Kremlin Needs Opposition, Opposition Needs a Vision
Like hamsters, Russian politicians are spinning the wheels without embarking on a real journey to lead the nation.
Registration failure of PARNAS, Prokhorov's entry to Russia's political scene, David vs. Goliath victories of blogger Alexey Navalny (who's still alive), nationalistic uprisings in downtown Moscow, and country's "manual control" of Medvedev and Putin - all these are the pieces of one puzzle. Russia does not have a formulated point of view, everybody knows it, and everyone--including Kremlin--needs it. Absence of checks-and-balances is driving Kremlin crazy, as all failures are blamed directly on Medvedev and Putin, and in the leadership vacuum their authority is disrespected by the entire nation. The only reason they have the power is lack of not a better, but any alternative. Western media says that the lack of an alternative is Putin's calculated plan. We think differently. Now for a decade, Russian opposition failed to formulate a single goal or a clearly understandable objective, aside from just opposing the Kremlin. The means became the goals, and the dog keeps on chasing its tail. The absence of a vision is not attractive.
In Russia's major cities, T1-speed internet (faster than $100-a-month Comcast's service) costs $12 to $25 a month. It is unrestricted (unlike in China), unprosecuted (unlike in Egypt), and unlimited (unlike in Comcast's America). Egyptians proved that the Internet can be used to take down decades-long dictators. Blogger Alexey Navalny proved that the Internet can be used to expose very powerful people. (So far, Navalny hasn't been killed or intimidated - he freely roams across the country delivering speeches and participating in public forums). When Russian soccer-fans-turn-nationalists-turn fascists went into the streets, observers could see wide-angle photos of thousands of people demanding for Putin to step down. Police tried but failed to disperse the crowd. When Prokhorov announced his bid for Putin's post, two days later Medvedev invited him for a meeting. Certain anti-Russian observers may say that Prokhorov is part of Kremlin's hegemony conspiracy, but that would be equal to saying that George Bush orchestrated 9-11 to finish his father's job in Iraq; all points of view deserve to exist ("Putin is a fascist" and "9-11 was an inside job"), but we'll stick with the reasonable scenarios.
"My Perestroika" Tracks Classmates from Soviet Childhoods to Putin's Russia
An Era of Dramatic Historical Change Is Rendered in Vivid Detail, as Five Muscovites Recount Their Personal Stories and Old Ideals Shift to New Realities. Watch it on Tuesday, June 28, 2011, on PBS at 10 PM.
"'My Perestroika' gives you a privileged sense of learning the history of a place not from a book but from the people who lived it. . . . Astoundingly timely." -- Stephen Holden, The New York Times
The 1970s-era home movies featuring well-scrubbed, rosy-cheeked kids playing in the snow or at the beach would not be out of place in an American family. Even the 1977 parade of children through Red Square in uniforms that are evocative of American scouting outfits does not appear alien. It takes one child's resoundingly enthusiastic salute, thanking "Dear Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev . . . for the fact that we live in the Country of Happy Childhood!" to remind us that we are gazing into the looking-glass world of the last years of the Soviet Union.
And nobody knows more about that world -- and its sudden, spectacular crumbling -- than the generation of children pictured in the opening sequences of My Perestroika. "I simply was like everyone else," says Lyuba Meyerson, one of the women profiled in the film. "I was completely satisfied with my beautiful Soviet reality."
A rare account of the collapse of the Soviet Union as experienced by five members of the last generation of Soviet children, Robin Hessman's My Perestroika has its national broadcast premiere on Tuesday, June 28, 2011 at 10 p.m. on PBS as part of the 24th season of POV (Point of View). (Check local listings.) POV's regular season continues on Tuesdays through Sept. 27 and concludes with special broadcasts in 2011 and 2012. American television's longest-running independent documentary series, POV has won a Special Emmy for Excellence in Television Documentary Filmmaking, an IDA Award for Best Continuing Series and NALIP's 2011 Award for Corporate Commitment to Diversity.
Mikhail Prokhorov, age 44, occupies 39th position in the Forbes list of world billionaires; his net worth is $13.4 billion (read his Forbes profile).
In an unexpected turn of events, Mikhail Prokhorov, a Russian billionaire and owner of the American basketball team, the New Jersey Nets, was elected the leader of the liberal opposition party "The Right Cause" (Pravoye Delo). Immediately after the confirmation of his leadership, he announced that "there are no reasons to keep Khodorkovsky in prison," and that he is going to fight for the Russia's prime-minister's position in the upcoming post-elections leadership shuffle. Prokhorov made his wealth similarly to Khodorkovsky in the chaos of the post-Soviet Nineties, but has been smart--unlike Khodorkovsky--to stay away from the politics and to obtain the ownership of several foreign entities, which buys him the "escape route" in case something goes "wrong." Similarly, another Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich has been the owner of the English premier soccer club Chelsea.
Almost simultaneously, President Medvedev announced the introduction of the bill that will lower the needed minimum votes quota for entering the Russian Duma from 7% to 5%, and potentially even 3%; but only in 2016. (Russian liberals have been failing to gain even 1% in prior elections, which has kept them away from the country's leadership altogether.)
All the developments come in the light of the unsuccessful bid for governmental registration of another opposition party--the People's Freedom Party "PARNAS"--lead by the old-timers Mikhail Kasyanov, Boris Nemtsov, Vladimir Ryzhkov and Vladimir Milov, who had government positions in Yeltsin's and Putin's offices. According to the government, the registration papers of PARNAS contained signatures from under-aged and deceased citizens. The government claims were valid, which makes it unclear why the "new" opposition party with the weathered leadership didn't invest time and effort into a proper due-diligence, and why it is not trying to recollect the signatures if its members are truly passionate about standing up to Putin's United Russia. Just as with the monthly protests in Moscow, seems like the main purpose of the registration exercise was to fail it and attract the West's attention. It is important to remember that the so-called liberal leaders made their wealth and names in the Putin's system and not outside of it. On the brighter side, Mikhail Prokhorov's new political leadership, goals, and personal wealth might have significantly changed Russia's political spectrum overnight.
UPDATE (June 26, 2011, 6PM EST): Hours ago, Mikhail Prokhorov announced that he will spend at least $100 million of personal money for "The Right Cause" opposition party's election campaign. After all, the world may witness more suspense during the upcoming Russian elections than expected!
VIP Blue Light Driving in Russia - Reason for a Revolution or Further Obedience?
Two weeks ago, a member of parliament from Putin's party United Russia got drunk (as in smashed) and took his Porche Cayanne for a ride, killing a 23-year-old student, an only provider for his disabled parents...
On June 14, 2011, Foreign Policy magazine, in its article "Road Rage in Russia," asked: "Moscow's elite has decided it doesn't need to follow the traffic laws. Will there be a pedestrian revolution?" RussiaBloghas written about the issue for years (here are samples from 2005, 2006, 2007, and more), exposing crimes and murders committed by Russia's ruling elite on the roads; to save the suspense - the answer to the Foreign Policy's question is: "No, there will be no revolution." The reasons behind the answer are complex and rooted into a thousand-year history of the nation, its mentality, geography, and ruling style of the past 500 years (that surprisingly hasn't changed from Ivan the Terrible to Bolsheviks to Yeltsin to Putin).
As mentioned in the RussiaBlog's article "Enough Is Enough. President Medvedev - Stop the Killing of Russia's Innocent Drivers!" - Ivan the Terrible was the first person to make sure that his carriage wheels splashed bystanders with mud. It made him laugh back in mid-1500-s. Tsars, Soviet secretaries, and first presidents of modern Russia (Yeltsin, Putin, Medvedev) have done the same. Here's what many Westerners don't know and probably will have hard times understanding: the majority of common people--on the outside oppressed by the elite's driving techniques--in fact are proud of this old Russian tradition.
"Manual control" has become an established term in Russian media and among common people when referring to the ruling style of Putin and Medvedev. Wait, it's not what you are thinking, even though - yes it sounds like it. Medvedev and Putin rule "hands on" not because of their hunger for power, but because otherwise nothing gets done. In some ways, the managerial structure can be compared to one of Libya's Muammar Gaddafi, who--in his 40-year rule--ensured that governmental institutions do not exist and do not function without the key man. However, it is still different in Russia - neither Putin nor Medvedev intended for it to be so. CIA's World Factbook wrongly describes Russia as a "centralized semi-authoritarian state." In fact, Putin wished well, that's why he lost both - the centralization and the authority, along with the population's respect. While the non-existent Russian opposition and the West think that Putin is tough, the reality is - he is not. The moment the ruling duo turns away, stuff gets stolen, abandoned, unfinished.
A year ago, President Medvedev shared one interesting number - government bureaucrats annually steal $35 billion from government budgets during routine purchases; Medvedev is yet to give an update on how he succeeded in fighting the trend. Last year, during the severe wild fires, Putin had to personally fly over the woods, and even drop a bucket of water from a plane. Not for show, but because the Ministry of Emergency Situations failed in fighting the fires. After the fires died out, all the destroyed homes were rebuilt, right in time for the winter season. One caveat that Westerners are unfamiliar with - Putin watched live video feed from the construction sites on his office screens; so workers would work and not steal the construction supplies. Apparently, there was nobody aside from the country's prime minister to ensure the proper construction process in a "centralized semi-authoritarian state."
From Russia with Love? Will Russia Help with the Currency Crisis in Belarus?
By Jessica Cook
The question on the lips of the finance market is: 'will Russia bail out Belarus'?
The Belarus ruble, also knows at BYL, was originally instated to replace the Soviet Union ruble. The Belarus ruble has been notoriously unstable since it was introduced in 1992 and today, Belarus is still struggling to keep its currency stable. The moniker "the black Tuesday" has been daubed onto the recent devaluation of Belarusian currency and it is almost impossible to exchange your Belarusian rubles for foreign currency because: simple put, no one wants to touch it. Knee deep in financial crisis and struggling to keep its currency head above water, the world can only speculate what will become of the Belarus ruble and the financial future of Belarus itself, which is being forced to sell many of its assets to try and stopper its growing debts.
Because of its poor value, many British exchange outlets are currently wary to deal with the Belarus ruble at all. Belarus currency exchange offices are reported to have a noticeable increase in customers as people try desperately to protect their hard-earned savings by exchanging them to a more stable currency such as the euro or the dollar. Because of the rush for foreign exchange their government has been forced to tighten the legislation surrounding currency exchange. These new restrictions and the reluctance of the rest of the world to participate in a collapsing currency mean that it's almost impossible to exchange the Belarus ruble, in Belarus or outside of it, and Belarus foreign exchange locations are actually running out of other currencies to sell. The high number of people trying to exchange Belarus rubles for other currencies has led to a physical drought of other currencies due to the rising demand created by financial panic. To combat financial collapse foreign exchange offices have been limited so that they can sell only what they buy from clients. Because of the volatile nature of this currency, the government have also frozen the prices on certain foodstuffs but ordinary Belarusians are thought to be hoarding staples in case of future problems in a classic case of currency panic.
As he prepares to retire as U.S. secretary of defense, Robert Gates has suggested that the U.S. can no longer be NATO's financial backer.
Retiring U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates made what looked like a farewell speech last week. In it, he castigated the military leaders of NATO and its European member states. The former, for their inability to conduct effective military operations in Afghanistan and Libya; the latter, for their reluctance to invest substantial human and financial resources in NATO, expecting the United States to go on bearing most of the burden. The U.S. increasingly resents this kind of attitude on the part of its allies, particularly now that the country is facing enormous economic and financial problems.
Gates is leaving office and so does not feel the need to mince words. In his recent comments, he has plainly warned Europe that it had better revise its policy of obtaining security at other people's expense - otherwise future U.S. political leaders, those for whom the Cold War was not the same kind of formative experience that it was for Gates's generation, may decide that U.S. investment in NATO brings too scant a return and is not really worth it.
Death of Yuri Budanov - Russia's Political Murder that Got No Coverage in the West
Colonel Yuri Budanov was one of the most spoken-about participants of the war in Chechnya. He was arrested in 2000, tried in court for rape and murder of a Chechen girl in 2001, convicted of kidnapping, abuse of office, and murder in 2003 and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Budanov admitted going into a rage and killing an 18-year-old Chechen Elza Kungaeva, a suspected sniper who attacked Budanov's unit and killed his soldiers. The rape charges were never proven. However soldiers were believed to have abused girl's dead body.
Budanov was pardoned in 2009, 15 months before completing his term. Right away, he said he was being followed by the Chechens. He repeatedly talked about black cars with tinted windows parked by his house, and asked for the government's protection. The government refused security services, Budanov went into hiding, came out in the open several months ago, and was shot in downtown Moscow in broad daylight on June 10, 2011 (last Friday)-- four bullets to his head. He was buried as an army hero on June 13. Officers and soldiers who spoke at his funeral said that he was an "officer from God," and an "honorable man and a leader who saved hundreds of lives." Zhirinovsky was one of the controversial political and social leaders who attended the funeral. He said that "Budanov paid for Russian government's failed policies."
The real moral of this story goes far beyond a daylight murder, revenge, judicial and policy failures, or Islamic intolerance. Russians took Budanov's death as a clear message that 1) it is OK to take matters in your hands, 2) no one is safe from lawlessness and the government will not protect you, 3) the legal system does not work, as it cannot satisfy either of the sides - the accusers are not content and the accused are not safe, 4) and that Russia would be much better off if it were "for Russians" only (a nationalistic statement that recently has been rising in its popularity).
The murder should have been better covered in the West, not just because killing people is wrong, but because it was another splash of oil into Russian society's fire of fascism, racism, and radicalism. Many people see in that fire an alternative to either liberal democrats or Putin's stagnation. If the majority of Russians get what they want, a new leader will make Putin look like a plush bunny and an angel.
June 12: Russia's Independence Day - No Reason to Celebrate
Russia's Independence Day - a time to catch up on gardening...
Today, June 12 is a federal holiday in Russia. It's the Independence Day. Unlike the U.S., Russia did not fight for its independence; quite the opposite - on that day it lost all of its territories that it had incorporated over 1,000 years. Who and why decided that this day should be a holiday is unclear. A good analogy would be for Great Britain to celebrate the day when U.S. gained its independence.
Regardless of the reasons, Russians like the holiday, as it gives them a three-day weekend. According to a Russian law, if a federal holiday falls on a weekend, the next work day is off. A great chance to catch up on gardening at the dachas!
Putin's Supremacy: Evil Plot or Leadership Vacuum?
President Medvedev followed Putin's habit of acting tough, and made spontaneous visits to government-managed apartment buildings across the country. (A common condo building in Russia is managed by a municipality, not private owners, and certainly not the federal government). While the entrances and common spaces are in OK condition in major neighborhoods of major cities, they are in a disgusting condition across the country. However, people quickly caught on to the absurdity of Medvedev's "act of toughness." Thousands of comments left on Russian websites asked if President Medvedev would mind to plunge readers' toilets and check air in their tires. Given the attitude, it is easy to predict Medvedev's failure in the upcoming elections.
Liberals--widely hated in Russia and adored in the West--have failed to gain 1% of the population's vote, now for a decade. However, there is a group of people that neither Putin nor Westerners like. Those are fascist nationalists. They hosted multi-thousand-people protests in downtown Moscow this winter (much grander than the ones hosted by 100 crazy liberals monthly), calling for Putin's resignation. Police failed to disperse them. Putin failed to reason with them. And, here is the punch line: according to the recent poll conducted by the independent Levada Center - 58% of Russians support the statement "Russia for Russians." 68% of the Russians are in favor of limiting the immigration into the country. Once a new leader emerges (and it certainly won't be chess master Kasparov) - Putin will look like an Easter bunny, and Western newspapers will have to quickly change their op-eds from "Putin = bad" to "we missed our chance to build ties with Russia."
U.S. and Ukraine Conduct Naval Exercises in Russia's Backyard. Russia Stays Calm.
Now, imagine the following: Russian navy conducting military exercises with Cuba in the Gulf of Mexico, and the U.S. is not invited. How does it sound? Surreal. Well, today U.S. and Ukrainian Navy started joint military exercises "Sea Breeze" in the Black Sea (in Odessa), just a few miles away from Russia's border. A few amateur participants like Georgia have been thrown in to make the exercises look "international" rather than bilateral. Ukrainian news agency reports that "servicemen from Algeria, Azerbaijan, Belgium, Britain, Canada, Denmark, Georgia, Kenya, Macedonia, Moldova, the Netherlands, Germany, Turkey, USA, Ukraine, France and Sweden are taking part in the exercises." The ships and equipment are American and Ukrainian, and Russian news agencies were unable to spot Algerian or German hardware or personal in the area.
The true purpose of the exercises--rather than to annoy Russia--is not clear to a common observer. It is probably to extend American military might in the best British/French/Soviet traditions of imperialism to the furthest corners of the planet. However, the Russia-Georgia conflict in August 2008 proved how insignificant the resistance from a former Soviet republic--even after all the U.S. training--can be when a small neighbor faces Russia. U.S. and NATO wisely would never put themselves in the middle of a local conflict, just the way they didn't in 2008. However, the good news is that (1) Russia is exercising patience and refrains from any moves or negative comments, and (2) maybe this is the time to celebrate the end of the Cold War. Imagine such exercises taking place five, 10, or 30 years ago! Back than it was called the "Cuban Missile Crisis." Today, it's a news item that is missed by all major outlets, and is not a news to the world population.
Politics and news aside, Joshua Hammer has a great story on the pages of The New York Times about visiting St. Petersburg during the famous summer-time White Nights. Even though he does not cover the night club life and nearby palaces, such as Peterhof, and Catherine's Palace, his interesting, positive, and well-detailed story--complete with a slide show--can easily serve as a visitor's guide to the Russia's "second capital." If you don't have time or money to visit in person - don't miss this one!