Thursday, October 23, 2008

Putin's Dreams Go On Hold

Just a couple of months ago people were still talking about with great anxiety about Russia's resurgence on the back of high oil and gas prices and Putin's apparent aim to bring oil and gas under state control.  These fears were reasonable, and potential threats to the post-Soviet order, as exemplified by the war with Georgia and intimations of what the Russian leadership might try to do to Ukraine if they got the chance.  

It now looks like the war with Georgia will mark the high water mark for the resurgent Russia for the foreseeable future.  In the wake of that event, western investors began to lose their appetite for investing in the non-energy economy.  Then came the credit crunch, which has hit the heavily leveraged oligarchs hard, and led Russian stock markets to halt trading, and finally rapidly declining oil and gas prices.

The first signs of the longer-term consequences of Putin's strategy are becoming clear.  The Financial Times reported today that Gasprom has announced that it may not buy TNK-BP's stake in the Kovytka natural gas field in Irkutsk after all as a result of tightening credit and declining gas prices.  This ought to be good news for BP, and yet one has to wonder if TNK-BP will be particularly eager to renew investment in the Kovytka gas fields given that once prices begin to rise and Putin and Gasprom  again have cash at their disposal they will return to their original plan. 

 In short, the already badly underdeveloped Russian oil and gas fields, will likely remain underdeveloped for some time to come as long as credit is tight and western companies are unwilling to spend their money and use their technology.  As long as this obtains Putin's dreams of firmly reestablishing Russia as global power will remain elusive.  Meanwhile, it will interesting to see how Putin's problems will affect regular Russians' opinion of their fearless leader.   

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Bronislaw Geremek (1932-2008)

As I was checking Gazeta Wyborcza this week I noticed several remembrances of Bronislaw Geremek, and discovered I had entirely missed his death in a car accident in July.   I didn't know the man, but in a blog dedicated to history and East Central Europe, Geremek's life deserves comment because he is that rarity, an historian who became an influential politician, but even before coming to adulthood he became wrapped up in history, as a Jewish boy who was smuggled out of the Warsaw ghetto in 1942 along with his mother, and sheltered by Stefan Geremek who ultimately married Bronislaw's mother and became his adopted father.  As such, Bronislaw Geremek exemplified the fact that despite the near annihilation of Poland's large Jewish community during World War II it was not quite so ethnically homogenous as Polish nationalists imagined, even after the anti-semitic campaigns of 1968 when most of Poland's remaining Jews were forcibly asked to leave.  

Sometime in the 1980s when I began my love affair with Poland and Solidarity I learned about Geremek as a leading intellectual advisor/member of Solidarity and that he was an historian who had specialized in medieval France.  His focused on social economic history, which fit in with the post-WWII Marxist pre-requisites, but was not really new Poland as the annals school had already been influential in interwar Poland.   To be honest, I never read his stuff as my academic interests took me in a different direction, but while working as a teaching assistant for a leading medieval historian, I saw one of Geremek's books on her bookshelf and we talked briefly about it and she clearly respected his work.

Like other Polish intellectuals and scholars coming of age immediately after World War II, Geremek joined the Polish United Workers Party.  Despite his Jewish heritage, he does not appear to have been chased out of the Party during the anti-semitic campaign of early 1968, but resigned later that year following the Polish cooperation in the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.  His path to becoming a political figure in his own right however occurred during the turbulent 1970s when intellectuals and workers began to find common ground. Geremek himself founded the Society of Scholarly lectures, which revived the tradition of the underground flying university of wartime Poland, from which he became an advisor to the Solidarity trade union in 1980, and eventually a participant in the 1989 roundtable talks that laid the groundwork for the transition from Communist rule.  In the new environment Geremek became an active leader of a series of economically liberal centrist parties along with another leading.  When the Law and Justice party tried to impose more rigorous disclosure of politicians' contacts with the Communist era secret police in 2007 , Geremek refused.  As such he will remain a hero of those of us who valued truth and human rights.