Jewish World Review March 4, 2004 / 11 Adar, 5764

Stratfor Intelligence Brief by
George Friedman

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Latest changes in Russia give Putin more power | There are major changes under way in Russia. Vladimir Putin has named a new prime minister, Mikhail Fradkov, who is currently the Russian envoy to the European Union. Other than that, he is a complete nonentity, which is what makes the choice so interesting.

Putin is trying to change the Russian Constitution informally. Rather than eliminating the position of prime minister, Putin is moving the position to complete irrelevance by naming someone to it who has no political existence except as a minor bureaucrat. That means that Putin's relative strength - and the strength of the presidency - will be measurably greater.

Putin is emerging as far more than a democratically elected president. He is taking control of the Russian machinery of government and extending the government's power - and his own - substantially. This is not surprising. Whatever Russia is to be, it will be authoritarian, as it has always been.

Russia's experiment with both capitalism and liberal democracy has not gone well, and its standing in the world has declined rapidly. When Putin came to power in 1999, he intended to reintroduce authoritarianism and curtail the power of the oligarchs. Putin was not likely to allow the economy in Russia to be dominated in perpetuity by a Jewish oligarchy.

Putin is conducting a slow, systematic campaign to put the Russian state at commanding economic heights. What is surprising is how slowly he has moved. However, he is clearly moving - if not in the direction of a dictatorship, then certainly in the direction of a society in which the state is at the center of everything and the president is at the center of the state.

Russia has been written off as a major power. That is a mistake. Nothing regenerates a nation as quickly as building its military power - something Putin already has under way. We are watching an important evolution in Russia.

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There is also an important evolution in Venezuela, although it is difficult to know what to make of it. President Hugo Chavez is embattled, but he has always been embattled. He has also survived situations that he had no business surviving. He is, in our view, one of the most underestimated men in Latin America. Observers are constantly dismissing him as unsophisticated, insane and/or an ideological fanatic.

This is all interesting speculation, but there is one single fact: Chavez is still in power, while his sophisticated, rational and pragmatic opponents have been smashed into disarray. This is not to say that he will survive this time. It is merely to argue that news of his demise has always been premature in the past, and there is no reason not to regard it as premature in the present.

What is interesting about this particular crisis is that Washington appears to have a bit of an appetite for it. In past crises concerning Venezuela - since Sept. 11 - the last thing the United States wanted was problems. The U.S. position was simply this: Ship the oil, keep the government. This time, the United States appears to be more interested in bringing Chavez down than before.

It is not clear what chips Washington is actually prepared to put on the table, but nevertheless, it seems willing to take some risks. That may have less to do with the situation in Venezuela than the situation in Iraq, which - despite periodic attacks - clearly is stabilizing. On the other hand, it would be well to remember Pakistan before becoming too adventurous elsewhere. Haiti is a self-indulgence the United States can afford. Venezuela is another matter entirely.

George Friedman is president of Strategic Forecasting, Inc., one of the world's leading global intelligence firms, providing clients with geopolitical analysis and industry and country forecasts to mitigate risk and identify opportunities. Stratfor's clients include Fortune 500 companies and major government. Comment by clicking here.


02/26/04: Osama in a box? U.S. intelligence leaks are puzzling
02/19/04: Ahmad Chalabi key figure in Iraq intelligence fiasco
02/12/04: U.S.-Pakistan tussle over nukes is part of a larger game
12/23/03: The capture of Saddam and the dollar war
10/03/03: Pope and dagger: John Paul II's political legacy
09/08/03: The economy and al-Qaida

© 2004, Strategic Forecasting, Inc. Distributed by TMS, Inc.