Thursday, December 2, 2010

Wikileaks Russia: Batman and the Mob

Frankly a lot of the Wikileaks document dump of “secret” communications from US embassies and ambassadors around the world was pretty underwhelming – a topic I'll explore a little more fully in an upcoming post on The Mantle. Not surprisingly, some of the cables dealt with US-Russian relations. Grabbing the headlines is an assessment by one Moscow embassy official that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was playing “Robin” to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's “Batman”, and a comment that today's Russia seems like less of a nation-state and more of a country-sized mafia operation with a cadre of well-connected government and security service officials getting a cut of all the major projects around the country. These are not new ideas, in fact they're fairly standard critiques from pundits from both outside Russia and within. Dig a little deeper though and the discussion gets at least a little more interesting.

The assessment of the US officials is that Medvedev is actually sincere in the many reforms of the Russian state he has proposed during his term as president, only to have them shot down by his counterpart, Prime Minister Putin. The official goes on to suggest that the Medvedev and Putin factions are in open conflict within the Kremlin, though the two primaries appear have yet to go toe-to-toe.

Hopefully the US official is at least partially right. It would be nice to think that Medvedev is sincere in the reforms he has put forward – which have ranged from reigning in Russia's endemic corruption problem, to establishing a high-tech manufacturing sector a la America's “Silicon Valley” in an effort to move Russia away from extraction industries like oil and natural gas, to addressing the sadly low life expectancy among Russian men (roughly 60 years), to protecting journalists and the freedom of the press. Since he took office from Putin in 2008 (under the Russian constitution, Putin could not run for a third term as president) there have been volumes written speculating on the true nature of the Putin-Medvedev relationship: they call their President/Prime Minister act a “tandem rule”, critics say though that Medvedev is merely a seat-warmer for Putin who can run for President again in 2012 (the constitution only bans three consecutive terms). I've speculated here a few times about their relationship, so it would be nice to think that Medvedev truly does want to address some of Russia's really serious problems. Where I hope the US official is wrong is when they suggest that Medvedev is too weak-willed to actually stand up to Putin, since Medvedev is likely the last hope Russia has to tackle some of these issues, at least for the near future.

Another interesting tidbit from the Wikileaks Russia section dealt with Chechen Warlord/President Ramzan Kadyrov. The cables included an anecdote about Kadyrov attending a wedding in Chechnya where he presented the couple with a modest gift of gold bullion before hopping into his heavily-guarded caravan of SUV and taking off. One onlooker said that Kadyrov didn't spend the night in the same place twice due to security concerns. That directly contradicts not only Kadyrov's carefully-crafted image as a regional strongman, but also his oft-repeated arguments (which Moscow bought into at least for awhile) that Chechnya was once again a safe and peaceful part of the Russian Federation.
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