Re-freezing Russia?

On 4 March Russia will hold a presidential election that is expected to return PM Vladimir Putin to the top job

There are other candidates, of course. Gennady Zyuganov will stand for the Communists, Sergey Mironov is from the A Just Russia party, the chosen Liberal Democrat is Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Mikhail Prokhorov will fight the vote as an independent. But the United Russia candidate is the favourite for the presidency – and why would he not be? The party is in complete control of the country’s politics and this has been one of the spurs for a rise in recent protests across the nation.

But the prime minister does not only have a fight on his hands to convince the electorate why they should be excited about another six years of Putin-power; he also has a fight on his hands to convince the world of Russia’s ongoing importance.

Russia is a permanent member of the UN Security Council and a bridge between the West and the East but the significance of that role is declining. It is in the BRICS bloc but the other members, Brazil, India, China and South Africa, are all engaging across the planet and all have development plans to project local and regional influence. It is a problem identified by a trio of authors at the European Council on Foreign Relations in a recent report entitled ‘Dealing with a post-BRIC Russia’. Aside from addressing the problems facing a Russia in 2012 caught between global institutions and alliances, they also highlighted a further issue Vladimir Putin is going to have to deal with: corruption. The report claimed:

The economic crisis has exposed a governance crisis inside Russia: even Putin now admits that as much as 80% of Kremlin orders have been ignored in the regions.

Instead of modernising, Russia in 2010 was as corrupt as Papua New Guinea, had the property rights of Kenya and was as competitive as Sri Lanka.

And this is one of the reasons for the regular protests in Moscow and other cities in the country. There was a popular rejection of the rigged December parliamentary elections for the lower house, the Duma, and thousands of people are now frequently airing their grievances over the intricate sleaze in the Kremlin. On Sunday 29 January the most recent anti-Putin demonstration took place along Moscow’s ring-road as thousands of motorists decked their vehicles in the protesters’ colour white to show their opposition to Putin’s presidential bid.

The main stumbling block for Western outsiders looking into Russia’s foreign policy is currently the Russia-Syria friendship. Moscow has been criticized for selling arms to Syria but the trade in military and police equipment has always been a controversial profession. On 27 January the human rights group Amnesty International criticised the UK’s decision to export tear gas to Bahrain. In that country protesters have been subjected to a crackdown by a government that has been firing the weapon on the marchers.

Nevertheless, the list of nations, from the Arab world as well as the West, queuing up to condemn Syrian president Assad’s regime and call for his resignation is growing. Russia is not in that group. Moscow’s latest manouevre has been to invite the Syrian government and the opposition to Kremlin for talks. Russia follows the Chinese view of total opposition to overseas intervention and is more than willing to wave its veto at any European-led resolution suggestions.

It still maintains a naval base in Syria, at Tartus, and a Russian naval flotilla, led by the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, visited the port earlier this month as part of a planned deployment in the Mediterranean that finishes later in February.

Western powers previously preferred to provide passive support for strongmen incumbents, such as Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, even if those autocratic regimes were unmovable and unable to be booted out of office by ordinary citizens. In Russia the situation is slightly different. The West has been cautious in its dealing with Russia and Russia has been equally as mistrustful. Putin recently accused the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, of providing financial support to the Russian pro-democracy demonstrators.

Dmitry Medvedev has been the president for the last four years but his mentor was in the hot-seat before then and will be again for another six years come March. Putin has avoided being seen as a president-in-perpetuity but he must be regarded as one in every aspect bar name. He has been the prime minister since 2008 but clearly he has been as prevalent in the corridors of power as he was when he was president first time round. But the horizon does not seem so rosy at the moment and the throngs of protesters on his doorstep are determined to remind him that popular demonstrations against governments are not just confined to the Middle East.

ENTREVISTA: Cable Noticias, 27 November 2011

Interview with Colombian television station Cable Noticias

Subjects covered: UK-Latin American relations, legalisation of drugs, UK tourism and economic affairs

Part One

Part Two

The interview is in Spanish

Petróleo problems

Ecuador, Brazil and Chevron take legal action against each other

Although Chevron maintains that it acted in “diligent and appropriate way”, the Agencia Nacional do Petroleo, Brazil’s oil industry watchdog, has indicted the company three times over an oil leak in November. Across the other side of the continent, Ecuadorean judges have upheld damage claims against Chevron totalling $18bn over alleged pollution in the Amazon jungle.

In Ecuador, the oil firm has been accused of spilling toxic waste in precious areas of the rainforest and having a detrimental effect on the health of the local population due to its operations. It has admitted that its subsidiary Texaco “fully remediated its share of environmental impacts arising from oil production operations prior to 1992”. In this instance the ‘remediation’ that took place was to set alight any mess they had created.

The case has been from court to court but Chevron maintains its innocence from the very expensive legal wrangling building up against it:

“Chevron is defending itself against false allegations that it is responsible for alleged environmental and social harms in the Amazon region of Ecuador”

The company has accused the Ecuadorean legal teams of exercising undue pressure on the justice system in order to achieve the favourable judgment. But the Pacific nation’s government is also in the dock as the US company has brought a claim against Quito of international law violations relating to the pollution case. And a tribunal in The Hague has ordered Ecuador to suspend enforcement of any judgment against Chevron until it resolves the claims the company has made.

In Brazil, Chevron has taken full responsibility for an oil leak in November in the Frade field. The company blamed the spill on higher pressure than expected in the oil reservoir. However, it was at pains to highlight that further damage was avoided due to a seabed valve encapsulating some reserves.

But owning up to the spill has not exonerated Chevron. The Agencia Nacional do Petroleo said it would fine the company (as yet an unspecified amount) because they did not take sufficient protective and preventive measures during the drilling. In addition, federal police have brought a criminal case against Chevron for alleged environmental crimes.

So both Quito and Brasilia, whilst opening up their natural resources to foreign paws, have come down hard after apparent crimes against Nature. The biodiversity and outstanding natural beauty that both countries enjoy must be celebrated and protected. Nevertheless, the two governments realise that outside investment in their black gold is a policy that must be continued.

But, as we saw with BP in the Gulf of Mexico, the fervour for oil and the subsequent accidents seem to know no bounds. The oil companies must work more carefully. But no matter how hard Chevron is battered legally by Quito and Brasilia, the welcoming governments must play more of a role from the start with the drillers and not just intervene with the lawyers’ fees when there is an unfortunate spill at the end.