March 15th 2008

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Articles from this issue:

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Will the economy spoil Rudd's party?

THE ECONOMY: Higher interest rates the wrong way to cut inflation

EDITORIAL: Horse flu: Canberra makes the victims pay

PREDATORY PRICING: Defending small business and farmers

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: Ten concerns about Rudd's first 100 days

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Warmer oceans? / Revenge of the nerds / The left assault on the student mind

ENVIRONMENT: Climate change: fallacies in the Garnaut report

REPRODUCTIVE HEALTH: Time for moratorium on abortion?

CHINA: Beijing's human rights record: why we must act

ASIA: Sri Lanka at the brink

RUSSIA: From Putin to Medvedev: a new Russia?

EASTERN EUROPE: Communist old guard still not defeated

Fuel price deception (letter)

The real 'stolen generation' (letter)

BOOKS: UNSTOPPABLE GLOBAL WARMING Every 1,500 Years, by S. Fred Singer and Dennis T. Avery

BOOKS: THEIR DARKEST HOUR: People Tested to the Extreme in WWII, by Laurence Rees

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From Putin to Medvedev: a new Russia?

by John Miller

News Weekly, March 15, 2008
Will Russia's President-elect Dmitry Medvedev be a mere Putin clone and figurehead leader? John Miller reports.

Russia has elected a new president, Dmitry Anatolyevich Medvedev. Media coverage of the event, in just about any country you care to name except for Russia, long ago concluded that Medvedev would defeat his three rivals, who are virtually unknown inside Russia itself, let alone abroad.

The simple fact of the matter is that Medvedev won because he was the heir-apparent and anointed successor to outgoing President Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, who under Russian law, cannot run for a third term.

However, it will be very interesting to see whether Medvedev appoints Putin as his prime minister. This is considered a foregone conclusion by foreign governments, Russophiles, the academic world and the media. From there it is easy to envisage how Putin could continue to wield effective power, with Medvedev little more than a figurehead president when he takes office on May 1.

Numerous articles about Medvedev have portrayed him as a quiet achiever in Kremlin politics; a former understudy to Putin in St Petersburg; a more human and humane, softly-spoken man whose musical tastes run to the Western pop group Deep Purple.

Medvedev has talked of improving living conditions for Soviet citizens and encouraging greater personal freedom. He has stated that liberty is necessary for the state to have legitimacy, and has laid out domestic policy goals believed to appeal to the growing consumer class in Russia - a class, it should be noted, which is rather small.

On the other hand, he has displayed what has been described by the International Herald Tribune (February 27, 2008) as "flashes of steel". In a recent speech he condemned the United States for supporting the independence of Kosovo, describing the US move as inciting strife in Europe. "They are putting Europe in a very different position," he said, "We understand that America is risking nothing; it is far away."

This is slightly milder language then perhaps Mr Putin would have used, but nevertheless is consistent with Moscow's statements on Kosovo and support for Serbia including, if Britain's MI6's latest intelligence can be believed, Putin and Medvedev's recent offer of nuclear weapons to the Serbians. (Gordon Thomas, "Putin offers nukes to Serbia", Joseph Farah's G2 Bulletin, February 26, 2008).

We should have no false illusions about Russia. Since the collapse of the Communist system and the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, Russia has been through economic catastrophe and disaster. Regrettably, a great deal of blame can be laid at the door of successive Washington administrations attempting to push liberal free-market capitalism, US-style, on a country that has always had a centralised command economy.

The US's ill-starred attempt to impose an alien economic model on Russia recalls Stalin's famous dictum that imposing Communism on the Germans was like fitting a saddle on a cow.

The Russian people have never experienced representative government in the sense that we in the West often take for granted. This has been beautifully summarised by George Schöpflin on the website Open Democracy (February 27, 2008). He notes that "Putin's Russia seems to have little or no room for four key positions at the heart of democracy", namely that:

• citizens should be able to make inputs into the power of the state;

• power should be exercised with the consent of the governed;

• power should be transparent and accountable;

• tax money should be spent with the benefits of the citizens in mind.

Nostalgia for Stalin

There appears to be a general consensus that Russia has moved towards a form of authoritarianism, which is nonetheless stable and has sufficient domestic support to keep it going. Furthermore, former KGB Lt. Col. Putin has been an extraordinarily popular and charismatic national leader for many Russians. A majority of Russians yearn for strong government, and the older generation are still nostalgic for Joseph Stalin. (Putin has consistently refused to accept or condemn the atrocities committed during 72 years of Bolshevism, except to acknowledge certain "errors").

Mistakes, however, were made following the fall of Communism. These led to a disastrous economic situation, exploited firstly by the so-called oligarchs, who established private companies with foreign aid, and enriched themselves to the detriment of the rest of the Russian population.

Organised crime headed by a new Russian mafia insinuated itself into the business dealings for its cut of the profits. (The old mafia, which only existed at the pleasure of the KGB, fled to the West, and poses considerable problems for law-enforcement agencies there).

From a purely objective point of view, former President Boris Yeltsin's decision to appoint Vladimir Putin as his successor in 1995 made a great deal of sense. Although Putin came from the former Soviet spy agency, the KGB, and was for short while head of the FSB (the domestic successor to the KGB), he was relatively unknown and untarnished by association with former Soviet elites and cliques.

In certain academic circles, it was considered that the chaos of the Yeltsin years could only be solved by the emergence of a strong authoritarian leader. The now disgraced General Augusto Pinochet of Chile was cited as an example of how to restore order. Putin was that man and, with his country's vast natural resources, especially oil and gas, and the state steadily taking control of more and more business (42 per cent is now government-owned), and with a certain charisma of his own, he eventually convinced the Western world to take Russia seriously again.

A great deal of nonsense is written about Russia. Isolationist elements of America's right have argued that the Clinton Administration "lost Russia". I had never thought Russia was anyone's property to lose, and am relieved to be supported in this view by former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

Russia has to make its own way in the world and reorganise society in the face of low life-expectancy for males (caused mainly by vodka), a low fertility and reproduction rate in the European areas of Russia, and a technological gap with the West in many areas.

For the average Russian, however, life under Vladimir Putin improved to a marked extent. Citizens are now free to travel abroad and the Internet is accessible to those who wish to use it.

Unfortunately, though, the Putin regime has been identified with a string of murders of opposition figures, including investigative journalists and former intelligence officers living in the West. More troubling is the recent news that new labour camps have been established.

However, President Putin permitted freedom of religion, although the Russian Orthodox Church is constantly resisting the efforts of Roman Catholics to re-establish their churches, and there is a general hostility towards evangelising Protestant sects.

In conclusion, it is a case of wait-and-see with regard to President-elect Medvedev - or Mr 70 Per Cent, as some refer to him.

My own view is that Russia is pursuing its old Tsarist imperial ambitions, and that Mr Putin will not only exercise power behind the scenes for the next four years but quite possibly become president again in 2012.

The architects of the "peace dividend" in Western security and intelligence services, who disbanded their countries' counter-espionage and counter-intelligence agencies in a fit of euphoria after the end of the Cold War, deserve condemnation along with governments gullible enough to believe that Russia was a natural Western partner.

- John Miller is a former senior intelligence officer.

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