hey provide a dignified facade for a corrupt, authoritarian, and aggressive regime.
Some are adept at cloaking blatant lies behind a veneer of soothing diplomatic language. Others are fluent in the lexicon of international finance.
Many speak foreign languages. And all are comfortable in polite global society.
They’ve been called regime liberals, technocrats, and reformers. Some are sincere and others are cynical; some are competent and others not so much.
But they all serve the same function in Vladimir Putin’s regime: giving it the gloss and veneer of reputability.
Meet Russia’s Respectables, the comforting front-men of the Putin syndicate.
Former Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin addressed the Federation Council this week to argue that Russia was in the midst of a full-blown economic crisis and the only way out was to implement deep structural reforms.
Days earlier, Kudrin told Interfax that he would consider returning to government under the right circumstances. This all got tongues wagging and tweeters tweeting about how a government shake-up was on the way and that Kudrin might be on the way back.
This may or may not be so. But it all misses a pretty important point. Vladimir Putin’s regime is incapable of implementing the kind of structural reforms Kudrin says are needed.
Doing so would threaten powerful entrenched clans in Putin’s inner circle. In order to reform and modernize this economy, you would need to effectively blow up the political system.
True reform, the kind Kudrin is talking about, would effectively mean regime change. Putin knows this and he is not going to let it happen.
Kudrin, who is close to Putin personally, disagreed with his decision to return to the Kremlin for a third term in 2011. He knew what it portended and he resigned over it.
And if Kudrin comes back now, he won’t be able to reform Russia’s economy. He would, in effect, be relegated to playing the role of a mafia accountant whose job is to keep the Putin syndicate’s books in order.
For somebody as capable — and, I believe, sincere — as Kudrin to play this role now would be sad to watch.
The Mafia Lawyer
Every time I hear Sergei Lavrov speak, I wonder how this guy manages to keep a straight face.
When the Russian Foreign Minister says things like he wants there to be peace and quiet in Ukraine and that the country should remain united, I can almost detect a slight smirk.
But just a slight one. As Russia’s chief diplomat, Lavrov has to be believable after all.
His role in the Putin syndicate is to obscure Moscow’s real agenda and intentions behind a veil of soothing diplomatic language.
Lavrov’s role is similar to that of a mafia lawyer. The buttoned-down public face of a mob family, whose role is to pretend that his clients are actually responsible businessmen.
Unlike Kudrin, it is hard to believe Lavrov is sincere. In fact, he seems about as cynical as they come. He convincingly passed himself off as a pro-Western liberal in the 1990s, when that was what was required to get ahead.
And because he is so cynical, because he can say utterly absurd things with a straight face and be taken seriously, he’s very good at his job — which explains why he’s been able to stay in it for 11 years.
Lavrov is indeed a skilled diplomat, just like Frank Ragano was a skilled lawyer. You could just as easily imagine him as Vaclav Havel’s foreign minister — or Saddam Hussein’s.
The Front Company CEO
Sure Dmitry Medvedev has become something of an international punchline. If Kudrin is capable and sincere, and Lavrov is just capable — Medvedev appears to be neither.
But Russia’s much-maligned prime minister has nevertheless served an important function for the Putin syndicate. Affable and nonthreatening, his role is akin to that of a bumbling CEO for a mafia front company.
His job is to keep the “legitimate” side of the operation running smoothly and to take the heat when things go wrong.
Indeed, Medvedev’s odd little “presidency” from 2008-12 is best viewed as the Putin syndicate flirting with the idea of “going legit.”
This may have been just a ruse. Or some of the syndicate’s “made men” might have this was a good idea — but lost the argument in the end. That’ll be one for the historians to figure out.
But the idea is clearly off the table now and Medvedev’s role is clear.
Kudrin, Lavrov, and Medvedev are just the tip of the iceberg. Russia’s elite is filled with similar, lesser respectables.
And as the nature of the regime becomes increasingly obvious, one has to wonder how many of the more sincere among them will jump ship — and become truly respectable.
by — Brian Whitmore — The Power Vertical — Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty
Russia’s taken an aggressive interest in a tiny Balkan state’s political turmoil — and it’s connected to Moscow’s latest gas pipeline agenda.
Last weekend the Republic of Macedonia was rocked by anti-government protests and pro-government counter-protests following the release of covert recordings that allegedly show the government planning to rig votes and covering up a murder.
The still-in-charge Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski is openly Moscow-friendly. He’s has taken a stance against the Western sanctions on Russia and supports the proposed Russian gas pipeline that would probably go through Macedonia.
Against this backdrop, it looks like Russia’s worried about the possibility of a new anti-Moscow government, which could potentially weaken the Kremlin’s position. (Especially because Moscow has traditionally used its arsenal of gas pipelines as tools of coercion in Europe.)
On Wednesday Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated that “the Macedonian events are blatantly controlled from the outside,” according to Russian state-controlled media outlet TASS.
“They are trying to accuse Gruevski’s government of not fulfilling its obligations to the population.
“However, the reason behind this is a desire to influence it in connection with its refusal to join anti-Russian sanctions, support of the South Stream and willingness to be involved in the implementation of other options of fuel delivery, including the so-called Turkish Stream,” he said.
“I don’t have any hard-line facts, but it’s a logical suspicion,” Vladimir Chizhov, the Russian ambassador to the EU, told Bloomberg TV in an interview when asked about the claims.
“If you look at the geography of the region, Macedonia is the best place for constructing the extension of the newest energy infrastructure project in the region, the so-called Turkish Stream,” he added.
The Turkish Steam, an OAO Gazprom project, was announced back in January after the company abandoned the $45 billion South Stream project in December.
The key geopolitical takeaway regarding both projects is that they’re supposed to bypass crumbling Ukraine — which would allow Russia to both maintain its gas leverage over the EU and to hurt Kiev.
“To help Gazprom reach Central European markets, Russia has advocated the construction of a pipeline that would run from Greece to Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary,” analysts from Texas-based consulting firm Stratfor wrote in a report, according to Bloomberg.
“These four countries are at the center of a Russian diplomatic offensive.”
Although some analysts have expressed doubts over the projects, “the Russians seem determined to let their transit contract with Ukraine expire by 2019 in favor of the alternative route under the Black Sea.
Gazprom has already laid 472 kilometers (293 miles) of the so-called Southern Corridor, the onshore part of the pipeline in Russia, in anticipation of the deal,” according to Bloomberg.
In any case, it looks like Russia might be closely monitoring the political conflict in Macedonia with the goal of avoiding another Ukraine circa 2013-2014, when pro-Kremlin Yanukovych’s regime was kicked out by the masses.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has said that Russia cannot afford to lose Ukraine, lamenting what he said was the existence of “Nazis who continue marching in Kyiv and continue glorifying Adolf Hitler’s accomplices”.
The remarks clearly refer to the reverence many Ukrainians have for Stepan Bandera.
Bandera fought against both Hitler and the Red Army during the Second World War but Russia has accused the Ukrainian government of supporting Nazi ideology because of the popularity of Bandera among many Ukrainians.
The Kremlin’s attempt to brand the Ukrainian government Nazis has been criticised by historians for flagrant hypocrisy, because in Russia and among the Kremlin-backed insurgency, former leader Joseph Stalin is hailed as a hero, despite the fact that Stalin supported, aided and abetted the Hitler regime prior to the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact.
The pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, which contained a protocol to carve up eastern Europe, was signed in 1939.
Ukraine’s parliament granted a special status to some parts of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblast, and defined the new border of those territories in a Tuesday vote that followed complicated negotiations among coalition members and the president, who authored the bills.
A total of 265 Ukrainian lawmakers backed the decision to give a special status to the territories, but only after clean and transparent elections are held on those territories under Ukraine’s law. Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin said in his twitter microblog that such a sequence was create to “prevent clever manipulations”.
The elections must be monitored and given a green light by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, following the Minsk- 2 agreements coined by leaders of four countries a month ago.
President Petro Poroshenko welcomed the parliament’s move, saying that “it occurred on the 30th day after the Minsk agreements have been signed in strict coordination with these Minsk deal.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov disagreed with this assessment, however. He said he would appeal to German and French colleagues, because the ultimate goal is the implementation of the Minsk agreements and the new draft law would change the special status in Donbas because of the elections.
German chancellor Angela Merkel praised Poroshenko’s initiative before the vote, however. “It was a very bold move of the Ukrainian President to introduce a bill on a special status to the government,” Merkel said after the meeting with Poroshenko in Berlin on March 16. “I understand that it was a difficult decision.”
Denis Pushilin, one of the separatist leaders, has indicated that he does not like the new law either. “(Self-proclaimed) republics won’t recognize any of the amendments to the law submitted by Poroshenko if those were not agreed with us,” said Pushilin. “Those (amendments) are legally meaningless and politically insignificant.”
The parliament has also voted for a separate law recognizing the specially defined territories as “temporary occupied”. On top of that, it approved Poroshenko’s appeal to the U.N. Security Council to sent peace keeping troops to Ukraine’s embattled east.
Barely 24 hours after Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey’s prime minister, joined millions marching in Paris to pay tribute to the 17 people killed by Islamist extremists, the country’s president struck a much more confrontational tone.
“The duplicity of the west is obvious,” Recep Tayyip Erdogan said at a press conference on Monday evening. “As Muslims we have never sided with terror or massacres: racism, hate speech, Islamophobia are behind these massacres.”
“The culprits are clear: French citizens undertook this massacre and Muslims were blamed for it,” he added.
Although political leaders in Turkey have repeatedly condemned the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo magazine, a Jewish supermarket and a policewoman, a parallel narrative has emerged in the country, with conspiracy theorists blaming the murders on foreign intelligence agencies rather than radical Islamists.
A similar phenomenon has occurred in Russia, which sent Sergei Lavrov, foreign minister, to Sunday’s march.
Some such theories have been endorsed by pro-government figures — highlighting the growing resentment and suspicion of the west in two strategically important countries at a time of rising tensions over Ukraine and the Middle East.
“In Turkey, at least, it looks dangerously like people are playing a double game,” said Aaron Stein of the Royal United Services Institute, a UK think-tank. “Issue condemnations that play internationally, even as you tolerate supporters pushing crazy opinions that appeal to your political base.”
Melih Gokcek, mayor of Ankara for the ruling AK party, said on Monday that “Mossad [the Israeli intelligence service] is definitely behind such incidents . . . it is boosting enmity towards Islam.” Mr Gokcek linked the attacks to French moves towards recognising Palestine.
Ali Sahin, a member of Turkey’s parliament and foreign affairs spokesman for the AK party, last week set out eight reasons why he suspected the killings were staged so that “the attack will be blamed on Muslims and Islam”.
Mehmet Gormez, director of the state-run religious affairs directorate, described the attacks as a “perception operation” that cynically used the symbols of Islam, although he later appeared to tone down his comments.
In his own remarks on Monday, Mr Erdogan added: “Games are being played throughout the Islamic world”. He expressed bewilderment that French intelligence services had not followed the culprits more effectively. However, he has mainly appeared to hint at a conspiracy behind the depiction of the killings rather than the murders themselves.
In Russia, some pro-Kremlin commentators sought to link the killings to geopolitical machinations by the US.
Komsomolskaya Pravda, one of Russia’s leading tabloids, ran the headline: “Did the Americans stage the terror attack in Paris?” and posted a series of interviews on its website that presented various reasons why Washington might have organised the attack.
In one interview, Alexander Zhilin, head of the pro-Kremlin Moscow Centre for the Study of Applied Problems, claimed the terror attack was US retribution against President François Hollande for a January 6 radio interview in which Mr Hollande urged the EU to lift sanctions against Russia.
Washington used the attacks as “a quick fix for consolidating” US and EU geopolitical interests in Ukraine, Mr Zhilin claimed.
Others repeated a popular Russian conspiracy theory blaming the US intelligence services for a swath of terrorist assaults, from the 9/11 attacks on the US to last week’s Paris killings.
“For the last 10 years, so-called Islamist terrorism has been under the control of one of the world’s leading intelligence agencies,” Alexei Martynov, director of the International Institute for New States, a think-tank, told pro-Kremlin internet outlet LifeNews. “I am sure that some American supervisors are responsible for the terror attacks in Paris, or in any case the Islamists who carried them out.”