Thursday, April 17, 2008

Vladimir Putin to be chairman of ruling party

By Will Stewart in Moscow

Vladimir Putin tightened his grip on power in Russia yesterday by agreeing to become chairman of the ruling United Moscow party when he steps down as president next month and becomes prime minister.

Vladimir Putin 'to wed Olympic gymnast half his age'

Mr Putin will assume the party chairmanship on the day of Mr Medvedev's scheduled inauguration

In a move that will strengthen his long-term hold over Russia, possibly at the expense of his hand-picked successor Dmitry Medvedev, Mr Putin accepted an offer to become Chairman of the pro-Kremlin party at a congress in Moscow.

As prime minister Mr Putin will control the day-to-day functioning of Russia's government. The additional job will give him sweeping powers over the Duma, Russia's lower house, where United Russia has 315 out of 450 seats, as well as over regional legislatures, also dominated by the party.

Accepting the position, Mr Putin said he was "ready to take added responsibility and head United Russia".

He added: "I promise that I will do everything to strengthen the party's influence and authority, to use its capabilities in the interests of the country's development."

advertisementHis remarks drew a standing ovation from the hundreds of delegates and guests in the packed hall.

Mr Putin has previously declined offers to become the party head. But by becoming party chairman, analysts believe he has put himself in an unassailable position.

Previous presidents - including himself - fired prime ministers almost at will. Now, as party chairman as well, it is unlikely Mr Medvedev would be able to do this to him.

Mr Putin hands over to his hand-picked successor on May 7, and the next day he is expected to become prime minister. But rumours abound that he will seek yet another presidential term in 2012, or perhaps even earlier.

His hold on the majority party in parliament might mean he could, if he chose, force an end to a Medvedev presidency.

Mr Putin will assume the party chairmanship after he leaves office on the day of Mr Medvedev's scheduled inauguration.

He is expected to hold the post for a four-year term, giving him control over the Duma until the next scheduled parliamentary elections in 2011.

Mr Putin, who led the United Russia ticket in the Dec 2 elections but is not a party member, told the congress that he would juggle his party responsibilities with his job as prime minister.

He asked party leader Boris Gryzlov to continue coordinating United Russia's current activities, a move expected to free Mr Putin from the day-to-day duties of running a political party.

His decision to chair the party without joining it will allow him to remain "a sort of supraparty leader," said Sergei Markov, a Kremlin-connected political analyst and Duma deputy with United Russia.

Mr Putin himself has criticised United Russia but has said it is the best party the country has to offer. On Tuesday, he repeated his call for the party to become more open to discussion and establish a more constructive dialogue with society.

He said: "It should be 'de-bureaucratised' and cleansed of strange people pursuing only selfish goals."

United Russia dismisses comparisons with the Soviet-era Communist Party, despite similarities in rituals and routine.

During the two-day congress, party delegates rubber-stamped every proposal submitted by the party leadership. Not a single delegate voted against the proposals or abstained.

The party's key backers are those holding positions of power in most Russian regions.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

A Weekend in Sochi

SOCHI, Russia (AP) - President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin failed to resolve their differences over a U.S. missile defense system at a farewell meeting on Sunday, with Bush saying the system is not aimed at Russia but at regimes that "could try to hold us hostage."

Bush also met Putin's hand-picked successor and pronounced him "a straightforward fellow."

He did not give President-elect Dmitry Medvedev the kind of unvarnished embrace he gave Putin seven years ago, but told reporters after meeting Medvedev: "You can write down, I was impressed and look forward to working with him."

At a joint news conference at Putin's Black sea vacation home, Putin was asked whether he or his protege would be in charge of Russia's foreign policy in early May - when Putin steps down as president and becomes prime minister

Putin said Medvedev would, and that he would represent Russia at the Group of Eight meeting of industrial democracies in July in Tokyo. "Mr. Medvedev has been one of the co-authors of Russia's foreign policy," Putin said. "He's completely on top of things."

At their final meeting as presidents of their respective countries, Bush and Putin complimented each other lavishly, but acknowledged they remained at odds on some major issues, principally missile defense and NATO's eastward expansion.

Putin called the U.S. missile plan - which envisions basing tracking radar sites in the Czech Republic and interceptors in Poland - the most contentious of U.S.-Russian differences and the one the hardest to reconcile. "Our fundamental attitude toward the American plan has not changed," he said.

But, he said, "the best thing is to work jointly" on such a system. "We've got a lot of way to go," Bush acknowledged.

He said he viewed the U.S. plan - as "defense, not offense. And, obviously, we've got a lot of work to convince the experts this defense system is not aimed at Russia."

Bush also said that the system is designed to deal with "regimes that could try to hold us hostage" in a clear reference to Iran. "The system is not designed to deal with Russia's capacity to launch multiple rockets," he said.

The president blamed lingering Cold War thinking by some in both Russia and the United States for making it harder to reach agreement on missile defense. "We spent a lot of time in our relationship trying to get rid of the Cold War," he said. "It's over. It ended."

Both said they agreed to cooperate with one another in continuing to talk about the missile defense system.

National security adviser Stephen Hadley, talking to reporters aboard Air Force One en route back to Washington, was asked if a deal can be struck before Bush leaves office. "I don't think that matters," he replied. "They can leave that to their prospective successors."

Commenting on whether the dispute over expansion of NATO had soured the atmosphere for the Bush-Putin talks, Hadley said, "It didn't in any way poison the Sochi meeting."

During the news conference, Bush bristled at a journalist's question that suggested the two leaders were merely "kicking the can down the road" on the vexing missile defense issue.

"You can cynically say that it is kicking the can down the road," Bush said. "I don't appreciate that, because this is an important part of my belief that it is necessary to protect ourselves."

In a joint declaration, Bush and Putin said: "The Russian side has made clear that it does not agree with the decision to establish sites in Poland and the Czech Republic and reiterated its proposed alternative. Yet, it appreciates the measures that the U.S. has proposed and declared that if agreed and implemented such measures will be important and useful in assuaging Russian concerns."

However, the two sides did agree to "develop a legally-binding arrangement following expiration" in December 2009 of the strategic arms limitation treaty (START). Their joint declaration noted the "substantial reductions already carried out" under that pact, which they said was an important step in reducing the number of deployed nuclear warheads.

On NATO, Russia remains adamantly opposed to the eastward expansion of the alliance into its backyard that Bush has actively championed over Putin's vocal objections.

The Sochi meeting came just days after NATO leaders agreed at a summit in Romania to invite Albania and Croatia to join the alliance. However, the alliance rebuffed U.S. attempts to begin the process of inviting Ukraine and Georgia, both former Soviet republics, to join, although their eventual admission seems likely.

The two leaders agreed to a "strategic framework" to guide future U.S. -Russian relations.

It was seven years ago in June that Bush famously declared he had looked into Putin's eyes at their first face-to-face meeting and "was able to get a sense of his soul" and found him to be honest, straightforward and trustworthy.

Relations grew stronger when Putin stood with the United States after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. But the era of cooperation quickly began to unravel as Russia opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and as the Russian leader consolidated his power and took steps to roll back democratic advances.

Asked about those earlier comments about Putin's "soul," Bush said Sunday that his first impression was that he believed Putin would be "the kind of person who would tell me what's on his mind" and that he turned out to be so.

As to the incoming president, Bush said, "I just met the man for 20 minutes."

Still, Bush said, "He seemed like a very straightforward fellow. My first impressions are very favorable."

Bush met with Medvedev shortly before his news conference with Putin and received a pledge from the incoming president to work to strengthen relations between the two countries.

Medvedev told Bush that he hopes to follow in Putin's footsteps in advancing U.S.-Russian relations.

Over the last eight years, Bush and Putin "did a lot to advance U.S.-Russian relations" and that relationship was "a key factor in international security," Medvedev. "I would like to do my part to keep up that work," he added.

Bush told Medvedev, "I'm looking forward to getting to know you so we'll be able to work through common problems and find common opportunities."

Hadley, when asked whether he thought Putin actually was going to cede authority on Russian foreign policy to Medvedev, said, "My guess is that these two men who have worked very closely together for n ow almost two decades will have a very collaborative relationship. That seems to be a good thing, not a bad thing."

Bush and Putin met with news reporters after talks at Putin's vacation house.

Putin greeted Bush at the door of the guesthouse there and escorted him downstairs to a wood-paneled room with tall windows facing the sea. They sat alongside each other in chairs before a fireplace with unlit logs. A crush of cameramen, photographers and reporters crowded the room.

The Russian president said they had started discussing security issues and bilateral matters over dinner on Saturday and would continue their talks today "in a common working manner." Putin put in another plug for the Winter Olympic games that Sochi will host in 2014.

Their introductory remarks were mostly light-hearted. Bush joked about asked to join in a traditional folk dance during the dinner entertainment the previous evening. "I'm only happy that my press corps didn't see me try to dance the dance I was asked to do."

"We have been able to see you're a brilliant dancer," Putin replied good naturedly.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

A 'Bout' of Russian terror

The Washington Times – Ed Royce

April 1, 2008

Maybe Viktor Bout got complacent. Accustomed to profiting in the world's roughest places while brazenly defying law enforcement, this notorious gun runner fell three weeks ago, arrested by Thai authorities in a Drug Enforcement Agency sting in Bangkok. An arms smuggling conviction would put this very dangerous man out of business. He is a survivor, though, and we should not breathe easy until an extradited and shackled Mr. Bout hits United States soil.

A former Soviet pilot dubbed the "Merchant of Death," Mr. Bout has fueled many brutal civil wars, mainly with former East Bloc state arsenals. In the 1990s, he dealt weapons to the several sides fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo and rebels in Angola, breaking international arms embargoes. Some have linked him to the Rwandan genocide. One good customer was the former Liberian president, Charles Taylor, who relied on Mr. Bout to arm his reign of terror in West Africa, which landed Taylor in The Hague to face war crimes charges.

This man has plagued four continents. He simultaneously armed the Taliban and the Northern Alliance; he had dealings with Hezbollah and the FARC in Colombia. Indeed, Mr. Bout thought he was negotiating a deal to provide the FARC with millions of dollars in arms when he was arrested. The deal included 100 advanced Russian-made shoulder-fired missiles, capable of downing an aircraft. Federal prosecutors in New York are seeking his extradition to stand trial for providing material support to this Colombian terrorist organization.

Viktor Bout is the model. Unfortunately there exists a class of rogues: gray-area figures who help destroy states and the rule of law while avoiding scrutiny. He and other smugglers are not small-timers. Mr. Bout has amassed a logistical capability that rivals many NATO countries, operating dozens of planes. Today the paramount concern is that his type of global delivery system might transport a nuclear weapon. Their credo is anything for money. The arrest of this man, the best known of the lot, hopefully signals a new alertness to the dangers poised by these networks.

The United States and others have spent much to build stability in Africa. We have been successful in Sierra Leone and Liberia. Millions of lives have been saved by ending these brutal conflicts. But stability is very fragile; all it takes is a few dozen rebels armed by the likes of Viktor Bout to enflame a rebuilding country. Taking on the Bouts of the world would better protect these investments.

Extradition experts give Mr. Bout only a fifty percent chance of facing justice in the United states, though. Thai police have said Mr. Bout's extradition would have to wait until he was tried in Thailand. Meanwhile, the Russian government reportedly is pressuring Thai authorities to set him free. For years, he has operated out of Moscow, in the open, despite an Interpol arrest warrant. He has ties to Russian intelligence. Beware of Russian promises to "try" Mr. Bout at home.

The diplomatic instinct in the State Department may be to play nice with Russia, especially since the Bush administration seeks a long-term agreement on U.S.-Russian relations. Recommendations to press Moscow on Mr. Bout years ago reportedly were set aside to win its cooperation in the war on terrorism. But this man is a terrorist. And there is nothing to be gained from acquiescing to yet another Russian effort at undermining the rule of law. We should be doing all we can to counter any Russian pressure on Bangkok. The arrest of Viktor Bout may signal an intolerance of an intolerable type of character. With a deadly past and dangerous future, he must face justice. Thai authorities should be commended for their cooperation, but only when Mr. Bout is securely on his way to our shores, which given likely Russian machinations, can't happen fast enough.

Representative Ed Royce. California Republican, is ranking member of the Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade Subcommittee.