Small Children Tortured at a Russian Government Orphanage
Warning: graphic, unedited video
If Vladimir Putin and the Russian Parliament believe that their own-operated orphanages are a better option than the American adoption, they better have answers to video showcased in this post. A friend of a friend of a family friend of someone who works at an orphanage in Amur Oblast sent this video to a local newspaper to draw the attention to the activities at the orphanage. The way the video was "discovered" means multiple adults were aware of the events at the orphanage. Children's screams in the video (now complimented by investigators' reports of heavy injuries on seven-year-olds' bodies) suggest that orphanage "supervisors" (Russian government employees) were in the loop as well. If Vladimir is truly concerned about the well-being of children, he has something to worry about much closer to home than in the far-away America.
Russian news outlets report that a "criminal investigation has been launched and police is conducting interviews with the orphanage staff."
Online poster reads: "Gundyayev allows", referring to Russian Orthodox Church patriarch Kirill Gundyayev. The picture shows an Orthodox priest photoshopped next to his car and the accident he caused. Activist's website calls for people to print it out and post in public places
My most recent visit to Russia was overwhelmed by one particular notion - the country has become so materialistic that even Ayn Rand and Daniel Plainview (main character from There Will Be Blood) would've found the obsession with money to be too much. In other words, the core of the Russian society, the so-called ruling elite and middle class, has become spiritless and valueless to the point of increasing physical deaths and criminal activities. The only part of the society that still genuinely puts family values and honesty first is Russia's fast-growing Muslim population. In other words, imagine a version of The Walking Dead where "zombies" literally don't sleep, don't eat, don't drink, don't have compassion, and walk and work with only one goal - to make more money (rather than eat people). That picture describes today's Moscow (complete with FM-radio soundtrack broadcasting the lyrics that "any b..ch is just a matter of price...").
Some libertarians may argue that greed is good. However, while the libertarian "religion" is heavily advocated by Atlas, Reason, CATO, and other U.S.-based foundations, American libertarianism is from a country where people don't hide behind six-foot fences, don't drive 200 miles an hour killing school kids at a bus stop, don't display their wealth by spending 98% of their monthly income on clothes and cars they can't afford, and regularly go to church. The sheer fact that libertarian non-profits exist proves that someone in America spends money on donations and charitable giving. And even that in itself is drastically different from today's Russia, where people would easily spend $15 on a cup of tea and $20 on a tasteless desert on the go, but wouldn't give a dime to a charity that feeds orphans. In fact, Russia today has more orphans than it did during World War II, and people with the means to take the children in prefer to buy expensive dogs and provide them with fancy dog snacks and toys. Two days before I left Moscow, a drunk driver, travelling 130 miles an hour, lost control of his car and wiped out a bus stop with 14 children, killing seven on the spot. Under Russian laws his maximum sentence can be nine years in prison.
How did it happen and who is to blame? the Russian Orthodox Church and its corrupt ex-KGB, tobacco-billionaire leader are the ones to share the responsibility.
Central to fairness, American style, is an opportunity to be heard before judgment is pronounced, innocence until guilty is proven and the proof of guilt by actual evidence and not an alleged propensity to do wrong. This is why the unseemly rush to move the Magnitsky Act through the Congress ultimately is at least as damaging to America as it is to Russia. The proposed Act demands that Russia conducts a "thorough and unbiased investigation of the case" and the Russian prosecutors, albeit slowly, and even the parliament are in the process of doing just that.
The Russian parliamentarian report should be read in its entirety by those wishing to be fair and with an appreciation that it is just preliminary, but among other things, it makes the point that the legal context for the arrest of Sergei Magnitsky may be more complicated than Congress was informed by a British citizen William Browder who, it argues, had a motive to distort the facts to cover up his own activities.
According to this report William Browder implemented a scheme involving the use of Russian corporations he controlled to gain a larger interest in the Russian corporation Gazprom than was allowed by Russian law. The report further alleges that Mr. Browder developed a scheme to evade the payment of profit taxes by claiming a deduction for having a large component of special needs workers in their workforce which resulted in the substantial tax evasion.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Republican Richard Lugar (R-IN) urged his committee to go forward with the Magnitsky bill
Who could argue against the concept that corrupt officials should be punished? Didn't we hear from the Russian leadership, including President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, that corruption is Russia's worst enemy? Why such an outcry, then, in Moscow as well as in the U.S. business community regarding the Sergei Magnitsky Act? It is currently moving through the Capitol Hill bureaucracy and, according to its sponsors, is supposed to help Russia fight its monstrous corruption.
This bill, which is turning into a major irritant in U.S.-Russian relations, threatening to deal a fatal blow to Obama's "reset" policy, references the death in Russia in 2009 of Sergei Magnitsky, who died while in pre-trial detention on a tax fraud charge after being refused medical treatment for his illnesses. The bill calls for U.S. visa denial and assets freeze for all Russian officials involved in mistreating Magnitsky or in some other "gross human rights violations."
"We wish not to meddle with the internal affairs of any country..."
- President Thomas Jefferson
On Thursday, June 7, Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen will convene a hearing at the House Committee on Foreign Affairs which she chairs. However, instead of using her committee's significant resources to conduct the People's business, she will take up the Magnitsky Bill, a controversial issue that may hinder U.S.-Russia relations outside of logic and reason.
The name of this H.R. 4405 bill references the death in 2009 in Russia of Sergei Magnitsky who died while in pre-trial detention on a tax fraud case after being refused medical treatment for his illnesses. President Dmitry Medvedev at the time dismissed a number of top local and federal prison officials over it. Prime-Minister Vladimir Putin called the death a "tragedy." The investigation into Magnitsky's mistreatment and the whole case of alleged tax fraud by his employer - the Hermitage Fund - is still going on. So is there a role here for U.S. Congress to play? The short answer is "No."
As long as President al-Assad's regime causes instability, oil prices stay high; the Russian budget is balanced and Chinese gain the competitive advantage. This situation is the result of a series of decisions that stretch as far as 2005...
In a recent interview with the Business Insider, I said that "problems in Iran and Syria are 'wonderful for the Russian economy.'" I meant it. Mark Taylor's article "For all the bluster, these three reasons show Russia's position on Iran may be surprisingly sane" explores well why Russia is interested in the ambiguity around Iranian nuclear program. In brief, two things to keep in mind: the unstable region means higher oil prices (good for Russia), and Iran as a neighboring Islamic nuclear power means an imminent threat to Russia beyond any American's imagination (bad for Russia). However, after all, world economics and politics are a fine art of balancing, and that's what Russia is doing; playing a dangerous game, that's paying off well so far with Putin's balanced federal budget.
The new unstable player of the region is Syria, and many Americans, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, cannot wrap their mind around Russian and Chinese stance of non-involvement. The situation is similar to the one with Iran and Libya, but if one takes a closer look, it is different and only "better" for Russia and China. Suffering and dying of innocent people are bad things; however, they are bad only for the people experiencing them. The Russian Orthodox Church, led by former Putin's colleague, would condemn the violence, but would also remind you that there is a lot of suffering in the world, and the best immediate thing we can do is just pray for the victims. Gadhafi was a stabilizing force in his country, and NATO's help to the Libyan rebellion meant instability (higher oil prices, better budget in Russia). Gadhafi was a Russian ally, and Russia faced the loss of a $4 billion weapons contract. However, that monetary loss was offset by the significant increase in oil prices, and Gadhafi's old age helped Russia shape its decision to control the timing of his imminent "departure."
Syrian President Bashar Hafez al-Assad (coincidentally born on September 11) is a different animal. His leadership means instability in the region, for which American farmers are paying at the gas pumps, and with which Russian members of parliament are balancing the books. So, if the case of Syrian nation's slaughter is monetarily good for Russia, why would the Chinese go along? After all, they import oil as well. That's where many reporters (and Secretary Clinton) forget a small detail of a very large transaction that took place seven years ago.
The Russian Orthodox Church's standoff with punk-rock musicians from the Pussy Riot band continues, and becomes more inflammatory by the day, thanks to the Kremlin. In Russia's month-long news vacuum, attention is paid to anything to do with corrupt church leader Father Kirill, fresh Putin's moves, and the political opposition's movements. Today, a private Russian citizen, Andrey Borodin, 36, became an unlikely folk hero by sneaking an axe through the Moscow's court security. The ostensible charge was that he was attempting to murder federal judge Elena Ivanova. On April 29 the judge had extended the jail holding time for Pussy Riot band members who earlier stripped naked at the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in protest to Russian Orthodox Church's over-involvement in the Russian politics. Andrey was engaged in a bit of retaliatory street theater.
Had Andrey actually planned to kill the judge he would have had plenty of time (and the axe) on his hands. However, he allowed a surprisingly long amount of time for the court security to rush into the judge's office and detain him. Witnesses described him as "looking happy and accomplished" during the detention. The story itself seems merely "amusing," but the internet comments on the Russian websites are truly prolific. Having browsed through hundreds of comments and talked to a few Russians, I haven't found a single one condemning Andrey's actions. Quite the opposite; the Russian Internet made Andrey an overnight hero and led to fulsome calls for Russians to rise up and "kill them all with axes, forks, and chains" like in the good old times. One commenter says that "Andrey will get 10 years [in prison], had he axed her - he would've gotten 15 - extra five to finish off the corrupt judge who listens to Papa Vladimir would've been a good investment!" A few commenters think that the attack was a United Russia-administered conspiracy to show how violent the opposition can be. Whatever the truth is, the insinuation is obvious - progressive, Internet-using Russians endorse a violent solution to Russia's political stagnation. Those who've read Russian history books know that paranoia from any side is not a good social tendency for the Motherland.
Russian Orthodox Church Abuses Its Power, Engages in Politics, Divides Russians
The elections in Russia are over, but the post-elections tensions are still high (if not higher) than during the February and March demonstrations. Now that Putin is officially the new president, society has clashed over the statements and direction of the Russian Orthodox Church. Russian society has actively split into haves and have-nots, liberals (anything but Putin) and conservatives (better Putin than unknown), and internationalists and nationalists. How did it happen?
Two events have emerged into the spotlight simultaneously. The Russian Orthodox Church and its Patriarch Kirill have been actively supportive of Putin and made statements during and after the elections that have reached far beyond church's business. As a response, on March 3rd, members of a controversial band, "Pussy Riot," stripped naked in Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior, making a statement that their behavior was equally inappropriate inside the church as is the church's behavior in public. They were arrested and are still being held in jail awaiting a closed trial. In another situation, there was no jail time for a much more serious offense. A United Russia member of parliament Alexey Zheludkov, while driving drunk in Saratov Oblast last week, hit and killed a 13-year-old boy on a bicycle. The MP is back home, stripped of his rights to international travel, and faces five years in prison as the highest measure of punishment. In addition to the aforementioned controversy and injustice, the public also had a chance to recall that Patriarch Kirill (legal name Vladimir Gundyaev, former KGB code name "Mikhailov") in fact is a billionaire who made his fortune in alcohol and tobacco imports in the Nineties using Orthodox Church's non-profit tax-exemptions status.
All of the above was placed into the internet and media "blender" and created the unforeseen headache recipe for the church and for the ruling party.
Russian presidential elections are over, but the hype around them is not. To figure out what really happened in Russia, I've talked to several friends in Moscow and St. Petersburg; some of them served as the elections observers on behalf of the opposition, others were just common voters. Here's what they said:
Observer 1 (Moscow): "I was an election observer yesterday - we finished counting @5am and at my particular school [elections are hosted at public schools] Prokhorov won with 37% while Putin came in 2nd with 35%..... Putin "eighn't" that popular if one actually counts the votes..."
Observer 2 (Moscow suburbs): "Putin did in fact get way more than 60%. The drop-boxes were transparent; there was no way to cheat at our location. I couldn't believe my eyes - just how many people were voting for Putin..."
Voter 1: Yes, maybe we [the opposition] are just one percent, but it starts with a small intellectual group in the city, and spreads into the villages. That's how governments are changed. Putin's got 1.5 to 5 years left at the most!
Voter 2: I haven't voted in 20 years, because have always believed that my vote doesn't matter. This time, I felt obligated to get out and vote, for Putin! I couldn't let those big-mouth crazies have a real shot at leading our country.
For a variety of moral and practical reasons, the United States would be well-advised to avoid getting overly involved in this weekend's election in Russia.
MOSCOW, March 2 -- Judging by the statements of not a few U.S. politicians and journalists, the United States has a keen interest in the presidential election now under way in Russia. Moreover, many in Washington are loath to see Vladimir Putin return to the Kremlin. Nevertheless, for a variety of moral and practical reasons, the United States would be well-advised to avoid getting overly involved in this election.
The word "moral" sounds like an oxymoron in connection with electoral politics. A look at past and current election campaigns in the United States, particularly presidential ones, should stifle any temptation to set up U.S. elections as a shining example for other countries to follow. Colorful, grandiose and fascinating they may be, but -- an example for others to follow? Central to these campaigns is the amount of money raised and spent, much of it on smearing one's opponent. Is this what we would like to teach the Russians through "democracy promotion" programs paid for by the U.S. taxpayer?
Ironically, we pay for these programs by borrowing money from China, which lags way behind Russia in its democratic development.
Thomas Jefferson and Alexander I of Russia had a warm relationship that strengthened America as a nation. Find out more on Monticello's website.
"We wish not to meddle with the internal affairs of any country..."
-- President Thomas Jefferson
The US foreign policy establishment tirelessly propagates a false narrative about Vladimir Putin as a ruthless autocrat who stole the recent State Duma elections, and strives morning, noon and night to revive the old Soviet Union. The language used even by high-ranking US diplomats is sometimes scarcely distinguishable from name-calling. In view of Putin's high ratings among the Russian electorate -- approaching 60% and rising -- one wonders how we are going to manage our relationship with Russia after March 4th when it is widely expected that Putin will almost certainly return to the Kremlin.
The same members of our bipartisan establishment who denounce Putin for his alleged autocratic ways cheered Boris Yeltsin to the rafters when he shelled Russia's legitimately elected parliament into submission, imposed a presidential constitution on the nation (in a Leninist-style revolution from above), ruled by decree, and stole the 1996 presidential election outright with the help of crony oligarchs.
Protesters' poster compares Vladimir Putin to Muammar Gaddafi and mocks him with an old Soviet joke "You're on a faithful path, comrades!"
The Putin regime has little to fear from the latest public protests which, despite drawing large crowds, are apolitical. True politics will only become possible in Russia when both the opposition and the regime focus on the tedious work of practical politics, says Nicolai N. Petro in his highly personal view of recent events.
Kudos are due to both the Russian police and opposition leaders for having managed the second successful mass protest in Moscow without incident and in an appropriately festive spirit. After the Christmas eve demonstration in Sakharov square, the crowd was told that the next protest meeting would be held some time in February since, obviously, nobody wants to disrupt the extended Russian winter holidays which last well into January. By February, presumably, holiday cheer will have subsided and it will be time for another manifestation of civic outrage. As Putin quipped during his televised Q&A with the nation, if these protests are a product of 'the Putin regime,' he is only too happy to take credit for them.
There are several issues about democracy under discussion in Russia. One is corruption and the stories of major public officials, including V. Putin, enjoying lavish palaces--and owning them?--on a government salary. Powerful elected officials after a few years in any country often come to chafe under the limits to personal wealth that coexist with their much less limited public power. That resentment is the seedbed of public pilf in any country, and that seedbed is apparently well-watered in Russia now. The official typically thinks, "Why is it that I can make others rich, but get nothing for myself?" The public thinks, "If you don't like your job, quit!"
But Putin isn't quitting.
In America, presidents are limited to two four year terms, after which they get a reasonably large annual pension and office staff, plus a presidential library named after them. They also can cash in, or not, in the private sector, based on their friendships and name. That seems to suffice. Almost no US presidents are accused of personal enrichment while in office.)
A second issue is whether freedom of speech and freedom of assembly are truly honored in Russia today, or are they offered only as window dressing? In the past, protests were small and could be ridiculed and criticized officially for not following proper procedures for permits, etc. The size of the recent protests make such ridicule ridiculous itself, and thanks, perhaps to calmer voices in the Kremlin, the approach of mockery has been muted.
Let us pause in the midst of the twelve days of Christmas to remember, and (if so inclined), to say a prayer for political prisoners around the world. One of them, Yulia Tymoshenko, the former Prime Minister of Ukraine, has published a letter in The Moscow Times from her prison cell that reminds us of the personal risks leaders assume even in supposedly democratic regimes. Some regard Tymoshenko as corrupt, but it's hard to judge. The state in such countries has most of the instruments of publicity, as well as law, on its side.
What one can say is that politics should not be criminalized (to use Mark Helprin's useful phrase). There may be some corrupt politicians in jail, but there are surely many more in prison on trumped-up charges, guilty mainly of threatening the political prospects of their opponents. In the popular view, courts treat elected officials more leniently than ordinary people. But the opposite is often the case if the official or former official is a dissident.
Ukrainian Women Get Naked for Yulia Timoshenko's Freedom
Just recently, Russia Blog shared with you an interesting story about Ukrainian women who get naked in Kiev to protest local and global injustice (their movement is called "Femen"). The organization's last protest was against the driving ban in Saudi Arabia. Today, we bring you the news of the most recent protest where the ladies demanded that the former Ukrainian prime minister and the Orange Revolution hero Yulia Timoshenko be freed from prison.
Funny things aside, the Orange Revolution with its consequences has been a disaster. Ukraine has not modernized, corruption is at historic highs, the new president Yanukovych is a pro-Russian uneducated former-criminal-turn-Communist-party-activist-turn-Ukrainian-president disaster, and the former prime-minister -- once glorified in the West -- today is wanted in Russia and its native Ukraine for corrupt gas deals. James Brooke with the Moscow office of the Voice of America has the extended story that he reports directly from Kiev.
In the meantime, in Seattle, WA, the former Ambassador to the United Nations mission in Vienna, former Director of U.S. Census Bureau, and currently the President of Discovery Institute Bruce Chapman says "this is a show trial, and a shameful one. No officials should be removed from office, let along put on trial for decisions made within the normal practices of their offices. She made a decision about a gas deal, and it can't be a crime, unless it involves corruption. If there is corruption, as many say, then she should be tried for that, not for making an administrative decision."
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!
Ignorance Is Not a Virtue. Terrorist Attack in Belarus May Have Serious Consequences for the Region and the World
I get it. Belarus is far away, has no oil, nuclear missiles, or world-famous tourist destinations. However, this barely should be a reason why the news agencies in Northern America completely missed the April 11th attack in Minsk subway that claimed 12 lives and left 149 people injured. The same day, top news on CNN and other agencies were budget discussion in Washington, D.C., and a controversy about the book about gay penguins raising a baby-penguin. Politics aside, putting the news about the gay penguins at least 20 lines above an attack that killed people is just wrong.
Now, emotions aside, why the explosion in Belarus matters. First of all, it could have been (it is not, but on April 11 it absolutely could have been) an Islamic terrorist attack. Something for Western intelligence agencies to think about. What it really is--as phrased by the Belarusian officials--"an act of extremism." Lukashenko blames the opposition parties for staging the attack. Common people in Belarus and media analysts in Russia call the attack an "inside job." In the climate of sliding currency, produce shipment shortages, and shrinking economy, the only person to benefit from tightening the grip on the regime is president Alexander Lukashenko, who has been in power for nearly two decades. (Two more decades, and think "Gaddafi"). One way or the other--terrorists going wild in Eastern Europe or a man who's been in power forever and is tightening his grip on it--is a bad news, and more newsworthy than readers' complaints about homosexual penguins.
View the photo essay of the tragedy in the extended post.
No Russian Journalists Killed in 2010. For the First Time in Years!
One of Russia's leading journalists, Oleg Kashin of Kommersant was beaten violently on November 6, 2010 near his home in Moscow. After spending months in a hospital in induced coma and recovering in Israel's medical centers, he returned back home and back to work a week ago, on February 6, 2011. Russian president and chief prosecutor personally supervised the investigation, and found... kind of nothing. Regardless of their findings, our sympathies (for the beating) and congratulations (for the successful recovery) go to Oleg, who became the only real journalistic victim of year 2010 in Russia. Usually, Russian nationalists, government officials, Chechen terrorists, and even President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin are blamed for beating, murdering, and threatening journalists. While the murders and beatings inflicted by Putin remain urban legends, the real accomplishment to celebrate is the fact that--for the first time in years--no journalists were killed in Russia!
The year was less "successful" for a large list of other countries where 79 journalists were killed, 70 of them while on duty. The countries are: Thailand, Somali, Nigeria, Angola, Afghanistan, Cameroon, Phillipines, Belarus, India, Yemen, Uganda, Greece, Brasil, Lebanon, and Rwanda. The Committee to Protect Journalists has the report. YouTube has Oleg's beating (captured on security cameras):
Is Freedom in Egypt Less Important Than One in Belarus? President Obama, Are You a Hypocrite?
While Belarus' freely-elected Lukashenko is one of America's enemies, Mubarak (in the picture with President Bush) has been America's "friend" and "ally"
These are not rhetorical questions. Obama and Clinton were quick to endorse the change in Tunisia, and American government is always on the side of the "people" if they demand democracy. However, the value of freedom actively drops when the position of an American-friendly tyrant is in question. Had Lukashenko ruled Belarus for 30 years straight with an iron fist and millions of Belarusians demanded his resignation for a week - Obama and Clinton surely would have issued a statement demanding his soonest departure on the first day of the protests.
However, when the time came to establish a truly free nation in Egypt, the White House was slow to respond. Clinton made contradicting statements, State Department and the White House sent mixed signals, and--a week later--Obama vaguely said "status quo is not sustainable and a change must take place." Whatever that means, that's not what Egyptian people want (or even understand; Mr. Obama, you're talking to Egyptian people, not Washingtonian think-tank scholars). "Whoever gave him that advice gave him absolutely the wrong advice," commented opposition leader ElBaradei on Obama's remarks. Wow! Mister President, your advisors miscalculated. While this one isn't as funny as your gift of the DVD set with American "regional settings" to the British Queen, the results are all the same: the Queen cannot watch the movies in London, and Egyptians cannot use your advice in Cairo.
The ice pick that finished Trotsky's life (this is the one!) was kept in a police museum, but the Mexican Secret Service agent who had handled the murder investigation removed it for fear that someone would try and steal it. Sure enough, someone did steal the copy that he put in its place, and the original was kept at his house until his death. It is now the property of his daughter.
If President Obama implied--and unnamed CIA operatives stated explicitly--that an American intelligence officer who defected to Russia would be hunted down inside Russia by the CIA and killed, how would Mr. Putin react? Would he like to welcome the CIA killers to Moscow?
Well, the reverse situation is at hand in the famous Anna Chapman (no relation!) spy ring saga. The Kremlin infiltrated several agents into the US in truly mundane, petty positions and they were caught. Well, that spying for you. They all made it home in an exchange and were toasted by Mr. Putin as heroes. The fetching Ms. Chapman has followed her spy career with what appears to be a more, shall we say, exposed livelihood as eye candy for men's entertainment magazines. Well, I guess a girl's gotta work.
But now the Russian agent who exposed her and the rest of the team of Spies Who Couldn't Spy Right has defected successfully to the US. And Prime Minister Putin makes it clear he is a marked man. (See previous post.) And an unnamed intelligence officer says a "Mercader" is being sent to eliminate him. "We know who he is and where he is," the Kremlin source said. "Have no doubt that a Mercader has been sent after him already."
Really? Ramon Mercader was the assassin that Stalin sent to Mexico to kill Trotsky. Are we supposed to be impressed that the current Russian government might be using Stalin as a model? Are Americans supposed to accept the necessity of the Kremlin's coming over here to break our laws and indulge itself in killing people? If so, the State Department should be asking for a "clarification". At the least.
Sorry, but the Kremlin is not allowed to have people in the US killed. That would change this whole spy farce into something much more consequential.
BusinessWeek reports that imprisoned Russian tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky ended his hunger strike... after one day. He initially declared the hunger strike to draw attention to what he claimed were improper court rulings. He said Russia's courts were ignoring a legal change initiated by President Dmitry Medvedev that allows people charged with white-collar crimes to be released on bail. On Wednesday, Khodorkovsky issued a statement saying his appeal "has achieved its purpose" and he was ending the strike after Medvedev's spokeswoman said the president had been informed.
Khodorkovsky is serving an eight-year sentence for tax evasion and is on trial on charges of embezzling more than $25 billion worth of oil from subsidiaries of Yukos, his former company. Mr. J. Clifford Baxter, former vice chairman of Enron Corporation, committed a suicide. Other Enron executives went to prison. Maybe, Mr. Khodorkovsky is not that special; after all, $25 billion is a lot of money. Fortunately, there is plenty of food in Russian prisons to feed a hungry oligarch. The prisons seem to be not as horrifying as The Wall Street Journal portraits them (sometimes referring to them as "gulags"). If someone does not know the definition of "gulag" - one can be found here; "hunger strike" - here. In the last few weeks, Mr. Khodorkovsky was able to give an interview to CNN, get noticed by the BusinessWeek, write a letter to the president, get hungry, and have a hearty meal. Not bad for a hunger strike at a gulag!
"In recent years, Berlin became de facto the world capital of sexual minorities. Because there are friendly relations between the mayors of Moscow and Berlin, why not an agreement in which the representatives of sexual minorities in Moscow will hold their parade in Berlin with the support of the city?"
Aparent Killers of a Lawyer and a Journalist Arrested in Moscow
The murder of Novaya Gazeta's journalist Anastasiya Baburova and attorney Stanislav Markelov apparently has has been solved. The reputed killers were found and arrested; they are members of the RNU (Russian Nationalistic Union) known in Russia as RNE. While Western media insinuated that the murder that took place on January 19, 2009 was a Russian government attack on the journalists, Muscovites who witnessed the event could tell you exactly the opposite story. The true story less exciting, but and more troubling, than the one about Putin eating liberal journalists for breakfast...
The nationalists assassinated attorney Markelov for his work in defending other victims of nationalistic attacks. When the crime took place in downtown Moscow, Anastasiya Baburova was interviewing the lawyer. She drew attention to the crime scene and started chasing the killers; so they shot her as well. One of the saddest part of this story is the complete misunderstanding of the Russia's most troubling problem: the Western press continues to paint a portrait of a authoritarian Medvedev/Putin tandem and suggesting that there is a liberal alternative. The truth is, whether one likes Medvedev and Putin or not, the only other viable alternative to their rule--and a quite popular one--is nationalistic fascism. We, at Russia Blog, extend our sympathies to the families of Stanislav and Anastasiya.
In his recent article, Bruce Chapman--Discovery Institute's President and former Director of the White House Census Bureau--rightly criticized the Russian government for cancelling the scheduled 2010 Census. (The census was moved to 2013). We want to believe that it was Russia Blog's criticism that forced prime-minister Vladimir Putin to revisit the issue. The original official reason for the census cancellation was the lack of budget funds. While FSB, among many other government agencies, is using taxpayers' money to renew its branches' auto-fleets with brand new bullet-proof Mercedes-Benz's S 350 L 4Matic (yes, with expensive woods, luxurious leather, hi-end stereos, and iPhone connectors; any U.S. FSB agents want to change their employer?), it was extremely hard to believe that Russian economy was doing that bad. Russia's Census Bureau (RosStat) was despaired by the cancellation, as they had spent significant funds and effort preparing for the act.
In Russia, criticism of the census cancellation was very muffled, as most Russians sincerely don't understand its value. Most likely, Medvedev and Putin were not afraid to reveal the information that could be compared to the one of 10 years ago; even with the global financial crisis, it is very hard to beat Russia's humiliating conditions at the end of Yeltsin's era. It still remains a secret what exactly moved the Kremlin to cancel the census in the first place. What Russian government most likely hadn't realized were the potential economic consequences had census been canceled. International corporations use census results for their marketing, expansions, hiring, and other business objectives, and the corporate-oriented Kremlin must have heard that message loud and clear. The census, according to Putin, will take place in 2010, and the Russian government committed the necessary 10.5 billion rubles (360.5 million USD) to finalize the effort.
A developed country does not cancel its regularly scheduled census of population, especially when one is constitutionally required. So it is not a surprise that the decision of Rosstat, the Russian State Statistical Service to "postpone" the 2010 census on budgetary grounds was taken over the objection of Rosstat's highly regarded professional staff and at the behest of politicians in the Kremlin. The political leaders don't realize the seriousness of their mistake.
This may seem like a minor matter, except that it reflects high-level confusion about reality--the kind of reality a census captures. Indirectly, it damages economic prospects because it shows that public statistics cannot be accepted as reliable for planning and marketing purposes. If the Kremlin hopes that a several year delay will help it disguise negative demographic trends, it is deluded. Observers now will imagine far worse than an accurate census would show.
The decision is particularly unfortunate in light of the notorious statistical deceit that characterized the USSR. In that grim era statistics might as well have been another branch of state propaganda. Population and other numbers were so decrepit that the best analysis of the true condition of Russia demography probably came from Dr. Murray Feshbach, a brilliant analyst at the United States Census Bureau and, later, the State Department.
Soldiers' Mothers, a human rights group in Russia, is trying to draw attention to what, in any country, would be a scandal demanding highest level attention: the seizure of conscripts' passports, the misuse of those conscripts in war and their forced re-enlistments.
Somehow, this kind of human rights issue doesn't get much attention outside Russia, and, sadly, it doesn't appear to register in high level domestic discussion inside the country. At least it is being reported and a spotlight is being shone on the corruption behind it.
Has anyone in the Kremlin thought about the possibility of a volunteer military? How effectively can an army of coerced soldiers operate in the 21st Century, especially when some are bamboozled into service?
Journalist Anna Politkovskaya, killed in 2006 in what appeared to be a contract murder.
Political killings have declined in recent years in Russia, but still tend to blot Russia's image in the filed of human rights. Several recent contract murders have been tied to Chechnyan politics, where complex rivalries have been taken to Moscow in a violent manner.
I am skeptical of assertions that the Kremlin itself has backed such political terror tactics. But now--with a live suspect in police hands--is the time and the chance for the national government as well as the police to demonstrate their true resolve. It also is time for the international community to pay more attention to these matters.
"Those who went to Sparrow Hills this morning to stir up the trouble were simply wasting their energy. The world's biggest gay parade took place right here, at the Olympiysky [stadium in Moscow]" said Andrey Rybak, the 2009 Eurovision's winner, a Norwegian by passport and a Belarusian by birth.
I was in Moscow to witness the Eurovision the first two weeks of May, this year's most exciting European music event. The annual contest continues a tradition launched in 1956. It brought ABBA to light, along with many other talented (and not so talented) performers. The winning country gets to host the event, and last year's winning performance by Russia's Dima Bilan brought the festival to Moscow this month. Russia seemed to treat the occasion as a rehearsal for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, pouring a staggering $150 million into the song contest, and, according to all 42 voting countries, setting the bar so high, that no other European country can rival it for years to come.
Three interesting observations came to my mind after witnessing the glamorous event in person: the sexual orientation of its participants, the event's coverage in the Western media, and the lingual diversity (or lack thereof) among the participating countries.
Putin Bans Seal-Hunt, Surprises Environmentalists, Pushes Canada into Isolation
A Canadian seal hunter takes a swing at a baby seal. "Our hunt ... is sustainable, it's viable and it's humane" says Thomas Hedderson, the Minister of Fisheries and Aquaculture in Newfoundland and Labrador.
This week, animal welfare activists have found themselves the most unlikely ally. Vladimir Putin, Russia's Prime-Minister, a judo master, a book author, and a pet lover, who received a tiger cub for his birthday, banned seal hunting in Russian waters. On March 18, Putin labeled the annual hunt of the animals a "bloody industry" that "should have been banned a long time ago." Putin's words and law put Canada further into isolation on the seal-hunting issue.
Sheryl Fink, a researcher for the International Fund for Animal Welfare based in Guelph, Ont, was positively shocked by Putin's decision. The Russian branch of the organization held rallies in cities across Russia last month, but after years of fruitless campaigning, Mr. Putin's support caught them off guard. "It highlights the fact that Canada is still in the Dark Ages on this issue. It's astounding when even the government of Russia is more willing to listen to its own people than ours is," Ms. Fink said.
Sarkozy Supports Medvedev's Proposed Reform of European Security
French and Russian Presidents Nicholas Sarkozy and Dmitry Medvedev delivered key speeches during the World Policy Conference in Evian, France, on October 8. The Russian President publicized his concept of international security. According to Medvedev, a new treaty needs to replace the 1975 accords reached at the Helsinki conference and unite the Euro-Atlantic region under one "game plan."
The outlined concept consists of five rules (posted below) that follow the Kremlin's desire for a more "multi-polar" world. The bottom line is that there should be no single nation with exclusive rights for providing security in Europe, and that military intervention will be avoided as a tool of solving problems or as a response to a threat to countries linked by a mutual defense agreements. The Medvedev address was followed by Sarkozy's speech, in which the French President supported Medvedev's idea of fundamentally changing the Euro-Atlantic security structure.
The war in South Ossetia and Georgia, though appalling, resulted in fewer deaths and damage than originally reported. It is still not "over" and probably won't be for some time. Meanwhile, it definitely did serious damage to Russia's relationship with the West. In some ways, relations are worse than at any time since well before the collapse of the USSR--in other words, in roughly a quarter century.
We are going to say a lot more on this, and we are not inclined to be particularly laudatory to any of the players. The war has not made any country look good.
Meanwhile, before the war we wrote a report on Ten Reasons Americans Should Care About Russia. It follows, and, as you will see, it remains valid. Perhaps as tempers cool, people of good will can consider what is at stake; what there is to gain, and what there is to lose.
Remembering Solzhenitsyn: Thoughts from a Fellow Dissident
President Putin presenting the State Prize to Alexander Solzhenitsyn at the author's home outside of Moscow, June 2007 (Photo by: Getty Images)
The life of Alexander Solzhenitsyn can be described as a series of great miracles which could eventually earn him the status of the Saint in his Slavic Orthodox religion. Surviving Stalin's Gulag where millions perished, recovering from a deadly cancer disease, and, most importantly, achieving a great moral victory over his Soviet tormenters and, moreover, Communist ideology should certainly qualify him for this honor.
One need only compare the headlines of major Soviet newspapers calling him a shameless and sold-out traitor to his Motherland and CIA lackey with the praise from former KGB officer and Russian President Vladimir Putin, who came to Solzhenitsyn's house last year and thanked him "for the great work you do for our country" to see that many of his ideas have miraculously materialized.
Just over thirty years ago, Alexander Solzhenitsyn (ÐÐ»ÐµÐºÑÐ°ÌÐ½Ð´Ñ€ Ð˜ÑÐ°ÌÐµÐ²Ð¸Ñ‡ Ð¡Ð¾Ð»Ð¶ÐµÐ½Ð¸ÌÑ†Ñ‹Ð½), who passed away at his home outside of Moscow last weekend at the age of 89, was greeted warmly by a group of students at the commencement for Harvard University's class of 1978. The Harvard graduates likely expected to hear some typical words of inspiration before going out into the world, or an analysis of Solzhenitsyn's novels, or the progression of the Cold War. What they received instead was a sermon, a jeremiad hurled against the very society they were about to join as adults, as well as against the dying Soviet system that had exiled Solzhenitsyn to the West. On the audio recording of the speech, many graduates can be heard applauding loudly, while others murmur, probably wondering when this old man they regarded as a crazy, reactionary Russian would finally shut up.
To read excerpts from one of Solzhenitsyn's final interviews, click here.
Click on the extended post to find more thoughts on Solzhenitsyn, and to read a transcript of his most famous speech.
Solzhenitsyn in Vermont near his U.S. home in exile
Yesterday The New York Times and National Review offered contrasting profiles of the great Russian dissident and writer, who passed away at his home outside Moscow on Sunday. Russian Orthodox funeral services will be held tomorrow at the Dimitri Donskoy Monastery in Moscow, where Solzhenitsyn requested to be buried. The Donskoi necropolis houses the tombs of many prominent families and liberal scholars from 19th century Russia, the graves of Red Army soldiers who died defending Moscow from the invading Nazis, and anonymous victims of the NKVD buried by the Church. Solzhenitsyn, who fought his way into East Prussia in 1944-45 as a Red Army artillery officer, wanted to be buried close to his comrades.
Solzhenitsyn: In June 2007, then President Vladimir Putin (r.), who presented Alexander Solzhenitsyn with the State Prize, Russia's highest humanitarian award, visited the writer at his home on the outskirts of Moscow. (Photo by RIA Novosti)
One writer among the Soviet dissidents did the most to force Western awareness of the true nature of the Communist regime during our complacent years of the Sixties and Seventies. He was the same writer who did a huge service to the West in 1978 when, accepting an honorary degree at Harvard, he had the courage to tell the truth about Western materialism and spiritual decay. Solzhenitsyn was sage yet again in his characterization of the Russian Federation in recent years. He was a stern but enormously good prophet.
A popular design for a souvenir t-shirt in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Certain think tanks inside the Washington D.C. Beltway might want to consider stocking up on these for their future Russia-related events...
There is a popular saying: "A fool can ask more questions than ten wise men can answer". What the expression means is that it is much easier to assert something than it is to refute it. A great deal of the commentary on Russia these days is little more than a brief for the prosecution: a list of easily made assertions that can only be refuted with difficulty. A recent piece provides a good example. I will not identify the author of this jeremiad except to say that he is an academic (X, we'll call him or her) and the piece was published by a respected institution and an earlier version was published in a major newspaper. In any case, anyone who knows his way around Google can find the original quite easily. The piece is a cascade of easily-made accusations, many of which do not stand up to scrutiny. But, refutations of X's throw-away lines are difficult and time-consuming.
Tuesday, March 18 2008, Condoleezza Rice shakes hand of President Dmitry Medvedev during her visit with Robert Gates to Moscow (Photo by ITAR-TASS)
Since the presidential elections of March 2, Russia has almost disappeared from the Western news media. Both liberal and conservative think tanks apparently decided to take a "moment of silence" concerning Russia. No wonder! So much money and effort had been spent trying to brainwash Americans and Europeans into believing that Putin would stay for a third term - or at least, if Putin did not do so, then Russians, like a herd of sheep, would vote 99% for his hand-picked successor with a siloviki background; that Garry Kasparov would run for president, but most likely get killed by the evil KGB; and even if none of the above took place, something else very bad and undemocratic would most definitely occur in Russia.
None of the above happened, and good news from Moscow apparently does not merit column space. Only the Financial Times published a stunningly honest article "Let the Russians Sort out Russia," and the New York Times wrote a wonderful profile of Metropolitan Laurus, who healed a decades-old rift in the Russian Orthodox Church, and died on March 17 at the age of 80 in Jordanville, New York.
Putin's Iron Grip on Russia Suffocates Opponents NYT Article Brings Sharp Responses From Russians
Last weekend, The New York Times published another piece of amazing anti-Russian propaganda. "...the city's children, too, were pressed into service. At schools, teachers gave them pamphlets promoting "Putin's Plan"..." Those who have been to Russia in the last decade drop the newspaper either with laughter or with anger. One of the Real Russia Project's advisors explained his bewilderment upon reading the article:
"If you know where I am coming from, you know I see little merit in the article. I do wonder who paid Levy to write such a fanciful piece. It doesn't explain Putin's 85% approval rating in the polls - not the marks of a despot, nor of a person whose followers need to go to the lengths described in the article to shore up support. I have been to Nizhny Novgorod; it is one of the most dynamic regions of Russia. I am going to forward the article to two friends working in Nizhny that I spent time with in the past several months - one Russian, and one an expat who has lived there since 1994. I expect that their comments would be consistent with hundreds of Russians I talked with on four trips this past year - it is silly to think that people need to be cajoled into supporting Putin, or Medvedev, for that matter."
Unlike most Chinese citizens, Russians enjoy unfettered access to free media online, and their response to the NYT was overwhelming in the first hours after the publication appeared on the Russian internet (or .ru-net). Many Russians took advantage of their access to uncensored Internet, free media, and uncontrolled blogging platforms to express their personal opinions and to prove the NYT wrong. A few Russian commenters agreed with the article's viewpoint - but if anything, this should only prove the NYT to be even more wrong, as according to the slant of most Western reporting in the last several years, Russians are not supposed to have access to free media, nor be able to express their personal opinions under the "iron grip" of President Putin...
Russia Sees Baby Boom in 2007 The First One in 15 Years
Something must be going right in Russia's economy and society. A significant increase in the birth rate of a country is only possible when more people have faith in their incomes and hope for the future. Some demographic experts attribute the recent growth in births to President Putin's policy of making payments to Russian mothers, while others think that it's just a coincidence.
On Friday the Kansas Times newspaper quoted the Russian Health and Social Development minister's happy announcement. According to new government statistics, last year the Russian Federation witnessed the highest number of children born since the collapse of the Soviet Union fifteen years ago.
Russians Under Attack by Careless Drivers... And The Government That Enables Them
Firemen working to recover the remains of a car hit by a Lexus on Moscow's Kutuzovsky Prospekt, September 14, 2007
One week ago Russia Blog reported about one government official's motorcade, which purposely collided head-on with an old Lada sedan. That car and its passengers were unlucky enough to be caught on a highway that was supposed to be closed to civilian traffic. The government motorcade that collided with the car was carrying Vyacheslav Lebedev, head of Russia's Supreme Court. The accident left one Russian citizen dead and two more severely injured. In spite of the reduced terrorist threat in the Russian Federation, the dangerous practice of escort vehicles knocking civilian cars out of the way of an official motorcade is still fairly common in Russia. This particular accident has captured the public's attention because of the overwhelming number of witnesses. Apparently, the police "clean-up" crew could not do its job fast enough to prevent ordinary citizens from snapping pictures with their cell phone cameras.
The driving situation in the streets of Russian cities, particularly in Moscow, has always been chaotic (see this, this and this, or just scroll down the crime section of Russia Blog). But a new development is even more shocking. In separate incidents over the last two days alone, drivers have been involved in hit and run accidents with three children.
To mark the publication of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's memoir of exile, My American Years, the German magazine Der Spiegel recently published an interview with the 88 year-old Russian writer. While many Westerners today argue that Putin's Russia is resurrecting the Soviet Union, Mr. Solzhenitsyn, who actually survived the Gulag, has a very different view of modern Russian history.
On April 18, 2007 Discovery Institute's Real Russia Project was pleased to host distinguished Russian Studies scholar Herbert Ellison and international attorney Bill Robinson for an insightful and informative forum and discussion on the state of U.S.-Russia relations. The event was hosted at Ambassador John Miller. The speakers focused on recent events in the Russian Federation as well as Western stereotypes about Russia and how these stereotypes negatively impact trade and diplomacy.
This was an opportunity to hear the views of experts who are familiar not only with Moscow, but with Russia's more remote regions as well. Their insights into the politics, business and investment climate through out the country are helpful in discerning the truth behind many of the most common assumptions made about Russia in America and Europe.
In the last few days, the Wall Street Journal has devoted a fair amount of column inches to sensational headlines like "A Chess Champion Unites Disparate Critics of Putin - Kasparov Tries to Turn Kremlin's Crackdowns to Political Advantage" (June 20, 2007) and "From Russia, Without Love: New Movie Slams Soviet Union" (June 21, 2007).
In the first article, the Journal's Alan Cullison builds up the importance of Garry Kasparov as a major political leader in Russia. Never mind the fact that Kasparov the politician (as opposed to the chess master) is almost an urban legend in Russia. Russian liberals failed when they had their chance in the 1990s, and now even the best chess player in the world can't help them to win the political game.
Another inconvenient fact is that Another Russia, the so-called political movement where Kasparov is the number one man, was until very recently sponsored by none other than the exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky, who supports the forceful overthrow of the democratically elected Russian government and told the Financial Times that he had stopped funding the group because he viewed it as ineffective. Mr. Berezovsky is wanted in Moscow on multiple counts of fraud and racketeering. Nearly 500 contract killings and bombings related to Avtovaz took place during the oligarch's unhappy ownership of that company, which is now under new management.
Russia's Declining Population - Who Do You Want to Blame?
This Russia Today video clip asks: what can the Russian government do to promote Russians having families again?
Thomas P.M. Barnett is an influential author and consultant who gets paid to present his theories about global politics to high ranking military officers and corporate executives around the world. He is also a former Sovietologist who was educated by the U.S. Navy to analyze what the Kremlin was up to during the 1980s. This is why a recent post Barnett wrote on his blog caught my eye.
"I don't expect Kasparov to dislodge Putin's crowned successor, but the sheer reality that he's been able to unite the opposition is a modest step forward. When this evolution moves into something more recognizable as rough pluralism, Russia's establishment and its opposition will move beyond the dregs/stars of the Soviet system, or the last generation of KGB versus the last generation of celebrities/poseurs."
UPDATE: Tom Barnett has written a couple of funny responses to this post here and here .
Here at Russia Blog, we have written frequently about the so-called dedovshina (literally "rule of the grandfathers") abuse in the Russian army as one of the most egregious ongoing human rights abuses in Russia. Now it appears the Russian government is very slowly starting to do something about it.
Not only have more torture and abuse cases been prosecuted in recent months (mostly due to public outrage after exposes in the Russian media), but the Defense Ministry is starting to address the root of the problem: namely, bored, impoverished young men who have no desire to be stuck on army bases in the middle of nowhere, trying to survive in brutal condiitions that amount to indentured servitude. Making the Russian army an all-volunteer force, with decent (at least by the standards of Russia's regions) salaries might go a long way in preventing torture and abuse in the ranks before it starts.
Click on the extended post to read the full news story from RIA Novosti and links to previous Russia Blog posts on this topic.
Misrepresenting the Truth -- WSJ Gives Khodorkovsky's Defense Counsel a Platform
Mikhail Khodorkovksy and Platon Lebedev in jail (Photo by Itar-Tass) Read the original article in the extended post
Why are Beltway-types indignant about Enron, but not Khodorkovsky?
What is the motivation for a respectable outlet like The Wall Street Journal to continue to publish the lies and libelous screeds of a convicted felon?
Don't people who support the rule of law understand that it involves prosecuting criminals and making them pay for their crimes?
"The Kremlin this week showed that democracy, human rights and the rule of law are dead in Vladimir Putin's Russia. With extraordinarily cynical timing, new charges -- this time, money-laundering -- were brought against Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who once ran Russia's largest oil company, Yukos," writes Robert Amsterdam, Mikhail Khodorkovsky's international defense counsel, on the pages of the WSJ.
"These charges have nothing to do with upholding Russia's laws," continues Mr. Amsterdam. "They have everything to do with the fact that Mr. Khodorkovsky would have been eligible for parole later this year, having served half his eight-year sentence on a politically motivated tax evasion conviction handed down in 2005. Another show trial will surely propel the machinery of so-called justice toward another preordained guilty verdict."
Travel Russia: Bribes on Red Square: How to Avoid Being a Victim
Tourists in Red Square on Russian Orthodox Christmas Eve -- January 6, 2007
(Photo: Yuri Mamchur)
For tourists, the extended Russian winter holidays can be a wonderful time to visit Russia. From December 31 to January 14, most of the country shuts down and the usually gridlocked streets of Moscow are clear. Air fares for flights into Moscow and St. Petersburg are also substantially cheaper in mid-winter than in the summertime or pre-holiday season. Most Russians are also visibly more relaxed this time of year.
But there is also a dark side to the extended holidays for unsuspecting travelers visiting Russia's cities -- namely, Russian cops shaking down foreigners for bribes because they lack valid stamps on their visas. This corrupt practice targeting foreigners takes place even on Red Square, next to the walls of the Kremlin. Russia Blog has heard from three Americans and one Italian citizen who were stopped by the militsia on or near Red Square during the first week of January. All four foreigners were threatened with detention at the nearby migration processing center on Tverskaya Street unless they paid a "fine" - on the spot and in cash - for not having a properly stamped visa.
Moscow -- Yesterday, January 23, Russian traffic police finally published the new law about "special" number plates and blue lights. The new law is named "On Escorting Motor-Vehicles by Motor-Vehicles of Traffic Police of the Russian Federation." The law was passed to fight chaos in the streets of Moscow and other major cities caused by government officials and well-connected or wealthy private individuals abusing these privileges to get through traffic. Russia Blog has written before about the unique perils of driving in Russia (see the extended post for more information).
The Russian government has been widely blamed in the Western media for the recent murders of the Russian journalist Anna Politovskaya and former FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko. The day after Litvinenko died from radiation poisoning, Yegor Gaidar, the former Russian Prime Minister who served with President Boris Yeltsin, became violently ill while visiting Ireland.
Mr. Gaidar, along with Anatoly Chubais, was one of the architects of Russia's "privatization" schemes during the 1990s, and as a result is not well-loved by ordinary Russians. I have heard Mr. Gaidar speak at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington D.C. twice in the last three years. In the years since he left government service, he has traveled around the world delivering presentations strongly critical of Putin's administration.
If Gaidar had died as a result of poisoning, it would have been very difficult to argue that the Kremlin was not behind this recent wave of political assassinations. However, Mr. Gaidar survived, and the first thing he did when he became conscious enough to make his own decisions was to fly back to Moscow. Mr. Gaidar apparently feels safer receiving medical treatment close to the Kremlin than he does abroad. That fact should give Westerners who assume that the Russian government sanctioned these awful crimes pause.
New Zealand's Crackdown on NGOs Ignored by Western Freedom Activists
Will this Kiwi grow up in a free country?
A new bill introduced in New Zealand's parliament threatens to crack down on non-profits. "A new law could strip charities of their tax-free status if they get too involved in politics. The move has led to fears that charities such as Greenpeace and the Sensible Sentencing Trust may be less inclined to speak out," says the One News website. According to the new bill, many tax breaks will be taken away from NGOs, and harsh audits will be authorized to determine the purpose of NGO activities; supporters say that the bill will combat abuses in the non-profit sphere in the country.
The reason Russia Blog pays any attention at all to this Kiwi controversy is the fact that Wellington's legislation seems to be more strict than the law issued by the Russian Duma and signed by Vladimir Putin. There was a huge negative media outburst a year ago in the Western media regarding the Russian NGO bill when it was being discussed. On October 19th the new Russian law came into effect, sparking another wave of outraged articles and reports with scary titles like "Crackdown on Democracy", etc. The question is: Where is the well-deserved outrage in the American and European human rights communities about this new New Zealand bill? Or are human rights activists implying that somehow freedom is less precious for New Zealanders than for Russians?
A Closer Look at Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Rankings
147th in the world - behind the Democratic Republic of Congo?
The France-based non-governmental organization Reporters Without Borders recently released their Worldwide Press Freedom index, which ranks Russia as 147th on a list of 168 countries in terms of protecting journalists and media expression. Russia's 147th ranking is five spots behind the Democratic Republic of Congo, the site of the bloodiest conflict in the world, and just a few spots ahead of Iraq, where 85 journalists have died violently since 2003. Russia even allegedly lags nineteen spots behind Kazakhstan, where President-for-Life Nursultan Nazarbayev erected a golden statue of himself and whose government has threatened to sue the British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen for his "Borat" comedy act.
The list goes on. The Palestinian Authority is ranked thirteen spots ahead of Russia, even though reporters have been kidnapped or threatened by Hamas for reporting weapons smuggling tunnels dug under houses, the launching of rockets at Israeli towns, and the indoctrination of children to create suicide bombers. Lebanon, where Hezbollah recently threatened reporters with death for filming rocket launchers that the militia had cynically placed in crowded neighborhoods, is ranked 107th. The list also ranks the "extra-territorial" United States, which includes the U.S. military in Iraq (not just the country's struggling new government) as 119th in press freedom, while the Israeli-administered Palestinian territories were ranked 135th -- far behind several war-torn African countries that do not have a history of press freedom or strong civilian control over their militaries.
NGO Registration in Russia: Crackdown or Incompetence?
Thursday, October 19, 2006 marked a new era for foreign NGOs in Russia. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International didn't file their paperwork before the deadline set by Russia's new NGO law, and had to temporarily suspend some of their activities. All of these organizations are still allowed to conduct administrative work -- accounting, planning, answering telephones, but they won't be able to get back to their full operations until they complete their registration.
Meanwhile, the Moscow offices for the Carnegie and Ford Foundations, American Trade Assembly, United Families Foundation, Oxfam and many other foreign NGOs have successfully registered and are continuing their work. Yens Zigert, director of the Moscow branch of the German Heinrich Boell Foundation, said: "This was the fastest case of registration I've ever seen in my practice." He also said that the only German foundation that didn't get registered yet is the Friedrich Naumann Fund. Svetlana Brezhneva, head of the Moscow office for the British foundation CAF, said that they still had not registered, but were continuing their charitable activities. "We were promised to get registration next week," said Brezhneva.
Once again, Russia Blog takes a closer look at what the new NGO law is, how it is different from comparable laws in other countries, including the US, and why some NGOs have more problems registering on time than others.
MOSCOW- On Saturday, October 7, the prominent Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya was shot dead in her Moscow apartment building. Her assassin, a tall-dark haired man wearing a large cap to conceal his face, was caught on tape. The Novaya Gazeta newspaper where Politovskaya worked has offered a $930,000 reward for details leading to the arrest of whoever was involved in the killing.
Today Reuters is reporting that during a phone call Sunday afternoon regarding North Korea's nuclear test, President Bush raised the issue with President Putin of attacks on journalists in Russia. Putin responded that Russian law enforcement would thoroughly investigate the crime and have every resource at their disposal. In the official White House statement, President Bush urged Russia to "conduct a vigorous and thorough investigation to bring to justice those responsible" for the crime. Yuri Chaika, Russia's Prosecutor-General (counterpart of the U.S. Attorney General), has taken charge of the case.
Novaya Gazeta, which has former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev as one of its publishers, claims that Politovskaya was working on a major new expose of human rights abuses by security forces in Chechnya. The fact that the murder coincided with President Putin's birthday (birthdays are very important in Russian traditions) suggests that someone wanted to send a message, and has led many Western media outlets to charge that the Kremlin or security services were behind the crime. USA Today, the largest circulation newspaper in America, compares Vladimir Putin to Josef Stalin in their editorial today. Many Russian analysts, in contrast to their Western counterparts, have asked: who benefits from Mrs. Politovskaya's death?
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and his military advisors
On Monday, Russia Blog documented the economic pain from the Georgian government's game of chicken with Russia. Now several American foreign policy thinkers are asking what the U.S. has to gain from further conflict in the Caucuses, and leaders of the Georgian opposition are speaking out, telling Westerners that the democratic promise of the 2003 Rose Revolution has been betrayed by the politics of impoverished nationalism.
This week America's Future Foundation and German Council on Foreign Relations scholars Anatol Lieven and John Hulsman published an op-ed in the International Herald Tribune with the pointed title "Let's Get Real". The co-authors of the book "Ethical Realism: A Vision for America's Role in the World" call for a major initiative to permanently resolve the conflict between Russia and Georgia over the disputed regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Lieven and Hulsman ask why the West maintains double standards about self-determination for NATO-hosting Kosovo but not for parts of Georgia that host Russian troops and wish to join the Russian Federation. Lieven and Hulsman single out Senator John McCain for criticism, alleging that sympathy for the Georgian cause in Congress has unintentionally fueled Saakashvili's delusion that Washington will bail him out in any confrontation with Russia.
Yesterday the Japan Times newspaper published an article by Georgian opposition leader Igor Giorgadze, accusing Saakashvili's pro-U.S. government of jailing its political opponents. Since few Americans (even those who closely follow world politics) may have the opportunity to read this story, we have decided to reproduce it in the extended post.
My name is Jen McLaughlin. My husband and I have adopted three children that were born in Russia. While looking for articles about the orphanage abuse that occurred in late July, 2006 in Krasnoyarsk, I came across your story about the "Boys for Sale". It has had a profound affect on me. Thank you VERY MUCH for doing the research, then reporting your findings. I view the article differently than most of the folks who replied, I view it as a mom who realizes that the abused boys could have been my sons, and still could be.
In February, 2006, I contacted the Krasnoyarsk Ministry Of Education (MOE) regarding siblings of my sons' that may be in the Orphanage system. I found that my son, Patrick, has a brother who is living in a Krasnoyarsk orphanage. (That is why I was researching articles about the orphanage abuse.) Since the MOE has yet to disclose which orphanage he is in, one of the five abused could have easily been my son's brother. Since finding out about Igor, I have been desperately working on getting him home to live with his brother, my son. The immediate problem is that their birth mother has yet to terminate parental rights and the MOE cannot locate her. Due to my desire to share the rich Russian Culture and their heritage with my children, I hired a searcher who located my sons' birth families in September of 2004. He provided me with the birth mother's sisters' addresses and mother's address. So I believe she can be found.
First Verdict in the Case of Private Andrei Sychev
Private Alexandr Sivyakov in court
Moscow - today a court ruled in the mutilation case of Private Andrei Sychev, who was beaten and sexually abused by his comrades at the Chelyabinsk Tank Academy on December 31, 2005. As a result of his injuries, Andrei Syvhev had both his legs and genitals amputated earlier this year.
The prosecution of this case was very political and highly publicized. Russian army officials were caught trying to cover up for the guilty NCOs and division officers at the base where Pvt. Sychev was abused. Several officers misrepresented the entire story, claiming that the private was a poor soldier and that they were not aware of any abuse taking place. President Putin was personally outraged by the case and asked the court to find and prosecute the guilty parties. The case has created a major push in the Duma to speed up desperately needed reforms in the Russian army.
Private Alexandr Sivyakov was convicted of torturing Private Sychev, and was sentenced to four years in prison. Both prosecutors and the defense argue that this sentence was too lenient for the crime of maiming a young man for life. The victim's family is demanding harsher punishment and calling for Pvt. Sychev's commanding officers to be brought to justice as well. The defense argues that Pvt. Sivyakov was the scapegoat for the negligence of the officers, and could not be held entirely responsible for the actions of his comrades who mutilated Pvt. Sychev.
Special Report by The Real Russia Project of Discovery Institute
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. media's overarching, if unspoken, perception of Russia and Eastern Europe is that this region doesn't matter much any more. Though some still see Russia as a dangerous enemy, most mainstream media appear to have lost interest in what happens there, except for occasional sensational events. As a result, there is inadequate awareness in America of the fascinating cultural, political and economic developments taking place in today's Russia.
Relying on old Cold War stereotypes ignores centuries of Russia's history and shows a lack of curiosity about its future. Such indifference is not in the interest of America or its citizens, and it threatens to shut down imagination about potential cooperative relations with Russia and her neighbors. The Real Russia Project aims to focus on the emerging new Russia with accurate and fair reporting and analysis--without fear or favor.
In the Absence of Rule of Law -- Xenophobia and Vigilantism
A young ultranationalist lights up a rally
Kondopoga, Karelia Region -- this small industrial town not far from Finland has been the center of attention for two weeks straight in Russia. Northern Russians living in the area are known for their calm character; it is usually difficult to provoke them into a fight. But on the night of September 1, 2006, angry Kondopoga rioted and set fire to a school attended by Muslim children, as well as a public market, several grocery stores, and a restaurant, all properties owned by local Chechen migrants; they also fought with police SWAT teams that tried to disperse the riot. The next morning, September 2, thousands of people gathered without a demonstration permit. Most of the crowd demanded that city officials deport "every settler from Caucuses in the next 24 hours."
Russia Blog will try to explain why this usually peaceful town of 40,000 has been guarded around the clock for two weeks by SWAT teams and army units, and why dozens of Russian members of Parliament, human rights activists and anti-immigration groups have entered the fray. The incident might look like a brief spasm of xenophobia, but the roots of the conflict run deep.
A sign at Uralskie Samozveti summer camp showing activities available for kids
Anapa, Russia -- In this city where the unfortunate Flight 612 departed from a few days ago, there is now another public scandal. This time the topic is so broad and common that it is hard for foreign readers to believe but easy for many Russians to dismiss: the so-called dedovschina (peer brutality and abuse). These violent habits are frequently tolerated in schoolyards and summer camps across Russia and culminate when boys grow up to be soldiers who kill and maim their comrades in the Russian army.
In this case, middle school kids from big cities were caught severely abusing their peers from small towns and suburban villages at the Uralskie Samozveti summer camp. Four teenagers were found guilty of raping 12-year-old boys, but only two teens will be held responsible. Two of the perpetrators were 14 years old; the other two are only 13! Towards the end of the session, the victimized kids were using cell phones to send SOS text messages to their parents.
One father was outraged when he first saw his son after the boy returned from three weeks at camp. The boy had lost 20 pounds in 20 days, going from 90 to 70 pounds. Some boys had visible bruises as they stepped off the train in their home towns. This time the parents will push hard for serious criminal investigations of the teenage abusers, as well as the camp counselors and administration.
MOSCOW -- Yesterday a bombing occurred at Cherkizovsky, one of the city's largest open air marketplaces. Ten people are dead and forty injured. A little town within the big city, the Chekizovsky market sells textiles and household items. The majority of business owners leasing space at the market are immigrants from former Soviet republics, mostly people from the Caucuses; and yesterday they were targeted by skinhead terrorists.
This explosion is the first terrorist violence Moscow has suffered in many months. What is most disturbing to Russians and foreigners alike is that the attack was not work of Chechen jihadists or other Islamist terrorists. Instead, the bomb was likely placed by homegrown Slavic fascists, to target Russia's minorities.
Russia Blog has discussed the problem of neo-fascism and racist violence in Russia in several posts (see the Crime section). Last May Day, skinheads proudly marched through the streets of Moscow, chanting anti-Semitic, anti-American and anti-black slogans. Yesterday the skinheads dramatically escalated their war on Russia's minorities from racist attacks on individuals to terrorism against ethnic community landmarks.
A Russian army private died in the Moscow suburbs on August 4, 2006. ITAR-TASS reported that Dmitry Panteleyev came back drunk after being absent without leave. An officer on-duty overreacted and severely beat the soldier, who suffered a serious concussion. A few hours later the private died from head trauma in a local hospital.
This incident comes after a recent investigation launched in Volgogradskaya Oblast, where two officers were caught "renting" soldiers for housekeeping and construction work. This is a very common practice in Russia, when an officer on duty makes his privates change into civilian clothes and "sells" them as a cheap labor to local households. A couple of years ago, the fee was $5 a day per soldier; inflation has since boosted it up to $10. The money usually goes to the officers, but soldiers are also happy, because digging trenches in nice backyards around families is better than running laps with machine guns. Also, some households treat privates well, providing them with nice meals and drinks.
However, all this raises one big question: where is the professional Russian army?
Yekaterinburg, Russia -- A massive child sex ring was exposed in downtown Yekaterinburg this week. The accused were caught selling young boys, renting them for sexual services and routinely raping them. Their victims were over 1,000 boys, ages 12 through 17. This "business" has been operating for five years, so many of the victims were 7 to 12 years old when they were first kidnapped. Police have documented 116 cases of rape and sexual abuse and the alleged owners of the "business" have been caught. One of the suspects committed suicide in jail after he was imprisoned with common criminals. The leader of the group however, escaped. It is rumored that several powerful citizens of Yekaterinburg frequented the establishment and pressured the court to release the accused ring leader pending his trial date. Thanks to this release the lead suspect in the case has now fled the country.
It is amazing that this story, along with news about dedovshinabrutality in the Russian army very rarely makes it into international media coverage of Russia. By pursuing generic, pre-written stories such as "Putin's crackdown on dissent" and "the Kremlin's centralization of power", international news outlets are neglecting their duty to report the worst human rights abuses in Russia. A good journalist or citizen can make better use of their time by asking more relevant questions. For instance: how can subsidies for Russian mothers prevent the depopulation of the country, if so many children between the ages of 7 and 17 are sexually abused, and so many young men ages 18 to 20 are tortured in the army? It is these defiled innocents who grow into psychologically wrecked adults dying from suicide, alcoholism, drug abuse and AIDS throughout Russia.
"Slander" -- The Wall Street Journal Misinforms on Extremism Legislation
Yesterday someone gave me The Wall Street Journal article from Sunday, July 29, 2006, titled "Putin Signs Law Against Slander Of Public Officials" by Alan Cullison. My first response upon reading the title was "I haven't heard of such a law or a bill being passed!" Then I searched the major Russian media outlets and didn't find anything about the bill that would provoke dire concerns about freedom of speech in Russia. That's when I went to the website of the Rossiyskaya Gazeta (Russian newspaper), which publishes all new bills passed by the Duma, and found out that the first thing the WSJ got wrong was the name of the bill. I found more errors when I read on.
First of all, the bill signed by President Putin is named "Federal Law of the Russian Federation from July 27 2006 #148-F3 On the Changes to the articles of 1 and 15 of the Federal Law 'On the Counteraction to the Extremist Activity'". The WSJ piece was primarily concerned with article 1, where the term extremist is legally defined, and article 15, part of which says that the "author of the printed, audio, visual and other materials, designated for the public broadcasting and carrying one or more of the characteristics defined by the article 1 of the Federal Law, should be accountable as a person involved in extremist activity and should be accountable according to applicable laws of the Russian Federation". Setting aside article #15, let's get into the more important controversy surrounding the bill's revisions to article #1, and see what the WSJ reporter missed.
Another week brings two more horrible stories about senseless brutality in the Russian army. This time one of the victims is 19-year old Radik Habirov from Kazan, who was brought in to a local hospital weighing only 65 pounds and is now in a coma. This is the worst case of documented abuse in the Russian Army since the widely reported case of Pvt. Sychev six months ago. Last week in Moscow more details emerged from closed hearings about the extent of Pvt. Sychev's mutilation. Even Army doctors accustomed to seeing scars and broken bones from abuse have been shocked at how severely Pvt. Sychev was tortured by his comrades.
Army doctors had tried to cover up the crime, blaming the loss of Sychev's legs on a pre-existing medical condition, but a civilian panel of medical examiners concluded that Sychev was gang raped in the barracks while taped to his bunk. After being sodomized repeatedly, he was forced to do squats, then made to hold in the squatting position for hours, until he lost circulation in his legs. By the time he was brought to a hospital, doctors could only save Sychev's life by amputating his legs and genitals.
In the anticipation of the G8 summit this week in St Petersburg, we present two different stories about the city hosting the gathering of world leaders. One is from Good Morning America shown today on ABC, a video report about the Russia's "remarkable transformation". The other story is yesterday's article from The Guardian. I encourage our readers to watch the short ABC News video clip, which portrays Russia's growing middle class; it is overly optimistic, but based on real facts and backed by interviews with upwardly mobile Russians.
The UK Guardian's article is also a must-read. You can visit the link or read the article in the extended version of this post. It depicts the struggles of lower level Russian civil servants, Russians who lack the special skills demanded by a modern economy, and raises legitimate questions about democracy and freedoms in Russia, which were briefly addressed in the ABC News report: "They [Russians] don't worry about what's going on with democracy here, as long as life is getting better!"
Since we started this blog last year, Russia Blog has been showing our readers these two lifestyles within one country. These two reports will only prove the points we have been making to anyone who will listen.
MOSCOW -- The Russian Duma (Parliament) approved on the second reading a bill which removes the majority of army draft exemptions. According to current law, the husbands of pregnant wives, fathers of children under three years old, teachers and doctors from remote villages could be temporarily exempted from serving in the army. Now, every able-bodied male is legally obligated to serve.
Pregnant wives will receive $135 in exchange for their husbands, and after the baby is born - $200. If the husband is killed... well, too bad, because the widows' pensions are not nearly enough for a single mom to raise a little child on.
Russian schools and hospitals barely have any male employees due to very low salaries. While working for a Moscow School 1205, I remember attending a meeting for regional schools which served a population of three million. There were only five new male teachers present, all under the age of 25, all wanting to find other jobs as soon as possible. Being a male teacher in Russian schools is a heroic act and an extraordinary privilege for kids. The Duma's logic just doesn't add up in my mind -- how can they expect boys to become men (so that they would serve in the army) without any male role models around, with their fathers and teachers in the army?
Manassas, Virginia -- Peggy Hilt was sentenced to 25 years in prison today for killing her daughter, who was adopted from a Russia orphanage. 14 children adopted in Russia have been killed by their US parents over the past ten years. RussiaBlog decided to take this case as an opportunity to address the issue of adoption of Russian kids by American families, which is a major issue for many couples hoping to adopt here in the Pacific Northwest.
According to the News Observer, Kathy Friend, an American trying to adopt a child in Irkutsk, blamed the Hilt case for delaying many adoptions. "Not only did Peggy Sue Hilt kill her daughter, but she has killed the hopes and dreams of many children here in Irkutsk to be with their American-forever families," she said. Nearly 60,000 Russian kids have been adopted by American families since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Many Americans were worried that adoptions of Russian children would be banned by the Duma because of the recent murders. However, this is not true.
Russia's pullback from foreign-funded NGOs is a rational reaction to how some of these institutions were abused by criminals posing as philanthropists during the Yeltsin era. But how much of the Russian government's reaction is justified- and how much is politically motivated? Future Chinese NGO legislation will follow Russia's lead, as American involvement in the "color revolutions" of Central Asia and Eastern Europe comes to light.
Russia's January 2006 law limiting the operation of NGOs, especially those with foreign funding, has earned it pariah status. What Western audiences rarely hear is that Russia has reasons to crack down on some NGOs.
Immediately after hearing Vice President Dick Cheney's negative remarks about Russia, I thought to myself: things just don't connect. Cheney's comments outraged both Russians and Americans alike, especially some people I know well who have spent considerable time in both countries. A good friend of mine who is an American lawyer, and has been doing business (and supporting the GOP) in Russia for nearly twenty years was dumbstruck by the Vice President's remarks.
At the same time, I have been trying to decide what to write about Putin's annual address to the Russian nation. Unfortunately, two long business trips prevented me from spending time on either topic.
So today, when I didn't find any immediate Russian news to report, I decided to simply write about Russia as it is today, in the here and now. Recent events lend themselves to just such an informative and critical overview.
By now I'm sure you have heard about Hamas visiting Moscow, and Russia's demographic crisis, with the country possibly losing 1/3rd of its 140 million people by 2040. There is also the ongoing tragedy of Russian army conscripts being brutalized by their comrades, with some losing body parts and others going AWOL or committing suicide to escape daily torment at the hands of their comrades. Many of the same thugs who torture their fellow soldiers also display their adolescent ultranationalism by joining skinhead groups and killing blacks and gays.
African and Russian students protest neo-fascist violence The following commentary originally appeared in the Sunday, May 7, edition of Johnson's Russia List.
Two classic and different approaches highlight the diverse manner in how Russia is covered. One of them deals solely with that country, minus analogies to what's evident elsewhere. The other scenario takes a comparative view, where related situations in other parts of the world are linked (in academia, "comparative politics" is a standard political studies discipline).
Both extremes have their advantages and drawbacks. No two situations are exactly the same and quite often, the given comparison can be way off the mark. A prime example is Polish Defense Minister Radek Sikorski's recent suggestion that the Russo-German gas pipeline is a reincarnation of the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which saw Poland carved up between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. When used properly though, the comparative route can better relate the situation in a country to others outside of it.
The unfortunate problem of racism in Russia brings to mind some recent articles on the subject. Along with my friend Yuri Mamchur's Russia Blog post on May Day fascist demonstrations, an Open Democracy article by Zygmunt Dzieciolowski covers intolerance in Russia without making comparisons to other parts of the world. Kirill Pankratov of eXile.ru in contrast, takes the comparative approach. This route shouldn't be seen as deflecting attention away from the serious problem of racism in Russia. At the same time, there should be a fair and balanced appraisal of Russia's problems.
Reporters Without Borders Comments on Freedom of the Press in Russia
Putin Hires U.S. PR Firm to Improve Russia's Image
Today is the World Press Freedom Day, and the highly respected NGO Reporters Without Borders published their annual report on the state of media and freedom of speech in the world (you can read the full text of the report here).
Briefly, it's been a bad year for journalists around the world who have faced kidnappings, killings and threats, especially in Iraq, the worst year recorded since 1995. As for freedom of speech -- the list of countries with strong government censorship included the former Soviet republics of Belarus, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. People were prosecuted for Internet posts and articles in China, Vietnam, the Maldives, Iran, Libya, Syria and Tunisia. The report did not include Russia on this list of Internet censors, but did criticize the Kremlin, stating "Violence against journalists in Russia was frequent and impunity prevailed in a country where news is still closely controlled by the government." The problem with this sentence is that it implies a connection between the first fact, and the second opinion. The two journalists killed last year were victims of organized crime, or perhaps the mullah's regime in Iran, not the Russian government.
Demonstrators shout "Putin Go to Hell!", "Death to Homosexuals!", "Beat up the Jews and the Blacks!"
Protesters' banner reads, " Putin and Successors - Go to Hell!"
Moscow - May 1 is the Day of Labor and Solidarity in Russia. A few thousand people marched through downtown, celebrating the holiday and chanting slogans. The most popular slogans of the day were "Putin and Successor -- Go to Hell", "Death to Homosexuals" and the usual "Seig Heils" from Russian skinheads. The march consisted of a mixed crowd including Communists led by former Presidential candidate Gennady Zyuganov joined by many Russian fascists. The latter groups claimed that they joined the parade in solidarity with "the Russian working class in its fight against the non-Russian capitalists". Some neo-fascists were carrying Russian Orthodox images of Jesus Christ and holding their icons and Nazi flags side by side.
"Iran, Syria, Somalia...now Russia" How Honest Is Illarionov?
Colorado Springs-- Last weekAndrei Illarionov, a former advisor to President Putin, addressed the 29th Annual Heritage Foundation Resource Bank. Illarianov's speech was warmly welcomed and made a deep impression on the audience. At the end of the evening, some people had tears in their eyes and Illarianov received the standing ovation. Sitting in the audience, I looked around in complete disbelief at what I was witnessing. Is Illarianov's speaking fee really enough for him to believe the things he said? And are Americans really naÃ¯ve and ignorant enough about Russia to buy what he is selling?
Mr. Illarionov read his speech from his notes the entire time, glancing at the crowd only a few seconds of the time. For the first fifteen minutes of his talk, the former presidential economic advisor spoke of free markets, democracies, dictatorships and other general topics, to impress the audience with his "knowledge". This part was hardly controversial; everyone in the audience agrees that people live better in free-market democracies rather than under Communist autocracies. Having stoked expectations and built up the audience, Illarianov then preceded to make his most outrageous claims.
Afghan Attacked in St Petersburg; Putin Calls for Law and Order
St Petersburg -- today at 8 pm a citizen of Afghanistan was assaulted and severely injured downtown. Eyewitnesses say that the three men who attacked the victim were dressed in police uniforms; furthermore there's evidence that the attackers were police officers and that they were drunk while beating the Afghan man. At this time, St. Petersburg officials won't comment on their investigation.
This incident follows multiple attacks in Russia based on the skin color, ethnicity and national origin of the victims. For more stories related to this topic, please see the Human Rights section of Russia Blog.
Rostov, Russia -- Private Shpinev was found hanged after committing suicide at the Rostov Tank Academy. This news did not receive much coverage in any Russian media outlet, because these kind of incidents happen all too frequently. The reasons for Private Shpinev's suicide, as usual, have been the culture of sadism and abuse that runs rampant at the Tank Academy.
Meanwhile back in Moscow, a huge building in the public market "Bassmanniy Rynok" collapsed today, killing at least 54 and injuring 32 more. (Read the Fox News story). The building was designed by Nodar Kancheli, the same architect who designed the Aqua park that collapsed two years ago. The interesting fact is that only 2 victims were Russian citizens; 31 citizens of Azerbaijan were killed and 31 injured, one Ukrainian died and several Georgians were killed and injured. Traditionally, people from Caucasus are the "traders" and "sellers" in Moscow and the rest of the country. There are many jokes and stories about these people, but they are just trying to make a living.
The accident happened at 5 am, and it is a busy time for a whole sale market. The general area of the market was 130,000 square feet, and almost all of it was affected by the collapse of the roof.
To end today's news on a good note, the Russian Olympic team is firmly in the third place on the all-medals scale.
Ramzan Kadyrov was elected as the head of the United Russia party for the republic of Chechnya. Yesterday Kadyrov pushed the legislature that prohibits any Danish non-profits from entering Chechnya and working on its territory. The bill was approved today.
It is very sarcastic, because it's the Danish non-profits which do real work in Chechnya. Russian government is busy laundering money and European Union is busy talking about the human rights abuse in Chechnya. Danish groups have been helping to the thousands of civilians and refugees. Now they are banned from this Russian Muslim state, as a result of the Mohammed cartoons in the Western European press.
Why Does Defense Minister Ivanov Still Have His Job?
The widely publicized story about the torture and mutilation of the Russian Army private Sychev has had a huge impact on Russian society. His legs and genitals were amputated after he was gang raped and tortured by 40 officer candidates at Russia's tank academy. As a result of the public outrage over this story, reports of torture, murder and soldiers driven to suicide by sadism have poured into human rights organizations from all over the country. Sychev's lawyer even asked if all of this was part of some planned campaign.
The private is still in critical condition, while the Soldiers' Mothers Committee and human right organizations are visiting military bases all over the country, where everyday soldiers desert by the dozens. In one division, an 18 year old private was beaten and is now in critical condition after refusing to give up his cellphone to two officers. In part due to the public outrage over Private Sychev's fate, the officers are being prosecuted.
Two cases of torture have been reported in the Russian press this week. The first case involved Nizhniy Novgorod policemen who tortured two innocent men seven years ago; the second one occurred this New Years Eve, when a 19 year old army conscript was gang-raped and tortured by 40 of his comrades. Just a few days ago his maimed legs and genitals were amputated.
First about the police. Seven years ago, 22 year old Aleksey Miheev and his friend Ilya Frolov were asked for a ride by their 17 year old friend. They were going different directions and refused the girl in a ride. She took the bus and didn't get home that night. The two young men were accused of raping and killing her and were arrested the same day. After the arrest they were "questioned" at the local police station for five days in a row, 10-12 hours a day.
The first story in Foreign Affairs January/February 2006 issue concerns the ignorance and ambivalence of young Russians about the Stalin era. According to the Levada Center's polling since 2003, 20% of Russian adults would vote for Stalin tomorrow if he were running for President, "only 40% say they definitely would not". As the authors note, imagine the international outcry if Hitler were to poll similar numbers in modern Germany! "Only 28 percent felt that Stalin did not deserve credit for the Soviet victory in World War II" - this in spite of Stalin's pre-war provision of Hitler's panzers with oil, his aggression that eliminated Poland as a buffer state between Germany and the USSR, his purge of the Soviet officer corps that left only a handful of talented generals to pick up the pieces, and the resulting incompetence that led to millions of Soviet casulties in the vast encirclement battles before the tide turned in 1942-43. All of these are only Stalin's crimes related to World War II, not including the prewar Great Terror and the postwar anti-Semitic Jewish doctors plot.
One young Russian explained her positive response: Stalin's power would not be unlimited if he were alive today. Other educated Russians explained that looking back at the past was useless anyway.
One woman stated, "I think there's no point in turning back. If you look back all the time then we won't see the present or imagine the future."
A young man concurred, saying, "Stalinist times--that's a tired topic to keep beating to death. History must be studied, but to continually walk around and repeat 'repressions' 'repressions'- why?" He believed any interest in the topic was "purely the result of propaganda. Look, under Stalin people lived freely and well, just like right now under Putin."
Fortunately, a slight majority in the surveys supported erecting monuments to Stalin's victims, and attitudes towards Stalin are slightly more skeptical among the young than the old. The real question is what ignorance and distortions surrounding the darkest chapters of Russia's history mean for Russians now.
Start Paying Attention to What Really Matters in Russia
The Wall Street Journal has an article today named "West Hits a Wall With Putin".
The easiest way to address my disagreements with the WSJ's opinion would be to comment on the short graph (Acting Up) attached with the article (click on the link to view the graph).
The arrest of oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky didn't have to do much with his political criticisms of Putin. I will quote parts of the previous Russia Blog articles and add some new stuff.
Khodorkovsky had acquired billions of dollars (anywhere between 8 and 20, depending on where you read about it), and his "charity" was focused only on bashing Putin, who stood in the way of his businesses, and not for multiple social projects. If someone young in his late 30s made a fortune from oil by getting lucky and smart during the "privatization" period, wouldn't it be more "ethical" to consider larger giving to charity than a lousy 50 million dollars a year? The Gates Foundation in contrast gives out a billion dollars to charitable causes all over the world each year.
Christmas Eve, 7:50 pm, St Petersburg - a group of youths ages 16-20 attacked three African students. Mvangi Eddi Mayna from Kenya was stabbed twice in the back with a knife, but he managed to run away, and made it to the safety of the nearby campus. Nekongo Fedelis from Namibia, 25 years of age, ran away without getting hurt at all. However, his 25 year old friend Kanhem Leon from Cameroon was stabbed in the neck, and after severe artery bleeding he died before the ambulance showed up.
Not a single foreign student went to church that Christmas night, so that foreign students from the entire city could gather for a large spontaneous demonstration. Nearly all police departments and city officials met at the crime scene and talked to the students. However, many students are not satisfied with the work that Russian police are not doing. This murder follows many other attacks based on racial hatred, which have become very popular among uneducated Russian youth in the past few years.
The graffiti above the post reads "Death to Negroes".
The only TV channel in Russia that aired a fascist parade video over the Kremlin's objections is RenTV. It's actually not the channel that is so brave, it's one particular journalist, creator of the "24" program, Olga Romanova.
The Kremlin has asked RenTV quite a few times to cool down the rhetoric and not to be as critical of Mr. Putin and the government; RenTV has passed these concerns to Olga Romanova, but the lady just would not stop being a free journalist. All this led to quite interesting events: the "24" program was abolished, Ms. Romanova was blocked from entering the studio just a few minutes before going on the air by three armed guards, and the chief editor of the channel was fired.
St. Petersburg, Russia -- this Sunday two anti-fascist rock musicians were attacked in downtown at 6:30 pm; one was killed, another is in critical condition. Timur Kacharav and Maxim Zgibay were going into a book store, when 10 young skinheads attacked them with fists and knives. Though the crime happened in downtown, by the trendy Nevsky Prospect, and was witnessed by many people, all the neo-Nazis managed to escape without getting caught.
The musicians were wrapping up the anti-fascist concert, which was followed by accepting food donations for homeless people.
Rodina (Motherland) is a fairly young political party, lead by Dmitry Rogozin, a retired three-star general. A few days ago Rodina started airing a political advertisement, which has sparked a lot of controversy and frustration for Azerbaijanis. The attention this ad has received supports my thesis about a growing Russian idea of self identity, through more aggressive nationalism and fascism.
The video shows three surly Azerbaijanis eating watermelon and throwing the peels on the ground; to make their nationality clear, Azerbaijani music is playing in the background. A dignified Russian mother is walking by pushing her child in a pram, stepping on the peels. One of the Azerbaijanis insults the Russian lady. All this is witnessed by Rogozin and his vice president; this time Terminator music starts playing in the background. They ask the Azerbaijanis to "clean the space", but the Azerbaijanis ignore them. Then Rogozin puts a firm hand on one of the Azerbaijanis, and demands of him: "Do you understand Russian?" That's when the logo of Rodina appears, and the words below the logo say "We will clear Moscow of the dirt".
Responding to Prelude, a reader from Italy: Russia probably has never been as weak and poor compared to the rest of the world as it is today. Here are the links about the fascist demonstration, the text is in Russian, but the pictures are very graphic, delivered by Lenta.Ru (my favorite), Gazeta.Ru, Grani.Ru, Moskovsky Komsomolez.
I wrote my article about Russian fascism after a thorough survey of 6 articles from Russian newspapers, 3 internet news websites, conversations with friends who work in Russian media (RTR -- Russia Channel), talking to my father who worked with Yeltsin and others, etc.
A 30 year old citizen of Uzbekistan was killed in Moscow. He was stabbed three times in the neck with a knife, and later brought to a hospital in the south-eastern part of the city.
This murder is one of many racially-motivated crimes that are happening in Russia on a weekly basis. Again, if you are a tourist and you know what you are doing, or you have a business partner who is Russian and he knows what he is doing -- you are safe. Otherwise, you may be on your own.
Moscow Friday, November 4, 2005 - 5,000 people paraded through downtown, carrying icons of Jesus Christ among other symbols. There was no violence, a great attitude, and very loud shouts of "Seig Heil", "Heil Hitler", along with "Russia for Russians", "Glory to Russia, Russians rise!"," Russia is everything, everything else is nothing".
"God, this is just like Germany in 1933," -- said one old lady observing the march, while taking her dog for a walk in downtown park, - "didn't we fight exactly this stuff?"
Two suicides have occurred in the last three days on just one military base, #3377 in Krasnoyarsky Kray. Private First Class Andrei Zagorodzev, 20 years old, was found hanged in one of the buildings in town close to the base. There was a note in his pocket, saying that no one should be blamed for his death. However, Andrei's friends say that it is impossible that he could have chosen suicide of his own free will.
Last Friday, on the same military base, Andrei Sobin, age 19, was found hanging from his own belt in a bathroom. Officials offered the explanation that Sobin committed suicide after receiving a "Dear Ivan" letter from his girlfriend. However, Sobin's friends say that he killed himself because of abuse. Andrei could not handle the constant beatings inflicted on him by young privates from Dagestan serving in his unit. A military investigation commission sent from the Siberian Military Headquarters stated that an autopsy revealed evidence of torture on Sobin's body.
In the comment to the Lawyer Slayings post, Ruslan wrote that I am writing on very delicate topics, and he is wondering about my status in Russia.
Well, right now I am in America and that is why I feel like saying things that are true and are happening in Russia. I am very happy that I have readers from Russia, because many people in Russia have mixed feelings about talking on these delicate topics. I am hoping that this website is a source of information for those in Russia, who are tired of RTR Vesti, Izvestia, and so on.
On the other hand, there are many American businesses that are going into the country; I believe they should be aware of the current state of events, before they make a mistake, or assume that they are in just another European country. Russia is not dangerous for most people and is not totalitarian, and one can make very good profit and conduct a successful short-term(!) business in this country, IF he has a clear understanding of what is around him, and as along as he has a Russian he can trust. It is always safer to be a foreign businessman in Russia instead of being local.
Answering Ruslan's concern, I am glad that he noticed that this website is writing about events that other Russian-news outlets do not like to talk about. Thank you.
Someone from Russia told me yesterday an interesting fact, which describes one of the ways Russian elderly people save money to survive. As Russia Blog has noted before, Russian retirees, who worked all their lives in the Soviet Union, can't live on their government pensions. That is why older people are trying to save on anything they can.
Forgive me for the details, but Russian pensioners save money by simply not buying toilet paper, and using a little rag instead. Later in the evening, they hand-wash the rag and put it out to dry for another day of a proud life.
Hardly any retirees can afford a washer and a drier, so all the laundry has to be done manually by people in their late 70s and 80s. Imagine the financial despair, if they choose to save money even on a toilet paper!
According to the Canadian think tank, the Fraser Institute, Russia ranks in 115th place in the world in terms of economic freedom. Ukraine is ranked 103rd.
The index, titled "Economic Freedom of the World" measures the degree to which the policies and institutions of countries are supportive of economic liberty. The cornerstones of a liberal economy are personal choice, voluntary exchange, freedom of competition, and security for private property. Thirty-eight components and sub-components are used to construct a summary index and to measure the degree of economic freedom in five areas: (1) size of government; (2) legal structure and protection of property rights; (3) access to sound money; (4) international exchange; and (5) regulation.
The most economically "free" country in the world is the former British colony of Hong-Kong, Singapore ranks second, and New Zealand comes in third. These countries are followed respectively by Switzerland, USA, Great Britain and Canada.
As the male population in Russia is known for criminality and drinking problems, the only people left out there to fight a corrupt system are women. That is why you will never find organization called "Fathers of the Soldiers", or "Parents of the terrorist victims". It is always the women, always the mothers, who go out there and risk their lives trying to fight the corruption and find the truth. Committee of the Soldiers Mothers" is an organization of women, fighting the brutality and injustice of the Russian military draft system.
Russians, whose lives are shorter and poorer than they were under communism, have more abortions than births to avoid the costs of raising children, Bloomberg.com reported Tuesday quoting the country's highest-ranking obstetrician.
About 1.6 million women had an abortion last year, a fifth of them under the age of 18, and about 1.5 million gave birth, said Vladimir Kulakov, vice president of the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences. Many more abortions went unreported.
em>The appearance of a first child pushes many families into poverty, Kulakov said today in the government's official newspaper, Rossiskaya Gazeta. Potential parents first try to start a career, stand on their feet and so forth.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the ensuing hyperinflation and depression deprived millions of Russians of their incomes and savings and discouraged couples from having children. By 2000, the number of pensioners in Europe's most populous country outnumbered children and adolescents for the first time.
The increase in poverty and the decline in the quality of health care since the fall of communism have left about six million women and 4 million men infertilet; seven percent of Russia's 145 million people are incapable of having children.
This is a critical level, Kulakov said.
Part of the problem is a lack of job prospects. Careers traditionally favored by Russian women, such as in education and medicine, no longer pay a decent salary, which leads to fewer births and ultimately a smaller population, Kulakov said.
For every 1,000 Russians there are 16 deaths and just 10.6 births, a gap that isn't being filled by immigrants, leading to a population decline of about 750,000 to 800,000 a year.
Out of every 1,000 Russian newborn babies, more than 12 die before they are one year old, an infant mortality rate five times higher than in Iceland and three to four times higher than in Finland, Sweden, Spain and France, Russia's Federal Statistics Service reported last week.
The average Russian man now dies at 58.8, the shortest life expectancy in Europe and five years fewer than 15 years ago, the Statistics Service said. Russian women have the fourth-lowest life expectancy in Europe, 72 years, the service said, citing its own data and figures from the World Health Organization and European Union.
Los Angeles based talk radio host Hugh Hewitt says that he will be talking about Russia on his popular show Monday. This is a good thing - Russia seems to have slid to the back burner among foreign policy concerns, and only makes headlines in America when there's a horrific terrorist attack like the Beslan or Moscow hostage takings.
Why the U.S. and Russia must cooperate on North Korean refugees
A little noticed but significant news item today - RIA Novosti reports that North Korea has broken off talks with Russian Railways over a planned inter-Korean rail line that would have joined the Trans-Siberian railroad.
"At the end of last year, North Korea said that at a time when the United States is toughening its policy in regard to the DPRK, the Korean side 'sees no sense' in holding a second trilateral expert meeting on the reunification of the Trans-Korean railroad," Yakunin said.
Translation: the North Koreans know independent, faith based organizations with clout in Washington D.C. have openly discussed destabilizing their Stalinist tyranny through a mass refugee exodus. The last thing the DPRK regime wants is to create a potential highway for more refugees, and even influential defectors, to escape.
Seven campers between the ages of 13 and 15 have reportedly disappeared from a summer camp near Krasnoyarsk, on July 17, 2005. Camp administrators notified police about the disappearance within 24 hours. Local police have admitted that they didn't even look around that much.
"Why bother" – says Oleg Goldov, chief of the criminal department of the local police, - "They run away every year, every week. At camp they don't have vodka and cigarettes, so they hitchhike to Krasnoyarsk, where they can buy some".
48 hours after he went missing, one of the missing campers, age 13, was found purchasing liquor at a Krasnoyarsk supermarket.
Kids in Russian summer camps are not given proper adult supervision. There are many orphans, and many kids come from broken families.
The moral and physical abuse of Russian children creates unbelievable opportunities for child pornographers, who are doing a booming business these days in Russia.
July 7, 2005: Despite losing troops to accidents and suicide at the annual rate of some 700 a year, Russia is actually improving their peacetime attrition situation. For the first six months of the year, the non-combat death rate in the Russian armed forces was 77 per 100,000 troops. That’s about fifty percent higher than the rate in the American armed forces, but over a third lower than what the Russians suffered only a few years ago.
As Russia Blog has previously argued, the most important factor in Russia surviving with her present borders intact (a vital U.S. interest) is to restore the morale and health of the nation. Save for elderly pensioners, no segment of Russian society has degraded as much in both categories since the collapse of the USSR as the military.
Much of this collapse was arguably predictable as early as the perestroika era of the 1980s, when Soviet officers were using their tank kazernes in East Germany as depots for sending German cars and appliances back to Russia for the black market. One of the biggest challenges faced by the post-USSR military was accounting for all of the soldiers turned entrepreneurs who did not wish to leave a reunited Germany in 1991-94.
Experts say that 25% of the pornography on global Internet websites contains child pornography. Among these, more than 50% of the pedophile websites contain child pornography from Russia. Although the precise number of children involved in the production of Russian pornography is unknown, experts report there are some tens of thousands of such children.
The business is run by criminal networks that manufacture, distribute and export (to Germany, Britain, the United States, Italy, Canada and elsewhere) photographs and video records of a pornographic nature, including violent sexual assaults on children.
The Russian government's conservative projections warn that by 2050, the country's population will shrink by 30 percent from 143.6 million to 101.3 million; its worst case scenario predicts that the population could drop to 77.2 million, a reduction of nearly 50 percent.
Babies in Russia are born smaller and more sickly today than in the past. Key statistics provide an alarming snapshot of Russia's looming infant health crisis:
Nearly two-thirds of all Russian babies are born unhealthy, and at least 75 percent require an extended hospital stay or intensive medical treatment;
Russia's official infant mortality rate remains 4 times higher than in Western Europe and North America, and Russia reports the second highest rate (behind Romania) of under age-5 child mortality in Europe;
The percentage of Russian babies born with a dangerously low body mass (less than 2.5 kg, or 4.4 lbs.) jumped nearly 6 percent from 77,500 in 1996 to 82,000 in 2000, due in large part to rising rates of tobacco and alcohol consumption among Russian women;
Ten percent of pregnant women in Russia lose their unborn children as a result of health problems, and nearly half of Russia's expectant mothers are malnourished.
- 2 million homeless children
- 800 thousands orphans and children left without parental care
- 2 million illiterate teenagers who can't write and read
- 6 million children who live in socially negative conditions
“A political decision on a serious review of the state policy regarding children is needed now” - Russian human rights Commissioner Vladimir Lukin said Wednesday. He noted that children’s rights are not fully secured in Russia. "Too many children need various aid of the state and society all over Russia."
According to Lukin, today:
- Only one third of Russian children (32%) are healthy
- 52% have functional physical problems
- More than 16% of children have chronic diseases
- 4 million Russian teenagers use or have tried heavy drugs
- 1 million teenagers are drug addicts
- The number of teenage deaths related to drug usage has increased 42 (forty two) times in recent years.
More than 1 million teenagers were registered with the Russian police for various criminal violations this year. There are more than 200,000 crimes committed by teenagers in Russia each year There are 150 youth street gangs registered as criminal organizations by police in Russia.
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?"
"Failure of the Soviet Union is a genuine drama" - Putin We made promises in the past and we have failed them;
We won’t fail this time, because we won’t make any more promises!(YM)
Yesterday President Putin addressed the Russian nation with his annual speech (equivalent of State of the Union speech given annually by American President).
Putin largely quoted Russian philosophers, politicians and himself. The speech sounded entertaining, however it lacked one little thing: any national idea. "United We Stand" says the United States of America, Iran fights for Mideast hegemony and Shi'a Islam, China to become the dominant power in Asia if not the world, and Russia is...just hanging out there. The Kremlin has launched few national competitions for the best National Idea in the past, hired bureaucrats to make up one, and so far nothing has come up. And there are reasons for it – you can’t just make up a national idea, it comes naturally to the people as a result or a process of nation’s life. Well, the Russian nation hasn’t lived, it simply has existed, survived, if you will, since 1991.
There are few major things that have to be said about yesterday’s presidential address. As all the American news channels noticed, Putin was openly mourning the downfall of the Soviet Union.
Above all, we should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century. For the Russian nation it was a genuine drama.
And he is right to do so, because from the perspective of a common Russian person the Soviet Union was powerful (if not rich), secure, strong, predictable, and believable. Addressing the Soviet collapse Putin says:
Individual savings were depreciated, and old ideals destroyed. Many institutions were disbanded or reformed carelessly. Terrorist intervention and the Khasavyurt capitulation that followed damaged the country's integrity. Oligarchic groups – possessing absolute control over information channels – served exclusively their own corporate interests. Mass poverty began to be seen as the norm. And all this was happening against the backdrop of a dramatic economic downturn, unstable finances, and the paralysis of the social sphere.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of money in Moscow - you can buy anything you want – groceries, clothes, cars, planes. You can freely travel around the country and around the world, but the percentage of the population that can really enjoy all the benefits of the new "democratic" regime in Russia is 5%-15% according to different sources and estimates. The rest of the nation has been thrown back into the Stone Age: many smaller towns and cities in Russia don’t have phone lines, electricity and water. Americans call this "camping", so maybe life without the benefits of the 20th century isn’t that bad. But all these people are poor to the point that they are figuring out the 15th century approach of making a living – barter.
Someone has a cow, someone has a chicken, someone has a backyard with growing vegetables. All the "participants" of the "natural exchange" are mostly people with higher education, which they received from the Soviet regime. A teacher’s salary of $50 dollars a month, paid by the government with 6 months delay, allows one to buy very few goods, considering the fact that Levi’s jeans start at $250 (American dollars). However a bottle of vodka can be purchased for as little as $1; very good vodka for $2, excellent quality one – for $3. That creates the problem of alcoholism that President Putin also notices:
Around 40,000 people a year die from alcohol poisoning in Russia, above all as a result of drinking alcohol surrogates. Most of these people are young men, the breadwinners for their families.
There are many other problems that are going to be mentioned on this Blog comprable to the problems of Soviet times: brutality in the Russian army fueld by the draft, corrupt court systems, taxation by mafia/state, freedom of speech, etc.
Speaking of freedom - Putin talked a lot about it and democracy as well:
I consider the development of Russia as a free and democratic state to be the main political and ideological goal. We use these words fairly frequently, but rarely care to reveal how the deeper meaning of such values as freedom and democracy, justice and legality is translated into life.
One can say that the statement is very contradictory. It looks that way. Putin was very contradictory yesterday – he was very critical of almost everything that Kremlin has done in the past few years, though he has been part of the elite in charge. That reveals a very deep problem that is not quite understood by the foreign media – just like with freedom and democracy on paper. Putin is in charge, on paper, but there is absolutely nothing he can do in real life.
It’s not a secret that Russia is corrupted from street cop to prime minister, but how do you fight the corruption, if the ones fighting criminals are the prime beneficiaries of criminal enterprises themselves? How do you replace cancelled benefits for elderly people with cash refunds, if there’s no money in the budget (Russian Federal budget for the year 2004 was $95 billion dollars total for defense, education, medical care, retirement, etc)? How do you enforce people declaring their income and paying 13% flat tax, if many employers refuse to hire people who insist on being paid legally? Moscow's ATMs spit out American hundred dollar bills.
Putin might be wanting all the best for his country, but I strongly believe there’s nothing he can do about it.
In year 2000 it was the idea of strengthening the government. Instead Putin strengthened his own power and destroyed separation of powers.
In the year 2001 Putin talked about the necessity of administrative and social reform. It did start in year 2004 with monetization of benefits for elderly and failed right away, without making it to the end.
In 2002 Putin promised court reform, however, the courts don’t work. They work, but only for those who pay, or if they’re told to do so by the government (remember that separation of powers vanished in the year 2000). Actually tomorrow is the day when the CEO of YUKOS, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, in jail for over a year by now, will hear the court decision on his case. Mr. Khodorkovsky is accused of tax evasion, theft of government property, and a dozen more crimes against Russia. But the major crime committed by Khodorkovsky was supporting opposition against the new Czar Putin.
In 2003 Putin promised to unite the nation in order to solve the major national problems. And he did unite it – Putin’s party United Russia took the majority in Russian parliament, giving the president unchecked power for solving Russia's problems his way.
Another promise of 2003 was doubling the GDP. It did grow by 7.2%. However the reason for this growth, according to the World Bank, is higher global oil prices. Will this economic growth disappear when oil prices come down?
The year 2004 brought more promises: increase the well-being of the nation, growth of Russian GDP, fighting poverty, modernization of the army. The benefits reform mentioned above has failed and has brought thousands of people demonstrating in the streets. Growth of GDP still curves along with world oil prices, the government is overspending on social payments, but pensions still aren’t catching up with rampant inflation, and conscription into the brutal treatment of army life has reached a critical point in Russian history.
As Seattle Times noted in it’s April 1 article, Russian young men fake illnesses, enroll in non-existent universities and hide, so the ones who are drafted are usually the homeless, the alcoholics, 18 year olds from poor families, and drug addicts. The Russian military ends up with the social "rif-raff", trigger-happy sadists who enjoy brutalizing terrified conscripts, beggars, the desperately homeless, and criminal scum that should be in jail.
On paper, oil money has enabled the Russian armed forces to make some improvements: this year Russia's Navy is supposed to get two new nuclear submarines, the Air Force two new Tupolev-160 "Blackjack" long range bombers, a dozen of new fighter/bomber jets and helicopters, and 40 new tanks. Considering the fact that Russia is involved in an endless war with it’s own breakaway republic (state) Chechnya, and that Russia shares borders with 14 countries of the Eurasian continent, the military improvements don’t look very impressive at all.
On January 21 Russian Defense and interior/border police ministries reported some of the facts about year 2004. Here are some numbers:
In the year 2004 four hundred high ranking officers were caught stealing government property. Among the stolen (and never found!) goods are: one helicopter engine, 35 tank engines, 1.7 billion rubles (55 million American dollars), 11 thousand tons of petrol, and 7 thousand tons of jet fuel. Given that fuel, every pilot in Russia could’ve had 57 hours of flying time last year. However, the average annual flight hours for a Russian military pilot are less than 16. Again, in his speech, Putin decided not to be specific, and kept on referring to all of these problems with vague and general statements, blaming corruption.
Besides grieving for the Soviet times and offering promises of democratic reforms, Putin didn’t have much to say. The major goals for this year are:
First – measures to develop the state;
Second – strengthening the law, developing the political system, and making the judicial system more effective;
Third – developing the individual and civil society in general.
As you can see, the goals are too general to be goals, or to be even commented upon.
More contradictions came further in to the speech:
And finally, one more crucial problem: Russia is extremely interested in a major inflow of private foreign, investment. This is our strategic choice and strategic approach.- says Putin, and mentions few minutes later that:
Finally, if part of Russian society continues to see the court system as corrupt, there can be no speaking of an effective justice system in our country.
There’s a problem with the word "part" in the statement above. In fact "part" in this instance equals the entire Russian population. And how do you attract foreign investors, if the court and legal systems don’t work even for your own citizens?
Putin mentioned another major problem - besides alcoholism, corruption, and the implosion of the Soviet Union...the Russian nation is dissolving, dying out, committing demographic suicide:
The low birth rate is another national problem. There are more and more families in the country with just one child. We need to make being a mother and being a father more prestigious and create conditions that will encourage people to give birth and raise children.
Putin is incorrect. There are more and more families without children, and it IS prestigious to be a parent. Even if it weren’t, though how is Mr. Putin going to achieve that goal? Besides it’s none of the government business to start with. The Soviet Union gave hero medals to mothers who had many children during the Stalin years - but after World War II, the Communists sought to increase the number of women working in the factories and collectives by offering free abortions. The high cost of these policies are seen today in some of the highest rates of abortion in the world, and high rates of infertility in Russian women.
The President gets honest towards the end of this statement, saying the word "conditions". By conditions, Putin means the same package of issues: corruption, brutal army draft, low budget, poverty, etc. Yes, fixing these things will encourage people to give birth and raise children, but as the tragedy in Beslan school showed, the Russian government cannot protect Russian children who are born (much less the unborn). The reasons? Corruption, a lack of professionalism in the Russian military, and a low budget.
Putin asked listeners a few times to treat this speech as a part of the plan started in previous years. That’s a very nice excuse to redirect the public’s attention to the promises made in the past and not to make any new ones. Putin knows that no matter if he makes any promises or not, they are not going to come true.
If the Nazis or some other foreign invaders were committing genocide in Russia, as in the Great Patriotic War (1941-1945), Russians would fight, as their grandparents' generation fought to crush fascism. But the destruction is coming from within. There is no invader, no evil outside conspiracy spawned by the United States (though many Russian still believe in it). There's no evil plan by Russian politicians to destroy the nation – they are just "doing their jobs" – stealing as much as they can while they can hang on to office.
President Putin is not evil KGB agent. Putin is a misguided Russian nationalist who doesn’t mean to harm his nation. Putin is a helpless, desperate man. There are many problems he can see, but there’s absolutely nothing he can do about them.