the fact that you could buy food that was advertised as ‘ration food’. Bulgur, and lots of it, is all that I can recall of what was offered.

I was in Tbilisi for the holiday this year. It is a national holiday, but not one that is observed. Businesses remain open, and the only people who do not work are government employees. Something like what Veterans’ Day in the United States is turning into. There was no military parade. No people out in the streets waving flags. Just a few hundred people in the park at the World War Two memorial. Someone had arranged busses for the veterans. When I arrived a number of them were in a group singing in a cappella fashion. People were wandering around a still-torn-up park, just waiting for something. Many wore black and orange ribbons, though nobody was handing them out that I could see. As an outsider, it was unclear what exactly they were expecting. I wondered if I had missed the main event.   But after a little while, half a dozen men in traditional costume lined up in pairs on the stairs, making a kind of aisle. A band began to play a song and the President walked up the stairs between the men with a wreath. He laid the wreath at the memorial, people clapped and then he left. And that was it.

That was it? It’s The Holiday. I was disappointed. I’d watched the parade in Moscow’s Red Square on TV earlier, and the differences could not have been more marked. It occurred to me later, however, that maybe this was the better way.

In the past decade or so, the Kremlin has managed to force upon its citizens (and not only its citizens, but those in its “near abroad”, as well) this idea of an empire united by a common sacrifice. This is understandable in the wake of the separatism Russia faced in the 1990s and early 2000s. A way to combat such attitudes was seen as necessary. However, the dangers associated with a society so obsessed with its past have been made clear in the past few months. It gives the impression that the adventurism we have seen this year is somehow acceptable. And we have seen what happened in Simferopol and Sevastopol and other areas of Ukraine due to this belief.  

There were fireworks in the evening this year, of course. But now fireworks are an almost daily part of my life, so the moment was not quite as magical as that first time. My orange and brown ribbon is sitting in a box in America. It’s a memento of a holiday I will always remember and respect, but a little of the lustre has worn off for me. And perhaps that is what is needed.

 

**NOTE: the excerpt at the beginning was from a Russian anecdote that was published online years ago. Unfortunately, I don’t have a link for it.