23 September 2008

* Russia: Reincarnation of "The Party"

... Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who is also head of the United Russia party, will soon begin a series of visits with local party organizations in various regions of Russia, daily newspaper Vedmosti reported Sept. 22.
The implications of such a tour are myriad. This is all part of an effort by Putin to consolidate political control in the hinterlands, and when the tour is over no one will doubt who is in charge. It is important to note that the way the United Russia party is now being referred to -- simply as "The Party" -- is reminiscent of another Russian party that served as the single controlling power in Russia for most of the 20th century. Now there is a new version of The Party, and Putin is at its helm.

United Russia has been the ruling political party in Russia for the past five years, controlling two-thirds of parliament. Before 2003, the party polled well, and since its founding in 2001, it had become a major political organization. But United Russia did not dominate the political landscape until then-President Putin (who was the de facto if not formal leader of the party) began to consolidate his control over all of Russia politically, economically and socially.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1992, Russian heads of state had not headed the political parties that backed them because it would have been a reminder of the Soviet days, when just one party ruled the country. But Putin became head of the ruling United Russia party in April, after Dmitri Medvedev had been elected president and just three weeks before Putin handed him the presidential reins.

Now formally heading up United Russia, Putin has the freedom to publicly use the party as a tool -- among many in his kit -- to identify loyalists versus those who want to remain independent. Such a tool is very similar to one used during the Soviet era, when the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was made up of the top echelon of Russians (approximately 15 percent of the population and the most highly skilled or educated). To have any clout at all in the Soviet Union, one had to be a member of "The Party," as it was referred to. 
Today, although United Russia claims only about 1.5 percent of the population, its membership is quickly growing, and its reincarnation of The Party is certainly something the Kremlin has been promoting.

According to United Russia officials, "Much has been done with the reformation of United Russia on the federal level, but in the regions they still do not grasp the new role of the party." This is a warning that Putin's consolidation and reorganization on the federal level under The Party will now trickle down to the regional level. When Putin first came to power as president, he consolidated some control over Russia's regions by purging a number of governors. Now that Putin has weeded out opposition to his power, it is time for him to make sure that each leader is formally beholden to him politically.

It is crucial for Russia's central ruling party to control the regions, since each regional head tends to lord it over whatever national champion or natural resource -- oil and natural gas, metals, or diamonds -- is found in that region. Most of these local party leaders are already handpicked by Putin and fall into one of two categories: his former security comrades or oligarchs. For example, Vladimir Kulakov, governor of Voronezh Region, is former KGB, and Dmitri Zelenin, governor of Tver Region, is one of the managers of aluminum giant Norilsk Nickel and heads up Ressource Bank and RATO Bank.

Putin has always had a firm hold on his former security comrades. When a financial crisis hit Russia, he proved that he was also in control of most of Russia's banks and major corporations and those who ran them. Most of these governors from the security and business worlds are already beholden to United Russia and Putin's vision of the country. Putin has to make sure that the stragglers are playing for his team, like St. Petersburg Gov. Valentina Matvienko, who remains outside of United Russia but reportedly swears allegiance to Putin.

The timing of Putin's regional tour is critical. Putin and the Kremlin are in their final stages of consolidating control over every aspect of political power and wealth in the country. Enforcing a new management structure from the top down is imperative to Putin's efforts to clean house and impose control, and there is no better way to do it than by bringing everyone under the command of The Party. As Putin weeds out the opposition, he is resurrecting old connections in very formal and public ways, making it clear to everyone exactly who holds the power in Russia...


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Lebanon Time-Line

Introducing Lebanon

Coolly combining the ancient with the ultramodern, Lebanon is one of the most captivating countries in the Middle East. From the Phoenician findings of Tyre (Sour) and Roman Baalbek's tremendous temple to Beirut's BO18 and Bernard Khoury's modern movement, the span of Lebanon's history leaves many visitors spinning. Tripoli (Trablous) is considered to have the best souk in the country and is famous for its Mamluk architecture. It's well equipped with a taste of modernity as well; Jounieh, formerly a sleepy fishing village, is a town alive with nightclubs and glitz on summer weekends.

With all of the Middle East's best bits - warm and welcoming people, mind-blowing history and considerable culture, Lebanon is also the antithesis of many people's imaginings of the Middle East: mostly mountainous with skiing to boot, it's also laid-back, liberal and fun. While Beirut is fast becoming the region's party place, Lebanon is working hard to recapture its crown as the 'Paris of the Orient'.

The rejuvenation of the Beirut Central District is one of the largest, most ambitious urban redevelopment projects ever undertaken. Travellers will find the excitement surrounding this and other developments and designs palpable - and very infectious.

Finally, Lebanon's cuisine is considered the richest of the region. From hummus to hommard (lobster), you'll dine like a king. With legendary sights, hospitality, food and nightlife, what more could a traveller want?

Introducing Beirut

What Beirut is depends entirely on where you are. If you’re gazing at the beautifully reconstructed colonial relics and mosques of central Beirut’s Downtown, the city is a triumph of rejuvenation over disaster.

If you’re in the young, vibrant neighbourhoods of Gemmayzeh or Achrafiye, Beirut is about living for the moment: partying, eating and drinking as if there’s no tomorrow. If you’re standing in the shadow of buildings still peppered with bullet holes, or walking the Green Line with an elderly resident, it’s a city of bitter memories and a dark past. If you’re with Beirut’s Armenians, Beirut is about salvation; if you’re with its handful of Jews, it’s about hiding your true identity. Here you’ll find the freest gay scene in the Arab Middle East, yet homosexuality is still illegal. If you’re in one of Beirut’s southern refugee camps, Beirut is about sorrow and displacement; other southern districts are considered a base for paramilitary operations and south Beirut is home to infamous Hezbollah secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah. For some, it’s a city of fear; for others, freedom.

Throw in maniacal drivers, air pollution from old, smoking Mercedes taxis, world-class universities, bars to rival Soho and coffee thicker than mud, political demonstrations, and swimming pools awash with more silicone than Miami. Add people so friendly you’ll swear it can’t be true, a political situation existing on a knife-edge, internationally renowned museums and gallery openings that continue in the face of explosions, assassinations and power cuts, and you’ll find that you’ve never experienced a capital city quite so alive and kicking – despite its frequent volatility.