June 12, 2008
Moscow's "fire starter" has claimed 35 cars, and nearly $300,000 worth of damage. Moscow police promised a $5,000 award for the information that would lead to capturing the maniac. Moscow citizens started patrolling their neighborhoods during night hours (more photos at the end of this post).
Medvedev's St Petersburg speech. In his speech opening the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum Medvedev said he wants to turn Moscow into a "powerful global financial center"; well, to do so would require a substantial reduction of corruption, criminality and opacity. He spoke of liberalizing the natural gas market and reducing taxes on the oil sector. He also spoke of helping to overcome the global food crisis (but how? more Russian wheat?). He took some shots at the USA's financial policies and mused about how the UN or some other global entity could do a better job. For the rest of the speech he tried to present a picture of Russia as a prosperous (1st Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov the following day said Russia would become the 6th largest economy by the end of the year), important and responsible participant in the world economy.
In his speech to the St. Petersburg Economic Forum, Medvedev blamed the U.S. for creating a world financial crisis, and promised that Russia would help in solving global food supply shortages and economic problems
Hubris of Russian Elites. That's what it sounds like to me. Putin, yesterday: "Our country has asserted itself as a major economic player, it formulates principal items for global agendas. Russia is one of what one calls the chief newsmakers of the modern world." My sarcastic response would be: only as an energy exporter and not very successfully; most of the "newsmaking" has been a steady drumbeat of bad news. But seriously, while the contrast with ten years ago is striking and definitely in Russia's favor, it is not yet a big player on the global stage compared to India and China, and it has not had much luck with its interests (see NATO expansion into the Baltics, for example). Western and other foreign news coverage is still mostly about Russia's use of the "energy weapon", "journalist murders", alleged "aggression" against ex-Soviet republics and the like. I think the current Russian ruling class seriously overestimates the strength of Russia's global position, and that is a problem.
Human rights. Some developments under the new Medvedev regime. On the June 10 Medvedev had a meeting with the Human Rights Commissioner Vladimir Lukin and that day signed two laws affecting the Commissioner's position and the rights of prison inmates. In each case the goal seemed to be to bring the Public Chamber and NGOs into the process. Lukin was quoted as cautiously approving the new laws. We shall see what difference they make. The Public Chamber is potentially an important force for human rights in Russia but it is still finding its feet.
At long last. People who have suffered the Heisenbergian car trip to Sheremetyevo will be happy to know that a high speed rail link between the center of town and the airport opened yesterday (see the Russia Blog post about this story here).
Budget surplus. The federal budget surplus is reported to be about US $50 billion so far this year. What a change from the 1990s, when enormous wage arrears were the main feature of federal finances. Now the problem is one of success: what to do with all the money without firing up inflation? Perhaps it's time to cut taxes: an increase in the threshold for the mineral extraction tax is in the works but individuals can usually spend their own money more wisely than governments can.
French culture. There has been an outbreak of cars being set on fire in Moscow: about 35 so far.
Chechnya. A Russian general has just stated that there are no plans to disband the East and West battalions in Chechnya. Which still leave a lot of questions unanswered. But, because Chechen conscripts are placed in these units, Grozny probably wants to keep them (and they are rather brutally effective).
Russia's Sochi Olympics and Georgia. The decision to award the 2014 Winter Olympic Games to Sochi has many repercussions. Quite apart from the (potentially eye-poppingly corrupt) process of building the millions and millions of dollars worth of facilities there, there are the Abkhazia implications. Sukhumi will want a piece of the action. The Russian companies involved will want to cut their costs by importing what they can from Abkhazia. This is likely the principal incentive to get the railway operating.
An optimist would think that Tbilisi and Sukhumi will now have an opportunity to cooperate but I suspect that Sukhumi, remembering its sack in 1992 (quoting a Western scholar: "The campaign of looting, rape, torture and murder mounted by the Mkhedrioni in the region did much to poison relations between Mingrelia and the rest of Georgia... Georgian forces behaved similarly upon their entry into Abkhazia in the summer of 1992"). will not be interested. And Saakashvili's record here and in South Ossetia does not inspire confidence. It's probably too late. But the exigencies of the enormous construction effort in Sochi will likely make tensions worse. (Link to a rational and informed piece on Abkhazia: there's a lot of baggage in this place and I can't shake the fear that most Western officials haven't a clue).
Abkhazia. Confirming my suspicion that Moscow's principal motive in Abkhazia is fear of another war, Foreign Minister Lavrov said the other day that the Russian peacekeeping force had been increased not for "preparing any intervention" but "to prevent the possible use of force by our Georgian colleagues". However, Medvedev and Saakashvili have had their first contact and maybe they can establish a better personal relationship.
Patrick Armstrong received a PhD from Kings College, University of London, England in 1976 and retired in 2008 after 30 years as an analyst for the Canadian government. He was Political Counsellor for the Canadian Embassy in Moscow from 1993 to 1996. He has been a frequent speaker at the Wilton Park conferences in the UK.