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My latest for the US-Russia Experts Panel and VoR.

In this latest Panel, Vlad Sobell asks us supposed Russia “experts” whether Freedom House’s “alarmist stance” towards Russia is justified. Well, what do YOU think? I don’t think you need to be an expert to answer this; it’s an elementary issue of common sense and face validity. Consider the following:

Freedom House gives Russia a 5.5/7 on its “freedom” score, in which 7 is totalitarianism (e.g. North Korea) and 1 is complete freedom (e.g. the post-NDAA US).

This would make Putin’s Russia about as “unfree” as the following polities, as we learn from Freedom House:

  • The United Arab Emirates, a “federation of seven absolute dynastic monarchs whose appointees make all legislative and executive decisions”… where there are “no political parties” and court rulings are “subject to review by the political leadership” (quoting Daniel Treisman and Freedom House itself);
  • Bahrain, which recently shot up a ton of Shia demonstrators, and indefinitely arrested doctors for having the temerity to follow the Hippocratic oath and treat wounded protesters;
  • Any of the 1980’s “death-squad democracies” of Central America, in which tens of thousands of Communist sympathizers or just democracy supporters were forcibly disappeared;
  • The Argentinian junta, which “disappeared” tens of thousands of undesirables, some of whom were dropped from planes over the Atlantic Ocean;
  • Yemen, which lives under a strict interpretation of sharia law and where the sole candidate to the Presidency was elected with 100% of the vote in 2012 (which Hillary Clinton described as “another important step forward in their democratic transition process”).

Putin’s Russia is also, we are to believe, a lot more repressive than these polities:

  • South Korea in the 1980’s, a military dictatorship which carried out a massacre in Gwangju on the same scale as that of Tiananmen Square, for which China would be endlessly condemned;
  • Turkey, which bans YouTube from time to time, and today carries the dubious distinction of hosting more imprisoned journalists – 49 of them, according to the CPJ – than any other country, including Syria, Iran, and China. (Russia imprisons none).
  • Mexico under the PRI, which falsified elections throughout the years of its dominance to at least the same extent as United Russia.
  • Singapore, whose parliament makes the Duma look like a vibrant multiparty democracy and uses libel law to sue political opponents into bankruptcy. (In the meantime, Nemtsov is free to continue writing his screeds about Putin’s yachts and Swiss bank accounts).
  • Kuwait, where women only got the vote in 2005.

I’d say it’s pretty obvious that Freedom House has a definite bias which looks something like this: +1 points for being friendly with the West, -1 if not, and -2 if you also happen to have oil, and are thus in special urgent need of a color revolution. Then again, some call me a Kremlin troll, so you might be wiser to trust an organization that was until recently chaired by a former director of the CIA, an avowed neocon given to ranting about Russia’s backsliding into “fascism” among other things. If that’s the case you’re probably also the type who believes Iraq was 45 minutes away from launching WMD’s and that Islamist terrorists “hate us for our freedom.”

PS. If you want a reasonably accurate and well-researched political freedoms rating, check out the Polity IV series. Unfortunately, while it’s a thousand times better than Freedom House, it’s also about a thousand times less well-known.

(Republished from Da Russophile by permission of author or representative)
 
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At the recent Summit of the Americas in Trinidad, two great leaders, Obama and Chavez, shook hands in what could be the symbolic first gesture of reconciliation. Treasonous neocons will no doubt rush to condemn this as yet another limp-wristed and unilateral concession to “America’s enemies”, reminding their listeners that Chavez closed down opposition media, nationalized American assets and welcomed Russian warships and strategic bombers to his realm.

Yet their stubborn animosity is worse than just imperialist arrogance – it is stupid. They fail to realize that in the past decade Latin America in general, and Venezuela in particular, has become too politically mature to be easily manipulated into serving US (corporate) interests by economic hitmen, CIA operatives and their local surrogates. It is to Obama’s credit that he is willing to move from willful denial to cautious acceptance of the decline of overt American power in Venezuela and elsewhere.

For that is the new reality. The Venezuelan opposition is increasingly discredited for its unconstructive hostility to the government and extra-legal attempts to overthrow Chavez, one of which nearly succeeded in 2002. This resulted in blowback against the US for its covert involvement The government’s refusal to renew the licenses of opposition media outlets that seditiously backed the abortive coup is thus completely understandable, as is Chavez’ personal animosity towards Bush and outreach to other states in similar straits. Furthermore, it should be noted that the owners of newly nationalized companies, including American ones, were fairly compensated.

Meanwhile, within five years of taking real power in Venezuela, a corrupt, disorganized and class-ridden country, Chavez managed to a) double the GDP, b) halve the number of people living in poverty and c) drastically improve practically every indicator of social wellbeing from child mortality rates to inequality to tertiary education enrollment rates (I already covered these successes in prior posts). This does not mean that Venezuela is no longer a corrupt, disorganized and class-ridden country – it still is, to an extent – but the improvements are undeniable and Chavez enjoys high approval ratings. It is thus unseemly and dishonest of the Western MSM to excoriate Chavez as a thuggish populist strongman and economic illiterate.

Let us hope they take a clue from Obama. Or from Mark Weisbrot and his fellow authors, who in their latest paper, The Chávez Administration at 10 Years: The Economy and Social Indicators, give a glowing verdict on the achievements of the Bolivarian revolution.

Economic Growth: As you can see from the graph below, Chavez inherited an ailing, stagnating economy. From 1978-1998, Venezuela’s per capita GDP declined by 21.5%. Chavez was initially politically weak, with the state-owned oil company (PDVSA), the linchpin of the Venezuelan economy, controlled by forces intensely hostile to Chavez. Furthermore, they began to actively sabotage the economy from December 2001, when the Venezuelan Chamber of Commerce organized a general business strike against the government. This culminated in a two day military coup in April 2002 that temporarily unseated Chavez. Adding to the political instability and capital flight, the PDVSA oil strikes of Jan-Feb 2003 led to a short but severe recession.

After the oil strike and Chavez's consolidation of power, Venezuela racked up one of the highest growth rates in the world.

After the oil strike and Chavez’s consolidation of power, Venezuela racked up one of the highest growth rates in the world.

However, once the opposition were neutralized Venezuela managed to rack up very rapid growth. Even canceling out the post-recession recovery, GDP grew at an annual pace of 8.8% from the end of the shaded part in the graph above to Q2 of 2008, or at 6.9% in per capita terms. This is not an unimpressive achievement. The (mean) average Venezuelan increased his output as fast as the average Argentine, Indian and Russian during those years; from the major countries, only the Chinese did significantly better.

Furthermore, growth was broad-based and primarily private – contrary to media myths, the oil sector actually experienced negative growth from 2005-2007 after its quick initial recovery from the PDVSA strikes. Manufacturing grew at a respectable annual rate of 13.2% from 2004-2007. For all the ruckus over incipient statism with all its negative connotations, the public share of GDP declined.

Social Progress: The economy not only grew at an impressive tempo, but the benefits accruing to it were more equitably distributed than at any time in Venezuelan history. Despite the opposition-instigated economic reversals of his mid-Presidency, from 1999-2008, poverty more than halved from 43% to 26% and extreme poverty plummeted from 17% to just 7%. Its Gini index, a standard measure of inequality, dropped from 47 to 41 – though still high, it is extraordinarily egalitarian by Latin American standards and all the more impressive considering it came at a time of rising oil prices.

Infant mortality dropped from 19.0 / 1000 in 1999 to 14.2 / 1000 in 2008; post-neonatal mortality was cut by more than half. Food security improved through the Programa Alimenticio Escolar school-feeding program and the heavily subsidized Mercal network of government food stores. Despite fairly rapid population growth, from 1999-2007 access to clean drinking water increased from 80% to 92% of the population and access to sanitation increased from 62% to 82% of the population. These achievements were facilitated by impressive improvements in medical care – the numbers of physicians, hospitals and other medical facilities increased by almost an order of magnitude.

From 1999-2008 Venezuela finally achieved near universal primary school enrollment and near universal secondary enrollment. Participation in higher education increased by an astounding 138%. Since the extra human capital embedded in education is a vital prerequisite for longterm economic growth, Chavez laid very important foundations here.

Labor: Unemployment dropped, and naysaying propagandists to the contrary, not just because the state hired all the new people. Though employment in the public sector increased by around 50% since 1999 and its share of the total workforce increased from 13.1% to 16.6%, it was commensurate with the large expansion of the state undertaken under Chavez in the second half of his Presidency. However, it remains quite low by developed-country standards.

Government Finance, Current Account. Although the dramatic rise in oil prices helped, non-oil revenue also increased from 11.7% of GDP in 1998 to 14.2% of GDP in 2007 due to improved tax collection. Revenue and spending both increased, the government maintained a stable budget surplus. However, the state oil company PDVSA also had 6.1% of GDP in public expenditures – this, along with peak oil, is probably what caused Venezuelan oil extraction to fall. That said, I think leaving more resources in the ground for a time when they’ll become worth much more is in itself not a bad investment. Similarly, the current account stayed firmly in the black throughout.

For a more detailed discussion of Venezuela’s prospects during this world depression, please see Victimized Venezuela II: Beware of Schadenfreude. Suffice to say the situation is unlikely to turn critical and Chavez will remain politically secure, the wishes of some in the US foreign policy establishment regardless.

That said, there do exist serious problems in Venezuela – inflation, an overvalued bolivar, corruption, obstacles to small and medium business (SME) growth and crime… just to prove I’m not a chavista fanatic.

Problem – Exchange Rates, Inflation. After subsiding from a peak at around the time of the PDVSA strikes, inflation crept back up to around 30% since 2006, supercharged by soaring global food prices. However, since its exchange rate is fixed at 2,150 bolivars to one US dollar, the inflation contributed to massive over-valuation of its currency, estimated at more than 50%. This needs to be fixed if Venezuelan manufacturing is to become competitive and to dilute the economy’s dependence on oil rents – growth in this sector mostly ceased by 2008, and as of December 2008 was down by 25.4% from December 2007. Devaluation is also needed to narrow an awning budget deficit some expect to exceed 20% of GDP in 2009, a disturbing figure even by recent spendthrift standards.

Now that Chavez won the referendum on the abolition of term limits in February 2009 and given that the next Presidential election is in 2012, there are already signs of a stealth devaluation. Because subsidizing dollars is much harder with oil prices at 50$ instead of 100$ per barrel, the government is limiting the amounts of dollars Venezuelans can buy for foreign travel and are considering doing the same with luxury imports. Though Finance Minister Ali Rodriguez says a devaluation will not happen in 2009, a “multitiered exchange rate” is possible – that is, continuing the current peg only for vital imports such as medicine, food staples, and industrial machinery.

This will keep social discontent to a minimum (for a year or two, Venezuelans will have to live with fewer imported cars and cakes, but they’ll have bread). The boost in inflation will be counteracted by shrinking demand and general global deflation. Furthermore, Venezuela has low foreign debt, considerable reserves and China is keeping a floor under commodity prices by buying them up on the cheap across the world. Coupled with what already looks like an incipient recovery in emerging Asia, Venezuela, like Russia, should come out of the crisis relatively unscathed, leaner and ready to enjoy a second round of soaring oil prices. Meanwhile, Chavez is continuing to invest in long-term development by pouring money into infrastructure projects like building an extensive railway system – an excellent idea for the post-peak oil world.

Problem – Corruption, Obstacles to SME Growth. Venezuela is ostensibly the 158th most corrupt nation in the world, according to Transparency International. Yet as I noted in one of my very first articles for Da Russophile, Reading Russia Right:

While there’s no denying Russia is plagued by corruption, to suggest it is endemic like in a failed state is ludicrous – and would frankly be obvious to anyone who has visited the countries on that list. The problem with the CPI is that it’s a survey of outsider businesspeople and their subjective perception of the situation. While improving perceptions is an important goal, it does not necessarily correlate perfectly with reality. TI’s Global Corruption Barometer asks ordinary people how affected they are by corruption, for instance, have you paid a bribe to obtain a service this year? In 2007, 17% of Russians did – putting them into the same quintile as Bulgaria, Turkey and the Czech Republic. In other words, slap bang in the middle of world corruption, rather than at the end.

Pretty much the same argument can be made with Venezuela. In 2007, only 12% of Venezuelans paid a bribe to obtain services, basically the same proportion as the supposedly much cleaner Czechs.

The root cause of this is the sheer amount of restrictions on business in Venezuela – it comes 171st in Ease of Doing Business rankings. In this atmosphere, doing business in full compliance with all the laws and regulations is nigh impossible and forces enterprises into a constant search for shortcuts by reaching understandings with regional bureaucrats. This distorts the economy, dissuades investors and reduces the potential rate of economic convergence with the developed world. And lowers its position on the Corruption Perceptions Index

Yet ultimately, the important thing is to get stuff built – parasites skimming 10% off a project is regrettable, but not catastrophic. As long as a developing country has basic market mechanisms, a semblance of macroeconomic stability, an open economy and most importantly, high human capital, its economy will converge to developed country levels. Many deeply corrupt and bureaucratized countries (Italy immediately springs to mind) managed the transition and fell into economic stasis only after they got rich.

The current preference for short-term social gratification in place of faster diversification through manufacturing is lamentable, but perhaps unavoidable. Chavez operates under the same political constraints that conditioned the classical Latin American caudillo. Maintaining the acquiescence of the statist bourgeoisie, if not their active support, is key to retaining power, given their control over the traditionally tightly intertwined business-bureaucratic-military complex. It appears to me that this structure is being rapidly dismantled in Venezuela since 2003. (Paradoxically, by constructing a new elite drawn from the younger, educated proletariat, Chavez may well end up ushering in the conditions for a leaner, more effective capitalist economy).

Sociological speculations aside, it is however indisputable that Chavez is building the future more actively than any previous Venezuelan leader – despite the cancerous growth of bureaucracy, socialist tendencies and failure to reform the economy on his watch.

Problem – Crime. I am always skeptical about attributing crime trends, positive or adverse, to governments. They can influence them but can’t control them, for they depend on a great many variables inter-connected in ways little understood even by modern criminologists. That said, I thought it would be instructive to actually plot out Venezuela’s notoriously high homicide rates against other Latin American nations.

First, even by the time Chavez was inaugurated President in February 1999, Venezuelan homicide rates had a long, secular trend towards growth, much like Brazil and Jamaica.

Second, they peaked in 2003, at the end of a turbulent period of opposition-instigated anarchy. Since then homicide rates fell slightly, but it seems from the graph of Colombia that once entrenched, high homicide rates are very hard to reverse.

Third, there are allegations that the Venezuelan state contributes to the high homicide rates with its supposedly lax policies towards the “war on drugs”. Right-wing commentators lambast Chavez, left-wing commentators lambast the CIA, and in general the situation seems shady and unclear. I will not comment on these angry accusations and conspiracy theories (which might be true, who knows?) except to state the obvious and recommend global drug legalization.

Fourth, many of the big cities where crime is concentrated are actually run by opposition mayors.

Along with the likes of Colombia, South Africa and Iraq, the chances of violent death in Venezuela today are typical of a medieval society. By my rough calculations, at current rates every thirtieth Venezuelan can expect to be murdered during his or her lifetime. You really don’t want to be a young man living in a seedy Caracas slum nowadays…

Crime is no doubt a huge problem in Venezuela requiring the utmost attention and possibly draconian measures. Which will not happen, as Chavez is far too humanistic for that, and tradition-bound; Venezuela abolished the death penalty way back in 1863…

Problem? – Authoritarianism. Even Freedom House, a notoriously compromised organization, refrains from labeling Venezuela as Not Free. According the Economist Democracy Index, it is a hybrid regime much like that of Russia, Turkey or Georgia – neither a traditional liberal democracy nor an authoritarian state. The Polity IV Project, an academic database tracking democracy trends since the end of the Second World War, gives Venezuela 5 on a scale ranging from -10 (full autocracy) to 10 (full democracy). I suggest reading their 2007 Venezuela Report to anyone genuinely interested in its political status – their main complaint is on weak executive constraints.

Furthermore, democracy is no panacea. Chavez may have increased his personal power and perhaps this trend will intensify, yet he empowered communities by expanding local democracy, education and healthcare. Much of Latin America is enmeshed into backward, class-ridden systems wherein minuscule middle classes exploit the state to serve their own ends, while keeping the masses suppressed by neglect, ignorance, poverty and religion. Chavez is breaking Venezuelans free of this unholy matrix.

I once talked on a plane with a Venezuelan who lamented on the idleness and lack of curiosity of the people, and about how the equivalent of a small town is murdered there every year. Sounds to me like they need a good dose of revolutionary fervor directed towards building up the country. Hopefully the Bolivarian Revolution will sweep away the oligarchic degenerates into political irrelevance and Chavez will use the opportunity to build a modern industrial economy and reinstall liberal democracy once the heavy lifting is finished.

Yet in any case the US should not concern itself over his democratic or human rights credentials, be they fair or foul. Venezuela has Latin America’s biggest reserves of oil and its Orinoco tar sands could potentially hold as much oil equivalent as Saudi Arabia (though being hard to exploit they are worth much less). Although it exports much of its oil to the US, the Chinese have recently been getting in on the action in a big way, as part of their global strategy of locking up diminishing natural resources to fuel industrialization for a few more decades. Cutting off a major part of America’s economic lifeblood at a time of peaking global oil extraction in the service of abstract concepts like democracy is strategic folly.

Overthrowing Chavez and installing a pliant satrap is no longer realistic – the Venezuelan state is now stronger, Chavez is popular and the opposition is viewed as venal and discredited in the eyes of voters. Even from a military perspective, intervention is politically unacceptable and in any case becoming riskier year by year as the Bolivarian republic plows part of its oil windfalls into acquiring modern diesel submarines, air defense systems and Sukhoi fighter jets from Russia – a relatively cheap and effective way of negating American CVBG diplomacy.

Finally, in any case Venezuela has, interesting enough, the most positive outlook on the US of any major Latin American country – Chavez’s tirades to the contrary. This should provide further incentives for cooperation rather than conflict.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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The Western MSM (mainstream media) was abuzz the last few weeks about how Obama’s apparent extension of a hand to Russia did not make them willing to unclench their fist, citing the closure of the Manas airbase in Kyrgyzstan. This was linked to Russia’s announcement of 150mn $ in aid and 2bn $ of credit to Kyrgyzstan, which was widely interpreted to be a bribe, a snub to the US or in some particularly nutty cases open support of the Taliban – as SWP put it, “objectively chosen to aid 8th century religious fanatics”.

Kyrgyzstan is a poor state relying on remittances from its workers in Russia, workers who are now being laid off as construction grinds to a halt. It is the only country in post-Soviet Central Asia to have rejected the status of a “developed” country to be eligible for more funds from the World Bank and other international development organizations. Coupled with the economic crisis sweeping the globe, this money is small change to Russia but a life-saver to Kyrgyzstan.

The perception that this is a Russian anti-American machination arrogantly dismisses Kyrgyzstan’s own incentives. It has not been happy with the American presence (see below). It is in their interest to play off Washington against Moscow for more aid; but ultimately, Russia is far more important to their economic development. Nonetheless, it would make sense for them to announce the shutdown of Manas in Moscow, immediately after getting promised these loans and aid, because then American ire would be deflected towards Russia. (After all, the US does have a penchant for sponsoring color revolutions in countries it doesn’t like).

Finally, the claim that Russia is aiding the Taliban is totally bogus. Frankly, considering the number of US military bases dotting the Middle East (there’s fifty) means that this cannot be a serious concern, especially given that Russia has extended its own hand in offering transport of non-military supplies through Russia. This is despite the fact that the US has repeatedly snubbed Russia in that region (and elsewhere) – it explicitly supported the mujahedeen in the 1980′s via Pakistan and Saudi Arabia with dollars and Stinger missiles without holding their beliefs to much scrutiny, negotiated with the Taliban in hopes of being allowed to build oil and gas pipelines from Central Asia through Afghanistan and into Pakistan, bypassing Russian control – in stark contrast to Russia (and interestingly, Iran), who recognized the Taliban for the evil they are early on and supported the Northern Alliance against them and dismissed Putin’s overtures in 2002 acquiescing to an increased American military presence in Central Asia with abrogations of missile-defense treaties and colored revolutions. Getting ahead of myself here, but the point stands that Russia gains absolutely nothing from hindering NATO from effectively fighting the Taliban; when the alternative is doing this themselves.

I found the following article to be particularly insightful, which I see fit to quote in full – The Manas Disillusionment. I have highlighted the more significant parts.

Kyrgyzstan threatens to evict the US from the Manas airbase as Moscow trumps Washington with attractive aid packages, while Bishkek grows increasingly disillusioned with what it views as US usury, John CK Daly writes for ISN Security Watch.

By John C K Daly for ISN Security Watch

If those inside the Beltway are to learn anything from their Kyrgyz experience, it’s that Reaganesque “trickle down” economics in fighting a conflict halfway around the world is unlikely to buy local hearts and minds, much less allies.

Meeting with his Russian counterpart on 4 February in Moscow, Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev announced that he had decided to close the US airbase at Manas – a move that will complicate President Barack Obama’s stated intention to surge an additional 30,000 troops into Afghanistan and logistics for Operation Enduring Freedom.

When the Kyrgyz parliament votes on the president’s proposal, perhaps later this month, the measure is likely to pass, as Bakiyev’s Ak Jol party controls 71 of the legislature’s 90 seats. Under the terms of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), the US will then have 180 days to vacate the base, located some 27 kilometers from the capital, Bishkek.

Manas was established on 4 December 2001 under the joint Kyrgyz-US SOFA agreement, which granted the Pentagon the right to use the airbase for a bargain rent of US$2 million annually. The Defense Department selected Manas because its 14,000-foot runway, originally built for Soviet bombers, could service US C-5 Galaxy cargo planes and 747s in their flight to Afghanistan. Of Kyrgyzstan’s 52 airports, Manas was the only one with a lengthy runway capable of supporting international flights. An adjacent 32-acre field was initially utilized for a tent city for US personnel, which beginning in mid-2004 was replaced by more permanent structures at a cost of US$60 million.

Manas is home to the 376th Air Expeditionary Wing and serves as the premier air mobility hub for NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and coalition military operations in Afghanistan. According to the US Defense Department, Manas handles about 15,000 passengers and 500 tonnes of cargo monthly. Last year, coalition KC-135s stationed there flew 3,294 missions disbursing 97,226 tonnes of aviation fuel to 11,419 coalition aircraft over Afghanistan and supported more than 170,000 coalition personnel transiting in and out of Afghanistan.

Pentagon blindsided

Judging by Washington’s reaction, Bakiyev’s decision blindsided the Pentagon – though in reality it is the culmination of years of American obtuseness, arrogance and penny-pinching, the warning signs of which have long been visible.

There is an atmosphere of faint hope in Washington that the announcement is in fact a negotiating attempt by Bishkek to up the rent for the base, but the State Department and Pentagon have been scrambling to find alternatives, holding discussions with Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan while dispatching negotiators as far afield as the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and Turkey in case Bakiyev follows through.

The Pentagon was so certain that it was secure in Manas that last October the Army Corps of Engineers issued a pre-solicitation notice for potential contractors for up to US$100 million in improvements to the base. There were rumors that the Pentagon was also seeking an additional 300 hectares for expanding the base.

Moscow trumps Washington

While both Bakiyev and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev strenuously deny it, generous Russian loans totaling US$2 billion and a non-repayable US$150 million grant, announced the day before Bakiyev made his pronouncement, undoubtedly played no small part in the decision.

To put the proffered assistance in context, Moscow’s financial aid is worth double Kyrgyzstan’s current annual GDP, and the Russian assistance stands in stark contrast to Washington’s fiscal policy over the years towards Kyrgyzstan, which has never offered the country any loans.

But Kyrgyzstan is no stranger to haggling, and for now parliament has decided to delay the vote on closing Manas until it receives the first tranche of Russia’s promised US$450 million.

Besides the US$150 million outright grant, the Russian aid includes US$300 million in preferential credit for 40 years at a symbolic interest rate of 0.75 percent, with a grace period of seven years before the first payment is due.

An intergovernmental agreement signed during Bakiyev’s Moscow visit sets up a joint venture between Kyrgyzstan’s Elektricheskie Stantsii and Russia’s Inter RAO EES, and the bulk of the loan (up to US$1.7 billion) will go towards the construction of the 1,900-megawatt Kambar-Ata Hydroelectric Power Station-1 on the Naryn River.

Kambar-Ata epitomizes why Russia is currently in the ascendancy in Kyrgyzstan and the US is being shown the door. It is an indigenous energy project that has direct bearing on the quality of life for the average Kyrgyz. In contrast, the US for the last eight years has displayed indifference to Kyrgyzstan’s energy sector, as it is devoid of exportable hydrocarbons, viewing the country instead solely in military terms.

While much western commentary implies that the loans were ad hoc arrangements, in fact they represent part of US$2 billion in assistance to Kyrgyzstan first promised by then-president Vladimir Putin in August 2007, which in turn built upon a 15 December 2006 Russian-Kyrgyz agreement to spend US$1 billion to construct the Kambar-Ata-1 and Kambar-Ata-2 hydroelectric cascades. The project is a massive undertaking which on completion could not only supply electricity not only for domestic consumption but also for export to Afghanistan, China and Pakistan.

Against such largesse, Washington’s fiscal assistance to Kyrgyzstan looks miserly indeed. However, the Pentagon insists that the US has given Kyrgyzstan more than US$150 million annually in aid. Furthermore, it insists that it has been paying US$63 million in rent for Manas, but other sources, including the Kyrgyz government, say otherwise.

According to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, funded by the US Congress, the US paid US$2 million a year to use Manas for the first five years of the base’s operation. In 2006, this was increased to US$17.5 million, while the US funded other in-country programs that totaled approximately US$100 million. On 6 February, Kyrgyz Finance Minister Tajikan Kalimbetova corroborated the RFE/RL figures to parliament, according to Informatsionnoe agentsvo 24 press klub in a 6 February report.

“There is not in Kyrgyzstan a single bank representing the interests of the United States, the trade balance is small, there is no major investment project involving US firms. There is sufficient economic potential, but very little use is being made of it, unfortunately,” Informatsionnoe agentsvo Regnum quoted Kyrgyz Prime Minister Igor Chudinov as saying on 7 February.

And for the average Kyrgyz, there has been no “trickle down” of the loudly proclaimed American assistance.

Kyrgyz disillusionment

The potential utility of Manas for the Pentagon is not limited to operations in Afghanistan; the fact that it is only 320 kilometers from the border with China’s westernmost province of Xinjiang means that tankers based at Manas put US aircraft within range of China’s nuclear test site facilities at Lop Nor in Xinjiang. Manas is a sore point with both the Russians and Chinese as it affords the US military the ability to snoop on their military activities.

Unease over the Pentagon’s possible uses of the airbase is not limited to Kyrgyzstan’s neighbors. Kyrgyz lawmakers have grown increasingly apprehensive with what the Pentagon might do with its untrammeled access to Manas.

On 21 May 2007, lawmaker Almanbet Matubraimov quoted remarks by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that in case of a military offensive against Iran, the first air attack would be delivered from Manas, to which Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad promised that Iran would immediately reply by targeting the site from where the attack was launched, Informatsionnoe agentsvo AKIpress reported.

Two years after Manas was established, Russia founded its own airbase at Kant, its first outside of Russian territory since the 1991 collapse of the USSR, under an agreement within the framework of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a post-Soviet regional security bloc that besides Russia includes Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Armenia and Belarus. Kyrgyzstan is the only country in the world with both American and Russian bases on its territory.

At a popular level, Kyrgyz disillusionment over Manas developed gradually. When the base opened people hoped that there would be employment opportunities, but the only Kyrgyz hired to work were employed largely as janitors. According to Moskovskii Komsomolets, in 2005-2006, the salaries of these workers were not even paid. ISN Security Watch has not been able to independently confirm this report.

Shortly after Manas began operations, the Pentagon signed contracts with Manas International Services Ltd. and Aalam Services Ltd., the only two aviation fuel suppliers in Kyrgyzstan. Both companies were controlled by relatives of then-president Askar Akayev. In addition Aydar Akayev, the president’s son, was a part owner of Manas. The Pentagon also agreed to international civil aviation rates for the daily take-offs and landings of military aircraft at Manas to Akayev’s cronies as well. None of these Manas-related revenues were reported in Kyrgyz government budgetary statistics.

Following the “Tulip Revolution” which deposed Akayev, the two entities came under the scrutiny of the Kyrgyz government and FBI, but the Pentagon stoutly maintained its innocence regarding the US$207 million it spent on inflated fuel contracts. The new president, Bakiyev, insisted that the US make US$80 million retroactive lease payments and assist in recovering the allegedly purloined contract money. Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman responded that “any possible misappropriation of funds is an internal Kyrgyz matter.”

Other simmering complaints included a 26 September 2006 aircraft collision involving a KC-135 and the presidential Tu-154, for which the Americans declined to take responsibility, and the reportedly frequent dumping of tonnes of surplus fuel over Kyrgyz farms adjoining the base.

Things came to a head on 6 December 2006, when 20-year old US soldier Zachary Hatfield shot twice and killed 42-year-old Kyrgyz Aleksandr Ivanov, an ethnic Russian Kyrgyz, at the airbase’s entry gate. Ivanov worked for Aerocraft Petrol Management, which provides fuel services for Kyrgyz and international civilian aircraft. Hatfield maintained that he fired in self defense after Ivanov approached him with a knife. Adding to local anger was the fact that at the time of the shooting Ivanov was about 5-6 meters away from Hatfield and Ivanov’s knife was found 20 meters away from the site of the incident, while rumors swirled that the guard was drunk at the time of the incident.

The Kyrgyz government insisted that Hatfield be handed over for trial, but the US military spirited Hatfield out of the country on 21 March 2007 even as talks about Hatfield’s legal status were ongoing. Adding insult to injury, the US government initially offered Ivanov’s widow US$2,000 in compensation, an amount that Galina Skripkina, a lawyer representing Ivanov’s widow, described as “humiliating,” according to a 12 March 2007 Associated Press report.

Despite the Kyrgyz disillusionment, there are experts who believe that Bishkek’s latest threat is ill-advised. Dr S Frederick Starr, chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, told ISN Security Watch that Kyrgyzstan’s move to close the Manas air base “is the wrong action done at the wrong time and in the wrong way.”

“It will send the clear signal that Kyrgyzstan has abandoned a balanced foreign policy. But it is not too late for the Kyrgyz Republic and US to work together to correct it,” he said.

Blinded by the perfidious Russian bear

Given the obvious disenchantment with the deal, only the most blinkered of Washington bureaucrats can have been surprised by Bakiyev’s 4 February announcement.

While recidivist Washington cold warriors are quick to see the perfidious Russian bear behind their ouster, in fact the Kremlin has thrown Kyrgyzstan a desperately needed fiscal lifeline even while Russia (along with the former Soviet Central Asian republics) has a desire to see ISAF stabilization efforts succeed in Afghanistan.

Russia’s ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, succinctly summed up Moscow’s current thinking when he said, “In the event of NATO’s defeat in Afghanistan, fundamentalists who are inspired by this victory will set their eyes on the north. First they will hit Tajikistan, then they will try to break into Uzbekistan… If things turn out badly, in about 10 years our boys will have to fight well-armed and well-organized Islamists somewhere in Kazakhstan,” the International Herald Tribune reported on 24 January.

If the Obama administration is serious about making Afghanistan the focal point of its anti-terrorist operations, it might be forced to reexamine its relationship with Kyrgyzstan. Russia, China and India all have an interest in seeing the pacification efforts in Afghanistan succeed, and Russia has offered to open a supply route for non-military supplies, along with several Central Asian nations.

Washington may yet have an opportunity to remain at Manas, as Melis Erjigitov of the parliament’s press service stated on 11 February the Manas base closure bill was not on parliament’s agenda for February. But this is not likely to happen if Washington refused to change its mindset and one-up Russia in terms of aid.

Is Washington prepared to let Manas go? That is unclear, but a 10 February statement by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates indicates that Washington may give up and look elsewhere. “Manas is important, but not irreplaceable,” Gates said in a quote carried by the Washington Post on 11 February.

Regulars here will know that I don’t see Chavez as the demonic dictator he is frequently portrayed as in the media. In particular they’ve been having a field recently when Venezuelans voted in favor of overturning term limits for certain classes of elected officials, including the Presidency (and thus joined the leagues of such totalitarian regimes like the UK or Australia). Venezuela’s Referendum: Media’s Double Standards has more…

With Sunday’s Venezuelan referendum on term limits, we can expect to hear a lot about Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez’s “plan to become president for life” and its reflection on “Venezuela’s battered democracy”–as the New York Times editors put it (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/01/opinion/01sat2.html) around the time of Venezuela’s last (failed) term limits referendum.

But when Colombian President Álvaro Uribe’s efforts to change a constitutional prohibition barring a president from serving more than one term succeeded in 2005, the U.S. media took little notice, and Uribe’s reputation as the U.S.’s favorite ‘democrat’ in the region remained intact.

…It would seem the role of U.S. reporting and opinion on Venezuela (and Colombia) is less about informing the public about real threats to democracy and human rights in Latin America than it is about serving as a propaganda arm of U.S. foreign policy. One would be wise to remember this when reading about Venezuela’s referendum this weekend.

Finally, lots of stuff seems to be crashing into each other recently, from satellites to nuclear subs. Freaky. And not a bad metaphor for what is going on with the global economy. More on that this weekend, hopefully.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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The most important development has been Medvedev’s election to the Presidency with 70.2% of the vote. While it has not been squeaky clean (and as such, no different from any other Russian election under either Yeltsin or Putin), the more hystryonic claims of voter intimidation are to be treated with a pinch of salt – for a start, it’s a secret ballot, and as such authorities can have no control over how people vote in the booth. Even Nigel Evans, a British parliamentarian and member of PACE’s monitoring team, admitted “There does not seem to be any voter intimidation“.

Media coverage has been skewed towards Medvedev (who was a key government official – deputy prime minister – as well as election candidate), but this is not surprising in a country where opinion polling typically put his popularity at around 80%, in contrast to Zyuganov’s c.10%, Zhirinovsky’s c.10% and the ‘Liberals” c.1%. (This is also the reason Medvedev refused to participate in TV debates). The elections followed the polls, which heavily suggests that they were free. In fact, the major upset was Zyuganov, who managed to scrape 17.8% (well above what most polls predicted) to the detriment of Medvedev.

Now Russians do get coverage of the latters’ platforms and as such it is not surprising they are rejected – the Communists talk the talk but can’t walk the walk; the Liberal Democrats are too crudely clownish to have genuine popular appeal; and the ultra-low ratings of ‘liberals’ is largely of their own making. After all, the media reflects, as well as manufactures, consent.

Edit: now the Western media resorted to whining about police detaining opposition protestors in Moscow. All I will say on the matter is that the Moscow protest was unsanctioned and as such is illegal, and any self-respecting country would enforce that. In contrast, the St.-Petersburg liberal faction did bother getting official permission to hold a rally, which went off peacefully. Of course, if you do get permission, then you won’t get to see your face in the Western press whining about the injustice of it all – a particularly pertinent point, because it often seems that ‘liberals’ like Kasyanov and Kasparov care more about their Western constituencies than Russians.


An oligarch dies in his Surrey mansion. Although at first he supported the new reforming President with financial and media resources, he later turned against him, accusing him of sliding into authoritarianism. In turn, he was charged with plotting a coup in his native country and has since lived in self-imposed exile in the UK and Israel. He claimed he was the target of an assassination attempt orchestrated by elements of his homeland’s government, and this was even supported by a tape (albeit of uncertain authenticity). Which country?

Not Russia. (But I bet that’s what you were thinking, right?). Georgia. The death I am referring to is that of Badri Patarkatsishvili, who collapsed of a heart attack. The Times covered it extensively and quite fairly. The nuts and and bolts are covered in Badri Patarkatsishvili: exiled oligarch who lived in the shadow of death, Georgian billionaire found dead in Surrey feared plots and Tycoon tells of plot to kill him in London, as well as some rather interesting connections. For instance:

Mr Patarkatsishvili lived in Russia between 1993 and 2001. In the 1990s he was wanted by Russian authorities on charges of theft from the country’s largest car factory, AvtoVAZ, which he ran with Mr Berezovsky.

He was also accused of plotting to arrange the escape from custody in 2001 of Nikolai Glushkov, deputy director of Aeroflot, Russia’s national airline, who had been accused of fraud.

The man charged with breaking out Mr Glushkov was Andrei Lugovoy, who was arrested and jailed after the attempt failed. Mr Lugovoy is wanted by the British Crown Prosecution Service for the murder of Litvinenko, the dissident former Russian spy poisoned in London with radioactive polonium-210 in 2006.

Mr Lugovoy was responsible for protecting Mr Patarkatsishvili and Mr Berezovsky at the time as head of security at the Russian TV channel ORT, which the two men controlled.

Mr Patarkatsishvili remained good friends with Mr Lugovoy, a former KGB officer who is now a member of the Russian parliament. The pair were seen socialising together in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, shortly before Mr Litvinenko was poisoned.

Mr Litvinenko also had links with the Georgian businessman. Sources in Tbilisi have told The Times that he stayed at Mr Patarkatshvili’s residence in Georgia en route to Turkey when he fled Russia to seek asylum in London in 2000.

Russian prosecutors claim that Mr Litvinenko also visited Mr Patarkatsishvili as well as Mr Berezovsky in London shortly before he was poisoned. They accuse Mr Berezovsky of involvement in the murder of the former Federal Security Service (FSB) agent as part of a plot to damage President Putin’s international image.

Georgia’s former Defence Minister, Irakli Okruashvili, accused Mr Saakashvili of encouraging him to kill Mr Patarkatsishvili in 2005, although he later retracted the claim.

Really makes one wonder who’s for who in these circles. If indeed he was murdered (there are, after all, chemical agents capable of causing heart attacks without detection), who did it and what was the motive? Georgian security officials concerned at his plotting of a new color revolution (they claim he was caught offering 100mn $ to a police chief to support opposition demonstrators; Badri claimed it was a honeytrap)? (For – want Saakashvili to remain in power, cast suspicion on Russia; against – risky, does Georgia even have the means?)? Elements of Russian intelligence services to discredit Georgia (For – despite recent thaws, Saakashvili is still set on NATO accession; against – Badri is damaging enough to Georgia alive, wouldn’t they have made a Georgian connection much more explicit than a random heart attack, risky)? Berezovsky (For – discredit Russia, last person to see Badri alive, a history of people inconvenient to him dying; against – risky, Badri is enemy of Saakashvili who is enemy of Putin, as is Berezovsky)? Some mafia or another (Badri’s own past is far from squeaky clean – many Georgians consider him a mobster)?

But ultimately I suspect this was a genuine heart attack, his feud with Saakashvili not rising above black PR. He had a family history of cardio-vascular disease, didn’t exercise, chain smoked and probably subsisted on a traditional (read: lethal) Russian/east European diet. But ultimately this is a murky case and I doubt anything definitive will ever come out of it.

The same cannot be said of the Western media, which is transparently Russophobic. Far from blaming the ‘authoritarian’ Georgian government (about whom, after all, there is direct evidence in the form of aforementioned tape), some totalitarian publications kicked their smear campaigns into full gear immediately – against Russia! Mixed in with unrelated rants against Russia’s closure of British Council offices and its constitutionally mandated refusal to extradite Lugovoi, the point is implicitly made that the FSB, if not Putin himself, are behind the death of Patarkatsishvili – ‘a sworn enemy of Russian President Vladimir Putin’. No mention of Georgia. Eventually, all memory that Saakashvili and elements of the Georgian security forces are also linked to Patarkatsishvili will be erased. Russia will stand guilty before the world, because who controls the present controls the past, and who controls the past controls the future. Just like in 1984. And so the Annals of Western Hypocrisy go on. Talking about hypocrisy, lunatic Lucas also insisted on having a say in the British tabloid Daily Mail. I’ve replied to it on his blog.

Speaking about assassinations and stuff, it seems the traitorous slime Gordievsky has crawled out from under his rock to whine about how he fears he will be next Alexander Litvinenko.


The other main news is the declaration of independence by Kosovo from Serbia, which has been recognized by the US and the major West European countries. I’ve compiled a map below (dark green = recognize; green = say they’ll recognize; red = states insisting on further negotiations under UN auspices; dark red = don’t recognize). Note: Georgia, Azerbaijan should be dark red – forgot to add them in. Sorry.

Firstly, we are against recognizing Kosovo because it a) violates the principle of national sovereignty – the dominant paradigm of international affairs since the Congress of Vienna, b) sets an unwelcome precedent in which aliens can take a chunk out of a country by outbreeding the original denizens over generations (particularly pertinent to places like the US South-West or Londonistan), c) unfairly punishes a politically modern Serbia for the transgressions of a previous regime and d) rewards the likes of Thaçi and his KLA cronies, the former terrorists and drugpushers who now run Kosovo.

Unfortunately, Serbia has little choice but to acquiesce to this as a fait accompli. However, if I were a Serbian policymaker, I would continue down the road to European integration (after all, no need to cut off the nose to spite the face), but refuse to recognize Kosovo, assert it as eternal Serbian territory in the Constitution and maintain charges of treason against the Kosovar leadership. Similarly, if Serbia joins the EU or even NATO, it will remain a Russian ally and can function as a Trojan horse in these organizations (as Bulgaria is alleged to be). As such, this is the best course for Russia to pursue, at least until it regains its superpower status.

Finally, no, this does not mean that Russia should now recognize de facto independent states like Abkhazia, South Ossetia or the Dniester Republic. Since it has positioned itself firmly on the side of state sovereignty (as opposed to Western ‘liberal interventionism’), appearing to switch sides on particular cases like Abkhazia or South Ossetia will undermine its principled stand (as seen by the international community). Furthermore, this is compounded by the fact that both Georgia and Moldova, quite wisely, have also refused to recognize Kosovo. The same applies to Crimea and the Ukraine.


Lenin once said that the capitalists will sell us the rope by which we’ll hang them. Russophobes kindly give it away for free. The BBC World Service has conducted a poll across 31 countries to assess Putin’s legacy as he steps down from the Presidency – you can read it here.

As for the analysis, Fedia Kriukov’s excellent Russia in the Media blog beat me to it in A Charmed Profession. Might as well quote in extenso:

The first part of the poll, conducted in 31 countries including Russia and the G7, dealt with the influence of President Putin on various aspects of Russian and global affairs. Two of these aspects stand out in particular: They are the quality of life in Russia and democracy and human rights situation in Russia. Why do they stand out? Simply because they are an internal Russian matter, i.e. one has to actually be in Russia in order to form a sufficiently educated and hopefully accurate opinion on the topic. Global affairs are anyone’s fair game, but internal situation in any country needs to be assessed from within. Logical, isn’t it?

So what data are we dealing with here? When it comes to Putin’s influence on the quality of life in Russia, 77% of Russians hold a positive view of it, and 8% — negative. Of the residents of G7 countries, on the other hand, only 39% hold a positive view, while 44% are negative. On to democracy and human rights: 64% of Russians think Putin’s influence was positive, while 12% think it was negative. The residents of G7 countries, once again, beg to differ: only 26% have a positive opinion, while 56% think that Putin strangled the nascent Russian democracy, personally butchered 200 Russian journalists and 500,000 Chechens, and also poisoned the “KGB spy” Litvinenko with polonium had a largely negative influence.

It’s all clear with Russians: if a Russian wants to form an opinion of his quality of life, for starters he can open his fridge and compare its current contents with what was in it in the 90s. Or he can look at his paycheck. Or vacation time. Or the feeling of security. Same with democracy — in Russia, one can simply look out the window, and there they are, Russia’s democracy and human rights, out in full force! But if one lives in a G7 country, how can you look into a Russian’s fridge? How can you look out a Russian’s window? Well, probably a million of G7 countries’ citizens have visited Putin’s Russia by now. Tens of thousands have stayed long enough to form an educated opinion of what it feels like to live in Putin’s Russia. But that is such a drop in the bucket compared to the entire population!

You can figure out what it says about the state of Western journalism by yourself. (If not, continue reading Fedia’s post).

The Economist has also joined the party with this graph of leaders’ approval ratings. Putin, quite literally, stands head and shoulders above the rest. (Note how those who preach to Russia the most about democracy tend to put up less than impressive performances).

But one shouldn’t expect too much from the Economist, who attribute this to ‘beating the nationalist drum’ (I suppose Russians don’t give that much of a damn about 10-15% annual real increases in salaries). Nor from their contributors (I give a few succulent quotations):

Putin’s popularity can be partially attributed to the fact that he has closed down, taken over, and otherwise muzzled the media in Russia and that some of his most vocal critics have been silenced in the most permanent and brutal of ways. The murder of Anna Politkovskaya serves as a warning to any who dare to criticize Putins policies and chills all substantive debate on what is best for the Russian people.vfisher. Love this – just the right blend of ignorance and self-righteousness, of truthiness. A true Westerner.

In fact Putin’s popularity will last as long as crude oil stay high. In reality most of the Russians live at a very low standard compared to developed countries and even countries like Poland, Greece etc. But combination of oil money ingections though social payouts and massive propaganda makes Russians feel happy. Believe these Russians that can think independently are not fan of Putin and his totalitarian state.Olexiy, Kiev. A Ukrainian talking to Russians about prosperity. Rolls eyes.

Rather than rqnking leaders by popularity (usually ephemeral, often suspect), why not rank them by policies and performance in dealing with their countries’ problems. Harder work, longer term, but surely much more worthwhile. After all, Hitler was pretty popular in Germany until he lost the war.Plein d’Espoir. At least they’re very reliable at proving Godwin’s Law.

Have you considered for a moment that most Russians would be afraid to say they didn’t like Putin? I’m sure Hu Jintao also has wonderful approval ratings too.cdicanio. Brilliant. Now we’re being compared to China.

Sometimes I wonder why they bother. Why don’t they just cut the crap and say it straight – Russians are seduced by Putin’s smile because they don’t share western values.


Finally, other news in brief.

Armenia’s capital Yerevan has seen protests again alleged rigging of the elections, which Western observers said was generally free and fair. Eight people were killed and martial law was imposed. I don’t have any detailed knowledge about the finer nuances of Armenian politics, so I’ll let this pass.

The Economist has released an interesting map showing places where Internet content is blocked. Note how Russia is the freest country in the world, at least by this measure.

Russia’s population down 0.17% in 2007 to 142 mln – another nail in the coffin for the Myth of Russia’s Demographic Meltdown. Not that population decline is in itself disastrous (what matters for prosperity is the dependency ratio, for which Russia’s future projections are no worse than that of the G7); but it seems that population decline itself is nearing an end as birth rates rise and death rates fall. I would like to point out that I was almost completely right when in one of my first articles, Reading Russia Right, I said ‘totaling up the figures would give a rate of population increase in 2007 in Russia of around -0.15%’.

On the military front, the US expresses concern about growing Russian military spending. Let them; I don’t care much. This is a natural response to the underspending in the 1990′s, when the military-industrial complex languished (although they did not stop R&D); even today most military modernization goes towards upgrading older systems (e.g. extending service life for ICBM’s) rather than new purchases. On the topic of military spending, the US is still the world’s top leader by far, spending 712bn $ in 2007; nonetheless, it should be mentioned that official figures understate Russian (and Chinese) military spending due to a) purchasing power parity differences, b) accounting tricks and c) some of it being structural.

In related news, Russia has launched its first nuclear submarine since Soviet times, the Yuri Dolgoruky – two more are currently under construction, and a dozen are planned to be commissioned within the decade. Since the US is steadily building up its ABM capabilities at Fort Greely (Alaska), Vandenburg (California) and now Poland (as is likely), it would make sense for Russia to concentrate more efforts on the submarine part of its nuclear triad (as land-based ICBM’s are more vulnerable to being successfully shot down by ABM) and eventually its bomber force (on the subject of which, Russia is developing a new stealth bomber, possibly a resurrection of the Soviet Ayaks project).

Russia has agreed to write off 91% of Iraq’s 13bn $ Soviet era debt, no doubt in return for Lukoil salvaging its Qurna deal. Russia’s telecoms industry is also acquiring a global presence – AFK Sistema set to become pan-Indian mobile operator, a market with the potential for massive growth in the immediate years ahead.


Not related directly to Russia, but an interesting development – Chavez orders ten army brigades to the Colombian border in response to a Columbian strike against FARC within Ecuadorian national boundaries, which killed Paul Reyes, one of its main leaders. Ecuador and Venezuela also terminated diplomatic relations with Colombia.

Now this is still, for all Chavez’ rhetoric, unlike to escalate to all-out war – after all, Columbia doesn’t want it, while Venezuela must consider the American response, not to mention its own chances. Nonetheless, I’ve looked at the stats for these countries and this is what I found:

Columbia vs Venezuela, Ecuador, FARC

Armed forces: 207,000 (145,000 excluding non-combatant support personnel) vs 87,500 (+recent 100,000 militia) / 59,500 / 11,000 = 158,000. Columbia will have the numerical advantage, at least in properly trained personnel; however, assuming Ecuador joins in, they’ll have to fight on three fronts. Both Columbia and Venezuela have undergone intensive military modernization the last few years.

Tanks: none vs. 86 outdated MBT’s, 154 outdated Venezuelan light tanks and 140 very outdated Ecuadorian light tanks. Personnel carriers on both sides obsolete. While Venezuela leads, its armored advantage is irrelevant. This is because tanks are unsuited for jungle warfare. Granted, Venezuelan wargames demonstrate that their most likely avenue of attack would coincide with conventional armored thrusts into the La Guajira peninsula, which is flat – however, this is negated by RPG’s and the large amount of Colombian fortifications there. At most it will be a diversion.

Air: 30 vs 76 fighters; mostly outdated mishmash with 90 Black Hawks vs. mostly mishmash, but with 14 modern Su-30MK2′s (with 10 more to be comissioned this year) and 10 operational F-16′s, so Venezuela will possess air superiority – its ace. Unless the US decides to get seriously involved.

Naval: 3 destroyers/12 frigates/4 subs vs. 6 frigates/2 subs, 2 frigates/6 corvettes/2 subs. There isn’t sufficient naval strength on either side to effect a blockade – at least for now. (In June 2007 Chavez confirmed he intends to procure five modern Russian Kilo-class 636 subs). Hmmm…if I were Chavez I’d also try to obtain Moskit anti-ship missiles as soon as possible to deter the US from becoming involved, taking a cue from Iran.

Population, GDP: 44mn, 264bn $ vs. 28mn, 263bn $, 14mn, 62bn $.

Venezuela and Columbia have similar levels of socio-economic development, although Venezuela has oil – which pushes its GDP levels up to Colombia’s level, which has a larger population.

Colombia’s army has little heavy equipment, being mostly designed as a counter-guerilla type force; Venezuela’s is more traditional, geared towards winning conventional wars, with extensive recent efforts at military modernization. Venezuela will possess air and probably naval superiority. Assuming no big outside actors become involved – a big if – Venezuela will very probably comprehensively defeat Colombia, especially if Columbia still has to face off FARC and Ecuador on other fronts.

I doubt the US will get overtly involved, at least not unless Colombia begins to lose badly (but not too quickly). Ground invasion, of course, is out of the question – the US does not have the necessary reserves, while projecting air and naval power will take weeks. (Of course, Venezuela can play the oil card, what with today’s very tight supply – cutting out Venezuela would make oil prices sky-rocket).

In conclusion, if the US doesn’t get involved – Venezuela will win. If the US does get involved, Venezuela can still win, but it will have to be quick about it. Otherwise, it will lose its key advantage – air superiority – and will end up with a stalemate at best, albeit with the world in turbulence from 200 $ / barrel oil prices.

Edit: actually found an analytical article on the topic of If Colombia and Venezuela went to war, who’d win? The author is bullish on Colombia; some of the commentators lean more to my way of thinking.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
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Anatoly Karlin
About Anatoly Karlin

I am a blogger, thinker, and businessman in the SF Bay Area. I’m originally from Russia, spent many years in Britain, and studied at U.C. Berkeley.

One of my tenets is that ideologies tend to suck. As such, I hesitate about attaching labels to myself. That said, if it’s really necessary, I suppose “liberal-conservative neoreactionary” would be close enough.

Though I consider myself part of the Orthodox Church, my philosophy and spiritual views are more influenced by digital physics, Gnosticism, and Russian cosmism than anything specifically Judeo-Christian.