No building in Moscow so much says “Soviet Union” as the headquarters of Gazprom, the Russian gas monopoly. It is more foreboding than the Lubyanka, the former headquarters and torture emporium of the KGB. The romantic charm of the czarist era, epitomized by the Kremlin itself, is wholly absent. Like the state monopoly itself, the structure is gigantic, threatening and very hard to get into.
It is set back from the road, and there are layers of security a visitor has to negotiate to see an official. It is easier to get into the Kremlin, No. 10 Downing Street or the White House than it is to get into Gazprom HQ. I know because I have gotten into all of them. No wonder old KGB hand Vladimir Putin loves the gas company.
As president, and now as prime minister, Putin grew Gazprom and its oil counterpart, Rosneft, not to be normal companies but agents of political implementation. Between them, they were tasked to gobble up the pieces of Yukos when its luckless founder, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was thrown in jail.
But even more than Rosneft, it is Gazprom that has emerged as the right hand of Russian policy in Europe.
At the moment, in the dead of winter, it is Gazprom that has cut off supplies of gas to more than 12 European countries. Ostensibly, the argument is over the price paid for gas by Ukraine, the transshipper of gas to all of Europe. But the Russian political agenda is not concealed. Putin, and the siloviki (the men of power around Putin and President Dimitry Medvedev) are angered by the defiance of former members of the Soviet Union, especially Ukraine. Despite its large Russian-speaking minority (about 40 percent) it has talked of joining NATO and the European Union–a red rag to Russia. Russia is angry at the West, in general, for trying to route new pipelines from Central Asia through Georgia, avoiding Russia. It is also mad at the West for recognizing Kosovo, and has responded by buying the Serbian gas fields.
Russian gas, which now makes up 30 percent of Europe’s need, does not look such a good idea–particularly to Germany, where pressure from the Green party led to the retreat from nuclear and the push for gas turbines. Before Germany turned its back on nuclear, it was a leader in the development of promising pebble bed technology. Now, sadly, Germany depends on Russia for nearly 40 percent of its gas supplies.
The gas crisis is worst in countries like Bulgaria, where there is very little gas storage and demand is in real time. But it is also affecting Italy and Southern Europe. Having closed their coal-fired power plants and shelved their nuclear plans, those countries now feel the full pain of the Russian bear’s embrace: gas droughts and electric shortages are leaving their populations cold and hungry in the dark.
So dependent has Europe become on Russian energy that every step to ameliorate the situation is a possible irritant to Moscow. If the pipelines bypass Russia, or the hub in Ukraine, that is a provocation. If new gas comes by ship from North Africa, that is an excuse for Russia to try and price its pipeline gas at the higher price of liquefied natural gas.
Belatedly, Britain and Finland commissioned new nuclear power plants. But Germany, whose former chancellor Gerhard Schroeder took a lucrative job with Gazprom, has chosen to increase its energy dependence on Russia.
Most observers believe that the current crisis will not last. Most likely, it will conclude with a jump in the price of gas, and some satisfaction in the Kremlin that Europe has been taught a lesson. But that lesson may have to be repeated over issues far from energy–such as the expansion of NATO and the European Union.
While the Russians appear to take some satisfaction in upsetting Western Europe, it is their Soviet-era satellites that most annoy them. Why, they wonder, can’t all of Eastern Europe remain suitably deferential, like Belarus and Armenia? Both toady to Moscow.
For the rest of Europe, the message is clear: build more gas storage, arrange more imports and diversify away from gas turbines.
For our part, we can help our friends and allies by thinking through our own actions, from the European missile shield to the willy-nilly expansion of NATO. This is a European problem. But if Europe has to make geopolitical compromises with Russia, it becomes problem for the Western alliance. That is us.
Georgia on my mind.
I was struck when I arrived in Tbilisi a few years ago, in the early hours of the morning, that the lights were blazing in dozens of stands that dotted the road from the airport to the city. This gave the impression that Georgia was booming; that the economy was vibrant and the people were entrepreneurial.
The next day, I learned that nothing in the small and ancient country of Georgia is quite the way it seems. A year after my visit a colleague from The Washington Times, Joseph Curl, also mistook the appearance of prosperity for the real thing.
The fact is that lights blaze night and day in Tbilisi because the good business people steal their electricity. Every one of the road stands is located next to a power line, and there is no attempt to hide the illegal connections. No wonder the lights stay on all night—no switches.
Georgia, like its bullying neighbor Russia, has fostered a strange indifference to law. It goes like this: laws are for the people who make laws, not for the rest of us. We just have to do the best we can.
In few countries have I felt more isolated by language than in Georgia. In most countries, at street level—restaurants and taxis–someone speaks English. Not so in Tbilisi. The first language, of course, is Georgian and the second is Russian. Happily, I was traveling with another journalist who spoke excellent Russian. Otherwise, like so many, I would have been confined to the international hotel where English was spoken.
Our first order of business was to get press passes at the information ministry. We were registered, photographed, paid a fee and were issued with press passes by an engaging young woman. My colleague, Nathan Hodge, elicited that our friendly registrar was going to a rock concert that evening and the tickets would cost about $150. We calculated that this would be many times her weekly salary and were perplexed. Georgians are poor, and government workers are not well paid. A role in the black economy? A rich lover?
Much in Georgia is unexplained. Since the Russian tanks rolled into South Ossetia, one those unexplained issues is how the government of Mikheil Saakashvili thought it could taunt Russia when it knew that Russia historically has been paranoid about its borders; and that its paranoia had been exacerbated by the West’s quick recognition of Kosovo and the loss of face by Serbia, a Russian Slavic ally.
Russia was poised to invade and the Georgian president lit the fuse when he sent Georgian troops to reclaim South Ossetia. Justice may have been on Saakashvili’s side, but realpolitik was not.
As long as Russia feels surrounded by American surrogates in the colors of NATO, it is going to bully where it can and use its energy superiority to try and separate Europe from the United States. Europe is 50-percent dependent on gas from Russia. Watch for European indignation to subside as winter approaches.
There is a precedent for Russia annexing chunks of its neighbors and getting away with it. Remember what happened to Finland during World War II. With the spread of mechanized warfare, Russia felt its crown jewel of a city, St. Petersburg, lying a few kilometers from the Finnish border, was vulnerable. So they began a land grab for about one-tenth of Finland, known as Karelia. This was to be a buffer zone.
After the bitterly fought Winter War of 1940, in a lopsided peace, Russia grabbed Karelia, including the second-largest Finnish city and most of its industrial infrastructure. Twelve percent of the Finnish population had to be resettled. It was a great blow to the Finns, and is remembered painfully today.
Neither candidate for the American presidency has any idea what to do about Russia. It is not an economic colossus. If it were not for energy, it would be sick indeed. It is not a competitive manufacturer in anything except vodka and nuclear power plants. It has not been able to divert its oil wealth for the betterment of its rural towns and villages, and its population of 142 million is declining rapidly.
But Russia is armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons and is our partner in some things that work well, like weapons decommissioning and the International Space Station. John McCain has proposed throwing the Russians out of the G-8. To what end? It has no real role in that group. Barack Obama would talk to them more. No one has courted the Russians more assiduously than George W. Bush or been as thoroughly rebuffed.
The Russian enigma will be with us a long time. As for the enigma of the Tbilisi rock concert ticket-holder, I think she was making money selling press passes to gullible American journalists who did not need them.
In Havana, the enfeebled fingers of Fidel Castro have handed the baton of dictatorship to the feeble fingers of his brother, Raul. The endgame is in sight, but what will it lead to?
There are those in Miami and Washington who believe that, by some miracle, the status quo ante will return to Cuba, but this time with democracy and transparency.
To understand what might happen in Cuba, let us look at two examples of countries where power was transferred.
First, take South Africa. The white minority government ceded power to the African National Congress by throwing open the franchise, enabling a black government to be elected. Significantly in South Africa, there were independent institutions, a democratic tradition among whites, and organized political groups.
Second, look at Russia. Change came quickly, but Russia was not ready for democratic emancipation in tandem with economic liberalization. While South Africa transferred power smoothly, it did not have to transfer ownership of its commerce. Result: an orderly transition. In Russia, the political transition was smoother than the commercial one. Smart kleptocrats stole Russia’s wealth. This has generated great public resentment; and from it, Vladimir Putin was able to abridge democracy. Of course, Putin was helped by the economic chaos of the early 1990s–another symptom of Russia’s democratic and commercial immaturity.
There are those who think that there will be a transition in Cuba akin to the one in South Africa. The parallel is faulty. They would be better advised to look at what happened in Russia and chart a future for Cuba that avoids the mistakes of Russia.
The great truth about Cuba, as far as the United States is concerned, is that it lies 90 miles off Florida; its economy is a disaster; and it has 11 million people—a goodly number of whom would like to move to the United States.
Here are some scenarios for Cuba:
1. The United States lifts the embargo. In the first week, Cuba is flooded with private aircraft and boats. There is chaos, and the Cubans fear that they are being taken over. Solution: a gradual lifting of the embargo over time.
2. A democratic government is established in Havana. But without political parties, Cuba divides along racial lines. Roughly 50 percent of Cubans are white and the rest are black. Solution: a government in exile is formed in Miami to prepare a constitution that could be adopted in Cuba, allowing for the special conditions on the island.
3. A new Cuban government seeks to privatize state-owned enterprises– the most valuable of which is the pharmaceutical research industry. Any move to privatize industry would put a new government at odds with the Cuban exile community in the United States. Many harbor claims against Cuba for companies and private property that were seized by Castro 48 years ago. These claims are extremely complicated and could bog down a new administration in litigation in Cuban and American courts. Solution: a commission of reconciliation, whose findings would be legislated into law in Havana with treaty recognition in the United States.
If things go wrong in Cuba, they go wrong for the United States as well. A rush to democracy could be as damaging as anything that has happened, including civil war. There are those in Havana who believe that there should be a period for private industry to be established before democracy is implemented. These are people who look not to the South African or Russian examples but to China.
And, of course, there are the Cubans. When I first went to Cuba in the 1980s, at least half of them remembered the days before the revolution and were sullenly angry about what had happened to Cuba. On my last visit, four years ago, the change in generations was apparent. There was less memory of the old days, and Cubans’ aspirations had more to do with their daily lives than with great upheavals. As I could define it, a wish-list included better pay, more meat in the diet, and better-fitting clothes. A distant fourth on the wish-list, and from the young, was to travel. But years of propaganda have taken their toll, and many young Cubans believe that life outside of Cuba is brutal and dangerous. Interviews on the street suggest that they fear the inequalities of the past as much as they resent the oppression of the present.
The Cuban question will not be resolved when two old men leave the scene there.