Opinion

Ian Bremmer

The Kremlin has castled and Putin is still king

Ian Bremmer
Sep 28, 2011 19:54 UTC

By Ian Bremmer
The opinions expressed are his own.

Long live the king? You can’t hold it against the Russian people for wondering just how long Vladimir Putin intends to remain in power with the recent announcement that he plans to return himself to the presidency and swap his partner Dmitri Medvedev into the prime minister slot. The electoral game Putin is playing is being compared to “castling” in chess– a rook and a king swapping places, in order to shore up the defense.

There might be defense at the heart of the strategy, but Putin’s ruling party, United Russia, despite some recent murmurings, is still the only game in Moscow. Which is to say that Vladimir Putin is by all reckoning the most powerful man in the world. What other leader, leaving aside third-world strongmen, has so completely consolidated his rule over a country, as Putin has? His success is all the more venerable when one considers that Putin is leader of a country of nearly 150 million people — and at the helm of the one of the world’s most important economies. Attention must be paid to him. Sure, other leaders around the world may have more people or even larger economies, but they don’t have as full a grip on the reins of power as Putin. (And few have ever been reverently photographed riding horseback shirtless, petting a tiger, or playing piano in tux and tails.)

Even with this switcheroo, little will change about Russia’s, which is to say Putin’s, stance on foreign or domestic affairs. Despite years of inspired reformist speechifying from President Medvedev, little has changed in the ossified Russian bureaucracy. That speaks to his true, limited, authority. The civil service system he declaims remain inefficient and antiquated, and presents ample opportunity for the kind of low-level corruption that greases the wheels of local politics across the world. Medvedev has been a friendly face for the Western world, someone who says the right things on its grand stages; but he has had little influence, as president, over the country’s true direction. As the prime minister in waiting, look for that trend to continue.

It’s hard to believe the public pronouncements that the decision to castle was made years ago, as Putin has told the press. Medvedev’s recent statements simply don’t bear that out. Nor does the sudden ouster of Finance minister Alexei Kudrin. Kudrin was upset because he wasn’t given advance warning of the decision. That speaks volumes about who is important at the Kremlin — power there is controlled by Putin’s tiny circle and those on the periphery, titles aside, are kept completely in the dark.

Having said all this, one reason Putin’s not afraid to pull such a brazen act is that the swap will have little to no impact on foreign investment or the Russian domestic economy. A recent move towards an improved investment climate in Russia’s strategic sectors (facilitating, among other things, ExxonMobil’s recent mammoth joint venture with Rosneft) is the natural outcome of lower oil prices and limited inbound investment. Again, some of the signals coming out of Russia may change — Putin as president may once again show something like disinterested contempt towards the West and its demands of his regime in terms of human rights or international conventions, but as in his previous terms, such talk will be just that. The Kremlin has strategically opened itself up to smart money in foreign direct investment and will continue to let Western money in on its own terms. That won’t change.

Turkey ascendant, Palestine in tow. Whither Israel and the U.S.?

Ian Bremmer
Sep 21, 2011 14:46 UTC

By Ian Bremmer
The opinions expressed are his own.

If President Obama thinks he’s having a tough month, he’s got nothing on Israel’s Bibi Netanyahu. In Tel Aviv, hundreds of thousands of Israelis are protesting the cost of living. In New York, the Palestinians are readying a statehood resolution at the United Nations. In Ankara, the Turkish government has expelled the Israeli ambassador from the country. And in Cairo, an Egyptian crowd is taking the job on themselves, attacking the Israeli embassy.

Of all of these events, though, Turkey is the biggest worry. Prime Minister Recep Erdogan has steadily escalated an anti-Israel tack for over a year now, most recently by accusing Israel of behaving like a “spoiled child.” More directly, Erdogan has also proclaimed that the Turkish navy will stop the planned start of gas drilling explorations off the Cyprus coast by an Israel-Cypriot consortium. That’s tantamount to threatening armed conflict. Why is Turkey so ascendant in Middle East politics, to Israel’s dismay? There are three very good reasons:

1. The U.S. is playing less of a role in the Middle East.

Under President Obama, the U.S. has become a “taker” not a “maker” of foreign policy there. Simply put, this Administration has spent less time on the Middle East peace question than any other since the creation of the Israeli state. With all the issues facing Obama at home — joblessness, a tanking economy and his own re-election, to name a few — and all the more pressing international issues, like winding down the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and dealing with the euro zone and China — Israel has taken a political backseat. As NATO allies like Turkey fill the void and create their own regional strategies, Israel, being in the most unnatural geopolitical position there, has had the hardest time establishing its own power center.

Slaughtering the PIIGS

Ian Bremmer
Sep 14, 2011 18:34 UTC

By Ian Bremmer
The opinions expressed are his own.

Nobody likes to be called PIIGS. For years, Europe’s so-called peripheral countries — Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain — have complained about this acronym, but the euro zone’s sovereign debt problems have only entrenched it further. Yet, it’s time to acknowledge that the PIIGS have a point. They don’t deserve to be lumped together. Their actions and their circumstances have sharply diverged over the past three years.

Some of the PIIGS, let’s call them peripherals, have accepted the need for painful austerity measures. Spain’s government beat its deficit reduction targets last year. That’s a result that should impress outsiders, including powerhouse Germany, where lawmakers have worked hard to persuade voters that profligate countries won’t be bailed out until they have proven they can mend their spendthrift ways. Protests against the belt-tightening have been limited and surprisingly peaceful given Spain 21% unemployment rate.

The conservative People’s Party, which has already pledged its commitment to both austerity and the euro zone, looks headed for a win in Spain’s November elections. That’s in part because Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Zapatero has pushed hard to implement so many of the plans called for by Germany and European institutions over the objections of his party’s political base, including a plan to amend Spain’s constitution to legally require both the central government and autonomous communities to meet deficit targets that go beyond the levels set by the EU.

Obama’s secret for new jobs

Reuters Staff
Sep 7, 2011 14:20 UTC

Ian Bremmer sat down with Reuters’ Paul Smalera to discuss President Obama’s plans to boost the American economy. Watch here:

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