October 18, 2007

Russia Risen

It's not news today that Russia has risen to be a dominant political and economic power, both in its region and globally, since President Vladimir Putin has taken control of the country. Partly due to the dramatic rise in the cost of natural gas and oil resources, for which Russia is the number 1 and number 2 producer in the world respectively (oil went from $25 to over $80 per barrel in this period, and that price seems to be sustainable), Russia was able to pay back its multi-billion dollars in aid loans that were used bolster it after the collapse of the USSR, and Moscow now boasts as many resident billionaires as does New York City.

Some of the above information comes from a fascinating article in The New Yorker last week by David Remnick, author of "Lenin's Tomb" among many other non-Russian volumes by him, entitled "The Tsar's Opponent".

This renewed economic importance is soon to be felt here in Chicago. As if a direct symbol of renewal, American Airlines has just announced a non-stop flight from Moscow to Chicago to begin in June 2008. A conference on Russian business was held about a year ago here in the city. And the Moscow-Chicago sister city partnership is also being re-articulated. The International Sister Cities program, once an expression of good-will and cultural appreciation in the face of the cold war and the guarantee of mutually-assured destruction, seemed to lose traction and direction overall for its projects of diplomacy since 1992. Now a new focus may give the organization a realm for activity: the Chicago-Moscow committee has recently convened a Russian Business Forum. I received an email from the group just today, announcing a panel discussion entitled "Real Estate Development and Investing in Russia", on Tuesday, Oct. 30. [The cost to attend is $50. FOr more info, call 312.742.8497 or email g37boxoffice@cityofchicago.org]

Russian economic prosperity is only half the story. Under Putin, a former KGB spy, the state has re-centralized vast energy and media resources, degraded the heretofore fledgling democratic structures and developing civil society in Russia, and a new virulent strain of nationalism has taken the nation [and propelled Putin to remarkable approval ratings, up around 80%]. The Chechen war continues without regard for basic human rights, while international media attention strays farther and farther from the tragedy. Journalists that dare to report news in opposition to Kremlin prerogatives are routinely threatened and murdered (notably Anna Politkovskaya, for whom the one-year anniversary of her murder just passed).

Here at The University of Chicago, we were lucky to hear a talk given by Robert Amsterdam on October 2. Amsterdam is legal counsel to Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the deposed Russian oil oligarch and former head of Yukos Oil, once the largest and most-profitable oil company in Russia, and who now resides in a Siberian prison, serving out an 8-year sentence on charges that are terribly difficult to unravel (basically, tax evasion), in a trial that was largely understood to be a show trial. Robert Amsterdam, friend and counsel to Khodorkovksy, is intimately acquainted with machinations of the Kremlin, and is quite out-spoken as a critic and in his fears for what these details portend for the Russia and indeed for the international community. This talk was part of UC's World Beyond the Headlines series, and will soon be available as audio/video podcast on CHIAMOS.

The next talk in the WBH series will be with Steve LeVine on November 1 [6pm, International House]. He will be discussing his newly released book "The Oil and the Glory". See http://oilandglory.com/ for a bio, details on the book, and most interestingly, Steve LeVine's blog. Steve LeVine has been reporting on the politics and economics of the Central Asian region for The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times since the fall of the USSR, and he is well-versed in the power politics and struggle for control of the vast energy resources contained in Russia and former Soviet regions, which still pay much attention to Moscow. This talk will also be made available on CHIASMOS.

Other than the economic ties that I mentioned are impacting US cities like Chicago, why should we as Americans keep paying attention to Russia, Putin and the internal politics there? Especially when Putin's presidential term is constitutionally limited and will end next May? Russia's regained economic power has emboldened its impact in global affairs. Unlike the US, Russia will speak to Iran. They have a relationship with North Korea. On top of vast natural resource exports (Europe is largely powered by Russian pipelines, which the Kremlin can shut off at will), Russia also exports military arms and nuclear technology. Though Putin and Bush seem to enjoy a special friendship, that does not curtail diplomatic stand-offs, such as we are witnessing with Bush's plans to install a missile-defense shield on Russia's doorstep, Poland. Today's headline in The New York Times is "Putin Warns U.S. Over Missile Shield."

Please join CEERES for these talks and keep looking us up for new resources. We are currently in the planning stages for a program that could possibly take up to 15 K-12 teachers to Russia. This is an important period in time to keep paying attention to and learning as much as we can about this country. I should never fail to mention that, while the politics can be daunting and frightening, Russia is ever a country of exceptional people, dazzling culture, and globally important and beautiful natural lands.


Galina Ovtcharova said...

Do you have an idea how long it will be before Robert Amsterdam's recording appears on CHIAMOS?

CEERES said...

It should appear soon, along with a few other events that have been recorded. When it does appear, I'll post about it. Thanks!

CEERES said...

The recording is now up: http://chiasmos.uchicago.edu/events/amsterdam.shtml