By Ardain IsmaCSMS Magazine Staff Writer In 1987, the late Peter Jennings covering the anniversary of the Russian revolution for ABC news declared that Russia was “a third world country with a big army.” In fact Jennings was simply echoing the sentiment of the North American and West European elites towards Russia. And when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and Russia plunged into a virtual economic nightmare, the sad reality simply confirmed the assertion of Peter Jennings and the media tycoons that he represented. Indeed Russia lived its darkest moments since the Bolsheviks revolution 70 years earlier. As the Soviet state bureaucracy collapsed, sneaky oligarchs quickly moved in to fill the vacuum, selling off, with the complicity of Boris Yeltsin, major Russian strategic resources to western capitalists who had been waiting in the wings to get their share of the pie. So the economy descended into a virtual, grinding and humiliating halt. As a result, poverty soared, prostitution was rampant and crimes went to the roof. The humiliating setback Russia suffered in the hands of the Chechen rebels contributed to convince the western elites that Russia was a doomed country. Since then, the country has experienced a remarkable economic comeback. According to Kuie Institute, an economic research group based in Hong Kong, since 1999, the Russian economy has grown at an annual rate of 6 percent, the value of the Russian stock market has risen 11-fold since 2001—it is now worth $621 billion—and this year’s gross domestic product is expected to reach $900 billion. These figures, one must say, are the direct result of the rise in oil and gas prices, which have been in the rise since 2002. Russia is the world’s second biggest oil producer after Saudi Arabia, and controls 65 percent of international natural gas reserves. According to many experts, Russia now supplies a ninth of the world’s oil and one fifth of its natural gas. President Vladimir Putin and his government see this as a basis for restoring and strengthening Russia’s position as a world power. Learning from the Chinese economic success, the Russian government has almost entirely placed the energy sector to its control through the gas monopoly Gazprom and semi-nationalized oil companies. It has used Russia’s position as an energy producer to re-establish its influence over the regions that gained independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union and to develop new international alliances. That prospect sends chill to Washington and Europe, which vehemently oppose this development. These two worked in tandem throughout the 1990s to make sure that Russia never regains world status as global super power. But to the new Russian leadership, subjecting the country’s strategic resources is quintessential to reasserting Russia’s position as a force that cannot be ignored. To do that, eliminating the greedy oligarchs was the top priority. This logic weighed a lot in the arrest of the oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the breaking up of his Yukos oil company. His arrest has triggered sharp protests from the western countries. “The arguments on both sides are duplicitous,” said Arthur Masayev, editorialist of Thie magazine, a weekly publication based in Almaty, Central Asia. “The West is not concerned with democracy, but rather with access to the riches of Russia, which were sold off at fire sale prices under Yeltsin. As for Putin, his actions are not directed against the predatory oligarchs as such, but rather against the sell-off of strategic resources to foreign interests. Khodorovsky was preparing to sell off large parts of his enterprise to American oil companies when the Russian state intervened against him,” the editorialist continued. Tensions also flared soon after the so-called “Rose-revolutions” encouraged by the West in Georgia and Ukraine, as well as the US presence in Central Asia. Russia has since been able to regain influence in this region by binding the most important gas producers to long-term contracts. Russian’s Gazprom exports the gas in the region to the rest of the world market. In addition, Moscow developed a new coalition with Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in alliance with China, in the form of the Shanghai Organization for Cooperation (SCO), which invited Iran and Pakistan to its last meeting.Russia and Iran: The new players in Central AsiaThe announcement last June in Shanghai by Putin over Russia’s interest to create its own Pipelineistan sent shockwaves to both Washington and Europe. And many experts believe that the announcement was a preemptive strike spectacularly directed at western powers ahead of the G-8 summit next week inst. Petersburg. On June 15th, Vladimir Putin told the world that “Gazprom is ready to support the construction of a gas pipeline from Iran to Pakistan and India with financial resources and technology.” According to Pepe Escobar, flamboyant journalist of the Asia Times, Putin was “referring to a fabled US$7 billion, 2,775-kilometer, 10-year old project—an Iranian idea, which should now be finished by 2009, developed by Gazexport, a Gazprom subsidiary. As a result, by 2015 both India and Pakistan should be receiving at least 70 million cubic meters of natural gas a year.” Undoubtedly, Washington could not be amused, for a strategic partnership between Russia and Iran with the idea of protecting not only Russian and Iranian interests, but also that of India, Pakistan, China and part of Central Asia, “something that spells nothing less than an auspicious economic future for a great deal of Asia—independent from any American interference.” The announcement was made at the annual meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Sources close to the Chinese leadership confirm that the pipeline will inevitably be extended to Yunnan province in China. From the deal, according to the Russian weekly Vlast, India sets to make at least $300 million a year, and Pakistan will save as much as $600 million a year in transit fees. What dreads the West the most is the fact this deal signal that Putin and Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad will be working in tandem. Control of prices plus transportation routes will definitely place Tehran and Moscow in a dazzling honeymoon. Fifteen years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Washington and Moscow are at it again. And the flashpoints are well defined: Eastern Europe, the Black Sea basin, and Central Asia. Putin is a shrewd politician with an acute skill on how to play the chess game. Experts agree that Russia doest not in any way need a direct confrontation with the western powers. What the Russian leadership wants is finding the best use for the massive financial flows that are pouring over Russia. The Russian weekly Vlast identifies “a new Russophobia in the West, hypocrite and erroneous.” The Russian response is to challenge the West to accommodate to its own terms. The Kremlin calls its own internal experiment “sovereign democracy.” As the Kommersant daily put it, “the West must answer to a series of ultimatums posed by Russia, including its refusal of European rules on the energy market, it particular position regarding Iran and the assurance of non-intervention on Russian internal affairs.” With a future looking so bright for the Russian leadership and, by extension, the nouveaux riches, the country is poised to be crowned again at the G-8 summit next week. The economy has rebounded, the Russian streets have been glamorized with exclusive chopping malls, the Pinkisi valley and Caucasus mountains have been put under control, public enemy number one, and Chechen rebel leader Shamil Basayev is now six feet under. So when the spotlight weighs on St. Petersburg next week, Putin’s message will be unequivocal: we’re back. And there is nothing the western powers can do about it. Russia, after years of wallowing in social and economic chaos, has finally reached the end of the torturous tunnel. The strategic partnership with China, long predicted by former Prime Minister Primakov, was the final piece needed to make Eurasian puzzle complete. And the Asia Times could not be more correct when it says that “Russia is not struggling to be part of the West anymore; it has evolved its own system, and not unlike the Middle Kingdom, at the center of the system lies the Kremlin.” But only this time, the Russian masses seem to be pushed far from the mainstream and condemned to live, angrily ever after, in the fringe of society.Note: Dr. Ardain Isma is the chief editor for CSMS Magazine and the executive director of the Center For Strategic And Multicultural Studies. He also teaches Cross-Cultural Studies at Nova Southeastern University. He is a novelist and the author of several essays on multiculturalism and Caribbean politics. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.