September 19, 2008

Diverting Attention

By Dmitry Babich
Russia Profile
As the Russian Economy Crumbles, the Country’s Leaders Turn to Familiar Faces in Caracas and La Habana

On Thursday morning, reports on the flights of two TU-160 strategic bombers returning from Venezuela to Russia following a weeklong stay at a base near Caracas preceded the news on the developments on Russian financial markets. While the Russian financial markets search for ways to cope with the crisis, state television appears to be trying to draw the viewers’ attention away from the domestic calamity.

There are at least two serious problems behind the quirky incongruity of this situation. The first is the “pop-culture” approach of Russian state television’s news judgment, and the second is the skewed and sometimes plainly erroneous view of Russia’s potential partners in Latin America.

“I enjoy watching Russian television. Reports on the ‘friendship’ with Venezuela and Cuba seem to be viewed by Russian television as a kind of psychological solace, which can alleviate the pain of the financial crisis,” said Waclaw Radziwinowicz, a veteran correspondent of the Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza in Moscow. “It was fun to see how [Russian president Dmitry] Medvedev met with some kind of a minister and they discussed cooperation with Venezuela and the pitiful state of the American mortgage scene, and then just casually remarked that the Russian financial market plunged by 40 percent.”

Numerous documentaries about Fidel Castro’s “heroic” struggle against American imperialism, accompanied by no less complimentary memoirs of the Soviet military that helped in the struggle, inundated the evening prime-time of Russian state-owned channels in recent years. Castro, portrayed by Russian media as an irresponsible and cruel dictator in the early 1990s, suddenly turned his “pop-culture” side to the Russian public. “Evergreen Macho of South America,” “First in Love and War” – such were the headlines of Russian media reports about Castro, which paradoxically “rehabilitated” Fidel Castro in the eyes of the Russian public.

“I think it was all a part of a carefully orchestrated PR campaign,” said Maria Chumakova, a senior researcher at the Institute of Latin America in the Russian Academy of Sciences. “Castro was ‘rehabilitated’ not because communism was not bad, but because he provided an image which was attractive for pop-culture and pop-culture thrives under capitalism.”

Since PR campaigns usually have very materialistic goals, this time, the purpose appears to be the reestablishment of military and economic ties between Russia and the leftist regimes of Latin America. Besides providing entertaining video images of their leaders, Fidel Castro’s Cuba and Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela are again becoming important trading partners for Russia. The first Vice Premier of the Russian government Igor Sechin visited Venezuela on Wednesday. During the visit, it was announced that the total amount of trade contracts signed between Russia and Venezuela exceeded $4 billion. At the end of September Chavez is expected in Moscow, where he said he would ask for a loan of $2 to three billion.

It is obvious why Chavez needs Russia. The arms shipments from Russia helped him to stand up to the United States, saying that he did not fear even a “hundred year-long war” with the world’s mightiest global power. It also helped him to challenge his neighbor, the Colombian president Alvaro Uribe, who accused Chavez of abetting Colombia’s leftist guerillas.

“I understand why Uribe became worried and why he is expected to come to Moscow this autumn,” said Alexander Khramchikhin, an expert at the Institute of Political and Military Analysis in Moscow. “Colombia has no submarines and very few military planes of its own, so Chavez’s purchase of Russian submarines and the eventual purchase of planes unnerved him.”

But why does Russia need Chavez? Experts find the answer to this question not nearly as obvious as Russian television does. “Latin America has seven transnational companies, four of them have headquarters in Mexico and three in Brazil,” Zbigniew Ivanovsky, the head of the Center of Political Analysis at the Institute of Latin America, said at a recent roundtable discussion held by the RIA Novosti news agency. “None of them are based in Venezuela.”

In Ivanovsky’s opinion, the view held by a part of the Russian elite of Latin America as a “leftist continent,” where anti-Americanism is rampant and sympathies for Russia are strong, has very little ground. “Yes, the failure of the neoliberal model in countries like Argentina, and the fact that the United States ‘forgot’ about Latin America in recent years indeed pushed some countries toward a leftist model,” Ivanovsky said. “But these leftist regimes are only a part of the big picture. There are also Mexico, Columbia and Chile, which continue to throw their lot with the neoliberal model. There are also countries which have chosen the third path, making corrections and changes to the old neoliberal model.” This group, the most numerous one, is headed by Brazil and it includes Argentina and Uruguay.

Ivanovsky said that he sympathized with the third model, which strives to combine economic efficiency with social protection and justice while recognizing the necessity of democracy. Unfortunately, one cannot learn much about this third model from Russian television.