A few words about the Russian enigma

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YEN MAKABENTA

First read
THIS column has literally been overtaken by events. I originally planned on writing today on President Duterte’s state visit to Russia and the prospect of expanded relations between Russia and the Philippines.

While still in the middle of his visit and with a massive business and government delegation on hand to cheer him, Duterte hastily decided to cut short the visit, and declare martial law in Mindanao for 60 days because of the outbreak of serious fighting between government troops and rebel groups in Marawi City in the Philippine south. DU30 planned on returning to Manila immediately in order to attend personally to the emergency situation in his home base in Mindanao.

Ordinarily, such untoward development would not affect the sequencing of topics in this column. I have found that it is always best to give myself sufficient time to study a column subject and backstop with research my column for the day. With so much of the Russian column already written, I therefore opted to go with my piece on the Russian enigma today – and set aside more urgent concerns about the emergency in Mindanao.

Filipino bean-counting of state visits
Winston Churchill wasn’t just being clever when he observed at the end of World War 2, “Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” He was serving warning to the world community. His insight was spot-on then. It remains true today, with Vladimir Putin at the helm.

Now that Philippine foreign policy under President Rodrigo Duterte has lurched into a full embrace of Russia (the free republic, not the former Soviet Union), in rejection or disappointment over its relations with the United States (our old colonial ruler and mentor), I submit that it is time we Filipinos should know more about Russia so we will understand every goody, every agreement, and every blessing that DU30 will relay to us at the close of his Russia visit. The Filipino habit of calculating in dollars and pesos the fruits of a presidential state visit reflects badly on our national culture and our diplomacy. Yet, ironically it is not for reasons of economy that we calculate presidential travels in pecuniary terms.

It is rather a reflexive attempt to justify the Filipino headlong practice of assembling massive official delegations for state visits, and the opportunism to convert state visits into junkets – an opportunity to travel in style at public expense.

For the Russia visit, every Cabinet member who can invent an excuse for going to Moscow has been accredited to go. And every businessman who is interested in forging a business deal has been accredited. It’s as if long pent-up passions of Filipinos to travel are unleashed during state visits. Have you ever seen the delegations of our state visitors from advanced countries loaded in the same way?

The emergency curtailment of the Russia visit provides a rare opportunity to redesign the state visit to Russia with due consideration of economy and good sense. President Duterte himself should lead the way in trimming his entourage down to officials who are really needed to ensure success in the discussions and diplomatic niceties. Hopefully, when the visit is officially resumed, it will cost us less and net us more substantive gains.

Relationship with Russia a must
It is not disrespectful to raise an eyebrow at Duterte‘s adulation of Putin (he is DU30’s idol), and to inquire into Putin‘s curious rise to power after the collapse of the Soviet Union and how he has consolidated his power so immensely, one Western media organization now calls him “the most powerful leader in the world.”

I joined the late President Ferdinand Marcos’ state visit to the Soviet Union in the 1970s, when he broke the shackles of the Cold War and established diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union (and all the communist and socialist states, including China). So, I am curious to know of the reality of Russia today and Putin’s leadership, and of what close ties with Russia will mean to our country and our people.

My vivid memory of that visit is of how big Russia is. Marcos entered the Soviet Union through its eastern gateway. Crossing from Siberia to Moscow took such a long time flying, I saw outside the plane the biggest and most endless land mass I have ever seen in my life. You can understand why Putin wants to be as powerful as the Russian czars (“ruler of all the Russias”), and coveting the sweep and sway of the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

Marcos was indubitably correct in his worldview and timing in opening relations with Russia and China. Duterte is indisputably right also to seek good relations with both these gigantic countries and world powers. He is not foolish to want to be on the good side of Putin.

How Putin rose to power
Putin and Duterte are alike in springing to power in their countries almost from nowhere and through sheer strength of personality.

Putin rose on the ruins of Boris Yeltsin’s presidency, which was hobbled by Yeltsin’s perennial drunkenness, incompetence, and messy rule by decree.

In his final months in office, Yeltsin implemented what some historians called a “a coup d’état”; he resigned six months before the scheduled presidential elections, and appointed his prime minister, Vladimir Putin, a former official of the KGB, as acting president. This made the upcoming election irrelevant, a ratification of power rather than a genuine contest. Putin ran as the incumbent, with the aura and authority of the head of state.

Once installed as president, Putin started to recast the Russian presidency according to his own designs and with the overt intent to centralize as much power in his office and his person. He attracted fierce opposition from Russian oligarchs and politicians. He also divested some Russian billionaires of their wealth.

Russia and China: study in contrast
Russia is the opposite of China in its reform effort after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. It immediately proceeded to democratize and establish democratic institutions. Economic restructuring came in second.

China in contrast has focused its energies more on economic restructuring and building capitalism and a market economy. Democratization has been deliberately set back. And rule of law remains a fiction in China.

China has gotten immensely rich by emphasizing the economy first. Russia is able to hold real elections, but its economy has contracted by over 40 percent since 1991, and only high oil prices have prevented economic collapse.

President Duterte is seeking close ties with two major powers that have contrasting approaches to modernization and development. He means to play by ear or whim what initiatives to pursue and develop. At some point, the contradictions will tie up Philippine relations with these countries in knots. How do we learn from contrasting philosophies of governance at the same time?

yenmakabenta@yahoo.com

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