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  • U.S. Raises the White Flag…

    U.S. Raises the White Flag, Calls for Talks with Russia over the New Arms Race

     

    Wikipedia: the white flag is an internationally recognized protective sign of truce or ceasefire, and request for negotiation

     

    by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.

     

    One can finally say with certainty that Vladimir Putin’s presentation of Russia’s new weapons systems during his Address to the Federal Assembly on 1 March has finally elicited the desired response from its target audience. In Washington, D.C.  In that presentation, Putin spoke about strategic weapons systems employing cutting-edge technology that, he claimed, is more than a decade ahead of US and other competition.

    He scored a direct hit in the Pentagon, where our senior generals were left dumbfounded. But, as is normally the case, when these gentlemen need time to collect their wits, we heard first only denial: that the Russians were bluffing, that they really have nothing ready, that these are only projects, and that the US already has all of the same, but is holding it back in reserve.

    Of course, not everyone in US political elites bought into this stop-gap response.

    On 8 March, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D- California), Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) and two lesser known Senators from Massachusetts and Oregon wrote an open letter to then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson urging him to send a delegation to open arms control talks with the Russians “as soon as possible.”   This was an improbable demarche that even their supporters in the Progressive camp, let alone mainstream Democrats found hard to believe. The two named Senators have been bitter foes of Russia and were actively promoting the Trump Collusion with Russia fairy tale in recent months. They were among those who had hissed at the pictures of Jeff Sessions, not yet Attorney General, shaking hands and smiling with Russian Ambassador Kislyak.  Now they were calling for revival of arms control talks with… the Russians.

    This was a story that died before publication everywhere except in Russia, where it had been a featured news item within hours of the Letter’s release.  The American and world public knew nothing about it, although the letter was there for the reading on the home pages of the Senate websites of the respective co-authors. The American and world public know nothing about that letter today, nearly two weeks after its release, apart from readers of Consortium who were properly briefed at the time (https://consortiumnews.com/2018/03/03/putin-claims-strategic-parity-respect/  )

    In the meantime, the US propaganda machine moved into high gear, producing diversionary issues to draw the attention of the US public away from what had been the subject of Putin’s speech of March 1.  And so we have been getting saturation news coverage of the Skripal nerve gas attack, of the alleged cyber attack on the US energy grid and water systems. Both are pure “Russians did it” stories.  And we read about the repositioning of US naval forces in the Mediterranean to within cruise-missile range of Damascus for a possible punitive blow in response to a chemical attack on civilians by Assad’s regime that still has not happened, all with intent to humiliate Assad’s backers, the Russians.

    Now, at last, after the denial and the diversion, the truth begins to emerge. The President of the United States himself is the bearer of a message that, given American hubris, amounts to the raising of a white flag. 

    We find the following on page one of The New York Times describing Trump’s remarks about his phone call to congratulate Vladimir Putin on his electoral victory:

     

    "We had a very good call,” Mr. Trump told reporters. “We will probably be meeting in the not-too distant future to discuss the arms race, which is getting out of control.”

     

    The Financial Times has this to say on page one:

     

    Donald Trump said he wanted to meet Russian president Vladimir Putin to discuss an arms race that was ‘getting out of control’ and other issues over which the countries remain at loggersheads.

    ‘Being in an arms race is not a great thing,’ the US president said on Tuesday, adding that he would probably meet his Russian counterpart in the ‘not too distant future’.

     

    The re-instatement of Russian strategic parity with the United States appears to be making itself felt, even if one has to be an expert in reading between the lines to parse from Trump’s statement the depth of concern about new Russian military potential.

     

    It is a safe assumption that now arms talks with the Russians will begin soon. But the American public should be forewarned that the scope of  the discussions will surely be much greater than that of the so-called reset under Barack Obama, which played to an American, not a Russian wish list of cutting warheads. This broader agenda will have to take in Russian concerns about the US global anti-missile system. Should there be agreement, the change in approach to arms control will come not from US charity, but out of US fear.

     

    Did Donald Trump raise the white flag and call for negotiations on a whim?  Did he consult with his military advisers?

     

    It is scarcely credible that this President came to the conclusion about the need to halt the arms race on his own or that he dared raise such an inflammatory subject without having the firm backing of Pentagon specialists who evaluated rationally and expertly where we now stand in in strategic security with the Russians. No one will say this, but it is inescapable. 

     

    To put the present situation in an historical context: in the past year or two, the United States and Russia have reached a level of confrontation that approaches that of the Cuban Missile Crisis.  That crisis was resolved by mutual back-downs on positioning of nuclear capable missiles near the borders of the other side.  The mutuality of the solution was not announced to the American public until decades later, when the withdrawal of US missiles from Turkey was made public.  This time, the mutuality of major concessions will necessarily be part of the presentation of any solution reached to the global community.  Vladimir Putin will not go the way of Nikita Khrushchev, who paid for his “concession” to the Americans by a palace coup at home.

     

    © Gilbert Doctorow, 2018

          * * * *

    Gilbert Doctorow is an independent political analyst based in Brussels. His latest book, Does the United States Have a Future? was published on 12 October 2017. Both paperback and e-book versions are available for purchase on www.amazon.com and all affiliated Amazon websites worldwide. See the recent professional review  http://theduran.com/does-the-united-states-have-a-future-a-new-book-by-gilbert-doctorow-review/    For a video of the book presentation made at the National Press Club, Washington, D.C. on 7 December 2017 see  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ciW4yod8upg

     

  • Second Thoughts: How the Russian Presidential Election Race Looks in its Final Days

     

     

    Second Thoughts: How the Russian Presidential Election Race Looks in its Final Days

    By Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.

    The candidates for the presidency in Russia’s election this coming Sunday, 18 March are now in the home stretch.  Not much has changed in the past several weeks as regards the respective standing of each in the polls of voter sympathies.  Vladimir Putin holds the lead, way out in front, with nearly 70% of voters saying they will cast their ballot for him.  The candidate of the Communist Party, Pavel Grudinin, has held on to second place, at just over 7% despite suffering some severe setbacks over revelations of his bank accounts held abroad. And third place, with just over 5% goes to the nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky of the LDPR.  Liberal candidate, Ksenia Sobchak, who positioned herself to catch the protest vote “against all,” has about 1.5%. The remaining four candidates – Sergei Baburin, Maxim Suraikin, Boris Titov and Grigory Yavlinsky - had and have fractions of one percent of the electorate committed to them.

    Candidate Putin appears on track to achieve the 70:70 target that his campaign team set for him, meaning a turnout on election day of 70% of the electorate, of which 70% vote for Putin. Such results would support a claim to popular validation of his domestic and foreign programs for the coming six years. It would give him a free hand for substantial reworking of the cabinet, which, rumor says, may come in the days immediately ahead.

    However, the campaign is about process as much as it is about results, and at that level there is a great deal  which merits our consideration because of what this electoral campaign says about the condition of Russian democracy today and where the country is headed.

    The campaign has had several dimensions, some of which require that you be physically present to experience them, others of which can be followed from remote, as I have done.  For total immersion, one would have to follow the various candidates around the country as they have visited factories, hospitals, farms and all manner of locations to speak and meet with voters. This has been done daily by the Russian news channels, and so some feel for it can nonetheless be acquired by remote, even if what happened off camera – the way candidates stage direct their events and their own film crews – is unknowable.  One would have to pick up the print media at newsstands and tune in to the major federal radio stations which have turned over time to the candidates under rules established by the Central Election Commission. All of this I and others watching from abroad have missed.

    What has been available to us outside the country is all of the televised debates, since they were posted on youtube.com often within minutes of their broadcast on air. That and campaign materials posted on Russian social media, which I will discuss below. All of this constitutes invaluable material to see the very impressive extent of freedom of speech and equal access to the national audience allowed in Putin’s Russia to his challengers, however slight their share of voter support may be. That in itself is quite a revelation.

    Nonetheless, the purpose of the analysis which follows is to reach a fair-minded understanding of the processes under way, not to hand bouquets to the incumbent or to anyone else. Following that guiding principle, I will call out not only the high degree of democratic freedom in evidence but also the thumb on the scales in favor of the ruling party.

    * * * *

                                                    The Debates: Some Observations

    When I wrote my First Impressions of the campaign on 23 February, just after the first televised debate, the full strategy of holding debates and their format were not known to any of us, including the candidates themselves, as I deduce from the bitter complaints they made over the early hour of the broadcast, over its being taped rather than going out live, over there being no face to face dueling, just a couple of minutes time to respond to questions pitched by the presenter to each of them separately.  On that first day, the candidates were outraged that the subject for the debate was foreign relations, when as it turned out, none but Zhirinovsky has much experience or knowledge or interest in foreign policy – their programs being constructed strictly around domestic policy and the economy in particular.

    To be sure, it is peculiar that the candidates were kept in the dark about the procedures and format, for all of which the Central Election Commission is to blame. As we subsequently saw, these debates had formats that varied in some important ways from channel to channel, including the issue of live versus taped broadcast.

    Over the course of the nearly three weeks of debates, changes came about in format that were initiated by the candidates themselves, beginning with Ksenia Sobchak, who was quickest off the mark and most determined not to be told how to behave by the very people she urges the electorate to vote against as a played out generation.  Specifically, Sobchak was the first to do what any experienced public figure regularly does on interview programs or talk shows: ignore the question and use the microphone given to her to speak directly to voters about what she considered important.  She was not censored, the tapes were not cut and thereafter such a possibility was stated by presenters on some of the debates so that other candidates could avail themselves of the same option. Few did.

    Sobchak definitely added color and at times scandal to the entire debating process. In this respect, she was fully the match of nationalist party candidate Vladimir Zhirinovsky who for decades has had exactly that niche position to himself in electoral politics and in talk shows.  The other candidates were not dull, but were far more polite, and so less newsworthy. 

    Part of Zhirinovsky’s bag of tricks as television personality has always been his dress code. At times he has come to interviews and talk shows looking formal in a business suit, but very often he has worn firetruck red sports jackets or other attention-getting outfits.  Here again, Ksenia Sobchak has done the same in the debates, changing her coiffure, changing her clothes to project different policy positions in her electoral platform. On one day she wore a sweat shirt with big anti-war legend to support what she had to say on how Putin is the war party, whereas she stands for good neighborly relations with all and redirection of Ministry of Defense spending to domestic infrastructure needs.

    Along the way, Sobchak has taken some very unpopular stands, particularly with respect to Crimea and what she calls the illegitimate Russian occupation there. This has cost her dearly. Polls show that with a bit more than 1% ready to vote for her, 80% of the electorate say they would never vote for her, making her the most unpopular of all the candidates in the race.  However, one can have no doubt that Sobchak and her advisers hold the view that it is better to be hated than to be unknown.  At 36, she has plenty of time ahead to choose policies that will be more in line with the broad population and at that point everyone on the stage with her will have retired.  My clear conclusion is that this race has shown Sobchak as the person to watch in the Duma elections of 2021 and in the next presidential race of 2024.

    * * * *   

    Looking back at the whole series of debates, it is clear now in retrospect that the organizers intended to give all candidates the opportunity to set out broad platforms touching upon every major sector of domestic and foreign policy. On separate days the following issues were featured on each of the channels

    -youth, education and development of human potential

    -development of the regions

    -development of industry and especially the military industrial complex

    -demography, motherhood and childhood

    -health, the social sphere and provisions for the handicapped

    -the Russian national idea

    It is essential to remember that equal time was granted to all, that all were invited to participate in person or by proxy regardless of their actual support levels in the population. In the United States such equal access may occur during the primaries in each party, but is choked off once party nominations for the two main parties, Democratic and Republican are closed, with only their respective nominees invited to debate on national television. Translating the Russian pattern to the USA, it is as if Jill Stein of the Green Party had been put on stage alongside Clinton and Trump, not to mention candidates of other still more exotic parties with miniscule registered voters.

    The Russian debates were held not only on the two leading news channels, Rossiya-1 and Pervy Kanal, but also on the less watched but still important federal channels Public Broadcasting (ORT) and Television Center (TVTs), both of which posted some debates on youtube.com.  There were televised debates as well at the regional level to which some candidates sent proxies. One on the Ryazan station of Rossiya-1 for example dated 14 March was posted to youtube.com   By their presence or absence, the candidates themselves made it fairly clear that they valued above all Rossiya-1 and Pervy Kanal, and these are the channels that I monitored.

    From among these many posted videos, I have decided to highlight here the debates from yesterday, 13 March, in what was the next to the last day of such televised debates. I think it is preferable to drill down on one day than to skim the surface on several weeks of shows. Moreover, yesterday’s debates on the two leading channels are useful to highlight some very specific Russian features of the country’s political class across the board.

    In Pervy Kanal, the subject of the day was relations between the federal capital, Moscow, and the regions. The candidates were unanimous in decrying the present situation, which has not successfully addressed and perhaps has even aggravated over the past couple of decades the very large discrepancies between the “donor regions” of Moscow and a handful of other regions enjoying budgetary surpluses, the best salaries in the country and extensive public services and amenities, versus the “deficit regions” which are more than 80% of the federal regions, all in chronic need of funding from the central government, struggling with heavy debts to credit institutions and where the salary levels and public services are many times below those of the donor regions.

    For this, the Communist Left candidates found cause in the privatization of state assets that led to plundering of resources and removal of wealth from where it is generated to Moscow and beyond to offshore accounts. The Liberal Right candidates found fault with excessive concentration of budgetary decision making and political power in Moscow, resulting in provincial governors waiting in the corridors of the Ministry of Finance to get handouts to be spent as Moscow directed, not in accordance with local priorities. 

    Of course, both Liberals Sobchak and Yavlinsky hammered home the need for local mayors and governors to be elected by those whom they govern, not appointed by the Kremlin from among apparatchiki. The issue is valid and highly relevant to whether/how Russia can become dynamic as an economy and as a polity.

    And it also was of considerable value to the voter to hear from Boris Titov that fellow liberal Ksenia Sobchak was caught in a contradiction over her support for greater financial independence of the regions, given that her announced preference for Finance Minister should she win the election is Alexei Kudrin, who formerly served under Putin in this capacity, was always and remains in favor of centralization while disparaging local control of finance as likely only to feed corruption and misuse of power.

    In passing, this discussion on Pervy Kanal brought out a number of other very important failings of the Putin years as they affect the broad population.  One in particular is worth mentioning:  the limited nature of “gasification” of the countryside, which is not more than 60% of the population. It was noted that Gazprom has earned 600 billion euros in the past decade largely from exports but has invested only 10 billion euros in bringing gas to the households of Russia itself.  The point is painful to the whole rural population of the country which has to cope with the difficult logistics of bottled gas for cooking and wooden logs for heating.

    The Pervy Kanal debate of 13 March was a worthy exercise in democracy. The Russian electorate is being exposed to cogent and well-presented critiques of the entire political and economic landscape.

    The Rossiya-1 debate of 13 March was worthy in a different way:  highlighting the very special characteristics of Russia’s political class whatever their policy orientation. This typology is not unique, but special and on the Continent, it is closest, perhaps, to France.  By this I mean the high intellectual achievements of all the candidates. Two of the candidates, Sergei Baburin and Vladimir Zhirinovsky hold Ph.D. degrees. All seven are well educated in terms of general culture, well-read and appreciative of wit and the ability to draw lessons from literature in fellow candidates whose political positions they otherwise may ridicule.

    The topic for the Rossiya-1 debate, “culture, art and preservation of historical memory” was particularly amenable to honest discussion among the candidates. The show which resulted in many ways resembled more a drawing room scene from a Tolstoy or Dostoevsky novel than a political debate in the closing phase of a presidential election race. The candidates unanimously were scathing in their criticism of the current management of culture by Minister Medinsky even if their perspectives on the reasons for the unacceptable state of things are diametrically opposed, ranging from the intrusive and corrupting influence of power and wealth in the appraisal of the Communist Left as opposed to the Liberal Right’s underlining mediocracy resulting from the stultifying influence of a bureaucracy directing and financing culture without the participation of sponsors from the broad base of the business community.

    The salon nature of the discussion in which candidates even hastened to support the critiques of the status quo leveled by others was heavily encouraged by the demeanor of the “moderator,” Vladimir Solovyov who, for this debate handled himself not according to the script of the CEC, that is, as a detached timekeeper and referee to keep the debaters within order, but instead as he usually does on his own talk shows, intervening and guiding the discussion while expressing his personal opinions.

    It was fascinating to observe the common cultural heritage of all candidates regardless not only of political views but of personal wealth and life experience. In this regard, one or another of the Communist-minded candidates, otherwise scathing of the bourgeoisie and oligarchy, were treated with respect similarly to that shown to the consumptive Socialist youth Hippolyte Terentiev by the very proper and aristocratic General Yepanchin and his wife and daughters in The Idiot who took him in during his final weeks.  And surely one of the most exceptional moments in this electoral campaign was the lengthy citation by Pavel Grudinin’s proxy Maxim Shevchenko of the conversation between Christ and the Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov, all to make a point about power and art in the Russian mind.

    In my “first impressions” and in the transcript of the first televised debate on the Pervy Kanal state network that I issued a couple of days later, I suggested that the Russian campaign is all high level, intellectual combat in an agora of ideas, which to American ears in particular would be a day and night contrast with the tawdry spectacle of mudslinging and ad hominem argumentation that constituted the 2016 American presidential race.

    However, my first impressions did not take in what was excised from the first debate when it was released to youtube.com: namely a vicious exchange between two candidates, Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Ksenia Sobchak, that may just have sunk lower than even the Clinton-Trump debates.  Russia, like the Soviet Union before it, often justifies the arch remark that what is fully prohibited is also permitted. In the full, uncut video, a pirated version of which of course found its way onto the internet within hours, we hear Zhirinovsky describe Sobchak, who was at a lectern just next to his, as a “streetwalker,” if I may be allowed a euphemism. In response to which, she doused him with the water in her drinking glass.

    A less enjoyable and more irritating problem with the first televised debates which fit precisely the habits of Russian political talk shows, such as the moderators of these debates otherwise host, was shouting down speakers and boisterous heckling. Here again, the most egregious offenders were precisely Zhirinovsky and Sobchak.  Be that as it may, a technical solution was eventually implemented at least on the Pervy Kanal so that by the last debates only one selected candidate had a live microphone at a time.

                                                                           Absence of Putin

    One distinguishing feature of the debates was the absence of the President, who chose neither to participate in person, nor to send a proxy.

    As it turned out, the absence of Putin from these debates was entirely justified by the utterly unruly behavior and scandals at the beginning of the series.  Moreover, had the President or his representative been present he would have been the subject of attack from all 7 challengers in unison, a very unfair situation for him and not very enlightening for the electorate.

     At the same time, it is very clear that those managing the incumbent’s campaign were exploiting every legal means to dominate, indeed to overwhelm all his opponents taken together with high quality viewer and listener time singing his praises and arguing for more of the same in the coming six years. These legal means included the delivery of his annual Address to the Federal Assembly, the Russian equivalent to the State of the Union address of the American President, in the midst of the electoral campaign, on 1 March. This gave Vladimir Putin two hours on all the airwaves to set out what is in effect a program or manifesto for his next mandate.

    Another device used to put the President before the electorate in a privileged manner was the launch in the past week of two new, sophisticated and full-length documentary films about Vladimir Putin. One, entitled “World Order 2018” features the popular talk show host Vladimir Solovyov as Putin’s interlocutor or interviewer. As we have seen, Solovyov was also the moderator of the debates on the channel Rossiya-1. The film itself is professional if not brilliant.  It contains a number of good sound bites from Putin, such as his recollections of his first visit to Germany in 1992 as an assistant to St Petersburg mayor Anatoly Sobchak. As he explains here, their meeting with Chancellor Helmut Kohl provided Putin with material that he later used to advantage when he returned to Germany in 2002 as Russian President and delivered a speech to the Bundestag. There are also interesting remarks by Putin about the days immediately following the coup d’etat in Kiev on 22 February 2014 and the behavior of the Americans. And I would point to Putin’s comments about relations with Turkey and about the special Turkish interest in the Crimean Tatars. 

    The second documentary, simply entitled “Putin” was produced by the highly professional film maker Andrei Kondrashov, who is in the President’s election campaign team.  Kondrashov is no newcomer to Putin promotion.  In March 2015, on the first anniversary of the reunification of Crimea with the Russian Federation, he launched the highly entertaining “Crimea, A Way Home,” which featured dramatic footage of the way Putin and his security team rescued deposed Ukrainian president Yanukovich from almost certain capture and execution by the radical nationalists. With the help of excellent visuals, Kondrashov’s new film gives us the family history of the Putins in the countryside of the Tver region, interviews with those who knew Vladimir Putin in his youth and at turning points in his career, all told with great human warmth.

    To avoid violation of the federal regulations on a candidate’s using the federal television channels for unfair free publicity, these documentaries were released onto the Russian social networks Vkontakte and Odnoklassniki, where they apparently have found a large audience. In its first week, “World Order” is said to have found 15 million viewers.  Meanwhile, sound bites from these documentaries were picked up by the major news programs of the federal channels as “news” pure and simple.  Legal, to be sure, but aggressive.

    To this we can add Vladimir Putin’s interview with Megyn Kelley of CNN in his capacity as President, not candidate, filmed in part immediately following his delivery of his Address to the Federal Assembly on 1 March and in conclusion the next day on his visit to Kaliningrad. From start to finish, this filmed interview shows Putin as projecting strength. We see this in his blunt rejection of U.S. allegations of Russian electoral interference in 2016 coming out of the Mueller indictments. We see it still more clearly in his lengthy explanation of the military hardware part of his Address on the first, showing off Russia’s new cutting edge technology nuclear weapons systems and claiming full restoration of strategic parity with the United States. Who could ignore his wry smile over how the vast sums which the United States had spent developing global ABM systems for the sake of a first strike capability were now demonstrably money thrown out the window.

    More generally, there is an issue over the way that leading news programs on the federal channels have become pro-Putin voice boxes.  Nowhere is this more true than in Dmitri Kiselyov’s News of the Week shows on Sunday evenings.

    In my First Impressions, I remarked on Kiselyov’s 15 minute segment on  17 February devoted to Communist candidate Pavel Grudinin. That was an expanded version of what was being reported in the news bulletins on Rossiya- and Pervy Kanal daily. The objective was to discredit the underlying claims of Grudinin’s candidacy, namely that his profitable Lenin Sovkhoz farm complex in the Moscow suburbs, paying wages double the nationalaverage and providing cheap housing, free day care, free medical care for his employees is the model he intends to  generalize all over the country to bring socialist welfare to every home. 

    Kiselyov directed attention to the complaints filed against Grudinin by elderly pensioners who say they were defrauded by Grudinin in the 1990s when he essentially privatized the state farm and deprived some of its members of their stake in the land assets.  Kiselyov further argued that the prosperity of Grudinin’s farm comes not from the strawberries it cultivates in great quantities for the Moscow market but from land transactions including rentals and sales from the highly desirable territory it owns in the sought after metropolitan area.  A third line of attack focused on the villa and other residence owned in Latvia by Grudinin’s son, whose wife had acquired Latvian citizenship. These were described as “emergency airport” facilities for the candidate in case he ever felt the need to leave Russia in a hurry.  Kiselyov closed his commentary with a recommendation to Communist Party chairman Zyuganov that he withdraw support from the non-Party Grudinin before he does irreparable damage to his party and thereby also harms Russia’s young democracy.  The whiff of sarcasm there and condescension was pungent.

    This singling out of the Communist Party candidate for attack by state television news acting as investigator was patently unfair. That kind of sleuthing and exposure should have been done by the other candidates, not by the State. Nonetheless, as it turned out Kiselyov’s and Russian state television’s focus on Grudinin’s moral weaknesses was not unjustified.  He was finally “nailed” in an unrelated matter impugning his integrity and the whole claim of the Left to be morally superior to the corrupt and oligarch-infested regime of Vladimir Putin and the United Russia Party.  It was discovered that contrary to Grudinin’s declarations to Zyuganov and to the federal electoral commission when applying for registration of his candidacy, Grudinin has some 13 bank accounts in Switzerland holding assets close to a million euros, as well as some 5 kilograms of physical gold worth a couple of hundred thousand euros.  This was confirmed in writing to the Central Election Commission (CEC) by UBS Bank in Switzerland.  The CEC decided not to disqualify Grudinin, as was their option but could be highly provocative and destabilizing. They merely will post these assets on the highly visible list of assets owned by each of the candidates at every voting station. But the damage was done to Grudinin’s reputation among the Party faithful.  Grudinin stopped entirely appearing on the debates and sent only proxies.  The scandal also damaged the reputation of Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov for failure to do due diligence. One almost certain consequence of these elections will be Zyuganov’s retirement from office and the coming to power in the Communist Party of young blood.

    A word of explanation about the lists of candidate assets:  this has become a tradition in Russian federal elections within the concept of full transparency.  At each polling station voters can read about the holdings of the candidates and their immediate family as regards assets in banks, apartments and other real estate, and cars among other property categories.  In this regard, two liberal candidates, Ksenia Sobchak and Boris Titov, will stand out for their personal wealth valued at more than one million euros.  However, both are supporters of the free market with its rewards, whereas the Communists make a virtue of wealth redistribution and equality.

    * * * *

    It is unlikely there will be any great surprises in the election’s outcome on 18 March, but it would be a mistake to conclude that the whole exercise was a farce.  Russia’s young democracy is an ongoing work. The debates and other procedures of the electoral campaign are evolving, even if the content – namely credible and experienced candidates for the nation’s highest office – remains unsatisfactory.  Partly this results from the concentration of political power in Moscow and the still rudimentary self-government across the country that would normally develop future leaders.  This will have to be addressed in Putin’s final term in office if there is to be a handover of power in 2024 to a worthy successor.

    The balloting itself will be another test of the consolidating mechanisms of democracy.  The Kremlin says it has done everything possible to ensure fair and transparent elections.  Some cutting technology has been put in place to make every polling station accessible online, so that electoral monitoring by remote is a reality. Moreover, on a pilot basis the Russians have deployed what they say is block-chain technology to make the voting hack-proof.

    As an international election observer serving with an NGO reporting to the Council of Europe, I expect to see firsthand the results of these efforts to reassure Russians and the world at large that democracy is on the move in Russia.  I will issue a report on what I see in the days immediately following the election

    © Gilbert Doctorow, 2018

          * * * *

    Gilbert Doctorow is an independent political analyst based in Brussels. His latest book, Does the United States Have a Future? was published on 12 October 2017. Both paperback and e-book versions are available for purchase on www.amazon.com and all affiliated Amazon websites worldwide. See the recent professional review  http://theduran.com/does-the-united-states-have-a-future-a-new-book-by-gilbert-doctorow-review/    For a video of the book presentation made at the National Press Club, Washington, D.C. on 7 December 2017 see  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ciW4yod8upg

     

     

     

  • Vladimir Putin’s Electoral Manifesto: Speech to the Federal Assembly, 1 March 2018

    Vladimir Putin’s Electoral Manifesto: Speech to the Federal Assembly, 1 March 2018

     

    by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.

     

    Several days ago, I wrote the first installment of my analysis of Vladimir Putin’s Address to the two houses of Russia’s bicameral legislature, on Thursday, 1 March 2018. In that essay, I focused on the last third of the address in which the Russian President rolled out major nuclear weapons delivery systems which were notable for unparalleled technologies that may change the world power balance. Putin claimed that Russia’s full parity with the United States in strategic weaponry has been restored. His blunt message to the United States to abandon its 16 year attempt to achieve a first strike capability and sit down for arms control talks drew the immediate attention of world media, even if the initial reading was confused.

     

    In this second installment of my analysis of President Putin’s landmark speech, I will consider the Address in its entirety within its other context, directed at the domestic audience and constituting his electoral platform for the election to be held on 18 March.

     

    The Russian President’s annual Address is mandated by the Constitution. It resembles the State of the Union address in the United States. Normally it should have taken place more than a month ago, and Putin’s rescheduling it for this critical time in the midst of the campaign raised some eyebrows. The head of the liberal Yabloko party complained to the Central Electoral Commission last week about that very fact. However, such complaints were already dismissed previously by Commission director Ella Pamfilova as lacking merit since such speeches were said to be “standard practice in many nations around the world.”

     

    Be that as it may, in actual fact the speech delivered by Vladimir Putin was not a simple summary of government activity in the year gone by and short term projection of future government plans. The speech took in a much longer time frame, looking back to the condition of Russia when Putin first took office in 2000  to highlight his administration’s achievements in social, medical, educational and other spheres till now and projecting forward six years, to the limit of the next presidential term, to set out in each domain of government activity what are the major objectives.

     

    This was also the longest speech of its kind delivered by Putin in his three terms as President, exceeding by far his previous record of one hour forty minutes.  For all these reasons it is entirely appropriate to call the speech his platform, or still better, as the British would call it with the stress on cogency of thinking processes behind the stated objectives, his “manifesto.”

     

    In every way, the Address was a direct response to all the criticisms of his time in office that Putin has received from his seven challengers in the presidential race coming from across the political spectrum from nationalists and liberals on the right and Communists of various labels on the left. When compared with the first debate among those seven aired on the federal television network Pervy Kanal on the morning of the 28th, it leaves the whole field of challengers looking like squabbling toddlers in a kindergarten.

     

    Putin and his advisers knew full well from the challengers’ prior position statements what are their joint and several lines of attack and his address was a direct, almost point for point response. With the exception of Vladimir Zhirinovsky of the nationalist LDPR, who essentially supports Putin’s stress on strong foreign policy and strong military as his most important task as President and of the liberal Ksenia Sobchak, who totally rejects Putin’s foreign policy as detrimental to Russia’s interest in accommodation with the West for the sake of shared values and common civilization, all the other candidates have no interest in foreign policy as such and insist that the best foreign policy is a good domestic policy. That happens also to suit very well their own talents and experience, since the debates quickly revealed that none but Zhirinovsky has any relevant experience in international affairs.

     

     The common position of five out of seven challengers is that a good foreign policy is possible only for a powerful state, and a powerful state is the product of a strong economy and prosperous people. One of the candidates, Grigory Yavlinsky of the liberal Yabloko party summed up the problem most efficiently:  a country like Russia which only accounts for 2% of global GDP,  a country which has a GDP and a military budget that are both only 10% of those of the USA, cannot compete on the world stage.

     

    Six of the seven challengers to Putin are persuaded that the electorate has no questions about foreign and military policy, but has a great many questions about the domestic programs of the federal government, about poverty, inadequate public health care, bad roads, corruption and thieving officials, to name just the most salient concerns.

     

    Accordingly, in his Address to the Federal Assembly, Vladimir Putin devoted the first two thirds of his time on stage to domestic policy, setting out in detail specific targets to be reached by 2024 in many key areas of activity and financing by the federal government with a view to creating a prosperous society that is just and attractive to its members, that enjoys robust economic growth and values the human potential of its citizens above all.

     

    However, in the last third of his speech devoted to military matters, he made the point that notwithstanding its still modest GDP and notwithstanding demographic and other problems confronting it, Russia has successfully countered US efforts to render useless Russia’s nuclear strike force. Ever since the United States abrogated the ABM Treaty in 2002, it has worked to encircle the Russian Federation with dual purpose anti-missile defense bases that will at some point confer on the United States a first strike capability.  The end result would be to deny to Russia its residual argument for holding its permanent seat in the UN Security Council and its prominent place in other international forums derived from the past glory of the Soviet Union.

     

    In his speech, Putin said nuclear parity with the USA has been restored and will be indefinitely sustainable given the decade long technological lead his country now has in totally new and formidable strategic weapons systems that can defeat any ABM array.  Russia is and will be a powerful state because it has an unequalled defense capability which provides physical security to its citizens, surely the first responsibility of any government. With physical security ensured, the government can create the infrastructures for a successful economy and successful civil society.  In all of this, Putin turns the logic of his political opponents on its head. 

     

    Russia’s hard power justifies its aspirations to a strong foreign policy. Russia’s nuclear umbrella, which he said covers not only the Russian Federation but also its “allies,” will be the strongest element of attraction. Depending on how the term “allies” is eventually defined, it is possible to imagine a line of candidate “allies” from the developing world in particular seeking protection from what they see as US bullying and regime change politics.  Russia’s hard power will clearly trump soft power, which is what Putin’s challengers are largely proposing to use in pursuit of an active foreign policy at some time in the future when the country is prosperous.

     

    Moreover, the hard power can be used to fuel the Russian economy as a source of innovation which, we will see below, is key to his program for accelerating the growth rate.   Russia’s military budget has an unusually high ratio of equipment procurement to manpower maintenance and operational costs, namely 1:1. Cutting edge and world beating technological advances in weapons systems can be a source of unique new materials, electronics, software and the like. Over the course of several years, President Putin has encouraged the enterprises in the Russian military industrial complex to develop civilian applications for their scientific breakthroughs citing specifically the need to emulate U.S. practices.  He has told factory management they must look to the civilian economy because the state will be cutting back on their funding as it completes its immediate acquisitions program.

     

    Some commentators in the West have said that the defense part of Putin’s Address was meant to rouse the patriotic pride of his compatriots for the sake of success at the voting booths.  However, I believe the calculation was more complex. The roll-out of new, invincible military hardware spelling national security swept aside the specific arguments of Putin’s challengers in the race.  It swept aside all the arguments from the past that he and his cronies have stolen the national wealth: the national wealth had instead been invested in saving the nation from its external competitors turned adversaries.

     

    Another view that has been promoted among some Western commentators is that Putin was presenting a platform of “guns and butter.”  No, the platform thinking is more subtle:  that you get butter only if you have guns.  This aligns with an argument that Vladimir Putin has been making for years: that nations unavoidably pay for armed forces; the difference is only whether they are paying to support their own troops or to pay tribute, covering the costs of someone else’s troops dominating them.

     

    There can be no question that electoral considerations drove the decision to present Russia’s new hardware precisely now.  There are several occasions of major publicity value domestically when this could have been done. The last one was back in December during Putin’s annual press conference.  Or, he could have chosen to break the news at a foreign venue of great moment, such as the Munich Security Conference in February, where Putin had first made waves globally with his speech of February 2007.  That instead Vladimir Putin and his advisers chose to use the annual Address to the Federal Assembly and to place that Address in the middle of the electoral campaign shows the intent was to kill two birds with one stone:  to overwhelm the presidential candidates challenging his next term in office, leaving them no time to formulate credible counter arguments, and to access the very large contingent of foreign correspondents who would be present for his annual speech to parliament.

     

    If this was indeed his intent, he was only partly successful.  Today’s latest televised debates of the candidates on the federal news network Pervy Kanal showed that one challenger was unperturbed and found an opportunity to make political capital from Putin’s Address. Ksenia Sobchak has once again repositioned her campaign and adopted the slogan of Peace Candidate, casting Putin as the candidate of the War Party based on his rocket show.

     

    * * * *

     

    Now let us look at the specific objectives Putin set out in his speech for making Russia prosperous and an enviable society in the coming six years.  Then we will consider the tools he proposes to use to reach these often very ambitious objectives: Do they entail major structural reforms of the economy as many foreign and some Russian pro-market specialists have called for?  Are they likely to require wholesale changes to the cabinet of ministers and personnel in the ministries after the elections, as some speculate?  Or are they incremental, building upon the programs his government has already implemented often in pilot projects in one or another region of this enormous country?

     

     

    “Quality of life” for its citizens and “prosperity of households” are set by Vladimir Putin as the ultimate objectives of his government’s domestic policies in a new term. This statement of purpose is undistinguishable from what his seven challengers are saying. Indeed, Putin has taken on board words and concepts that have in the past been the property of the opposition.  We note this stress on the realization of each person’s talents, and his specific mention of the need to expand to the greatest extent the space for personal freedom.  Putin’s program differs from those of the Right and the Left principally in the plans to achieve shared goals.

     

    Instead of re-nationalization and re-distribution of wealth called for by the Left candidates or stress on sweeping personnel changes in the bureaucracy to root out corruption as well as total overhaul of the judiciary for the sake of better independence and professionalism called for by the Right candidates, Putin calls for a breakthrough in applying technology to “improve the people’s quality of life, modernize the economy, infrastructure and state governance and administration.”

     

    The term breakthrough appears repeatedly in the text which follows and by itself would suggest disruption and new directions. He further says in the introductory section that it is “time to take a number of tough decisions that are long overdue.”

     

    However, at the same time there is a counter-indication that Putin is not campaigning against himself. He insists that the foundation is already in place: “We have substantial experience implementing ambitious programs and social projects.”

     

    In what follows, Vladimir Putin touches upon a great many separate social issues and on various sectors of the economy which will be central to any leap forward in global performance and creation of high quality and well- paying jobs at home.  Let us begin with those headings to which he has attached specific quantitative goals.

     

    Life expectancy.  Putin identifies this as a gauge of well-being.  It was 65 when he came to power in 2000, with male life expectancy below 60 at the time.  Today it is 73.   The new goal for 2030 is 80 plus, i.e., on a par with Japan, France and Germany. Though it exists as a value in and of itself, in the context of Russia’s poor demographics coming out of the depression of the 1990s, extending the productive lives of the citizenry, just as subsidizing young families to encourage more births, can be a major contributing factor to national output.

    Housing – in 2017  three million Russian families moved into improved housing. The target is for five million to do so each year in the next presidential term. Housing supply, presently at 80 million square meters annually, must go to 120 million

    Transport – make Russia the world’s key logistics and transport hub

    Roads – over the next 6 years to nearly double the spending on road construction and repairs, going from 6.4 trillion rubles over the period 2012-17 to 11 trillion with spending concentrated on regional and local roads which are still deplorable and a matter of great concern to the citizenry

    Rail – raise the throughput of major rail links to the Far East by 1.5 times, reduce transit time of containers from Vladivostok to Russia’s Western borders to just 7 days, more generally increase the volume of transit shipments between Europe and Asia 4 times.

    Northern Sea Route – increase cargo traffic 10 times by 2025

    Power generation – attract investment of 1.5 trillion rubles in private investment for modernizing the power generation sector. Shift the whole country’s power grid to digital technology.

    Internet – by 2024 ensure the whole country has high speed internet. Fiber optic lines to most populated areas with more than 240 people

    Healthcare – double healthcare spending to more than 4% of GDP over the period 2019-24.

    Restore primary healthcare to localities where they were shut. By 2020 ensure each small town with a population of between 100 and 2,000 has a paramedic station and outpatient clinic. For very small villages, create mobile units.

    Promotion of small businesses – by 2025 their contribution to GDP should approach 40%, taking in 25 million people, up from 19 million today. 

    Non-resource exports. In the coming 6 years to double the amount of non-resource and non-energy exports to reach $250 billion. Engineering exports to reach $50 billion; services, including education, healthcare, tourism and transport to reach $100 billion per year.

     

    Other very important elements in the priorities for development in the next 6 year term are described directionally but not quantitatively. These include education, fundamental research, culture, agriculture.

     

    Many of the metrics noted above imply very substantial government financing of infrastructures. Others assume public-private partnerships. And still others imply strictly private investment. 

     

    As regards the state, where is the money to come from?  As regards private business, domestic and foreign, why would they decide now to invest in the government’s priorities for development?

     

    The answer is found in an expanding economy, one placing bets on the newest technologies globally. An incoming tide raises all boats.  

     

    In terms of per-capita GDP, Putin says that in his coming mandate Russia should be counted among the five largest global economies, with per-capita GDP rising by 50% to 2025.  This is a dramatic increase from the presently anemic 1.7% GDP growth per annum, which lags behind global growth by one percent. His plan assumes in particular increased labor productivity. He projects growth of at least 5% per year in medium sized and large enterprises of basic industries such as manufacturing, construction, transport, agriculture and trade to reach the level of leading world economies by 2030.

     

    Rising productivity is a consequence of subsidies and other direct state support to priority industries to make competitive goods and a consequence of private investment of manufacturers on their own to upgrade and technologically reequip their own facilities.

     

    Putin tells us that the first precondition for the virtuous cycle described above has been put in place: low inflation.  Thanks to the efforts of the Bank of Russia these past couple of years, the inflation rate has been brought down to an historic low of 2% per annum.

     

    Low inflation has made it possible to lower the mortgage rate to below 10%, with a 7% mortgage on the horizon within the coming several years.  Mortgages already have reached an all-time peak of one million last year. Cheap credit will also enable project financing to housing construction, thereby passing from the consumer to developers the risks of non-completion of apartment buildings. This is not a small issue in the present campaign. The problem of defrauded apartment buyers has been seized upon by several of the presidential hopefuls as a stick to beat the present administration. Both mortgages on the demand side and project financing on the supply side will drive the housing boom that is presupposed in Putin’s electoral platform, raising the numbers of well-paid jobs.

     

    Meanwhile, low inflation makes possible affordable credit to business of all scales, and for shared infrastructure investments, another fundamental driver of the economy in Putin’s economic model.

     

    But there is more to the toolkit than Treasury funds and interest rate management. In his speech, Vladimir Putin described a whole array of legal, fiscal and administrative measures having the combined effect of improving the business climate in the country.  He called attention in particular to the need to pass enabling legislation for introduction of cutting-edge technologies such as driverless vehicles, Artificial Intelligence and blockchain transactions in several industries so that the Russian economy can be a leader in the fastest growing vectors of the global economy. 

     

    Technical means to curb graft and thereby improve the business climate include further reduction of  reporting and of on-site inspections of business by tax and other authorities with a shift to remote, i.e., digital exchange of information over the internet. Plans also call for greatly curtailing recourse to the Criminal Code to resolve commercial disputes.  These types of technical solution to the seemingly intractable problem of day to day corruption already proved their worth at the very start of Putin’s time in power when he simplified the personal income tax to a flat 15%, thereby cutting all contact between the vast majority of the population and tax officers to “negotiate” exemptions and the like, while at the same time greatly increasing tax compliance.

     

    The domestic portion of the Manifesto builds on real achievements over the past several years in steadying the economy during times of great outside stress. Though market oriented in most respects, it is also entails  state-directed economic priorities to promote “national hero” industries  as is practiced by France and other European countries. But this does not approach state capitalism. In his speech, Putin remarks that it will be an objective in his next term to reduce the share of the economy in state hands. This share has risen in the last several years as clean-up of the Russian banking industry resulted in failing banks being taken over by the state. Putin says these assets must now be sold off as quickly as possible.

     

    The domestic policies are largely a continuation and acceleration of good trends already in place using a familiar tool kit.  So where is the “breakthrough”? Likely it is to be found in the new technologies that Russia will welcome and facilitate through support to start-ups, enabling legislation, cheap credits and other technical means.  In this, we may see the steady influence on Putin’s thinking coming from some liberal members of his entourage, including, for example Herman Gref, the chairman of Sberbank, and even his prime minister Dmitry Medvedev, who has been an avid promoter of digitalization to streamline all government services.

     

    However one may regard the level of democracy in Russia, the connections drawn between freedom, innovation, the knowledge society and prosperity in Putin’s electoral Manifesto fit very well within liberal West European and U.S. thinking.  The thinking about balanced budgets and stress in domestic policy on the government’s role creating physical and legislative infrastructures for business to thrive fits well within conservatism of the pre-Reagan Republican party in the United States.  The fairly extensive social welfare dimension of Putin’s present domestic policy was not developed in this Address though he did speak of the need to raise pensions, ensure equal access to quality education and expand health care to all citizens however remote. That falls into the tradition of Bismarckian conservatism that gave rise to the welfare states on the Continent.  

     

    The problems between Russia and the West arise not in the domestic programs of Vladimir Putin, present and future, but elsewhere in foreign and defense policy. At his and his country’s risk and peril, Vladimir Putin insists on its sovereignty and repudiates US global hegemony. In this area, he enjoys the company of Russia’s patriotic Left parties and is scorned by the liberal Right.

     

    This then is the unique synthesis of Left and Right notions that we find in Vladimir Putin’s electoral Manifesto, which is nonetheless internally coherent.

     

    For a brief overview of the speech which I delivered a couple of hours after Putin finished speaking, see my interview with RT: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mK66tkYuPVQ&t=57s 

    © Gilbert Doctorow, 2018

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    Gilbert Doctorow is an independent political analyst based in Brussels. His latest book, Does the United States Have a Future? was published on 12 October 2017. Both paperback and e-book versions are available for purchase on www.amazon.com and all affiliated Amazon websites worldwide. See the recent professional review  http://theduran.com/does-the-united-states-have-a-future-a-new-book-by-gilbert-doctorow-review/    For a video of the book presentation made at the National Press Club, Washington, D.C. on 7 December 2017 see  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ciW4yod8upg