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Saturday, 15 March 2014

How both the EU and Vladimir Putin’s Russia managed to get themselves in a dangerous stalemate, Pt I: ‘Ukraine standing up against the Capo di tutti Capi’

Sometimes the world feels like a train accident: you can see things go wrong from way before, but the people who could and should prevent the accident from happening, are putting one mistake upon another. This describes for me the current situation in Ukraine.

Things started relatively innocent in 2013: the common Ukrainian people, who populated Maidan square during the last few months, had a very honourable and justified desire for a little bit more security, democracy, honesty and genuine economic growth in their home country.  And especially… a lot less corruption. 

In order to achieve this, they wanted their country to enter into an association agreement, which was on offer at the European Union. This agreement promised the hand-over of some subsidies and structure funds and it could eventually lead to a full membership of the pan-European union.

And the Ukrainian people had of course good reasons for protesting: the corrupted gang of thugs around chief thug Victor Fedorovych Yanukovych had systematically robbed the country of its financial resources, leaving the Ukrainian economy in tatters. Yanukovych and his henchmen had stashed their ‘plunder’ in countries like Switzerland and (here we go again…) The Netherlands, under the most favourable fiscal circumstances [The Netherlands is the only tax haven that officially refuses to be called a tax haven - EL].

Until then, everything seemed legitimate about the Ukrainian people’s desire for more democracy and against the ubiquitous corruption in their country.

However, for Russia, the elephant in the room (and consequently the main reason for the current conundrum) was Ukraine’s open flirt with the EU and – in its stern wave – the NATO. 

In the eyes of Vladimir Putin, both (especially the latter) were provocations towards Russia, which were absolutely unacceptable. 

Putin and many Russians still consider the Ukraine, with its vast numbers of ethnic Russians, its famous holiday cities Sevastopol and Odessa and its military bases at the Black Sea, as an undividable part of the former Soviet Union: an independent country in name, but part of the collective Russian memory.

To understand why losing Ukraine to the EU and the NATO would be so unacceptable for Putin, you have to consider this:

Vladimir Putin, is like the ‘Capo di tutti Capi’ of a large, very hierarchical, power-based and perhaps mafia-like organization; in other words, he is the absolute top dog! Someone in charge, who must show strength and decisiveness in all situations and under all circumstances. 

The people under his reign adore him and they are financially and economically very much dependent upon him, as he can make them and break them. That is, until the moment that Putin clearly loses his strenght, power and influence. 

In that case, Putin will be (in)voluntarily succeeded by the next Top Dog, who might seemingly come out of the blue, just like Putin himself did in the nineties. 

And please note that Putin was the successor of two of the most unbeloved Presidents in the history of the Soviet Union and Russia:
  • Michail Gorbachev, who lost the Cold War and ‘sold out’ the Soviet Union to the West in the eyes of many Russians;
    • Ask an average Russian about his / her feelings about Gorbachev and you will be amazed about the sheer hatred and resentment against him.
  • The hopelessly weak and seemingly permanently drunk Boris Yeltsin, who saved Gorbachevs bacon at the Russian White House, but sold out the Russian state possessions to the ‘Oligarchs’ and other mafia-like people.
    • He was the president, under whose reign the Russian economy crashed in 1997;
    • Many, many Russians lost their life savings in that doomed year, as their money was simply embezzled by the banks, where it was deposited. People, among whom my future wife, lost thousands of hard-earned rubles and dollars

When the young, intelligent and tough ex-KGB agent Vladimir Putin came to power as president in Russia, he promised to himself and the Russian people, that he would make them forget his weak predecessors. Instead, he would put Russia back on the world map.

Initially, Putin had a very succesful presidency, in which the battered economy of Russia went through a new period of growth and returned to the centre of the world. This economic boom was fueled with money, earned from the proceedings of the enormous oil (Rosneft) and gas industry (Gazprom).

Putin's good relations with Bundeskanzler Gerhard Schröder in Germany and his vital charisma seemed to promise a new era in the Russian / Western relations. Personally, I was pleasantly surprised how the city of St-Petersburg changed from an old, dirty, dangerous and worn out city in 2002, into the lively heart of North-West Russia in 2005/2006. 

And I hoped that Vladimir Putin could achieve the same things in the rest of Russia, were poverty, nepotism, intimidation and massive corruption were always just around the corner. In other words: in 2005, things seemed to look promising for Russia.

However, in the years of his first two presidential stints, Putin got rid off a few enemies (a.o. the oligarch-turning-political-enemy Michail Khodorkovskiy, who was arrested in 2003) and he started to put his most loyal friends at vital positions in the Russian economy and at the political hotspots. 

By doing so, he effectively diminished contradiction and second opinions upon his decisions. Also he crimped youngsters for taking part in youth movements, which acted for his splendour. 

Putin started to believe in his own divine status, as saviour of Russia: you could call this Kremlin-fever. Putin started to think that Russia’s achievements were solely his achievements and hence, that Russia’s possessions should be his possessions too.

As a consequence, he turned more and more into the now-familiar bully: to his domestic and foreign adversaries and (to a lesser degree) to the ‘weak’ leaders in ever-divided Europe. 

Putin's paradigm became: “If you are my enemy, I will get you and hunt you down! 

If former Soviet states play games with me, I will show them who is boss! 

If people in charge in foreign countries, outside the former Soviet Union, make me angry, they lose the Russian gas! 

If they argue with me and point me at my mistakes, they lose the Russian gas!

Gazprom and I are the same, undividable entity and I can do with it as I please.”

Normally, the designated end of Putin’s presidency in 2008 would have stopped – in a natural way  this dangerous transition in his personality. 

However, Putin changed the Russian constitution, enabling him to become president again after two stints on and one stint off. Subsequently, Putin constructed a shady deal with his loyal ‘straw man’ President Dmitriy Medvedev [now Prime Minister - EL], to fill the void between Putin’s second and third presidency. Thus, he secured his presidency for years and years to come. For him – in his divine status – this seemed the logical thing to do and he knew that many Russians would still support him, in order to praise him for the relative stability that he brought. 

And now Putin is indeed the ‘Capo di tutti Capi’: the man in charge! 

His role in reality is akin to that of Marlon Brando in The Godfather:
  • Seemingly understanding, sportsmanlike and perhaps even ‘fatherlike’, when he can be; 
    • for instance, while drinking beer with King Willem-Alexander of The Netherlands and praising the Dutch speed skaters in Sochi! 
  • On the other hand, vigorous and even brutal, when he has to be!

Summarizing: Putin will stay in charge for as long as he wants, when he remains strong and vigourous. 

However, if Putin shows weakness, by letting things slide in Russia, the Ukraine or Georgia, or by blatantly giving in against the EU, then his ‘partners’ – you could also call them potential enemies  will be ready to overthrow his presidency, is my humble opinion.

The pressure that has mounted upon Putin, as a consequence of these preconditions, led to some erratic, political events during the last few years:
  • Putin, sitting at his desk in the Kremlin: not listening to his guests, but rather bullying them in his role as Marlon Brando’s Godfather;
    • When you visit Putin in the Kremlin, you don’t talk to him, but you listen!
    • Irrespective, whether you are a highly-ranked, foreign guest or not, you have to wait until his holiness has a spare minute for you;
    • Former chairman of the NATO, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, said about Vladimir Putin in an interview with a Dutch newspaper a few days ago: “He made me often wait for at least 45 minutes or so. And at the time that I had to make my statement as chairman of the NATO, the Russian television crews demonstratively picked up their camera’s and stuff and went away, in order to show me who’s the boss in Russia”;
  • Putin, banging the nationalist drum on numerous occasions, thus feeding the pride and patriotism of the impoverished Russian people.
    • People, who want to look up against their president as a strong and powerful man, rather than a non-corrupted, friendly and honest one;
  • Putin, putting an innocent and initially non-influential punk band – Pussy Riot – in prison for years, for 'offending him and the Russian Orthodox Church': a genuine non-event turning into world news for years;
  • Putin, half-dressed on a horse, to show his perfectly fit body and impressive muscles;
  • Putin, as pilot in a small airplane, showing young geese where to fly to during winter time, as a kind of invincible Captain Russia!
  • Putin, diving for an antique treasure, in order to show that he is Master of the Seven Seas and puts Johnny Depp and Nicholas Cage to shame;
  • Putin, allegedly having an affair with a very young athlete in Rhythmic Gymnastics, in order to show to the world, that he is a 100% strong and virile male;
  • Putin, shocking the western world, but gaining applause at home for his rants against homosexual people, as unnatural ‘child molesters’;
  • And last, but not least: Putin organizing arguably the most corrupted and expensive Olympic ‘ money laundering orgy’ in history – the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics –  to show his wealth and power to the world; 

This behaviour, irrespective of how erratic it might seem in western eyes, has kept him firmly in control in the Kremlin. 

And although the group of Russians, who are fed up with him, is growing rapidly, he still keeps the trust of the majority of the Russians: especially in the rural areas of this vast country. 

Western people, who think that Putin stole the various elections over the last decade, are very naive. He didn’t have to steal them in the first place, as he still had the firm support of the majority of the Russians! The fact that he probably rigged some ballots in Moscow, St-Petersburg and elsewhere, was nothing more than fun-and-games for him.

However, during the presidencies of Vladimir Putin, there have been two big, black flies in his soup:
  • The expansion drift of the European Union and especially the NATO, which have flirted with Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova and other countries of the former Soviet Union;
    • Especially the rocket shield against ‘Iran’, that would have to be stationed in Poland and Czechia/Slovakia was a first degree provocation against Russia
  • Ukraine, where his ‘old friend’  and long-term ally Viktor Yanukovich had been replaced with Viktor Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko: people who belonged to the ethnic Ukrainians and who had a much more hostile stance against Russia. This led to the “Gas Wars” between Ukraine and Russia; 

Nevertheless, since a few years and after Yanukovich came back in charge again as the president of Ukraine, everything seemed fine again between Russia and Ukraine. 

At least, until the EU dropped the bombshell, by offering an association agreement with Ukraine, which might… perhaps… maybe… in due course… eventually… could lead to a membership of the EU, when nothing changed etc.

Although Yanukovich knew very well, who was the man in charge within the territory of the former Soviet Union, he would anyway lend a cautious ear to the EU. He was especially lured by the EU's promises of billions in subsidies and structure funds, in order to help the impoverished Ukrainian economy (and perhaps grab a few bucks himself).

This outraged Putin, who came back with “an offer that Yanukovich couldn’t refuse”: the Customs Union between Russia, Belarus, Kazachstan and… Ukraine. 

The treaty would come together with a fistful of dollars in state support for the Ukraine. Yanukovich knew that he had lost and agreed to sign the Customs Union treaty. And this is when the events on Maidan really started to happen...

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