New Order in Russia and Pakistan

Columnist M. ZAFAR gives a first hand account of the new management in the Kremlin.

A new order is taking birth in Russia. It is led by younger, sharper and more self-confident elements who have dreams of reviving Russia to the position and glory that its size, resources and history entitle it to. This leadership aims to be seen and heard in the councils of the nations and means to influence the politics of the world and the region.

On 7th May 2000 Mr.Vladimir Putin will be inaugurated as the second democratically elected President of Russia. Earlier on Sunday 26th March some 78 million out of nearly 108 million registered voters had gone to the polls to elect a president from a list of eleven candidates. About 53% voted for Mr. Putin. Mr. Gannady Zyuganov of the Communist Party finished second with less than 30% votes while the liberal Yabloko candidate Mr. Grigory Yavlinsky polled about 6%. The other eight candidates shared the remaining 11% or so of the votes.

Well! Not exactly. Fifth largest vote getter did not have a name. Nearly 2% voters numbering over 1.3 million rejected the whole panel. These people belong to that substantial but silent part of the populace who represent the current mood of Russia. Disillusioned and dissatisfied at the way things have gone in post communist Russia they are mad at the incompetence and greed of the new leadership that emerged out of the ruins of Soviet state. They are equally disenchanted with the West for having promised an El Dorado that is nowhere in sight. A large segment, especially the veterans of Russia’s wars and production campaigns are nostalgic of the security and orderliness of the communist era. Together these two elements have the potential to destabilise but mercifully for the Russian democracy, few are willing to return to the regimentation and stagnation of the days gone by. Not even those who voted for the Communist candidate. However, their impatience with the corruption and unending experimentation that became the hallmark of Yeltsin presidency is patent and cannot be overstated. The sum total is that through impressive turnout and voting pattern the people have indicated their preference for democracy, administered an admonition to the political establishment and at the same time clearly signalled the need for a quick upturn in the economy and real social progress.

Mr. Vladimir Putin must be credited for having read the mood of the people correctly. He ran no campaign, criticised none of his opponents, made no promises but through language of deeds dared the people to judge his potential from his brief record as Prime Minister. He had demonstrated sharper decision making, effective control of governmental machinery and willingness to exert to impose his will on the recalcitrant elements. An all round improvement in efficiency and productivity was the result.

Lady luck has also been on the side of Mr. Putin. Chechenya was the turning point. Russian Army conducted a well-planned and executed campaign in the rebellious republic.  Stock of Mr. Putin soared in the public eye despite the unceasing talk that Chechenya was in fact engineered. Mr. Shamyl Bassayev’s foray into Dagestan, for example, ended precisely on the date set in the ultimatum from Mr. Putin i.e. 31st August 1999. The bombers of Moscow’s residential flats have yet to be tracked down. In any case involvement of Chechens has not been established. Capture of Mr. Salman Raduyev without exchange of fire from under the nose of his one hundred strong detachment of bodyguards shows the extent of penetration of Russian intelligence into the rank and file of rebels. All this and the recent capture of close subordinates of Mr. Khattab tend to strengthen the theory of complicity. Whatever the case, Mr. Vladimir Putin did reap the benefit and is well ensconced in the Kremlin. He will now need to do something quickly to Chechenya, economy and the Russian ego.

Chechenya first. The republic is more or less under control. Of course it will be foolish to assume immediate return of complete peace but it does seem doubtful if active rebellion can be much extended at an intense level. Lack of safe base in a neighbouring territory makes the survival of guerrilla operations a difficult proposition. Kremlin is already working on the post rebellion political set up that will be charged with the task of rebuilding the republic’s infrastructure. Mr. Putin’s initiative to get Chechen leaders around a table may eventually get under way this summer. The difficulty is that Moscow has so far been unwilling to talk to the elected President of Chechenya Mr. Aslan Maskhadov. Other credible leaders have not yet been lined up.

Mr. Maskhadov has tried hard to re-establish his credentials and demonstrate his distance from the Shamyl - Khattab duo ever since the two strayed into Dagestan but it has not improved his stock with the Russians. In a recent statement to Kommersant Mr. Maskhadov asserted that he had ordered troops under his command to halt attacks on the Russian forces. In a pointed reference to the duo he said that anyone who does not comply would be declared an outlaw. He also showed readiness to free all Russian prisoners and put no pre-conditions for the peace talks. The Russians remain unconvinced of his intentions and leadership. “Chechens are only changing their tactics so as to gain time and regroup’’ says Russia’s top civilian envoy in Chechenya Mr. Nikolai Koshman.

Where is the hitch? Do the difficulties pertain to the accommodation of some invisible factions? If so, the theory of complicity of the same set of oligarchs who managed victory for Boris Yeltsin in the previous elections is strengthened. If that were so a speedy solution may prove a little more elusive and bring tremendous pressure on the presidency from internal and European human rights groups.

Russian casualties in the war have neared the eight thousand mark, 2,000 dead and 6,000 wounded. Occasional guerilla successes reverberate ever so loudly in the media and the corridors of power. Some words of comfort from the Generals are fed to the people off and on. A few weeks ago Colonel General Valery Manilov the First Deputy Chief of Armed Forces General Staff spoke of reduction of troop levels and change in the level of engagement. According to him troop strength had been reduced from100,000 to 80,000. Operationally Russian forces were henceforth to concentrate on the conduct of special operations to capture leaders and vital targets, as large-scale assaults were no longer necessary. And then immediately after a few days Mr. Putin announced the dispatch of additional troops to the war zone as a response to a guerilla ambush that had caused some two dozen Russian casualties. In real terms, reinforcements and withdrawals are both meaningless without an accompanying change in strategic plans. Militarily a stalemate may already have arrived in Chechenya.  On the other hand political pressures are beginning to gather mass and momentum. Effects of suspension of Russia’s voting rights in the European Assembly, Mary Robinson’s continuing campaign and Tony Blair’s input cannot be ignored for long.

In the field of economy Mr. Putin’s problems lie with the monopolists, a very large informal sector that submits to no laws and pays no taxes and an inadequate legal structure. Even within these constraints the economy performed well in the last six months. Government sources hastily declared 6% growth rate. Mr. Putin, too, got carried away and put the figure at 8%. This is of course disputed by experts who put it at nearer the 4% mark. Either way there is evidence of substantial movement forward.  Mr. Putin’s economic advisors predict a 10% per annum growth rate in the coming years. Critics are again sceptical. For that kind of growth, in addition to substantial expatriate funds much of the stacked away Russian money will have to be brought back for capital investment. Additionally the unrelenting flight of capital will have to be checked and smuggling rooted out. According to estimates 18 billion dollars per year go out from the country.  Behind this flight of capital are some of the most powerful personalities in the realm - the so-called oligarchs who control the monopolies. They also manage to keep over 30% exports and imports out of government control. This is done through ‘one day’ companies that in 1999 alone made 16,000 contracts worth billions and disappeared. At humbler level ‘Khaipias’ a South Asian word for those foreign merchants who carry their merchandise on their backs and sell at informal market places known in Russia as ‘Renoks’ run riot with the organised trade. They pay no taxes to the state but do pay protection money to the local agents of the oligarchs or powerful Government personalities.

For the sake of propriety the President-elect has tried to keep a distance from the oligarchs but evidence of their influence is clear. Ultimately he may have to compromise for the sake of country’s economic recovery and perhaps his own survival. Indications of this were available aplenty when Mr. Putin had to invite the feuding heads of two monopolies, Mr. Rem Vyakhirev of Gazprom (Gas) and Mr. Anatoly Chubais of UES (Electricity) to meet him to avoid a major crisis in electric supply. The scene captured by the cameras was instructive. Diminutive Vyakhirev and stately Chubais both were sitting back snug in their seats while the President-elect was seen on the edge of the chair as if pleading desperately.

Here lies the crux of Putin’s economy problem. How to bring the monopolies under control and turn robber baronism to legitimate capitalism for some trickle down benefits to reach common people?  To some it looks an impossible task. The oligarchs like Mr. Berezovsky,Chubais, Abramovitch and others are very clever and capable of effective defiance. The pragmatist Mr. Putin is not likely to challenge them in a hurry. He will probably wait till he has built a counter force. Wielders of political power can and often do outmanoeuvre economic giants. In Russia, the power of the barons can be balanced or even nullified by the Army. Playing the military card will also serve to massage the national ego. To day Mr. Putin’s support in the forces is substantial. But continuation of that support calls for another kind of price from the economy.

Armed Forces of Russia have suffered incessantly from budget cuts. Chechenya ’99 restored their funds and prestige to a large extent. They now clamour for more money for research and experimentation to update their weapon systems to be worthy of a first rate power. In the backdrop of these internal pulls the Russian Duma has ratified the CTBT and the Government is showing readiness to commence negotiations on START III. Russians, however, do insist that Americans put off deployment of their anti-ballistic missile defence system and ask for no amendments to the 1972 missile treaty. If that does not come about the Russian militarywill be justified in demanding a go-ahead at full throttle for modernization of weapons’ technologies. That should give a pause. Russian economy is not yet capable of bearing the burden. To balance that the Russians are launching a huge arms sales programme. Wanna buy  -  make a try.

Heightened profile of military will have some ramifications on the foreign policy also. Having been effectively blocked in Central Europe and frustrated in the Balkans the Russian military would insist on a diplomatic policy that would ensure consolidation of friendly regimes in Eastern Europe and Central Asia (just short of reincorporating), reopening of doors into Middle East through Iraq and Iran and an access to the waters of the Indian Ocean through India. Appropriate initiatives in Iraq and Iran are under way. Reportedly Mr. Primakov the Middle East expert is being offered a high place in the foreign office. Mr. Putin is visiting India in October in pursuit of Indo-Russian strategic friendship if anything is left of it after Mr.Clinton’s visit.

In that scheme of Russia, Pakistan that stands out as a strategic highground in the region would seem to have been left out in the cold. Not exactly if you care to read the thin print of their policy. The Russians cannot and will not make the mistake of leaving Pakistan as an open free ground for the West to play their games. The Soviet Union had made that blunder in the seventies and reaped the harvest in the eighties.

But given the history of Russo-Pakistani relations the Russians cannot but be circumspect. They seem to be aiming to reopen their political dialogue through the more innocuous route of trade. On 30th March only days after President Clinton’s visit to India, Pakistan and Russia exchanged letters regarding the establishment of Intergovernmental Commission. When established, the Commission will act as a catalyst for improving trade between the two countries, which now amounts to only 40 million dollars per annum. ‘This is a very small amount and Russia is not satisfied with it’ said Mr. M.M. Fradkov the Trade Minister of the Russian Federation at the letter signing ceremony.  Mr. Mansoor Alam the Ambassador of Pakistan responded in the same vein and invited Russians to hold Commission’s first meeting in Islamabad in May/June this year. Earlier in December 1999, the Russians showing great understanding, initialled an agreement to develop an agreed mechanism of settling the outstanding claims of Pakistani companies related to freight adjustment operations. Russia’s metallurgical industry is also waiting for improved ambience to reoccupy its place of pre-eminence as suppliers of sparesand machinery to Pakistan Steel for upgradation and expansion of production facilities. It also goes for Russian power plants of WAPDA and locomotives and rolling stock of Pakistan Railways. Pakistan can export textiles and madups, rice, medicines, surgical and medical equipment, sports and leather goods in addition to other countless value added products. The potential of trade between the two countries is currently estimated at 200 million dollars per year. If we can create large enough Russian trading interests in our country it will certainly have reciprocal effects on their diplomacy in the region.

In this context if appropriate overtures are forthcoming the policymakers in Islamabad should embrace the opportunity with open arms. The disturbance in the equilibrium of power in the region caused recently by a sudden turn in US policy and a certain amount of thaw in the Indo-Chinese relations can be corrected with introduction of a counter balancing force from the heart of Asia. This is the scenario that alone will ensure our security. ‘Let us not miss the Volga Express’ said a Pakistani embassy official in Moscow. The new order in Russia perhaps needs us today for its own reasons. Tomorrow may be another day. Unfortunately, Pakistani Press has been awash with reproductions from Western press that failed to see the new president in any garb other than that of KGB spy. What nonsense. When Mr. Putin calls for action to establish the dictatorship of law the heralds of Europe deliberately misconstrue the point and call him a dictator in the making. Now what is wrong with trying to establish the supremacy of law? The fact is the unscrupulous businessmen from the West have been looting Russia for the last ten years by exploiting the failure of the institutions of the state. Any effort to establish the rule of law is bound to be against their interests and hence all this hue and cry in their mouthpieces.