February 5, 2008
Why Kowtow to Brutal, Cynical
We have a new Cold War and we're losing it.
The West must stand up to the Kremlin now
Sixty years ago the Berlin Airlift highlighted the menace
of Stalin's Kremlin. Forty years ago Soviet tanks crushed both the Prague
Spring and any remaining illusions about the Kremlin's grip on the captive
nations. Twenty years ago we began dropping our guard, as totalitarianism
withered under Mikhail Gorbachev. Now it is time to acknowledge the
inconvenient truth. Russia
is back: rich, powerful and hostile. Partnership is giving way to rivalry, with
increasingly threatening overtones. The new Cold War has begun - but just as in
the 1940s, we are alarmingly slow to notice it.
The loudest alarm signal is Russia's predictable yet mystifying
presidential election on March 2. Predictable because everyone knows who will
win: Dmitri Medvedev, Vladimir Putin's polite, lawyerly sidekick; mystifying
because the meaning of that victory is so unclear. Will Mr Medvedev be a mere
figurehead? Will he stand down and allow Mr Putin to return? What does his
stint running Russia's
energy giant, Gazprom, one of the world's most corrupt, incompetent and
sinister companies, tell us about his plans for the future? What does his rise
mean for the clans of crooks and spooks whose murky feuds have increased so
sharply in past months? Once a dead art, Kremlinology is now a lively and
Politics in Russia is a matter of life and
death. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Russia's richest man, is on prison
hunger strike in protest against the ill-treatment of his aide Vasily
Aleksanyan. Mr Aleksanyan is confined in a filthy mould-infested cell because
he refuses to sign a bogus confession incriminating Mr Khodorkovsky. His
judicial torture, including denial of medical care, which has blinded him, has
been condemned by the European Court of Human Rights. It reads like something
from Dostoyevsky, not a factual account of prison conditions in supposedly one
of the world's top eight industrialised democracies.
That doesn't bother most Russians. Mr Putin is wildly
popular; so is Mr Medvedev. Mr Khodorkovsky and other former “oligarchs” are
seen as despicable emblems of the 1990s, a decade in which Russians feel they
were swindled at home and humiliated abroad. Mr Putin has brought both
stability and pride. For now, democracy has failed: most Russians say they
agree that the media should be controlled and that the opposition should not be
allowed to contend for power.
Those feelings are complex. They are partly the result of
the state-controlled media's propaganda. They also truly represent tragic
misunderstandings and missed opportunities in the Yeltsin years, when oil
prices were low and Russian governments struggled with crippling foreign debts.
Mr Putin has been lucky - with oil at nearly $100 a barrel, Russia is bound
to prosper. Yet he too is a product of the 1990s, an unemployed ex-spy who
became a top official in the Yeltsin Kremlin. His denunciations of that era
neglect to mention its strengths: press freedom, and also economic reforms such
as privatisation and price liberalisation from which Russia has hugely benefited.
Communism has gone, but in its place has come “sovereign
democracy”, a potent cocktail of self-righteousness, nationalism and xenophobia
that fuels the Kremlin's power grab abroad. In the “swing states” of Eastern
Europe - Bulgaria, Latvia and Moldova - we are already losing the
new Cold War. We have avoided catastrophe in Serbia by a hair's breadth. The
great engines of EU and Nato expansion, which brought half a continent into our
orbit after the collapse of communism, have stalled.
But it is not just “faraway countries of which we know
nothing” that are at stake. Russia
plays divide and rule with the West, ruthlessly using our democratic politics
and open economies to undermine us. It has brazenly hired Gerhard Schröder, the
former German chancellor, to promote its biggest energy project, Nord Stream.
This is a hugely expensive and strategically vital gas pipeline on the Baltic
seabed that will bypass Poland
and deliver gas straight to Germany.
Like a rich and powerful man who becomes pathetically dependent on heroin, Germany is
mainlining on Russian energy. The new pipeline hooks up addict and pusher
directly. Instead of urgently diversifying away from gas and to other
suppliers, the Netherlands, Italy and Austria are following the same
Russia has cowed
and muzzled the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe,
supposedly the Continent's main democracy-promoting and election-monitoring
body. It has nobbled the Council of Europe, a talking shop that is supposed to
be the custodian of human rights. The British Conservatives, in bizarre
alliance with Mr Putin's United Russia party, came within a whisker of electing
a former KGB man and Kremlin propagandist, Mikhail Margelov, to the presidency.
At its summit in Bucharest in April, Nato's
European members are all set to kowtow to Kremlin pressure and give a cold
shoulder to Georgia's
bid to move towards membership. The EU can not even summon the willpower to
liberalise its internal energy markets, let alone counter the Kremlin's
ruthless use of cheap energy deals and lucrative pipelines.
Our biggest weakness is money. During the old Cold War,
doing business with the Soviet Union was a
rare and highly suspicious activity. Now bankers, lawyers, consultants and
spin-doctors (and even, it is whispered, politicians) flock to take 30 silver
roubles for services rendered, even when they are privately disgusted by the
source. Until that changes, we have little chance of resisting the Kremlin -
and even less of persuading ordinary Russians that their corrupt, cynical,
brutal and incompetent rulers are harbingers of disaster, not triumph.
is author of “The New Cold War: how the Kremlin menaces both Russia and the West”
published art: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/guest_contributors/article3308261.ece