Russia: Medvedev, Putin Launch 'Two-Headed' Foreign Policy -- But Who's Winning?
Speaking to the German Council of Foreign Relations in Berlin the same day, the Kremlin leader also called for a sweeping new European security pact to replace Cold War-era bodies.
In content, both statements were in fully keeping with the assertive policy Moscow has adopted in dealing with the West in recent years.
What was different was the tone. Rather than employing the bellicose rhetoric that was the trademark of his predecessor, Vladimir Putin, Medvedev instead struck a conciliatory note.
"The end of the Cold War provided conditions for building truly equal cooperation among Russia, the European Union, and North America as three branches of European civilization," Medvedev said. "I'm confident that Atlanticism as the only principle has become obsolete historically. Now, we should talk about the unity of the entire Euro-Atlantic region from Vancouver to Vladivostok."
Few expect the idea of replacing NATO with a new security alliance to gain any traction, but the mood music was noteworthy.
Medvedev's language, reminiscent of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika-era musings about a "common European home," contrasts sharply with the Cold War bombast often used by ex-President and current Prime Minister Putin.
The new Kremlin head will have ample opportunity to polish his performance in the days ahead. Upon returning home from Germany, Medvedev is due to huddle with a potential adversary, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, in an attempt to defuse escalating tensions between Moscow and Tbilisi over the breakaway region of Abkhazia.
Those discussions take place on the sidelines of the June 6-7 St. Petersburg summit of leaders from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), where Medvedev will hold a long list of bilateral talks. He will also preside over the city's 12th annual International Economic Forum, the country's premier business event, where he will try to woo foreign investors.
But even as the new Kremlin leader embarks on his frantic wave of fence-mending diplomacy, his onetime patron and now nominal subordinate, Putin, is doing little to tone down his anti-Western rhetoric criticizing the West over Kosovo, Iran, and NATO expansion. During a recent visit to France, for example, Putin accused the United States of behaving like "a frightening monster" abroad.
As a result, Moscow is rife with questions about just who -- Medvedev or Putin -- is really in charge of Russian foreign policy.
Much of the speculation is fueled by reports that veteran diplomat Yury Ushakov, currently Russia's ambassador to the United States, has been recalled to Moscow to serve as Putin's deputy chief of staff in charge of foreign affairs.
Some observers suggested the move might drain power from Sergei Lavrov, who has served as foreign minister since he was appointed by then-President Putin in 2004, and remains in the post under Medvedev.
Analysts call the move a clear signal that Putin has no plans to give up the reins in foreign affairs.
"It is clear that the management of Russian foreign policy is undergoing a restructuring," Nikolai Zlobin, the director of the Russia and Eurasia Project at the Washington-based World Security Institute, tells RFE/RL's Russian Service. "And Ushakov's appearance in Moscow is an important factor in that process. I think the idea of such a person joining the government secretariat is witness to the fact that definite foreign-policy functions are being moved there."
'Good Cop, Bad Cop'
Nevertheless, Medvedev remains the main player in Russian foreign policy -- at least on paper.
And with the emerging diarchy, many Russia-watchers are unsure what they are witnessing -- a competition, or an elaborate partnership, with Putin playing the tough guy to Medvedev's soothing conciliator. Nikolas Gvosdev, a Russia expert at the Nixon Center in Washington, says it appears to him that Putin and Medvedev are coordinating their foreign-policy moves.
"I think it leans to 'good cop, bad cop.' But I also think they're attempting to divide -- and it may not work -- different aspects of foreign policy," Gvosdev says. "That is, Medvedev is your go-to business guy, who will sign contracts, and talk up the positives of cooperation and how we can all make money. And Putin is the heavy who comes in and says let's talk nuclear security."
In Berlin, Medvedev certainly acted like a "go-to business guy" -- talking up trade and economic ties in a joint press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
"The key subjects of our discussion were trade, economy, and bilateral business cooperation. Trade has increased significantly in recent years," Medvedev told reporters. "It has exceeded the threshold of $50 billion and, of course, we don't want to stop there. I'm sure there is every opportunity to expand our trade and economic cooperation."
While Medvedev said he was "concerned about the current trend of narrowing mutual understanding in Euro-Atlantic policies," he also went out of his way to praise his hosts for taking a "constructive position" in helping push forward a stalled partnership agreement between Russia and the European Union.
Despite Medvedev's high profile in recent days, analysts agree that, at least for now, Putin remains in charge -- a fact that was driven home by Ushakov's appointment.
Ushakov, who was a candidate for foreign minister back in 2004, is widely viewed as a heavyweight in the Russian foreign-policy community. His appointment to Putin's team was bound to raise eyebrows.
Moreover, the move comes on the heels of a high-profile visit by Putin to France last month, in which he had dinner with President Nicolas Sarkozy in the Elysee Palace.
Analysts say Putin's Paris trip was a sign that the West still views Putin as top dog in foreign policy.
"The example of the visit to France shows that the West hasn't changed anything and accepts the status quo. France received Putin as a head of state, not the head of government -- and nobody hid this," Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the Moscow-based journal "Russia In Global Affairs," tells RFE/RL's Russian Service.
Such sentiments are not confined to the French. Gvosdev notes that the U.S. foreign-policy community still sees Putin as Russia's dominant policymaker.
"Here in Washington, the default assumption among most people is that people should continue to do business with Putin, which I find interesting," Gvosdev says. "He is the go-to guy, he is the one that the U.S. should sort of stay in touch with."
During his Paris trip, Putin played the part. He was his old combative and confident self in an interview with the daily "Le Monde," in which he harshly denounced NATO expansion and criticized the West's policy toward Iran.
At a press conference with French Prime Minister Francois Fillon, he took a swipe at what he described as France's human rights problem -- criticizing conditions in France's prisons and asking: "Is everything all right there? Let's dig into that -- I am sure there are many problems."
Gvosdev says there are "some elements of competition" in the Putin-Medvedev relationship, but that for now, such elements are "muted."
Since taking office as prime minister in early May, Putin has made moves that are widely seen as bolstering the government's authority. He has established a new executive body, the presidium, comprised of seven deputy prime ministers and seven other ministers, which will meet once a month to coordinate policy. Three of the members of the presidium -- Foreign Minister Lavrov, Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, and Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev -- also report directly to Medvedev.
In the short term, Gvosdev says the tango between Putin and Medvedev is working because they are largely in agreement on most matters of policy, despite the president's more conciliatory tone.
"What they have created with this new super cabinet is a sort of dual-key system where on most matters of policy the two of them and their people have to sign off," Gvosdev says. "That arrangement only works if they are all on the same page. We may see greater competition in the future. I think that right now it's not there yet."
RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report
Russia: Medvedev Faces Tough Talks With Georgian, Ukrainian, Turkmen Leaders
Aside from a May summit with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, this will be the newly elected Medvedev's first meeting with fellow CIS leaders. In a series of informal meetings, Medvedev will seek to reassure them that his foreign policy remains the same: Russia wants to remain on friendly terms with each and every one of them.
But in the cases of Ukraine and Georgia, Medvedev faces a tough task. With both countries pursuing NATO membership and closer ties with the European Union, they have come into direct confrontation with the Kremlin, which regards the former Soviet republics as being within its sphere of influence. Relations have also deteriorated since revolutions in both Georgia and Ukraine saw the overthrow of their pro-Russian leaders in favor of westward-leaning governments.
In this respect, Medvedev's meetings with Ukraine's Viktor Yushchenko and Georgia's Mikhail Saakashvili aren't likely to change the situation significantly, according to Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the "Russia In Global Affairs" journal.
"In the Ukrainian and Georgian cases, there are very profound differences in approaches. I don't see any serious place for compromise," Lukyanov says. "This meeting is an informal one, and any official significant decisions or breakthroughs are not planned."
Medvedev -- a close ally of former President Vladimir Putin who came to power with the full backing of the Kremlin -- has indicated he does not intend to change Russia's position regarding Georgia and Ukraine. Though his soft-spoken style contrasts with Putin's often aggressive tactics, his message remains the same.
Medvedev's "approach might be softer, his wording will be softer, certainly. But as for the substance, I don't see any bigger space for maneuvering and for softening," Lukyanov says.
Yevgeny Volk, the Moscow director of the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, agrees that little is likely to change in relations between the countries. "I personally think [Medvedev's] efforts will not be very successful, because actually, both the Georgian and Ukraine leadership have already made their choice, and in fact they are pursuing their goals to join NATO and the European Union quite persistently," he says.
At the same time, Russia and Georgia appear once again to be on the brink of conflict over the Georgian breakaway region of Abkhazia. In recent weeks, Georgia has accused Russia of amassing troops and shooting down unmanned aircraft in the territory, while the Kremlin says Georgia is preparing for a new war.
In a separate meeting with Turkmenistan's president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, Medvedev is expected to seek to cultivate friendly relations, in order to secure lucrative transit fees for oil and gas exports.
"For Russia, it's very important that all the energy resources which are produced in this area -- either oil or gas -- should be transported to Europe and other parts of the world through Russian territory, rather than circumventing Russia through some kind of southern, trans-Caspian route," Volk said.
Russia has been angered by the construction of the multibillion-dollar Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, which transports Caspian Sea oil from Azerbaijan to Turkey via Georgia, bypassing routes through Russian territory.
But Lukyanov of the "Russia In Global Affairs" journal expects Medvedev's meeting with Berdymukhammedov also to be a difficult one. "Turkmenistan again -- as in the good old days of Turkmenbashi [former President Saparmurat Niyazov] -- is trying to play a very sophisticated game with all possible partners simultaneously," he says.
Although Putin, now Russia's prime minister, is not expected to attend the talks, observers say there is little doubt that his presence will be felt.
"Mr. Medvedev is not a very independent figure; he represents the interests of the group which brought him to power, which actually supports him, and thus his window of opportunity for any kind of maneuvering is very narrow," Volk says.
Medvedev is expected in St. Petersburg on June 5.
Analysis: Can Medvedev Find A 'Systemic Solution' To Corruption?
In January 2000, then-acting President Vladimir Putin used the term "legal nihilism" in a speech to Interior Ministry officials.
"Legal nihilism is growing," Putin said, "and the public's confidence in the authorities and in justice is falling. Among our priorities must be the struggle against organized crime and corruption. It is these forms of crime that are mercilessly consuming the economy of the country, discrediting the organs of government, and undermining the international authority of the Russian Federation."
Speaking to the Federation Council in July 2000, Putin again emphasized corruption.
"The opportunities for bureaucrats to act according to their own whims, to freely interpret the norms of the law, both in the center and in the regions, oppresses businesspeople and creates a fertile environment for corruption," Putin said.
In 2004, shortly after his reelection as president, Putin again made fighting corruption a priority, setting up a government Anticorruption Council and naming then-Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov to head it. When Viktor Zubkov was confirmed as prime minister last September, he pledged redoubled efforts to combat corruption, which he told the Duma is "capable of sinking Russia." This week, President Dmitry Medvedev joined this illustrious parade, taking personal charge of the corruption fight and labeling it "one of the most serious problems facing our society and our country."
Despite the numerous public efforts and announcements, little has been done and no progress has been made. Commission after commission has been created and hardly a day goes by without some official being arrested. Last year, Medvedev said on May 19, there were 9,500 criminal corruption cases filed, but he conceded, "This is just the tip of the iceberg." Transparency International -- in its 2007 global corruption rankings -- agreed, giving Russia failing marks.
"The scores [for the post-Soviet countries] are disappointing and especially disappointing for countries like Russia, where a score of 2.3 puts Russia at the bottom of the global list of the index, which is really a great embarrassment for Russia," Transparency International official Miklos Marschall offered in an interview with RFE/RL. "It shows the downward trend despite all the pledges and the commitments. According to the opinion of the international business community, the Russian public sector is pretty corrupt. And what is even [more alarming], it is getting worse and worse, so there is no positive development."
There is no arguing that the scope of the problem is truly massive. A survey in late 2007 found that two-thirds of Russians believe corruption cannot be rooted out of the system and 28 percent reported that they had personally been affected by some form of official corruption within the previous year. They listed the police, the courts, customs officials, health-care workers, education workers, and prosecutors as highly corrupted.
And that, to use Medvedev's expression, is "just the tip of the iceberg." Former Deputy Energy Minister Vladimir Milov has written that although two-thirds of Russia's gross domestic product is produced by state companies, they accounted for only 1 percent of 2007 budget revenues. Why? According to Milov, because of "a badly regulated and highly corrupted system of state-property management." In the same article on gazeta.ru, Milov describes incidents from his tenure in government in which state companies retained virtually all of their profits, purportedly for infrastructure improvements that the government seemed to pay for every year but which never seemed to get built.
To take one more example, a 2007 study by the Russian NGO Against Corruption estimated that up to one-fourth of all the money Russia spends each year on state orders -- as must as 1 trillion rubles ($40 billion) -- is stolen. Former Economy Minister Yevgeny Yasin commented at the time that corruption was on the rise and "until the corruption fight becomes a basic priority for the state, decreasing the scale of corruption will not be possible."
Now, Medvedev has taken up the challenge, declaring on May 19 that fighting corruption "calls for a comprehensive series of measures and not piecemeal solutions." He laid out three broad components of what he described as his "national plan for fighting corruption," including "intensive modernization of our laws," making state contracts and tenders "transparent" while improving the business climate generally, and "introducing an anticorruption code of behavior" that will improve "the atmosphere in society in general."
"Corruption has become a systemic problem, and we therefore need a systemic response to deal with it," Medvedev concluded. The following day, Medvedev announced that he would begin his effort by trying to clean up the courts.
"It is hard to say why it was decided to do this; maybe it's just that this problem is ripe," former Constitutional Court Justice Tamara Morshchakova tells RFE/RL's Russian Service. "You'll recall that President Putin named corruption as one of his unfinished tasks, and this relates to the courts as well. Corruption in this sense doesn't just mean the courts, the accepting of bribes. Corruption means the issuing of illegal rulings as the result of influence on the part of interested parties, often the representatives of the authorities. Therefore the importance of the subject is clear. It is another matter in which methods will be selected in order to resolve this problem."
The entangled nature of the corruption issue that Morshchakova emphasized made headlines earlier this month in a fascinating court case involving a presidential-administration official, a journalist, and a judge. Valery Boyev -- who served in Putin's presidential administration as an official responsible for human resources and for state awards and was also a member of Putin's presidential commission on state management and justice -- filed a defamation suit against popular broadcast journalist Vladimir Solovyov, who reported in several stories that Boyev had contacted judges to influence certain cases. "There are no independent judges in Russia," Solovyov said, "only judges dependent on Boyev." Solovyov also said Boyev "commands the Arbitration Court."
The case would have been just another example of a senior official slapping down an unruly journalist except that on May 13, Yelena Valyavina, deputy chairwoman of the Arbitration Court, testified in the case, saying that Boyev had indeed tried to influence her ruling in at least one case. She testified that the office of state awards -- the work of which is "completely opaque," according to "Novaya gazeta" -- exercises enormous influence over judges at all levels through the processes of hiring, promotion, and awarding bonuses.
"[Boyev], as the representative of the presidential administration, is present at all meetings of the Higher Qualifications Collegium of Judges, where he can make certain announcements," Valyavina testified. "The speed of the appointment of judges also depends on him." Therefore, she concluded, judges know that awards, bonuses, and promotions are in the hands of Boyev and his office. "Kommersant" noted that the plaintiff's lawyers had no cross-examination questions for Valyavina after her testimony.
Back Into The Shadows
Vadim Vinogradov, a professor of international law at the State Legal University in Moscow, starkly laid out the significance of the Boyev-Solovyov case for Russia, as opposed to other countries. "Having a figure of such a rank testify in court is a unique case [for Russia]," Vinogradov told "Kommersant." "Although for a law-based state, it is nothing extraordinary."
According to "Kommersant," the case was expected to bring further revelations, as the defendant had also called Moscow Arbitration Court Chairman Yevgeny Ilin, Nizhny Novgorod Oblast Court Chairman Boris Kanevsky, and 10th Arbitration-Appeals Court Chairman Artur Absalyamov to testify when the case was scheduled to resume on May 26. However, on May 23, Boyev suddenly and without explanation withdrew his complaint, a move that was widely seen as an effort by the Kremlin to prevent the judges from bringing their stories to the public.
Valyavina's remarks cast some light into the long-dark arena of relations between the Kremlin and judges. Since it came just one week before Medvedev's drive to stamp out corruption in the legal sphere began, it is unsettling that Medvedev himself did not refer to it or denounce the kinds of influence that she described. The Kremlin office where Boyev worked (or works?) is so opaque, indeed, that it is impossible to know if he still works there or if he left the administration when his patron, former deputy presidential-administration head Viktor Ivanov, was transferred to the Federal Antinarcotics Committee last week. Medvedev's failure to address this case and its implications specifically casts doubt on his pledge to find "systemic solutions" to the corruption problem.
Kremlin critics argue that fighting corruption is not that difficult. The INDEM think tank has been studying corruption for most of the post-Soviet period and INDEM Director Georgy Satarov is blunt in his prescription. "The key problem connected with the growth of corruption in Russia is the lack of control over the bureaucracy," he has said. The problem is caused by the lack of "political competition, the lack of [a political] opposition, the lack of a free press, [the lack of] freely working public organizations."
Former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov has echoed this view, telling "Ekspert" magazine last fall that fighting corruption entails "ending censorship so people will be afraid to take bribes," "term limitations for governors," "the restoration of gubernatorial elections," and "the restoration of political competition."
These views conform to those of Transparency International, which asserts that "corruption thrives...where institutional checks on power are missing, where decision making remains obscure, where civil society is thin on the ground."
In the light of the compelling logic of such arguments, Medvedev's call for "an anticorruption code of behavior" seems unconvincing. Still more so when, rather than calling for a protected free press and civil-society organizations, he merely notes that "the mass media and public organizations should all have the chance to have their say and get involved in this area." Medvedev has also avoided commenting publicly on the case of investigative journalist Natalya Morar, who has been barred from Russia as a "security threat" by the Federal Security Service (FSB) in response to her aggressive reporting on corruption in Putin's presidential administration.
In short, Medvedev -- himself a product of a corrupted electoral system and the Kremlin-controlled mass media -- has not demonstrated the will or the authority to make the "systemic" changes needed to end corruption. It seems unlikely that another government commission or another "code of behavior" is going to be able to make up for the opaque, monopolized, clan-based political system that has evolved in Russia over the last eight years. It is hard to believe that the so-called liberal lawyer Medvedev cannot see that.
Russia: Opposition Opens Parallel Parliament, Decries 'Monopoly On Power'Russian opposition leader Garry Kasparov has formally launched an alternative parliament aimed at the "restoration of democracy and popular government in Russia."
The National Assembly, the brainchild of Kasparov's Other Russia coalition, is intended as a sort of parallel parliament to the State Duma and will be comprised of delegates from grassroots organizations from across the country.
Addressing several hundred activists attending the meeting in central Moscow, Kasparov accused Russian authorities of creating a "feudal fiefdom." He also criticized mainstream opposition parties that did not attend the assembly, such as Yabloko and the Union of Rightist Forces (SPS).
Eduard Limonov, who also heads the Other Russia coalition, said former Russian President, and now Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin and his allies want to keep power forever. "We want to destroy the monopoly on power," he said.
In addition to Kasparov and Limonov, the delegate list includes former presidential economic adviser Andrei Illarionov; former government economic adviser Mikhail Delyagin; and former Central Bank Chairman Viktor Gerashchenko.
A founding charter blames the authorities for "taking the country to the brink of national disaster" and reaffirms the inviolability of fundamental human rights, including freedom of speech, of assembly, and of conscience.
The document contains a renunciation of violence or the threat of violence for political ends. It also renounces the restriction of freedom of speech or assembly for political purposes.
The move is seen as the latest attempt by Kasparov to unite Russia's opposition against Putin and his successor, Dmitry Medvedev.
compiled from agency reports
Commentary: Russian Opposition Takes A Principled Stand
The slogan, which Vladimir Putin exploited in his 2000 presidential victory, signaled the power elite's rejection of pluralism, which was equated with weakness, division, dismemberment, and defeat. Russia's subsequent political development has merely been the ever-accelerating process of solidifying "unity" and quashing pluralism.
After eight years of Putinism, the consolidation of unity is nearly complete in Russia. Manifestations of pluralism are so small and rare as to seem either hopelessly quixotic or comically pathetic. The meeting in Moscow this weekend of the opposition National Assembly -- if the authorities allow it to happen at all -- has aspects of both.
The brainchild of the opposition Other Russia coalition headed by Garry Kasparov and Eduard Limonov, the National Assembly is intended to become a sort of alternative parliament, with grassroots organizations from across the country sending delegates. The idea apparently sprang from an infamous quotation by Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov, who said the lower chamber should not be a "talking shop." Other Russia argued the opposite -- that the national legislature is precisely the place where ideas are to be discussed and debated and where alternative points of view should be aired.
The opposition in Russia is so beleaguered and fractured that it is hard to imagine anything fruitful will come of the National Assembly. Nonetheless, it is a brave act on the part of the 600 or so participants to come out in open opposition to a government that brooks no opposition. It is a gesture that would be immoral to ignore.
For one thing, the assembly is based on solid fundamental principles that are immutable. The body's pre-convention "political declaration" forcefully declares the current government in Russia illegitimate because it is based on unfree and falsified elections and an unconstitutional concentration of power in the executive branch. "The ruling regime has deprived Russian citizens of their fundamental civil and political rights -- the right to personal inviolability, the right to freedom of conscience and the free expression of one's convictions, the right to move freely about the territory of the country, the right to assemble peacefully and form associations, the right to independent and unbiased legal protection, the right to participate in the governance of the country, the right to representative government." In addition, the document bases its charge that the government is illegitimate and should be disbanded on the argument that it has "destroyed free political competition, the democratic electoral process, representative bodies, the independent judicial system, and the independent mass media." "Democratic processes have been transformed into a fiction," the document declares.
Furthermore, the assembly is expected to adopt a charter that upholds principles the Russian government has long abandoned. The document notes that although the National Assembly includes delegates from a wide range of political positions, they all agree on the inviolability of fundamental human rights, including freedom of speech, of assembly, and of conscience. Further, the document contains a forceful renunciation of violence or the threat of violence for political ends. It also renounces the restriction of freedom of speech or assembly for political purposes.
Perhaps most importantly, the charter confirms the inviolability of free elections. "We pledge never to restrict the right of citizens to determine their fate through free voting at the national, regional, or local level," the document affirms. "We are united in the conviction that the highest officials of all branches and levels of government must be elected by a free expression of the will of the citizenry."
Supporters of the Putin government and bewildered observers of Russia often ask why it matters that the Russian people have had no voice in choosing their leaders since they would certainly choose Putin anyway. The National Assembly draft charter provides the appropriate retort -- the act of choice confers legitimacy and that act is more important than the choice itself. It is not possible to short circuit the democratic process and still have a democratically legitimate government.
The quixotic National Assembly also deserves our attention because it will certainly attract the Kremlin's. Already there are reports from around the country of assembly delegates being harassed and intimidated. According to Kasparov's website, delegates in Barnaul have received intimidating phone calls, while at least one delegate in Krasnoyarsk was hauled in for questioning by the police. In Rostov Oblast, National Bolshevik party member Sergei Volodin "disappeared" one day after being warned by uniformed police that he was not to leave the city.
It remains to be seen whether authorities in Moscow will allow the assembly to gather as scheduled on May 17 and 18. The authorities are notorious for forcing venues to cancel rental agreements with opposition groups, for allowing pro-Kremlin groups to hold demonstrations that block access to halls, for cutting off electricity and water supplies to the sites of opposition gatherings, for sending police to evacuate premises on the pretext of a supposed bomb threat, etc.
The National Assembly deserves attention because of the people who are involved. In addition to Kasparov and Limonov, the delegate list includes former presidential economy adviser Andrei Illarionov, former government economy adviser Mikhail Delyagin, former Central Bank Chairman Viktor Gerashchenko, long-time human rights advocate Sergei Kovalyov, political scientist Andrei Piontkovsky, distinguished lawyer Yury Shmidt, and recently jailed St. Petersburg-based activist Maksim Reznik.
Although former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov is not expected to attend, his Popular Democratic Union has backed the idea and is sending delegates. These are serious and principled people who have been marginalized by the Kremlin's ruthless political tactics. They are standing up for liberal-democratic principles against an awesome machine that has cynically debased and degraded those principles in the eyes of the Russian public.
Paying attention to them and showing our solidarity with the principles they are espousing is the least the global democratic community can do. A gesture can be hopeless and still be right. And, maybe, if it isn't ignored, it won't be hopeless after all.
Analysis: Global Food Crisis Catches Up With Russia
And for good reason. Even as food prices rise dramatically around the world, the rate of increase in Russia has been roughly three times greater than that in the European Union. In April, the cost of basic foodstuffs rose in Russia by 6.4 percent, compared to 1.8 percent in Europe, according to official Russian figures.
Depending on the region, prices of basic products such as bread, milk, and meat have risen between 7 and 22 percent so far this year, moving inflation to the top of the list of Russia's national concerns. An opinion survey in March found that 39 percent of Russians view rising food prices as the biggest national problem, while 38 percent named inflation generally, and 27 percent named low wages. Just 8 percent of respondents mentioned corruption.
These findings are an early warning worth heeding in a country with a history of hunger-triggered political unrest, most notably the 1917 February Revolution that toppled Tsar Nicholas II. The Kremlin understands this and purchased a measure of political stability during the election cycle that began last December with three price freezes on basic consumer goods. Earlier this year, Putin asked Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin (who retained both posts after Putin moved to the premiership last week) to head a special commission on inflation and to report weekly on the status of prices across the country.
As the last price freeze expired on April 30, the government was preparing a special "food-security" law that would indefinitely fix the prices of seven "socially important" commodities.
Medvedev, who for the last three years has overseen an ambitious national project to revive the agricultural sector, has tried to contain the political damage that seems inevitable if prices surge following the expiry of the latest price freeze. He has said that a global food deficit is the main driver of Russia's food troubles, adding that if not for his efforts in recent years, the situation would be worse.
"It is very regrettable when you work and work and then this rubbish comes from the world market because of the mistakes of our colleagues in other countries," Medvedev complained. "And as a result the entire planet is suffering."
Leading Food Importer
Although food prices are, indeed, rising globally, Russia's leaders have downplayed the fact that Russia is one of the world's leading importers of food. As such, it stands to suffer disproportionately from the food crisis.
Among G8 countries, only Russia and Japan are net food importers. Russia imports about 46 percent of the food and agricultural raw materials it consumes each year. At a February 14 press conference, Putin revealed that some of Russia's largest cities import up to 85 percent of the food they consume. All in all, Russia imports 75 percent of the meat it consumes and half of the vegetable oil.
Still worse, Russian dependence on imported food is on the rise. Food imports increased by a factor of three between 2000 and 2006, and the primary reason for this is the ongoing decline of the country's agricultural sector. To take just one example, meat and milk production has fallen by half since 1990, and Russia's total cattle herd has declined to the level of 1918.
Despite all of Moscow's talk of its "sovereign democracy," the country has failed to boost its independence in this crucial arena.
According to figures released by the World Bank and the UN last month, global price increases for food are likely to continue, and accelerate, for the next decade. Russia's dependence on imported food has important domestic and international implications. Not only is it possible that food-related social unrest could disturb Russia's fragile stability, but it is also likely that the costs of supporting this habit could derail the Kremlin's ambitious plans to reshape the national economy.
The Kremlin will be forced to divert more and more of its petrodollar windfall from national-development projects to the purchase of food imports. In fact, this process has already begun, as the country is swept by a massive wave of consumerism. Despite the price increases, Russia's consumption of meat, for instance, has increased 5 percent in 2008 alone. To meet rising demand, Moscow reduced import duties. Naturally, this boosted imports, but that made domestic production less competitive and enraged Russian farmers.
Haves And Have-Nots
The food crisis is also exacerbating the gap between the haves and the have-nots. While the richest part of the population can afford to spend more on food and can even increase consumption, the poorest 20 percent -- those who already spend about 60 percent of their income on food -- find themselves sorely pressed.
On April 30, Agriculture Minister Aleksei Gordeyev (who likewise retains his post under the new regime) proposed dealing with this situation by adopting a so-called food-security law that would regulate prices of some commodities and increase state subsidies to the agricultural sector several times over. It also includes a provision that would introduce food stamps for the poorest Russians. Gordeyev's proposal has met with skepticism by those who see it as a relic of the Soviet planned economy and note that a similar plan was proposed by the Communist Party in 1997.
Such a plan would likely have inflationary consequences and would do little to resolve the food-production problem. Nevertheless, the Economic Development and Trade Ministry has compiled a list of the socially important food products that would be subject to price controls -- including bread, milk, vegetable oil, butter, eggs, salt, and tea.
The good news for Russia is that the country has available land and water resources to boost agricultural production. The bad news, however, is that this cannot be done quickly enough to forestall the social, economic, and political impact of its food deficit. The country simply lacks the workforce, the infrastructure, and the financial mechanisms for rapid development in this sector.
Russia's food problem also has an international dimension. In recent years, Moscow -- as a major exporter of energy to the European Union and the countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States -- has used its position of strength for political ends, arguing that it is the seller, not the buyer, who determines prices. Now Russia finds itself in the position of an importer of a vital resource that cannot be replenished domestically any time soon. Russia, for instance, imports 35 percent of its beef and 40 percent of its pork from the European Union.
Because of the humanitarian nature of food supplies, it is unlikely the Western democracies would openly use their leverage to pressure Moscow except in a crisis situation. However, the Putin-Medvedev leadership is aware of Russia's vulnerability on this point. In practical terms, this realization will serve as a natural constraint on Moscow's assertiveness in both the near and far abroad.