Sunday, June 26, 2011

A Russian oligarch challenges 'Putinism'

Moscow is buzzing with excitement. Eight years after the disastrous challenge to Vladimir Putin's regime by the now-jailed oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky, another oligarch entered Russian politics on Saturday - Mikhail Prokohorov, third richest man in Russia, who heads the Onexim group, an investment firm with big interests in mining, new technologies, media and banking. MP will be heading a 'pro-business', 'reformist' party Pravoe Delo [Right Cause], which has a programme suspiciously reminiscent of President Dmitry Medvedev’s own policies.

Russians will find MP hugely attractive - hopelessly handsome 46-year old bachelor, 6'8" tall, listed 39th richest man in the world by Forbes with assets estimated at 18 billion dollars. And of course he owns the top US basketball team, New Jersey Jets and has a dazzling range of interests including masterminding the production of Russia's first hybrid car, the Yo-mobile. Some of his remarks:

* "The model of management (of Russia) which had an effect for the last 10 years has simply exhausted itself. This is not surprising. The world is changing fast."
* "Do we have multi-party politics (in Russia)? Of course we don't. There is need to have at least two parties of power. Any political monopoly is our main opponent. It's even clear in school text books that a monopoly is the enemy of all development."
* "Our country is called the Russian Federation, but by structure it is an empire. Only presidential power works here, and this kind of governance cannot provide stability let alone development,"
* "Our whole country is systemically degenerating: our industry has collapsed, and we are nothing but a supplier of raw materials, although quite a powerful one."
* "The education, healthcare, and culture sectors are degenerating now. Expenses on these should be higher than the expenses on security, law enforcement, and defense."

MP is making the right noises for Russia's audience in the West, where he is a celebrity. MP even called for the release of Khodorkovsky, who is locked up in a Siberian prison for the past 7 years. “As a person, I express deep sorrow that such trials happen in this country,” MP said. All this has convinced some people to say MP has a secret deal with Medvedev - that MP is Medvedev's torpedo against Putin's submarine. They even say MP could be keeping a spot warm for Medvedev as the leader of Pravoe Delo. To spur speculations further, Medvedev's chief economic advisor, Arkady Dvorkovich, wrote on Twitter, "Most of Prokhorov's ideas in his speech are close to me".

The western press has gone berserk. The champagne bottles are out: It is the Gorbachev - Yeltsin dogfight all over again which brought the Kremlin's Soviet roof come down crashing. Leon Aron even wrote that Russia is approaching another "perestroika moment".

Aren't they going too fast on the track of wishful thinking? The Medvedev-Putin 'tandem' is an enigma. What if MP is a Kremlin creation designed partly as a lightning rod and partly to attract opposition-minded voters? Even stranger things can happen in Russian politics. Incidentally, MP has investigations on tax invasion pending against him. And his pet hybrid car project was also Putin's brainwave. MP can turn out to be what Russian cynics call a 'PR counterweight' to offset the bad name Russia earned as a foreign investment destination due to the case of Khodorkovsky case, who was once Russia's richest man but jailed on charges which the West alleges to be politically motivated after he funded opposition parties and threatened to sell off major assets to American companies.

On the other hand, MP holds big assets in the West and has powerful connections. To be sure, Russian politics is hotting up - parliamentary elections are scheduled for December where Putin leads the ruling party and his popularity will be tested ahead of the presidential election due in March next year. The western interference in Russian politics will be cascading in the coming months since this is a high-stakes game for US' global strategies (and for China) - who rules Russia from next year.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

SCO Faces the Afghan Challenge

There is stillness in the Central Asian steppes as the policymakers quickly huddle in their respective capitals to do stocktaking. The plain truth is that the Central Asian region’s interests do not coincide with Obama’s. They probably never really did but now onward they glaringly diverge. A collective effort becomes necessary, which of courses presupposes a regional initiative at some stage that can subsume regional rivalries and reconcile the contradictions in the inter-regional situation. Read my article published by Strategic Culture Foundation, Moscow-based think tank.

Losers and winners in Obama's Afghanistan

The shift in Afghanistan from "combat to support" and from the military track to the political track is now well underway with President Barack Obama's announcement of a timetable for troop withdrawal. India will feel badly let down. Iran will be pleased to no end and so may Russia. China's dependence on Pakistan increases by leaps and bounds, while Pakistan itself has some unpalatable truths to digest. Read my article in Asia Times on the dramatic day's happening in Washington, DC, on June 22, 2011.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

A summit in Tehran trumps the US

An Iranian diplomatic thrust to bring Afghanistan and Pakistan onside against the United States - benefiting already from the countries' fury at US efforts to isolate them from Taliban talks - lends greater significance to an anti-terrorism summit in Tehran being attended by Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari. The nations could frustrate US visions of regional dominance and a partitioned Afghanistan. Read my article in Asia Times on the Iran-Pakistan-Afghanistan bonhomie.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Turkey cools down tempers over Syria

Turkey grudgingly accepted Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's vague reform pledges on Monday, warning however that they are "not enough". Though Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has blasted the crackdown by Damascus as "savagery", Ankara's diplomats are ramping down tensions over the crisis. Turkey knows Assad's position is not as threatened as the West suggests, and that it will be left carrying the can should anarchy erupt. Meanwhile, Russia's categorical opposition to any foreign intervention in Syria introduces a major dimension. Read my article in Asia Times on the regional developments.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Why Karzai lashed out at the US

Rapid-fire snubs from Hamid Karzai to the Barack Obama administration should serve as a warning that the Afghan president refuses to be the United States' donkey as it dangles a strategic partnership in its drive for permanent military bases in Afghanistan. Karzai knows he can always turn to regional powers, including Iran. Read my article in Asia Times on the extraordinary happenings in the Hindu Kush where Afghan sense of honour is resurfacing with a vengeance.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Why is Saleh so unhappy?

The Americans tried their utmost to build up Amrullah Saleh, Afghan intelligence chief whom Hamid Karzai sacked last year. It wasn’t an easy thing to make a spook seem a statesman within a year. But it is an interesting wheel within the wheel, as they say. Saleh is Panjshiri strongman Mohammad Fahim’s protégé but then, these lines blur in today's Afghanistan. ‘Have dollar, will travel.’

Saleh oozes anti-Karzai venom. He can’t get over that he lost a great job in Kabul with perks and privileges. So he puts everything that is wrong with today's Afghanistan at Karzai’s doorstep. American think tankers love to listen to him do that. The US intelligence community sees him as a reservoir of information about Taliban. Saleh wrote recently in impeccable American English an opinion piece in Bloomberg laying claim to an “alternate vision to Karzai’s”. He said: “It entails a complete disarming of the Taliban, an end to Pakistan’s practice of giving sanctuary to Taliban militants and a truth-and-reconciliation process for Afghanistan.” How charming!

But his vision is not like Nelson Mandela’s. It cannot be. If ever there is a truth and reconciliation commission, Northern Shura 'warlords' who ran Kabul in the halcyon days of the Mujahideen takeover in 1992 will have to go into exile - or face suicide bombers; their wanton rape and looting of the Hazara district in Kabul and their subsequent massacres of thousands of Pashtun teenagers ('Talibs')in Kunduz and Mazar-i-Sharif may come to haunt them. Saleh’s 'vision' is riveted on scattering the Taliban from the face of the earth and forcing Pakistan to lay off. It is a recipe for endless strife. Taliban, too, are Afghans and Pakistan has legitimate interests in an Afghan settlement. Obviously, Saleh is enamoured of US' surge and “brilliant special operations” and wants them to roll on. He wouldn't hear about the war crimes. Nor, intriguingly, has he forthright view on US plans for permanent military presence, although Afghans feel strongly about foreign occupation.

Former foreign minister Abdullah will feel proud of Saleh's 'diplomatic skill' to walk the tight rope. The problem with people like Saleh - or 'warlords' like Mohammed Mohaqiq, Mohammed Atta, et al, - is that they thrive in civil war conditions. Things couldn’t be better if there is a ‘great game’ with regional powers putting big money on the table. Everyone has a jolly good time - 'warlords' and couriers who bring in money from foreign intelligence agencies (and the Dubai-based banks, of course). A broad-based government in peace time Kabul will spoil everything.