Stylishly attired in a gray Armani suit with black crewneck shirt, Vladimir Putin campaigns for his United Russia Party in advance of Sunday’s national parliamentary elections. His message sounds a bit ominous, don’t you think?
** NEW RUSSIAN AIR DEFENSE SYSTEM PLACED IN PRODUCTION, WITH ORDERS ALREADY FROM THE MIDDLE EAST. On the eve of Russia’s national election weekend, the Russian military has announced the beginning of production of the Pantsir-S1 missile air defense system. Russian sources boast that it is the most advanced short-range air defense system in the world.
They say it will become “the Kalashnikov of air defense systems,” referring to the legendary assault rifle that has become a standard of militaries around the world on account of its effectiveness, durability, and relative ease of use.
With this air defense system in place, say the Russians, the mysterious air strike inside Syria carried out earlier this fall by the Israeli Air Force, which some conservative sources say was against a nuclear site, would have been impossible. Several Middle Eastern nations have already ordered the Pantsir, which will be available late next year. Including, naturally, Syria. No word about Iran.
** TROUBLE FOR ORANGE COUNTY SHERIFF. Orange County Sheriff Mike Carona, on leave of absence after being indicted on multiple federal counts of using public office to enrich himself, has come under renewed fire from a retired sheriff’s lieutenant who says Carona passed out police badges and concealed weapons permits to 80 to 90 of his cronies and political supporters. This is a charge that has been leveled before about Carona’s controversial reserve deputy program. But this fellow says Carona had him devise a quick training program of a few weeks to justify the badging and weapons. Only to essentially dispense with it in order to dole out the goodies.
** CLINTON CAMPAIGN OFFICE HOSTAGE DRAMA ENDS PEACEFULLY. That hostage drama at Hillary Clinton’s Rochester, New Hampshire campaign office reported below has ended peacefully. The obvious disturbed man, who said he’d been drinking for 72 hours and was distraught about a domestic violence case, released his three hostages and was taken into custody. He had demanded to talk to the New York senator, whose campaign schedule was disrupted for the afternoon while the situation played out.
** PAKISTAN CRISIS: OPPOSITION SPLIT OVER ELECTIONS, NEW ARMY CHIEF REPLACES MUSHARRAF LOYALISTS. More seemingly dizzying developments in America’s key frontline ally in the Terror War, the only Islamic nuclear power. While ex-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, returned from exile in a deal with the Saudis, says that he and a coalition of secular opposition groups will boycott January elections now set to take place only three weeks after the lifting of martial law, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto says that she and her Pakistan People’s Party will participate, under protest.
Meanwhile, new army chief of staff General Afshaq Kayani, former director of the dread ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) — one-time military attache to Bhutto — is replacing army corps commanders and top intelligence officials loyal to Musharraf with new commanders. Musharraf finally stepped down, as long promised, as head of the military this week.
It’s possible that Bhutto will emerge as the only electoral figure with fresh legitimacy from elections tarred with the shadow of martial law. Should Musharraf’s legitimacy take another big hit, Kayani and a set of new commanders are in the wings.
But Bhutto could prove to be a very problematic civilian face for a new administration. She has baited the Islamic jihadists in the past, nearly losing her life in a spectacular terrorist bombing of her homecoming procession this fall, and she is a woman.
** HILLARY SLIDES IN PREVIOUSLY FAVORABLE AMERICAN RESEARCH GROUP POLLS. I’ve come to consider the American Research Group polls as sometime outliers in the presidential race, frequently higher than other polls for Hillary Clinton on the Democratic side, and for John McCain on the Republican side. Now ARG is showing Barack Obama with a sliver-thin lead in Iowa, and closing in New Hampshire. Hillary is down 10 points among women in Iowa. Though she continues, in this poll, to have a big lead in South Carolina, whereas Clinton and Obama are evenly matched in other polling.
On the Republican side, Mike Huckabee is the man on the move. He’s tied for the lead in Iowa with Mitt Romney, up to third in New Hampshire, behind Romney and Giuliani, and close to a three-way statistical dead heat in South Carolina with the other two. Huckabee is up 13 points in South Carolina over the past month, with Fred Thompson sliding to fourth.
** ODD HOSTAGE CRISIS AT CLINTON CAMPAIGN OFFICE. An unidentified man with a bomb strapped to his body has taken at least two hostages in Hillary Clinton’s Rochester, New Hampshire office. The nearby offices for Barack Obama and John Edwards have been evacuated. The man says he wants to speak to Senator Clinton, who has cancelled her afternoon appearance. The Clinton campaign issued this terse statement: “There is an ongoing situation in our Rochester, NH office. We are in close contact with state and local authorities and are acting at their direction. We will release additional details as appropriate.”
** MANY MOVES AROUND RUSSIAN ELECTIONS THIS WEEKEND. On Sunday, Russia, now interjecting itself once again around the world, holds its national parliamentary elections. This morning President Vladimir Putin signed legislation withdrawing Russia from the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty.
Heading the list of candidates from the ruling United Russia party for the Duma, as the parliament is known, is President Vladimir Putin. Polls show Putin and United Russia way out front, as you might have guessed, with about 66% of the vote. The Communist Party is running a very distant second, with 14%. The Liberal Democrats, a misnomer, given that the party is headed by nationalist extremist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and Fair Russia are the only other parties deemed likely to win seats in the parliament. Neither of those parties look like real opposition parties. Putin had the threshold for party representation raised from 5% to 7%.
Democratic reformers, such as those with the 1990s era Democratic Russia, with which I once worked, have, as you can see, essentially disappeared from the scene. They are either subsumed by Putin and United Russia, out of politics, or disqualified by party representation requirements.
Russian police recently arrested hundreds of opposition figures protesting against the administration, including former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, leader of a group called Other Russia.
Europe’s main security watchdog, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which represents dozens of European countries, pulled out of election monitoring in Russia after complaining that Russian authorities were interfering with their plans, denying visas to needed workers. Putin responded by declaring that the US, trying to discredit Russia, was behind the OSCE pull-out, and worked to get election monitors from other sources, such as the former Soviet states and friendly Europeans.
All these moves are intriguing because, as best as can be made out, Putin is actually quite popular in Russia. His domination over the media is obviously a big part of that, but that control is now a given in the situation. Election monitors are not needed to report that.
Putin taps into deep popular feelings around stability, authority, material insecurity and aspiration, and renewed national pride. Here’s the translated lyric to a United Russia campaign song I saw recently, performed by pretty young women in hot pants: “I want a boyfriend like Putin. Someone who’s strong, who doesn’t drink, and who won’t run away.”
Under Putin’s leadership, Russia has swiftly rebounded from its post-Soviet nadir under Boris Yeltsin, who made Putin his spymaster and then prime minister. Rebellions in Chechnya and Dagestan have been put down, forcibly and brutally. With the Russian Federation’s internal security restored, Russia under Putin’s leadership has forcefully reasserted itself on the global stage.
At first, Putin and President George W. Bush hit it off, though Bush is surrounded by longtime anti-Russians such as Vice President Dick Cheney. Russia was a crucial ally to the US in the post-9/11 period, providing essential help in the takedown of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, assisting US intelligence with its long history of fighting Islamic movements, allowing the establishment of US bases in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia.
But Russia parted ways with the US over the invasion of Iraq, citing the threat to regional stability posed by the end of the Saddam regime and consequent emboldening of Iran, an historic rival of Russia’s. And the US bases in Central Asia have faded to one, in mountainous Kyrgyzstan, as US moves to expand NATO to Russia’s borders have continued.
With the Bush/Putin alliance faltering over Iraq and what Russia sees as continued encroachment in its “near abroad” — the latest iteration of which is the proposed US anti-missile shield in Eastern Europe — Russia has taken on a much more aggressive stance in global affairs.
Russia is one of the great powers in the world in fossil fuels. It carries great sway with other major oil producers. It’s a crucial supplier of energy to the rest of Europe. No other great power in the world has benefited as has Russia with the record run-up in oil prices. In that sense, Bush’s invasion of Iraq and subsequent saber-rattling with Iran, has generated a risk premium in crude oil that actually boosts Russia on the world stage.
Now Russia, with its aircraft, technology, and, most important, armaments industries revitalized, is on a selling expedition around the world, returning to the former Soviet Union’s old role of joining the US as one of the two leading arms dealers on the planet.
Russia is involved in most every geostrategic area of interest to the US. From possibly selling submarines to Venezuela and Brazil, a coming world oil power, to providing a security backstop to Iran, to interjecting itself into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — a peace conference may be on tap, in Moscow — to much more.
And what of Putin in all this, the seemingly essential man, whose presidential term is about to run out under Russia’s constitution? No one has declared for president, even though the deadline to do so is only weeks away. We’ll see about the size of his electoral mandate, flawed though it will be, on Sunday before his moves become clear. One good bet is that he’s not retiring from politics. Nor about to settle for being a mere member of parliament.
Not that you’re getting any of this from YouTube debates, cable news chat, the bitter sniping between the extremes of the blogosphere, or the conventional concerns of the conventional media.
Incidentally, Russian immigrants in New York, California and elsewhere are voting in this election.
With Russia awash in new wealth from record oil prices, some
of its nouveau riche gathered in Moscow for the Millionaire Fair.
** QUICK HITS. With Arnold Schwarzenegger getting all the press for his role in voluntary agreements from four big mortgage lenders to freeze interest rates on troubled subprime loans, the California Assembly wants a special session to deal with a number of bills its Democratic members are proposing. But President Bush might trump everyone with a move to get national lenders to freeze the situation. … California Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez ventures to Iowa this weekend on behalf of Hillary Clinton, for whom he serves as a national campaign co-chairman. Nunez will represent Clinton at the Iowa Brown & Black Forum in Des Moines on Saturday night, where the former first lady joins Barack Obama, John Edwards, and the rest of the field in addressing Latino and African American issues. Interesting, given how white the Iowa electorate is. … San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, citing the problem illegal immigrants have in getting drivers licenses, has okayed a plan to grant them city ID cards. This won’t help San Francisco’s image with Fox News.
** 24/7 LIVE TV NEWS FEED FROM RUSSIA TODAY. Russia has re-emerged as one of the world’s great powers. Click here for a live TV news feed on your computer, bringing you English-language, jargon-free, fast-paced coverage of global and Russian news from the new Russia Today channel.
You probably already know about CNN International, BBC World, and Al Jazeera. Russia Today, which also features culture, entertainment, and sports, is based in Moscow and is owned and operated by the TV Novosti division of Russia’s state news agency, RIA Novosti.
While it’s quite foolish to expect to see, say, criticism of Vladimir Putin on Russia Today, the channel is very interesting nonetheless. The NWN live link to RT does not constitute an endorsement of the channel’s views. It’s presented as an otherwise unavailable new media window.
** TRACK GLOBAL AND U.S. ENERGY PRICES IN NEAR REAL TIME VIA BLOOMBERG ENERGY MARKET WATCH. Crude oil prices have dropped again, now trading in a range of $88 to $89 per barrel. This is the fourth day of declines in the oil market. Saudi Arabia has increased its production to the highest level this year. Record oil prices have negatively impacted the US and global economies.
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