Proving he still feels comfortable in the company of old friends, President Daniel Ortega met last week with a delegation from the Russian Federation to revive bilateral relations and pledge mutual support for one another’s governments.
The Russian delegation, headed by Deputy Foreign Minister Serguei Ryabkov, offered Nicaragua a generous package of aid in the areas of transportation, budget assistance and technical support.
Specifically, the Russian government agreed to provide Nicaragua with $10 million in budget support, a new fleet of inner-city buses and a shipment of LADA vehicles, as well as reinitiate a twice-weekly commercial flight from Moscow to Managua, via Cuba. The Russians also offered unspecified cooperation agreements in areas of energy, health, education, fisheries and technology.
Last year the Russian Federation donated 110 buses to Nicaragua, which the government-controlled group ALBACARUNA then resold to Sandinista cooperatives at a discounted rate. But it didn’t turn out to be such a sweet deal for the transportation sector when every single bus broke down within the first year.
Angered by the poor quality of the Russian lemons, which the media referred to as “scrap metal,” the Sandinista cooperatives threatened to march on Managua May 26 to demand the government send the busses back to Moscow.
Ortega, however, couldn’t afford to have Sandinistas protesting Russian aid one week before the Russian delegation arrived. So the president sent one of his top political agents to meet with the transportation cooperatives the night before their march to promise that the government would pay for all the needed repairs, which are estimated to cost some $12,000 per bus.
Determined to avoid similar problems with the next batch of Russian-made vehicles, Ortega said the new fleet of busses will arrive “totally conditioned for our tropical environment.”
No Conditions, Comrade
The president praised the Russians for giving the Sandinista government “unconditional aid,” which has become a buzzword for Ortega following massive aid cuts by the United States and the European Union over concerns about democracy here.
But the $10 million in Russian budget aid accounts for only 6 percent of the aid lost from the traditional Budget Support Group (known as GAP by its Spanish acronym), a group of nine European donor countries that recently dissolved after the Sandinistas failed to assure any mechanisms for electoral transparency in upcoming polls. Ortega, however, seems to think it was an acceptable loss for the country.
“Nicaragua can’t keep depending eternally on budget support that is conditioned politically,” Ortega said. “I’m talking about some of the countries of the European Union that have policies of conditioning aid in a way that doesn’t offer security to the country receiving the cooperation. It’s the same with the United States, which, well, when it wants to, cuts aid based on political decisions.”
What Ortega failed to mention is that the “conditions” tied to both U.S. and European aid was that the Sandinista government maintain the basic framework of a functioning democracy, with respect for free and fair elections.
The U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation cut the remainder of its $64 million in aid to Nicaragua a month after the controversial 2008 elections, expressing serious concern about “the government of Nicaragua’s manipulation of municipal elections and a broader pattern of actions inconsistent with the MCC eligibility criteria.” The EU also cancelled $125 million in budget aid. Ortega said the elimination of U.S. and EU aid has helped free Nicaragua from foreign dependency.
“We are going to be more independent … we are liberating ourselves from the politics of blackmail, because there is a policy of blackmail by many European countries and also the U.S. government,” Ortega said lastweek during his meeting with the Russians.
In practice, however, the cuts in U.S. and European aid have forced Ortega’s government to slash budget spending, raise taxes and increase its dependency on Venezuelan aid, which has totaled around $1.1 billion in the past three years, according to the Central Bank.
The Russian aid is also unlikely to be as “unconditional” as Ortega would like to think, according to analysts.
“If Ortega thinks Russia is giving aid for nothing, he’s wrong,” said Russian expert Gerardo Alvarez, who studied diplomacy in the Soviet Union for six years during the revolutionary Sandinista government in the 1980s. “The Russia of today has a very modern economy – it’s a country that is totally capitalist.”
Alvarez said Russia is trying to extend its sphere of political influence in this hemisphere. He says Moscow sees Ortega as a willing partner after the Nicaraguan president jumped to support Russia’s 2008 military backing of independence claims in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Nicaragua was the first country in the world to recognize the independence of the two breakaway Georgian republics, which are also recognized by Russia and Venezuela.
During his visit to Managua last week, Ryabkov acknowledged the importance of Ortega’s support of an independent South Ossetia and Abkhazia – a position that has raised concern among other countries, including the United States.
“Your solidarity and support are very important to us; I am speaking of your recognition for the independence of Ossetia and Abkhazia, where we also support the decision (for independence). We thank you very much for your loyalty in this sense,” Ryabkov told Ortega.
Reliving The Glory Days
Shortly after pledging Nicaragua’s support for the two independence claims in Georgia, Ortega traveled to Moscow in 2008 to don his old winter coat and ushanka and be received with full military honors.
Alvarez said Ortega is trying to recapture the glory of his old relationship with the imperial Soviet Union. “Ortega is completely paralyzed in the 80s,” he said.
Congressman Francisco Aguirre, exforeign minister and head of the legislative commission on foreign affairs, said he thinks Ortega is trying to cozy up to Russia in an attempt to relive a moment in time “when he was a significant player on the world scene; when he could go to the USSR and be received as a major world leader.”
Aguirre says that even though the Cold War has ended and Ortega has changed considerably since then, the Nicaraguan president still sees a relationship with Russia as an opportunity to “strut and be treated well by a big-time world player” – a treatment he doesn’t get from any other G8 nation.
Aguirre says the political pageantry of his Russian affair offers further evidence that “Daniel Ortega lives in a time capsule.”
Yet despite the nostalgia for more ideological times gone by, the reality of Ortega’s relationship with Russia today is mostly pragmatic, Aguirre said.
Ortega sees Russia as a willing donor of unconditional aid, while Russia sees Ortega as “a convenient lapdog and cheerleader” for a country in need of political friends, Aguirre said.