Wednesday, 9 January 2008

Bush in the Middle East

After seven years in the White House, Bush is finally turning his attention to the problems of Israel and Palestine. At least that is the headlines in the media. In reality, Bush is visiting not only Israel / Palestine but also Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. In other words, this trip is less about peace and more about oil.

Saudi Arabia, described by the US as moderate (ie. sympathetic to US policy) is in a difficult situation. There is nothing moderate about Saudi domestic policies, which has led to a great deal of internal unrest. Much of the population is relatively poor which, in the largest oil producing country in the world and the price of crude at over $100.00 a barrel, is a complete outrage. The money is going somewhere and my guess is that the royal family of Saud have a symbiotic relationship with both the USA and Britain. The West needs oil but the House of Saud needs the West in order to maintain power. Hence the wealth of the country is funnelled back to the West in the form of arms deals and various forms of military and security support. This visit to Saudi Arabia is the most important aspect of the whole tour but will receive the least publicity in the media.

The media focus will be on that one part of the tour which is probably the least important, at least to the participants. One can be sure that there will be no benefit for the Palestinian people. The Bush administration has no record in trying to help the Palestinians. I think the reason for his visit here is a lot closer to home.

Last night the New Hampshire primaries saw Hilary Clinton narrowly edge victory over Barack Obama, with the Republicans seeing John McCain as their clear winner on the night. 2008 is the year of the presidential elections. There is a large Jewish vote and the Republicans have got to be seen to earn what support it can.

Don’t expect the Bush trip to make any real difference to the Middle East, least of all to Palestine. I suspect the television coverage it generates is designed primarily for US domestic consumption.

The rest is business as usual.

Saturday, 5 January 2008

Voting Russian Style

Over Christmas I dined with several Russian friends. After one such dinner the talk turned to politics (for a change it wasn’t me who raised the subject). Our hosts are Putin supporters and the reason is that Putin delivers a better standard of living. Fair enough I suppose but what I didn’t expect was to have to defend the liberal democracy. The question was asked “surely you still don’t believe in voting?” As if I had just confessed to lingering doubts about the non-existence of Father Christmas.

In light of recent events in Pakistan and Kenya, who can blame them? Democracy as understood by the vast majority of the world is for the few. The recent thirty eight page dossier produced by the Pakistan People’s Party (formerly led by the recently assassinated Benazir Bhutto) apparently gives details the ruling party’s subversion of the democratic process. (I have tried to find a copy of this document, it would make interesting reading). It seems that Mwai Kibaki in Kenya has been less sophisticated, relying on simply delaying the count while using the time to stuff the ballot boxes. Putin on the other hand has been the most successful. He has been allowed to do this because he has genuinely sought to be popular. And in the main that popularity has been achieved by returning order to Russian society.

After the fall of the Soviet Union the rule of law broke down in every level of society: the democracy that was brought in with Yeltsin was in fact the rule of robber barons. As long as the President’s family was in on the deal, gangster-capitalism ruled. I could go to the endless media examples to illustrate this point but instead I turn closer to home.

A friend of mine in St.Petersberg is an excellent chemist and food technologist. He was the head food technologist in a small business. In the evenings he worked on new technology processing sunflower oil. After two years the new method was perfected and the patent was drawn up. Celebrations all around! Or it would have been if my friend hadn’t received an unexpected visit from two men he did not know.
“We like your patent. Sign it over to us or we will kill you.”

Putin hasn’t put a total stop to this kind of theft but for many, life is a lot more stable since 2000. After the criminal excesses of the Yeltsin years, that is good enough. Also Putin has restored pride to the country; going from 80’s superpower to 90’s beggar was a bitter pill for most but in recent years the trend is being turned around. High oil prices and flexing of military muscle means that the feel good factor is back for the average Russian.

There is always a price though and in Russia’s case it is freedom of speech. Journalists (except in the tiny English language press) have returned to Soviet-style self-censorship, encouraged to do so by state persecution and even murder of colleagues. Oligarchs who have refused to bend the knee to Putin have either been imprisoned or fled into exile. They are not mourned by most Russians, the fortunes of the oligarchs were created during the corruption of the Yeltsin years. These times also saw Russia making many deals with western companies which with hindsight were seen as bad deals. Hence Russian moves to repossess assets such as Shell’s fields off Sakhalin Island and similar moves against BP in Siberia. It is this pressure against foreign corporations (especially British) that has led to degradation of Anglo-Russian relations, perhaps even more that the Litvinenko poisoning. I digress but all this conflict with foreign companies plays well at home for Putin.

Now we must look forward to the Presidential elections in March. I'm sure we'll see more of the vote-rigging ploys: ensuring managers recommend the correct candidate to their workforce, mind-games with internation polling verification organisations and patrols of students to prevent "Orange-style" popular uprisings as happened in neighbouring Ukraine. All these measures happened during the latest parliamentary elections.

But in my opinion these 'safeguards' are no longer necessary. As the father of another of one of my Russian-born friends said when asked by his daughter who he intends to vote for, he replied:

"I don’t know. Putin hasn’t told us yet.”