The West Block – Episode 3, Season 12

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The West Block: Oct. 2
Watch the full episode of The West Block with host Mercedes Stephenson – October 2, 2022 – Oct 2, 2022


Episode 3, Season 12

Sunday, October 2, 2022

Host: Mercedes Stephenson


Bill Browder, Author and Kremlin Critic

Janet Brown, Alberta Pollster

Location: Ottawa, ON

Mercedes Stephenson: Putin under pressure as Russians push back and Alberta-Ottawa showdown. Who will be the UCP and the province?

I’m Mercedes Stephenson. Welcome to The West Block.

Russian backlash as Putin’s war and bogus referendums demand more troops. What’s on the line for the Russian president? I’ll ask one of his toughest critics, Bill Browder.

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And Alberta’s UCP will announce its new leader and the province’s next premier. From the Sovereignty Act to separatism, what’s at stake for Alberta?

Just as he did in 2014 in Crimea, Vladimir Putin is again redrawing the map at the barrel of a gun.

Canada has denounced Russia’s sham referendums held last week in four occupied regions of Ukraine. Election officials went door-to-door to collect votes, accompanied by armed soldiers. Meanwhile, thousands of Russians are fleeing Putin’s draft, widely considered a last-ditch effort to stem his losses in Ukraine.

For more on what this means for Putin’s hold on power in Russia, I’m joined by one of his fiercest critics, Bill Browder. His best-selling book is called Freezing Order: A True Story of Money Laundering, Murder and Surviving Vladimir Putin’s Wrath.

Bill, thank you for joining us today.

Bill Browder, Author and Kremlin Critic: Great to be here.

Mercedes Stephenson: You know you track Putin so closely. You know the inside of the regime. You think often about his mindset and his strategy. It seems like perhaps the grand chess master here has vastly underestimated what would happen when he brought a draft in and started conscripting people, giving them equipment that looks ancient from what we’re seeing on social media, very little training. We’ve seen some pushback. We have seen recruiting stations lit on fire. We’ve seen some protests in the street. How serious do you think that rebellion is? Is it something that’s going to take hold or is it just kind of minor areas popping off here and there?

Bill Browder, Author and Kremlin Critic: Well it’s really hard to say. So we’ve seen in the past, Russian people rising up at various different times and we’ve seen in the past, Putin doing a very sort of violent job of quashing them down. And generally, like in the past, when people have risen up, they’ve risen up for issues like sham elections or media freedoms or things like that. Right now, we see people rising up because they have a real fear for their life. Young men, between the ages of 18 and 60, could be shipped off to the frontlines in Ukraine as cannon fodder and die. And so people have a lot more to lose now in accepting Putin’s draft and therefore, they may be willing to stand up more tall and more robustly than they have in the past. And so it’s really hard to say. I don’t think we know and I don’t think Putin knows how this thing is going to play itself out. But surely, it’s terrifying every young man in Russia right now.

Mercedes Stephenson: I remember speaking to a Russian truck driver at the border of Belarus when this all started. He was going back in to Russia and he said he’d been in the Russian army and he fully expected that this might be the last time he left Russia not as a conscript, that he thought he’d be forced back in. And that has stayed with me ever since and we now see it echoing across Russia. How vital is it for Vladimir Putin to keep his hold on power that he wins in Ukraine? At what point does he make the calculus that he is potentially too much domestic descent by perpetuating this war versus potentially losing his hold on power if he doesn’t win it?

Bill Browder, Author and Kremlin Critic: Well we need to understand that if Putin were ever to lose power in Russia, he would lose all the money that he has stolen over the last 22 years, he would go to jail and he would die. And so for Putin, he views it as an existential threat. He cannot lose power. And so in my opinion, and the reason he went into this war, was he felt like there was a chance he would lose power and he needed a good war to solidify his support. So now he’s in a situation where he’s losing the war, looking weak. And so all he knows how to do in a situation like this is escalate, to double down, triple down, quadruple down. And so that’s what this conscription is all about. He lost 100 thousand troops either through death, disability or taken prisoner of war. He needs more troops at the border. More troops in action because if they’re not there, the Ukrainians will continue to push the Russians back. And so he has no choice. He has to have these conscripts go in there. And he is going to also try to figure out a way to quash any descent and he’s usually pretty good at it. So I wouldn’t rule Putin out when you watch these recruiting stations set on fire or people demonstrating in the streets. This usually happens. He then figures out how to terrorize these people and they all go back to their kitchens. And that’s probably what’s going to happen, but we don’t know. We don’t know for sure how angry people are and how scared they are.

Mercedes Stephenson: There have been quite a number of high profile oligarchs who have suddenly died, through mysterious accidents or alleged suicides. I’m curious what your take is on those? Is it a conspiracy theory to think that’s connected or do you think that these were some rising critics in Putin’s circle?

Bill Browder, Author and Kremlin Critic: Well I can tell you with 100 per cent certainty that none of these people are critics in Putin’s circle. These people are all sort of mid to high level executives, almost all of them in oil and gas companies. And my take on the situation is it does have to do with the war but not in the way you’d expect. Because of the sanctions on the war, the pot of money that’s available to Russians is a lot less. And so what’s happened is there’s a subterranean war going on over cash flows. And almost each one of these individuals is a person from an oil and gas company that sits in front of cash flows, and somebody probably went to them and said, “Hey, we want that money diverted to us now.” And these people probably said, “No.” And in Russia, when there’s money involved and a large amount of money and people want money, they kill. And so I would guess that every one of these deaths has something to do with the diversion of cash flow from the oil and gas industry and people ready to kill over that. That’s the most likely scenario and we’ve seen this type of thing play out in the past. In the 1990s, they had something called the ‘aluminum wars’, where a similar number of people were getting killed in the aluminum industry because of a fight over cash flow.

Mercedes Stephenson: Speaking of oil and gas, you know Putin cutting off energy supplies to Europe pre-emptively. Obviously, going to be a tough winter for Europeans, but there are those who think that this could backfire on Putin as well. What’s your take on him using energy as leverage in this war?

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Bill Browder, Author and Kremlin Critic: Well Putin is going to use everything as leverage in this war, and it surprises me that he’s using—cutting off the sale of gas for one simple reason, which is that gas is one of his biggest revenue generators. So, we may not be getting gas in the West, but he’s not getting money coming back to him. And gas—gas in terms of sales to Europe, makes up about 25 per cent of the Russian Government budget and that means that Putin is basically—he’s betting big and betting short term that we’re going to fold before he does because this affects his profoundly, financially.

Mercedes Stephenson: Realistically, is it about what the West is going to do or is it what’s going to happen inside Russia that changes Putin’s calculus, if anything can?

Bill Browder, Author and Kremlin Critic: Well I think we have a big role to play. So coming back to the oil and gas, if we can somehow figure out how to diversify away from Russian gas, if the Germans can do LNG or turn on their nuclear power plants and become independent from Russia, then Russia has permanently lost a huge source of income. And as we look at this war and how to end it, and one of the key attributes of this is to make sure that Russia doesn’t have the financial resources to continue this war, and one of the best ways of doing that is to not pay them for their gas. And so this would have been a policy that I would have recommended the West do, if we could ever have firmed ourselves up enough to bite the bullet, but Putin’s doing it for us. There is one thing that’s important for all of us to do: Canada, the United States, the U.K., the EU, and that is to start coming down hard on the countries that are helping Russia evade sanctions. You’ve got countries like the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, India, South Africa that are helping Russia evade sanctions. And together, the Canada, U.S., etc., we have the economic might to tell those countries you’ve got to pick sides. You’ve got to decide, do you want to trade with us or do you want to trade with Russia, because if you want to trade with us, you can’t trade with Russia. If we did that, that would also significantly isolate Russia financially and wear down their financial resources to fight this war.

Mercedes Stephenson: Do you think the West is doing enough to take Russia on in that matter?

Bill Browder, Author and Kremlin Critic: Well I think we’ve done a lot. I mean, if you look at the sanctions program, it’s probably the most wide reaching, aggressive, devastating sanctions program that’s ever been put in place. Having said that, there is, for sure, more that we can do. We can do these secondary sanctions against these evading countries. We can sanction more oligarchs. We can now start to think about converting the money that’s frozen into money that goes back to Ukraine for reconstruction. These are things we can do. These are all things we should do. These are things I’m talking to the governments about doing. So yes, there’s more to be done. But, you know, I wouldn’t say we haven’t done anything. We’ve done quite a bit so far.

Mercedes Stephenson: Well one of the things the Canadian Government had been pressured on was shutting down visas from Russia. And our foreign affairs minister has said that’s not a good option because it would prevent Russian dissidents from leaving. What are your thoughts on that?

Bill Browder, Author and Kremlin Critic: Well I think it’s very easy to separate the wheat from the chaff that we know who the dissidents are. The people who have been visible, verifiable dissidents should absolutely get visas, but I don’t think that people who are running away from a draft should necessarily get visas to come to Canada. We have a lot of Ukrainians that deserve to come to Canada. There’s a lot of Afghans who assisted Canada that deserve to come to Canada. There’s a lot of people further in front of the line. The Russians who are evading their military service, they should stand up in Russia and stand up to Putin that we shouldn’t allow them to leave. These are people who said nothing when the invasion happened and all of a sudden when their own personal interests are at stake, they’re all running for the hills. Well maybe they should be demonstrating on Red Square in the way that the Ukrainians did during May Dawn, where they overthrew their corrupt leader back then. Why can’t the Russians stand up to Putin? They should be doing that.

Mercedes Stephenson: Bill Browder, always a pleasure to speak to you. Thank you for joining us today, sir.

Bill Browder, Author and Kremlin Critic: Thank you.

Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, Albertans will learn later this week who will succeed outgoing Premier Jason Kenney.

Janet Brown, Alberta Pollster: “This leadership race, I think, is probably doing some serious damage to the UCP brand.”

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Mercedes Stephenson: I’ll speak with pollster Janet Brown on the race to lead Alberta’s United Conservative Party and its implications for all Canadians.


Mercedes Stephenson: Members of Alberta’s United Conservative Party will choose their new leader and the province’s new premier this Thursday.

Former Wildrose leader Danielle Smith is widely seen as the frontrunner, and her proposed Alberta Sovereignty Act has been a flashpoint in the campaign. The bill would actually allow the Alberta Legislature, in theory, to ignore federal laws deemed to be against the province’s interests. Critics have slammed the idea, including outgoing premier Jason Kenney, who said it would turn Alberta into a ‘banana republic.’

Joining me now for more on the race and what it could mean for national unity is Alberta pollster Janet Brown. Thank you so much for joining us today, Janet.

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Janet Brown, Alberta Pollster: Thanks for having me.

Mercedes Stephenson: Obviously this has been a really interesting race to watch, whether you’re in Alberta or anywhere else in the nation. Alberta politics always have consequences for us all across this country. What is your polling showing about who’s expected to win on Thursday? Everything we’re hearing is Danielle Smith. Is that consistent with what you’re seeing?

Janet Brown, Alberta Pollster: Well here’s the thing, we don’t really have any good polling. It’s impossible to do a good poll without a random representative list of the members who are going to vote and only the party has access to that. Danielle Smith’s campaign has put out their own numbers, so they haven’t been verified. But other than her campaign putting out numbers, we really don’t know for sure. Her campaign’s saying she’s going to have about 45 per cent support on the first ballot and she should win by the fourth or fifth ballot. And intuitively, that sounds right. So I’m not predicting this race based on the polls. What’s even more telling for me is how Danielle Smith is behaving, and she’s behaving like she’s the frontrunner, and how the other six candidates are behaving, and they’re behaving like Danielle Smith is the frontrunner.

Mercedes Stephenson: It’s really interesting. Whenever we look at who wins in a party, it’s not necessarily who wins in an election. But let’s start with the party first. What has been Smith’s strategy that you think has made her successful in becoming the apparent frontrunner?

Janet Brown, Alberta Pollster: Well what I should say is, you know, the United Conservative Party is fairly new. It was formed before the last election and it is a merger between the legacy Progressive Conservative Party and the legacy Wildrose Party. And so the leadership that we’re having right now is under very different rules than we had before. And one of the key things is memberships to—membership purchases closed quite a while ago, on August 12th. So one of the things that Danielle Smith, I think, did better than all the candidates, is she understood that membership sales were going to close early and she knew she had to go after the most impassioned voters. And that’s what she did. She went after the people who were really angry at Ottawa, really angry about COVID restrictions and that sort of thing. And she locked up those impassioned people and, you know, sort of the more middle of the road, you know, more dispassionate people, they didn’t really get interested in this race until it was too late to buy a membership. So, I think that was—the other candidates that were trying to run with a more moderate stance, they just didn’t get traction. Danielle Smith was provocative and she really targeted a specific subgroup of the voters, and it looks like it’s going to payoff for her. In terms of becoming the next leader of the UCP and the next premier, can she win the next election? That’s another question.

Mercedes Stephenson: Well and I guess that’s my next question. As we’ve seen time and time again what it takes to win a leadership race, usually isn’t what it takes to win a general election. Will she, do you think, stick to these same points if she wins? Or are we going to see a pivot to try to attract more of those centre, middle of the road voters?

Janet Brown, Alberta Pollster: Well, you know, that’s where—what we’re all wondering. Nationally, Pierre Poilievre started focusing on the same kind of voters that Danielle Smith did, but he had such a tremendous lead in that race. But he already started his pivot during the campaign. He started talking about—he started talking about COVID and restrictions and freedom, but by the end of the campaign, he was talking about inflation, ‘Justinflation’, things that people found more compelling. As yet, Danielle Smith hasn’t made that switch. Maybe it’s because she’s in a tighter race here in Alberta and doesn’t feel she can safely make that pivot. Or maybe she’s never going to make the pivot. That’s what we’re all waiting to see. But right now, the average Albertan is looking at this race and they’re scratching their head, because the race has been focussed on things that aren’t all that important to your average voter. And so a leadership race really should elevate a party. This leadership race, I think, is probably doing some serious damage to the UCP brand.

Mercedes Stephenson: How do you think that this Alberta Sovereignty Act that she’s proposed is going to play? Not just in the party, where it’s certainly very popular with some people and some Albertans who are very frustrated, but more broadly. Is that something that is going to create traction and more of what we’ve seen in the past of the Alberta versus Ottawa very strong federal-provincial standoff? Or do you think that that’s something that will repel some people?

Janet Brown, Alberta Pollster: Well it is very popular with her base. It’s one of the reasons she’s as strong as she is. And, you know, we always have concerns about Ottawa, here in Alberta. There’s always that tension between Edmonton and Ottawa. And when Jason Kenney was elected three years ago, it’s because he promised to get tough with Ottawa. So, yeah, it’s a very appealing idea to the base, but when you look at the—most of the members of the legislature, she has some support among currently sitting MLAs, but most MLAs have backed another candidate, Travis Toews. And a lot of high profile MLAs, including the premier, who we don’t know if he’s going to stay on after next week or not, but the premier has a seat in the legislature. He and others have been very firm in their rejection of this idea. So, you know, she’s got to sell it to Albertans, but she’s also got to sell it to her own caucus. And that looks like it could be challenging.

Mercedes Stephenson: Where does all of this leave the NDP going into the next election?

Janet Brown, Alberta Pollster: Well, you know, the NDP has been kind of quiet and they’re probably—I think they’re using the give them enough rope strategy. I think there’s enough going on in the UCP and the UCP has frustrated the average Albertan enough. But, you know, this race is leaving the NDP in a pretty good position. I would guess if an election were held today, and of course that’s a hypothetical, we’re not having an election today. But if we were, I think the NDP would be poised to win a majority government.

Mercedes Stephenson: Wow.

Janet Brown, Alberta Pollster: This race, I said, has been damaging to the UCP brand. You know, Rachel Notley was premier. She was a controversial premier, but she was—but, you know, in hindsight, I think Albertans are looking back at her as a steady hand. So right now, I think most Albertans just want to put the circus of the UCP race behind them and they’re looking for stable government. And at the moment, it looks like Rachel Notley’s better able to deliver that. That’ll be Danielle Smith’s main challenge, is proving to Albertans because she’s got quite a checkered past, proving to Albertans that she can provide sort of stable government.

Mercedes Stephenson: Overall, how would you describe the political mood right now in Alberta?

Janet Brown, Alberta Pollster: You know, it’s funny, as a pollster, I poll the general population. And as I said, it’s only a small segment of the population that’s participating in this leadership race. And what I see in my polling is a huge gap between what the average Albertan says they care about and what they’re talking about in this race. So when you ask people what’s important, the number one thing they say is inflation and cost of living. It’s the same across the country. Next is health care, trying to recover from the shock to the system that was COVID. Education, trying to get education back on track after kids had had to do so much home schooling. Those are the three main priorities of Albertans and things like sovereignty and autonomy and freedom, and the buzzwords that this UCP campaign are focused on, you know, as I said, those are resonating with a small group of voters, but definitely a minority fringe group of voters are considered about those things.

Mercedes Stephenson: Do you see whoever wins this, leading up to a more of an Alberta-Ottawa face-off? I mean we’ve heard of the current UCP government saying that they are not going to get involved in the federal gun buyback program. They’re not going to help with that. Is that sort of the direction Alberta politics is going in right now no matter who wins?

Janet Brown, Alberta Pollster: Well Alberta premiers, you know, for decades now, have made hay out of picking a fight with Ottawa. And Justin Trudeau is not well liked in Alberta. You don’t have to look at the results from the last federal election to know that, you know, this is not Liberal territory. So any premier would probably be tempted to go after the Liberal government right now But Danielle Smith, you know, she’s so articulate. She’s a former media personality. You know, I think she, in particular, is well-positioned to, you know, to take on Justin Trudeau in quite a dramatic and heated way.

Mercedes Stephenson: Janet Brown, thank you so much for joining us with your insight today.

Janet Brown, Alberta Pollster: Thanks for having me.

Mercedes Stephenson: Up next, what we’re watching. Quebecers head to the polls in a provincial election, where Coalition Avenir Québec Leader François Legault appears to be cruising to his second majority government.

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Mercedes Stephenson: It’s Election Day in Quebec tomorrow. The latest poll suggests Francois Legault will coast to a second majority government. Support for his Coalition Avenir Québec has been slipping as the campaign winds down. But the party is still polling well ahead of its competitors. The real question is who will sit in opposition to the government in the National Assembly? It’s a crowded field with four parties essentially tied for second. The Parti Québeçois has been climbing steadily in the polls, its leader once again vowing to revive the debate on Quebec Sovereignty.

Also worth watching: the Conservative Party of Quebec and its controversial leader Eric Duhaime. The party has seen a surge in support, riding a wave of pandemic discontent, but it’s too soon to say whether that support will translate into any seats.

Concerns about immigration have also taken centre stage, with parties arguing over the provinces ability to integrate newcomers.

We’ll have special coverage at, starting at 7:30 pm ET, with our chief political correspondent David Akin, digging into the results as they roll in.

That’s our show for today. Thanks for watching. I’ll see you here next Sunday. For The West Block, I’m Mercedes Stephenson.

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