Opinion

John Lloyd

Where is Russia headed?

John Lloyd
Jul 24, 2013 12:20 UTC

Masha Lipman, one of the great chroniclers of Russian politics, told a story at a conference I attended outside of Moscow earlier this week. It was about two scholars who, in a recent discussion about the history of Russia and the Soviet Union, fell into a savage argument. One saw the end of the Soviet Union as a tragedy, the other as a release from tyranny. So radical and bitter was the disagreement that they came to blows, an unheard of event in the generally decorous world of Russian academia. 

Lipman also noted that, in a discussion in the Duma (parliament), several deputies called for the abolition of the country’s Independence Day on June 12, established in 1990. One suggested moving the date to whenever National Day took place in the 10th century, when “Rus” was first formed — in Kiev, now the capital of Ukraine — a none too subtle way of saying that Russia was once a Slavic empire, and could be again.

Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin, might agree with the deputies. It would be surprising if he did not — he is, after all, the same man who said in 2005 that the end of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century.

Putin and the Russians have Russia, of course, which for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 is a state that has defined borders, an elected president and parliament, and a democratic constitution that offers a swathe of citizens’ rights. But — several Russians said to me at the conference — what is Russia, after all? Why should its political connection be severed from states that it once dominated like Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia, Armenia and Central Asia?. And above all, the old question: “Kuda Rossiya?” Where is Russia going? To what does it aspire? Where does it want to come to rest?

It isn’t at rest now: it’s been restless since tens of thousands of demonstrators turned out on the streets to protest falsified elections, corruption and much else in 2011 and 2012, and has remained so even after the re-election of Putin last year as president. The foreign policy analyst Dmitri Trenin told me that the country’s foreign policy stance has changed fundamentally for the fourth time while Putin has been on the scene in Russia. In 2000 it started with a policy open to closer relations with the U.S. and Europe, then changed to a resentful retreat into a Eurasian redoubt when it felt repelled by the West, changed again to an attempt to reset relations when Dmitry Medvedev was allowed by Putin to be president for one term, then finally back again to Eurasia on Putin’s return.

In Britain, a summer of quiet revolution

John Lloyd
Jul 16, 2013 16:13 UTC

The British Isles are sentries in a turning world. The monarchy, pageantry, the mediaeval House of Lords, titles, accents, the established Church of England with the Queen at its head — they all give the adroit illusion of continuity and the primacy of tradition over change.

But this summer there are diverse changes modernizing the Isles. These revolutions, small and large, will not be reversed, and will contribute significantly to a redefinition of what it is to be British (and Irish). The illusions of tradition will remain, as diligently served as ever. The core is hollowing out.

These changes are not unique to these wet and windy islands. But it’s more remarkable because for many centuries Britain and its offshoots punched above their weight, making history and creating (or inventing) traditions. The French are famed for having a beautiful and mostly efficient country and for grumbling furiously about it. The British change everything all the time, and worship the old customs whose essence they have long since destroyed, or are destroying.

The vacuum on the Nile

John Lloyd
Jul 8, 2013 17:22 UTC

Egypt now lives in a political and constitutional vacuum. The present military rulers have dissolved the sole national level representative assembly, the Shura Council, and rescinded the constitution. Both, to be sure, were self-interested creations of the Muslim Brotherhood administration. But nothing has been put in their place.

There is only the military and its choice as president, the constitutional lawyer Adly Mansour. Nothing else remains. But if further tragedy — perhaps, as Russian President Vladimir Putin forecast, a civil war — is to be averted, the vacuum must soon be filled.

Putin may be right. The killing of at least 51 supporters of the Brotherhood in incidents around a barracks of the presidential guard on Sunday raises the stakes, and the temperature. The military’s contempt for the Brotherhood, whose government they had sworn to serve, is now very evident, as is their assumption of a right to dispose of the country’s politics, and to enforce order by fear.

Egypt’s repeat search for democracy

John Lloyd
Jul 3, 2013 15:03 UTC

I’ve spent the past few days walking beside and watching the largely youthful demonstrators in Egypt, and I’ve been struck with admiration that’s quickly drowned in despair. I admire them for the way they’ve rejected the creeping authoritarianism of an incompetent Muslim Brotherhood government whose only accomplishment is inserting its members or sympathizers into every part of Egyptian life that it could.

But my despair is greater than my admiration. There is no good outcome to the Egyptian “second revolution,” as the opposition wishes it to be called. The army has taken control, and may — as it says it wishes — hold the ring only until a temporary constitution is agreed upon and another election called. The Muslim Brotherhood, whose government is led by President Mohamed Mursi, may, with reluctance, acquiesce in this — though  many of its member are furious over the coup, as they rightly call it. The opposition forces may abstain from ramming what they will see as a “victory” too hard down the Brothers’ throats. These “mays” are, as this is written, be unlikely when set against various degrees of escalating conflict. But they are possible.

Yet even if all of that were to move from the conditional to the actual, the outcome would still not be good. Hatred, or at least deep distrust, between the Brotherhood and the opposition groups has increased since the weekend, as deaths — often the outcome of attacks on the Brothers’ offices — mount. These feelings are now absolute.

In Cairo, protesters challenge Mursi’s rule

John Lloyd
Jul 1, 2013 15:08 UTC

CAIRO — I’ve been in Egypt the past few days to witness the Egyptian people’s indignation at their president, Mohamed Mursi. But where best to watch? On Sunday I joined a march from a metro station in Cairo’s Heliopolis district to the presidential palace. My fellow journalist Abdallah Hassan thought Tahrir Square would be jammed full early, and that the palace would be where the real action — different from what preceded the ousting of President Hosni Mubarak two and a half years ago — would be.

It proved to be, in part. The two or three thousand of us who had debouched from metros in the early afternoon heat swelled to many tens of thousands in the evening. Marchers came from every direction, packing into the wide boulevard before the palace complex. In all of Egypt’s cities, the same scenes were repeated. It was one of the biggest, best coordinated protests of our times, much larger than those that swept out Mubarak. Reuters quoted a military source who estimated as many as 14 million turned out countrywide.

It was a party, a joy ride, an effusion of spirits. It was led by young men who went down a list of rhyming couplets while seated on the shoulders of sweating comrades. “Shout, Mursi! This is your last day!”; “We don’t want the military! We don’t want the Brotherhood!”; “Shave your face and you’re like Mubarak!”; “You spare tire! We’ll send you back to jail!” and “Look and see! The revolution, you sheep!” (They rhyme in Arabic.)

From one tyrant to another

John Lloyd
Jun 28, 2013 20:59 UTC

CAIRO—This week marks the one year anniversary since an Egyptian government run by the Muslim Brotherhood and led by Mohamed Mursi was formed.

In that year, the economy has slumped, in part because tourism — a staple of a state that has little to export except an experience of its storied past and fabulous monuments — has all but disappeared. Disconsolate restaurateurs lean on their doorposts, beckoning a foreigner in to empty tables.

Enormous lines that are five or six hours long pile up at gas stations; two power outages, hours long, yesterday afflicted the Cairo suburb where I am presently staying with a friend. Prices are rising even though nearly half of the population is trying to live on two dollars or less a day. The patchwork of groups and forces opposed to President Mursi are assuring everyone that the dire state of the economy, and the lack of a program to address it, are what have solidified ordinary people behind their call for new elections now, three years ahead of the end of Mursi’s term of office.

A humble pope in an august office

John Lloyd
Jun 25, 2013 15:01 UTC

The most potent symbol to date of Pope Francis’ five-month papacy is an empty chair. The chair — a large white throne — was to seat His Holiness in the Vatican this past Saturday. The pope was scheduled to hear a performance of Beethoven’s ninth symphony, a long-planned event. But minutes before the performance Archbishop Rino Fisichella told the audience that “the Holy Father cannot be present because of an urgent piece of work which cannot be postponed.”

Later, it was reported that Francis had privately dismissed the event with a brusque, “I’m not a Renaissance Prince who listens to music instead of working.” Regardless of whether the quote is apocryphal, the comment expresses well the man’s style. He has declared an end to the Papal Gentlemen, an office which, reformed under Pope Paul VI (1963-78), became an institution whose often aristocratic members officiated at public ceremonies, with their main duty being to meet and greet distinguished visitors. Reports quote the pope’s belief that they were “archaic, useless, even damaging.”

That last may refer to a sex scandal allegedly involving Angelo Balducci, a “Gentleman” who is claimed to have been soliciting male lovers through connections in the Vatican. This, in turn, may be part of the reason why Francis — again, in private — lamented the presence of a “gay mafia” in high places.

Trusting in our new security state

John Lloyd
Jun 19, 2013 15:42 UTC

Big data? No. Vast data, enormous data, unimaginably colossal data ties our world together. Some have said it also ties us down, since departments like the National Security Agency are combing through a part of our huge reservoir for intelligence on foreigners who might threaten the U.S. Yet this behavior is now the status quo, one that will not go away, nor diminish. It’s a doleful one if you deem it an open invitation to 1984-style tyranny, or an exhilarating one if you see a world of ever-expanding knowledge and opportunity.

Regardless, data culture is growing at a stupefying rate. It’s estimated that 90 percent of all the data in the world has been generated in the last two years, and the rate itself is increasing. We humans, ordinary people going about our business, are creating most of that data, because we have come to need it to shop, to bank, to access benefits, to be part of a health service, to educate our children, to be secure, to play games, to form and maintain modern friendships, to find partners… in other words, to live in the world.

To live outside of this networked world we would need to live in isolation, growing and hunting your own food without utilities. Or we would have undergone a catastrophe, the kind of thing contemporary dystopian fiction likes to conjure up. Since few of us want to try the first and none of us wish to be victims of the second, we’re stuck in the Net.

Rumors of democracy’s death have been greatly exaggerated

John Lloyd
Jun 11, 2013 17:45 UTC

The End of History and the Last Man is 21 years old this year. The book of that name, by Francis Fukuyama, has, in the view of many, matured badly. Published in 1992, it was much lauded for its view that, with the collapse of communism in the Soviet bloc, liberal democracy and free markets were the only long-term politics and economics for the globe.

After 9/11, the disparagements came quickly. The terrorist attacks were held to show that history may have paused, but it had reignited with a vengeance. Clearly, there were other powerful forces in the world than the “inevitable” liberal democracy; sharply different ideologies were alive, well and seeking power by any means.

Fukuyama was seen as a man of the right, though he is quite heterodox: he endorsed Barack Obama in 2008, and has recently said that the German social democratic model is better for workers than the U.S. free enterprise one. He has not given up thinking freely, and though he has modified his views, he has not abandoned them.

The special relationship: Putin and Berlusconi

John Lloyd
Jun 8, 2013 04:01 UTC

Silvio Berlusconi and Vladimir Putin are seen in a combination file photo.  REUTERS/File

The only other divorcee among Russian leaders before President Vladimir Putin was Czar Peter I, or Peter the Great.

Peter’s first bride, Evdokiya Lopukhina, was chosen for him by his mother — a mistake, at least for her son. Evdokiya, a deeply religious, conservative but strong-willed woman, didn’t like her husband’s modernization drive. With her equally niggly relatives, she so roused Peter’s ire that he secured a divorce and bullied her into a convent.

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