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February - March 2005
A Random Harvest of Political Stories - part two
Russian President Vladimir Putin paid a three-day visit to India beginning December 3, 2004. Such visits by the Russian leader have now become an annual event, this one being the fifth such in as many years. Russia was a long-standing and trusted friend and ally of India throughout the Cold War era. Although this relationship has survived the push and pull of international politics even after the end of the Cold War, both nations wanted to rework its nuts and bolts to place the future on an even keel, free from the stress and strains of modern development. And so they did – as acknowledged by both sides - on a wide range of outstanding issues.
The importance President Putin attached to his visit to India in December 2004 was reflected in the line up of his senior Cabinet colleagues who either preceded his arrival or accompanied him to New Delhi to prepare or participate in his talks with Indian leaders. The most important among them were Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov, preceded by the Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Zhukov and the Finance Minister. 16 CEOs of Russia’s high tech IT companies also accompanied Putin to Bangalore and inter-acted with the Indian IT CEOs .
The 5th India-Russia Summit in New Delhi saw the conclusion of several significant agreements including;
is a formidable list of agreements, without any doubt.
Delivering the Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Lecture in New Delhi on December 3, 2004 President Putin criticised the double standards in the fight against international terrorism and warned against the use of terrorism as an instrument in a geopolitical game. Clearly showing anger over Washington’s decision to question the elections in Ukraine, President Putin said that he was not particularly enthusiastic about the elections in Iraq of January 30, 2005 as he did not expect these to be either fair or free considering the level of violence. He was very critical of what he described as US dictatorship in international affairs. According to him dictatorship wrapped in a package of pseudo-democratic phraseology can not solve systemic problems.
President Putin went back home duly impressed by the level of sophistication achieved by the IT industry in India and expressed the wish that apart from defence, space research and energy security, co-operation in IT will be the next thing that the two nations will engage in more deeply.
Provocations over Ukraine and Georgia
Putin was two hours behind schedule in arriving in New Delhi, which in normal circumstances would have passed off as routine, but in the context of the developments in Ukraine, the late arrival triggered a flurry of speculations. According to media reports the delay was caused by an urgent call in Moscow from Leonid Kuchma, the outgoing Ukrainian President who wanted to discuss the implications of a Supreme Court decision declaring the Presidential elections illegal on grounds of fraudulent rigging and more importantly for seeking immunity from possible prosecution on charges of corruption.
When Putin arrived in New Delhi he was a worried man upset by the setback in Ukraine. While in India, his mind was torn between New Delhi and Kiev, both being critically important to Russia in its global ambition to restore its past status as a superpower.
The flawed presidential election in Ukraine turned out to be egg on the face of Russia, blamed for helping the rigging in favour of the Moscow-backed candidate. Allegations of poisoning Viktor Yushchenko complicated the matter further for Kremlin. President Putin had visited Kiev twice before the elections throwing his full weight behind Viktor Yanukovich, the leader of the mainly Russian-speaking, more affluent industrialised Eastern Ukraine.
The opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko, the leader of the mainly Polish-speaking poorer agricultural Western Ukraine – which was known as the breadbasket of the former Soviet Union - was supported by the West with material and logistic help.
When the Election Commission declared Yanukovich elected in the final round, it was not accepted by Yushchenko and his backers the US and EU. The supporters of Yushchenko gathered in large numbers in the Independence Square in Kiev with Orange Flags in sub-zero temperatures for more than 10 days defying weather conditions and the election results. The country was poised for a split down the middle of the ethnic fault-line.
In a crucial face-saver, Ukraine’s Parliament on December 8, 2004 adopted a mutually acceptable compromise package of electoral and constitutional reforms, defusing the country’s political crisis. The reform package was approved in a 402-21 vote with 19 abstentions. The Members of Parliament gave President Leonid Kuchma a standing ovation when he signed the document in the Chamber of the House.
The importance of the reform package lies not in what it contains but the fact that it stopped the disintegration of Ukraine from taking place.
Two days before, on December 6, 2004 at Sofia, Bulgaria at the EU-brokered meeting of “The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe”, President Putin in a frontal attack on US Secretary of State General Colin Powell, warning the West against playing “sphere of influence” politics with Russia. Predictably, Powell rejected the charge strongly. Although denied by both sides, the spat had all the trappings of a cold war exchange.
Wiser counsel prevailed at the hurriedly-called NATO-Russia Foreign Minister’s Conference in Brussels on December 10, 2004 when the former cold war adversaries joined together to call for a free and fair election in Ukraine unmarred by outside interference. The NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said “Given that in Sofia such an understanding was not possible, this was an important development”. Russia had earlier warned the Western nations against meddling in the internal affairs of Ukraine. Playing down the tensions between the EU/US and Russia over Ukraine, the NATO Secretary General in a reassuring statement said that the spat was not comparable to the Cold War-era confrontations. The NATO-Russia understanding and compromise were the best news to come out of the tensions between the two power blocs over Ukraine.
Ukraine was thus saved from an almost inevitable split along ethnic lines. In a further climbdown the EU assured Russia that the entry of Ukraine into the European Union was not on the agenda. This was a disappointment for Viktor Yushchenko who had gone on record saying that EU membership was his top priority. The European Commission announced that it favoured a partnership plan for greater co-operation with Ukraine once it held free and fair elections. Some politicians in Europe feared that the EU simply would not be able to cope with another country as poor, large and chaotic as Ukraine in the Union. Allowing Ukraine in, would open the door for other countries such as Belarus, Moldova, Georgia (which recently elected a Western-backed President), Azerbaijan and Armenia bringing the total to nearly 40 countries. The EU has said that the entry of Georgia is also not on its agenda.
Why are Ukraine and Georgia so important to Russia? The ethnic and cultural ties are as close as can be. Joseph Stalin was not a Russian, he was a Georgian. Nikita Khruschev was not a Russian, he was an Ukrainian. These countries belong to a single family of nations just as India, Nepal, Bhutan and Sri Lanka are. Khruschev had ceded large parts of Russian territory like Sebastopol and Yalta to Ukraine. Unless the West has future plans to destabilise Russia, I see no point in provoking Moscow on this front. The best guarantee of security and stability in Europe as indeed in Russia would be for Brussels to seek strategic partnership – both economic and military – with Moscow and the countries which are within its sphere of influence, like Ukraine and Georgia. Confrontation will be a sure recipe for disaster not only for the security of Russia but the whole of Central Europe including the European Union. President Putin’s tough diplomacy saved the situation for Russia vis á vis the West, at least for the time being.
Against increasing signs of nervousness over the long-term intentions of the West, President Putin, while addressing on November 19, 2004 the annual Congress of Moscow’s Red Army, announced the development of a secret nuclear weapon which would give the Kremlin an edge over its rivals. It would be a weapon that “other nuclear powers do not and will not possess”. Western commentators described the statement as an example of “pugnacious and defiant rhetoric” indicative, as they saw it, of Russia, growing in confidence, seeking to re-establish its status as a superpower, which the West is not in a mood to welcome.
Julius Strauss writing in The Daily Telegraph of London on November 20, 2004 said “ Kremlin insiders say that one of Putin’s dreams is to re-establish a Russia-dominated empire on the ashes of the old Soviet Union. He hopes that by harnessing the region’s political and economic resources Russia can attain new global prominence.” Throwing in a line of caution, Strauss goes on to warn “ No one is suggesting that the Kremlin wants a new Cold War. Even Russian analysts say the announcement of a nuclear breakthrough is more an attempt to impress the domestic audience than international sabre-rattling.”
Strauss went on to add that some Russian analysts argue that the Kremlin’s aspirations for the control of the areas like Kazhakstan, Ukraine and Belarus, described as “near abroad”, into a single economic zone are natural. Andrei Neshadin of the Experts Institute of Moscow said that the area of the former Soviet Union had been the natural zone of Russian economic and military interest for centuries. Not for nothing had Putin described the demise of the Soviet Union as “a national tragedy”.
Dimitry Oreshkin of the Russian Academy of Sciences said that Putin’s policy would be to play on the imperial ambitions of the Russian people. Many will be willing to pay whatever price is needed if they can feel like a superpower again.
This time, some analysts suggest, the Russian advance will not be led by political commissars backed up by high technology tanks and future-generation bombers, but by highly motivated oil and gas salesmen with billions of petrodollars, bartering discounted energy for influence. Zbignew Siemiatowski, formerly of the Polish Intelligence Service, told a Parliamentary inquiry in October 2004 “We are facing a restoration of Russian empire through economic means”.
The full version of this article can be found in the print edition.