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from issue no. 06/07 - 2007

RUSSIA. Putin branded as antidemocratic because of his battle against the oligarchs

Who’s afraid of the Russian Bear

An interview with Maurizio Blondet, author of Stare con Putin? [Staying with Putin?] «The process of integration between Europe and Russia is a fact. It’s a matter only of going along with the process, seeing to it that others, out of their own interest, don’t destroy it»

Interview with Maurizio Blondet by Davide Malacaria

«Russia and Europe can’t help integrating increasingly, it’s a kind of manifest destiny». The speaker is Maurizio Blondet, long-time leading writer on Avvenire, the daily paper of the Italian bishops, for which he wrote many editorials. Some time ago Blondet abandoned the challenges of the Catholic daily to devote himself to an online newspaper, Effedieffe.com, somewhat strident, but always interesting and very well documented. He recently published Stare con Putin?, the topic of this interview. We met him before the informal summit between the President of the United States, George Bush, and the President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin, held in early July in Maine, at the home of Bush senior. A meeting that has aroused hopes worth keeping a close eye on.

Maurizio Blondet

Maurizio Blondet

Why staying with Putin?
MAURIZIO BLONDET: I believe that the Russian President, after 11 September and the beginning of the so-called war on terrorism, represented a point of stability, of equilibrium in the world. Europe, then, can only gain by integrating with Russia. Unfortunately, however, the bureaucrats in Bruxelles, the various Barrosos, the Solanas, are rowing against the stream; people who lead Europe without any popular mandate and who do nothing but make things complicated for integration. Perhaps they have to obey others, those who have no interest in the process.
That is?
BLONDET: The United States, first of all. There are those who would like to marginalize Russia and make it a small Asian power.
Something of a conspiracy theory...
BLONDET: No way. Let me read you a passage from a 1997 book by Zbigniew Brzezinski, former Secretary of State under Carter: «The Ukraine, a new and important space on the Eurasian chessboard, is a geopolitical pivot because its very existence as an independent country makes it possible to transform Russia. Without the Ukraine, Russia stops being a Eurasian empire. Russia without the Ukraine can still fight for its imperial status, but will become a substantially Asian empire, probably dragged into draining conflicts with the nations of central Asia, that would be backed by the Islamic States their friends in the South. [...] The States that merit the strongest American geopolitical support are Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan and (outside that area) the Ukraine, in so far as all three are geopolitical pivots. Indeed the Ukraine is the essential State, in so far as it will influence the future evolution of Russia». A passage useful for understanding what has happened in recent years. It was written many years before the upheavals of the “colored revolutions”.
Colored revolutions...
BLONDET: The Orange revolution in the Ukraine, the most important from the geopolitical point of view, the Pink revolution in Georgia, and then those in the Baltic countries and in the Asian countries such as Uzbekistan, Kirghizistan. All financed by the United States through a myriad of non-governmental organizations popping up like mushrooms inside these countries, and this despite the fact that there are laws in the US against meddling in the governance of other countries. In my book I also speak of the most important man in the Kirghiz revolution, the American Mike Stone, who, during the upheaval, created a newspaper in which people were instructed on hunger-striking, on how to organize a demonstration, on how passive resistance is done... and when the authorities cut off the current he still managed to print thanks to the generators kindly lent him by the US embassy in Kirghizistan. There is also the singular figure of Kateryna Chumachenko, wife of Viktor Yushenko, leader of the Orange revolution and currently president of the Ukraine, born in Chicago, White House official under Ronald Reagan and then of the Treasury Department. At the White House she belonged to the Public Liaison Office and her specialty was in creating consensus for Reagan’s policies among the anti-communist groups in Eastern Europe, in particular the Ukrainian dissidents. Those are just some examples.
You mentioned revolutions that took place in the countries of Asian Russia...
BLONDET: In the Caucasian countries and those in the South, stretching from the Caspian Sea to China, that separate Russia from Iran, from Afghanistan and from Pakistan. Fundamental States from a geopolitical point of view, in that they put Russia in touch with the Caspian, among other things rich in oil and natural gas, but above all because they are pathways for the Russian pipelines. Now in Georgia the United States army is enlisting marines: there are no more American volunteers because they offer themselves to private companies that pay better, so they’re forced to plump up the ranks from countries like this... But not everything has gone as the neocon strategists hoped: after a period of subjection to their new western masters, the local politicians in some of these countries have begun to weave relations with Moscow again. And of course Russia is very much nearer to them than the United States and it’s impossible not to take account of that.
Yet after 11 September the US and Russia seemed to be allied against the terrorist threat.
BLONDET: Then the US thought it could handle Russia. Everything became complicated when Putin began to put in place policies that have slowly brought Russia out of the organized chaos into which it plummeted under Yeltsin. And that not least thanks to the gas and oil revenues. The war in Iraq, that in the minds of the American strategists was a step toward world hegemony, by causing the price of oil to rise has had instead the effect, for them unwanted, of helping the recovery of Russia... And Putin has used the oil to put the country back together, not to line the pockets of a few oligarchs as happened under Yeltsin, when some unscrupulous tycoons got their hands on the enormous Russian resources for just a few nickels, thanks to their connections with the Russian President.
The oligarchs... there’s an underground war going on between them and Putin.
BLONDET: And that’s why the Russian president has been made the target of so many attacks from the West. Up to the arrest of the tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovski in October 2003, relations with the West were good. After that they plummeted: since then Putin has been accused of undermining democracy and much else... In effect the arrest of Khodorkovski was the sign of a turnaround, the sign that for the oligarchs the time of the fat cats was over, that the new inhabitant of the Kremlin would not put up with the thievery of the gentlemen who enjoyed the backing of international finance. Khodorkovski had become master of the largest Russian oil company, Yukos, spending 309 million dollars to get hold of 78% of the shares... The day after the company revealed its true value on the Russian stockmarket: 6 billion dollars. Obviously the money wasn’t his, he’d been lent it by well-known western financiers to whom, before he was arrested, he was in a hurry to sell the company.
Vladimir Putin during the informal summit with the President of the United States George W. Bush in Maine, at the home of Bush senior, 2 July 2007

Vladimir Putin during the informal summit with the President of the United States George W. Bush in Maine, at the home of Bush senior, 2 July 2007

In your book you mention relations between the oligarchs and Chechen terrorists.
BLONDET: It’s no mystery that Shamil Basayev, the terrorist who claimed responsibility for the slaughter in Beslan, in which 394 people died, of whom 156 were children, was head of Boris Abramovich Berezovzky’s bodyguards, the most powerful of the oligarchs, currently an “exile” in London. Also Aslan Maskhadov, another leader of the Chechen insurrection, he too implicated, among other things, in the Beslan slaughter, was one of Berezovsky’s bodyguards... but the story of the Chechen insurrection is still to be told. When, in a firefight, the Russian soldiers killed Rizvan Chitigov, then the rebel number three, they found on him the classic metal dogtags of the marines, stamped with his personal details, and, in his pocket, a green card, permission for permanent residence in the US. Just to say that the US has an interest in keeping open the wound of the Chechen war, a thorn in the side of Russia...
The Russian oligarchs have almost all departed now for foreign countries...
BLONDET: But they’ve still got connections inside Russia. Don’t forget that they’re not people who were born from one day to the next. They come out of the Soviet nomenklatura, with solid connections in the police and in the secret services. So that Putin goes after them a bit, and a bit he’s forced to come to terms. Putin has placed his men in key positions, but he can’t control everything that’s going on in Russia.
In October last year Ann Politkovskaya was assassinated, a journalist who didn’t spare criticisms of Putin. The killing has dimmed the appeal of the Russian president.
BLONDET: I believe that was precisely the aim of the killers. It’s obvious that the only one not to have an interest in the crime was Putin himself. I’m personally convinced that the journalist was a sacrificial lamb immolated on the altar of Russian anti-imperialism. Some circles decided that she was more useful dead than alive. I do want to stress, however, that the media clamor about the killing was excessive. Another crime got quite different media treatment: shortly before the journalist, Andrei Kozlov, vice-president of the Russian Central Bank, a figure in the forefront of the Russian Federation, was killed. Kozlov was conducting an inquiry into money-laundering and was about to withdraw some banking licenses. An act that would have been devastating for certain financial circles. Of course Kozlov was not working against Putin, which is why the crime passed practically unnoticed in the West.
Another high-level crime, that of Aleksander Litvinenko, killed in November 2006. More accusations against Putin...
BLONDET: Much has been said about polonium, the radioactive substance with which he was poisoned... but can one really believe that Putin gave orders to kill somebody using a substance that leaves traces everywhere, so that to find the guilty party it’s enough to follow the radioactive wake? To my mind, just as with Politkovskaya, Litvinenko was a sacrificial victim aimed at discrediting the Russian president. Even if here there was a variation. Poor Litvinenko did not die immediately, but, in his long agony, he talked, giving a prodigious number of interviews, in which he launched accusations at the Russian leadership (and here it makes one smile to think of the man behind the scene leaving the victim such a long time for talking... there are much more rapid ways to kill). The odd thing is that, given the situation, nobody could approach his sickbed. All his words were gathered by the only person authorized to see the dying man, a certain Alex Goldfarb, who acted as a kind of megaphone for the sick man. It was he who reported Litvinenko’s words to the outside world, who explained and accused... In my book I point out that traces of polonium were also found in Berezovsky’s office. I think it’s a detail that should be gone into.
Recently the White House announced it is going to install a new kind of missile system in Poland, to deal, they say, with a possible threat from Iran. A move that has caused negative reactions in Moscow.
BLONDET: Obviously, because the initiative is rightly perceived in Russia as a threat to them. Putin’s open response, suggesting US-Russia collaboration to set up the shield in some Asian country wrong-footed the neocons. They can’t say no, because the proposal is more than reasonable, and for that matter one can’t see what Poland has to do with Iran, but they’ll try every which way to sink him. We will see how it develops.
Putin with Benedict XVI, 13 March 2007

Putin with Benedict XVI, 13 March 2007

Do you also think Iran a serious international threat?
BLONDET: When Bush went to India recently he offered the country collaboration in developing nuclear technology. Exactly what he wants to prevent with Iran. In fact attacking Iran has become a true and proper obsession with the neocons. Some months ago, addressing the American Congress, Brzezinski said that the current American administration would be capable of arranging an attack on American soil to be blamed on the Muslims, just to have a pretext for attacking Iran...
Paradoxical... but didn’t you say that Brzezinski was spokesman for an aggressive policy on the part of the United States?
BLONDET: Brzezinski, like Kissinger, is a political strategist who is rightly concerned about the destiny of his own country and seeks for it to prosper, even if at times by questionable means. But they are men who know the ways of politics and diplomacy. Nothing to do with the folly of the neocons, exponents of pre-emptive war, of the exporting of democracy to the sound of gunfire, in favor of the realignment of the Middle East on the basis of the directives of the Israeli right-wing... A folly that has fed into the riverbed of the old American policy, misshaping it. There is a difference between those loyal to the one and the neocons, a difference that has emerged in open collision.
Let’s return to Putin. You said that integration between Russia and Europe...
BLONDET: ... would only bring benefit. In reality integration is already being constructed day by day. A high-speed railway line between Germany and Russia, which will connect to a line between Russia and China is being built at the moment. In this way Chinese goods, those of a certain value I mean, will come to Europe overland, avoiding longer and more expensive routes. One can see also in this perspective the construction of a gas pipeline under the Baltic, by-passing Poland, to supply Europe, ensuring that the precious resource doesn’t have to cross the territories of the Eastern democracies, servile to the US. In conclusion integration is a fact. It’s a matter only of going along with the process, seeing to it that others, out of their own interest, don’t destroy it.
In recent years many analysts have noticed an approach between Russia and China.
BLONDET: There has always been distrust between the two Asian giants. The aggressive policies of the United States has had the effect of bringing closer what has always been separate. Military, economic and commercial co-operation has been created between China and Russia, but it’s not said that this process heralds further developments. China has an Asian, Russia a European destiny. It’s worth stressing it.

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