"There's not a sane person who can understand what you have said." (Platon Lebedev, co-defendant of Khodorkovsky, addressing the court after listening to his sentence).
Former oil tycoon and billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky and his aide Platon Lebedev were sentenced to nine years in prison after two weeks (!) of hearing the court reading the verdict. Long verdict, short result - fraud and tax evasion - and as much as nine years in Russia's Gulag-like prisons.
It's been said many times that Khodorkovsky's trial is part of a Kremlin-driven campaign to punish him for funding oppositional parties and to stifle his own political ambitions.
Here are some interesting and important comments:
Khodorkovsky's mother, Marina, asked if she had expected the tough sentence: "Of course, I live in this country. ... I lost (hope) the day we elected Putin."
Boris Berezovsky, exiled Russian oligarch:
"As soon as Khodorkovsky was arrested, I predicted that he would spend the rest of the Putin era in jail. It's the logical conclusion to this kind of political system, the totalitarian regime that Putin represents."
Robert Amsterdam, Khodorkovsky's defense lawyer:
"Khodorkovsky and Lebedev were found guilty of entrepreneurship, of innovation and of transparency. And transparency is the one thing this government fears. Transparency is the one thing the power cannot stand. And so in a merciless, in a cruel, and in an arbitrary sentence they have sentenced the future of Russia to nine years without Khodorkovsky."
Tom Lantos, US Congressman (D-CA):
"It seems that this political trial before a kangaroo court has come to a shameful conclusion. The trend of centralization of power makes it impossible for us to continue viewing this country (Russia) as a democratic country."
George W. Bush, US President:
"It looked like Khodorkovsky was put in prison and then tried. We've expressed our concerns about the system. We think he is going to appeal, and then how the appeal will be handled..."
Contributed by Anton Verstakov (Russian Journalist)
The last three days have brought two significant developments in Russia's international relations: the opening of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, and Moscow's agreement to withdraw troops from Georgia.
When Mikhail Saakashvili (President of Georgia, former Soviet republic) came to power in December 2003, he sought to move Georgia out of the ‘shadow’ of Moscow and towards closer relations with the US. Moscow's shadow is shrinking now.
Obviously that's one of the most essential and steadfast processes in the post-Soviet years. However, the last three days have been especially decisive.
The construction of the "Tbilisi" (Georgia) part of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline was very complicated under Moscow's shadow, and the project was not going anywhere. This wasn’t a surprise – the pipeline offered serious competition to the Russian oil transporting company Transneft. Only one year into the new presidency in Georgia was enough time to complete the pipeline. A corrupt, pro-Soviet government wasn’t there anymore to secure the interests of Russian oligarchs. The 1,770 kilometer-long tube (1,100 miles), financed in part by the U.S., will be shipping a million barrels of Caspian oil to Turkey's Mediterranean coast daily.
Before the pipeline was finished, Central Asian oil-producers had two choices: the Russian pipeline network, which is inefficient and monopolistic, or using Black Sea tankers. Both poor options will soon be forgotten, especially the Russian pipeline network, which is not a monopoly anymore and is simply not competitive.
Another former Russian monopoly soon to be forgotten in Central Asia will be Russia's military dominance.
Russia agreed Monday to begin withdrawing its troops from two Soviet-era bases in Georgia this year, resolving one of the most serious disputes between Moscow and its pro-Western neighbor. The Associated Press writer called it a "a victory for the Caucasus Mountain nation".
P.S.: The phrase the "Shadow is shrinking" should be viewed as a legacy of Cold War logic. The Georgian President considers Moscow's influence to be the "shadow". Russians consider American influence to be "evil".\
Well, forget it! Let’s call it Russian and American influence, and not use simplistic labels.
Contributed by Anton Verstakov (Russian Journalist)
The latest official public opinion research shows that Russians are still strongly influenced by the legacy of the Cold War in their opinions. Defending "routes of approach to our borders" and "the West is an enemy" are still lingering notions in Russian minds.
Here are some amazing statistics on Russian opinion about U.S. and EU political and economic influence on the former Soviet republics (according to the All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center (WCIOM)'s latest research):
-52% of Russians see this influence as a "great danger"
-24% think it is a negative process, in the long term
-76% of Russians consider the West to be an enemy
It is very descriptive that WCIOM didn't include a "positive influence" option for poll respondents, only the alternative of "I see no influence".
Other research by WCIOM illustrates Russian feelings about Russia's military bases outside the country’s borders:
-55% of respondents said bases are there to "guard the routes of approach"
-20% think that military is there to "defend Russian national interests"
-12% believe that the Russian military's highest priority should be to "constrain U.S. expansion"
Contributed by Anton Verstakov (Russian Journalist)
This was the main slogan chanted by pro-Putin demonstrators who gathered yesterday to jeer a man believed by many to be a political prisoner, the former richest man in Russia, a strong supporter of Putin's opposition, and a businessman whose business was stolen and destroyed by Putin and his comrades - Mikhail Khodorkovsky. The much larger group of anti-Putin demonstrators were dispersed by the Russian MVD teams. Some were jailed, and others were beaten by police. The bodyguards of chessmaster turned dissident Garry Kasparov, who showed up to support the demonstrators, spared him the same humiliation.
The court started reading the indictment against the former CEO for multiple crimes, but it seems reading the charges will last for almost two weeks in order to bore and distract the media's attention from this injustice done by the Putin administration.
"If this trial is legitimate, why do you need that many police, dogs, metal-detectors, and fencing?" asked Robert Amsterdam, a Canadian attorney representing Khordokovsky. Well, because this trial is not legitimate, and the Russian court system is not independent of the Kremlin.
500 police officers with dogs; fencing to prevent "undesirable" witnesses and journalists from watching the trial; special forces equipment for scrambling cellphone and radios in the area; four blocks of the city shut down; rent-a-demonstrators supporting Putin getting receiving $10 a day (according to Gazeta.Ru) that's considered a fair public trial in Russia. While Business Week has a great article on the past two days of the verdict reading, Russia Blog will take a look at the story-behind-the-story.
Continue reading ""Khodorkovsky, Go Home"" »
One of the major positive news in Russia today is that American dollar gained in price. It’s a happy news to see the Russian ruble devaluating, because many people are getting their salaries “under the table” in American dollars - cash.
Jobs paid under the table range from construction workers and school teachers to presidents and executives of profit and non-profit organizations. Not to mention the bribe market, where euros are still chasing U.S. dollars as the preferred hard currency.
Salaries in Russia are usually paid on a monthly basis. The flat tax of 13% is withheld from the official Rubles salary, which is about 10-15% of the real one; the rest comes in a plain postage envelope. Russians and Russian ATM’s prefer freshly printed hundred dollar bills. Currency exchange businesses may refuse to serve you, if the bills are too small or too old (used).
Today in Moscow you can get 28 rubles for one American dollar.
The failed revolution in Uzbekistan is an example of “fake” independence of former Soviet republics.
Many media outlets are comparing Uzbekistan situation to the ones that triggered revolutions in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan. However, they forget that those countries couldn’t open fire at peaceful protesters – there was too much at stake.
How could Georgia argue about Russian military bases leaving the country if they had decided to shoot their own citizens? And how would president Saakashvili be able to invite George Bush, if he had seized the power by assassinating the previous leaders?
Uzbekistan president Karimov does no;t have anything to worry about. No matter how many people he kills, nothing is going to change in a bigger picture. Karimov is very valuable to America and to Russia. He is the one who invited and hosts American air base, which is used for military operation in Afghanistan. At the same time he manages to maintain positive relations with President Putin. Besides, the large part of the protesters is believed to be Islamic extremist who broke free from jail the night before the revolt.
Russian military bases are neighboring with Americans in the countries of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Karimov's political position is priceless: he brings together Russia and America in the war against terrorism. It was Karimov and Putin who made the joint decision after 9/11 to let the Americans use former Soviet air bases for military strikes against the Taliban.
Bush and Putin are happy. The little revolt will be over anyway, without the support of great notice. Why notice 700 dead Uzbeks?
Even so, the events in Uzbekistan are covered by all major media outlets:
That headline is how government-owned TV channel RTR "Rossiya" (Russia) described the visit of U.S. President George W. Bush to the former Soviet republic of Georgia. The visit received coverage from nearly every mainstream media outlet in America (FOX, CNN, NYT), However, the Bush visit received very little or no coverage from the Russian media. Therefore, the average Russian will not have any knowledge about President Bush's visit to Georgia, or will receive very inadequate information about it.
Major Russian online newspapers said nothing at all; the major Russian TV channel ORT stressed the embarassing security problems, which the Georgians did not handle very well (according to the channel). Government-owned RTR said that "the Georgian nation has confused George W. Bush with the Messiah".
Continue reading "Messiah Arrives in Georgia" »
Today Putin gave press conference on European-Russian issues after Russia-EU summit.
EU-Russian relations get stronger with every year and now free travel (no visas required) between Russia and the EU bloc is being discussed. However, Russian citizens have to apply for visas to get into former Soviet Baltic states. Kaliningrad, the western city of Russia, geographically detached from the rest of the country, is hardly accessible now for its own citizens, who want to see their families.
The tensions between Baltic States and Russia recently have been increasing. Putin said that “It was a mistake for Estonian government not to attend the Victory Day celebration in Moscow”. However, Putin is willing to forgive and to continue normal relations with this country.
One of the questions at the press-conference was about signing the border agreements with Latvia. This triggered Putin right away. He said:
“We are ready to sign the agreements you’ve been asking about with Estonia, and with Latvia. We just hope they won’t be followed by the foolish in their content territorial requirements. Today there’s 21st century in Europe, and when one country is challenging another with territorial issues, and at the same time wants to ratify border agreements – that’s complete nonsense, soft boiled shoes!”
(‘Soft boiled shoes’ is not any kind of traditional Russian expression. President Putin made it up himself – YM)
Then the situation in the room got even hotter, when Estonian journalists addressed Putin with a very populist question:
“Why is it so hard for you to say, ‘Sorry for the occupation’? If you were to say these words, we would all be able to live together so much easier.”
This fired Putin up:
"You speak good Russian and I am sure that you read Russian just as well. Please take a look at the resolution passed by the Congress of People’s Deputies in 1989, where it is written black on white that the Congress of People’s Deputies denounces the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and considers it legally invalid. It did not reflect the opinion of the Soviet people but was the personal affair of Stalin and Hitler.
"How can we be more clear and precise on this point? Or would you rather that we repeated these words every year? What do you think, what more can we say? We think that this question is closed. I will not come back to it. We expressed our view once and that is enough.
"May be I didn’t study in university very well, because I was drinking too much beer in my spare time, but I do remember something, something still is in my head – we had good teachers!"
I see the following problems of a young or malfunctioning democracy: people do have freedom of speech and they are free to ask whatever they like, even addressing a president, but leaders who are used to the old times aren’t quite sure how to handle themselves. You can read the full press-conference coverage on the Kremlin website, however all the ‘shoes’ and ‘beer’ remarks aren't translated literally. Partly independent Russian TV channel NTV published the entertaining extracts of the speech on their website.
For the approximate price of $1 billion, under the supervision of 35,000 police officers in Moscow, 3 military divisions on duty around the city, 25 military jets guarding the skies 24 hours a day, with the downtown closed up for public access, and all the major freeways shut down for 4 days in a row - the Victory Day Celebration did happen.
Why was it necessary to throw a party like that? Russian federal budget for year 2004 was $95 billion - and that included expenses on defense, medicare, schools, universities, arts, etc.
First of all, with this billion Russia "purchased" front cover positive stories in all major international media. PR costs a lot, and it's been awhile since the last time Russia attracted attention with any good news.
Second, Russian nation faces so many problems, that it's much easier to distract it with big flashy party, brining back the imperial feeling of power, than actually trying to solve the issues.
And the third reason is Russian veterans. They have been undermined and mistreated for the past 14 years. Russians tend not to plan things far in advance and not to make commitments that involve long-term investments. Can government and private businesses find extra billion a year to let the old heroes enjoy their last days? Yes, of course they can afford it, but can they make it consistent? No. That's why it's much easier to show the single overwhelming emotional act of "care", instead of investing money in something that clearly will give no return.
They could've spent the billion differently this year, but looks vs. content is an everyday question for the nation. There just isn't enough money to target both. And Russians are always very clear in their choice, if it comes to impressing someone: PR is more important than truth. Did the world leaders enjoy the show? Sure they did. Did international media make good slide shows? Yes. Then who cares about the ones who actually won the War?
Celebration of Victory Day in Moscow was covered by all major media in the US:
Victory Day is truly the greatest holiday in Russia along with Christmas and Easter. Every Russian family suffered from World War II, and on May 9th all the veterans and the nation are celebrating the victory of 1945.
However, elderly people and veterans stopped being government priorities long ago, and Russian bureaucrats remember about the veterans only when it’s convenient to do so. If you recall huge Soviet military parades, showing off has always been part of Russian government tradition. The country is not the same any more, but mindset still is, so “caring” for elderly comes out in a very disturbing way.
Here are some statistics:
There are 1 million World War II veterans in Russia
Average monthly pension is $200 (5,7 thousand rubles); pension is the only source of income for the most veterans
11% of veterans can afford new clothing and new shoes
1% can afford movies, books, and household appliances
0% can afford traveling
$200,000,000 (6 billion rubles) is going to be spent from federal budget on Victory Day Celebrations.
Three times that number ($600 million dollars) will be spent from local budgets and other sources...
(Sources - www.pensiononline.ru, www.fom.ru)
Statistics contributed by Anton Verstakov (Russian journalist)
Here's an interesting quote, delivered by Russian minister of Regional Development Vladimir Yakovlev on April 21:
"Today in Russia there are 20 million males who are able to work. Out of these 20 million men: 1 million are imprisoned, 4 million are in the military or law enforcement agencies, 5 million are unemployed, 4 million are chronic alcoholics, and 1 million are drug addicts. So who is going to work?"