Saturday, March 9, 2013

Russia and Islam, part six: the Kremlin

This is a topic which I have been most hesitant to cover for many reasons, including the fact that my views on this topic have come to change, and that they did so not as a result of the discovery of indisputable facts, but under the combined action of  much "in between the lines" readings of events, many indirect events pointing in the same direction, combined with a very strong, but inevitably subjective, gut feeling.  To state my thesis bluntly, I have come to the conclusion that for many years already there have been several interest groups fighting against each other in the Kremlin and that one group has decided to break cover and engage in a quiet but still visible attack against the other.  As a result of that, a profound revolution has now begun in Russia and that the next 4-5 years will see either huge changes or a major power struggle inside the Kremlin.

The Muslim world and the "Islamic factor" inside Russia play little or no role in this struggle, but the result of this struggle will define Russian policies both towards Muslims inside Russia and towards the Middle-East and the rest of the world.  This is why I have decided to address this issue now.

In the past, I was of the opinion that Putin and Medvedev were the representatives of the same interest group which could be loosely described as a mix of security services and big money.  I credited this group with very skillfully deceiving the US-controlled regime of Eltsin and his Jewish oligarchs only to systematically crush it as soon as Putin came to power.  I still believe that this model is fundamentally correct, but I now also have come to realize that it has a deeper dimension which I have missed in the past.

First, I used to see the events of 1999-2000 as basically a victory of the "Putin people" against the Jewish oligarchy (which it was) and against US interests.  The latter is not so simple.  Yes, when Putin came to power he did basically "decapitate" the top figures of the oligarchy, but he simply did not have the means to change the system which the oligarchs and their US sponsors put in place.  The people were changed, the system remained fundamentally the same.  Berezovsky and Gusinsky fled Russia, Khodorkovsky was offered a much deserved trip to tree logging camp in Siberia, but the system these guys had built stayed: the media toned down some of its most obnoxious propaganda (in particular on Chechnia), the "New Russian" millionaires stopped trying to simply buy the Duma (like Khodorkovsky had), the various separatists groups decided to keep a low profile, and the Russian mob decided to be more careful in its actions.  But the basic laws, the Constitution, the system of government, all remained pretty much unchanged.   Furthermore, inside the "Putin people" there were some who very much wanted to deepen the integration of Russia into the West and its US-controlled international system.  Some were clearly CIA/MI6 paid agents of influence, others did that because they truly believed that this was the best course for Russia.  This type of people were often seen "near" Medvedev, "near" both physically and ideologically.  The 1990s also left a lot of these people in key positions in various government agencies, media groups and business interests.  No less important than who was "in" the power circles at the time is who was kept away.  Some extremely popular figures were sent far away from the centers of power.  This is well illustrated by the case of Dmitri Rogozin sent to Brussels.

So what we have witnessed between 2000 and 2012 is a grand balancing act, a compromise, between at the very least two interest groups:  I will call the first one the "Atlantic integrationists" and the second one the "Eurasian sovereignists".  The first groups wants Russia to be a respected strategic partner to the West while the second group aims at the creation of a multi-polar world in which no one country or alliance would hold supreme power.

Just as the late 1990s the "Putin & Medvedev" people succeeded in outwitting the Jewish oligarchy, in the past couple of years the "Putin" people have, apparently, succeeded in outmaneuvering the "Medvedev" camp.  I very much doubt that the people around Medvedev realized what they were doing when they let Putin run for President, officially under the argument that his popularity was higher than Medvedev's (which is true).  They probably were told that another 6 years of compromise and continuity were ahead, but in reality Putin has fundamentally change the course of Russia since he came to power a year ago.

In the past, cracks between the two camps had already appeared over a number of issues, including the S-300 sale to Iran, the UNSC Resolution or the response to the 08.08.08 war against Georgia, but these differences were always settled under the fundamental fact that the role of the President and the one of Head of Government ("Prime Minister") were clearly defined and each had to remain within his own sphere of competence.  Medvedev made the point himself when he publicly declared that the decision not to veto the UNSC Resolution on Libya allowing a US/NATO war was his personal one and that he personally instructed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  In contrast, Putin denounced this decision in no uncertain terms, but could do nothing about it.  Every time Medvedev and Putin butted heads over something, Medvedev's popularity sagged while Putin's rose.

This conflict came to a head around the person of Anatolii Serdiukov, the former, and now disgraced, Defense Minister.  I will skip all the well-known details about how Serdiukov was caught, but I will state one obvious fact: neither the journalists who "uncovered" Serdiukov's indiscretions nor the Investigative Committee which opened an investigation could have done so without the direct approval of the Presidential Administration.  Just like Obama had to "clear" (read: instigate) the Petraeus scandal to get rid of a powerful figure and replace him with a loyal ally, so did Putin really instigate the downfall of Serdiukov.  Let me add here that the widely held belief that Serduikov was Putin's man is based on nothing but journalistic clichés and is irrelevant anyway.  If, like I think, Serdiukov was imposed upon Putin by the "Atlantic integrationists" then Putin would inevitably be considered as co-responsible of Serdiukov's actions regardless of whether Putin wanted Serdiukov in the first place or not. And that made it very difficult for Putin to do something against "his" protégé.

The reason why I am focusing so much on Serdiukov is because in the Russian political system, the Minister of Defense is something of a mini-President: he runs what is truly a mini-state inside the bigger state, it is both highly autonomous and extremely powerful.  As a result, the position of Minister of Defense is one of the most powerful ones in Russia.  I find it also very plausible that the "Atlantic integrationists" could have agreed to have Putin as a President, provided that Medvedev is #2 and Serduikov #3.  Medvedev is still #2, but Serdiukov has been ejected and disgraced, and his successor, Sergey Shoigu, is his polar opposite in almost every conceivable aspect.

As soon as Shoigu took over the Ministry of Defense, he summarily kicked out Serdiukov's Chief of General Staff, General Makarov (a person of exceptional mediocrity), and replaced him with a highly talented and immensely respected combat officer, General Valerii Gerasimov who, in turn, brought back a long list of respected and highly competent generals to key positions in the Armed Forces.  Shoigu also immediately reversed some of the worst excesses of the so-called "Serduikov's reforms" in many fields including military education, medicine, command and control, etc.

Predictably, and unlike Serdiukov, Shoigu has excellent relations with key personalities like Dmitri Rogozin, Vice-premier of Russian Government in charge of defense industry, and Sergei Ivanov, Chief of Staff Presidential Administration of Russia (both of which are suspected by many observers to have played a key role in the downfall of Serdiukov).

There are also other signs of a potential shift in the top echelons of power in Russia.  More and more observers are speculating that Putin's All-Russia People's Front is being developed not only as a movement to generate new ideas, which is what it was supposed to be, but as a tool to influence and, if needed, replace the United Russia party which is seen as too much under the control of the "Atlantic integrationists".  Again, this is speculation, but there are more and more well-informed observers who are predicting that Medvedev might not remain as Head of Goverment all too long.  My personal take on that his that I get the feeling that Medvedev is a decent man, but of small political stature, who can be trusted to administer and manage, but without much of a vision.  Surrounded by powerful visionaries like Putin, Shoigu or Rogozin, he will do as he is told.  But yes, if he does not, he will probably be ejected fairly soon.

Before turning to the next aspect of this process, I  would like to introduce a thesis here which I rejected for a long while, but which I ended up accepting as true.

There is no doubt that in 1991 the Soviet Union lost the Cold War: the country was split into 15 separate pieces, the entire polity was brought down and the state practically ceased functioning, all the wealth of the country was brought under the control of Western interests and their proxies - Jewish oligarchs - poverty literally exploded, as did the mortality rate, NATO pushed forward its forces right up to the border of the Russian Federation, and American "advisers" literally created the new Russian state, the constitution, the system of government and most laws.  Now here is the key concept I want to submit: for all its external appearances of independence, the Russian Federation between 1991 and 2000 became a US colony, a US dependent territory, something similar to the status of Iraq following the withdrawal of most American forces or the status of, say, Poland or maybe Romania during the Soviet era.   Anyone who has any doubts about this needs to carefully study the events of 1993 when the comparatively legitimate Parliament of Russia was shot at by tanks with the full "support" (read: under the control of), the USA acting through its embassy in Moscow which during those days literally became the command post for the entire crackdown on the opposition.  I personally was present in Moscow during these events, and I had first-rate information about what was really going on at the time. I can, for example, attest to the following two facts: a) the number of victims was grossly under reported and b) the scope in time and space of the repression was also grossly under reported.  The true figures of casualties are close to 5'000 (five thousand) people and it took 5-6 days of combat in the entire Moscow metropolitan area (including areas outside the city proper) to eventually crush the opposition (I personally witness a intense firefight right under the windows of my apartment on the evening of the 5th day after the assault).  This entire bloodbath was directed and coordinated by the USA via its embassy in Moscow and most of the atrocities were not committed by government forces in uniform, but by hired guns in plainclothes (including mobsters and Beitar squads) and without any legal authority.  Does that not remind you of another capital?  Yes, of course, that could have been Baghdad.   Predictably the entire Western corporate press presented these events as a victory of democracy and freedom against the dark forces of revanchism, nationalism and communism.

If we accept the thesis that Russia was de-facto a US controlled territory until 2000, we can then immediately understand the next key implication: the coming to power of Putin did not, in itself, magically change this reality.  Think of other examples like Saddam Hussein or Noriega who used to be loyal US-puppets who eventually decided to take a more independent course?  Did their countries change overnight?  Of course not.  The difference with Russia is, of course, that the US did not have the means to wage war on Russia, much less so occupy it and install another puppet regime.  Even the terminally weakened and dysfunctional Russian state of the 1993-1999 years still had the means to transform all US major cites into a rubble of radio-active ashes. And yet, the Russian state could not even get together enough regiments to deal with the Chechen insurgency.  All that the Russians could send to deal with the Chechen insurgency was a limited amount of so-called "Mixed Regiment" (сводный полк - really mixed *battalions*), a mishmash of hastily clobbered together subunits which often had no military training at all.  Thus, by the time Putin came to power Russia has a quasi-dead state fully controlled by the USA.

And yet, Putin achieved some kind of miracle.  First he skillfully crushed the Chechen insurgency.  Then, he ejected the Jewish oligarchs which resulted in an immediate change in the tone of the media coverage of the war in Chechnia.  Then he began to reassemble the state piece by piece and while rebuilding what he called the "verticality of power", meaning that he re-subordinated the various regions of Russia to the central government: mobsters were ejected from the gubernatorial seats they had purchased, the regions began to pay taxes to the Federal government (most had stopped) and Presidential envoys were sent out to restore order in the regions.  If all this was a bitter pill to swallow for the British who had been deeply involved in breaking up Russia into many smaller pieces, it was really no big deal for the Americans who, at the time, and more pressing issues to deal with: the Neocons had just successfully pulled-off 9/11 and the Global War On Terror (GWOT) was in full swing.  Besides, externally, Russia was playing it all very nice, actually helping the USA in Afghanistan.  Logically, while the press in the UK was frantically cooking up all sorts of hysterically anti-Russian propaganda, the US press did not care very much.

I don't think that the Americans really liked Putin, but they probably saw him as a reliable partner that they could keep in check and who would not given them too much grief.  Sure, he prevented the final break-up of Russia, but every good thing has an end and it would have been unrealistic by 2000 to expect another decade of Eltsin-like chaos and collapse.  Besides, its not like Russia really had tossed off the American yoke: the system which the USA had created was still in place and there is only that much that Putin could legally do.

So between 2000 and 2012 Putin and Medvedev began a very gradual step-by-step process of internal reconstruction.  In foreign relations Russia did a lot of zig-zagging, sometimes acting in a way mildly irritating to the Americans, but always subservient when things got really important.

And then the USA did two truly dumb things: feeling buoyed by a sense of omnipotence and imperial hubris, the Americans let Georgia attack Russian forces in Ossetia and then they fully sided with the aggressor.  That, combined with the maniacal insistence on deploying an anti-missile system around Russia resulted in a wave of anti-American anger in Russia which Putin fully exploited.  The Americans probably figured that, sure Medvedev was better, but Putin they had already seen in power, and it was no biggie - they could handle him too.  Except that "Putin 2.0" was quite a different one from the original version.

There had been a warning sign which the West dismissed as just a political speech: Putin's speech at the 2007  Munich Conference on Security Policy (full text here) in which he unambiguously stated that the USA's planetary empire  was the number one cause of all the worlds major problems:
The history of humanity certainly has gone through unipolar periods and seen aspirations to world supremacy. And what hasn’t happened in world history?

However, what is a unipolar world? However one might embellish this term, at the end of the day it refers to one type of situation, namely one centre of authority, one centre of force, one centre of decision-making.

It is world in which there is one master, one sovereign. And at the end of the day this is pernicious not only for all those within this system, but also for the sovereign itself because it destroys itself from within.

And this certainly has nothing in common with democracy. Because, as you know, democracy is the power of the majority in light of the interests and opinions of the minority.

Incidentally, Russia – we – are constantly being taught about democracy. But for some reason those who teach us do not want to learn themselves.

I consider that the unipolar model is not only unacceptable but also impossible in today’s world. And this is not only because if there was individual leadership in today’s – and precisely in today’s – world, then the military, political and economic resources would not suffice. What is even more important is that the model itself is flawed because at its basis there is and can be no moral foundations for modern civilisation. 
This speech with its unusually candid type of language did create an initial moment of shock, but it was soon dismissed and forgotten.  The Western reaction was basically "fine, you don't like us, but watcha gonna do about it?!" and a shrug.

What Putin did about it is continue to systematically strengthen the state, launching the economy on a multi-year boom which even overcame the 2008 crisis, and slowly educating the people inside Russia on a new concept: "sovereignization" (суверенизация).

Sovereignization is a powerful concept because it combines a diagnostic (we are not really sovereign) with a goal (we need to become sovereign).  It is not directed against anybody, but anybody openly opposing it immediately looks bad (how can anybody legitimately oppose sovereignization?).  Furthermore, by introducing the concept of sovereignization, Putin pushed the people to ask key questions which had never been asked in the past: if we are not sovereign, why not?  How did it happen that we are not sovereign?  And who is really sovereign then?  And what about those who oppose sovereignization, whose interests are they defending?

By the time the Americans realized that the genie had been let out of the bottle it was literally too late: by a single conceptual push the entire political discourse in Russia had been altered from a state of catatonic stupor to a potentially very dangerous cocktail of opinions.

And this time Putin did not stop at words: he also passed laws demanding that any foreign-financed NGO sign-up as a "foreign agent" and that any government employee with money or real estate abroad either justify its origin or resign.  And these are just test runs, the big stuff is all ahead: Putin now wants to change the laws regulating the activities of the mass media, he plans to implement new legislation making it possible to incorporate major industries inside Russia (currently they are all incorporated aboard), he intends to change the taxation system of major foreign multinationals and, eventually and inevitably, he will have to initiate a revision of the Russian Constitution.  Step by step, Putin is now using his power to change the system, cutting off each instrument of foreign control over Russia one after the other.  Last, but not least, Putin has now openly embared on a process to establish a new Common Eurasian Economic Realm (Единое Евразийское Экономическое Пространство) with any former Soviet Republic willing to join (Belarus and Kazakhstan are already in) which will eventually become a new Eurasian Union (Евразийский Союз).  This, of course, is utterly unacceptable to the USA, which is why Hillary Clinton took the unprecedented step to openly announce that the USA would do everything in its power to either prevent this outcome or, at the very least, to delay it:
"There is a move to re-Sovietize the region. It's not going to be called that. It's going to be called customs union, it will be called Eurasian Union and all of that. But let's make no mistake about it. We know what the goal is and we are trying to figure out effective ways to slow down or prevent it."
This time around, however, it was Russia's turn to say "fine, you don't like us, but watcha gonna do about it?!".

The fact of the matter is that there is precious little the USA can do about it.   Oh sure, the US did raise a big stink about "stolen elections", the Pussy Riot movement, the Congress passed the Magnitsky Act, and Hillary made her threats.  But all that was way too little and way too late, by the time the Americans came to realize that they had yet another major problem on their hands, there was nothing much they could do about it.

This is not to say that there is nothing that they will do about it in the years to come.  First and foremost, we can expect a surge in the number of terrorist attacks in the Caucasus and the rest of Russia.  If Chechnia seems to be safe, at least for the time being, the situation in the neighboring republic of Dagestan is still very dangerous.  Second, we can expect the anti-Putin propaganda to reach new heights.  Third, the US CIA and MI6 will return to their Cold War practices of covertly funding and directing a dissident movement.  Finally, and if all else fails, the West might try to find some crazy "lone gunman" to get rid of Putin himself.

Putin and his "Eurasian sovereignists" supporters are probably not a majority of the people at this time.  Yes, they are in key positions of power and they can use what is euphemistically called the "administrative resource" (административный ресурс - the power of the state bureaucracy) to promote their agenda, but they will have to deal with a Russian intelligentia which is still fiercely anti-Putin and with a media which is even more hostile to any idea of sovereignization.  And yet, as long as Putin does not engage into any excesses, it will be awfully hard for the media to openly trash a political program aiming at the sovereignization of the Russian nation.  This is why when Putin repeatedly referred to this idea in his Message to the Federal Assembly (full text here) the media either ignored it, or played it down.  And yet, gradually, this topic is becoming more and more common in the Russian political discourse, lead by the very active Russian Internet (known as RuNet).

At this moment Putin has a very strong control of the state apparatus and most key positions in the Kremlin are in the hands of his allies.  The state itself is in halfway decent condition, still plagued by corruption and a legal system designed to make it ineffective, it will work when needed, but it is still far from being a well-oiled machine.  The Russian economy is doing pretty well, in particular compared to others, but it is still very heavy, often ineffective, and most revenue is still channeled abroad.  Likewise, the Russian society is mostly happy that the 1990s are over, but the vast majority of people still are faced with many difficulties and hope for a better future.  Finally, the Russian armed forces have suffered a great deal under Serdiukov, but they are already definitely capable of dealing with any realistically imaginable conflict and they are gradually working on restoring their full-spectrum deterrent capability.  In this context, Putin's chances are overall good, but this is far from a done deal and it would be very naive to underestimate all the potential responses the US Empire could come up with to deal with this emerging threat to its domination.

The time frame to see what will happen is relatively short, 4-6 years max.  If by the end of his term Putin does not succeed in his sovereignization program then all bets are off for Russia and since all parties, including the "Atlantic integrationists", realize that, the struggle inside the Kremlin is likely to only heat up.  We can be sure that the next months and years will see a lot of political upheavals in Russia, possibly beginning by an open fallout between Putin and Medvedev.

And Islam in all that?

As I wrote above, neither the Muslim world nor the "Islamic factor" inside Russia are going to have any influence on the outcome of this struggle.  At the most, the USA and their "Atlantic integrationists" allies will use Islamic terrorists to destabilize Russia.  But as long as the state remains organized and solid, no amount of terrorism will be sufficient to truly influence the course of events.  Besides, a resurgence of Islamic terrorism in Russia might have the exactly opposite effect: it might convince even more Russians that they need a powerful and independent regime to protect the country.

However, the outcome of this struggle might have a deep effect not only on the "Islamic factor" inside Russia, but on the Muslim world in general: "Atlantic integrationists" are by and large anti-Muslim and pro-Israeli; they want to integrate Russia into a Western system of security as opposed to a Islamic one.  To one degree or another, "Atlantic integrationists" are always the proponents of the "clash of civilizations" paradigm.  In contrast, the "Eurasian sovereignists", while not all necessarily pro-Islamic in any way, are all for a multi-polar world and they have no problem at all with the idea that one of these poles of power would be an Islamic one.  In other words, the only circumstance when "Eurasian sovereignists" see a threat in Islam is when Islam is used by the US Empire as a tool to destabilize those countries who dare resist the USA.  From this point of view there is an "Islam" in Bosnia, in Kosovo or in Chechnia which is a clear enemy of Russia, but there is an Islam in Iran, Lebanon or Kadyrov's Chechnia which is an objective ally of Russia.  It is characteristic that the "Atlantic integrationists" always see Israel as Russia's natural ally in the Middle-East while the  "Eurasian sovereignists" always name Iran.

As long as these two forces continue to fight each other for the control of the Kremlin and Russia the Russian policies towards Islam inside Russia and the Muslim world will be inconsistent, at times indecisive, and therefore only moderately predictable.  My personal sense is that Putin and his  "Eurasian sovereignists" are currently in a much stronger position than their opponents and that is definitely good news for the Arab and Muslim world, in particular for Syria.  This process is far from over and it would be unwise to make too many predictions about what Russia might do, or to count on Russia to do the "right thing" just because logic would indicate that it should.  The appalling example of Russia essentially given the US/NATO a green light at the UNSC to invade Libya should serve as a reminder that Russia is still not a truly sovereign and that it cannot be counted on the always resist the USA's immense power.

The Saker