In Russia, the Line Between Hard and Soft Blurs: Jeffrey Tayler

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By Jeffrey Tayler

Those who imagine that self-professed liberal President Dmitry Medvedev is a naïve softie compared to his flinty-eyed predecessor (and current prime minister) Vladimir Putin should think again. At least on the subject of Russia's relations with the former Soviet republic of Georgia, he's as hard-line as they come.

On the eve of the three-year anniversary of Georgia's brief war with Russia over the renegade province of South Ossetia, Medvedev provided the radio station Ekho Moskvy with a rare interview. He cited then Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice’s 2008 visit to Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, as a turning point in his discussions with Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili about the deteriorating situation in South Ossetia. After Rice’s trip to Tbilisi, Medvedev said, “[Saakashvili] stopped communicating with me, stopped talking with me, stopped writing, and stopped responding to my efforts to get in touch. . . . It may be a coincidence, but I’m almost certain that at that moment a plan came into being for the adventure that happened in August.”

Was Medvedev accusing the United States of pushing Georgia into war? “I don’t believe so,” he replied. However, “in politics shades and nuances are very important,” especially “certain nuances . . . and words to the effect of its time to restore constitutional order” – that is, reestablish Georgian rule in South Ossetia – “and act more decisively.” Such talk could have given Saakashvili “clear hopes that, should any sort of conflict arise, ‘the Americans won’t abandon us.’”

Russia responded to Georgia’s apparent attempt to retake South Ossetia by sending in troops and quickly routing Saakashvili’s forces. Medvedev and Saakashvili have not spoken since, because, the former said, “at his order hundreds of our citizens, including our peacekeepers, were killed. …Saakashvili is a person I would never shake hands with.”

What does the future hold for Russia-Georgia relations? Medvedev again: “Sooner or later Mikhail Saakashvili will not be president of Georgia. Then the new president, whoever it may be, will have the chance to establish normal productive relations with Russia.”

Just in case Saakashvili failed to get the message, Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, announced that "Saakashvili is, of course, a pathological case and an anomaly among the Georgian people. He is clearly very badly brought up," according to The Moscow Times.

The Russian Federation’s Investigative Committee declared on its web site that “it is continuing its investigation into the genocide and mass-murder of Russian citizens in Southern Ossetia.”

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Russia’s two non-declared candidates for president are keeping up their pre-campaign non-campaigning. Moskovsky Komsomolets reported that young fans of both Medvedev and Putin, putative rivals for the top job, turned out in central Moscow to effect a symbolic demarche: tandem bike rides. “Members of the social network sites 'Medvedev is Our President' and 'I Really Like Putin' decided not to divide up territory but to carry out a joint action: ride bikes-built-for-two from the Kremlin to the White House” – the seat of government.

Participants couldn’t, or wouldn’t, assign a political message to their jaunt. But Moskovsky Komsomolets provided the vital background info: When shown a two-seated bike during a recent visit to a youth camp at Lake Seliger near Moscow, Putin had remarked that he and Medvedev would give it a try.

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Despite the “reset” in relations between Russia and the U.S., the two countries seem to find little common ground these days. But, as an editorial in the Moscow Times pointed out, they do share one thing: a loathing for credit rating agencies.

"Three weeks after Prime Minister Vladimir Putin castigated Russia’s lowly BBB credit rating as an ‘outrage,’ President Barack Obama knows what it’s like to be in Putin’s shoes.” Obama reminded Americans that the United States is, in his view, a AAA nation; but Russia reacted more forcefully: “the Finance Ministry rushed out a 48-page report arguing that Russia’s debt was underrated." Neither Obama nor the Russian government convinced The Moscow Times’ editorialist: “Both countries got what they deserved.” However, the author reserved barbs for Russia: “Despite glowing numbers presented in the new Finance Ministry report, the government has failed to lower the risk level of the country’s investment environment by allowing corruption to flourish, doing little to guarantee the independence of the courts, and stubbornly adhering to opaque governance practices that, among other things, have left investors wondering who will run in the presidential election less than seven months away.”

The ongoing financial crisis has Russians spooked as well. Yuri Pronko, writing in his blog for Live Journal, noted that the yield on U.S. treasury bonds “continues to fall,” which signals that “investors believe in the Americans,” but “don’t believe in the ‘island of stability’” that Russia touts itself to be. Why, Pronko asked, are Western leaders "trying to inform their citizens about the world economic situation . . . [while] ours alone remain silent?" His demand: “Shut your propagandists’ mouth and start a frank public discussion with your own people!”

That’s advice politicians outside Russia could take as well.

(Jeffrey Tayler is Moscow correspondent for World View. He is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and the author of six books, including "Murderers in Mausoleums: Riding the Back Roads of Empire between Moscow and Beijing." The opinions expressed are his own.)

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-0- Aug/12/2011 18:15 GMT