THE “THIRD TURN”. If we look back over the last couple of decades, we see that the Western image of post communist Russia has gone through two major turns. In the 90s Russia was a sort of younger brother whom we would mould and usher into the light of democracy. That didn’t work out very well: that’s when Russians began to associate the word “democracy” with theft and poverty. Then Russia became “resurgent” and “assertive”, or, in other words, it stopped declining away. The obsession with containing and thwarting Russia made Russians come to associate “democracy” with geopolitics. I think that a third turn is underway and, for that, I would thank Saakashvili in part. NATO expansion is now somewhat of an embarrassment (as is “democratic” Georgia); the “coloured revolutions” are being revealed as grounded in fantasy; Russia has not collapsed (and how many predictions were there of the inevitable coming failure of the “Putin system”?). Added to which, when, year after year, you’ve cried wolf that Russia is about to take over a neighbour and it doesn’t happen, your credibility turns to credulity. We are beginning a third (and I think much more realistic) phase of seeing Russia as an ordinary power with which one does ordinary business – sometimes rancorous, but business based on facts. The anti-Russia diehards have not gone away, but they are losing their audience. I give a lot of the credit for this change to Paris (and I do think that a key event was Kouchner’s visit to the Ossetian refugees; that experience inoculated Paris against swallowing Tbilisi’s story whole). Berlin has also played an important realistic role as, of course, has Obama’s “reset”. More recently, the Russian reaction to Kaczynski’s death seems to be ending the instinctive Polish opposition to all things Russian. Thus we see the gradual draining away of the core axiom that “Putin wants a new Russian Empire” and the corollary ideological perspective that everything Moscow does is really about that: Russian gas pipelines are really threats; Medvedev’s proposals on security and financial systems are really designed to “split the Western alliance” and the other manifestations of seeing what you believe rather than believing what you see. Here are a few straws in the wind from the past week. (For former examples of Westerners seeing only what they wanted to see in Russia, I recommend Malia’s Russia Under Western Eyes which starts with Voltaire’s imaginary ideally-governed Russia or Foglesong’s The American Mission and the ‘Evil Empire’ which details a century of American obsessions about a Russia seen as a disappointingly stubborn and backwards twin brother.)

SPEAKING OF REALISM. The US State Department has finally designated Doku Umarov, the leader of the Caucasus Emirate, as a terrorist.

ST PETERSBURG SPEECH. Medvedev’s speech is another must-read for those who want to understand what he thinks he’s been hired to do: “a policy that can be summed up by one short word – modernisation”. Putin was the man to stop the rot and Medvedev the man to take it to the next stage: same plan, same team, different phases. I believe the program was derailed a bit by two external events that seized the attention of the government: the South Ossetia war and the global financial crisis. But Russia has reasonably well recovered – the IMF, for example, in its April 2010 estimates (and they put Russia’s number up in June) predicted a higher growth rate over 5 years for Russia than for  anyone else in the G8. So it is time to work on qualitative growth.

GAS WARS. I am not going to attempt to summarise the drearily familiar ritual. Money disputes, Gazprom cuts supplies to Belarus, Lukashenka stops transit to the West. It seems that it is over. As another indication of the “third turn”, Western coverage of the issue has been relaxed and Kiev offered to take up the transit slack.

KYRGYZ REPUBLIC. It continues to calm down and refugees are returning. For what it’s worth, Uzbekistan’s President Karimov says that the violence was organised by “a third party” in an attempt to involve Uzbekistan. Former President Bakiyev’s son Maksim, whom Bishkek wants to put on trial, is in the UK and has been granted “temporary political asylum”. His father is in Belarus and yesterday the Belarusan Prosecutor General’s Office said it found no grounds for extraditing him to Kyrgyzstan. I don’t know whether the overthrow of Askar Akayev five years ago (a former favourite of the West, by the way) really was a “colour revolution” (the progression from assertions of faked elections, through organised demonstrations with lots of outside involvement and lock step Western reporting, to NATO suddenly becoming the chief concern of the new government) or not; if so, it hasn’t had a very happy ending. Either.

© Patrick Armstrong Analysis, Ottawa, Canada (see


RUSSIA INC. The Finance Ministry announced that the budget deficit in 2009 was 2.3 trillion Rubles (US$78 billion – about 25% less than anticipated); GDP declined nearly 8%; the Reserve Fund holds about US$60 billion and the National Welfare Fund about US$95 billion. The IMF has raised its estimate for Russia’s GDP growth in 2010 to 4.25% from 4% and estimates that inflation will be 6%. Rumours of Russia’s economic death have been exaggerated: indeed these numbers look rather better than the IMF’s estimates for either the Euro Area or the USA. Medvedev’s calls for Russia to be treated as a major player in the world financial system don’t look so implausible today.

FOREIGN WEAPONS. It would appear that Moscow has seriously broken with the Soviet (but not Imperial) tradition that almost all weapons should be made domestically. RosOboronEksport has begun negotiations with France over buying a Mistral-class ship and possibly making more under licence. Moscow may go to foreign sources to obtain light armour or infantry equipment and it will be manufacturing French thermal sights under licence. The decision has already been made that it must import UAVs. A Russian newspaper reports that up to €10 billion may be spent in Europe and Israel by 2016. There is nothing especially unusual – very few countries make all their own weapons – but it is interesting as another indication that Russia (unlike the USSR) does not foresee having to go it alone in a serious war. But there must have been some nasty scenes in the background with Soviet-era industries insisting that they could make everything. The fact is that in many areas Russian Armed Forces equipment is far behind current standards. As a reminder of past certainties about the excellence of domestic production (and doctrine), I remember that at least one Soviet general was so dumbfounded by the US performance in the 1991 Gulf War that he claimed the whole thing had been a fake.

ARCTIC SEA. At his trial, one of the hijackers made a plea bargain accusing an Estonian businessman of being behind it: according to him, it was a simple ransom operation to raise money for a failing business. A much more mundane explanation than the many conspiracy theories and rushes to judgement about Russia’s malign intentions current at the time.

TRIFONOVA. It has been announced that Vera Trifonova actually died as the result of surgical error. This does not change the fact that, under the new rules, she should have been out on bail and not in the prison hospital.

SMALL BUSINESS. The Head of Russia’s Labour Service says that 36,000 jobless Russians established their own small businesses in the first quarter of 2010. There is a scheme in Russia to advance small loans for such purposes.

KYRGYZ REPUBLIC. A week ago rioting broke out in Osh in the Ferghana Valley with most reports agreeing that it was between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz. The government in Bishkek claims that the situation is calming down which may or may not prove to be true (it certainly didn’t see it coming two weeks ago). Current reports (estimates) are that nearly 200 have been killed and one to two thousand injured. Tens of thousands of Uzbeks have fled to Uzbekistan which has closed its border claiming it can’t handle any more. Twenty years ago there were very similar riots in Osh. The Valley, one of the very few “green” areas of Central Asia, was extensively gerrymandered by Stalin so that it is today a patchwork of borders and jurisdictions. But the historical reality, as elsewhere in Central Asia, is that the cities are very multi-ethnic; there are even those who argue that Central Asian city-dwellers should be considered a separate ethnos; but Soviet ethnographers, who defined or even created “nationalities” to suit Stalin’s purposes, would have none of that. Access for traders throughout the Valley was comparatively easy and so it remained through the Imperial and Soviet periods. It was the creation of separate countries after the collapse of the USSR, with their borders and customs guards blocking this formerly easy and natural movement, which laid the grounds for a semi-permanent resentment in the Valley. Added to which people suddenly found themselves the wrong nationality in their ancestral homes. Thus there is a good deal of underlying tension and resentment which is kept bubbling. Just what sparked off this latest trouble is unclear: certainly the new regime in Bishkek blames Bakiyev (more precisely his son) for inciting the riots. There are many theories (see JRL/2010/116 & 117) and perhaps we will know some day.

GAS WARS. Medvedev has warned Minsk to pay off its debt for gas or face supply cuts. No doubt there will be those who think that Moscow should continue to subsidise Belarus’ energy usage.

© Patrick Armstrong, Ottawa, Canada


PEOPLE POWER. While the Russian government enjoys a high and constant level of support, that support is, to a degree, rather passive: the population knows that the ruling party will stay in power but appears to be content that it do so. However, things are stirring: I do not refer to the “opposition” so beloved of the Kommentariat but to blue buckets. It is a grass-roots movement, sustained by the new media, and mobilised against the flouting of the law by big wheels. There will, no doubt, be attempts to paint this as an anti-government phenomenon but there is no reason why it need be: Medvedev has often railed against “legal nihilism” and the “bucketeers” are aiming at the same target. It is, I believe, the first example of a spontaneous, nation-wide, bottom-up expression of the popular will in post-Communist Russia: neither something the government started nor an artificial stunt like Other Russia. It could become a challenge to the government should the government ignore or attempt to suppress it. Medvedev would be advised to show the movement some support: the wise leader knows when to follow.

OKHTA CENTRE. A “monstrous carbuncle” indeed, the proposed Okhta Centre in St Petersburg has attracted much opposition; even Medvedev has weighed in against it. Nonetheless a local court dismissed a suit opposing it. Another issue around which grass-roots opinion could coalesce.

ATTITUDES. A commonplace of Russophobic opinion is that Russia is disliked and feared by most of its neighbours. The reality is rather more complicated as this analysis makes clear. The author concludes: “the much ballyhooed ‘Russian resurgence’ across the former USSR rests on firmer foundations than just political pressure or economic takeovers – of at least equal importance is that many of the peoples in its path back to regional hegemony aren’t actually that averse to it.”

BIG GOVERNMENT. Medvedev has told the government to draw up proposals to cut officials by 20%. If he should pull that off, it would be a world first.

KACZYNSKI CRASH. Russian sympathy and openness (and the Russian story of warning the plane off has been confirmed) have been marred by the discovery that some of the Russian first responders looted the bodies; four have been charged. Coverage was interesting: BBC rushing to imply the Russians were lying; Poles apologising for an erroneous accusation (bet the BBC doesn’t). Not OMON or police, but conscript soldiers.

DEMONSTRATIONS. The pattern is familiar: Other Russia requests a venue that it knows it will not get for a demonstration; the City offers another location; the marchers go to the first anyway; the police break up the demonstration and Other Russia has its desired incident. On the 31st the pattern was repeated. Human Rights Commissioner Lukin described the police action as “savage and inappropriate” and his office has suggested that Bolotnaya Square be turned into a “speakers’ corner” like the one in London. The square is a good choice: reasonably central and a decent size, demonstrations will not tie up traffic. And Repin is not a bad presiding genius for such a place. This seems to be a good way to break the ridiculous cycle of provocation and police over-reaction; given that the police and majority party support the idea, it will likely happen.

HISTORY WARS. Medvedev has ordered all WWII archives be published on the Net by 2013; some already are.

JIHADISM. Activity continues with successes and failures for the security forces. But yesterday security forces captured the leader of the jihad in Ingushetia. He was taken alive and is now in Moscow. It is rare to capture the leaders – they are usually killed – and he will be a source of intelligence. We can expect more successes to come.

WEAPONS. Kiev, under former management, supplied a lot of weapons to Georgia under murky circumstances. I expected the new government to take a look and so it has; irregularities have been found.

GEORGIA ELECTIONS. The ruling party dominated in Georgian local elections last month and the result has been breathlessly hailed as showing “broad public support” for Saakashvili. But, turnout was rather low and OSCE observers were not very impressed: one in five vote counts were assessed as “bad or very bad”.

KYRGYZ REPUBLIC. Seems to be settling down: the authorities lifted the state of emergency in Jalalabad last week.

© Patrick Armstrong Analysis, Ottawa, Canada (see