Wednesday, May 7, 2008

When a Bear Sleeps on Your Doorstep...

No, this isn't an image from a May Day parade during the Soviet era. This is 2008, where once again the Russian military used the annual event to flex it's military muscle for the world to see. Why now you might ask. Well, in case you missed it, Russia is once again a world power, and this time it's not just militarily, but financially as well. What can a former superpower that has endured more than a decade of humiliating loss of prestige do with new found oil wealth and a supply of leftover weaponry from a half century long cold war? Well, make their neighbours uncomfortable for starters.

Starting today, we'll see three consecutive days of fireworks out of the world's largest nation. First, Dmitri Medvedev (from here on, referred to as Putvedev) will be sworn in as president, Thursday, Putin will be appointed Prime Minister and then Friday will see World War II victory celebrations. The first two events have been expected by the world for months as part of the Putin Plan, but it's the celebrations and military parades on Friday that might actually capture the world's attention. We'll be treated to a display that may serve as a warning that the Russian bear has tired of the insults from the west. From support for Kosavar independence from Russian buddy Serbia, to plans to install a missile shield system in Poland and the Czech Republic to Ukrainian and Georgian aspirations to join NATO, picture Russia as the puny kid who gets pushed into the sand one too many times by the bully. Then one day he finally decides to work out so he can get even, the Russian bear's work out regimen is called high oil prices, prices which show no sign of slowing down (In fact Goldman Sachs just released a report predicting $150-$200 in the next year). The state's share of Russia's oil production has risen to 44 percent, from 6 percent in 2000. The gas industry is almost entirely in the hands of state-run OAO Gazprom, the world's largest producer.

The first warning signs are already clearly visible, although in a remote corner of the Caucasus that most people confuse with an American state, Georgia. Georgia has faced huge problems with the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia almost from the moment of independence from the USSR in 1991. Both regions are ethnically different from Georgians and have therefore been fighting for their own independence with, many say, Russian aid. North Ossetia is located within Russia's current borders and Abkhazia is home to a couple of former military bases. Now, following civil wars, the powers that be saw fit to place Russian peacekeepers in these areas and agreements were signed limiting troop numbers by both Tblisi and Moscow. It could be a coincidence but ever since the west embrace of an independent Kosovo, Russia has been increasingly making their presence felt in the region. April 16th, Russia declares it will seek closer economic ties with the region. After claiming to have shot down an unmanned Georgian drone on March 18, video surfaces of another drone shot down on April 20th, this time clearly showing that it was a Russian MiG fighter.

Finally, April 29th, Russian begins moving more troops into the Abkhazia region.

So, where will this all lead to? As likely as not, simply more posturing from both sides in an effort to gain support from the international community. On the other hand, it is important to know that most people in the Abkhazia region have been issued Russian passport and they use the Russian ruble, not the Georgian lari as currency. At the same time NATO and the EU are likely to continue to make their push east, making the slumbering bear more and more nervous. How the "new" administration under Putvedev reacts to being poked by a stick while sharpening its claws will be interesting to see.


Troy said...

Traveling from Vladivostok to St Petersburg 2 years ago I realized that Russia was indeed a wounded bear who had huge quantities of oil money flowing in to lick its wounds. It's a bit of a stretch, but the situation is similar to Germany after the treaty of Versailles post WW1, just looking for someone to rekindle nationalistic pride and with the remaining super power so blinded by arrogance, who know where it can lead.

Shane said...

Yeah, I was going to go that way with the article, comparing the takeover by the Nazis of the Sudetenland area of the the Czech Republic with the possibility of the Russians taking over Abkhazia from the Georgian. Nationalism is a dangerous weapon indeed.