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DAWN - Opinion; June 30, 2007

June 30, 2007

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Not another Cold War

By Tariq Fatemi


RUSSIA is much too powerful and ambitious to be kept in a straitjacket for long. It will not accept a position of subservience. True, the breakup of the Soviet Union was a traumatic experience for the Russians who were then subjected to the chaos and corruption of the Yeltsin presidency. When Vladimir Putin came to power some seven years ago, Russia was literally down in the dumps.

In the past seven years, however, this former KGB officer has proven to be a strong and forceful leader, one who has brought about a remarkable transformation. Under his watch, the country’s coffers are bulging with billions earned from the sale of oil and gas. This has resulted in impressive growth rates for the economy. Moscow has also succeeded in enforcing its writ in the outlying regions. All this has given the leadership the confidence and desire to regain some of its lost glory.

To this end, Putin has been engaged in an assiduous effort to stamp his authority on the country while setting new parameters in relations with major powers, in particular the United States, which is in tune with the sentiments of his people. This reflects his strong belief that relations between Moscow and Washington must be based on sovereign equality.

In this endeavour, it was inevitable that differences would emerge between Russia and the United States. The latest spat between them began with Moscow’s test-firing of the RS-24 missile, capable of carrying 10 warheads, from the Plesetsk base in May. It was claimed that it could overcome any missile shield developed so far by the US.

This test took place soon after the US announced its plans to deploy 10 interceptor missiles in Poland, supplemented by a radar system in the Czech Republic. This “provocative action” was taken on the plea that Europe had to be protected against long-range missile attacks from Iran and North Korea. The Russians were, however, not impressed by this rationale and, therefore, not willing to let the Americans get away with what they believed to be a violation of the 1972 ABM treaty.

It was in the backdrop of this air of confrontation that Putin and George Bush met on the sidelines of the recent G8 summit in Germany in a bid to rescue their relations which were at a post Cold-War low. Putin surprised his interlocutors by not focusing on the missile issue per se, but calling for a joint Russia-US base in Azerbaijan to detect missile attacks. He argued that this facility could cover all of Europe rather than just a part of it.

While indicating that the base would ease Russian concerns, he warned that if Washington pushed ahead with its plan to deploy the missile system, Russia would be constrained to revert to targeting its missiles at Europe, as it did during the Cold War. The Americans were caught off guard and were constrained to admit that Putin’s proposal was “interesting”, and worthy of examination by their experts. The dispute over the missile shield is representative of the current tensions between the two leaders.

When they had met for the first time some six years ago, Bush’s words about him indicated that he was impressed with Putin. The Russian leader, too, felt that his country could derive some advantage from being helpful to the US and, therefore, assisted it in gaining access to air bases in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan — a move that was important in the context of the US invasion of Afghanistan.

The Bush administration, however, mistook Putin’s action as a sign of Russia’s weakness and opted to ring its old adversary by a string of bases in virtually all the former Warsaw Pact countries.

Russia was not amused by these actions. Moscow made it clear that while it did not wish to have a rancorous relationship with Washington, it would staunchly defend its interests. The Bush administration, too, has echoed similar sentiments, with its officials expressing the hope that when the two leaders meet in July in Texas, they may be able to rekindle some of the warmth of earlier times.

Putin remains deeply concerned at the US-inspired Nato push into his country’s traditional sphere of influence. This was again made clear during the recent visit to Moscow by Nato Secretary-General Jaap De Hoop Scheffer who was told by both President Putin and his foreign minister that while the two sides had “gone from a period of confrontation to cooperation”, many problems still need to be resolved. Hopefully, Putin’s offer of the joint use of a monitoring base in Azerbaijan will ease some of the tension between them and become the basis for their renewed cooperation.

But serious differences continue to divide Moscow and Washington. Russia does not want to enter another arms race with the US, nor does it favour the resumption of the superpower confrontation of the past. Bush himself seemed to admit this when he remarked after his meeting with Putin that “Russia is not a threat. They are not something that we ought to be hyperventilating about.”

But with a trillion-dollar economy, the world’s largest oil and gas industry and control over a significant fraction of the globe’s strategic metals (it also possesses the world’s largest arsenal of nuclear weapons and highly advanced missiles), Moscow has shown that it is prepared to use its economic might to exert political influence on its neighbours.

Putin appreciates his people’s aspirations and reflects these in his policy pronouncements, especially those relating to the US and Nato. Recently, Andrei Illarionov, a former Kremlin advisor who is now a critic of Putin, told the media that the Russian president’s harsh rhetoric prior to the summit was part of an effort to bait western leaders into responding in a similar fashion. This was also done to raise Putin’s prestige before the primary elections and the March 2008 presidential polls because his aggressive rhetoric satisfies an important psychological need of the Russians — namely resurgence of national pride.

A number of well-known scholars have argued that Russia’s experience in the 1990s bore many resemblances to what Germany went through in the 1920s. In their view, the traumatic economic events of the 1990s would prove as harmful to Russian democracy as hyperinflation had been for German democracy 70 years earlier.

In her paper titled “Weimar on the Volga”, scholar Brigitte Granville has argued that “by discrediting free markets, the rule of law, parliamentary institutions and international economic openness, the Weimar inflation proved the perfect seed-bed for international socialism. In Russia, too, the immediate social costs of high inflation may have grave political consequences in the medium term.”

In the view of many scholars, Putin’s policies confirm the fears expressed by them earlier. They are particularly worried about Putin’s seeming contempt for the rule of law and his harsh attack on civil society. On the economic front, too, the West is worried about Putin’s efforts to bring under state control many of the energy and power entities that had been secured by individuals or groups during the Yeltsin years.

The media, too, has suffered under Putin, and there has been a discernible reduction in the freedom of the press. As regards the outlying provinces, Moscow has replaced the direct election of regional governors with a centralised presidential nomination system.

The result of all this is that many in Europe are expressing the fear that a new Cold War may be emerging between Russia and the West. Admittedly, the list of major differences between them are many, with the US invasion of Iraq, Russian assistance to Iran, US missile defence in Eastern Europe and Russian pipelines in Kazakhstan only amongst the better known ones.

The future of Kosovo, that appears determined to seek separation under a draft UN plan, has become another irritant. Moscow has, however, threatened to veto it in the Security Council. Another lingering disagreement relates to the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty, a Cold War era relic.

Nevertheless, there is no denying the fact that Russia and US have many overlapping concerns whether these constitute the war on terror or the spread of nuclear weapons. As the legendary Kremlinologist, George Kennan, has lamented, the expansion of Nato was “the biggest foreign policy mistake of the post-Cold War period.” He has warned of the risks of ignoring historic Russian concerns about being isolated and surrounded by enemies.

The next decade will be crucial for ties between Russia and the West. Isolating Russia or ignoring its interests would only strengthen the hands of obscurantist and nationalist forces. This would be a negative development for the entire world, more so for the US. Russia can only be ignored at the peril of the West. While Putin is not looking for another ideological confrontation or a military arms race, Russia might not easily give in on sensitive matters that impinge on its national security.

Washington needs to appreciate Moscow’s sensitivities and accord it the respect due to a power of the size and potential of Russia. At the same time, Russia must understand that it is only through a strengthening of democratic institutions and the establishment of a strong civil society that it can play its rightful role.

The writer is a former ambassador.

Putting the cart before the horse

By Kuldip Nayar


Letter from New Delhi

THERE is a saying in Punjabi: “Pind vasay nahin, shareek phela e aagaye” (villages have not yet taken root, but the claimants have already arrived). The proverb came to my mind when I read that Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif were disputing over who should be prime minister first.

The dispute is unfortunate. Even a small tiff between them can cast a shadow on their joint resolve to re-establish democracy in Pakistan, without the military. Only last year, they showed solidarity and signed the Charter of Democracy, declaring “only the people and no one else has the sovereign right to govern through their elected representatives.”

The question pertaining to who should be prime minister can arise only after elections when Pakistanis get back their democratic right to rule themselves. Sharif’s spokesman had a point when he said that it was for the people of Pakistan to decide who would govern after free and fair elections. True, this is what democracy demands. Yet, the fact remains that Sharif offered the premiership to Benazir if and when elections were held in Pakistan.

When I interviewed Sharif in Jeddah a couple of years ago, he told me that he rang up Benazir to request her to become the prime minister first. “I am young and have all the time to wait,” were his exact words. Checking with Benazir in Dubai a few months later, I found that he had telephoned her to make the offer to become prime minister first.

Both have lived outside Pakistan since the beginning of Gen Musharraf’s rule and cannot return without his consent. Both have wide support in Pakistan. Benazir leads the largest Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Sharif the Muslim League, part of which has been gobbled up by Musharraf.

Both have had ups and downs in popularity but their relevance to Pakistan’s polity has seldom been questioned. Were they to come back even today, they would sweep the polls, provided elections were free and fair. It seems that Benazir would win in Sindh and Sharif in Punjab. It is probable that the NWFP and Balochistan would go mainly to a combination of religious parties, with Benazir’s party claiming some seats.

In the conditions obtaining in Pakistan, it is futile to debate who would be the next prime minister. So many important matters remain to be settled. The first and foremost is whether Musharraf will give up his uniform before holding elections and whether the intelligence agencies and the military would allow free and fair elections.

If the election machinery stays as it is, there is no way that Pakistan can have free and fair polls. The entire set-up is full of people who have perfected the art of manipulating polls — from the preparation of bogus electoral rolls to declaring unelected candidates elected.

Matters can be retrieved if the Election Commission is reconstituted to include one lawyer and one NGO enjoying credibility. Foreign observers can never detect the finesse with which the army and the intelligence agencies manage the polls. The return of Benazir may make some difference because her efforts would be to ensure the sanctity of the ballot box.

However, it seems that Benazir is in the midst of a settlement with Musharraf on power-sharing. He may not have to shed his uniform straightaway but would do so subsequently. It is possible that America has brokered the deal because it wants both Benazir and Musharraf (“liberal political forces”) to jointly run Pakistan’s affairs. How cold-blooded is Washington in its calculation of towing democracy and dictatorship together!

On the other hand, her years in the wilderness have convinced Benazir that she cannot return to power without a deal with Musharraf. True, his image is damaged beyond repair. The lawyers’ agitation has cut into his standing with the class which, although unhappy with Musharraf, did not revolt against him. What helps Musharraf is that although political parties are supportive of the agitation, they have not shoved their cadre into fire.

For this, Benazir is to be blamed. Political parties are not sure how she, the key person, will play her cards. Whenever there is a move to get all parties on a single platform to support the lawyers’ agitation, the PPP drags its feet. Probably, Benazir believes that by doing so, she may make Musharraf’s exit certain but not her prime ministership.

What she is not reflecting on is the damage she is doing to her party. Once people see her joining hands with Musharraf, her popularity may take a nosedive. An army-PPP tie-up may be formidable but it will ruin the reputation of the PPP which is still considered an anti-establishment force. There may well be a revolt in her party.

Leading lights like Aitzaz Ahsan and Chaudhry Manzoor could quit the PPP and constitute a new progressive alliance. After having fought Musharraf’s military rule relentlessly, they will lose their credibility if they are seen compromising with pro-Musharraf forces.

Still, Sharif would be ill-advised if he were to go to town in denouncing a settlement between Benazir and Musharraf. However indigestible, this could be the way to break the logjam, particularly when Musharraf continues to be the darling of the West. Sharif should not underestimate the strength of the jihadis and fundamentalists who are gaining ground in Pakistan.

Even the partial restoration of democracy will weaken the extremists. It is an open secret that a substantial number of radicals are in the armed forces and have the religious parties supporting them.

Sharif, who is totally against any deal with the military, must be disappointed with Benazir. But he should study how Mahatma Gandhi waged the struggle against the British and how he made up with them even when he had the upper hand. He knew that conditions were not ripe for a change and that people were not fully committed to it. The lawyers’ agitation, however successful, has got into a pattern.

The establishment has allowed receptions for the non-functional Chief Justice. Although these are undoubtedly getting bigger and bigger, the lawyers on their part do not have the influence or clout to bring the masses onto the streets. Musharraf cannot help what is happening. What is worrying him — and America — is that the fundamentalists are increasing their hold.

At one time I thought Musharraf would go but not the army. Now it looks as if both will be staying for the time being, although with reduced powers. It cannot be helped because Benazir wants to return soon. She is worried about Pakistan going the wrong way unless the people’s exasperation with the military is politically directed. She may be right.

The writer is a senior columnist based in New Delhi.

Farm subsidies

IT'S a great time to be a Midwestern farmer in the US, what with rising demand for ethanol causing prices for corn and other key crops to soar. But if you think that has decreased farmers' appetite for the billions of dollars in taxpayer handouts they get every year through the farm bill — this country's most egregious corporate welfare act — think again.

The 2002 farm bill expires in September, and it's up to the House Agriculture Committee to write its replacement. Last week, to the surprise of no one, the 18 members of a subcommittee working on a draft bill voted unanimously to reject all reform efforts, including a modest fix from the Bush administration aimed at making the bill compliant with international trade rules and cutting off government payments to farmers who make more than $200,000 a year. The Environmental Working Group, a Washington-based research and advocacy organization, points out that those 18 subcommittee members come from districts that hoovered up a quarter of the $34.8 billion in crop subsidies parcelled out from 2003 to 2005.

The committee may be hoping for another five-year pork package, but that could be tougher this time around. An unusual coalition from across the political spectrum has arisen to fight farm subsidies.

Conservatives don't like them because they're a waste of taxpayer money and interfere with free trade. Consumers don't like them because they inflate food prices. Anti-poverty activists don't like them because they encourage American farmers to overproduce certain crops and dump them on the world market, putting farmers in poor countries out of business. Even most U.S. farmers don't like the current system because its benefits are distributed so unevenly: The top 20% of recipients collect 84% of crop payments, and roughly two-thirds of American farmers don't get any subsidies at all.

It's probably too much to expect progress from the House Agriculture Committee. But even if it drafts a status-quo farm bill, the rest of Congress can scrap it. There are strong reform alternatives, particularly the bipartisan "Farm 21" bill introduced in the Senate by Sen. Richard G. Lugar and in the House by Reps. Ron Kind, Jeff Flake, Joseph Crowley and Dave Reichert.

––Los Angeles Times



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