The recent visits to Moscow and Tehran by Hugo Chavez raise a number of concerns about the deepening relations between Russia, Iran and Venezuela.
The motivation behind the Russia-Iran-Venezuela alliance is often misunderstood. On the one hand, there is the narrative that these governments are pursuing national interests, seeking to deepen their security against ever-present external threats and accrue regional power. Others argue that the alliance is driven by an attempt to build an "alternative architecture" of global relations, one that is conveniently unconcerned with democracy and human rights and bound solely by the common value of anti-Americanism.
Both these assumptions are dangerously misleading. In reality, the foreign policies of these three states are driven by the personal interests of clans that control the highest offices of their governments.
In addition to sharing a national leader-for-life mentality, the leaders of these three countries regularly employ the powers of the state in support of clan-controlled businesses, especially in the energy and arms sectors. When Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin travels to Venezuela (he visits Caracas with extraordinary frequency), there is little to no separation between his diplomatic duties and personal financial interests in inking deals between Rosneft and PDVSA. When the Iranians travel to Caracas, they are given a red carpet welcome to jointly operated factories and the assistance of elaborate money-laundering networks.
Chavez's family and close-knit clan of loyal military officers have become multibillionaires under his rule. Known as the boligarchs, they benefit directly from the alliance of Russia and Iran since it lends much-needed credibility and legitimacy to their plunder of the country. In exchange, Chavez last week visited Moscow and announced that Venezuela would recognize the independence of the Georgian breakaway regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. On the way, he stopped in Turkmenistan to invite the president to join the Russian-inspired gas cartel -- despite the fact that Venezuela is a net importer of natural gas from Colombia.
It is important to recognize that reciprocally reinforcing mechanisms of corruption hide behind the facade of state institutions in all three countries. These systems are inherently duplicitous, using laws and instruments of state authority to enhance rather than control corruption. It is corruption cloaked in nationalism, religion and self-defense. All three countries -- with Venezuela far in the lead -- have unstable civil-military relations that are fraught with the tensions of unlimited power and limited ability to control some key interest groups. Ironically, Iran is the most pluralist of the three.
What are the symptoms of clan rule?
• The horizontal of incompetence. Rather than a vertical of power, there is a horizontal of incompetence, characterized by a systemic inability to delegate power because of the lack of trust and poorly defined institutional responsibility.
• Short-termism. The ongoing internal fights over property in all three countries leave elites focused more on internal than external battles. Policy flip-flops are the rule rather than the exception. The only constant is the need for crisis. From the Georgian war to the FARC to the virulent anti-Semitism of Chavez and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the fire of the invective is inversely proportional to the need to mobilize security forces and keep internal opposition off-balance. The speed of opposition crackdowns is the one constant.
• Definitional anti-Americanism. The image of the Great Satan is another constant that needs to be continually kept alive. For leaders who speak of multivector diplomacy, there is a compulsive need to be obsessed with U.S. power and to foster anti-American attitudes as a tool to unite their societies. Yet in the face of the Obama administration, readiness for this is becoming harder to sustain.
Russia's legislation to ring-fence the "strategic sectors" of the economy provides a compelling example of clan-based interests at work. It is more accurate to call this the siloviki retirement plan because it protects businesses controlled by key individuals around the prime minister. But even better, it allows them to enrich their friends through tied sales between military, energy, and civilian nuclear technology. And now, if you are Chavez, throwing in recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia will give you a cheap credit to buy 100 Russian tanks.
The crackdowns on civil liberties recently in evidence in Tehran, Caracas and Moscow reflect the insecurity of three juntas that lack internal legitimacy and are fighting to maintain the private property they have amassed. Whether it is the Venezuelan boligarchs, the Revolutionary Guard or the siloviki, the torture and cruelty of the jails and show trials are directly related to their interest in safeguarding assets rather than ideology. All three leaderships are engaged in a quest for impunity and the possession of nuclear weapons sought by Iran and Venezuela is part of that process. The success of North Korea is not lost on these leaders. It is small wonder that Russia has so little interest in resolving the nuclear impasse over Iran.
The real danger, however, is that we too often confuse cause and symptom and fail to recognize how false fronts operate in these countries. Nearly all analyses, whether internal or external, see their systems through a prism that hides the power of clans and cabals. In order to formulate effective policies to respond to the new alliance of Russia, Venezuela and Iran, our first step should be to better understand what is motivating such odd bedfellows.
This opinion article was originally published in The Moscow Times.