Tom Balmforth's article on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty about the new cabinet puzzled me, as his pieces often do in taking a more liberal view of Russia's intentions than I think are merited. Where does this come from? Does it come from interviews with actual Russian officials? I don't see such interviews referenced in the piece.
No, I think it comes from simply Balmforth's own worldview, the evidently "progressive" view which he frames the entire Russian story in the first place, such as to make what he sees as reasoned estimates of Russia's behaviour.
But they all strike me as being quite wrong.
First, there's the notion that Vladislav Surkov was "demoted" and "in disgrace". "Last December, he was relegated to an obscure deputy prime minister's portfolio," says Balmforth. But there was never any evidence for any punishment -- and the evidence that it was NEVER the case is in fact now before us, as Surkov is back with just as much power (or more) than ever! It was just a maneuver.
Surkov was moved out of the limelight strategically at a time when demonstrators were seeing him as the heart of darkness, and Golos, the nonprofit election monitors were blasting NTV as "Surkovskaya propaganda." Surkov has always been the grey cardinal of the Kremlin and never ceased being so -- and while he was furloughed, he was put in charge of religion, too, and that's why no doubt we see a nasty new legislative development regarding religious groups -- no longer can they register as nonprofit or non-commercial groups like NGOs; they will have to be approved in a separate section of law.
Balmforth says "Surkov keeps pictures of the rapper Tupac Shakur, U.S. President Barack Obama, and revolutionary Che Guevara on his mantelpiece" -- implying that he might be some kind of movin' and happenin' kinda guy, and actually have some liberal inclinations. Balmforth then adds "'Surkovskaya Propaganda' is a favorite meme of the opposition" -- as if the opposition, touching children that they are, merely makes scary memes about this in fact rather complex and sophisticated liberal man in the Kremlin. Bleah.
Strangely, some writers on Russian politics perceived Putin's party United Russia as "in trouble," or "having a PR problem" or having to move people around, etc. Huh? This party just won the elections -- and won it all over the place, in the towns and the villages, despite protest, and despite fraud. "Nashi" might be disbanded because something better organized may be cooked up, or because the blowback from the propaganda with it was starting to be too harmful, but it means no kind of liberalization at all. Meanwhile, Medvedev is declared the head of it after, not before the elections. Talk about machines!
Arkday Dvorkovich is described by Balmforth as a "Medvedev man" (and remember, Medvedev is this, um, liberal) and a "force for privatization" (whatever *that* means) in the cabinet -- and already credited with opposing Sechin, who isn't even there -- and maybe doesn't have to be there because he can run things behind the scenes. Dvorkovich is an aggressive defender of the Kremlin line on Jackson-Vanik and openly denounces Twitterers like me who call for the Magnitsky Act and for not handing Russia a moral victory by abolishing Jackson Vanik instead of carefully graduating Russia from it. Dvorkovich thinks he has found a powerful argument for "reason" by saying that taking a position of joining J-V and Magnitsky will "only harm America itself" by ostensibly depriving us of business cooperation with Russia.
Nonsense. Russia should bring to justice the murderers of Magnitsky and prosecute the tax fraud that he uncovered -- it's not about America's economy suffering. America -- and Russia -- would only have better business relations if Russia became less thuggish and corrupt. Why are we calling Dvorkovich a liberal?!
I read one investor newsletter that characterized both Igor Shuvalov and Arkady Dvorkovich, seen as largely resopnsible for the economy, particularly energy, as "liberals". Dvorkovich is viewed positively because he ostensinbly replaces Sechin in the oil and gas sector -- Sechin who pissed off the Turkmens by jumping the gun and claiming Russia would be part of TAPI when it wasn't wanted by Ashgabat or others at all -- for example.
So preposterous is this analysis that the newsletter even characterizes Dvorkovich as possibly having a "looser" control over the state-owned gas and oil monopoly Gazprom. Huh? There would never, ever be any "looser control" over this sector at a time when Putin started his new term with a grim determination to knock over the EU again by pressing ahead with Southstream ahead of schedule.
Come on, this is the Putin cabinet, people. Why are we talking about liberals? We are talking about luring the West or fooling the West with poseurs as liberals, that's all -- at best. But in fact, these figures are chosen by Putin not necessarily with how they impress American analysts or business leaders, about which Putin doesn't really care and isn't really interested (remember, he dissed this month's G-8 because it was in the US.) They're chosen to run the country with iron fists.
"Dvorkovich is urbane, an official at the Russian Chess Federation, speaks English and German, and can be found tweeting at @advorkovich" -- as if the mere presence on Twitter implies liberal policies. Read what he tweets. They are not liberal thoughts. They are the same nationalist and anti-American thoughts as Putin. Again, this is the Kremlin, not Sweden. Why do people keep ascribing liberalness to a country that is propping up Assad's mass crimes against humanity and doing nothing to solve the challenge of Iran to the world?
Balmforth writes another strange thing about Rogozin. He gets it right that he is "bombastic, confrontational, and anti-Western" -- I'll never forget when I saw him tweet late at night (my time) that if he were the Russian diplomat negotiating with the American diplomat on START, he would have punched him in the face. Even for him, that was going too far and he erased it.
Says Balmforth, "In 2008, Rogozin was sent to Brussels to work as Russia’s NATO envoy after he became too outspoken as head of his nationalist Rodina (Motherland) party."
Again, huh? Punishment for being too outspoken in his nationalism at home isn't being sent to foreign "exile" -- in fact, the NATO post is a reward for services rendered. A domestic hard-head like this isn't usually put in a Western-facing direction, but in this case, Putin/Medvedev were happy to have him go to Brussels and bang on NATO crudely and loudly. Again, this description of Rogozin's trajectory comes from trying to understand Russia from the "progressive" perspective in which one posits that there are "liberals" and "conservatives" fighting for the soul of the motherland, Medvedev the innovator and Putin the terminator. In fact, they are all on the same side. Medvedev comes from the state monopoly Gazprom. Rogozin was needed in Brussels to literally harass NATO constantly, in the same way as the FSB harasses foreign diplomats (as Luke Harding so starkly describes in his new book Expelled.)
Like Surkov, during the election period while some of the masses were demonstrating and the West was waiting to see if the liberals would, um, prevail, Rogozin was retired from the view temporarily to go supervise the motherland's armaments industry. Perfect place for him to be more convincing abroad, rooted in the defense industry and backed by army fans! Now he's been assigned back to negotiate with NATO -- and now generals that he no doubt met on his tour of duty back home are shouting that they will launch missile strikes against Europe if the US builds a missile shield. Rogozin rallied the troops and refreshed with kvass and pelmeni can now go back to eating fois gras in Brussels.
It's hard to know what to say about Aleksandr Khloponin who was assigned as presidential envoy to the North Caucasus Federal District by Dmitry Medvedev in January 2010 to...promote tourism and business in the North Caucasus. Again, huh? That is such a preposterous portfolio that I can't imagine where to begin. More terrorist attacks occurred on his watch, but he's been given a promotion. Why?
As for Olga Godets, I don't know her career or what she might stand for, but I'm going to take a wild-assed guess and say that if her previous post before working in the gutted post-Luzhkov era mayor's office was the Taymyr Autonomous Okrug, social issues in fact are not being accorded much weight. They are seen as women's work; they are seen as proper to a destroyed seat of power and the Taymyr Autonomous Okrug. I could be wrong, of course.
Rashid Nurgaliyev is removed from actual policing because he's not an ethnic Russian and the theory -- indulged for awhile -- that non-ethnic Russians would rein in the ethnics is being retired. BUT Nurgaliyev is moved to the position that Berezovsky once held as deputy of the national security council so that means...whatever it means. And now Kolokoltsev, who was good at "negotiating with the nationalists" is put in to do, well, just that. Because that's what the Kremlin is about now.
Come on, people. We've been indulging in this "find the liberals" nonsense in the Kremlin like forever. Remember when Yuri Andropov, the KGB hardliner who became General Secretary, was deemed a reformer and liberal because he drank whiskey and listened to jazz? Putin is an ardent pupil of Andropov and has resurrected his cult. The Kremlin is our enemy and we need to stop imagining Russia's going to privatize its oil and gas monopolies under Arkady Dvorkovich and realize we should double down on our political deterrence.