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:

America can’t afford complacency on China

Ian Bremmer
Aug 17, 2011 19:14 UTC

In China, as we learned last month, there are Apple Stores and then there are “Apple Stores.” Both sell Apple computers, iPads, cable adaptors, etc. But while Apple’s official beachhead store in Shanghai Pudong attracts mega-sized crowds, about 900 miles west of Shanghai in the city of Chongqing, some entrepreneurial types brazenly knocked off the Apple store concept. Enter one of these stores and you’d find the familiar t-shirt clad friendly geek, the clean (though not as minimalist) Apple aesthetic, and a full stock of real-deal Apple computers. Employees in the store actually believed they were working for Apple and Steve Jobs until press accounts of the knock-off began appearing last month.

This story tells us two things: First, China isn’t yet on the cutting edge of innovation. But second, its imitations are improving and its people are learning fast. In other words, the gap between China and America remains wide, but the narrowing is beginning to gather speed. We won’t wake up tomorrow to discover that China surpassed America to become the world’s leading economy. But there’s a Great Rebalancing underway, one that will fundamentally reorder the relationship that these two economies have with one another and with the world.

For the Chinese leadership, the financial crisis and the resulting market meltdowns in America and Europe underscored the urgency of economic reform. An economy over-reliant on exports to Western consumers is an increasingly bad idea, because when Americans and Europeans stop spending, China starts hemorrhaging millions of jobs. That’s a threat to the country’s baseline social stability.

The coming Palestinian statehood

Ian Bremmer
Aug 3, 2011 16:14 UTC

By Ian Bremmer
The opinons expressed are his own.

 

As violent protests rock the Arab world, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israeli government has tried to keep a low profile. It has largely succeeded. That’s about to change.

This year’s upheaval in North Africa and the Middle East is not quite finished. As President Saleh recovers from injuries suffered during an attack on Yemen’s presidential palace, the country remains plagued with protests and crackdowns. Libya’s Qaddafi clings to power, Syria’s Assad copes with surges of public anger, and Egypt’s zigzag path toward democracy reminds us how hard it is to fill the hole left behind by a castoff autocrat.

Israelis have watched closely from the sidelines to better understand what all this turmoil means for their future. As the dust begins to settle, it has become clear that they have plenty to worry about. Populism is taking root in the Middle East, a region where ordinary people have been forced for years to scream in unison to make themselves heard. Now they find that they have the power to bring about change. In response, Arab leaders—the newly elevated, those clinging to power, and even those simply facing a more uncertain future—are now listening to public opinion much more closely.

The fiscal fix Europe can’t bear to embrace

Ian Bremmer
Jul 20, 2011 15:01 UTC

By Ian Bremmer
The opinions expressed are his own.

The European Union now faces a sovereign debt crisis that threatens the viability of the entire experiment, one that looms over the economies of even the sturdiest EU countries. Fair or not, debt crises in Greece and Portugal, and the spectre of them in Spain and Italy, have markets questioning whether the eurozone remains viable.

There is some good news. Everyone in Europe, from Germany’s state-level officials to Members of the EU Parliament, takes this issue seriously. The time for kicking the can down the road has passed. The bad news is that the only long-term solution to the crisis is the one that may be a bridge too far for most of the major players: a fiscal union that controls spending across all of the EU’s economies. Fiscal union might sound like a politically impossible concept, but market leaders, like Pimco’s Mohammed El-Erian, are urging Europe to at least consider, ”a unified European balance sheet,” as a logical and badly needed extension of the currency union. To join the euro, governments surrendered control of their monetary policy. Surrendering control of fiscal policy amounts to an enormous psychological step.

A little background: EU member states still control their own spending — and their indebtedness. The EU specifies spending and debt limits for its member nations, but can’t really enforce its guidelines. That’s why Greece was able to hide the problem that too many of its citizens have evaded income taxes for decades, despite the government providing them substantial social benefits. This problem created the country’s debt crisis. Local control of fiscal policy also allowed Portugal to base its budgets on wildly optimistic economic growth projections for years. That’s why the debt crisis spread out of control — every country kept its own books, but few of the strong countries realized that to protect the euro, they would have to bail out weaker countries that rode the economic boom for years—including up to and during the global financial crisis and its aftermath.

An interview with Ian Bremmer

Jul 7, 2011 19:58 UTC

Bremmer spoke to Reuters correspondent Kyoko Gahsa about Japan’s recovery, the lessons of the Europe crisis, and the new leadership at the International Monetary Fund.

Post-surge Afghanistan and post-surge Obama

Ian Bremmer
Jul 6, 2011 14:43 UTC

By Ian Bremmer
The views expressed are his own.

When President Barack Obama announced in late 2009 that he would send an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, few were as pleased as Defense Secretary Robert Gates. A holdover from the George W. Bush administration, Gates had championed the 2007 surge of troops into Iraq, a move that helped turn both the tide in that country and public opinion in the U.S. on its future. Gates and the generals hoped for similar success against the Taliban.

But how do you measure success in a place like Afghanistan? Soldiers, no matter how many, can’t build democratic, financial and industrial institutions overnight. At best, they can help make Afghans safer and life much harder for those who would launch attacks beyond the country’s borders. By that measure, the record of both surges is mixed, if generally positive. But post-surge, one thing is certain: Obama allowed Gates to prosecute the war on his terms, but new Defense Secretary Leon Panetta will be asked to implement a plan that has less to do with Kandahar than with Capitol Hill.

Withdrawal is the right move, maybe the only move, for Team Obama. The president has gotten the politics of the moment exactly right, yet again. In the first half of his term, he retained Bush’s team at the Pentagon and reshuffled his top generals, namely David Petraeus, through various leadership positions in Iraq and Afghanistan. A surge that seemed to be working was allowed to play out, and Bush was likely to take the blame if the strategy failed. But President Obama knows that Bush’s burdens are now his—the economy, jobs and the wars.

Putin’s puppet show

Ian Bremmer
Jun 22, 2011 20:09 UTC

People talk about the Russian presidential election like it really matters. But it doesn’t. The supposedly big news and debate right now is whether or not Russian President Dmitry Medvedev will run for president again in 2012.

The real news that no one is talking about is not the presidential election parlor game being played in Moscow right now, but is about an authoritarian government feeling the need to try to paint a veneer of democracy. Besides, the fall parlor game will matter much more than this spring one.

Western media can keep making it out to be as big a deal as they want to, but, ultimately, it doesn’t matter if Medvedev stays on as president or if Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin returns to the post. While Medvedev looks like he is trying to distance himself from Putin — he has taken a different stance on Libya and is pro-US and Europe and pro-private sector — Medvedev, as much as he may be interested in running again, is not going to run against Putin if Putin puts himself in the race.

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