Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Reading Putin's Tea Leaves

(I apologize for Word Press's failure to stick to one font color!)

Recently a friend emailed me the link http://www.binghamton.edu/fbc/commentaries/ to an article by a distinguished American historian, Emanuel Wallerstein, about an interview given by Hamid Karzai to the French paper Le Monde that laid out very clearly Karzai’s position on relations with the U.S. going forward, but which the New York Times only mentioned in passing.  Among other things, it revealed that if Karzai continues to refuse to sign the Status of Forces Agreement to regulate the presence of American military after the official pullout, President Obama is considering the possibility that it could just as well be signed by another Afghan official! Evidently, the slide away from legality affects not only drone strikes.
Wallerstein’s comment came to me just as I was beginning a several days long effort to report - in lieu of the New York Times - on Vladimir Putin’s year-end speech to the Russian Duma and guests from business and industry.
American pundits pour over every Presidential speech like divines reading tea leaves. But although the United States shares the planet with 200 other nations, they studiously ignore the speeches of other leaders, depriving Americans of the ability to evaluate their government’s foreign policy decisions.

Washington does not so much fear voters hearing the other side’s story, as discovering its worldview.  Americans must never know that most foreign leaders truly believe dialogue and negotiation are preferable to confrontation, an attitude that goes back to the early days of socialist thought. Whatever the failings of central planning, the belief that war is bad  is inseparable from the desire to improve the human condition. Our culture has become so twisted that we see every Other as a potential threat, to be punished if he disagrees with us. Recent events in Ukraine illustrate this attitude at its most shocking: American diplomats in the streets of Kiev warning the government that if it does not cave in to protesters’ demands to sign a trade deal with Europe, sanctions would follow!

For a century and a half the Other has been anyone concerned with equity.  Now it is purported to be religious fanaticism, however, Islamists are okay if they are pro-capitalist, as shown in the current embarrassing situation in Syria.  The conflict between the 1% and the 99% is as real today as it was when Marx and Engels wrote ‘Das Capital’; however it’s no longer about central planning versus entrepreneurship, rather it is about consumerism and the rape of the planet versus civilization. 

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Yeltsin unleashed cowboy capitalism in Russia, but Putin has increasingly realized that this is a terrible system.  While supporting entrepreneurship, he defends the idea that government is the primary purveyor of human solidarity, as clearly reflected in his end of the year speech. You can read it at http://eng.kremlin.ru/transcripts/6402.  Here are a few excerpts, starting with two basic ideas:

“Our Constitution brings together two fundamental priorities – the supreme value of rights and freedoms of citizens and a strong state, emphasizing their mutual obligation to respect and protect each other. But life does not stand still, and no constitutional process can ever be regarded as final.”  The necessary dialectic between a strong state and individual freedoms, as well as the common sense notion that constitutions need to evolve with society are diametrically opposed to the American canon in which the constitution is immutable and a strong state is seen as incompatible with individual freedoms. 
Recognizing that the Russian economy is inefficient and that some technology is harmful, Putin called for a modern technical and environmental regulatory system, albeit sensitive to economic complexities. Admitting that the Russian slowdown was due less to the global economic crisis than to internal failings such as low labor productivity and corruption, he called for high quality professional education, a flexible labor market, a good investment climate and modern technology, as do routinely the Presidents of European welfare states.  (Today, Angela Merkel was sworn in for a third term and pledged to uphold the welfare state...)
Turning to education, the Russian president stressed the need for increased mobility between the members of the Russian Federation, noting that the government had raised salaries in education and healthcare in order to attract top students, but condemning exorbitant prices for student dorms. Similarly with housing construction, he called on local authorities to make more land available and lessen the time it takes to get a building permit, while warning developers who fail to begin construction on schedule that they would lose the land. 
With respect to Russia’s mandatory health insurance, it should fully cover the provision of free medical assistance, but patients should be clear as to what they are entitled to free of charge.  Meanwhile the quality of social services should be improved with more efficient spending. 
Putin defined the welfare state as consisting of “the mutual responsibility of the state, the business community, and every Russian citizen’, and called for  greater participation of civil society in local government.  
Undoubtedly, some Americans would find this speech disturbing: the government appears to be organizing everything, to the point of putting a time frame on actions to be taken by the Duma and declaring that once a decision is taken, it should be implemented.  (Imagine Obama doing that!)  But in today’s ultra-complicated world, does the ordinary citizen really benefit from an economic and political free-for-all that allows the few to disregard the many?  
Oblivious to this reality, the media continues to treat the Russian leader as negatively as during the Cold War. Comparing two recent books about Vladimir Putin, The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin by Masha Gessen and The Strongman: Vladimir Putin and the Struggle for Russia by Angus Roxburgh the New York Times’ Bill Keller made the following comments, while acknowledging that neither author had access to Putin:
“The Russians — in the attitude passed down from czar to party boss to this elected autocrat — must be instructed, talked down to, disciplined, kept in the dark, managed, manipulated. In Russia, what is called “Western-style democracy” leads to childish blithering and disorder. Russians know this in their hearts, supposedly, which is why they vote for Daddy Putin.”  

Later, however, Keller criticizes Ms Gessen for ‘having faith in the Russian people”...... 

Recognizing that “Putin did institute economic reforms that spurred growth, curbed inflation and got people actually paying their taxes”, he nonetheless accuses him of “allowing runaway corruption and largely reversing the privatization of major industries.” To the unbiased reader it seems obvious that the Russian leader put certain companies back under government control because of corruption!
In his 2012 review, Keller accuses Putin of “nationalist bluster in foreign relations; the reimposition of state controls over the resource-based economy; the jailing or killing of political opponents and electoral manipulation.”  Saying you want to cooperate with the rest of the world but that you will defend your nation’s integrity is nationalist bluster, really?  And the killing of political opponents is okay if it’s carried out by drones by not by a hired thug?
Referring to Masha Gessen’s book: “‘Even the most casual Putin-watcher has marveled at his narcissism, manifested in his odd habit of inviting cameras to record him bare-chested on horseback, swimming the butterfly stroke in a Siberian river, scuba diving and collecting skin samples from whales, among other stunts’. Gessen traces his self-absorption back to his youth.“  Does it not seem more likely that Putin wants to be seen as a vigorous, healthy outdoors man because the Soviet Union was ruled for several decades by octogenarians?  Indeed, Putin called on the legislators to encourage active lifestyles, and to: 

Tax on-line purchases;
Finance long-term scientific and technological research;
Create a national professional qualifications council, and a national jobs database;
Make country life more attractive by building modern infrastructures and draft proposals for development in what have heretofore been single-industry towns, targeting support for small and medium businesses;
Oh and by the way make it possible for employers to pay all their taxes at once, while giving tax breaks to regions that invest in industrial and technology parks. 
Putin proposed that people who have broken immigration rules should not be able to enter the country for three to ten years. But businesses should be able to apply for licenses to employ foreigners.
Both Inspections and offshore commercial activity should be better regulated and the latter taxed. While recognizing the need for qualified professionals, Putin wants them supervised, stating that there should be no ‘executive comfort zones’: business executives should be criminally liable for perjury.
Calling for better action against money-laundering, Putin also wants depositors’ money to be protected from failing banks.
Reflecting Russia’s reorientation toward the Pacific Ocean as a member of the BRICS nations that include China and India, he stressed the importance of developing the country’s vast Far East and Eastern Siberia.
Noting the increasingly contradictory nature of global development, Vladimir Putin stressed Russia’s historical responsibility as one of the key guarantors of global and regional stability that consistently espouses a value-based approach to international relations.
“We have always been proud of our nation. But we do not claim to be any sort of superpower with a claim to global or regional hegemony; we do not encroach on anyone’s interests, impose our patronage on anyone, or try to teach others how to live their lives.” Noting Russia’s many centuries of experience, “not of not so-called tolerance, neutered and barren, but the actual modern, life of different peoples within the framework of a single state,” he pledged to defend international law(There are currently 160 nationalities within the Russian Federation.)
With its usual ethnocentric bias, the European and American press take every opportunity to criticize Russia for its testy tolerance of gay life styles, overlooking Putin’s far more numerous followers in the developing world.  According to Putin, “the destruction of traditional values from above leads to negative consequences for society and is anti-democratic when it is contrary to the will of the majority.”
Confirming what I have written in recent blogs, Putin emphasized the importance “not only of material existence but also (religion and) spirituality, the values of humanism and global diversity.”

Finally, referring to the situation in Syria, he said the agreement to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons confirmed the indispensable role of the U.N., and together with the negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program showed that “any international problem can and should be resolved exclusively through political means, without resorting to forceful actions that are rejected by most nations in the world.”

We may never know all the behind-the-scenes negotia-tions over Ukraine, however the entire thrust of Putin’s speech lends credence to his assertion that Russia wants a three-way negotiated solution. Even if we assume that Putin does not believe his own lofty words, that is less of a problem than the fact that American politicians do believe theirs, which reject compromise and negotiations in favor of the big stick. Whatever the future of Russia, as 2014 draws to a close, it is clear to anyone who looks beyond the New York Times that the world is increasingly weary of America’s bullying.  

Monday, December 9, 2013

Honoring Mandela and Other Inconvenient Truths

Two very different stories grabbed my attention over the weekend: RT’s report on Romanian farmers’ opposition to fracking, and talking heads on MSNBC arguing about who was for or against Mandela’s release from prison, given that his party, the ANC (which has ruled Africa since his presidency) was considered a terrorist organization.

What have these two stories in common?  People power and how it is perceived.  Benefitting from years of campaigning in the U.S. against fracking, illustrated in documentaries such as Gas Land by Josh Fox, farmers in a remote corner of Romania, the least developed of the former satellite nations, ruled for twenty-four years by one man, forced oil giant Chevron to suspend its activities:

“Chevron can today confirm it has suspended activities in Silistea, Pungesti commune, Vaslui County as a result of unsafe conditions generated by unlawful and violent protester activities,” Chevron said in a statement.
All over the United States, people have been ‘fighting’ big oil and gas over fracking, with little or no success.  However Romanians, Bulgarians and other Europeans have not been content to sign petitions and organize demonstrations, they have camped out on fracking sites.  
Greenpeace launched an anti-fracking campaign in Great Britain in October, holding workshops in civil disobedience, direct action and other campaign strategies that attracted about 1,000 people, including some from Scotland, Wales, Ireland and Poland.
But protesters in Poland had already fought Chevron to a standstill over the summer. While shooting a follow-up to his film Drill, Baby, Drill, about fracking in Poland and Pennsylvania, Lech Kowalski pointed out that Polish farming families had survived the Nazis, then the Soviets, and saw themselves as partisans fighting for the land, blocking the entrances and ready to throw Molotov cocktails.

The Bulgarian anti-fracking campaign was more peaceful, as big business claimed it was all about Russia losing its gas contracts, but farmers had the traditions of the land going for them and ultimately, theBulgariam government withdrew a previously granted permit to Chevron.

Local bans against fracking have been enacted in Australia, New Zealand, Spain, Ireland, Switzerland, and France's highest legal body, the Constitutional Council, approved a 2011 ban on fracking passed by parliament. 

The worldwide anti-fracking campaign illustrates the difference between activists in the US and those in other countries, whose first-hand experience of war and ideological struggle determines a grittier form of activism.

Similarly, having had to organize resistance to invasion and occupation that involved acts of terrorism, Europeans were more inclined to view the ANC as freedom fighters, than terrorists.  Britain, though bombed, did not suffer occupation, and together with the US was the only country aside from South Africa itself, to have officially considered the ANC as a terrorist organization. 

The ways in which history weighs on the contemporary behavior of nations and peoples affect many different issues, all of which are ultimately about the extent to which ordinary people experience their inherent rights as human beings.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Ukraine's Hissy Fit

Ukraine’s Hissy Fit

The country that used to be the breadbasket of Europe is a new bone of contention between the European Union and Russia. Ukraine, the land of the southern Russians (as Yugoslavia was the land of the southern Slavs), sits on Russia’s Western frontier. 

According to one RT commentator, the Poles and Lithuanians are pushing Brussels to bring Ukraine into the European fold. Although they have old scores to settle, these pale in comparison to a shared desire to cock a snoot at Russia in retaliation for a historical pattern of domination.

It is difficult for Westerners to understand why any country would want to join a European Union that is currently experiencing so many problems. In fact, this is a totally irrational desire: the Orthodox former Soviet Republics, whether it be Bela Rus, Ukraine or Georgia, are obsessed with not wanting to be identified with historically backward or Communist Russia. Notwithstanding their own backwardness they want to  be considered part of the culturally superior West.  Having lived in Eastern Europe for six years when it was still part of the Soviet Empire, I can testify that it is impossible to overestimate this longing.  When I worked at the Hungarian Radio, lack of recognition that together with Poland and Czechoslovakia it was indeed part of Europe was expressed as: ‘They think we still cook meat under the saddle.’  Of all the countries of the East European block, Hungary most actively strove to play the role of bridge between East and West. Its efforts culminated in the opening of its frontier with Austria starting in May 1989 that allowed thousands of East German tourists to reach the West. A previously unthinkable act, it led to the fall of the Berlin Wall in November and the dissolution of the Soviet block.

But Bela Rus, Ukraine and Georgia have far less of a claim to a European identity than the Eastern European satellite nations. In the Middle Ages, Bela Rus, Ukraine and Russia were all part of the principality of Kiev, or Kievan Rus, which extended from the Baltic to the Black Sea. While all three countries claim Kievan Rus as their cultural heritage, today independent Bela Rus and Ukraine constitute a sort of no-man’s land that buffers their vast and powerful neighbor.  As of 2011, Ukraine was the world's third-largest grain exporter, and according to Wikipedia, it is one of ten most attractive agricultural regions. Although regarded as a developing economy with high potential, indispensable economic and legal reforms would be more brutally implemented under Brussels tutelage than if they happened at Ukraine’s own pace.

And yet, for western Ukrainians, (as opposed to the pro-Russian eastern half), the fact that Brussels cannot afford to bring them up to speed economically is obviously less important than being part of glamorous, sophisticated Europe.  They probably feel that they are well-acquainted with hardship, but the demonstrators in Kiev should ask themselves whether they would they be happy in a European Union that is being forced to walk back its welfare state?  

With respect to mutual recriminations of behind-the-scenes manipulation of the population by both Russia and the EU, this is surely a fact: Napoleon and Hitler both contributed to Russia’s obsession with being surrounded, while the EU, increasingly beholden to Wall Street, carries out the Empire’s policy of intimidation and encroachment, seeking to diminish Russia’s growing clout by co-opting the countries on its borders, both economically, via the EU, and militarily through NATO. 
 In my 1989 book ‘Une autre Europe, un autre Monde’ I wrote that the Soviet Union could not hope to become part of the European Union because it was simply too big to be considered primus inter pares.   That situation remains the same with the Russian Republic, which covers a land area almost four times that of the European Union, even though its population is only one third that of the EU.  Nor does Russia seek EU membership.  Rather, as Vladimir Putin put it a few days ago,  explaining the danger to Russia’s economy of the Ukraine being flooded with cheap European goods, ‘What do we have to do so that they (the EU) like us?’.  
Here too, we get the same sense of being considered culturally inferior by Europe. But Russia is allied with both China and India, two powerful emerging economies, all participants in the BRICS, which include forty percent of the world’s population and twenty-five percent of its GDP. In this game of chess it should be able to keep its cool, realizing that its ‘near abroad’ - Ukraine, Bela Rus and Georgia - do not represent its future as much as do the ‘far abroad’ BRiCS, for the ‘East’ is now also ‘the South’, and is destined to outweigh the ‘North’ and the ‘West’ however much these areas dominated the past.

P.S. This post was written two days ago.  Today we learn that China is coming to the financial rescue of Ukraine…….