Vlad is POd. Seriously POd. At the Ukrainians and the Euros, for having the audacity to modernize Ukraine’s shambolic gas pipelines without consulting HIM. Can you imagine, the nerve. Like Ukraine must think it is a sovereign country or something.
“It seems to me the document about which we are talking is, at a minimum, ill-considered and unprofessional because to discuss such issues without the basic supplier is simply not serious,” Putin said in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.
Just how the “basic supplier” would be harmed by measures that would improve the reliability and capacity of a major route linking its supplies to the ultimate consumer, Vlad didn’t say.
He’s so cute when he’s mad, dontcha think? All I can say is, when he goes off like this, I know there is something right with the world. For a change.
Loyal Putin creature Sergei Shmatko, the Energy Minister, chimed in:
Shmatko said the joint declaration touched on more sensitive issues than just gas and might damage EU energy security.
“It goes far beyond modernization of the Ukraine transit system and talks of the integration of Ukraine into the legal sphere of the European system as far as energy is concerned,” he told reporters.
Uhm, and what business is of yours, Sergei? Ukraine and Europe have a perfect right to enter into such relations, even if it does involve some legal integration. The concept is called “sovereignty.” I’m sure you’ve heard about it. After all, you and your cronies never tire of telling the rest of the world to f*ck off, and leave your “sovereign democracy” alone. Goes both ways, dude.
Putin, gansta that he is and wants to be, sounds like one. “Hey, Ukraine, you MY b*tch! How dare you go out with somebody else. Don’t make come over there and slap you around like I did that Georgia b*tch!”
This is all particularly rich in light of some of the things that Putin said during January’s gas war. (Seems like years, not months, ago.) At the time, Putin repeatedly denigrated the condition of Ukraine’s gas transport system, and called its reliability into question. This was, in large part, an effort to pump up the prospects for Nordstream and South Stream, both of which would bypass Ukraine.
And that’s the real reason for Vlad’s pique. He doesn’t want a reliable Ukrainian transportation network. It undermines his goals, geopolitical and economic.
So, I say to Ukraine–You Go. And to the EUnuchs–you surprise me, and in a good way. (Though perhaps they didn’t foresee how Vlad would react. It will be interesting to see whether they hang tough after Vlad’s outburst, and the inevitable follow on efforts to intimidate, and to play divide and conquer in an attempt to undermine this deal. I’m sure that Schroeder will soon slouch to Moscow to get his orders to attempt to derail this deal.)
In other Russia news, Economy Minister Nabiullina has announced that the Russian economy contracted 8 percent year-on-year in February, and will likely contract 7 percent YOY for the first quarter. To put things in perspective, this collapse began in August, when GDP was probably on the order of 3-4 percent above its level as of February, 2008. Thus, in 6 months, GDP has declined about 10-11 percent, a 20+ percent annual rate.
Economists often evaluate performance relative to growth potential. Given a growth potential in Russia of 6-7 percent annualized, GDP should have been 7 percent higher, rather than 7 percent lower, than February 2008 as of the end of 2009. This output gap of 14 percent compares with an approximate 8 percent gap in the US.
This is consistent with my view that the economic crisis has hit Russia harder than the US and Europe. As is the fact that Russian economic indicators (e.g., the stock market, the ruble) have done better than their counterparts as of late. The US market has turned around in recent weeks. As I’ve noted, Russia is effectively a strongly procyclical economy (it’s “beta” to the world economy is greater than one) due to its dependence on highly procyclical energy and mineral industries. With oil rallying 25 percent plus in recent weeks, in part due to the Fed’s apparent willingness to tolerate a lot of inflation to turn around the economy, and other commodity prices (e.g., copper) rallying too, Russia has benefited.
In comments to foreign media, First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov said the government was increasingly upbeat about the Russian economy and hoped it would start growing again by the end of this year if the global economy doesn’t sharply deteriorate. As oil prices have risen above $50 a barrel, the ruble has steadied against the dollar and the Kremlin says there are tentative grounds for optimism, sounding an increasingly confident note about its handling of the financial downturn.
“The first phase is over,” said Mr. Shuvalov. “Most businesses have already adapted and the budget is not playing out according to the worse scenario.” Mr. Shuvalov confirmed that the Kremlin was no longer willing to offer large-scale bailouts to distressed corporations, something it did during the first stage of the crisis, but said that the government would help strategically important firms that had a genuine need. He stressed that commercial banks were now awash with cash, however, and could cover many of the lending requirements.
It is way too early to make such giddy pronouncements. Russia is still highly dependent on the state of the world economy, which is anything but strong. Kudrin is certainly not so ebullient. He recently warned of a new wave of bad debts hitting Russian banks.
And Russia still faces its own home-grown curse: its legal nihilism, personified by Igor Sechin (will Marty Feldman play him in the movie?). Sechin sent a letter to Norilsk Nickel, raising questions about some transactions, and in shades of the Mechel episode, Norilsk’s stock tanked immediately:
Norilsk slumped as much as 12 percent after the country’s biggest mining company said it received a letter from Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin‘s office seeking information on transactions that were carried out last year.
. . . .
Norilsk sank 11 percent to 2,203.90 rubles on the Micex Stock Exchange, the biggest drop in a month. Sechin is seeking details on 86 billion rubles ($2.6 billion) of spending on share buybacks and asset purchases, and information on the sale of mining permits to a company owned by former Chief Executive Officer Mikhail Prokhorov, company spokeswoman Erzhena Mintasova said today.
Norilsk Nickel has complied with Russian law and the company’s own charter for all its transactions, Mintasova said.
Sechin, as chairman of Rosneft, oversaw the state oil company’s acquisition of bigger rival Yukos Oil Co.‘s largest assets at bankruptcy auctions after an investigation that led to the imprisonment of Yukos founder Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s richest man.
Meanwhile, the Telenor/Vimplecom farce continues:
Telenor said a Russian court rejected a motion to stay a ruling that found the Nordic region’s largest phone company liable for $1.7 billion in damages related to a dispute among OAO VimpelCom shareholders. VimpelCom sank as much as 11 percent in New York trading.
Wise words, these:
“The Norilsk and Telenor cases serve well to remind investors that Russia risk is a real phenomenon, which is the last thing Russia needs in this new, tighter-liquidity global market,” said James Beadle, chief investment strategist at Moscow-based Pilgrim Asset Management.
The dispute is “an open demonstration of Russia’s aggressive business culture,” and is the same story as OAO TNK- BP Holding, Beadle said.
So, in other words, la plus ca change.
The political uncertainty also continues. A couple of interesting articles today, one by Pavel Baev in EDM, which noted:
Both Medvedev and Putin tried to perform as wise statesman meeting with Kissinger, but in reality for them global issues are just a public relations campaign of little importance compared with their real priorities of re-distributing money and property among servile but disloyal oligarchs (Grani.ru, March 20). This role of two-headed godfather is central for the regime’s survival in times of falling oil revenues when doubts in the irritated elites grow and spread under the surface of total obedience. Firing governors is apparently not enough to exterminate these mutinous doubts, so the second trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev is rolling towards the “guilty-as-charged” sentence (Novaya gazeta, March 18).
There is no way around the simple premise that in order to achieve a new positive start in U.S. relations, Russia has to begin a meaningful reformatting of its corrupt quasi-democratic regime. The Obama administration refrains from advocating any conditions of this sort, but Medvedev seems to be aware of the need to modernize the rigid system of “Putinism.” He remains reluctant, however, to deviate from the course set by his senior partner, who believes that the crisis hurts the U.S. more than Russia and will diminish its leadership, scorned as “uni-polarity.” Putin relies on the “fear factor” to keep the disgruntled elites under control and expects that demonstrative generosity towards pensioners and other “have-nots” would prevent an escalation of protest activity. His new anti-crisis plan unveiled last week does not envisage any new grants to struggling oligarchs, but gives first priority to social protection; it could, however, be overtaken by the unfolding disaster – as was the previous plan adopted last November (Kommersant, March 19). Such an emergency would require different kinds of measures, and forceful mobilization against an external threat is Putin’s fall-back option of choice; anti-Americanism, therefore, remains an important political resource – perhaps the very last refuge for a pair of scoundrels.
I particularly agree with Baev’s statement that the Khodorkovsky/Lebedev trial is intended to squelch “mutinous doubts.”
I found this paragraph entertaining:
Medvedev has personally explained to bankers that it would not be “fair” to demand money from the insolvent Rusal and its owner Oleg Deripaska; he also maintains that the International Monetary Fund should be governed by a board with a “fair” representation of contributors. Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin suggested at the recent OPEC meeting to establish a more “fair” system of regulating oil prices, which the gang of seasoned quota-fixers found only slightly amusing (Kommersant, March 16). This concern about “fairness” is not always driven by pragmatic calculations but betrays a grudge about the lost prosperity and stability that were perfectly on track until the U.S. made their economic problems everybody’s headache by provoking the global crisis.
The touching concern of Medvedev, Sechin et al for fairness brings to mind a spoiled child screaming “No FAIR!” when he doesn’t get what he wants. Not that he earned it.
The other interesting article is from Goble’s WindowOnEurasia:
Even in other countries, he suggests, the notion that people are ready to sacrifice their rights to the state in exchange for economic well-being and will revolt if the government fails to provide it is overstated. Even in today’s severe economic crisis, the Moscow commentator says, “there are no signs in Europe of an 1848 or even of a 1968.”
In most cases, he argues, “the chief stabilizer is open political activity within a legal framework.” But in Russia, “our system is completely different, although it employs (for conspiracy!) the very same words,” an arrangement which includes the kaleidoscopic assertion that with Russians everything is exactly the same and at the same time entirely different.
This pattern has deep roots in Russian history and reflects a decision on the part of all those not intensely involved in political issues to focus on “their personal affairs and only on them” and to view politics as something alien to and apart from them and yet to see leaders as “symbiotically” involved in the survival of the state.
To this arrangement, Radzikhovsky says, a European would react with surprise: “They are DEPRIVING you (the people) of the rights to judge and decide and you (the people) nonetheless are still willing to support this arrangement!” But a Russian, he suggests, would understand the situation instantly, seeing it was being “a question of words.”
For the Russian it is not about deprivation, it is about “RELIEVING” the individual and society “of responsibility â€¦ and of the work involved in judging and deciding.” And as an example, to Radzikhovsky quotes Saltykov-Shchedrin’s observation that “the energy of the actions of fools opposes the energy of inaction.”
“The energy of societal inaction is the foundation of [the Russian] State,” he continues. “Therefore firmly or shakily, we stand by it.” Indeed, he says, “individualism (in individual affairs) plus humble fatalism (in common affairs) equals the ethnic Russian or better civic Russia (everyone in Russia, regardless of nationality acts that way) social-political SYSTEM.”
Given that set of attitudes – and Radzikhovsky insists that they can be called “sobornost,” “collectivism,” “apoliticalness,” or “alienation” – the relationship of those in power and everyone else is fundamentally different. Those in power have “a DIFFERENT function” and serve as “a shepherd” to the society.
Such a system, of course, has a dangerous tendency: the absolute power of the state in such circumstances tends to “corrupt absolutely, “both those who rule and those who are ruled.” But there is “a still more dangerous alternative: the absolute lack of rights on the part of the government and the absence of power [which can also] corrupt the people absolutely.”
The way out of this vicious circle would be a government with “LIMITED POWER,” but in Russia that has never been known and is not unknown now. “And with that is connected the completely SPECIAL role of the government in Russia,” one that is reflected in the very different attitude people have toward criticizing the government.
In most countries, Radzikhovsky continues, government is viewed as “only a superstructure’ over society” and thus as something from whose change the society does not think will change society. Consequently, any criticism of the powers that be for [such a] society is secure.”
But for Russians, “as is well known to all,” the picture is “different.” That is because criticism raises the question of leadership change, and “in the course of all Russian history up through today the main political question has not been resolved.” That is the question of the creation of mechanisms for a peaceful, regular and lawful change of the highest levels of power.”
Those in power, of course, “exploit this: destroy the powers that be and you will destroy Russia! This is a big EXAGGERATION. But it is only an EXAGGERATION” because the problematic situation it reflects is not invented but quite real. Russia has not succeeded in dividing “the powers that be” and “the country” just as it has not split power and property.
Consequently, the deference the population shows to the rulers is not so much “a slavish instinct” as an instinct for national SELF-PRESERVATION,” Radzikhovsky suggests, arguing that it rests on the notion that the powers and the population are linked together in “a biological symbiosis” whose violation by either side could lead to the death of the whole.
Thus “the real social compact [in Russia] is much more serious. It is not a trade off of independent sides,” and it is not about well-being “but about survival.” In this situation, the population will remain far more willing to defer to those in power because “the people DO NOT WANT” to do anything but “to AVOID being the opposite of humble.”
Understood in this way, Radzikhovsky concludes, the social compact in Russia has not yet been violated sufficiently to cause a revolt, especially given how great fears remain of “chaos.” And he reminds his readers that “one cannot free people externally more than they are ready for that internally.”
This is a very interesting commentary on the apathy of Russians. It points out the fundamental lack of a civil society in Russia, the alienation between state and people (in spite of the allegedly organic relatonship between them) and reinforces a point that I made in my summer post On Russophobia, namely, that classical liberal limited government is an anathema in Russia. (This, ironically, gave rise to charges that I was in fact a Russophobe projecting pejorative images of The Other. But, as I noted at the time, this is considered a feature not a bug by many Russians, and many Russians like Radzikhovsky who think it is a bug acknowledge its existence nonetheless. They have met The Other and it is Them.)
This is why, although I don’t discount the possibility of popular unrest, I believe that the main threat to the system comes from within, due to the “doubts in the irritated elites . . . spread under the surface of total obedience” (in Baev’s words).