Archive for April, 2009

A Wild Card Called Kadyrov

April 26, 2009

 

Medvedev’s April 16 announcement that counterterrorism operations in Chechnya are over apparently came a bit too soon.

 

Counterterrorism operations went back into effect just six days later in the Chechen districts of Itum-Kalinsky, Vedeno, and Shatoi, plus a few parts of Shali, all “with the aim of neutralizing the actions of illegal armed formations,” according to Gazeta. Their reinstatement followed no less than four attacks in Grozny on Friday, April 16 – the very day of Medvedev’s glowing announcement:  

 

1)      two explosive devices detonated outside Grozny’s Belimhanova sports stadium, injuring a police officer as well as Grozny’s military commander, Igor Makeev.

2)      Another explosion on Dagestan Street, also near the Belimhanova sports stadium.

3)      A firefight, in the woods outside the town of Sogunty Nozhai-Yurt, between Russian police and armed militants.

4)      A gunshot on the outskirts of the town of Elistanzhi Vedeno; this one took the life of a contract soldier.  

 

Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya’s Kremlin-backed warlord-in-chief, is doing his best to pass these incidents off as nothing to be alarmed about.

“Normal seasonal activity,” he told Gazeta. “Militants stepped up a conflict between federal forces in Chechnya and the authorities of the republic.”

 

Normal seasonal activity? But I thought the war was over. There shouldn’t be any “normal seasonal activity” or “traditionally active militias.” There is no question in my mind that the situation on the ground is a lot uglier than Medvedev and Kadyrov are letting on.

 

Medvedev is, I’d guess, just in too much of a hurry to give his citizens some good news. Given the growing public displeasure over the economy and the rise in Russian unemployment past the 10% mark, that’s predictable politician behavior.

 

Kadyrov, however, is a bit more interesting a subject of speculation. As far as I see it, he’s got a great many of motives for glossing over Chechnya’s ongoing strife. Oil is a big one. Chechnya produces about 2 million tons of oil a year, with the fighting, but it averaged between 4 million and 5 million tons a year throughout the early 1990s, before the fighting. In peaceful 1971, it topped a total 21 million tons 

 

Right now, the little oil industry that Chechnya does have is heavily reliant on the assistance of Russian oil firm Russneft, who controls the extraction, export, and refining of Chechnya’s oil and has systematically opposed Kadyrov’s attempts to secure total control. Kadyrov would surely love to restore Chechnya’s oil capacity and see it become an oil power in its own right. But that can only happen if he can convince investors that the place is safe enough for them to risk their money on it.

 

Then of course, there are the massive inflows of cash from Moscow to fund reconstruction in Grozny and its environs. Neighborhoods are starting to come back to life  and major construction porjects are well underway—like this mosque: 

  

the new downtown Grozny

the new downtown Grozny

 

 

 

 

Positive reports from ground zero will ensure that the money keeps coming.

 

But perhaps Kadyrov aspires to be more than president of an autonomous Russian province. Perhaps he would like to be leader of an independent nation. Consider that Kadyrov was himself a rebel leader once, until he switched sides circa 2000.

 

What would it take to woo him back? Enter the third motivator for his bullish reporting.

 

As Russia’s right-hand man in the war-torn province, Kadyrov has been consolidating enormous power. Perhaps more power than Russia would like. BBC caught a whiff of where this was going as far back as 2004: By localising the conflict in Chechnya, the Kremlin has devolved enormous personal power to Ramzan Kadyrov. He is careful often to declare his absolute loyalty to his mentors in the Kremlin. But at the same time he runs Chechnya like a virtual independent fiefdom. Some in Moscow wonder how long that loyalty will last.

 

BBC may be onto something. The time may come when, with Chechnya’s infrastructure restored to health and its fighting forces in tiptop shape, this warlord-for-hire might decide he has gotten all he needs from his Russian masters and throw off Moscow altogether.

 

Putin is eagle-eying this situation, no doubt, and weighing his options. I wouldn’t be surprised if Kadyrov turns up dead of “mysterious circumstances” in another year or two.  

 

Otherwise, Putin—and we along with him—might see a whole new war break out, one far worse than those that came before. This scenario seems to me particularly realistic, given the mess in Georgia, where Saakashvili is nursing some heavy-duty grudges against Russia over the loss of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

 

Assuming Saakashvili is still in power a year from now (and I assume that he will be), and assuming he has the good sense not to declare another war against Russia (and I hope that is so, but I have my doubts), might he decide against taking the Russians on in direct combat and settle for just making their lives very miserable by funding and arming the next wave of Chechen unrest, which will come not from bands of guerrillas in the mountains but from the professional fighting forces of Kadyrov himself? Could Saakashvili and Kadyrov form a mutual alliance? If the adage about the enemy of my enemy being my friend is true, then this is all within the realm of possibility. 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Trigger-Happy Dictator With Nothing Left to Lose

April 19, 2009

 

 

It’s usually a good idea not to encourage a bully. But that is exactly what NATO is doing with its upcoming May 6-June 1 training exercises at the Georgian military base Vaziani. 

 

These training exercises, dubbed the “Partnership for Peace Programme” have as their stated goal “improving interoperability between NATO and partner countries.”

 

“Partnership for Peace?” Anything but. These training exercises sound to me like a great way to tempt Georgian President Mikhail Saakhashvili into making another go at Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

 

On August 7 of last year, he sent his army storming into the two breakaway republics with the intention of bringing them back under full Georgian dominion. That the Russian army was stationed in them at the time did not deter him. Why? In part, probably because, in his little dictator brain, he had reasoned that NATO would help him.

 

He implied no less in an interview just the day before with the Pulitzer Center’s Zygmunt Dzieciolowski, in which he said that he “cannot imagine the West not coming to Georgia’s aid. It would be like the betrayal of Hungary in 1956 or the then-Czechoslovakia in 1968, when the Soviet Union’s aggressive repression of restive satellites was met with silence from the West.

 

Saakhashvili hasn’t given up on the two provinces. In a September 2008 news conference, he vowed to “reclaim” them at some later point.

  

Now that NATO is going to be stationed in his country for at least a month, might this not strike him as a perfect time to try?

 

He might rightly reason that with NATO troops stationed on his turf, he can safely take a gamble on attacking Russia. The worst that can happen is the Russian military outfights him and forces him into a retreat. They won’t counterattack and invade Georgia again, that is for certain. Not while NATO is there and the risk of inciting a war with NATO is present. Saakhasvhili will just pull back, declare another cesefire, and life will go on.

 

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov suspects as much, and he made no secret about it last Thursday when he warned NATO not to take steps that would create “a sense of all-permissiveness and impunity in the Georgian regime.”

 

The Russian military worries about it, too. They’ve been stepping up their troop numbers in Abkhazia’s Gali district and in the Akhalgori district of South Ossetia, as well as conducting naval maneuvers on the Black Sea, all to Saakhashvili’s dismay.

 

Having exact information about high probability of provocative actions against Abkhazia and South Ossetia in this period, the Russian side has taken preventive measures to ensure security of these republics and our servicemen stationed there,” said Andrei Nesterenko, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman, on Thursday.

 

He also stressed that a real threat is coming from Georgia in terms of preparing “new provocations, including concentration of special troops and military hardware in the immediate proximity of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.”

 

There is an additional factor here, and that is Saakhasvhili’s domestic situation. He has been under a lot of heat lately, or more specifically, mass protests—ongoing since April 9—that demand nothing less than Saakhashvili’s resignation. For an autocratic government, which Georgia’s leadership is, the official response to the protest has been relatively mild. Civil Georgia reports thus: “The authorities continue the tactic of staying away from protests, with uniformed police having no presence on the protest venues and low presence around those venues,” albeit turning a blind eye to “separate cases of attacks on opposition activists and supporters.”

 

For a protest to go on this long and make this much noise without any state-orchestrated crackdown, it is painfully clear that the Saakashvili machine is weak and ailing. He is a dictator in a tight spot.

 

Not good, in this case: Dictators in tight spots are the ones most likely to do reckless things. Might he decide he has nothing to lose–and everything to gain–by going to war again with Russia? He might. If nothing else, he will dampen the momentum to overthrow him for the time being—wartime presidents, as a rule, are popular presidents.

 

On that subject, here is some food for thought from former Georgian president Edward Shevardnadze, spoken in the aftermath of last summer’s war: “This is a character of Georgian people, if someone meddles in their affairs, their national pride comes forward. It happened when Russia announced breaking of relations with Mikhail Saakashvili.”

 

An Offer They Can Refuse

April 19, 2009

 

 

There is a line between acting persistent and acting desperate. Latvian President Valdis Zatlers crossed it last Friday on radio station Echo Moskvy.

 

He told station listeners—in case they hadn’t heard it many times before—that he would much like

to see the Nordstream pipeline cut overland through Latvia.

 

He stated his preference for this over the current plan to run the line through the Baltic Sea. That latter plan is a “join Russian-German project,” i.e., one that is of no benefit to Latvia.

 

If given the chance to host a line on its turf, though, Latvia “could make available its gas storage facilities” and thereby benefit immensely, he said.

 

The problem with his stance is that it is nothing new. He, and likeminded Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, have been arguing it as far back as February 2008. At that time, they were pushing for an Amber pipeline that would ferry Russian natural gas overland through Latvia, Estonia, and Poland.

           

Back then, they framed their arguments on security concerns and worry over the environment. Zatlers’ Friday exortation to new business opportunities, not to to protecting the fish and wildlife, is at least some refreshing honesty. For that, I have to give him credit.

 

Valdis Zatlers decides to be blunt.

Valdis Zatlers decides to be blunt.

But will it convince Gazpom to ditch its plans and adopt his?

I doubt it. As Gazprom’s maps can illustrate for you, any overland route through Latvia would have to cross Latvia and Poland both to get to Germany; two nations that will expect transit fees for the gas. Latvia would have to convince Russia that the transit fees would be worth it – right now, Gazprom likes the fact that the planned line’s jut through the water dodges those fees. Says its own Web site: “There are no transit countries on Nord Stream’s route, which reduces Russian gas transmission costs and excludes any possible political risks.” 

 

And frankly, Gazprom has plenty of other, better ways to raise its stock shares via Latvia. Among them:

1)            a possible new nuclear power plant project in Latvia. Gazprom has already taken a 25% stake in this project.

2)            Latvia’s own gas utility, Latvijas Gaze. Gazprom has a 34% stake in this one.

Let’s not forget a third promising prospect in nearby Estonia, a new gas line that will stretch from Estonia to Finland. This, if built, could channel Russian gas to Finnish customers.

 

Russia already has plans to raise capital by these cheaper alternatives. Proof is in Gazprom’s opening of a first-ever Riga office at the beginning of this month. This new office was desired expressly because of “the important energy projects in the region.”

 

And frankly, Russia doesn’t need Estonia or Latvia to sell gas to Finland. Finland’s its next-door neighbor, and as Gazprom’s maps can also show you, conveniently located next to some already-existing pipelines.

 

There is one area of potential collaboration between Latvia and Russia, and that is Latvia’ gas reserves. These are substantial enough and have a customer base spanning the Baltic, as well as parts of Russia. It could expand even more. And given Gazprom’s shares in Latvian gas industries, Gazprom no doubt would like to see it expand even more. But that, too, can easily happen without an overland Nordstream. All it would take is the speculated new pipeline linking Latvia to Gazprom near the Latvian town of Dobele.

 

Zatler’s ardor to cash in on the Nordstream project is understandable, nevertheless, in light of the economic crises. The country’s economy shrank 10% in fourth-quarter 2008, is projected to shrink 12% more this year, and has currently the lowest Standard & Poor credit rating of all the Baltic states. This after boasting the highest growth figures in the European Union in 2004 and being designated one of the Baltic Tigers, along with Estonia and Lithuania. It’s bad enough to threaten Zatler’s government. He had a prime minister resign last February. And a 10,000-strong riot in Riga last January that left 40 people injured and several stores looted.

 

But if he wants Gazprom to toss him an overland lifeline, the burden of proof is on him to show that his way will be cheaper. Riga could heavily subsidize the construction so that the costs are less. And build up enough infrastructure so that its citizens will become loyal Gazprom customers. Both take money, though. And I don’t see Latvia having the money anytime soon.

 

Certainly, Gazprom’s owners would be all for Latvians pumping more gas and selling it to more customers. But they will see that this be accomplished on terms that maximize Gazprom profits and minimize Gazprom costs. You can’t blame them. Business is business, after all.

 

Trading Spaces

April 5, 2009

 

The NATO of 2009 strikes a sharp contrast with the NATO of 1999.  

 

 

Last Saturday, NATO’s North Atlantic Council issued a statement of “particular concern” over Russia’s continued involvement in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

  

 

The statement complained that Russia has not yet withdrawn from the two breakaway states, as it had promised in EU-brokered talks last August and September—seven months later, “the withdrawal is still incomplete.”

 

 

It noted that Russia is still increasing its military presence within Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and doing so “without the consent of the Government of Georgia.”

 

 

And it restated NATO’s refusal to recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as Russia has.

 

 

“The Alliance … continues to call on Russia to reverse its recognition, which contravenes the founding values and principles of the NATO-Russia Council, the OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe) principles on which the security of Europe is based, and the United Nations Security Council resolutions regarding Georgia’s territorial integrity.”

 

 

Since when was a separatist movement contrary to OSCE principles? Kosovo’s wasn’t. In 1999, the OSCE development teams were on the ground, doing their part to ensure that Serbian forces were on their way out, and to help the fledgling Kosovar government gain a sound, democratic footing. Why do Kosovo’s militants get more sympathy than those of Abkhazia and South Ossetia?

 

 

Because this is a stew that has little to do with the Abkhazians or the South Ossetians, and everything to do with geopolitical power-play. Some more history:

 

 

Once upon a time, there was an independent kingdom called Ossetia. Russia conqered the northern half in 1767 and took the southern remainder in 1801. In 1922, Russia’s new Bolshevik government split the two up into North and South, and created a South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast Council to govern the latter. The Bolsheviks took the added step of transferring South Ossetia into a sub-region of Georgia in 1923. Russia held on to North Ossetia, as it has to this very day.  

 

 

South Ossetians have wanted for some time to reintegrate the two- the South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast Council made that request to the Georgian Supreme Soviet in 1989, only to be turned down (Georgian leadership has a small country to its own, and wouldn’t be quick to let it get any smaller). South Ossetian militants rose up in arms in 1991 and fought for their independence until a 1992 ceasefire that Russia and Georgia jointly negotiated. By the time of the ceasefire, the fighting had already resulted in 1,000 casualties, 100 missing persons, and innumerable damage to homes and infrastructure. South Ossetian fighters instigated a new round of violence in July 2004, this time with vocal support from the Russian Duma.

 

 

Last summer’s showdown was thus many years in the making, and for a reason: When South Ossetians say “independence,” they really mean annexation. It’s only logical that Russia might support this “independence,” and hence give the South Ossetians an easy justification for joining the Russian fold.

 

 

Abkhazia is a different story, for the Abkhazians never really identified with Russia: Russia occupied them from 1810 until 1918, when they declared independence and merged with the people of Daghestan, Chechen-Ingushia, Ossetia, Karachay-Balkaria, Abkhazia, Kabarda, and Adyghea into a North Caucasian Republic. Russia took over this new republic in a 1919-1920 invasion and annexation, and handed Abkhazia over to the Georgian Soviet Republic in a Treaty of Union, which all sides signed 1921. This treaty established an equitable union of Georgia and Abkhazia. The two were effectively one republic, but Abkhazians remained in charge of their territory and its internal affairs. Stalin, staying true to his Georgian roots, revoked the Treaty of Union in 1931 and made Abkhazia a fully subordinate province of Georgia. A “Georgianization” of Abkhazia followed. Nearly all Abkhazian intellectualls were imprisoned and/or killed, and Soviet-ordered mass migrations of Georgians swamped Abkhazia’s cities and towns.

 

 

A new Abkhazian Supreme Soviet ordered the Treaty of Union back into effect in July 1992. Georgia would have none of it. Frustrated Abkhazian leaders took up arms in August 1992, which prompted Georgian troops to invade and engage with them in a very bloody 13 months of fighting. This fighting included, regrettably, a gory ethnic cleansing by Abkhazians against Abkhazia’s ethnically-Georgian residents: By the time the separatists had decisively won in September 1993, around 15,000 ethnic Georgian civilians had died and another 250,000 had fled.

 

 

That time around, Russia did not come to Abkhazia’s aid. The military bases that Georgia was leasing to Russia at the time probably had something to do with that. Instead, Russia punished the upstart Abkhazians by imposing sanctions, closing the border, and denying Abkhazian residents any new passports.  

 

 

By now, there is now probably little love among the Abkhazians for Russia or for Georgia. Their first choice would seem to be a more equitable union with Georgia. The fireworks in South Ossetia last year certainly gave them an opportunity to make a go at it. But if that is not attainable – and given Russia’s buildup of military force in Abkhazia, it might not be – a merger with Russia might look like a tolerable alternative (hey, at least it’s not the rule of Saakashvili).

 

 

It’s understandable why European leaders don’t sympathize with the “freedom fighters.” Many Europeans are leery of Russia to begin with. They see its combination of authoritarian ways and raw geopolitical power as a bit of a menace–this recent survey of Poles is a case in point. Given that frame of mind, Russian actions to expand Russian territory by force–especially when that territory is a stone’s throw away from the continent–are a little discomfiting.  

 

 

Were I President Obama, I might place hope for defusing things in a 50-50 arrangement: a peaceful reconciliation between Abkhazia and Georgia, and South Ossetia can go where it will – if into Russia, then into Russia. The key lies in recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia as unique cases, who each have their own decisions to make. Of course, I’m not Obama, so I’ll have to leave that call up to him. And blog about it afterwards.