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.

An island life for me

Tempers have flared up again between Russia and Japan over the disputed Kuril Islands. Islands remain at the centre of many international territorial conflicts.

On Thursday 10 February Japan’s foreign minister, Seiji Maehara, restated his country’s commitment to the belief that the four southernmost islands of the Kuril group remain under Japanese jurisdiction. His call comes after Russian President Dmitry Medvedev visited the contested archipelago in November last year. During his trip Medvedev promised greater development and outlined an increase in military presence on the islands, clearly not a move that has been welcomed in Tokyo. Remarkably, the fractious nature of the two countries’ relationship over the Kurils means that they still have not got round to signing a joint peace agreement to end World War Two hostilities between them.

Islands are at the centre of an ongoing dispute between Nicaragua and Colombia. The San Andres and Providencia group in the Caribbean has been part of Colombia since the 1920s but Nicaragua took the issue to the International Court of Justice in 2001, which ruled in favour of Bogota. Managua’s main argument is over location, and the islands are much closer to Nicaragua, but it would not be surprising if the tourist factor also plays a part in their disquiet: the islands are beautiful Caribbean hotposts, an English creole is widely spoken and visitor numbers are growing.

Hugo Chavez, President of Venezuela. Source: marcellogentile1, YouTube, 11/02/11

At the other end of the Americas, there are The Falklands, or Las Malvinas, as they are known in Buenos Aires. A well-known island disupte which provoked a war between the two claimants in 1982. The UK posititon is clear: the islands were, are, and will remain British, for as long as the Falklanders themselves wish to remain under British jurisdiction (which at the moment they do). The Argentine outlook takes a similar line: the islands were, are, and ought to be part of Argentina. One only needs to look at an Argentine national map to understand the geographical stubbornness. But there has been a change of dynamic since 1982. Back then, Chile and the US both openly backed the UK, and Spain supported Argentina. But now many of Latin America’s leaders have openly urged the devolution of the islands back to Argentina, and idea rejected by London. Hugo Chavez famously railed against what he views as another example of ‘Western imperialism’.

The Kurils are next to Japan and form part of a territorial island link chain that goes north to Kamchatka. The Falklands are nearly 8,000 miles away from the UK. But the issue of island disputes is extremely old, complicated and is prevalent across the world (the examples above are just three of the more prominent disputes). It is not an argument that can be simply resolved by stating history, distance from home country or ‘proper ownership’.