Tuesday, February 27, 2007


In September 2006, Shinzo Abe [to arrange his name in western format: first and last, rather than Japanese: last and first], became the first truly post-World War II, post-Cold War Japanese Premier. Son of a well-known LDP foreign minister in the Nakasone Cabinets of the 1980's, and, the grand-son of the LDP Premier of the late 1950's, Nobusuke Kishii (and wartime minister in the Tojo Cabinets), and grand nephew of post-war Japan's long serving premier, Eisaku Sato. Abe is in every sense of the term, a dynast and princeling of contemporary Japanese politics. He is also by common consent, a politician who in his rise to power, made many noises which seem to align him with the more 'nationalistic', and, more hard edged elements in Japanese politics. Elements which were first given more scope both domestically and internationally in the preceding premiership of Junichiro Koizumi. Much of that prominence was a result of Koizumi's repeated visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, for the 'souls' (in Buddhist parlance) of the Japanese war dead of World War II, including those of a good number of war criminals from that conflict. Visits which enraged public opinion in both South Korea and China, where it was seen as part and parcel of Japan's failure to properly appreciate and express remorse over its wartime crimes. More concrete and substantive elements of Koizumi's more assertive foreign policy, were the sending Japanese troops (admittedly not combat troops) to Iraq, a first for the post-1945 period. In the same vein was the expansion of the scope of operations of Japanese 'self defence' forces, outside of the immediate environs of the country. As well as a much closer position to the USA in the negotiations over North Korea's nuclear programme.

Prior to his assumption of the premiership in September, Abe was widely seen as not only in the mold of Koizumi, but in fact, much more likely to pursue hawkish and hard line policies. According to Lee Jong-won, Professor at Japan's leading Christian University, and a critic of both Koizumi and Abe, the latter was in:

"the farthest right leaning-category of current Japanese politicians....So far Abe's comments place him squarely in the ideological and military right. He spent most of his time calling for [a] constitutional amendment to restore Japan's military capabilities, rather than economic reform. He also calls for educational laws that would emphasize patriotism in schools" (see: "Foreign Policy as 'fight': Abe and the future of East Asian Relations" 15th September 2006 in www.nautilus.org).

With just under six months in the premiership, how has predictions such as those above turned out for Abe? In the hopes of shining some light on this topic, I would like to introduce a short essay by the American scholar at the Washington D. C. 'think tank', the Brookings Institution, Richard C. Bush III. According to Bush, rather than living up to his advanced billing as a hawkish premier in the Koizumi mode, Abe has been able to employ subtle diplomacy and a shared Sino-Japanese wish to avoid the histrionics of the recent past, to pursue key Japanese foreign policy goals. According to Bush, Abe has via 'initiative and finesse' been to progress further along the Koizumi path in foreign affairs, without the pyrotechnics of the latter. While still very much a work in progress, and, with a good many critics especially abroad (see any number of editorials in the Financial Times), Bush sees Abe's premiership as being off to a reasonable start by any means in the realm of foreign policy. Considering the fact that in any strategic balance in the Orient, a strong and western leaning Japan is a vital necessity, there is all the more reason to hope that Abe's premiership, will offer up, a renewed and strengthened Japanese position both at home and abroad. While, it is quite impossible, at this late date to overcome the disaster resulting from the collapse of the Japanese Empire in 1944-1945, any movement which will allow Japan to collaborate more fully with Washington, Formosa, and the ANZUS powers (Australia and New Zealand), to balance off, a proto-Chinese hegemon, in the Far East is to be commended and applauded.


By Richard Bush, III in www.brookings.edu.

Let us imagine that Chinese and Japanese foreign policy specialists were asked in late summer 2006 to predict the chances that the following would happen within six months:

• Prime Minister Abe Shinzo would visit both Beijing and Seoul within two weeks of taking office, without explicitly declaring his intentions concerning Yasukuni Shrine;

• Mr. Abe would meet again with Chinese President Hu Jintao and South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun in January at the East Asian Summit;

• The three countries would collaborate effectively on the North Korean issue;

• Military-to-military relations between Japan and China would resume by the end of 2006;

• The “history issue” would no longer preoccupy bilateral relations;

• A visit by PRC Premier Wen Jiabao would be planned for April 2007 and that China would have extended an invitation for Mr. Abe to visit China later in the year (again without an explicit Yasukuni commitment). Our specialists would probably have given very low odds that all these things would happen. But in fact they have occurred. Clearly, Japan’s foreign relations since the end of the Koizumi era have undergone a striking shift. The explanation for this unexpected development has several elements. First of all, leaders and elites in China and Japan came to realize that the political stalemate of the late Koizumi period (created by the prime minister’s visits to Yasukuni and by China’s reaction) had become counter-productive and might even harm the shared economic interests of the two countries. Second, the two governments recognized that the succession to Koizumi created an opportunity to break out of that stalemate. Third, leaders took the initiative—and some risks—to try for a breakthrough. And fourth, skillful diplomats were able to bring it about. Yet even if Japan’s relations with China and South Korea have improved in the wake of Abe Shinzo’s becoming prime minister, the challenges to his foreign policy have not disappeared. He may have been skillful in using ambiguity to set aside the Yasukuni issue, but he still has ambitious goals. Arguably he approaches those goals more systematically than did his predecessor. He was probably never the simplistic caricature of a rightwing chauvinist that the media made him out to be. But even if he is more pragmatic than people expected, he is still strategic in his approach. He still reflects a generational shift in Japanese politics and all that means in terms of national identity and Japan’s role in the in the world.

Abe’s foreign policy does contain elements of continuity with that of Koizumi and, in some cases, previous prime ministers: strengthening the U.S.-Japan alliance as U.S. forces in Japan are realigned; resolving the Korean security threat through the Six-Party Talks; cooperating in global fight against terrorism; seeking a permanent seat on the UN Security Council; and providing overseas development assistance. But Abe has new initiatives and special points of emphasis: breaking through the constitutional constraints on the right of collective self-defense; centralizing decision-making on national defense and foreign policy in the prime minister’s office; and stressing the abduction issue in diplomacy with Pyongyang. Regarding relations with Beijing and Seoul, his early visits were designed to ease the mistrust with those countries and break the stalemate on summit meetings. The hope is that sufficient cooperative and interactive momentum can be created that will allow a stress on shared interests and management of the differences over history.

So far, initiative and finesse have marked the conduct of Mr. Abe’s foreign policy. Aiding him has been Kim Jong Il’s provocative behavior—the missile test in July and the nuclear test in October—and Beijing’s palpable desire for a reduction of tensions. Yet significant challenges remain. The first is North Korea. Although on balance Pyongyang’s actions have facilitated unity among Tokyo, Washington, and Beijing, there is no guarantee they will provide glue in the future. Indeed, Kim Jong Il’s nearterm strategy will be to isolate the United States and Japan. We should recall, moreover, that before the UN Security Council passed the sanctions resolutions last year, there were fears that China would reject Japan’s tough approach. A similar disagreement could come over what priority to place on the issue of abductions in the Six-Party Talks.

Of course, it is in the interest of regional peace and security that North Korea honors its commitment to dismantle its nuclear weapons and programs in return for security guarantees, economic cooperation, diplomatic normalization with the United States and Japan, and entry into the international community.Yet reaching agreement in the Six-Party Talks will be very difficult. More broadly, North Korea may decide to proceed with its nuclear weapons and missiles program—perfecting its devices, shrinking their size, and mating them to ballistic missiles—as the way to guarantee its security. If North Korea does so, Japan’s sense of insecurity will deepen profoundly. How will it respond? The pressures to debate the nuclear option will certainly grow, with consequences for relations with China and the United States. (China, by the way, understands the danger that a nuclear North Korea will pose and the dilemma it will create for Japan, but it is fairly cautious about taking action itself to compel Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear weapons.)

The second challenge will be maintaining the momentum of improved relations with China. To be sure, Japan and the PRC share common interests, particularly in the economic field. But each country has anxieties about the future security role of the other in East Asia. China worries about Japan’s relaxing the limits on the Self-Defense Forces. Japan worries about China’s non-transparent military build-up.The danger is that some time in the future these anxieties will form into a downward spiral of permanent hostility. Even though both sides have the best of intentions, each will have to demonstrate great skill to prevent a downward spiral. And we should keep in mind that the recent diplomacy has only set aside disagreements over history, not solved them. Whether they remain set aside (and so permit a continuation of positive momentum) is in part a function of the domestic political environment in each country. In this regard, this summer’s Upper House elections in Japan and this fall’s 17th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party will be occasions when domestic politics can come to the fore.

The third challenge could be the United States. This may seem like an odd statement, given that the closer integration of the U.S.-Japan alliance has been one of the success stories of the last six years. Looking forward, however, there are potential challenges to keep in mind. The first is managing the gap between American expectations and Japanese realities. This applies to issues like the implementation of measures pursuant to the realignment of U.S. forces in Japan, especially Futenma, and to the pace at which the Abe Administration might relax the existing limits on collective self-defense. The bigger challenge will come if Washington and Tokyo experience a strategic divergence. Again, the prospects seem slim on the surface but not so small on further consideration. First of all, there is the big unknown of what kind of international role the United States will undertake after its involvement in Iraq is resolved, as it will be. The American foreign-policy elite will assume (or hope) that the United States will continue to play an active global role. Whether the American public is willing to do so— and commit the required resources—remains an open question. There was a similar pull-back after the Vietnam, but it was easier for Washington to return to global activism in the late Cold War era than it might be in the current era.Time will tell. Clearly, a passive United States would change the dynamics in the Northeast Asian region.

Then there is the question of North Korea. Japan has been comfortable in the Six-Party Talks with Washington’s relatively tough stance and the close diplomatic coordination. Both have spared Tokyo the prospect of diplomatic isolation. But it is no secret that, from the beginning, the Bush Administration’s negotiating approach has been controversial among American Asia and arms control specialists, many of whom believe that a maximalist posture has had the perverse effect of facilitating North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, rather than restraining them. What if Washington were to adopt an approach that was even more flexible than the one that it pursued during the summer of 2005 and appears to be pursuing now? Where would that leave Tokyo?

Finally, there is the issue of strategy towards China. Both the United States and Japan have essentially adopted a hedging strategy concerning China. We each recognize the value of cooperation with Beijing in the economic arena and on foreign policy issues like North Korea. Yet we also watch warily as China builds up its military power and expands its diplomatic influence and wonder whether this is the prelude to a challenge to the U.S. and Japanese position in East Asia. Because the future is uncertain, our governments have chosen to hedge against the downside risk and prepare against the possibility of competition. (Note that China has the same uncertainty about the United States and Japan. It sees the value of cooperation but fears containment. So it also hedges.)

It is likely that the United States will continue a hedging policy, balancing the twin emphases of cooperation and preparation. Maintaining that balance within the U.S. government while coordinating with Japan and reassuring China is no easy task. But we should not rule out the possibility that the United States might decide some time in the future that the danger of a China challenge was actually low and so did not require a hedging strategy (which,after all, does require significant military expenditures for forces in the Pacific). What if the United States essentially decided to accommodate to China instead of hedging? Where would that leave Japan? It would likely leave Japan with a greater sense of insecurity. If one adds to the picture a more moderate American approach to North Korea or, even worse, a clear North Korean decision to base its security on keeping and perfecting its nuclear weapons, then Japan’s insecurity only grows. At that point, the value and credibility of the U.S. security commitment to Japan becomes a key issue.

Two matters do not seem to be such significant challenges. The first is the Taiwan Strait. The election campaign to succeed Chen Shui-bian has effectively begun, and who will take his place is far from clear. What does seem clear is that chances of a political initiative occurring on Taiwan that would challenge China’s fundamental interests are declining. China has feared a constitutional change that would change Taiwan’s legal identity (the functional equivalent of a declaration of independence), and so impel it to respond forcefully. That in turn would require the United States to decide how to respond, and the U.S. decision could have implications for Japan. Yet the internal and external obstacles to such a development have remained in place and are liable to do so in the future.

The second is East Asian regionalism. How quickly, how deeply, and how robustly to pursue East Asian regionalism will present challenges, but they are ones that stem from the reality of the situation. Concerns of a few years ago that regional integration could divide the United States and Japan today seem unfounded.In conclusion, Prime Minister Abe’s initial performance in the foreign policy arena has been quite positive. It has repaired the tattered relationship with Beijing, which was not in America’s interest, and created positive momentum. Abe’s summit with Hu Jintao, along with the one with Roh Moohyun,helped facilitate the diplomatic responses to North Korea’s nuclear test,both at the United Nations and at the Six-Party Talks. That sort of cooperation is a good model for great-power cooperation which, if it could be broadened,would provide a firm context for managing the inevitable problems in China-Japan relations. Yet there is no reason to be complacent. Ensuring that positive momentum will continue in the face of uncertainty, miscalculation, domestic politics, and a possible sense of insecurity will not be easy. 

Richard Bush is Senior Fellow of The Brookings Institution and Director of its
Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies.

Sunday, February 25, 2007


"Following the outrage of 11 September, we pursue those responsible for it in Afghanistan. It is clear the Taliban are unraveling. But they are not beaten yet or Al Qaida yet hunted down. We must continue until they are. We must use the territory gained in and around Maza-e-Sharif to get supplies and food to refugees and the starving inside Afghanistan. Let us show we are as committed to alleviating human suffering as the Taliban are to creating it....After the conflict, we must make good our promise to help bring in a broad-based Afghan government, representative of all peoples, including the Pushtoon (sic) and enable the reconstruction of that sorry land to take place". Tony Blair, "Speech by the Prime Minister at the Lord Mayor's Banquet", 12 November 2001 in www.number10.gov.uk.

"A huge amount has been achieved. The case against Bin Laden and the Al Qaida network was carefully and patiently put together. Their guilt established, and ultimatum was issued to the Taliban. Once it was ignored, the US-led coalition put together a targeted bombing campaign, first destroying the terrorist training camps, then the Taliban's military infrastructure, then hitting their front lines before, more swiftly than we had dared imagine, the Taliban fell. The joy with which their fall was greeted nailed the lie that ours is a war against Islam. It showed, on the contrary, that the long-suffering people of Afghanistan also wanted rid (sic) of the Taliban and the terrorists they harboured for so long. The formation of and the transition to, an interm government has been swift and extraordinarily smooth given the complex and volatile reality of Afghan politics". Tony Blair, "PM's New Year's Message", 30th of December 2001 in www.number10.gov.uk.

"For year Afghanistanwas ruled by the Taliban. For years it nurtured the Al Qaida terrorist network. For years it lived off terror and the drugs trade, a failed state purveying religious and political extremism, with its people ground under by the heel of the fanatic. What erupted on the streets of New York on September 11 was not an attack on America alone. It was an attack on us all....Fortunately, in this case, the world stood firm. America took the lead, but it led a coalition of extraordinarily wide international proportions. Countries queued up to help. We acted with care, under the clear and courageous leadership of President Bush. The Taliban are gone as a government. Al Qaida's network has been destroyed in Afghanistan, though without doubt a residual capability remains, and we should still be immensely vigilant. The Afghan people feel liberated not oppressed". Tony Blair, Speech given on 7 April 2002 in www.number10.gov.uk.

In the Bush and Blair years, one of the leitmotif's of the daring duo's modus operandi, has been, that while the former, makes all of the major decisions, usually after pro forma (if even that) consultation with his British ally (and indeed sometimes after pro forma consultation with his own Department of State...), upon the latter has devolved the duty of rallying support for whatever decision Bush the Younger has decided upon. In that respect, and perhaps that respect only, Blair has indeed been an equal 'partner' of his American counterpart. While Bush goes off, and, decides upon Allied policy, Blair, our modern-day, pocket-size Gladstone, makes speeches full of soaring rhetoric, and great idealistic content to sell the same to the International Community, speeches which however, bears little or no relationship with the policies that his American 'partner' is in actuality carrying out. Afghanistan, we have a perfect example of this in play from the fall of 2001 to the present. With the downfall of the Taliban, after a short and sharp military campaign, many were the shouts of 'hurrah', at the seemingly victorious campaign. And, many were the promises of humanitarian and economic assistance to the war ravaged country. Blair's being merely the formost among many. We were promised and told again and again, that the United States and its allies would never allow a repeat of the situation which took place with the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan 1989-1990: when the USA, washed its hands of the entire country, and in essence left it to the tender mercy of Pakistan's powerful, imperium et imperium, the Inter-Service Intelligence (hereafter ISI). The Taliban regime being of course the brainchild of the ISI.

In fact of course contrary to Blair (and Bush's for that matter) then made contentions that the Taliban were merely a remnant, to be watched out for, the contrary was in fact the case. Beginning in the spring of 2003, Taliban fighters commenced small scale infiltration back into Afghanistan from bases in neighboring Pakistan, where many of the tribes, in the North-West Frontier Province, sympathetic to their fellow Pashtun's, assisted the Taliban exiles. Assistance which was both aided and abedded by the still powerful and autonomous ISI. (see: "Taliban fighters infiltrating back into Afghanistan from Pakistan", by Owais Tohid, 5 May 2003 in www.eurasianet.org). With the massive shift in American money, fighting men and resources from Afghanistan to the coming war against Iraq, beginning in the late Winter of 2001-2002, it could be argued that it was merely a matter of time, when the Taliban would re-commence the struggle against the pro-western Karzai government in Kabul. Beginning in the Spring of 2004, and, being repeated each and every year since, Afghanistan has seen increasingly powerful military offensives by the Taliban, in the south west of the country bordering Pakistan. Notwithstanding which, until the spring and summer of 2006, it was possible, just possible to ignore the Taliban threat, and, its de facto backing by the ISI. However with the strength of the summer offensives, in which in particular British and Canadian troops, less than full prepared for it, were pounded by human wave, Taliban attacks, no one can any longer claim that Afghanistan faces merely a 'residual' element of the latter. The Taliban's growing influence being aided by the twin failures of the Kabul government: to truly establish its own legitimacy, notwithstanding nominally 'free and fair' elections, and, the massive growth of narcotics in the countryside as the only means of livelihood, for much of the population.

According to the foremost American academic expert on Afghanistan, Barnett Rubin, the situation in the country is almost bleak:

"In the past year, a number of events have raised the stakes in Afghanistan and highlighted the threat to the international effort there....Although it suffered a setback in the south, the Pakistan-based, Taliban-led insurgency has become ever more daring and deadly in the southern and eastern parts of the country, while extending its presence all the way to the outskirts of Kabul....Even as NATO has deployed its forces across the country---particularly in the province of Helmand, a Taliban stronghold that produces some 40 percent of the world's opium---the Taliban have shown increasing power and agility" (see: Barnett R. Rubin in "Saving Afghanistan", Foreign Affairs, January/February 2007 p. 59-60.

As per Central Asian expert Ahmed Rashid, notwithstanding the 35,000 plus NATO and American troops in the country, the Taliban's spring offensive could be the worst yet:

"The Taliban last year fought positional warfare, trying to hold ground and hold territory, in three provinces: Uruzgan, Helmand, and Kandahar....The danger this year is that they may try and launch heavy guerrilla attacks---with perhaps 200 men at a time---not just in three provinces but perhaps in six or seven provinces. Even in Western Afghanistan. If they do that NATO is going to be very stretched. That restricts NATO's ability to counter a widespread Taliban offensive" (see: www.eurasianet.org)

Indeed, according to the latest reports, already the Taliban has seized some frontier posts and territory from the fledgling Afghanistan army. With an estimated 6000 fighters, who increasingly, borrowing from the Iraqi insurgent copy book, use suicide attacks, the Taliban do indeed seem to be able to stretch thin the relatively sparse NATO forces. So of whom, are not allowed by their home governments to be deployed in districts where fighting is likely to take place. A matter of some contention with those governments (USA, UK, and Canadian especially), who are most engaged in the fighting.

What is the prognosis than for patient Afghanistan? According to Barnett, the Americans and their NATO allies must do some of the following: one, increase the size and robustness of their forces in the country; two, increase economic assistance, so that the rural population can be carefully weened off, the narcotics trade as their only means of livelihood; three, scale-back forceful measures in a futile attempt to destroy the poppy crop. Using force in an attempt to stop poppy cultivation has shown little good and much harm both in Afghanistan and elsewhere; three, and, perhaps most important, Washington must, repeat must lean, both diplomatically and indeed even militarily (in terms of armed incursions over the border) on Pakistan, to rein in the ISI, and, stop the aiding of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, in its territory. As Rubin commments:

"The strength and the persistance of the insurgency cannot be explained solely by the sanctuary the Taliban enjoy in Pakistan. But few insurgencies with safe havens abroad have ever been defeated. The argument that poverty and underdevelopment, rather than Pakistani support, are responsible for the insurgency does not stand up to scrutiny: northern and western Afghanistan are also plagued by crime and insecurity, and yet there is no coordinated antigovernment violence in those regions". See: Rubin, op. cit. p. 71.

Will the Americans, et. al., take the measures urged by Rubin and other area experts, before it is too late? Or is it the case, that having switched too quickly from Afghanistan to the upcoming war in Iraq, the USA, squandered its only opportunity to make a true success of Afghanistan? Only time will tell.

Friday, February 23, 2007


There has emerged in the last nine months or so, an emerging, if not necessarily at this stage a dominant point of view, among Anglo-American commentators, that with the American debacle in Iraq, and, the Israeli defeat in the Lebanon over the summer, Persia is the emerging Near Eastern hegemon. According to the American analyst, Ray Takeyh, with its ties to its Shiite confreres around the region, but,principally in the Lebanon, Iraq of course, and, to a lesser extent in some of theGulf States, Persia will in the future be 'uncontainable' by any American attempt to construct an American-led, Sunni cordon sanitaire (for his thinking see: "Why American must throw its lot in with the Shia", co-authored with Nikolas Gvosdev",in www.ft.com). Similarly, the ultra-prestigious, Royal Institute of International Affairs, in the summer of 2006, made a major policy statement in which they proclaimed that:

"There is little doubt that Iran [Persia] has been the chief beneficiary of the war on terror in the Middle East....Consequently, Iran [Persia] has moved to fill the regional void with an apparent ease that has disturbed both regional players and the United States and its European allies. Iran is one of the most significant and powerful states in the region and its influence spreads well beyond its critical location at the nexus of the Middle East, Turkey, the Central Asia and South Asia"
(see: "Iran,its Neighours and the Regional Crises
", in www.chathamhous.org.uk).

I myself have always, as any reader of this journal must have noticed, been highly skeptical of this point of view. Which of course is not to gainsay the fact that in the nuclear weapons negotiations with Persia, the USA, and its allies in the contact group, should in fact, attempt to reach some acceptable type of modus vivendi with Persia, and, not attempt to impose a diktat using sanctions and the threat of the more and greater ones by the UN Security Council. However, unlike Messieurs Takeyh & Gvosdev, et. al., I do not view Persia and its religious confreres as being an unstoppable force in the region. Persia is in purely structural terms, a highly unstable country, with minorities constituting up to forty percent of its population, and, having a weak and unbalanced economy. The best argument for the contrary point of view however, has just been offered up by Mr. Anthony Cordesman, the noted Near Eastern military specialist. In his new report, Cordesman argues that Persia is not the coming regional hegemon, but, a containable state, provided that the USA and its regional Sunni Allies employ the right mix of policies in the future. It is with the hope of bringing some great intelligence and insight into an important issue that I offer up parts of Cordesman's valuable report to the readers of this journal. So please by all means read and enjoy:

"Iran: 'Weakling' or 'Hegemon'?" By Anthony Cordesman

"Iran is a state that must be assessed largely in terms of its capabilities, not its intentions. Its political structure is too unstable to predict, and its choice of defensive or offensive options is more likely to be determined by its perceptions of future opportunities and risks than its current policies and strategy. Seen from this perspective, Iran is not a “weakling,” but neither is it capable of major aggression or becoming a regional “hegemon” if it meets effective resistance from its neighbors and the US.

Viewed from the perspective of its capabilities, rather than its intentions, Iran presents five major kinds of current and potential threats:

• The first is as a conventional military power. Iran has limited capabilities today but could become a much more threatening power if it modernized key elements of its forces and its neighbors did not react.

• The second is as an asymmetric threat that can seek to intimidate or attack using unconventional forces. Iran has established a large mix of unconventional forces that can challenge its neighbors in a wide variety of asymmetric wars, including low-level war of attrition.

• The third is to some extent an extension of the second. Iran’s asymmetric and unconventional capabilities give it the ability to use proxies and partners in the form of both state and non-state actors. Iran’s support of Shi’ite militias in Iraq, ties to elements in the Iraqi government, partnership with Syria, and ties to the Hezbollah in Lebanon are all practical examples of such activities.

• The fourth is a potential nuclear power armed with long-range missiles. Iran is a declared chemical weapons power. Its biological weapons efforts are unknown but it seems unlikely that it remained passive in reaction to Iraq’s efforts. It has openly made the acquisition of long-range missile a major objective, and its nuclear research and production programs almost certainly are intended to produce nuclear weapons.

• Finally, Iran presents a potential religious and ideological threat in a region and Islamic world polarized along sectarian lines. For all of the talk about a clash between civilizations, the potential clash within Islam seems far more dangerous.The risk that Sunni and Shi’ite extremists can provoke a broader split between sects and nations could push Iran into a more aggressive religious and ideological struggle.

These are potential threats, not predictions of Iranian actions. They all can be contained with the right choice of policies and military actions. Barring major shifts in its regime, Iran not only is deterrable, but a nation that will probably respond to the proper security incentives over time. The real question may well be whether Iran’s neighbors and the US provide the right mix of deterrence and incentives, and not Iran’s current and potential strength. Given Iran and the region’s recent history, however, there are several steps that Iran’s Arab neighbors need to take to structure the best the mix of deterrence and incentives for Iran and do so in the context of a broader effort to bring regional security:

• Rely on actions not words. If the Arab world has not yet succeeded in talking itself to death, it is not for the want of trying. The Gulf states far too often call for the right actions without really taking them. In contrast, Iran’s rhetoric, particularly that of its president, has been extreme and threatening in ways than often seem far more a matter of posturing than a reflection of Iran’s true intentions. The US has overstated the Iranian threat, and referred to a non-existent “axis of evil,” without developing real world plans for collective action. Presidential and Congressional rhetorical excess and empty gestures have provoked Iran without changing or containing it in ways that have become a self-inflicted wound. Israel has done almost as good a job in provoking Iran while exaggerating its importance in the Arab and Islamic world. Demonstrating a serious mix of deterrent capabilities, tied to a clear pattern of actions that do not threaten Iran or its regime if it is not aggressively opportunistic, is far better than provocative rhetoric or empty promises on any side.

• Abandon efforts at active Iranian regime change without abandoning efforts to influence evolutionary change: The Gulf and Islamic world do not need another example of the dangers of attempting regime change from the outside, and empowering incapable exile groups. Iran’s political and economic structure badly need modernization, liberalization, and reform for the good of the Iranian people, but this should be encouraged peacefully and by quietly supporting internal Iranian reformers.

• Create truly effective deterrent forces with a strong, integrated, and truly interoperable local component: It may well be a decade or more before the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (GCC) can provide a strong mix of regional security and deterrent capabilities on its own. There is, however, a serious danger in simply going on with separate Gulf national efforts, many of which have limited real-world mission capability and deterrent value. There is no reason for the GCC state not to rely on the US, but the more they do for themselves, the less direct and provocative that reliance will be.

• Resolve strategically unimportant disputes and seek clearly defined mutual agreements. Many of the current tensions between Iran and its neighbors are over border, riverine, island, and dividing line issues that either have no strategic importance or where both sides would benefit from arbitration, mediation, or turning the issue over to the World Court. As Bahrain and Qatar have shown, persistent efforts to resolve issues on this basis may take years to initiate and complete, but can ultimately be successful.

• Support negotiating efforts to have Iraq comply with the IAEA and UN, and peaceful solutions to the nuclear issue. However, make it unambiguously clear to Iran that seeking nuclear armed missile forces will trigger a major defensive reaction, and the risk of retaliation and/or preemption far more dangerous than the exercise is worth. It may be years before Iran can develop a serious nuclear threat to its neighbors or one that could trigger a regional conflict, but it should be made clear to Iran now that the most dangerous military action it can take will steadily endanger its security, if not its existence.

• Understand that the failure to deal with regional disputes and equity for Shi’ites in the Arab world empowers Iran. Iran is only as strong in its ability to manipulate most state and non-state actors are partners and proxies as the Arab world is weak or indifferent in resolving its own internal disputes. One key to success is a collective effort to aid Bahrain’s “post-oil” economy and its Shi’ites, another is social and economic equity for Saudi Arabia’s Shi’ites and broad-based aid to the development of Lebanon.

• Do not give up on Iraq: The most important single key to offering Iran security in return for a halt to any adventurism and opportunism will be creating a stable, independent Iraq. It is doubtful that outside powers can produce Iraqi conciliation but they may well be able to offer aid and incentives that will limited forced migration, help bridge over ethnic and sectarian differences, and keep a Shi’ite dominated Iraq from tilting towards Iran. There will be a competition for influence, and if Arab Sunni states take the side of Iraqi Sunnis, they will play into Iranian hands.

• Persist in the Arab League Effort to Reach a Full Arab Israeli peace and implement King Abdullah’s Peace Plan. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Israeli Lebanese/Syrian conflicts are additional keys to Iran’s ability to create regional problems. This is only one reason to persist in current Arab peace efforts in spite of the frustrations in dealing with Israel, the United States, and the Palestinians. The cause is simply too important to abandon.

• Talk to Turkey, Syria, and Pakistan; seek Influence in Afghanistan and Turkmenistan; Do not ignore Russia. This is a regional game in terms of influence, not a Gulf game. It needs to be played as such. The Gulf states need to talk to Iran’s neighbors outside the Gulf, as well as Iraq’s, in an effort to create a broader mix of containment and incentives.

• Redefine GCC relations with the US to create a true Gulf security partnership: The US needs to pay far more attention to its regional friends and allies in shaping its polices towards Iran and its overall security posture in the Gulf, particularly in light of the uncertainties surrounding Iraq and the need for consensus in dealing with Iraq. Gulf states, however, need to both take more responsibility and stop acting in a fragmented and sometimes divisive way. Iran is only one of the catalysts that should make the US and GCC states seriously think out the need to develop a coordinated approach to seeking Gulf security, and one based on pragmatism and military realities.

• Accept the seriousness of the danger posed by both Shi’ite and Sunni religious extremists. The moderate Arab states, and religious and intellectual leaders of the Arab world, need to work together to meet the challenge posed by extremists in both sects. A clash between civilizations has always been more of a myth than a reality, but allowing Islam to become the scene of a steadily accelerating struggle between Sunni and Shi’ite, dragging in both state and non-state actors, poses a threat than goes far beyond Iran, the Gulf and the risk of some “Shi’ite crescent.”

There is always a debate among national security experts as to the extent a country should be judged by its intentions or by its capabilities. Both intentions and capabilities are always uncertain, even in the short term. They become progressively more uncertain with time. Domestic politics change perceptions and strategy, reality intervenes with plans, and external factors reshape both intentions and capabilities over time. States may or may not behave as they say, they plan, or as rational actors. In practice, crises sometimes lead to radical changes in intentions that can escalate or mutate as a given crisis develops. Iran is no different in this respect from any other state. It is, however, politically more volatile than many of its neighbors, and more driven by ideology and religion. The tension between President Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Khamenei is only one example of how difficult it is to be sure of Iran’s current intentions, much less its future ones. Its security structure is still divided between its regular forces, the Revolutionary Guards, and its intelligence services. Its economy is weak and chronically mismanaged, and population pressure continues to be a problem in spite of a diminished birth rate.

It is unclear just how divided the various factions in its national security community really are. There are some claims that the Iranian National Security Council, or some structure within the Iranian government, exercises relative tight control over Iran’s strategy, plans, and actions. At the same time, others claim that Iran now has an adventurist President and more cautious supreme leader that the Revolutionary Guards sometimes act upon their own, and that groups like the al Quds force take covert action or use proxies without full consultation or agreement within the central government. There are indicators to support all of these positions and there is firm evidence to support none. Iran’s intentions are further complicated by its dependence on imports for advanced hightechnology weapons, its uncertain ability to fund major arms purchases, its difficulties in obtaining parts and upgrades for its existing systems, and its uncertain ability to execute its plans to develop its own military industrial base. Anyone can draft ambitious plans and goals, and Iran often does. Its ability to execute them, however, has proven consistently limited and many of its claims as to weapons buys, weapons development and production. Moreover, the claimed size and nature of its military exercises and other military activities are often more matters of propaganda that a measure of either its intentions or capabilities.

As for the uncertainties caused by Iran’s domestic politics, calling any state a “semipluralistic, semi-populist, oligarchic theocracy” should be enough to explain both today’s internal divisions and the future uncertainties surrounding Iran’s regime and intentions. Iran will probably never again change its leadership because of outside efforts at regime change, but its political structure is simply too contradictory, divided, and inherently unstable for some form of internal regime change not to be inevitable. That change may well be evolutionary rather than radical, but it will occur.

Neither 'Weakling' nor 'Hegemon'

Many aspects of Iran’s current and future capabilities, however, are as uncertain as its current and future intentions. On the one hand, Iran is surrounded by strong external powers, many of whose intentions are equally unpredictable. These include a strong US military presence in the Gulf, a nuclear-armed Pakistan, Turkey with some of the most capable military forces in the region, an Iraq in the middle of a civil war, southern Gulf states that are individually weak but could become collectively strong, Russia, unstable central Asian powers, peripheral Sunni powers like Egypt, Jordan, and Syria; and peripheral threats like Israel.

Seen from this perspective, Iran has at least as much reason to think defensively as it does offensively. It may have offensive opportunities for regional political reasons and choose to exploit them if they occur. At the same time, it is “weak” as an offensive military power compared to most of its neighbors and any combination of the US and the Southern Gulf states. Iran certainly has the strength to play a spoiler role, but very limited capacity to finish any offensive major conflict that it starts on favorable terms. As for becoming a regional “hegemon,” this can only happen if Iraq’s neighbors so weaken themselves as to become a virtual power vacuum. Iraq is the only state that currently has such potential weakness, it is far from clear that Iran could dominate even a Shi’ite controlled Iraq. Being Arab may well be more important than being Shi’ite. More important, few elites share power gracefully and for long. It seems useful in this context to point out what the definition of hegemon really is. The word “hegemon” is the Greek word for “leader,” and the dictionary definition of hegemony is the ability to exert, “preponderant influence or authority over others.” Iran may sometimes be able to do this, but only if another nation chooses to find this to be to its advantage or is temporarily too weak or too badly led to resist. It lacks the current force to do more and can only shift the balance in its favor if other states fail to react. Using the other party for self-advantage, and competing with the other party to see who can do the best job of using whom, is not “hegemony.” It is “opportunism,” and the difference between offensive and defensive opportunism is as unreal as the difference between offensive and defensive bullets. While no one can predict Iran’s intentions, it is probably as pointless to demonize it as it is to sanctify it. Iran does what it must when it must, and seeks to get away with what it can when it can. Iran’s leaders may be an awkward cross between the characters in a play by Samuel Beckett and one by Pirandello, but they all probably broadly understand the limits of Iran’s position in spite of their theocratic character, as do most or all of Iran’s neighbors. If there are gaps in this aspect of regional realpolitik, they probably occur only in Israel and the United States.

At the same time, Iran’s limited offensive capabilities do not make it any kind of military weakling. Saddam Hussein’s horrible miscalculations about Iran’s weakness and internal divisions at the start of the Iran-Iraq War should be a warning as to what can happen if Iran is invaded or forced into anything approaching total war. Its strengths in overt conflict are more defensive than offensive, but Iran has already shown its has great capability to resist outside pressure and any form of invasion and done so under far more adverse and divisive conditions than exist in Iran today. Moreover, the US-led invasion of Iraq is a warning that even when outside efforts to depose a regime are successful, they can trigger forces that become virtually uncontrollable unless an immediate successor regime can command both popular support and the ability to govern. In practice, the law of unintended consequences should be as much a deterrent as Iran’s military strength.

Accordingly, when it comes to analyzing Iranian capabilities, is seems most functional to focus on Iran’s current and future opportunities for opportunism, and not whether Iran is part of an “axis of evil” or simply acting in its own defense. Here too, however, there is a need for caution and perspective. US, Israeli, and some Arab rhetoric have often exaggerated such capabilities as much as it has exaggerated Iran’s hostile intentions and ambitions. At the same time, some of Iran’s defenders have described a benign multicultural martyr to external misunderstanding in ways that border on the theater of the absurd....

Iran As a Conventional Military Power

Iran has limited capabilities today but could become a much more threatening power if it modernized key elements of its forces and its neighbors did not react. Iranian training and doctrine has slowly improved over time, although Iran has little practical experience with advanced command and control, targeting, IS&R, and electronic warfare capability; and its efforts to improve its capability in joint operations and sustainability have had only limited success.

It does have a large, if divided force structure. It currently has some 545,000 actives and 350,000 army reserves, not counting Basij. Its army has an active strength of around 350,000 men, although 220,000 are low-grade conscripts and its corps of technicians and non-commissioned officers is poorly trained and given limited initiative....

Iran’s Conventional Weaknesses and Strengths

This force mix scarcely makes Iran any kind of regional military “hegemon,” and the region would have years of warning before Iranian forces could acquire and absorb major numbers of new weapons. It can certainly improve its defensive capabilities and the attrition it can impose on an attacker, but it would virtually require the US to abandon the Gulf for Iran to be able to win a regional arms race that would give it the air and naval capabilities to gain serious offensive capabilities in conventional war, and even then, a cohesive response by the GCC would seriously challenge any capability that Iran could develop.

Geography is also a critical factor. Iran would virtually have to be invited in to cross the Gulf with significant forces. It has little or no foreseeable incentive to strike at most of its other neighbors, and many of the border areas it might advance into present other geographic problems as well as offer little or no strategic advantage. Iran certainly has the ability to wage war, but it does not have the capability to win most wars in ways that give it any advantage.The two exceptions that must be kept clearly in mind are the defense of its own territory and Iraq. Iran is a highly populated country of over 65 million people with centrally located cities, and its forces are strong enough to make it anything but a defensive “weakling.” As the Iran-Iraq War and Gulf Wars show, much depends on popular support, but any invasion of Iran that produced a strong nationalist response, rather than a broad-based uprising against the regime, would almost certainly turn into a bloody and pointless war of attrition.

This would be the kind of war where even major tactical victories against Iran did not offer lasting strategic advantage and would tie the attacker down in exposed positions. As will be discussed shortly, the defeat or large-scale destruction of Iran’s conventional forces also would not deprive it of the ability to retaliate using unconventional forces, proxies, or partners. It also might drive Iran to respond over time with far larger efforts to acquire nuclear weapons.

Iran and Iraq

It is also important to point out that Iran does have the ability to rapidly deploy a large mix of conventional and unconventional forces into Iraq. Iraq’s current military forces are divided and extremely weak and Shi’ite and Kurdish dominated. If Iran was invited in following a US and British withdrawal by a Shi’ite dominated government, and had popular support from most of Iraq’s Shi’ite Arabs, it could quickly dominate most areas with a Shi’ite majority, defeat insurgent or Sunni resistance in most areas outside Anbar and Mosul, and defeat Kurdish forces in any clash over Kirkuk.

Iraq is largely a power vacuum. If Iran and Iraq cooperated to secure a Shi’ite dominated “federation,” Iran could play a major offensive role with only limited warning and preparation. Much would depend on Iraqi government and Iraq Arab Shi’ite support in such a scenario, however, and on the willingness of the US to permit the movement of Iranian conventional forces.

It should also be noted, however, that no Sunni Arab state is now organized to project large ground force contingents into most of the populated areas of Iraq, although Jordan and Syria could project significant ground forces into the West. Turkey could project a corps-sized force into Northern Iraq (and did so at the time of Saddam Hussein), but its fears of the Kurds are unlikely to make it intervene on the part of the Arabs even if invited....

The Threat in the Gulf

Iran has built up a large mix of unconventional forces in the Gulf that can challenge its neighbors in a wide variety of asymmetric wars, including low-level wars of attrition. These include a wide range of elements in the regular forces and IRGC as well as some elements in the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS), or Vezarat-e Ettela’ at va Aminat-e Keshvar (VEVAK), which was installed following the revolution to replace the now-disbanded National Organization for Intelligence and Security (SAVAK). In 2006, the MOIS employed about 15,000 civilian staff. Its major tasks included intelligence collection and operations in the Middle East and Central Asia as well as domestic intelligence and monitoring of clerical and government officials, as well as work on preventing conspiracies against the Islamic Republic.

Its air forces remain vulnerable in any form of mission, but are less vulnerable near Iranian bases, sensor coverage, and SAM coverage. Its naval forces include its three Kiloclass submarines, which can harass or seek to interdict ships moving in an out of the Gulf, a wide range of mines and vessels that can be used as mine layers or to release free floating mines. They also include roughly 140 light patrol and coastal combatants, including 11 French-designed Kaman-class missile patrol boats with 2-4 CSS-N-4/YJ-1/“Sardine” anti-ship missiles each. These are sea skimming, solid fueled missiles with a 42 to 50-kilometer range, 165 kilogram warheads, INS and active radar similar to the Exocet, and can be used to harass civil shipping and tankers, and offshore facilities, as well as attack naval vessels. Iran may well have far more advanced Russian and Chinese supplied missiles as well and claims to be developing advanced anti-ship and anti-fixed target missiles of its own.Iran made claims in the spring of 2006 that it was testing more advanced weapons for such forces. These included a sonar-evading anti-ship missile that can be fired from
submarines as well as surface combatants that IRGC Rear Admiral Ali Fadavi claimed no enemy warship could detect, and “no warship could escape because of its high velocity.”

Iran also claimed to be testing a new missile called the Kowsar with a very large warhead and extremely high speed to attack “big ships and submarines” that it claimed could evade radar and antimissile missiles. While such tests may have been real, Iran has made so many grossly exaggerated claims about its weapons developments in the past, that it seems they were designed more to try to deter US military action and/or reassure the Iranian public than truly being serious real world capabilities. It followed these actions up in the late summer of 2006 by testing new submarine launched anti-ship missiles.

It has a 20,000 man naval branch in the IRGC that includes some 5,000 marines. This branch of the IRGC has 10 Houdong missile patrol boasts with CSS-N-8/C-802/YJ-2 missiles with 165-kilogram warheads, active and inertial guidance, and maximum ranges of 120 kilometers. It operates mobile land-based CSS-C-3/HY-2/Sea Eagle/Seersucker anti-ship missiles that can be rapidly emplaced on the Iranian coast or islands in the Gulf shipping channel. These systems have ranges of 95-100 kilometers, very large warheads, and autocontrol and radar homing guidance. They can be targeted by a remote air link, and the exact level of upgrading of these missiles since their initial delivery during the Iran-Iraq War is unknown.

The IRGC has large numbers of Boghammar and other patrol boats are with recoilless rifles, rocket launchers, manportable surface-to-air missiles, and anti-armor guided weapons. The IRGC routinely uses small civilian ships and vessels in unconventional operations in various exercises, including mine laying and raids on offshore facilities. This force has facilities at Bandar-e-Abbas, Khorramshar, and on the islands of Larak, Abu Musa, Al Farsiyah, Sirrir and the Halul oil platform. It can make use of additional facilities at Iran’s main naval bases at Bander e-abbas, Bushehr, Kharg Island, Bandar e-Anzelli, Bandar e-Khomeini, Bandar e-Mahshahr, and Chah Bahar. These forces can rapidly disperse, and shelter in caves and hardened sites. Small ships can be very hard to detect with most radars even in a normal sea state, and civilian ships can easily change flags and meld in with commercial traffic.

“Closing the Gulf?”

These light naval forces have special importance because of their potential ability to threaten oil and shipping traffic in the Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, raid key offshore facilities, and conduct raids on targets on the Gulf coast. Many Gulf energy facilities are extremely vulnerable, and the GCC states are extremely vulnerable to any form of attack on their desalination and coastal power facilities, and precision strikes on critical highcapacity, long-lead time replacement items in energy facilities and power grids. This vulnerability might also allow Iran to carry out very successful air attacks in a surprise raid with precision weapons, using IRGC “suicide” aircraft, and future UAVs and precision cruise missiles. It is also possible that Iran could conduct coastal raids with IRGC and/or Special Forces that went deeper into Southern Gulf territory.

Iran could not “close the Gulf” for more than a few days to two weeks even if it was willing to sacrifice all of these assets, suffer massive retaliation, and potentially lose many of its own oil facilities and export revenues. Its chronic economic mismanagement has made it extremely dependent on a few refineries, product imports, and food imports"

Thursday, February 22, 2007


"Why are these reactionary elements [in Iraq] fighting so hard? Because they know the importance of victory or defeat.Right from the beginning it was obvious to them. Of course, there have been mistakes and unacceptable abuses of human rights on our side. But here in its most pure form is a struggle between democracy and violence....But the basic problem, from the murder of UN Staff in August 2003 onward, has been simple: security. The reactionary elements have tried to derail both reconstruction and democracy by violence. Power and electricity became problems not through indolence on the part of either Iraqis or the coalition forces but through sabotage. People became frightened because of terrorism and criminal gangs, some of which had been deliberately released from prison by Saddam just before his fall....The extremists know that if they can succeed--in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, or any other nation desiring to go the democratic route--then the prospect of a democratic future for the Arab and Muslim world will be dealt a potentially mortal blow. Likewise, if these countries become democracies and make progress, that will be a powerful blow against both the extremists' propaganda about the West and their whole system of values. In each case, the forces of the United States, the United Kingdom, and many other nations are there to help indigenous security forces grow,support the democratic process, and provide a bulwark against the terrorism that threatens that process. In each case, full UN authority is in place."

Tony Blair, "A Battle for Global Values", in Foreign Affairs, January/February 2007.

On Wednesday in London, British Prime Minister Blair announced that Great Britain will withdraw approximately 1600, about one quarter of its force of 7100 troops, almost all of which are based in the southern four provinces of Iraq, around the southern port city of Basra. In addition the remaining 5500 troops, will almost entirely be re-deployed to Basra airport on the outskirts of the city. With further withdrawals anticipated, so that almost the entire British contingent will be out of Iraq by late 2008 (see: www.ft.com). According to Blair, in making his announcement in the House of Commons,

"The situation in Basra is very different from Baghdad. There is no Sunni insurgency. There is no Al Qaida base. There is little Shia on Sunni violence. The bulk of the attacks are on the MNF. It has never presented anything like the challenge of Baghdad....As a result of this operation, which is now complete the Iraqi Forces now have the primary role for security in most parts of the city. It is still a difficult and sometimes dangerous place. But, many extremists have been arrested or left the city. The reported levels of murder and kidnapping are significantly down. Surveys of Basrawis, after the Operations had been conducted, show a much greater sense of security. There is reconstruction now happening in schools and health centres, around 300 projects altogether. What all of this means is not that Basra is how we want it to be. But it does mean that the next chapter in Basra's history can be written by Iraqis....Already we have handed over prime responsibility for security to the Iraqi authorities in Al Muthanna and Dhi Qar. Now in Basra, over the coming months, we will transfer more of the responsibility directly to Iraqis. None of this will mean a diminution in our combat capability. Over time and depending naturally on progress and the capability of the ISF, we will be able to draw down further, possibly to below 5,000 once the Basra Palace site has been transferred to the Iraqis in late summer. We hope that Maysan Province can be transferred to full Iraqi control in the next few months and Basra in the second half of the year. The UK military presence will continue into 2008, for as long as we are wanted and have a job to do. Increasingly our role will be support and training, and our numbers will be able to reduce accordingly" (see:www.number10.gov.uk).

In a number of ways, the announcement by Blair marks the beginning of his swan song in office. Widely believed to be on the way out of power, with May-June of this year as the most likely time when he will resign office, the Iraq announcement represents Blair's attempt to convince the British public that the Iraq adventure was a worthwhile one. A task given the general unpopularity of the war in the United Kingdom from the very beginning, has proven to be a hard sell. However, aside from the internal British political dynamics, which under the likely new Prime Minister, current Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, will no doubt cause further and faster British troop withdrawals from Iraq, are Blair's claims for the relative success of operations in the south valid? According to most of the British press, Blair's statement in the Commons, had little or no validity in fact. In an editorial in today's Financial Times, Blair's statment was on the face of it: "misleading". According to the newspaper the Independent, Blair's announcement, was the equivalent of:

"An admission of defeat. Iraq is turning into one of the world's bloodiest battlefields in which nobody is safe. Blind to this reality, Tony Blair said yesterday that Britain could safely cut its forces in Iraq because the apparatus of the Iraqi Government is growing stronger." (see: www.independent.co.uk).

Aside however from the venom of the British pays legal, which like the general public, has never been overtly fond of the entire Iraq embroglio, does Blair's statement about Basra being both safer than Baghdad, and, stable enough for British forces to safely handover security to Iraqi forces stand by its own merits? According to most reports, it would appear that this is very much not the case. While, per se, the level of violence in the south of the country has never been as great as in the western provinces near Syria, or in Baghdad proper, it would be a negation of the truth to argue that Basra and the provinces surrounding it, are by any means 'safe and secure'. It is true of course that with a overwhelmingly Shiite majority population, the four southern provinces were British troops have been concentrated since 2003: Basra, Maysan, Dhi Qar and Muthanna, are relatively stable as compared to such Sunni insurgent strongholds as Anbar, Karbala and Najaf. What however the southern provinces has seen instead has been a progressive infiltration of any and all Iraq security forces by the various Shiite militias, especially those adhering to either the SCIRI or its powerful rival, the Mahdi Army. The police most especially in Basra itself, has been rendered either toothless or worse by the presence of Shiite militia elements, who are a law onto themselves. coupled with the fact, that many of the self-same militias either share allegiance to Persia and or are being supplied with arms by or from Persia, than any British claim that Basra is a rock of stability is non-sensical on its face (see "Stability and rule of law remain a distant vision" in www.ft.com).

It was precisely for this reason, that retiring American Ambassador Khalilzad, stated his preference for London's retaining as many troops in the South as possible (see: www.dailystar.com.lb). According to a recent study by the American strategic analyst, Anthony Cordesman, the game was effectively lost or at the very least chances of preserving or shoring up stability in the south were thrown away by the UK as long time ago, perhaps as two years:

"The British announcement of force cuts in Southern Iraq reflects a set of realities on the ground that has dominated southeastern Iraq for more than two years. Southeastern Iraq has long been under the de facto control of SCIRI and Sadr factions. The British effectively lost any opportunity to shape a secular and nationalist Basra in the summer of 2003, and the US defeat of the Sadr militia in March and April 2004 never extended to the southeast and Basra area.The British won some tactical clashes in Maysan and Basra in May-November 2004, but Operation Telic’s tactical victories over the Sadrists did not stop Islamists from taking steadily more local political power and controlling security at the neighborhood level when British troops were not present....The British decisively lost the south – which produces over 90% of government revenues and has over 70% of Iraq’s proven oil reserves -- more than two years ago....

British claims to have transferred responsibility to the ISF in the rest of 2006 were little more than a recognition of “defeat with honor “ or at least crude political cover. The end result is that British security efforts have devolved to little more than an attempt to reform the police in Basra and bring some order to the city. Both Operation Corrode in May 2006 and Operation Sinbad in October 2006 have made joint British and Iraqi police efforts to bring some kind of order to Basra in ways that bear a similarity to the new Bush effort to bring district-by-district security to Baghdad. The most such British efforts have, or can, accomplish, however, is to restore a higher degree of control over the Basra police by the Shi’ite parties in the Shi’ite dominated central government. They have done nothing to either quell attacks on British forces or bring security to areas outside Basra. They are virtually certain to have steadily less effect as British forces withdraw, and trigger a new round of sectarian and ethnic violence and intra-Shi’ite factional fighting. The British may not have been defeated in a purely military sense, but lost long ago in the political sense if "victory" means securing the southeast for some form of national unity....As a result, the coming British cuts in many ways reflect the political reality that the British "lost" the south more than a year ago
" (see: "The British Defeat in the South and the uncertain Bush 'strategy' in Iraq", in www.csis.org).

The reality is that caught between an overstreached British military machine with too many commitments, and, too few soldiers and equipment to carry them out, and retirement fast coming up, and, an unpopular and an seemingly unwinnable war, scuttle no doubt seemed the easiest and best option for Blair to follow while he still remains in office. As the British commentator Michael Glackin has noted: "the sheer hypocrisy of Blair and his government in claiming their Iraq mission has now been successfully accomplished beggars belief" (see: "Britain tiptoes away in the Darkness," in www.dailystar.com.lb). Yes, but perhaps we should not be too surprised, afterall as George Orwell argued long ago, "hypocrisy is the English vice".

Tuesday, February 20, 2007


In a build-up of long simmering tensions, which have suddenly emerged in the open, Russian Defence Ministry officials announced that both Poland and the Czech Republic could be targeted by Russian Intermediate range ballistic missiles, if the two countries, which are both NATO allies and close to the current American administration, chose to allow the USA to base elements of its missile defence system in them. According to the Financial Times, General Nikolai Solovtsov, the c-in-c of all Russian strategic missile forces, declared that a positive decision by Warsaw and Prague to the American request, would inevitably mean that Russian: "strategic missile troops will be able to target those facilities" (see: www.ft.com). This warning followed up those made last week by both Russian President Putin, and, Russian army chief, General Yuri Baluyevsky, with the latter declaring that in response, Russia might withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces treaty. Russian withdrawal, would potentially allow Moskva to build-up its European theatre missile force, in order to attempt in theory to overwhelm the putative American missile defence system (see: www.en.rian.ru). As per General Baluyevsky:

"It is not difficult for us to restart the production of the medium- and short range missiles because we have preserved all technologies....It could be done quickly if the need arises" (see: www.en.rian.ru).

However Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, perhaps by far the most capable of the foreign ministers among the G-8 countries, today played down the prospects of both a unilateral Russian withdrawal from the treaty, as well as a prospect for a new cold war. According to Lavrov in Moskva:

"the current developments in the world do not point at a new variant of the cold war....In essence, we are facing a choice between the arms race and finding solutions for the problems that we have inherited from the past....A strong and confident Russia has become a positive factor on the global arena. This reality has taken many people in the West by surprise and for some it is an unpleasant surprise, although we are simply defending our interests as other people do" (see: www.russianprofile.org).

Lavrov has put the matter squarely: "defending our interests as other people do". Per se, legally speaking a Russian withdrawal from the 1987 treaty, will be no more illegal than the American decision to withdraw from the ABM treaty of 1972, a few years back. Sans said withdrawal, by the bye, the proposed American anti-missile deployments in Poland and the Czech Republic would not be legally possible. Hence,any Russian decision to scrap the treaty, and embark on a intermediate range missile build-up, has to be judge on the following criterion: will Moskva benefit from such a withdraw and military build-up or not? What is the purpose of such a threat, and, to who or whom are such threats being made to? Let us be clear: the Russian threats are not of the Khrushchev variety, circa 1956 and 1958: to 'bury' London and Paris under Russian missiles unless both countries towed the Soviet line at one particular point or other. Instead, it would appear to this observer, that the real purpose of the Russian statements, and, Lavrov's pouring cold water on them, to a degree, are attempts to influence, European, especially, or perhaps one should say, most especially West European, and in particular Deutsche opinion. It is useful to remember that the greatest beneficiary of the 1987 treaty was not Moskva or Washington, but Bonn. It was the Federal Republic, which was the clearly most uncomfortable with the Cruise missile deployments of the mid-1980's, and, which was the happiest about the treaty ending or forstalling them. Indeed, as if on cue, Deutsche Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, stated today that:

"Because the sites for the stationing are quite near Russia, one should have talked about it with Russia beforehand" (see: www.ft.com).

A truism if there ever was one. Most especially from the Deutsche perspective. And, no doubt to quiet such German concerns, and, hopefully (but no doubt only secondarily) to try to better 'explain' the American position on the deployment, American National Security Adviser, Stephen Hadley will visit Moskva next week, at the latter's invitation, after going for talks in Berlin (see: www.en.rian.ru). Whether or not Hadley can smooth things over is a truly open question. While he will issue soothing mots for both the Germans, as well as the Russians, it is highly unlikely that he will make any concrete concessions (if such are in fact possible) to make the proposed deployment less threatening to Moskva. And, in fact to be quite clear about the matter, it is Moskva who in this particular game, has much to worry about. As the American online journal Stratfor.com, argues in their analysis:

"From the Russia's perspective, the establishment of the new BMD [ballistic missile defenc] system in Europe would represent the worst of all possible worlds. Its very existence not only would spotlight Moscow's declining diplomatic prowess, but also would testify to Russia's marginalization in the International system" (see: "The INF Treaty: Implications of Russian Withdrawal", www.stratfor.com).

Consequently, it beehoves the American administration, to summon up, and employ all of its (very limited indeed) diplomatic prowess in a serious attempt to calm Russian concerns. Indeed, it could be argued that the American deployment, is more of a diplomatic and strategic own goal, than anything else. Rather than providing greater 'security' for itself (and very secondarily its allies), the American move will simply have the end result of Russia rushing out to re-introduce a whole range of intermediate range weapons in order to render the missile defence shield worthless. As Stratfor argues:

"Though a direct arms race with the USA remains out of the question, a lopsided race in which the Russians focus on IRBM [intermediate range ballistic missiles] could change the game entirely. A barrage of several dozen IRBM easily could overwhelm a small squadron of BMD interceptors based in Europe--as well as any system that the United States conceivably might field in the next 20 years".

Whether or not Washington has the good sense (not something which most American administrations, especially the current ever have much in plenitude), to realize that to alienate Moskva is not a worthwhile exercise is something that remains unknowable at this time. My own surmise is that a true answer is not possible for the present, so I will respond: peut-etre.

Sunday, February 18, 2007


"It is not always going from bad to worse that a society falls into revolution....The social order destroyed by a revolution is almost always better than that which preceded it, and experience shows that the most dangerous moment for a bad government is generally that in which it sets about reform".

Alexis de Tocqueville, L'Ancien regime et la revolution (1856).

On the the 21st of December 2006, Saparmurat Niyazov, the all-powerful, Stalin-like ruler of the Central Asian Republic of Turkmenistan passed away. The face of it,Niyazov's rule was something so extraordinary as to be almost entirely sui generis. From his re-ordering the calendar, to his gold statue of himself in the nation's capital, to his mandating that all of his subjects read his little booklet of sermons and instructions, to his banning international travel, to his regular purges of his administration, so that even the most loyal and obseqious functionaries might quite suddenly disappear into one of his many jails there to be tortured or even killed. Indeed, it is a simple truism to say that Turkmenbashi's regime was one without parallel in Central Asia for upwards of over a hundred years.Like his sometime model Stalin, Niyazov left no successor in place, perhaps operating on the understandable assumption that to name a successor would imply that the all-powerful ruler, was not in fact, destined to rule forever....Consequently, the death of the tyrant, had the upshot of offering the possibility of the Turkmen people a break with the absolutist nature of politics and society in place since 1991 if not in fact since 1917.

What are the prospects so far? On 11th February, Niyazov's closest approximation of a number two, Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedov, won elections which were by no streach of the imagination, either free or fair. However, the exercise did offer to the tamed and cowed population a modicum of political pluralism, inasmuch as there were several candidates for the position of President. Which unfortunately did not include any of the many oppositional leaders in exile, who were uniformally prevented from returning for the elections. On the surface the prospects of political development in Turkmenistan are on balance 'good'. The only response that one can offer in the aftermath of Niyazov's reign of terror. For the forseeable future, it seems that Turkmenistan will no doubt turn to adapt the more benign political forms of authoritarian rule as currently practiced in the rest of Central Asia, id est, Kazakhistan, spring immediately to mind. Be in no doubt however that what is not on the cards in Turkmenistan, is another multi-colored revolution: red, green, bright orange, purple or even gold (allegedly Turkmenbashi's favorite color by the bye...). Notwithstanding the idealistic carpings by our friends at the Internationa Crisis Group, that:

"The International Community should....make it clear that serious trade and aid relationships and an end to Turkmenistan's isolation requires its new leaders take the first steps to reverse Niyazov's most egregious socio-economic policies and improve human rights" (see: www.crisisgroup.org)

In point of fact, the "International Community", as such cares nothing for improving human rights, more than a modicum to comparable, Central Asia levels. And, unfortunately rightly so. The tables in Turkmenistan, have been so far unbalanced that it will take upwards of a decade for them to be balanced rightly again. If (a very big if indeed), Turkmenistan can achieve levels of socio-economic development say of Kazakhistan, than one can indeed say that real progress has been made. Any such change can only be made from above however. As Juliette Terzieff has recently argued: "the new leadership's self-described desire for change...provides the best hope that change will actually occur" (see: "Turkmenistan leadership sends mixed signal in first post-Niyazov Trial", in www.worldpoliticswatch.com). What truly interests the "International Community", as such is not human rights, but that Niyazov's successors will be able to keep the gas and oil taps running full blast for the forseeable future. This is of course especially true of Moskva, which seems at the present time to be primus inter pares, among the foreign powers in the country, as wells as China and the EU. None of which, are seriously interested in rocking the boat in Turkmenistan for fears that behind the current placid stability lurks savage chaos and violent instability. The only partial exceptions to this consensus at present are (oddly enough considering their otherwise violently opposed positions to each other elsewhere) the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran. Both would love to overturn the current stability in the country for purposes of realigning the country into their own bloc and, away from its sotto voce, pro-Moskva alignment. At present of course, neither power has done anything of substance as of yet (on this see Joshua Kucera's article titled: "Washington to make diplomatic push for greater economic integration in Central, South Asia" in www.eurasianet.org).

It is with the above introduction in mind, that I would like to now present, for the readership of this journal, a new analysis of developments in Turkmenistan, by the online journal Eurasianet (www.eurasianet.org). Please read and enjoy:


"Under President Saparmurat Niyazov, Turkmenistan was an extraordinary place one of the most repressive nations on earth ruled by one of the maddest hatters ever to occupy a presidential palace. But since Niyazov’s sudden death on December 21,nothing out of the ordinary has transpired.

Deputy Prime Minister Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov became acting president, hinted at reforms, ran against five window-dressing opponents in a February 11 presidential election, and won nearly 90 percent of the vote. By Central Asian standards, it hardly merits a shrug.

The events that preceded Berdymukhammedov’s inauguration as Turkmenistan’s new president today might have been humdrum by regional standards, but because they took place in a country on which Niyazov impressed what for now seems to be an indelible stamp, they have left opposition figures, international organizations, and even other countries off balance. The new president’s ascent might suggest that Turkmenistan is rejoining the Central Asian fold, but no one seems quite ready to believe it.

During his lifetime, Niyazov brooked no dissent in his realm. The political opposition that existed had existed beyond Turkmenistan’s borders. When Niyazov died, a number of expatriate opposition leaders vowed bravely to return. But Niyazov’s security services proved longer-lived than their master, and no one from the opposition abroad was able to reenter the country and take part in the presidential election.

An Odd Mix

When the election took place on February 11, opposition statements offered an odd mix of condemnation and conciliation. Avdy Kuliev, head of the United Democratic Opposition of Turkmenistan, told RIA Novosti by telephone from Norway on February 11 that his group "consider[s] the election being held in Turkmenistan illegal and undemocratic" and "cannot recognize it." Opposition leader Nurmukhammet Khanamov, speaking to RIA Novosti from Vienna, said that "we do not recognize the results of the presidential election." But he added that the opposition must "begin talks with the authorities" -- or noted that "at least [it is] planning to do so." Bairam Shikhmuradov, the son of imprisoned former Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov, said "we will have to work under the new president," adding that their "chief goal is to become involved in the political process in one way or another," Interfax in Moscow reported on February 11.

International organizations also offered a range of views. Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a hard-hitting statement on February 8 warning that "a new dictatorship will be consolidated in Turkmenistan by the pro forma presidential election on February 11 unless strong international voices insist on real human rights reform." And the International Crisis Group (ICG) released a report on February 12 urging the international community "to make it clear that serious trade and aid relationships and an end to Turkmenistan’s isolation require its new leaders to take the first steps to reverse Niyazov’s most egregious socioeconomic policies and improve human rights."

On the other hand, Erika Dailey, who heads the Turkmenistan Project at the Open Society Institute, told eurasianet.org that "the acting president’s reformist rhetoric has captured the imagination of the international community and sown seeds of hope that genuine reform will follow." But Dailey was careful to note that "Niyazov was also a rhetorical reformer," adding, "only time will tell whether the promised reforms will materialize."

’Ready To Help’

The OSCE sent an Election Support Team, but not an observation mission, for the presidential election at the invitation of the Turkmen authorities. OSCE Chairman in Office and Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos said he hopes for increased dialogue between the OSCE and Turkmenistan, according to an OSCE press release dated February 12. He said his organization was "ready to help in all areas where the OSCE is active, whether in the political-military dimension, environmental and economic matters, or human rights." He added that "the OSCE field center in Ashgabat should play a useful role."

Yet two members of a delegation from the OSCE’s Parliamentary Assembly to Turkmenistan made exceedingly blunt comments about the election itself. Jesus Lopez-Medel told Spain’s "ABC" newspaper that the election was a "farce," the Turkmen opposition website "Gundogar" reported on February 12. Lopez-Medel condemned the Turkmen presidential election as having been "more like a play than an election, a farce instead of the citizens’ real participation in the electoral process." He added that "everything was decided in advance, and the voting was just for appearances." Another delegation member, Joao Soares, said the balloting "may hardly be called elections" and was "absolutely not free and fair."

Quiet Capitals

Government reactions to Niyazov’s passing and the coming of a new leadership have been restrained. For better or worse, Turkmenistan’s relevance to the outside world is almost exclusively a function of its large reserves of natural gas.

Russia controls almost all the export routes for Turkmen gas, currently purchases the bulk of the stuff, and has not made reform of any kind a part of its agenda in Central Asia. Moscow thus has no reason to rock the boat and has had little to say. Western states -- which fear upheaval in a key link in the chain of gas suppliers to Europe, abhorred Niyazov’s megalomaniacal rule, and yet yearn to see Turkmenistan diversify its gas export routes -- also have not come forward with strong reform demands or bold cooperation initiatives.

Under Niyazov, Turkmenistan drifted away from the outside world into a realm of its own. Yet despite the past month’s halting signs of a return to the Central Asian mainstream, outsiders remain reluctant to draw conclusions. Opposition leaders level broadsides with the hope of dialogue. International organizations look for light at the end of the tunnel. And other countries weigh their words and wait.The election of Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov might be the first step on Turkmenistan’s journey back into the Central Asian fold, with all the good and bad that trip entails.But for now, Niyazov’s legacy lives on, and Turkmenistan remains a country at a remove from its neighbors and the world.

Posted February 17, 2007 © Eurasianet

Saturday, February 17, 2007


"Two commanding facts confront socialists in Britain today, dominating this moment of our history. British society is in the throes of a profound, pervasive but cryptic crisis, undramatic in appearance, but ubiquitous in its reverberations. As its immediate result, a Labour government seems imminent. So much everyone agrees. But what do these phenomena mean? What kind of crisis is it? What kind of outcomes to it are likely?"

"The Origins of the Present Crisis", Perry Anderson, January 1964.

How the mighty have fallen! One might very well say quite easily this of ex-Sovietskaya Russia, or conversely of Mr. Perry Anderson himself. Born 1938, went to Oxford, but was 'sent down' without ever taking a degree, Anderson, effected a coup in 1962, by purchasing the then debt-ridden New Left Review, from the coterie of ex-Stalinist academics and intellectuals (including the very young E.P Thompson), who had fallen out with the British Commnunist Party over both Khruschev's revelation of Stalin's crimes, and, the suppression of the Hungarian uprising in November 1956. Of a younger generation, then Thompson et. al., Anderson, was then and has remained since, very much a thinker whose intellectual ambiance was outside of the orbit of Communism, either in its orthodox Stalinist verison or any of the many heresies emanating from it. The young Anderson, only twenty-five years old, quickly made a name for himself, with a series of essays in his new journal, which he edited for upwards of twenty consecutive years. Perhaps the most famous of his essays, was titled "The Origins of the Present Crisis", in which in echt-zeitgeist form, Anderson made a slashing attack on the 'archaic' and anachronistic nature of then British ruling establishment, as personified by Harold Macmillian's Edwardian Mandarin style, and, Lord Home's Bertie Wooster-like antics in the House of Commons (the 14th Earl having given up his many lordships, in order to assume a seat in the House of Commons, and thus the premiership, as merely 'Sir Alec Douglas-Home' in succession to 'Supermac' himself). The essay of course was a rousing success, in a climate inspired by such cultural and political backdrops as "This is the Week that Was", "Beyond the Fringe", as well as the Profumo Scandal.

In short order, Tovarish Anderson, with the assistance of a brilliant team of essayists and contributors, made the New Left Review, Britain's if not indeed the entire Anglophone world's leading purveyor of Haute-Gauchiste thinking and analysis. Many of the names which have subsequently become famous or infamous, to the Anglophone world, especially in many departments of Art History, English, and (God forbid!) 'Cultural Studies', first received notice in the pages of Anderson's periodical: Althusser, Bourdieu, Gramsci, Adorno, Bloch, et. al. And, like many others riding a good wave, Anderson, it could be said, had a 'good' fifteen years from his first coming to public notice in 1964,to
the advent of the first ThatcherGovernment in 1979. Notwithstanding all of his nostrums about the many 'crisis of capital', the 'crisis of capitalist hegemony', the 'crisis of the Fordist regime of accumulation', it does not appear that Anderson himself ever foresaw a period of time when the issue on the table was not 'capitalism' in crisis, but, in fact the lands then known to most of the readers and many of the writers of his periodical as the 'world of real existing socialism' (by terming it 'real' one supposes that Anderson et. al., were telling people that they should get any of that old hat French Utopian Socialist nonsense out of their heads...or so one presumes). And, yet, notwithstanding the prognosis of Anderson and his followers and acolytes, the only 'regime' to fall into 'crisis', was that of the 'socialist fatherland' itself. Which in a spate of a few years, saw a crisis of such totality that within six year time, nothing remained of the mighty fortress of Sovietskaya Vlast, but, poor old Vladimir Ilyich lying in his crypt, still denied the dignity of an atheist funeral.

Well, with the triumph of capitalism tout court, the need for top grade Marxism, of either 'Western', 'neo', 'orthodox' or other varieties seemed to understandably peter out. Something perhaps best symbolized by the folding up of what was one-time the leading left periodical of thought in the UK: Marxism Today, in the early 1990's. And, while the New Left Review (which Anderson contributes to from time to time) does still exist and indeed can be said to have a certain prestige in a few American academic departments, no one in their right minds would honestly say that it has anywhere near the same prestige that it did, circa 1968. With the advent of this Miltonian-like Fall, it is perhaps fitting that Anderson found refuge in the heart of the bourgeois, capitalist beast, id est, teaching American 18 to 21 year olds, in...Southern California. How the mighty have fallen indeed! Why then publish Anderson's musings on Grazdanin Putin's Russia? Well, notwithstanding all of the venom which I have assailed him with, no one who has read Perry Anderson will not
deny the power of his analysis and the cogency which he argues for his views. Indeed, who cannot forget his rigidly logical and unsentimental look at American foreign policy prior to the invasion of Iraq? Dismissing the naysaying of the liberal intelligentsia of the Atlantic world (a group which from his earliest stage of development, Anderson has not failed to show his extreme dislike for), as so much liberal bourgeois sophistry:

"Now if one looks dispassionately at the two styles of arguments, there is little doubt, that on the questions of principal, the administration's case against its critics is ironclad....No International community exists. The term is a euphemism for American hegemony. It is to the credit of the administration that some of its allies have abandoned it....Arguments about the impending war would do better to focus on the entire prior structure of the special treatment accorded to Iraq by the United Nations, rather than wrangle over the secondary issue of whether to continue strangling the country slowly or to put it out of its misery quickly".

"Casuistries of Peace and War", 6 March 2003 in www.lrb.co.uk.

Like Anderson's opinions and the analysis behind them or not, they are always powerfully constructed, and finely tuned, akin perhaps to a Bruckner or Mahler Symphony as conducted by say Georg Szell or Fritz Reiner.

What of the specifics of his article? While much of what he has to say, bears some basis of reality, much does not. Indeed, to argue that what occurred in 1991 (or if you like between 1985 and 1991), was merely the product of the fact that in the Post-modern Capitalist universe, the traditional patrimonial, authoritarian-bureaucratic, state building model of modernity was no longer able to compete is a silly truism. Per se, Sovietskaya Vlast, was not really 'competing', with the West in the terms set by Khrushchev, as early as 1962. While not so carefully hidden (at least to most intelligent observers both abroad and at home, such as Andrei Amalrik by the Brezhnevite 'regime of stagnation', at the very least the appearance of Communist stolidity appear to belie the idea that speculators in the early demise of Communism such as Amalrik, were worth betting good coin. Of course it was precisely speculators such as Amalrik who were in the right, and, the 'sound' thinkers, who were in the wrong (for sound thinkers read most Anglophone Russian experts, circa 1980). Notwithstanding his idea that the fall in 1991, was (echoing echt-Tovarish Eric Hobsbawm) a "human catastrophe", the fact of the matter is that the current situation of Russian society is indeed less than entirely positive, but,that is less a causation of merely the last fifteen years, and much more so the end result of the manner in which the Soviet regime, governed and ruled the country from 1917 to 1991. Putin's Russia, did not like Athena, emerge ex nihilo from Zeus's head. Here Anderson falling into a conceptual trap which he himself is fond of denouncing others for: post hoc ergo propter hoc. On the other hand, his comparison of the regime in its 'style of political manipulation' to those of Giolitti and Bismark, is quite fruitful. On the whole, while not agreeing in the least with much of what Anderson has to say about Putin and his Russian in Anno Domini 2007, I do think that his ironclad logic and surefooted prose are more than welcome to the readers of this site. So, by all means please read and enjoy.

Russia’s Managed Democracy by Perry Anderson

Under lowering skies, a thin line of mourners stretched silently outside the funeral hall. Barring the entrance, hulking riot police kept them waiting until assorted dignitaries – Anatoly Chubais, Nato envoys, an impotent ombudsman – had paid their respects. Eventually they were let in to view the corpse of the murdered woman, her forehead wrapped in the white ribbon of the Orthodox rite, her body, slight enough anyway, diminished by the flower-encrusted bier. Around the edges of the mortuary chamber, garlands from the media that attacked her while she was alive stood thick alongside wreaths from her children and friends, the satisfied leaf to leaf with the bereaved. Filing past them and out into the cemetery beyond, virtually no one spoke. Some were in tears. People dispersed in the drizzle as quietly as they came.

The authorities had gone to some lengths to divert Anna Politkovskaya’s funeral from the obvious venue of the Vagankovskoe, where Sakharov is buried, to a dreary precinct on the outskirts that few Muscovites can locate on a map. But how necessary was the precaution? The number of mourners who got to the Troekurovskoe was not large, perhaps a thousand or so, and the mood of the occasion was more sadness than anger. A middle-aged woman, bringing groceries home from the supermarket, shot at point-blank range in an elevator, Politkovskaya was killed for her courage in reporting the continuing butchery in Chechnya. An attempt to poison her had narrowly failed two years earlier. She had another article in press on the atrocities of the Kadyrov clan that now runs the country for the Kremlin, as she was eliminated. She lived and died a fighter. But of any powerful protest at her death, it is difficult to speak. She was buried with resignation, not fury or revolt.

In Ukraine, the discovery of the decapitated body of a journalist who had investigated official corruption, Georgi Gongadze, was sufficient outrage to shake the regime, which was brought down soon afterwards. Politkovskaya was a figure of another magnitude. A better historical comparison might be with the murder of Matteotti by Mussolini in 1924. In Russian circumstances, her moral stature as an opponent of arbitrary power was scarcely less than that of the Socialist deputy. But there the resemblance ends. The Matteotti Affair caused an outcry that nearly toppled Mussolini. Politkovskaya was killed with scarcely a ripple in public opinion. Her death, the official media explained, was either an unfathomable mystery, or the work of enemies of the government vainly attempting to discredit it. The president remarked she was a nobody whose death was the only news value in her life.

It is tempting, but would be a mistake, to see in that casual dismissal no more than the ordinary arrogance of power. All governments deny their crimes, and most are understanding of each other’s lies about them. Bush and Blair, with still more blood on their hands – in all probability, that of over half a million Iraqis – observe these precepts as automatically as Putin. But there is a difference that sets Putin apart from his fellow rulers in the G8, indeed from virtually any government in the world. On the evidence of comparative opinion polls, he is the most popular national leader alive today. Since he came to power six years ago, he has enjoyed the continuous support of over 70 per cent of his people, a record no other contemporary politician begins to approach. For comparison, Chirac now has an approval rating of 38 per cent, Bush of 36 per cent, Blair of 30 per cent.

Such eminence may seem perverse, but it is not unintelligible. Putin’s authority derives, in the first place, from the contrast with the ruler who made him. From a Western standpoint, Yeltsin’s regime was by no means a failure. By ramming through a more sweeping privatisation of industry than any carried out in Eastern Europe, and maintaining a façade of competitive elections, it laid the foundations of a Russian capitalism for the new century. However sodden or buffoonish Yeltsin’s personal conduct, these were solid achievements that secured him unstinting support from the United States, where Clinton, stewing in indignities of his own, was the appropriate leader for mentoring him. As Strobe Talbott characteristically put it, ‘Clinton and Yeltsin bonded. Big time.’ In the eyes of most Russians, on the other hand, Yeltsin’s administration set loose a wave of corruption and criminality; stumbled chaotically from one political crisis to another; presided over an unprecedented decline in living standards and collapse of life expectancy; humiliated the country by obeisance to foreign powers; destroyed the currency and ended in bankruptcy. By 1998, according to official statistics, GDP had fallen over a decade by some 45 per cent; the mortality rate had increased by 50 per cent; government revenues had nearly halved; the crime rate had doubled. It is no surprise that as this misrule drew to a close, Yeltsin’s support among the population was in single figures.

Against this background, any new administration would have been hard put not to do better. Putin, however, had the good luck to arrive in power just as oil prices took off. With export earnings from the energy sector suddenly soaring, economic recovery was rapid and continuous. Since 1999, GDP has grown by 6-7 per cent a year. The budget is now in surplus, with a stabilisation fund of some $80 billion set aside for any downturn in oil prices, and the rouble is convertible. Capitalisation of the stock market stands at 80 per cent of GDP. Foreign debt has been paid down. Reserves top $250 billion. In short, the country has been the largest single beneficiary of the world commodities boom of the early 21st century. For ordinary Russians, this has brought a tangible improvement in living standards. Though average real wages remain very low, less than $400 dollars a month, they have doubled under Putin (personal incomes are nearly two times higher because remuneration is often paid in non-wage form, to avoid some taxes). That increase is the most important basis of his support. To relative prosperity, Putin has added stability. Cabinet convulsions, confrontations with the legislature, lapses into presidential stupor, are things of the past. Administration may not be that much more efficient, but order – at least north of the Caucasus – has been restored. Last but not least, the country is no longer ‘under external management’, as the pointed local phrase puts it. The days when the IMF dictated budgets, and the Foreign Ministry acted as little more than an American consulate, are over. Gone are the campaign managers for re-election of the president, jetting in from California. Freed from foreign debt and diplomatic supervision, Russia is an independent state once again.

Prosperity, stability, sovereignty: the national consensus around Putin rests on his satisfaction of these primordial concerns. That there may be less in each than meets the eye matters little, politically speaking, so long as their measure is memories of the abyss under Yeltsin. By that standard the material progress, however relative, is real. But the stratospheric polls reflect something else as well – an image of the ruler. Putin cuts a somewhat colourless, frigid figure in the West. In cultures accustomed to more effusive styles of leadership, the sleek, stoat-shaped head and stone-cold eyes offer little purchase for affective projection. In Russia, however, charisma wears another face. When he came to power, Putin lacked any trace of it. But possession of the presidency has altered him. For Weber, who had the Hebrew prophets in mind, charisma was by definition extra-institutional – it was a kind of magic that could only be personal. He could not foresee postmodern conditions, in which the spectacle is a higher power, capable of dissolving the boundaries between the two.

Once installed in the presidency, Putin has cultivated two attributes that have given him an aura capable of outlasting it. The first is the image of firm, where necessary ruthless authority. Historically, the brutal imposition of order has been more often admired than feared in Russia. Rather than his portrait suffering from the shadow of the KGB, Putin has converted it into a halo of austere discipline. In what remains in many ways a macho society, toughness – prowess in judo and drops into criminal slang are part of Putin’s kit – continues to be valued, and not only by men: polls report that Putin’s most enthusiastic fans are often women. But there is another, less obvious side to his charisma. Part of his chilly magnetism is cultural. He is widely admired for his command of the language. Here, too, contrast is everything. Lenin was the last ruler of the country who could speak an educated Russian. Stalin’s Georgian accent was so thick he rarely risked speaking in public. Khrushchev’s vocabulary was crude and his grammar barbaric. Brezhnev could scarcely put two sentences together. Gorbachev spoke with a provincial southern accent. The less said of Yeltsin’s slurred diction the better. To hear a leader of the country capable once again of expressing himself with clarity, accuracy and fluency, in a more or less correct idiom, comes as music to many Russians.

In a strange way Putin’s prestige is thus also intellectual. For all his occasional crudities, at least in his mouth the national tongue is no longer obviously humiliated. This is not just a matter of cases and tenses, or pronunciation. Putin has developed into what by today’s undemanding standards is an articulate politician, who can field questions from viewers on television for hours as confidently and lucidly as he lectures journalists in interviews, or addresses partners at summit meetings, where he has excelled at sardonic repartee. The intelligence is limited and cynical, above the level of his Anglo-American counterparts, but without much greater ambition. It has been enough, however, to give Putin half of his brittle lustre in Russia. There, an apparent union of fist and mind has captured the popular imaginary.

The combination of an oil and gas bonanza with a persona of clear-headed power has been enough to demarcate Putin, in public opinion, decisively from what came before and to assure him mastery of the political scene. The actual regime over which he presides, however, although it has involved important changes, shows less of a break with Yeltsin’s time than might appear. The economy that Yeltsin left behind was in the grip of a tiny group of profiteers, who had seized the country’s major assets in a racket – so-called loans for shares – devised by one of its beneficiaries, Vladimir Potanin, and imposed by Chubais, operating as the neo-liberal Rasputin at Yeltsin’s court. The president and his extended ‘Family’ (relatives, aides, hangers-on) naturally took their own share of the loot. It is doubtful whether the upshot had any equivalent in the entire history of capitalism. The leading seven oligarchs to emerge from these years – Berezovsky, Gusinsky, Potanin, Abramovich, Fridman, Khodorkovsky, Aven – ended up controlling a vast slice of national wealth, most of the media and much of the Duma. Putin was picked by the Family to ensure these arrangements did not come under scrutiny afterwards. His first act in office was to grant Yeltsin immunity from prosecution, and he has generally looked after his immediate entourage. (Chubais got Russia’s electricity grid as a parting gift.)

But if he wanted a stronger government than Yeltsin’s, he could not afford to leave the oligarchs in undisturbed possession of their powers. After warning them that they could keep their riches only if they stayed out of politics, he moved to curb them. The three most ambitious magnates – Gusinsky, Berezovsky and Khodorkovsky – were broken: two fleeing into exile, the third dispatched to a labour camp. A fourth, Abramovich, though still persona grata in the Kremlin, has opted for residence abroad. Putin has taken back under state control parts of the oil industry, and created out of the country’s gas monopoly a giant conglomerate with a current market capitalisation of $200 billion. The public sector’s share of GDP has risen only modestly, by about 5 per cent. But for the time being, the booty capitalism of the 1990s has come to a halt. In regaining control of some stretches of the commanding heights of the economy, the state has strengthened its leverage. The balance of power has shifted away from extraordinary accumulations of private plunder towards more traditional forms of bureaucratic management.

These changes are a focus of some anxiety in the Western business press, where fears are often expressed of an ominous statism that threatens the liberalisation of the 1990s. In reality, markets are in no danger. The Russian state has been strengthened as an economic agent, but not with any socialising intent, simply as a quarry of political power. In other respects, Putin has taken the same underlying programme as his predecessor several steps further. Land has finally been privatised, a threshold Yeltsin’s regime was unable to cross. Moscow boasts more billionaires than New York, yet a flat income tax of 13 per cent has been introduced, at Yegor Gaidar’s urging. A highly regressive ‘unified social tax’ falls on those who can least afford it. Welfare benefits have been monetised and slashed. Key economic ministries remain in the hands of committed marketeers. Neo-liberalism is safe enough in Russia today. The president has made this clear to all who are interested. On a visit to Germany in October, brushing aside questions about the death of Politkovskaya, he told his hosts: ‘We do not understand the nervousness of the press about Russia investing abroad. Where does this hysteria come from? It’s not the Red Army that wants to come to Germany. It’s just the same capitalists as you.’

The political system put together since Yeltsin’s departure is a similar mixture of novelty and continuity. It is now de rigueur for Western journalists – even the most ardent boosters of business opportunities in the New Russia, or the humblest spaniels of New Labour, anxious not to smudge Blair’s friendship with Putin (two roles that are not always distinct) – to deplore the muzzling of the media, the neutering of parliament and the decline of political freedoms under Putin. These realities, however, all have their origins under Yeltsin, whose illegalities were much starker. No act of Putin’s compares with the bombardment of the parliament by tanks, or the fraudulent referendum that ensued, imposing the autocratic constitution under which Russia continues to be ruled. Yet because Yeltsin was considered a pliable, even if somewhat disreputable utensil of Western policies, the first action was applauded and the second ignored by virtually every foreign correspondent of the time. Nor was there much criticism of the brazen manipulation of press and television, controlled by the oligarchs, to engineer Yeltsin’s re-election. Still less was any attention paid to what was happening within the machinery of state itself. Far from the demise of the USSR reducing the number of Russian functionaries, the bureaucracy had – few post-Communist facts are more arresting – actually doubled in size by the end of Yeltsin’s stewardship, to some 1.3 million. Not only that. At the topmost levels of the regime, the proportion of officials drawn from the security services or armed forces soared above their modest quotas under the late CPSU: composing a mere 5 per cent under Gorbachev, it has been calculated that they occupied no less than 47 per cent of the highest posts under Yeltsin.

Serviceable though much of this was for any ruler, it remained a ramshackle inheritance. Putin has tightened and centralised it into a more coherent structure of power. In possession of voter confidence, he has not needed to shell deputies or forge plebiscites. But to meet any eventuality, the instruments of coercion and intimidation have been strengthened. The budget of the FSB – the post-Communist successor to the KGB – has trebled, and the number of positions in the federal administration held by personnel brigaded from security backgrounds has continued to rise. Over half of Russia’s key power-holders now come from its repressive apparatuses. In jovial spirit, Putin allowed himself to quip to fellow veterans in the Lubyanka: ‘Comrades, our strategic mission is accomplished – we have seized power.’

Still, these developments are mainly accentuations of what was already there. Institutionally, the more striking innovation has been the integration of the economic and political pillars of Putin’s system of command. In the 1990s, people spoke of the assorted crooks who grabbed control of the country’s raw materials as syroviki, and of officials recruited from the military or secret police as siloviki.[1] Under Putin, the two have fused. The new regime is dominated by a web of Kremlin staffers and ministers with ‘security profiles’, who also head the largest state companies quoted on the stock market. The oligarchs had mixed business and politics flamboyantly enough. But these were raids by freebooters from the first into the second domain. Putin has turned the tables on them. Under his system, a more organic symbiosis between the two has been achieved, this time under the dominance of politics. Today, two deputy prime ministers are chairmen, respectively, of Gazprom and Russian Railways; four deputy chiefs of staff in the Kremlin occupy the same positions in the second largest oil company, a nuclear fuel giant, an energy transport enterprise and Aeroflot. The minister of industry is chairman of the oil pipeline monopoly; the finance minister not only of the diamond monopoly, but of the second largest state bank in the country; the telecoms minister of the biggest mobile phone operator. A uniquely Russian form of cumul des mandats blankets the scene.

Corruption is built into any such connubium between profits and power. By general consent, it is now even more widespread than under Yeltsin, but its character has changed. The comparison with China is revealing. In the PRC, corruption is a scourge detested by the population; no other issue arouses the anger of ordinary citizens to such a degree. The central leadership of the CCP is nervously aware of the danger corruption poses to its authority, and on occasion makes a spectacular example of officials who have stolen too much, without being able to tackle the roots of the problem. In Russia, on the other hand, there appears to be little active indignation at the corruption rife at all levels of society. A common attitude is that an official who takes bribes is better than one who inflicts blows: a change to which Brezhnev’s ‘era of stagnation’, after the end of the terror, habituated people. In this climate, Putin – so far, at least, lacking the personal greed that distracted Yeltsin – can coolly use corruption as an instrument of state policy, operating it as both a system of rewards for those who comply with him, and of blackmail for those who might resist.

The scale of the slush funds now available to the Kremlin has made it easy, in turn, to convert television stations and newspapers into mouthpieces of the regime. The fate of NTV and Izvestiya, the one created by Gusinsky, the other controlled by Potanin, is emblematic. Both are now dependencies of Gazprom. ORT, once Berezovsky’s TV channel, is currently run by a factotum from the FSB. With such changes, Putin’s control of the media is becoming more and more comprehensive. What is left over, that ownership does not ensure, self-censorship increasingly neuters. The Gleichschaltung of parliament and political parties is, if anything, even more impressive. The presidential party, United Russia, and its assorted allies, with no more specific programme than unconditional support for Putin, command some 70 per cent of the seats in the Duma, enough to rewrite the constitution if that were required. But a one-party state is not in the offing. On the contrary, mindful of the rules of any self-respecting democracy, the Kremlin’s political technicians are now putting together an opposition party designed to clear the bedraggled remnants of Communism – liberalism has already been expunged – from the political scene, and provide a decorative pendant to the governing party in the next parliament.

In sum, the methodical construction of a personalised authoritarian regime with a strong domestic base is well under way. Part of its appeal has come from its recovery of external sovereignty. But here the gap between image and reality is wider than it is on the domestic front. Putin came to power on the crest of a colonial war. In March 1999, the West launched its attack on Yugoslavia. Planning for the reconquest of Chechnya began that same month, under Yeltsin. In early August, Putin – then head of the FSB – was made prime minister. In the last week of September, invoking hostile incursions into Dagestan, Russia launched an aerial blitz on Chechnya explicitly modelled on Nato’s six-week bombardment of Yugoslavia. Up to a quarter of the population was driven out of the country, before an invasion had even begun. After enormous destruction from the air, the Russian army advanced on Grozny, which was besieged in early December. For nearly two months Chechen resistance held out against a hail of fuel-air explosives and tactical missiles that left the city a more completely burnt-out ruin than Stalingrad had ever been. At the height of the fighting, on New Year’s Eve, Yeltsin handed over his office to Putin. New presidential elections were set for late March. By the end of February, the Russian high command felt able to announce that ‘the counter-terrorism operation is over.’ Putin flew down to celebrate victory. Clinton hailed the ‘liberation of Grozny’. Blair sped to St Petersburg to embrace the liberator. Two weeks later, Putin was elected by a landslide.

Such was the baptism of the present regime, at which holy water was sprinkled by the West. Bush added his unction the following year, after looking into the Russian president’s soul. In return for this goodwill Putin was under some obligation, which persisted. The occupation of the country did not end national resistance: Chechnya became the corner of hell it has remained to this day. But no matter how atrocious the actions of Russian troops and their local collaborators, Western chancelleries have tactfully looked away. After 9/11, Chechnya was declared another front in the war on terror, and in the common cause Putin opened Russian airspace for B52s to bomb Afghanistan, accepted American bases in Central Asia, and primed the Northern Alliance for Kabul. So eager was Moscow to please Washington that in the emotion of the moment, it even abandoned its listening post in Cuba, of scant relevance to Enduring Freedom in West Asia. But it soon became clear there would be little reward for such gestures. In December 2001, the Bush administration scrapped the ABM Treaty. Russian friends were sidelined in the puppet government installed in Afghanistan. Jackson-Vanik trade restrictions were not repealed.

In this climate, it was asking too much for Russia to underwrite the war on Iraq. Still, the US was not to be antagonised. Left to his own devices, Putin would have preferred to say the bare minimum about it. But once France and Germany came out against the impending invasion, it was not easy for him to sidle quietly off-stage. On a visit to Paris, Chirac cornered him into a joint communiqué opposing the war – though the French alone threatened a veto in the Security Council. Once back home, Putin took care to phone Bush with expressions of sympathy for his difficult decision, and made no fuss about the occupation. Yet by the end of his first term in office, the terms of Russia’s relationship with the West had changed. A fortnight after Putin was re-elected in mid-March 2004, Nato expanded to Russia’s doorstep, with the accession of the Baltic states. But even if Washington had given Moscow little or nothing, Russia was no longer a supplicant. Oil prices, little more than $18 a barrel when Putin came to power, were now over $40, and rising rapidly towards their current level at $60 plus – netting Russia a windfall of $37 billion in extra revenues in 2005 alone. More autonomy was now affordable. The upshot so far has remained quite limited: clumsy attempts to check further Western entrenchment along Russia’s southern marches, by browbeating Ukraine and Georgia; refusal to derogate control of pipelines to Europe; revision of offshore concessions in Sakhalin. But Russia’s shadow as an energy giant is lengthening. It is now the world’s largest producer of gas and, after Saudi Arabia, the second largest exporter of oil. As Europe becomes more dependent on its energy, the country’s leverage is bound to grow. No diplomatic revolution is in prospect. But Russia has ceased to be a ward of the West.

How has the change been received there? Reactions to Putin’s regime vary, but they form a certain pattern, falling within a given range. At one end of the spectrum, there is virtually unconditional endorsement of the Russia that is now emerging. The leading exponent of this view, the economist Andrei Shleifer, helped – not coincidentally – to lay the foundations of the new order, working in Moscow as one of the drafters of Yeltsin’s privatisations, and beneficiaries of the proceeds. Project director of the Harvard Institute for International Development, financed by the US government to promote ‘economic reform in support of open markets’ in the former USSR, he was prosecuted by the Justice Department on his return to the US for criminal conduct – cashing in on his insider position for investment purposes. Harvard had to pay $26.5 million, and Shleifer and his wife $3.5 million to settle the charges against him. This was the scandal that led to the downfall of his patron Larry Summers, who as Clinton’s deputy secretary of the Treasury set up the Harvard project, and was then implicated in the pay-out, as president of the university. Shleifer’s central contention, set out in an article written with Daniel Treisman in Foreign Affairs in 2004, is that Russia has become a ‘normal middle-income country’: that is, a society with much the same growing prosperity, degrees of political and economic freedom, levels of corruption and inequality, restrictions on the media and controls on the judiciary, consumer choice and contested elections, as can be found in Mexico or Turkey or the Philippines, or anywhere else with a statistical per capita income of some $8000 a year.

Shleifer concedes that, like most such places, which fall ‘somewhere between textbook democracy and a full-fledged authoritarianism’, Russia may not be a particularly secure or just society. But – and this is what matters – it is par for the course within its global bracket, which given the debris left by Communism is a remarkable achievement. For many Russians, to be congratulated on rising to the company of Turks or Mexicans might leave mixed feelings. But by lowering the standard of relevant comparison, an unequivocally affirmative conclusion can be reached. Russia is a perfectly normal country for its level of development. It is exceptional only in the historical handicaps it has had to overcome to get there, and so unusually admirable.

Few verdicts are quite as upbeat as this. More common is the approach to be found in writers for the Financial Times – another investor in the new Russia, with a joint venture in the media – which has devoted a great deal of attention to the country, consistently talking up its prospects, while expressing dutiful regrets at the shadows or side effects of progress. Inside Putin’s Russia by Andrew Jack, the paper’s Moscow correspondent, illustrates the genre. Decent space is accorded the failings of the regime, and proper anxiety voiced about the future of liberties under it, without dwelling unnecessarily on these – ‘criticising without animosity and making the right allowances for peculiarities of history and culture’, as the FT put it. Chechnya, inevitably, figures prominently among the allowances. Jack explains that it is wrong to blame Putin, himself a ‘prisoner of the Caucasus’, excessively for a situation ‘where Chechnya and Russia have been at war of one sort or another ever since the two cultures first collided three centuries ago’: euphemisms to rank in some universal treasury of colonial apologetics. The results of the conflict may be unfortunate, but it is a sideshow. What matters is the balance sheet of Putin’s ‘liberal authoritarianism’. Here, the touchstone is thoroughly reassuring. In building a society ‘infinitely better for its citizens and foreign partners than the USSR’, Putin has achieved the essential: he has ‘cemented the transition from Communism to capitalism in a way that neither of his predecessors was able to achieve’.

Of course, since property rights remain insecure and justice is arbitrary, there continue to be grounds for concern. Delicately, Jack ventures the thought that, despite his achievements, ‘Putin’s commitment to democracy and market reform is questionable.’ A robuster brand of optimism was expressed by the late Martin Malia. Author of The Soviet Tragedy – a passionate requisitory of Bolshevism from the liberal right, ideologically parallel to François Furet’s Past of an Illusion (the two were close friends), but intellectually everything it is not, a work of brilliant historical imagination – Malia, after championing Yeltsin, did not balk at his successor. There was no chance, he explained, that Putin could revert to a traditional authoritarianism in today’s Russia, since the path to modernisation no longer lay through military-bureaucratic power of a Petrine, let alone Stalinist stamp. It required instead high levels of education and foreign investment, if Russia was to compete in the relevant contemporary arena, not battlefields but globalised markets. There was little cause to be exercised by Putin’s style of political manipulation, which was much like that of Bismarck or Giolitti in their time. Fears of renewed repression were misplaced. The international community no longer tolerated gross violation of human rights, as Bosnia and Kosovo had shown. The conflict in Chechnya was an exception, for there the ‘national honour’ rather than Russia’s ‘territorial integrity’ was at stake. But now that the deed was done, there would be no need to repeat it. ‘As the Chechnya war recedes into the past, the pressure on Russia to observe the new higher norms of international and civic morality will prevent Putin from doing anything extreme.’

Malia offered this absolution in April 2000. Seven years of torture and killing later, the norms – after Grozny, Baghdad – have staled, and the past has not passed. It would be wrong to say that no authorised opinion in the West did better than this. Among journalists, the Washington Post correspondents Peter Baker and Susan Glasser have produced a hard-hitting survey of the new Russia, Kremlin Rising, that puts the palliators of the Financial Times to shame.[2] Among historians, Richard Pipes, at one with Malia in hostility to Communism, but in temperament and outlook the all but complete opposite, has struck a characteristically dissonant note. Whereas Malia believed it was essentially the First World War that blew Russia off course from a normal Western development, which it could now rejoin, Pipes has always held that the roots of Soviet tyranny lay in age-old autocratic traditions of Russian political culture, a view he has recently reiterated in an elegant monograph, Russian Conservatism and Its Critics.[3]

In this vision, Putin’s regime occupies a natural place. Russians, the argument goes, lacking social or national cohesion, an understanding of property or wish for responsibility, cynical about democracy, wary of one another and fearful of outsiders, continue to value order over freedom. For them anarchy is the worst evil, authoritarian rule the condition of a peaceable life. Putin is popular, Pipes has explained in Foreign Affairs, ‘precisely because he has reinstated Russia’s traditional model of government: an autocratic state in which citizens are relieved of their responsibilities for politics and in which imaginary foreign enemies are invoked to forge an artificial unity’. Such bleak thoughts, at the other end of the spectrum from Shleifer’s good cheer, are less well received in Western chancelleries. There, constructive relations with Moscow, intact throughout the wars in Chechnya, are proof against minor embarrassments like the assassination of a critic or a defector. A billionaire property developer is worth a UN tribunal; who cares about a stray journalist or émigré? Noting with relief that in the Litvinenko investigation, witnesses are inaccessible and extradition unthinkable, the Economist has confided to its readers that ‘such frustrations may not be all bad,’ since ‘British diplomats’ biggest worry is not that Scotland Yard will be flummoxed, but that it might succeed.’

Too much has been invested in the triumph over Communism for any deeper doubts about the destiny of Russia. Either blemishes are normal and superable at this stage of development. Or they are the regrettable but unavoidable costs of capitalist progress. Or they are indurated vices of the longue durée. That the West itself might be implicated in whatever is amiss can be excluded. The US ambassador to Moscow in the late 1980s, Jack Matlock, has explained why: ‘Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev, in effect, co-operated on a scenario, a plan of reforming the economy, which was defined initially by the United States. The plan was devised by the United States, but with the idea that it should not be contrary to the national interests of a peaceful Soviet Union.’ Gorbachev ‘adopted the US agenda, which had been defined in Washington, without attribution, of course, as his own plan’. Adult supervision – the term once employed by another US envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad of Kabul and Baghdad, to describe his country’s relations with the world at large – was even closer under Yeltsin. By these lights, if anything goes wrong, the progenitors are certainly not to blame. See Iraq today.

At Politkovskaya’s funeral, the three principal forces behind Yeltsin’s regime were all on hand. Two of them, hypocrisies obliging: the West, in the persons of the American, British and German ambassadors; and the oligarchs par personne interposée, in the figure of Chubais, to most Russians more odious, as their procurer, than the oligarchs themselves. The third, in authentic grief, waiting outside: the tattered conscience of the liberal intelligentsia. In 1991, of all domestic groups it was mainly this stratum that helped Yeltsin to power, confident that in doing so it was at last bringing political liberty to Russia. Clustered around the presidency in the early 1990s, when it occupied many policy-making positions, it supplied the crucial democratic legitimation of Yeltsin’s rule to the end. Not since 1917 had intellectuals played such a central role in the government of the country.

Fifteen years later, what has become of this intelligentsia? Economically speaking, much of it has fallen victim to what it took to be the foundation of the freedom to come, as the market has scythed through its institutional supports. In the Soviet system, universities and academies were decently financed; publishing houses, film studios, orchestras all received substantial state funding. These privileges came at the cost of censorship and a good deal of padding. But the tension bred by ideological controls also kept alive the spirit of opposition that had defined the Russian intelligentsia since the 19th century – and for long periods been its virtual raison d’être.

With the arrival of neo-liberalism, this universe abruptly collapsed. By 1997, budgets for higher education had been slashed to one-twelfth of their late Soviet level. The number of scientists fell by nearly two-thirds. Russia currently spends just 3.7 per cent of GDP on education – less than Paraguay. University salaries became derisory. Just five years ago, university professors got $100 a month, forcing them to moonlight to make ends meet. Schoolteachers fared still worse: even today, average wages in education are only two-thirds of the national rate. According to the Ministry of Education itself, only 10 to 20 per cent of Russian institutions of higher learning have preserved Soviet standards of quality. The state now provides less than a third of their funding. Bribes to pass examinations are commonplace. In the press and publishing worlds, which had seen an explosion of growth in the years of perestroika, circulation and sales shrank remorselessly after 1991, as paper costs soared and readers lost interest in public affairs. Argumenty i Fakty, under Gorbachev the country’s largest mass-circulation weekly, sold 32 million copies in 1989. It is now down to around three million.

For a time, even with shrinking sales, the better newspapers provided a lively variety of reportage and commentary, in which many good journalists won their spurs. But as factional struggles broke out in Yeltsin’s court, and the grip of different oligarchs on the media tightened, corruption of every kind spread through the press, from back-handers and kompromat to abject propaganda for the regime. In this atmosphere, a race to the bottom followed, in which the crudest tabloids, devoted to sensations and celebrities, predictably won out. Meanwhile, the print media as a whole were losing importance to television. Initially a dynamic force in awakening and mobilising public opinion – it played a key role in the overthrow of the old order in August 1991 – Russian TV started with a high level of professional skills and public ambitions. But it too sank rapidly under the tide of commercialisation, its most-watched programmes descending to levels of crassness and inanity rivalling deepest America. Among the educated, so despised has the medium become that Russia must be the only country in the world today where one can be regularly told, with a look of contempt at the question, as if it went without saying, that the speaker has no television set in the house.

All this was demoralising enough for an intelligentsia that, whatever its internal disputes, had always taken its role as Kulturträger for granted. But with the starving of the universities, the decline of the press and the infantilisation of television, came a further alteration. For the first time in its history, money became the general arbiter of intellectual worth. To be needy was now to be a failure, evidence of an inability to adapt creatively to the demands of competition. Pushed by economic hardship, pulled by temptations of success, many who were formed as scholars or artists went into business ventures of one kind or another, often of dubious legality. Some of the oligarchs started out like this. The spectacle of this migration into a universe of shady banking and trading, ‘political technology’ (campaign-running and election-fixing) and public asset-stripping, in turn affected those left behind. Others, who had specialist scientific skills, got better jobs abroad. In these conditions, as the common values that once held it together corroded, the sense of collective identity that distinguished the traditional intelligentsia has been steadily weakened.

The result is a cultural scene more fragmented, and disconnected, than at any time within memory. The collapse of the centralised book and periodical distribution system that existed in Soviet times has created difficulties for independent publishers, leaving the field outside Moscow and St Petersburg to four or five big commercial houses which own their own outlets in the provinces, publishing mostly trash while angling for textbook contracts from the government. The most significant literary enterprise is Novoe Literaturnoe Obozrenie, started in 1992 and now Russia’s leading literary journal, whose small book publishing arm produces about 75 titles a year, concentrated in the humanities. Founded and managed by Irina Prokhorova, sister of the magnate who is Potanin’s partner in Norilsk Nickel, it also runs a cultural-political journal, Neprikosnovenny Zapas (‘Emergency Supplies’), that offers a forum for intellectual debate, and has just launched – a sign of the times – a lavish journal of fashion theory. The most coherent attempt to create something like the equivalent of the Silver Age milieu at the turn of the last century, the NLO project can be regarded as a modest oasis of reflection in an increasingly philistine scene. But by the same token it remains an enclave, liberal in temperament, but detached from politics proper. To its left, a scattering of tiny, no doubt mostly transient publishing houses has sprung up, and twigs of a radical counter-culture can be seen. In the very centre of New Russian ostentation in Moscow, hidden upstairs in a side street just behind the gross parade of luxury stores on the Tverskaya, the shabby Phalanster bookshop lives up to its Fourierist overtones: posters of Chávez, translations of Che, biographies of Bakunin, at last – just out – the Russian edition of Deutscher’s masterpiece, his Trotsky trilogy, all this amid every other kind of serious literature.

Outside, the Tverskaya with its boutiques and chain stores sets the tone. The culture of capitalist restoration looks back, logically enough, to the object-universe of late tsarism, whose garish emblems are everywhere. Moscow retains its autumnal beauty, even if as elsewhere – Weimar or Prague – too much new paint tends to coarsen older buildings rather than reviving them. But now it is enveloped in a smog of kitsch, like ancient regalia buried within a greasy wrapper. The city has become a world capital of bad taste, in which even the postmodern can seem a caricature of itself. All this physical trumpery reflects the dominant landscape of the imaginary. Within a few years, Russia has spawned a mass culture fixated on postiche versions of the dynastic past. The country’s most successful author, Boris Akunin, writes detective novels set in the last third of the 19th century. Among other stirring deeds, his upright hero Erast Fandorin thwarts a plot to hold the coronation of Nicholas II to ransom.

More than 15 million copies of the Fandorin series have been sold since 1998, and box-office hits have duly followed. The Councillor of State, in which Fandorin rescues the throne, stars Russia’s favourite actor/film-maker Nikita Mikhalkov, an ardent monarchist who plays Alexander III in his own patriotic blockbuster, The Barber of Siberia. Mikhalkov is a middlebrow figure, but higher up the scale, Alexander Sokurov, the country’s leading art-film director, reproduces much the same sensibility in his film Russian Ark, in which a prancing, gibbering Marquis de Custine leads a motley company of historical figures, in a 360° continuous camera movement round the Hermitage, that concludes with a final maudlin tableau of the Romanov court on the tragic eve of its fall, worthy of the Sissi series. (In The Sun, yet more striking camerawork, and even sicklier schmaltz, give us the quiet dignity and humanity of Hirohito, as he converses with an understanding MacArthur.)

This dominant vein of Russian poshlost today covers the gamut from pulp to middle-market to aestheticising forms, but it is the first of these that is most revealing of mutations in the culture at large. For, characteristically, a phenomenon like the Fandorin series is not the product of a Russian Grisham or King. Boris Akunin is the pseudonym of a trained philologist and translator of classical Japanese, Grigory Chkartashvili, inspired – he avows – by Griboedov, Lermontov, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky; his hero combines traits of Chatsky, Pechorin, Andrei Bolkonski and Prince Myshkin, with a touch of James Bond for good measure. Coquetting in the manner of a latter-day Propp, he has set out to illustrate the 16 possible sub-genres of crime fiction, and 16 character types to be found in it. Hugely successful pulp, marketed as serious fiction and produced by writers from an elite background, would be an anomaly in the West, if we except a single bestseller, never repeated, from Umberto Eco, though there is a close parallel in the astronomic sales and standing of China’s leading practitioner of martial arts fiction, Jin Yong, holder of various honorary positions at universities in the PRC. In Russia, it is a pattern: high-end intellectuals hitting the jackpot in low-end literature – Akunin is not alone – are one of the kinks of the encounter between the intelligentsia and the market.

The poverty of all this retro-tsarist culture reflects the impossibility of any meaningful repossession of the world of the Romanovs. The old order incubated a rough-hewn capitalism, but itself remained patrimonial to the end, dominated not by merchants or industrialists, but nobles and landowners. No living memory connects with this past: it is too different, and too remote, from the present to serve as more than vicarious pap. The Soviet past, on the other hand, remains all too immediate, and so in another way unmanageable. With few exceptions, the intelligentsia repudiates it en bloc. The population, on the other hand, is deeply divided: between those who regret the fall of the USSR, those who welcomed it, and those – perhaps the majority – whose feelings are mixed or ambivalent. The Soviet Union was not the Third Reich, and there is little sign of any Vergangenheitsbewältigung along German lines. In the culture at large, the tensions in social memory have produced a patchy amnesia.

Such tensions have certainly not silenced the arts. Fiction aiming at more than entertainment has never avoided the Soviet experience. Since the 1990s, however, representations of it have tended to become volatilised in the blender of de-realisations that typifies much current literature. Russian fiction has always had strong strains of the fantastic, the grotesque, the supernatural and the utopian, in a line that includes not only Gogol and Bulgakov – presently the two most fashionable masters – but such diverse figures as Chernyshevsky, Leskov, Bely, Zamiatin, Nabokov, Platonov and others. What is new in the current versions of this tradition is their cocktail of heterogeneous genres and tropes of an alternative reality, which seeks to maximise provocation and dépaysement. But such formal ingenuity, however startling, tends to leave its objects curiously untouched. The same techniques can dispose of Communist and post-Communist realities alike, as a single continuum. In Viktor Pelevin’s most lyrical work, The Clay Machine-Gun, the Cheka of the Civil War, the bombardment of the White House and the contemporary Russian mafia dance and merge in the same phantasmagoria. At its best, such literature is splendidly acrobatic. But, satirical and playful, most of it is too lightweight to impinge on deeper structures of feeling about the past.

Scholarship is another story. There, the tensions in public feeling often seem to have had the effect of sealing off the Soviet experience as a radioactive area for serious reflection or research. In the universities, scholars prefer to concentrate on epochs prior to the Revolution. The situation of Russia’s leading authority on the Stalinist period, Oleg Khlevniuk, is expressive. A young party historian reduced to penury with the collapse of the USSR, he was rescued almost accidentally from having to try his luck in business by a research contract from the Birmingham Centre for Russian and East European Studies. Fifteen years later, he still depends essentially on Western grants. The History of the Gulag was published by Yale, and has been translated into several other Western languages. Incredibly, there is no Russian edition of it.

From the opposite background, Nikita Petrov was a youthful dissident and early organiser of Memorial, the glasnost-era civic organisation. Later, picked as a radical democrat for the commission set up by Yeltsin to supply evidence for the outlawing of the CPSU as a criminal organisation, he was given access to secret police archives, of which he made good scholarly use. His latest book is a biography of Khrushchev’s KGB chief, Ivan Serov. Today, Memorial is a shadow of its former self: no longer a political movement, but a residual institution funded from the West, amid general indifference to its work among the Russian population. As for research, since the mid-1990s sensitive archives have been essentially closed – only about twenty pages a day are available from Stalin’s personal files, for the thirty years of his power, a fraction of what any modern ruler generates – and mid-level bureaucrats obstruct any inquiries likely to affront the new nationalism. But in fact, Petrov remarks, there is now little interest in critical study of the Soviet past – revelations of its crimes no longer have any impact. His major work on Yezhov, written with the Dutch scholar Marc Jansen – an astonishing portrait of the man and his time – has never found a publisher in Russia. Can translation costs be the only reason? In his view, the popular mood is now one of incurious nostalgia for Stalinism. In 1991 Petrov could not have imagined such a political reversal would be possible.

Economically, culturally, psychologically, the Russian intelligentsia has been pulled apart by the changes of the last fifteen years. The term itself is now repudiated by those for whom it smacks too much of a common identity and a revolutionary past: contemporary intellectuals should shun the suspect traditional term intelligent in favour of the neologism intellektual, of healthier American origin, to denote the new independent-minded individual, distinct from the collective herd of old. Such dissociations themselves have a long history, going back at least to the denunciations of the radical intelligentsia by Vekhi, the famous symposium of writers on the rebound from the 1905 Revolution, who might now be called neo-conservative, but were then nearly all liberals. Today, vigorous questioning of the self-images of the contemporary intelligentsia can be found across the spectrum, but attacks on its historical role again occur mainly in liberal journals – the debate in the autumn in Neprikosnovenny Zapas is an example. But their context has altered. The events of 1991, not those of 1905-7, constituted the first revolution liberals could call their own. Politically, how then does Russian liberalism stand today?

Hostility – often, in private, verbally extreme hostility – to Putin’s regime is widespread. But of public opposition there is little. The reason is not only fear, though that exists. It is also the knowledge, which can only be half-repressed, that the liberal intelligentsia is compromised by its own part in bringing to being what it now so dislikes. By clinging to Yeltsin long after the illegality and corruption of his rule was plain, in the name of defence against a toothless Communism, it destroyed its credibility in the eyes of much of the population, only to find that Yeltsin had landed it with Putin. Now, with a mixture of bad conscience and bad faith, it struggles to form a coherent story of the change.

Why, people in these circles often complain, do the Western media portray the 1990s as a time of chaos, crime and corruption – negative stereotypes of every kind – when in fact it was the freest and best period in the history of the country, yet treat Russia today as a democracy, when ‘we live under fascism’? True, certain intellectuals have also taken to denigrating the 1990s, but that is out of resentment at having lost the privileged living they enjoyed under the Soviet system, when they got comfortable salaries and flats and had to do nothing, whereas now they have to find some genuine work in the market. What then of the personal and institutional continuities between the Yeltsin and Putin regimes? Oh, those. Our mistake was to have been naive about the kind of human society the Soviet system had created, which quickly reasserted itself and produced Putin – who, in any case, ‘is not the worst’ it could have thrown up. In other words, whatever has gone wrong in Russia, it was not Yeltsin’s fault, or their own.

It was clear from the very beginning of the August overturn that a test of the new Russian liberalism would be its handling of the nationalities question, where the old – Vekhi and its sequels – had conspicuously failed. During the first Chechen War, it acquitted itself honourably, opposing Russia’s invasion and welcoming its acceptance of defeat. But the second Chechen War broke its moral spine. A few protests continued, but by and large the liberal intelligentsia persuaded itself that Islamic terrorism threatened the motherland itself, and had to be crushed, no matter what the cost in lives. A year later, America’s own war on terror allowed a gratifying solidarity with the West. Today, few express much enthusiasm for the Kadyrov clan in Grozny: most prefer to avoid mention of Chechnya. Leading courtiers of Yeltsin, still flanking or advising Putin, are more outspoken. Gaidar has explained that it is difficult for outsiders to understand ‘what the aggression against Dagestan in 1999 meant for Russia. Dagestan is part of our life, part of our country, part of our reality’ (sic – Russians make up 9 per cent of the population). Thus ‘the issue was no longer the Chechen people’s right to self-determination. It was the question of whether Russian citizens should be protected by their own government.’ Chubais has been blunter: Russia’s goal in the new century, he recently declared, should be a ‘liberal empire’.

Such views are naturally welcome enough in the Kremlin, though these particular voices are something of a liability. Around the regime, however, are more credible forces, recruited from the democrats of 1991, who provide it with critical support from a distinctive position within the liberal tradition. Grouped around the successful weekly Ekspert – a business-oriented cross between Time and the Economist – and in the back-rooms of United Russia, their outlook could be compared to Max Weber’s in the Second Reich. The fall of the USSR was, they believe, the work of a joint revolt by liberal and national (not just Baltic, Ukrainian or Georgian, but also Russian) forces. But under Yeltsin, these two split apart, as more and more Russians with a sense of national pride felt that Yeltsin had become a creature of the Americans, while liberals remained bound to him. Putin’s genius, in this version, has been to reconcile national and liberal opinion once again, and so create the first government in Russian history to enjoy a broad political consensus. The market-fundamentalism and retro-Communism of the 1990s, each now a spent force, are no longer alternatives. In bringing calm and order to the country, Putin has achieved ‘hegemonic stability’.

By their own lights, the intellectuals who articulate this vision – typically from scientific or engineering backgrounds, like many novelists – are clear-eyed about the limitations and risks of the regime, which they discuss without euphemism. Putin’s style is to give concessions to all groups, from oligarchs to the common people, while keeping power in his own hands. He is ‘statist’ in every instinct, despising and distrusting businessmen; though he does not persecute them, he affords no help to small or medium enterprises, so that in practice only the huge raw materials and banking monopolies thrive. Politically, he is a ‘presidential legitimist’, in a Congress of Vienna sense, and so will respect the constitution and step down in 2008 – after choosing his successor. Who might that be? Here, they show some nervousness. For even if Putin does not decide on a third term, he will still be very much at large – only 55, and having amassed huge power, informal as well as formal, in his hands. How would a hand-picked successor cope with him? To this, they have no real answer, beyond joking that Russians don’t bother talking of a third term, but rather of a fourth or a fifth. Their concern focuses on the successor himself. In favour of strong government but not a dictatorship, patriots rather than nationalists, they are fearful of what the future might bring, should a tougher rather than milder heir be chosen, or another major outrage like the seizure of the Moscow theatre or the school in Beslan allow the ‘special services’ to impose an emergency regime in Russia.

Those who have cast their lot with hegemonic stability risk repeating the trajectory of the original liberal intelligentsia under Yeltsin, who kept thinking that their advice and assistance could steer him in the right direction, only to find that he gave them Putin, under whom they tremble. Unable to come to terms with their own responsibilities in backing the attack on the White House and the fake referendum on the constitution, with all that followed, they are now reduced to complaining that a ruinously Sovietised Russian people have proved incapable of accepting the gift of democracy ‘we were striving to bring them’. Today’s national-liberals are more lucid than the democrats of the 1990s, but it is not clear that they have much more real influence at court than their predecessors. If one of the candidates they most fear – the defence minister, Sergei Ivanov, or even the pallid premier, Mikhail Fradkov, for example – were to be put into the Kremlin, they could find themselves in much the same situation as the limpets of Yeltsin. They hope it will be someone more amenable, like Putin’s other favourite, the first deputy premier Dmitri Medvedev, whose task is to give a socially caring face to the regime. But they will have no more say in the choice than other citizens.

Historically, Russian liberalism came in a variety of shades, and it would be wrong to reduce them all today to the pupils of Hayek or Weber. Amid the different adaptations to power of the period, one mind of complete independence stands out. Tall but stooped, almost hunched, with the archetypal bookish look of a scholar, in a square, squinting face lit up with frequent ironic smiles, the historian Dmitry Furman is of White and Red descent. His grandmother, who brought him up and to whom he was always closest, was an aristocrat, his grandfather – the couple were separated – a high Stalinist functionary, who even as a deputy minister lived quite poorly, devoted to his cause and work. Furman explains that he grew up without any Marxist formation, yet no hatred of Communism, regarding it as a new kind of religion, of which there had always been many sorts. After graduating, he did his research on religious conflicts in the Late Roman Empire, and then became a specialist in the history of religions in the Academy of Sciences. He never wrote anything about contemporary events, or had anything to do with them, until perestroika.

When the USSR collapsed, however, he was virtually alone among Russian liberals in regarding the overthrow of Gorbachev as a disaster. For a year afterwards, he worked for the Gorbachev Foundation, and then returned to the Academy of Sciences, where he has since been a researcher at the Institute of Europe, and a prolific essayist on the whole zone covered by the former USSR. He has perhaps the most worked out, systematic view of post-Communist developments of any thinker in Russia today. It goes like this. The country is a ‘managed democracy’: that is, one where elections are held, but the results are known in advance; courts hear cases, but give decisions that coincide with the interests of the authorities; the press is plural, yet with few exceptions dependent on the government. This is, in effect, a system of ‘uncontested power’, increasingly similar to the Soviet state, but without any ideological foundation, which is evolving through a set of stages that parallel those of Russian Communism. The first phase sees the heroic destruction of the old order, a time of Sturm und Drang – Lenin and Yeltsin. The second is a time of consolidation, with the construction of a new, more stable order – Stalin and Putin. The leader of the second phase always enjoys much broader popular support than the leader of the first, because he unites the survivors of the original revolution, still attached to its values, and the anti-revolutionaries, who detested the anarchic atmosphere and the radical changes it brought. Thus Putin today continues Yeltsin’s privatisations and market reforms, but creates order rather than chaos. The successor to Putin in the third stage – comparable to Khrushchev – is unlikely to be as popular as Putin, because the regime, like its predecessors, is already becoming more isolated from the masses. Putin’s high ratings in the polls are entirely a function of his occupancy of the presidency: the rulers of Kazakhstan or Azerbaijan – Nazarbaev or Aliev – can match them, because their systems are so similar.

But the regime in Russia will face a serious problem in 2008, and considerable tension is already being generated. Will Putin step down and hand over the presidency to a successor, or will he change the constitution and stay on? Either course is full of risks. He could easily change the constitution to let him stay in the Kremlin indefinitely, as Nazarbaev has done in Kazakhstan – the parliament will do what he wants, and the West would not complain too much. But this would install something closer to a traditional dictatorship than to a managed democracy, requiring an ideology of some kind, which Putin entirely lacks. So although he is now studying the interwar writings of the theorist Ivan Ilin, then a semi-Fascist émigré in Germany, the best guess is that he will not want to perpetuate himself in power, since this would require too great an ideological upheaval.

Might not nationalism provide such a basis, if it is not already doing so? Furman dismisses the possibility. Russian nationalism is too low-powered to take the place of democracy as a legitimation of Putin’s rule. It is not a fanatical force like the nationalism that sustained Hitler’s regime, rather an impotent resentment that Russia can no longer bully its neighbours as it once did. The current campaign against Georgians is an instance: an expression of the frustration of a former master-people, that has now to treat those who were once its inferiors as equals. The result is a pattern of sudden rages over minor issues, explosions that are then as quickly forgotten – disputes with Ukraine over this or that dam, clamours over Serbia, and so on. These are neurotic, not psychotic symptoms. Such petty rancours are not enough to found a new dictatorship. That is why legitimation by the West remains important to the regime, and is in some degree a restraint on it. Since it has no ideology of its own, and cannot rely on a broken-backed nationalism, it must present itself as a specific kind of democracy that is accepted by the G7 – Russia as a ‘normal country’ that has rejoined Western civilisation.

On the other hand, if Putin doesn’t change the constitution, and steps down from the presidency in 2008, there will also be a big problem for the system, since for the first time in Russian history there would then be two centres of power in the country – the new and the old president. This is a formula for political instability, as the bureaucracy would waver between two masters, not knowing which one to obey. Putin may think he will select a pliable successor, but historically this has never worked: such figures always want to exercise full power themselves. Stalin was picked as the least outstanding figure by the Party after the death of Lenin, for fear of the stronger personality of Trotsky, and he became an all-powerful despot. Khrushchev was selected as a compromise first secretary after Stalin, rather than the more powerful Beria or Malenkov – and promptly ousted them and seized power for himself. So it was too with the mediocre personality of Brezhnev, chosen as least dangerous by his colleagues. The pattern would be likely to recur after 2008.

Asked his view of Pipes’s diagnosis of Russia’s deep political culture – no popular understanding of democracy, or rule of law; tyranny always preferable to anarchy – Furman answers matter-of-factly: yes, it is more or less accurate, but Pipes is wrong to think this is uniquely Russian. It is a very widespread political culture, which you can see throughout the Middle East, in Burma, in Uzbekistan and elsewhere. We should not whitewash or embellish Russian political culture, but we should also not think of it as exceptional. Nor is it correct to imagine that there has been any significant revival of religion in post-Communist Russia. The Orthodox Church has been absorbed as an element of national identity, and officiates at baptisms and funerals. But not weddings – sexual life is completely secular – and rates of regular attendance at church are among the lowest in Europe.

If the second phase in the cycle of managed democracy is now coming to an end in Russia, what of the third and fourth phases, comparable to the Khrushchev and Brezhnev periods under Communism? The whole cycle, Furman replies, will be much shorter – not seventy, but about thirty years. We are probably at midpoint right now. As for the future: the Russian intelligentsia was briefly in power in 1991, but its ideology was primitive and its outlook naive. So when the democracy it wanted was discarded by Yeltsin, the defeat of democracy was the defeat of this intelligentsia too. Only when Russian intellectuals have produced a self-critical assessment of this experience will it be able to develop new and sounder ideals for the future.

This is an impressively level-headed diagnosis of the country’s condition. Its limitation lies in the unargued premise of the argument. Managed democracy à la russe is tacitly viewed as a transition that, with all its warts, leads towards genuine democracy. Within the very sobriety of the scheme, a hopeful teleology is at work. Only one terminus is possible: the liberty of the moderns embodied in the Western Rechtsstaat. Realist in its judgments about Russia, the model is idealist in its assumptions about the West. Certainly, the two remain very different. But can the differences, and their direction, be captured by Furman’s implied dichotomy? For who imagines the political systems of the West to be ‘unmanaged’ democracies? Their own regressions are not factored into the evolutionary scheme. The idealising side of Furman’s construction exposes itself to the tu quoque retorts with which Putin and his aides now relish silencing criticism by the West.

All of these debates revolve around the nature of the state. Society is less discussed. In the West, the historians of the USSR who challenged the Cold War paradigms of Pipes and Malia – Sheila Fitzpatrick has described their rebellion in these pages – famously focused on the activities and textures of daily life in the Soviet Union, as popular realities often at variance with official myths, though not necessarily undermining them: the outcome from below, rather than the intention from above. Post-Communism offers a vast field for research of this kind, looking at the ways in which ordinary people are surviving in the new institutional wilderness. Two Russian sociologists, both living abroad, have given us striking ethnographic descriptions of some of them. In How Russia Really Works, Alena Ledeneva, who teaches in London, takes us through the dense thicket of ‘informal’ practices – some entirely new, like kompromat, others a mutation of traditional forms, like krugovaya poruka – that have sprung up in politics, professions, business and the media, all of them breaking or circumventing official rules.[4]

For Ledeneva, they are essentially inventive kinds of illegality, developed in response to the increasing role of formal law in a society where legality itself remains perpetually discretionary and manipulated. As such, they at once support and subvert the advance of a more developed rule of law in Russia. Critical though her account of this paradox is, it comes with a wry affection and upbeat conclusion: all these ingenious ways of fixing or bending the rules contribute in their own fashion to an ongoing, positive process of modernisation. The underlying message is: the Russians are coping. Here it is Western modernity rather than democracy that is taken for granted, as the unspoken telos. A darker verdict can be found in Andrew Wilson’s Virtual Politics, a blistering study of the ‘political technology’ of blackmail and bribery, intimidation and fraud, in the electoral scene.[5]

Ledeneva’s study explores the world of those who are doing well out of Russian capitalism. At the very end of her book, she lets drop that informal practices which were ‘often beneficial to ordinary people in allowing them to satisfy their personal needs and to organise their own lives’ in times past – ‘before the reforms’, as she puts it – have now become a system of venality that ‘benefits the official-business classes and harms the majority of the population’. The admission is not allowed to ruffle her sanguine conclusions, or uncritical notions of reform. Georgi Derluguian, working in the United States, is more trenchant. Few sociologists alive today, in any language, have the same ability to move from vivid phenomenological analysis of the smallest transactions of everyday existence to systematic theoretical explanation of the grandest mutations of macro-history.

‘The collapse of the USSR,’ Derluguian argues, ‘marks more than the failure of the Bolshevik experiment. It signalled the end of a thousand years of Russian history during which the state had remained the central engine of social development.’ Three times – under Ivan IV, under Peter I and Catherine, and under Stalin – a military-bureaucratic empire was constructed on the vast, vulnerable plains, to emulate foreign advances and resist external invasions, powering its own expansionism. Each time, it was initially successful, and ultimately shattered, as superior force from abroad – Swedish in the Baltic wars, German in the Great War, American in the Cold War – overwhelmed it. But the last of these defeats has buried this form, since it was inflicted not on the battlefield, but in the marketplace. The USSR fell because the traditional ‘Russian state-building assets’, in Derluguian’s phrase, were abruptly ‘devalued’ by transformation of the world economy. ‘Capitalism in the globalisation mode is antithetical to the mercantilist bureaucratic empires that specialised in maximising military might and geopolitical throw-weight – the very pursuits in which Russian and Soviet rulers were enmeshed for centuries.’

In the ensuing disintegration – an implosion under pressure of the new environment – middle-levels of the nomenklatura seized what booty they could, morphing into private asset-strippers or brokers, or reinstalling themselves at different levels, with different titles, in the reconfigured post-Communist bureaucracy. Derluguian has much to say, both picturesque and painful, about this process as it worked itself out in the centre and on the periphery, where he comes from (with an intimate knowledge of the Caucasus). But he never forgets the losers below, ‘the silent majority of Russians’, who are ‘mostly atomised, middle-aged individuals, beaten-down, unheroic philistines trying to make ends meet as decently as they can’, after twenty years of betrayed expectations.

In such conditions, the distance between the frayed, precarious fabric of private lives – of a people now ‘profoundly tired and resistant to any public mobilising’ – and the global canvas on which the destiny of the state is written, seems enormous. Yet there is one traumatic knot that ties them together. In just five years, from 1990 to 1994, the mortality rate among Russian men soared – in peacetime – by 32 per cent, and their average life-expectancy plummeted to under 58 years, below that of Pakistan. By 2003, the population had fallen by more than five million in a decade, and is currently losing 750,000 lives a year. When Yeltsin took power, the total population of Russia was just under 150 million. By 2050, according to official projections, it will be just over 100 million. So many were not undone by Stalin himself.

Official demographers hasten to point out that high mortality rates were already a feature of the Brezhnev period, while low fertility rates are after all a sign of social advance, in syntony with Western Europe. The combination of a mortmain from the past and an upgrade from the future has been unfortunate, but why blame capitalism? Against these apologetics, Eric Hobsbawm’s judgment that the fall of the USSR led to a ‘human catastrophe’ stands. The starkness of the break in the early 1990s is not to be gainsaid. In the new Russia, as Aids, TB and sky-rocketed rates of suicide are added to the list of traditional killers – alcohol, nicotine and the like – public healthcare has wasted away, on a share of the budget that is no more than 5 per cent: half that of Lebanon. A sense of the sheer desolation of the demographic scene is given by the plight of women – more protected from the catastrophe than men – in contemporary Russia. Virtually half of them are single. In the latest survey, out of every 1000 Russian women, 175 have never been married, 180 are widows and 110 are divorcees, living on their own. Such is the solitude of those who, relatively speaking, are the survivors. There are now 15 per cent more women alive in this society than men.

In power-political terms, a relentless attrition of Russia’s human stock has obvious consequences for its role in the world, the subject of urgent addresses to the nation by Putin. What will remain of the greatness of the past? In the 1970s, foreign diplomats were fond of describing the USSR as ‘Upper Volta with rockets’. From one angle, Russia today looks more like Saudi Arabia with rockets, although against the waxing of its oil revenues must be set the ageing of its missiles. That the country, even if it has now regained a certain independence, has so come down in the world haunts not only its governing class, but many of its writers. The possible spaces of empire – past or future, native or alien – have become one of the leitmotifs not only of its political discussion, but of its literary imagination.

In the leading example of the ‘imperial novel’, now an accepted form, Pavel Krusanov constructs a counterfactual history of the 20th century. His bestseller Ukus Angela (‘Bite of the Angel’ – 200,000 copies) recounts a Russia that has never known a revolution, and instead of contracting in size, expands to absorb the whole of China and the Balkans, under the superhuman command of Ivan Nekitaev (‘Not-Chinese’), a tyrant of Olympian freedom from all morality. Vladimir Sorokin inverts the schema in his latest novel, Den’ Oprichnika (‘The Day of the Oprichnik’). By the year 2027 the monarchy has been restored in a self-enclosed Russia, surrounded by a Great Wall, and run by a reincarnation of Ivan IV’s corps of terrorists, under the thumb of China, whose goods and settlers dominate economic life, and whose language is the preferred idiom of the tsar’s children themselves.

These are fictions. The polyglot intelligence specialist Aleksandr Dugin’s Foundations of Geopolitics draws on Carl Schmitt and Halford Mackinder to counterpose powers of the sea (the Atlantic world centred on the US) to powers of the land, stretching from the Maghreb to China, but centred on Russia, as their natural adversary. Originally, Moscow-Berlin, Moscow-Tokyo and Moscow-Tehran featured as the three main axes in the front against America. Later, a Slavo-Turkish alliance has been conjured up. Borrowing the title of Armin Mohler’s work of 1949, Dugin terms the eventual victory of the powers of the land over those of the sea the ‘conservative revolution’ to come. His colleague Aleksandr Prokhanov, ‘the nightingale of the general staff’, doubles as bestselling novelist, with Gospodin Geksogen, a conspiracy tale of Putin’s ascent to power, and theorist of a new Eurasian imperium, celebrated in his Symphony of the Fifth Empire, just out. These are writers who have dabbled in the murky waters of the far right, but today enjoy a wider political and intellectual entrée. Dugin’s Geopolitics carries an introduction from the head of the strategy department of the general staff. Prokhanov’s Symphony, covered on national television, was launched under the patronage of Nikita Mikhalkov, in the presence of representatives of the ruling United Russia and the neo-liberal Union of Right Forces, Gaidar’s party.

The extravagance of these dreamlands of imperial recovery is an indication not of any feasible ambition, but of a psychology of compensation. The reality is that Russia’s rank in the world has been irreversibly transformed. It was a great power continuously for three centuries: longer – this is often forgotten – than any single country in the West. In square miles, it is still the largest state on earth. But it no longer has a major industrial base. Its economy has revived as an export platform for raw materials, with all the risks of over-reliance on volatile world prices familiar in First and Third World countries alike – over-valuation, inflation, import addiction, sudden implosion. Although it still possesses the only nuclear stockpile anywhere near the American arsenal, its defence industry and armed services are a shadow of the Soviet past. In territory, it has shrunk behind its borders at the end of the 17th century. Its population is smaller than that of Bangladesh. Its gross national income is less than that of Mexico.

More fundamental in the long run for the country’s identity than any of these changes, some of them temporary, may be the drastic alteration in its geopolitical setting. Russia is now wedged between a still expanding European Union, with eight times its GDP and three times its population, and a vastly empowered China, with five times its GDP and ten times its population. Historically speaking, this is a sudden and total change in the relative magnitudes flanking it on either side. Few Russians have yet quite registered the scale of the ridimensionamento of their country. To the west, just when the Russian elites felt they could at last rejoin Europe, where the country properly belonged, after the long Soviet isolation, they suddenly find themselves confronted with a scene in which they cannot be one European power among others (and the largest), as in the 18th or 19th century, but face a vast, quasi-unified EU continental bloc, from which they are formally – and, to all appearances, permanently – excluded. To the east, there is the rising giant of China, overshadowing the recovery of Russia, but still utterly remote to the minds of most Russians. Against all this, Moscow has only the energy card – no small matter, but scarcely a commensurate counter-balance.

These new circumstances are liable to deal a double blow to Russia’s traditional sense of itself. On the one hand, racist assumptions of the superiority of white to yellow peoples remain deeply ingrained in popular attitudes. Long accustomed to regarding themselves as – relatively speaking – civilised and the Chinese as backward, if not barbaric, Russians inevitably find it difficult to adjust to the spectacular reversal of roles today, when China has become an industrial powerhouse towering above its neighbour, and its great urban centres are exemplars of a modernity that makes their Russian counterparts look small and shabby by comparison. The social and economic dynamism of the PRC, brimming with conflict and vitality of every kind, offers a particularly painful contrast, for those willing to look, with the numbed apathy of Russia – and this, liberals might gloomily reflect, without even the deliverance of a true post-Communism. The wound to national pride is potentially acute.

Worse lies to the west. The Asian expanse of Russia, covering three-quarters of its territory, contains only a fifth of its population, falling fast. Eighty out of a hundred Russians live in the quarter of the land that forms part of Europe. Catherine the Great’s famous declaration that ‘Russia is a European country’ was not so obvious at the time, and has often been doubted since, by foreigners and natives alike. But its spirit is deeply rooted in the Russian elites, who have always – despite the urgings of Eurasian enthusiasts – mentally faced west, not east. In many practical ways, post-Communism has restored Russia to the ‘common European home’ that Gorbachev liked to invoke. Travel, sport, crime, emigration, dual residence are letting better-off Russians back into a world they once shared in the Belle Epoque. But at state level, with all its consequences for the national psyche, Russia – in being what cannot be included in the Union – is now formally defined as what is not Europe, in the new, hardening sense of the term. The injustice of this is obvious. Inconvenient though it may be for the ideologues of enlargement to acknowledge, Russia’s contribution to European culture has historically been greater than that of all the new member-states of the EU combined. In the years to come, it would be surprising if the relationship between Brussels and Moscow did not rub.

Few peoples have had to undergo the variety of successive shocks – liberation, depression, expropriation, attrition, demotion – that Russians have endured in the last decade and a half. Even if these, historically considered, are so far only a brief aftermath of the much vaster turbulences of the 20th century, it is no surprise that the masses are ‘profoundly tired and resistant to any public mobilising’. What they will eventually make of the new experiences remains to be seen. For the moment, the people are silent: Pushkin’s closing line applies – ‘narod bezmolvstvuet.’


[1] Russian terms and phrases. Syroviki: those in control of syryo, or raw materials; siloviki: those in command of sila, or force; kompromat: compromising information; krugovaya poruka: literally, ‘circular pledge’, or mutual complicity; poshlost: (roughly) pretentious banality.

[2] Simon and Schuster, 464 pp., £20, September 2005, 978 0 7432 6431 0.

[3] Yale, 256 pp., £17.95, December 2005, 978 0 300 11288 7.

[4] Cornell, 288 pp., £12.95, October 2006, 978 0 8014 7325 4.

[5] Yale, 336 pp., £20, April 2005, 978 0 300 09545 6.

Perry Anderson teaches history at UCLA.

8 February 2007 www.lrb.co.uk