Russian election clues? A couple of weeks ago, I ventured a bet that, contrary to the conventional wisdom, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev will run and win re-election in next year's elections; his mentor, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, will opt to keep his protégé in place, I wrote. While for a variety of reasons I still think that is the case, it's understandable why many think otherwise: Putin is throwing up a lot of conflicting signals. Take his decision to eradicate much-hated and bribe-laden car inspections for the remainder of the year, worth up to $300, writes Will Englund at the Washington Post. And what about Putin's announcement of a $285 billion program to rebuild Russia's ramshackle roads, another bane of the country (that's Moscow traffic pictured above)? Is Putin announcing such programs from a simple sense of good governance? According to Robert Coalson of RFE-RL, the way Russia's strongman is presiding over the affairs of the ruling United Russia party, he is sending "the strongest signals yet that he intends to return to the presidency in 2012."
This is entertaining -- and convincing -- to be sure. But that's the point. Putin doesn't need to convince anyone -- all of Russia and the rest of the world know that the job of president is his for the taking. So why the show? Because he wants the accolades, the hero-worship, the pleading crowds and so on, but while pushing matters to the brink, in the end he will, for the good of the nation of course, step aside (technically, that is) and maintain the status quo. The system works the way it is. Ask yourself this question: why in the last month (as the Moscow Times rounds up in an editorial) have the killers of Stanislav Markelov been imprisoned; has imprisoned oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, while not released, been permitted a fair hearing on state-run NTV television while announcing a decision to appeal; and has the alleged triggerman of murdered journalist Anna Politkovskaya been captured and charged? Is it because Medvedev is acting against Putin's wishes?
This is where it's possible to lose one's way. What seems dissonant in the tandem in fact isn't. It happens because Putin wants the balance that Medvedev provides. Not incidentally, Medvedev is content with this state of affairs as well. One way to understand Medvedev is as simply another expression of Putin -- that is, even if Putin stepped completely out of the picture, Medvedev would not turn Russia into bastion of liberalness. Rather, when Medvedev's Russia undoes some of the injustices in the country, "what might appear to be the dismantling of Putin's legacy is not a dismantling at all," the Moscow Times editorial board writes. It said:
Khodorkovsky, even if given parole for good behavior, will not be acquitted. Investigators might have found Politkovskaya's killer, but we are unlikely to ever know who ordered the murder. Ultra-nationalism is still not being fought outside the courtroom. And thousands of other murky cases -- such as the death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky or the beating of Kommersant reporter Oleg Kashin -- have not been properly investigated. Most important, the power vertical, along with its creator, is as strong as ever. Medvedev may stay in the Kremlin without tackling these issues. But if a handful of high-profile cases is all that he has to offer in terms of political reforms, his second term in office will differ little from Putin's policy of status quo. A second Medvedev term might then be best described as 'modernized stagnation.'
Viktor Drachev AFP/Getty Images
No sheriff in oil town: The latest Reuters poll of oil traders forecasts oil prices to pass $130 a barrel by the end of the year, which seems a fairly safe bet given that the widely traded U.K. blend went past $124 today. In terms of the whys, it's geopolitics, argues the usually sober-thinking Ed Morse -- the existence of autocratic, sclerotic and unresponsive Middle East governments is old, but not the local reaction to it. Morse writes in the Financial Times:
The prospect of the largest oil-producing countries confronting challenges, such as those seen largely in north Africa so far, is more probable now than a year ago, telescoping the potential day of reckoning and raising the probability of an apocalyptic oil supply disruption.
Leah McGrath Goodman notes the role of the casino -- traders betting on the news out of the Middle East. But, in an overnight note to clients, hedge fund analyst Peter Beutel at Cameron Hanover laments the entire cycle of higher prices -- the "spiral in motion" that we are witnessing. Beutel writes:
It goes like this: A stronger economy helps boost oil prices as investors anticipate stronger future demand. Higher prices (for refined products) hurt consumers and lead to demand destruction. Higher oil prices hurt consumers and their ability to spend money elsewhere. As a result, in order to keep the economy going, the Fed needs to keep rates low or money inexpensive, and that hurts the dollar, which boosts oil prices. A weaker dollar helps exports, and that helps the economy, boosting oil prices, hurting the dollar as well as consumer discretionary spending. It gets absolutely dizzying. It has elements that want to halt the cycle and other elements that keep it in motion. The latter factors are dominant here.
... but investors hedge with clean tech, too: Right alongside the runup in oil prices we are seeing a big rise in investment in green technology, according to the Cleantech Group. Investors poured $2.5 billion into the sector in the first three months of this year, mostly in mature solar and electric-car companies. That was 30 percent higher than the same period a year ago, and the largest sum since the third quarter of 2008. It does not mean that investors are turning back to clean energy -- hardly any money went into startups or companies not yet in the market. Instead, it looks like a hedging strategy -- investors see oil demand destruction ahead given the direction of prices (in 2008, U.S. motorists -- the biggest oil gluttons on the planet -- began to buy a lot less gasoline when prices at the pump reached $4 a gallon), and so are pouring money into already-existing clean-tech products. As for the rest, in the Wall Street Journal, Guy Chazan writes that money is pulling back in biofuels, since it looks like many, many years before any will be competitive with gasoline. Read on for more of the Wrap.
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While the petro-states of the Middle East are roiled by the Arab Spring, the Islamic countries of the former Soviet Union are mostly quiescent. The richest of them is Kazakhstan, which today is holding the latest in a two-decade string of rigged presidential elections. President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who will be swept into a new five-year term, isn't talking publicly, but his prime minister, Karim Masimov, has weighed in on how the Kazakhs view Cairo, Tunis, Damascus and so on. "What is the biggest difference between them and us? People in Kazakhstan, the young generation in Kazakhstan, have hope and they have an opportunity to go forward," Masimov told Reuters.
One can quibble with that observation -- it's not possible, for example, to follow one's aspirations freely in the oil industry, where the president's son-in-law, Timur Kulibayev, doesn't appreciate interlopers. Still, Masimov's is a fairly enlightened remark when one considers the lesson that some of the Arab states have learned from Cairo and Tunis, which is to shoot first and not negotiate. On the other side of the Caspian, for example, forces of Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev yesterday arrested some 200 protestors seeking his ouster, Eurasianet.org reports.
A limited number of U.S. diplomats in the region are leveraging the Arab Spring to drive home long-expressed U.S. agenda items on democracy. "The Arab Spring is a huge gift to anyone in his region who seeks democratic liberalization," one U.S. diplomat in the region told me. Other U.S. envoys disagree that anything is to be gained, and aren't alluding to the Spring in contacts with the autocrats of the countries in which they work. But I personally think the first envoy makes the most sense.
Kazakhstan is not the one-dimensional portrait that it depicts. In the New York Times, Ellen Barry reports that "there is no restless young elite that wants to take over the government," but perhaps she should interview the millionaire Bulat Abilov or the intellectual Oraz Jandosov. They and other members of the political, business and intellectual elite would like to see genuinely competitive politics, and broader political representation, and are proof that, unlike the popular narrative, there are obvious alternative examples of stable rule in Kazakhstan. One of the most common remarks about Kazakhstan is the crisis to come because there is no obvious successor to Nazarbayev, but I think that is wrong -- because Nazarbayev himself hasn't anointed one does not mean that there are not many, many legitimate successors out there. There will be a struggle when Nazarbayev goes, but I do not expect a dangerous crisis, and certainly not violence. Read on for more on this increasingly important petro-state
To keep power, give it away: The autocrats of the petro-driven Middle East are discovering that ushering in democracy is not an altruistic act, but desperation politics -- if they want to stay in office, there is a good chance they must dispense with the strongman act and accept truly elected representation. For Ali Abdullah Saleh, the president of Yemen, that realization came far too late; he has at most days to go in office, and possibly just hours. What about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad? Possibly next to Saudi Arabia and Iran, Syria is the unlikeliest place in the Middle East for regime change. Today, his troops fired on protesters after Assad attempted to assuage public unhappiness by promising to end 48 years of martial law. Yet more unrest there seems probable as thousands poured into the streets regardless, and reports are of some protesters grabbing away guns from authorities. Libya is the conspicuous outlier -- short of a palace coup, Col. Moammar Qaddafi looks likely to hang on.
My colleague David Rothkopf took President Obama to task this week for a supposedly fuzzy approach toward Libya, but I don't grasp his mystification. The best U.S. course is to allow Middle East events to take their course and not put an American imprint on them, even when they reach nail-biting stage. In the case of Libya, the U.S. rightly held back as long as possible with the idea that perhaps, perhaps the rebels might yet turn back the Qaddafi tide, but when Benghazi was about to be overrun, stepped in to create a level playing field (there is a preference for another Libyan leader, but the policy is not to explicitly overthrow Qaddafi, but to make it as much a fair fight as possible.). The U.S. rightly is not going to install the opposition, but take away the regime's air, armor and artillery advantage. Equally incomprehensible, also here on the pages of Foreign Policy, Bruce Ackerman has declared Obama an imperial president. On the other side, the chest-beaters would like Obama to be more "decisive." Guys -- take a little course in the exercise of influence and power; better yet, take a look at the nature of what's going on in the Middle East. This era is not the time to kick down the door, guns blazing.
The rare earth blues: The Chinese are clamping down ever harder with market hindrances against exports of rare earth elements from the country, this time by raising tariffs on the 17 types of minerals. This has been an issue since last September, when Japan's arrest of a Chinese trawler captain revealed Beijing's ultimate soft spot (which we had thought was Tibet, followed closely by Taiwan) by triggering China's rare earths embargo on the entire global market. But is there a crisis for the high-tech industries and armaments manufacturers who rely on them? This week, I participated in a panel discussion at the Heritage Foundation on the subject. The consensus was that, while there is a current squeeze and prices have almost doubled since last year, a combination of recycling and the fast development of new supplies will resolve it within three or so years. Australia, India, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, not to mention Alaska and California, are all acting in concert to develop new supplies.
Read on for more on this week's news.
Steve LeVine is the author of The Oil and the Glory and a longtime foreign correspondent.