Keys to a Peaceful Russia


A few months ago, nobody could foresee Russia’s geopolitical jiu-jitsu with the West. The Obama administration, fatigued by constant diplomatic contretemps with the Kremlin, decided to maintain the status quo while formulating a new policy towards the Putin regime. In the meanwhile, unconstrained by Western influence, Vladimir Putin has redrawn the international order by annexing a part of Ukraine. Enraged by the extent of popular discontent in the streets of Kiev, Russia’s autocrat sends a strong message to the West and Russian civil society alike: stay put or face repercussions.

Russian society is deeply split along political lines. Having no access to objective information regarding the Crimean crisis, the majority of the people sincerely believe that Russia acted as a defender of ethnic Russians in Ukraine against neo-nazis from Right Sector and their bosses in Washington and Brussels. Given that brainwashing is one of the regime’s crucial pillars, it is not difficult to understand whence this thinking stems. At the same time, Russian nationalists (who generally dislike Putin) applauded the Kremlin’s efforts to expand the boundaries of a newly emerging Empire. Those who oppose Russia’s actions in Crimea and support Ukraine’s territorial integrity have been labeled the “fifth column” by Putin. The picture is as clear as mud.

I am, myself, a proud member of the “fifth column.” I do not believe that Russia needs any further expansion. We can hardly fix what is broken in our cities and small villages across Russia’s vast territories. I do not believe in the power of international law, but I do reckon that global security rests upon a set of rules, which must not be breached for the good of all. If China all of a sudden decides that Russia’s Far East belongs to her, I would like to see international agreements, not brute force, play a role in solving such a crisis. I feel sorry for Ukraine and her people who are still fighting for their freedom. Without wanting to sound like an apologist, I want to ask Ukrainians to forgive the unconsciousness segments of Russian society. They know little more than what the Goebbels-TV foists on them.

I am confident that democracy in the post-Soviet world is only possible under democratic Russia. While it makes a lot of sense to support pro-democratic indigenous forces in every part of the globe, Russia needs it more than any other country today. The Putin regime is building capacity to crush domestic opposition and continue its confrontation with the West in the coming years. Russian civil society will be the main target of Putin’s repression. Western powers need to invest in helping pro-democratic forces in Russia, because civil society actors are critical to democratization in Russia and elsewhere in the post-Soviet realm.

How can the West support Russian civil society? Yesterday, Russia’s opposition leader, Alexey A. Navalny, published an online poll about the candidates for sanctioning and an op-ed in the New York Times. A day after, the Obama administration adopted a sanctions bill including most of the people, which civil society picked out. It is good to be heard, indeed. Russian society, immature as it is today, is very ambivalent with regard to the Kremlin and its population. Whereas Putin’s popularity skyrocketed in recent days, ordinary Russians still despise Putin’s corrupt functionaries. Targeted sanctions are a perfect mechanism to persuade the people that Putin is just a member of a criminal gang that perpetuates itself through brainwashing and repression. As soon as this understanding takes root, the Putin regime will face very hard times.

Moscow Mayoral Race: A Façade of Democracy in Russia


Russia’s opposition leader Alexey Navalny arrested by the police after submitting his registration documents to Moscow’s Electoral Committee. Photo credit:

Since Vladimir Putin’s comeback last year, Russian politics has been marred by repression against civil society and the opposition groups, stifling of NGO activities, and legislative crackdown on dissent. A textbook example of electoral authoritarianism, Putin’s Russia is now moving toward hegemonic rule, putting the Kremlin’s new opponents behind bars and shutting down election-monitoring and human rights NGOs, now known as “foreign agents” in the Kremlin’s terminology. Sergei Udaltsov, a leftist opposition leader who’s under house arrest, and State Duma deputy, Ilya Ponomarev, have been recently accused of plotting mass riots on May 6, a day before Putin’s inauguration in 2012. The leader of Russia’s protest movement, Alexey Navalny, is currently facing a dubious trial for machinations with timber sales while serving as an adviser to Kirov’s liberal governor Nikita Belykh three years ago. Amid this concerted state-run campaign against dissidence, the Kremlin allowed Navalny to register for Moscow mayoral race come September. Why in the world would authoritarian leadership allow its harshest critic to run for Moscow’s mayor?

Vladimir Putin and his ruling party United Russia have a strategy in mind, and their goal is to prove that even in Moscow, where hundreds of thousands demonstrators marched against flawed Duma elections and Putin’s return last year, the opposition has little chances of winning. The incumbent mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, has been trying to create a façade of democratic elections in Russia’s most liberal city by letting all political forces partake in them. Helping Navalny with passing the filter required for participating in the game, Sobyanin and his coterie thus sought to solve the “legitimacy problem.” A corollary of this logic is that the Kremlin won’t have to deal with demonstrations against election rigging, since the opposition candidate was allowed to run, yet utterly failed. At this writing, independent polls give Navalny 3% versus 30% for the Kremlin’s protégé.

Today, the Putin regime is pursuing exactly the same strategies it once did throughout the 2000s. After jailing the oil tycoon, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Putin eviscerated any opposition to his rule. Inasmuch as Alexey Navalny is the Kremlin’s next target, his success or failure during the mayoral race will determine the future of Russia’s democratic momentum. Should he fail, the Kremlin’s confidence will be bolstered, and new, more serious, crackdowns on political and civil freedoms will ensue.

A Game Change in Syria: Is Assad to Stay?

Bashar Assad, Vladimir Putin
After more than two years of a devastating conflict, the balance of power in Syria is gradually shifting in favor of the Alawite regime of Bashar al-Assad. Needless to say, this scenario seemed quite implausible at the beginning of the Damascus Spring and further into the civil war. Why the rebels failed to consolidate their efforts at ousting Assad is a critical question. One might reasonably argue that the unconcerted policies of Washington and Brussels toward Damascus fell woefully short of the desired expectations that the Assad regime would yield to foreign and internal pressure. But a more important question concerns the role which Russia played in this geopolitical game and the benefits that Russia will obtain should Vladimir Putin continue to augment Assad’s victories over the rebels.

The rebellion against the rule of Bashar al-Assad in Syria was patterned after the uprisings in other Arab states and began in March 2011, in Deraa. The idiosyncrasies of the Syrian regime, and especially its aggressive posture vis-à-vis the West, caused an outcome radically different from those of Tunisia, Egypt, or Yemen. The Syrian strife followed a path akin to Libya’s, where Muammar Gaddafi declared a war against his people and was subsequently toppled as a result of a foreign intervention. In the case of Syria, however, such an intervention has so far appeared impossible.

As the violence in Syria escalated, a regional conflict morphed into an issue of international concern. Russia, Iran, Lebanon’s Hizbullah, and China offered support for the Assad regime. The so-called “Friends of Syria,” including Gulf states, Jordan, Turkey, the European Union, and the United States, took the side of the Syrian opposition. As a result of irrevocable differences among world powers, the Assad regime was allowed to continue its struggle for survival. It is no surprise, however, that the regime of Bashar al-Assad found support among Russia (particularly) and China.

Undoubtedly, Russia’s stance on Syria has been actuated by antagonism towards U.S. duplicitous foreign policy in the Middle East, its success in toppling Gaddafi, and its goals of overthrowing Bashar al-Assad who is seen as Russia’s last military ally in the Middle East. The Syrian rebellion has thus been perceived by Moscow and Beijing as another coup d’état orchestrated by the West and the petromonarchies. And inasmuch as the NATO operation in Libya overtly violated the UN agreements, taking advantage of their votes in the Security Council, Russia and China nixed the resolutions on Syria.

It could be argued that Russia’s efforts to forestall Western efforts at regime change in Damascus have been critical to Assad’s survival. Whether it is a matter of mere luck or a set of independent variables, we cannot yet ascertain. But given that the U.S., Turkey, and Israel sent their envoys to Moscow for talks on Syria, the most brutal phase of the conflict looks set to be drawing to a close. One of the lessons we should learn from this is that international politics is undergoing a transformation, and Russia certainly wants to be shaping the new world order on a par with China and some other nondemocratic regimes. In the end, if the regime of Bashar al-Assad wins, the nondemocratic world will have a reason to celebrate.

Germany and Russia: An Inevitable Partnership?

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin shake hands in Hanover, Germany, April 7 

Looking back into the history of world politics, one can explore a number of instances when foes turned into allies, and the Russo-German partnership in the 21st century is a quintessential example. Although Russia and Germany share a woeful period of their histories, these countries no longer treat each other as adversaries, at least on political level. Russia’s eternal president, Vladimir Putin, in fact has a very intricate relationship with Germany. Once a Soviet spy working in Dresden, Eastern Germany, Putin looked upon German hard-working lifestyle and diligence with admiration. Several Russian publicists argued that Putin’s Russia is a reflection of the KGB agent’s ideal of social utopia he once beheld in socialist Germany.

What brings Berlin and Moscow together? Is Germany more important for Russia or vice versa? The countries share common economic interests and regional ambitions. Both Russia and Germany tend to dominate regional politics, inasmuch as Merkel and Putin have made their countries economic locomotives in the European Union and Eurasia, respectively. Without Russia, Germany might not be able to provide for EU energy security in a long-term perspective.  Without Germany, Russia loses leverage over European political agenda, and the perennial criticism of the Putin regime in the PACE is an example of the EU’s general attitude towards the Kremlin. Through cooperation with Berlin, Putin also seeks to attract German investments to the extractive economy of Russia. The relationship between Germany and Russia is critical to both countries, but for the latter it is even more so. The European Union (particularly Germany, France, and Holland) is Russia’s main economic partner and Euro bonds constitute a significant amount of Russia’s financial resources.

Yet, no matter how hard Putin will try to forge closer political ties with Germany, his efforts are fruitless. Although Merkel does not publicly criticize the Putin regime for human rights abuses and corruption, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle and several other German politicians have never hidden their aversion to the regime. Therefore, in the case of Merkel’s defeat in the next parliamentary elections, Putin may lose his last European friend among Western powers.

Vladimir Putin’s Visit to Hanover, April 7, 2013

Alas, even though German public opinion is against Putin, during their meeting in Hanover Frau Merkel will not reprimand her friend Vladimir for his political terror in Russia. Lamentably, national interests oftentimes prevail over morale.

Some thoughts on Central Asia


Islam Karimov, president of Uzbekistan

Not too long ago the world witnessed the demise of Hugo Chavez, one of Latin America’s most idiosyncratic dictators. Although the regime of Chavez was by and large authoritarian and exhibited a great deal of intransigence toward the opposition, the electoral processes in Venezuela have not been jettisoned after all. With Chavez gone, the new leader of Venezuela will emerge after elections, be it Henrique Capriles or Chavez’s protégé. 

A 75-year-old dictator of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, in power since 1991, might soon face Chavez’s fate. A recent news report stated that president Karimov has suffered a heart stroke and his health condition is deteriorating. Rumors have been circulating for a while now that president’s Western-educated daughter, Gulnara Karimova, might succeed her father. But given social discontent with corruption and cronyism of the Karimov regime, such a succession is unlikely to flow smoothly. Because Karimov has cared more about security of his regime rather than the well-being of his people, the future of Uzbekistan’s political system without Karimov is indeed worrisome.

Notwithstanding all the negative traits of the Uzbek dictator, Central Asia became a more stable region due to his efforts at fighting terrorism. Karimov also played an important role in putting an end to the Civil War in Tajikistan, defending the neo-Soviet regime of Rakhmonov on a par with Russia. But Karimov’s efforts at eliminating the opposition bereft Uzbekistan of sturdy democratic institutions. Without them, Uzbekistan is likely to become enmeshed in political chaos should the dictator decease any time soon. 


Nations fail because…

“Why Nations Fail:The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty” by D.Acemoglu & J. Robinson (photo credit:

This book by Daren Acemoglu (MIT) and James Robinson (Harvard) was suggested for home reading in our “Civil Wars” class at Josef Korbel School. As an International Studies student, I found the arguments made in the book quite germane to the general discourse on the North-South relations, and international relations in particular.

Published in 2012, “Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty” is a book that deserves due attention. Several book reviews containing harsh critique of the book by and large failed to repudiate Acemoglu and Robinson’s argument about the roots of failure in state building (see, for example, Jeffrey D. Sach’s review in Foreign Affairs and the authors’ ensuing response). Acemoglu and Robinson argue that states fail because of extractive political institutions, which forestall economic progress and bring a host of problems to their populace and adjacent states alike. The authors provide a historical overview of the establishment of political institutions throughout the world, noting, inter alia, that neither “geography” hypothesis of inequality nor “culture” and “ignorance” hypotheses work are good at explaining reasons behind poverty. Drawing on the case of the Korean Peninsula, the authors argue that it is difference in institutions that divides the nation. Problems in African countries are also caused by the absence of inclusive political and economic institutions that are necessary for establishing sturdy governance, which would pave the way for economic development.

The main question that remained unclear after reading the book: if inclusive political institutions are a sine-qua-non for economic advance, how did countries like petro-monarchies in the Middle East achieve formidable progress in developing various sectors of economy [without] inclusive institutions? The theory presented by Acemoglu and Robinson is rather plausible in explaining why failed states struggle to give way to economic growth, but does not answer the question why some states are/were economically prosperous, but lack/lacked inclusive institutions (Singapore, Saudi Arabia, Peru and the like). Overall, this book is a worthy read for everyone interested in global problems and ways to solve them.

What the “Magnitsky Act” means to all of us

Photograph Credit | Hermitage Capital Management/AFP

Last Friday, November 16, the U.S. House of Representatives voted unanimously for the adoption of the “Magnitsky Act,” which is designed to punish the Russian officials implicated in the death of a prominent lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky. This is great news for all of us who believe in justice and the rule of law. But it is also bad news for the Kremlin, which has nothing to offer but accusations of meddling in Russia’s internal affairs.

3 years ago, Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer working for the Hermitage Capital Management Fund in Moscow, uncovered a large tax refund fraud ($230 million) committed by several Russian officials closely affiliated with the senior leadership of Russia. After publicly testifying about the crime, Sergei was consequently arrested on false charges, tortured for 358 days and died in jail on November 16, 2009, after being severely beaten and denied required medicine. After the details of Magnitsky’s murder and the tax fraud became known to the public, the Russian government responded to accusations by opening a case to prosecute Sergei Magnitsky, 20 months after he was killed. The Russian Ministry of the Interior accused Magnitsky of the above-mentioned embezzlement, thus seeking to posthumously besmirch Sergei’s reputation. Until today, Sergei’s mother has been trying to fight the corrupt Russian judicial system and exculpate her son – but so far in vain.

The “Magnitsky Act” is a warning sign to a host of corrupt Russian officials at the top echelons of political and judicial power, who continue to perpetrate repression against anyone who disagrees with the Kremlin’s policies. While the economy, education, and democratic institutions are faltering in Russia, the highest-ranking officials, including country’s chief federal investigator and the members of the “United Russia” party, are buying property in the European countries, the United States, and elsewhere. For this reason, Western countries must be resolute in their preference to penalize human rights abusers and criminals despite their high-ranking status at least in their countries, and the “Magnitsky Act” is a shift in the right direction.

To learn more about Sergei Magnitsky’s death and his investigation, watch this video: