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LOOKING AHEAD
07.03.2009

Konstantin Cheremnykh

A CASE OF CONTAGIOUS EUPHORIA

Prompting "compromise on Iran" to President Medvedev, the liberal media lobby achieves a reverse result

"FOLLOWING EVERY MOVE"

Russian-American relations and the situation in post-Soviet countries are permanently in the focus of the round-o-clock TV channel Vesti, run by the state-owned All-Russia TV & Radio Broadcasting Corporation. Not surprisingly, the Russian audience views the coverage of national foreign policy, presented by the channel, as the expression of Kremlin's official view.

The two observers, responsible for the abovementioned foreign policy spheres, cannot be suspected of excessive modesty. Samir Shakhbaz, the channel's specialist on America, has lately been advertised by the editors as "the person who watches [Barack] Obama, following every move of this person".

In his turn, Kirill Tanayev, an associate of Gleb Pavlovsky in the Efficient Policy Foundation (the reputation of which was seriously damaged after the failure of its political technologists in Ukraine), is reputed as a top expert in Russia's relations with the former Soviet republics, and especially in the issues of oil and gas transit that directly affect Russia-EU relationship.

The "talking heads" of the major state-owned TV channel have been excessively euphoric about opportunities for Russia, associated with the power shift in Washington, especially after US Vice President Joe Biden, addressing the Munich Security Conference, proposed to "press the reset button in US-Russian relations" – the declaration later referred to in Western press as "rebooting". But the same highly qualified observers carelessly blacked out the most significant foreign policy challenge of February and March, though private-owned papers and websites were excessively discussing the subject that became a most serious dilemma for President Dmitry Medvedev Ц namely, the so-called "exchange option" on Iran.

EXCITEMENT OVER "REBOOTING"

Vesti's coverage of the Munich conference, as well as the subsequent US Congress hearings on US-Russian relations, sounded as euphoric as if Russia has landed its spaceship on Mars. This parallel may sound a bit obsolete, as Dmitry Medvedev's advisor Arkady Dvorkovich has just ridiculed proposals like "replacement of the Russian capital, or flight to Mars", urging the delegates of the Krasnoyarsk Economic Forum to concentrate on more realistic projects. A day after, an obsolete NASA puzzled Mr. Dvorkovich by launching a new satellite to Mars. Why aren't these American guys as pragmatic as we are, insisting on "priority investments in financial market infrastructure"?

In fact, Joe Biden emphasized in Munich that the United States is really going to revise its whole foreign policy strategy. This change did not suggest unilateral concessions, and that was quite clear to the delegates. Mr. Biden was speaking of "smart power" as an alternative to George W. Bush's "rough power". This "smart power" did not mean revision of basic concepts, as the delegates from Europe and South-Eastern Asia clearly understood. The Europeans realized that Washington is going to even stronger encourage their involvement in the continuing military operations, especially in Afghanistan. No illusions were derived from Biden's address in Latin America as well, especially in Venezuela that was bluntly explained that the collapse of oil prices will be even stronger exploited for the purpose of undermining Hugo Chavez's government. The Gulf States had even less grounds for optimism after the change of the US Administration, after Mr. Obama spectacularly solidarized with Bush's support of Israel's crackdown on Gaza.

If the alpha and omega of US foreign policy has not generally changed, despite massive recession and mounting foreign debt, why should Russia feel euphoric? Has Washington given up the idea of dragging the adjacent Ukraine and Georgia into NATO? Has Washington greeted Dmitry Medvedev's initiative of Russian-European security cooperation? What Russia heard instead, at least from Undersecretary Daniel Fried, was negation of Russia's right for any sphere of influence Ц though the new Administration had just used Russia's influence in Central Asia for hammering out transit of supplies to Afghanistan.

The major state-owned TV channel would sound more convincing, and avoid misunderstanding that is naturally filled by doubts and gossips, if the real agenda of the proposed "rebooting" were comprehensively presented and duly analyzed. For some reason, a smile of Mr. Obama was interpreted as the beginning of a new era, though in fact, Washington's initiatives represented nothing new and pursued nothing except self-interest.

WHO BENEFITS FROM THE DEAL?

In its report from the Congress discussion, Vesti's reporters preferred to translate particular speeches in full, and to briefly retell other presentations. Ostensibly for reasons of time pressure, the discussion was not followed by any comments Ц though its background was enough substantial for a comprehensive analysis.

At least, the fully translated remarks of Rep. (D) Brad Sherman required a bit of comment. The MP asked a rhetoric but precise question: if the United States give up construction of the Trans-Caspian gas pipeline, as well as the ABM deployment in Czech Republic (Poland being strangely omitted), if the United States recognize sovereignty of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, along with other proposals, can we achieve Russia's support in the Iranian issue?

For any educated Russian from the traditional audience of Vesti TV, the above rhetoric implies a clearly articulated deal. At the Congress event Ц as well as earlier in Munich Ц Russia was offered to contribute in a particular effort. This effort was enough important, and enough strategic to sacrifice a lot of advantages. Was this contribution supposed to equally benefit both sides?

Trying to follow the logic of the proposal instead of Vesti's experts who were dumb, we easily notice that all the aspects of the ostensible sacrifice are related to Iran. The issue of sovereignty of the two former provinces of Soviet Georgia (after Georgia declared independence, the first thing its first president Gamsakhurdia did was to eliminate their autonomy, but the two regions disagreed and since then fought for independence) becomes insignificant for Washington since the former Soviet military bases in Georgia are not going to be used as a stronghold against Iran, while Georgia itself becomes less significant as an element of the Trans-Caspian gas pipeline. The pipeline itself loses significance in case natural gas is delivered to Europe along an alternative route.

In case this alternative pipeline starts from Turkmenistan and crosses Iran (as the original version of Nabucco was outlined), a lot of investments for the undersea route are saved by US companies. Security of transit is increased by bypassing the Kurds-dominated regions of Turkey.

Deployment of ABM facilities in Czech Republic, it its turn, becomes unnecessary since the moment when the current regime of Tehran is replaced by a "tamer" government. Therefore, the essence of the message, addressed to Russia, is to contribute in overthrowing Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and replacing him by a more convenient political figure. The involved costs are not discussed.

Still, it is not very complicated to make out which sides would profit and which countries would lose from the deal. On the top of the first list we naturally find Israel, especially after the victory of the rightist Likud in the elections; the second is Romania, the key transit country of the Nabucco project. In case the route of the pipeline crosses Armenia (with verbal support, but with no anti-risk guarantees from its lobby in the Congress), this country is going to benefit as well. Recent statements of top Armenian analysts (particularly, Karen Khanbabyan) suggest that the design is explicitly discussed with Yerevan.

In case of success of the risky scenario, the list of losers will include Turkey (as a reprimand for its Prime Minister's characteristic of the Israeli PM as an assassin), and Azerbaijan. Not surprisingly, the future of Gabala radar is now vividly discussed by Azeri observers who are more cautious about the intrigue in Tehran than their Armenian colleagues.

The third loser will be Russia, as the necessity of a nuclear plant, co-invested by Tehran and Moscow, is going to be minimized. The relationship in the framework of the community of gas exporters (that also includes Qatar and Venezuela) is going to be multiplied to zero. The failure of the South Stream project that does not make sense in case of revival of the original Nabucco project, would undermine confidence to Moscow in the involved nations of Southern Europe Ц in accordance with Daniel Fried's concept of Russia without any "zones of influence" (excepting the tiny and war-torn Abkhazia and South Ossetia).

The list of losers will inevitably include the closest neighbors of Israel and Romania, namely: a) Palestine, Lebanion and Syria, and b) Ukraine and Moldova. Romania has just satisfied some of its territorial ambitions, acquiring a legal right for the territory of Zmeiniy (Serpents') Isle on the Black Sea with the adjacent gas-rich sea shelf. It is noteworthy that the revised border was an item of 1946 agreements, authorizing annexations from Nazi-allied states (which included Romania). Thus, Europe faces explosion of a series of time-bombs, for which Nabucco is a poor exchange.

Analyzing all the implications that directly affect not only state but corporate interests, we should admit that the issue is worth a most serious and open debate. But the abovementioned implications are beyond Mr. Shakhbaz's vision: he is busy "watching Obama".

Regarding the significance of the deal, outlined by Rep. Sherman, for the post-Soviet countries, Vesti's audience expects some comments from its NIS specialist. However, Mr. Tanayev is too fascinated with the declining curve of Ukraine's international ratings, with a victorious wink of his right eye. The implications of the political and economic disaster, including possible disintegration with border wars, and flight of millions of Ukrainians to Russia, are beyond Mr. Tanayev's vision: he is busy "watching Yushenko".

This aberration of vision is exemplified also by Vesti's reluctance to at least quote the speech of former Vladimir Putin's advisor Andrey Illarionov, delivered at the same Congress meeting. In his new capacity of an expert with the libertarian Cato Institute, this economist, today an arch-enemy of both Putin and Medvedev, warned against the very option of "exchange deals with Moscow". The very notion of "exchange deal" probably seemed so inconvenient for Vesti's observers that they preferred to cut it out of the coverage.

Despite time pressure, Vesti found necessary to retell the argumentation of Rep. (R) Dana Rohrabacher, presented as friendly towards Russia Ц though this MP became famous in 2004 as the author of the Act of Support of Ukrainian Democracy, an is known as a close friend of Victor Yushchenko's American spouse Yekaterina (a former official in George H. W. Bush's administration and an arch-Russophobe). Mr. Rohrabacher's proposals suggested that Washington give up attempts to "separate Russia from global markets". This idea was interpreted by Vesti as "support of Russia's entry in WTO" Ц an idea much dearer to the observers than any kinds of geopolitical threats.

A LEAKED "SENSATION" AND A PROMPT RECUPERATION

In the following days, Vesti was busy highlighting the international conference in Sharm al Sheikh, and anticipating the scheduled meeting between State Secretary Hillary Clinton and Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. The agenda of these planned talks, however, was disclosed by a private-owned Kommersant Daily that reported, with reference to unofficial sources, about a "sensational proposal" to Russia outline in Barack Obama's personal message to Kremlin. This leakage surfaced a day before the Clinton-Lavrov meeting, and on the very day of the official visit of Russia's Energy Minister Sergey Shmatko to Tehran.

In fact, the "sensation" articulated the same deal that was raised by Rep. Brad Sherman. However, an attack of euphoria that crossed Israeli media along with several major Russian websites, was spreading with a speed of a contagious disease. Sensation! Sensation! An exclusive deal! Pretty marketable!

But Sergey Shmatko, the former chair of Atomstroyexport, the company responsible for construction of the Bushehr nuclear plant in Iran, delivered a press conference on the same evening, and announced that Russia is proposing Iran, its reliable partner, to trade oil through the Saint Petersburg Oil Burse. Next morning, Dmitry Medvedev made clear in his official statement that "discussing any kind of exchange deals with Russia, including the issue of Iran, is not productive". It became obvious that Mr. Shmatko's proposal, as well as the agenda of his diplomacy, was initiated by Kremlin before the leakage of Obama's letter. It was similarly obvious that the leakage itself, promptly reproduced by New York Post's Peter Baker, aroused a serious rift in the very media community that had spent two months speculating on a "war of clans in Kremlin", increasing cold in personal relations of President Putin and Prime Minister Medvedev etc.

Meanwhile, Vesti's editors hurried to quote the words of Obama's advisor and multi-billionaire Warren Buffett who admitted that international financial institutions are in the condition "similar to a venereal disease". This viewpoint did not leave much space for euphoria over Russia's entry in WTO.

Dmitry Mednikov, general director of Vesti TV, looked very timid at the earlier scheduled meeting of the President with the new-generation state officials on March 5. Raising his hand, he started boasting with the technological achievements of the channel, "especially in the coverage of the Russia-Venezuela military exercises", and shyly inquired whether the financial crisis is about to affect "cadre issues". He also could not help expressing his commitment to serve to the president in a way that would enable Russia to perform the strongest as soon as the crisis is over.

Thus, the disease of dumbness that caught the top state TV channel during a strategic debate on a "deal on Iran", is likely to be cured. In order to prevent further attacks of the malady, the Russian State Duma could initiate an open discussion on a broad array of issues, including: expediency of Russia's investments in US treasury bonds; implications of the Obama-proposed bilateral reduction of strategic weapons; Russia's choice of allies in the Middle East, and relevant conditions based on principles and not on situational considerations; prospects of Russia-US cooperation in space research with regard of the experience dating back to 1970s; and, finally, relationship between pragmatism, morality, and political and social responsibility. This debate would be helpful both for the executive power and for the media community, as its outcome is as predictable as the vote on Abkhazia and South Ossetia that President Medvedev approved after the Duma discussion. Generally, the voice of Russian MPs should more frequently sound in national mass media than particular situational opinions of US Representatives. After all, the task of "decolonization of conscience" was declared strategic by the President's Staff several months ago. This is probably the most precise proscription for maladies described above.


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