Chavez embraces Putin in the Kremlin
Today's news is that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is visiting Moscow, slapping the backs of Putin and LUKOil's Vagit Alekperov, signing oil contracts, and pledging to purchase $3 billion worth of Russian weapons. Chavez also used his Kremlin stage to taunt America, calling the U.S. a "stupid giant". Chavez basked in the welcome from the Kremlin, the friendliness of many ordinary Russians on the streets, and favorable coverage from the Russian media. Russia Blog will try to explain why Chavez' visit was such a success for the Venezuelan strongman.
First of all, Hugo Chavez is drunk on oil money, and he usually pays on time and with cash. For example, the last time Russia Blog wrote about relations between Russia and Venezuela, we noted that Chavez ordered 100,000 barrels from Lukoil to meet his obligations to Petroleos de Venezuela's subsidized customers in South America.
As we have written many times before, Russians will never turn away anyone who has cash, (even Saddam Hussein), but they could care less about the causes of nationalities that have no money (i.e. Palestinians). Until very recently, Russia had nothing to sell besides oil and gas and some very good weapons. Second, many Russians, just like many Americans inside the Beltway, are still stuck in a Cold War mentality, and Chavez' anti-American remarks sounded great to them. But the biggest non-monetary reason Chavez scored was that Russians have a soft spot for loud pugnacious guys with a mafia attitude, and Chavez delivered. Chavez acted like a middle-aged millionaire gangster from a Siberian town, swilling vodka in public, listening to loud Russian national music, dropping cash and bear hugging President Putin.
Everything has a price tag, and so does Russia's approval for a permanent Security Council seat for Venezuela. For the Kremlin, this is nothing personal against America, which is supporting Guatemala instead of Venezuela; it's all business. And that is our main message -- it's only business, not some revived Cold War. Today all most Russians care about is money, whether it's President Putin, his administration, business executives or middle class Russians. Given the $3 billion arms deal, I assume that people close to the government are walking away with an enormous kickback, as this is what usually happens in Russia. How can one say "no" to a few hundred million bucks? 24 planes and 53 helicopters, plus a licensed "patent" to produce Kalashnikov adds up to a lot of money. Additionally, LUKOil and Gazprom both have tenders on the table to develop oil and gas resources in Venezuela, just a few hundred miles from the largest petroleum consumer in the world.
It is true that many Russians envy the United States for being the only superpower left standing and beating them in the Cold War; again, there's no real logic behind this emotion. Given the state of the world, there is no way either Russia or America can afford a new Cold War. The Middle East is unstable, oil prices are going up, China is on the rise as a superpower next door to a sparsely populated Russian Far East, and the Americans are trying to drawdown their forces in Iraq.
We live in a busy world, where Russia and America have a common enemy -- jihad terrorism, mostly funded by Mideast oil money - and a lot of potential for mutual cooperation, with Russia providing natural resources and the Americans contributing money and technology.
However, none of these geopolitical issues matter to the common babushka in the street, who has worked her hands to the bone for 50 years and now cannot afford to buy toilet paper. She is simply envious of the luxuries people take for granted in the United States, to the extent that she cares about the world beyond her city or village at all. Hugo Chavez becomes a hero in her eyes and brings back memories of a powerful Soviet Union, when he shouts, "The biggest threat which exists in the world is the empire of the United States. It is a senseless, blind, stupid giant which doesn't understand the world, doesn't understand human rights, and doesn't understand anything about humanity, culture and consciousness." Of course, the only reason Chavez has money to fly around the world proclaiming his defiance of the imperialist Yanquis is because Americans buy his gasoline.
It may make some sense that ministers in the Kremlin, sick of hearing American lectures about democracy, might get some satisfaction out of poking Uncle Sam in the eye, and also the older generation raised on Soviet propaganda. But why should middle-class members of the Russian media and intelligentsia, many who have been harshly critical of Putin, like Chavez? Because Chavez reminds them of another entertaining drunk, of their hero Boris Yeltsin who got completely trashed one night with his friend Bill Clinton and showed up for his press conference the next day barely coherent. Many Russian elites have their own nostalgia, not like the poor people who yearn for the glory days of the Soviet Union, but for their own happy days under the good Czar Boris, when oligarchs ran the country and there was more "freedom" to steal and do whatever you wanted than today. Or as one middle-aged mafia character said to another in Pyotr Buslov's smash hit mafia movie Bumer 2 "It's not like it was when you went to jail, when you could just beat someone up or kill them to get money. It's all business now."
Young Russians love movies like Bumer (pronounced Boo-mer) 1 and 2, and the most popular miniseries ever shown on RTR Television remains Brigada. Even the comments section of Russia Blog's review of Brigada Season 1 suggests a cult following for this show.
When many Russians think of freedom, they don't think of free speech but having enough money to do and say whatever you want, to act out and be low-class and not give a damn what anyone thinks, to pay all the bribes necessary to live the good life. They love oversized slick black suits and flashing cash at overpriced Moscow restaurants. They like straight talk and fast decisions, especially in business. Chavez cleverly exploits this attitude. He also showed the Russian nation, which gives President Putin an 80% approval rating, that he knows who is the "daddy" in the house.
"I would like to thank you, Mister President, because you freed us from a so-called blockade... we visited the [Kalashnikov rifle] museum, and I saw your photo with General Kalashnikov!" Chavez gushed.
At the end of the day, why should Russia feel bad about hosting Venezuela's new "President for Life"? How does Venezuela touch Russians' everyday life? Starting today, Venezuela is bringing money to Russian companies that are trickling it down to the people, through the politicians and large private businesses. Add to that Chavez's best impersonation of Boris Yeltsin, and a good time was had by all -- except by the people Chavez is persecuting back in Venezuela..
UPDATE: RIA Novosti has more details about Gazprom's deal with the Venezuelan government to develop the country's vast natural gas reserves.