(4) Albats Speaks
NOTE: For those interested in such things, here is an elaborate, lengthy prediction about how the downfall of Russia may occur. Fascinating reading. And terrifying, if you’re a Russian.
(4) Albats Speaks
NOTE: For those interested in such things, here is an elaborate, lengthy prediction about how the downfall of Russia may occur. Fascinating reading. And terrifying, if you’re a Russian.
This provocative map from the Opinion Mill blog renames the American states according to the countries that are equivalent in GDP terms. Under this analysis, mighty Russia is rivaled by the tiny American state of New Jersey. Click the map to enlarge. We can hear the Russophile screeching now: “It’s a dirty lie! Russia’s GDP is at least as big as Texas! And with purchasing power parity, we’re hot on the heels of California!” LR wonders how they say in Russian that thing about the forest and the trees . . .
Four Russian soldiers were killed in the southern province of Chechnya in a crossfire between soldiers and traffic inspectors in a flare-up of tensions between military and police forces in the war-scarred region, reports said Thursday. A Russian-made UAZ van was stopped Wednesday night on a highway near the Chechen capital of Grozny for a registration check when an army officer was found drunk behind the wheel, a regional police source said. ‘He would not agree to inspections, it seems. Rushing up to help (the driver), the soldiers wounded three policemen, including two officers,’ the source, who was not identified, told Interfax. Local traffic police and special forces arrived to bring order to the situation. In the ensuing crossfire, four people were killed. All were soldiers in the army’s Zapad battalion. Six were taken to hospital with injuries, including three Zapad soldiers and three policemen. The southern province of Chechnya, after two separatist wars in the last 13 years, is undergoing a wave of reconstruction under recently inaugurated regional leader Ramzan Kadyrov, but the province still experiences open conflict.
The leading German Russia Blog, Krusenstern, offers the following interview of hero journalist and blogger Yevgania Albats (pictured) by Eduard Steiner, Russian correspondent of the Austrian national daily newspaper “Der Standard”.
Eduard Steiner: I have serious worries about Russia’s poor image in the world.
Yevgenia Albats: You think you have worries! I am interested in human rights and freedom of opinion in the country. I am disturbed by what state institutions are doing. I don’t think it is necessary to defend any kind of image.
Nor is that the direction I wanted to take. But doesn’t it seem to you that your country’s reputation is at an all-time low?
That’s true but it doesn’t worry me. Russia’s image is not entirely negative. Gerhard Schröder, the former German prime minister, explained to all the Western states that Putin is a “flawless democrat”. One had the impression that many Germans who do business in Russia and make profits there, above all through the gas industry, are entirely willing to undersign Schröder’s statement. Schröder has never lived in a cage the way we do. He doesn’t know what lack of freedom, lack of air, a feeling of choking is actually like. The East German Merkel, due to her own biography, seems to understand our tragedy better.
Has the murder of Anna Politkovskaya had an effect on your own life?
Naturally it affected me very deeply, as we studied together at the journalism faculty and we lived one building away from each other. But professionally I have not allowed myself be influenced, just as I didn’t allow the earlier murders of journalists to influence me. Journalism is dangerous throughout the world. It is not a profession for those with weak nerves.
Strong people can also feel afraid, don’t you?
Oh please! I lived under the Soviet system. When my daughter was born in 1988 I was investigating the KGB and received a telephone call with the discreet reminder that I was not only a journalist but now also a mother. So, what should I be afraid of now, if nobody was able to strike fear into me back then? If you are a journalist then you can’t allow yourself to be fearful. Otherwise you would have to give up the profession, and write about flowers or cultivate radishes.
I can also imagine that there are themes that you would prefer not to touch at the moment.
No. I don’t apply any form of self-censorship. Another thing that influences my choice of themes however, is that it is very difficult to carry out research in Russia at the moment. In contrast to previously times the state bodies are completely closed, you can’t even get to them. My suppliers of information from all areas are afraid to give their family names and dates. Out of a sense of anticipatory obedience they prefer not to hand out even arbitrary critical statistics. Given this collective fear of issuing any kind of information, when investigating you have to rely increasingly on anonymous sources. This completely kills the culture of independent, transparent and traceable investigation work.
I take it that you receive threats.
I think this is part of the profession. I am careful and take precautions as far as possible. But I am well trained, as I grew up in the Soviet Union. In the past few years the threats have increased in as much as my name is found on all kinds of execution lists that are put onto the Internet. But working as a journalist in Iraq or Chechenia is far more difficult than working in Moscow.
Was the murder of Anna Politkovskaya a turning point or only one further event in the everyday life of Russian journalism, something that was to be expected sooner or later?
You know, murder in Russia is a very common thing. Three years ago Juri Schtschekotschichin, a journalist with the “Nowaja Gazeta” and member of the Duma was murdered because he was investigating the smuggling of furniture that was being covered up by members of the secret service. No case was brought. Later Paul Chlebnikov, the American editor of the Russian “Forbes”, was executed. This case has not been solved as yet.
The murder of Politkovskaya was nothing new for us. Anna was very famous, a very hard and unconciliatory critic of the people currently in power, and above all of Putin personally. Anna’s murder confirmed for many their hypothesis that our country is headed by a terrorist regime.
Do you think that this murder will ever be solved?
If Russian state authorities were involved in it, then no. I suspect that the police forces of the Russian Federation were involved in this murder. I think that this terrible event has opened the eyes of Western observers a little. Until that point, it had seemed to them that the Russians are still wild bears who don’t need Western freedoms. They accepted that there is complete chaos in Russia, everybody steals and a strong president holds the sceptre in the hand.
But the murder of Politkovskaya showed that our country is not headed by a strong power but by a collapsing institution called the “State”. This is, in fact, a conglomerate of different business structures that creates capital using the country’s resources and the state budget. The situation is worsened by the fact that, while under Jelzin it was still possible to “breathe fresh air”, to carry out investigations and to publish the results, under Putin it is difficult to breathe and utterly impossible to carry out any kind of investigative journalism.
Do I understand you correctly? That today you would prefer the 1990s even though it is known that, during the presidential election in 1996, the media allowed themselves to be bought and supported Jelzin with every possible means?
You know: I never sold myself to anybody. I have worked as an investigative journalist since 1986. But I have never written an article to order. I don’t like these generalisations. I only appear as me, myself.
Then I ask you personally: do you think the 1990s were better?
Yes, without a doubt. For me, despite the chaos and the confusion caused by crime, these freedoms are more valuable than the right to a security that doesn’t really exist anyhow. In the 1990s at least one newspaper in three began to publish sensitive material. At that time I could go to almost any ministry, get information, meet civil servants and ask them questions. Today this would be impossible.
But in the Nineties the oligarchs had the reins in their hands.
I have worked a lot in the West. There, a medium is generally owned by a tangible person. If in Russia a medium belongs to, say, Vladimir Gussinski, then that’s called oligarchic. Why, actually? Where does this distortion in Western perception come from? Where do you in the West get your convictions about how good and honest journalism should be practiced? Perhaps in fact it is the case that you in the West could learn something from us. Forgive my impertinence: I haven’t seen much investigative work of any quality carried out in the West. In contrast we have carried out this kind of work.
I meant the pluralism of the Nineties. Surely it was to an extent an “oligarchic” pluralism, which, due to the current Putin regime, is in my opinion somewhat glorified.
Of course in the 1990s there were restrictions on freedom of expression but, due to the fact that the media belonged to different business structures, despite influence being exerted pluralism was preserved. At that time the State owned less than 34 per cent of the media throughout the country, today the figure is 98 per cent. One should not brand Russian oligarchy capitalism to such an extent, these kinds of things existed in many countries in the world. We still have monopolies today: “General Motors” or the “Times Corporation” in the USA. Each of them defends their interests aggressively. In Russia, where there is a complete lack of any form of civil society this kind of capitalism has taken on a more hideous form. But journalism has not ceased to be journalism just because of this.
Today the directors of the television channels and the newspapers are invited every Thursday into the Kremlin office of the deputy head of administration, Vladislav Surkov to learn what news should be presented, and where. Journalists are bought with enormous salaries. In discussions they tell us then how horrible it is to work in the state television service.
All channels of Russian television aim at telling people incessantly: “Don’t worry, be happy.” Don’t get upset, laugh, make a joke and don’t think about the problems that confront you! Nevertheless, people feel that these are lies because in real life they see that prices and the crime rate are rising, to the same extent as the bribery money that “business” pays to civil servants. They see that their rights are being infringed.
We experienced all of this already under Soviet rule. We have already built up a developed socialism. You must understand the fact that we have immense experience. We have a fantastic ability to survive. We can (unfortunately) live without all of that.
The number of listeners to your station “Echo Moskvy” rose last year to the respectable figure of 600,000.
Hardly surprising, people are sick and tired of propaganda. In every ministry, in the Kremlin and in the government “Echo Moskvy” is played the whole time, because they are craving for information. Recently I held a two-hour programme with the theme “civil society”. I asked the listeners whom they trust more: the state or the institutions of the civil society? 95.6 per cent answered in favour of the civil society. And this despite that on all channels people are told about the wonderful President Putin, the father of the people and the great brother who solves all their problems. People just don’t believe this any more.
Don’t you see a certain new stability?
No, because we are starting an election year. Putin is protected by the bureaucracy, the nomenclature and big capital that made its money in the oil, gas, nickel and titanium business. These people are afraid that, when Putin goes, the legitimacy of the capital that they have accumulated in the last six years will be questioned. An entire group of people in the immediate or more distant surroundings of the president are afraid that their property could be taken away from them.
Do you think that more pressure from the West would encourage the development of Russian democracy?
No. The fate of democracy in Russia depends on the citizens themselves – on how much freedom they demand. As a democrat I don’t rely on any help from outside. When Russia was poor and the oil prices were low one could influence the leadership. Today, as the oil prices are beyond any notion of good and evil, and as Europe is up to 44 per cent dependent on Russian gas, it is completely senseless to rely on pressure from abroad. In the first years when Putin brought so many of these offspring of the most repugnant organisation in the Soviet Union, the KGB, to power, something could have been done. But at that time everyone closed their eyes, now it’s too late.
Bloomberg reports on what may well come to be seen as one of the most sensational failures of the Putin regime, alienating Georgia and driving it into the waiting arms of NATO. Putin’s crude, thuggish tactics backfired and Georgia is now the poster child for resistance to the neo-Soviet Union, exposing Russian weakness as it drives out Russian forces without firing a shot and welcomes NATO forces to replace them.
The white marble Stalin museum in Gori, Georgia, the dictator’s hometown, will soon be overshadowed by a new attraction: a military base built to train Georgian troops for NATO missions. Gori’s transformation from Soviet pilgrimage site to an outpost of the U.S.-led military alliance underscores Georgia’s drive to sever its ties to Russia. Georgia’s determination to assert its independence, and its location between oil-rich central Asia and the Black Sea, has made it a conduit for energy shipments to world markets. International investors are pumping more than $3 billion into Georgia to build pipelines, ports and refineries that will allow oil and gas from Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan to bypass established trade routes through Russia. That has angered the Kremlin, which last year imposed a trade embargo on Georgia.
“There is no alternative” for the countries of central Asia, President Mikheil Saakashvili said in the capital, Tbilisi. “Considering that Russia is on one hand their partner but also their competitor, they have an obvious interest in having an alternative — the Black Sea corridor.” Georgia is the most dramatic example of the geopolitical shift taking place in the former Soviet Union. From Estonia in the north to Azerbaijan in the south, Russia increasingly is confronted by former Soviet republics that are expanding links to the U.S. and Europe. That has sparked a backlash in Russia, with President Vladimir Putin decrying the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and U.S. plans to build a missile defense system in Eastern Europe.
“Georgia and the Baltic states are the real outliers, and the Russians have gone out of their way to be really nasty with all of them,” said Andrew C. Kuchins, director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. By punishing Georgia and the Baltics, the Kremlin is trying to reverse the drift toward the U.S. among other former Soviet republics, he said. Georgia, a nation of 4.6 million people on the eastern shore of the Black Sea, was ruled by Russia for most of the period from 1801 until it declared independence in 1991. The country cemented its turn to the west in 2004, when Saakashvili replaced former Soviet boss Eduard Shevardnadze and pledged to steer the country toward membership in NATO and the European Union. Russia opposes Georgia’s bid for NATO membership. The Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have already joined the alliance, and Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko wants his country to join.
`Not a Fan Club’
“NATO is not a fan club of democracies; NATO is a military bloc, a military and political alliance,” said Andrei Denisov, Russia’s first deputy foreign minister. “With all these hectic activities to engage Ukraine and Georgia into NATO, to have these half-baked members in NATO, what should we feel?” Yet Russia can’t afford to antagonize Georgia. Putin wants Russia to enter the World Trade Organization before he leaves office next May. Admission requires treaties with each member state, including Georgia. A first round of talks broke up last month without agreement. Saakashvili says he’s wants the Kremlin to let Georgia install customs control points in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two breakaway regions controlled by Russia. “I want to see what Georgia gets to sign off on WTO,” Clifford Isaak, managing director for the Caucasus region at PricewaterhouseCoopers, said in Tbilisi. “Unless Georgia gets something big it is not going to happen.”
Divorce from Russia hasn’t condemned Georgia to economic collapse. The country’s gross domestic product grew at an annual rate of 13 percent in the first quarter, driven by international investment and trade with western Europe. The government is reducing taxes, cutting red tape and adopting pro-investor policies, according to the American Chamber of Commerce in Tbilisi. “The corruption has more or less disappeared from the traffic police, from customs,” said Esben Emborg, president of the chamber and general manager of Nestle SA’s local unit. “This is a much more level playing field than it used to be. Anyone who runs a serious business will do well.” Last summer, London-based BP Plc started pumping 800,000 barrels of oil a day through a 1,116-mile pipeline that stretches from Azerbaijan through Georgia to Ceyhan on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast. Separately, BP and Norway’s Statoil ASA are shipping 1 million cubic meters of gas a day from Azerbaijan to Georgia, replacing 20 percent of imports from Russia. By December, the pipeline will be linked to Turkey and through it to Europe.
“Georgia is in a critical position in the East-West energy corridor,” said David Glendinning, a spokesman for the BP Plc venture that built and now operates the pipeline. “The East-West energy corridor is a reality.” Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, just across the Caspian Sea, have more than 46 billion barrels of oil reserves, 59 percent of those in Russia, the world’s largest energy exporter, according to BP. On May 25, Georgia approved a $1 billion oil refinery that KazMunaiGaz, a Kazakh state-owned oil and gas producer, plans to build at Batumi on the Black Sea coast. The State Oil Company of the Azerbaijan Republic plans to build a similar project. “We would like to get gas and more supplies of oil from the Caspian Sea region,” European Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs said April 30 at a press conference in Brussels, where he spoke alongside Georgian Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili. “Georgia is ready to provide the necessary supply corridors toward the European Union.”
Near Gori, where a medieval fortress overlooks the vineyards that produce Georgia’s famous red wines, crews are paving the first stretch of a 600-mile, four-lane highway from Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, to Batumi. Work is also starting on a railroad linking Georgia and Turkey. Outside the Black Sea town of Poti, Georgian officials plan to create a free economic zone, reducing most taxes to zero to spur development. Earlier this month, the investment authority of Ras Al Khaimah, one of the seven members of the United Arab Emirates, agreed to develop the project. The authority is preparing a master plan for what could be a multibillion dollar port, industrial zone and power project, said General Manager Raman Iyer. “This is traffic basically across the Silk Road, traditionally the road from Asia, toward the Middle East and Europe,” Saakashvili said.
Georgia’s emergence as a competitor helped prompt Russia to crack down on its former colony last year. Russia cut all travel and import links, citing Georgia’s expulsion of Russian soldiers accused of spying. It also deported about 4,000 of the estimated 1 million Georgians working in Russia, mostly for alleged visa violations. OAO Gazprom, Russia’s state-controlled gas export monopoly, raised prices to $235 per 1,000 cubic meters, four times 2005 levels, as part of a plan to phase out Soviet-era “friendship pricing.”
The trade ban taught Georgians to look elsewhere.
“We were concentrated too much in Russia,” said Badri Japardize, whose Borjomi mineral water brand lost $20 million in Russia last year. “We are reallocating our resources to the Baltic states, U.K., Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan. Our U.S. sales have gone from 20,000 bottles to 3 million.” Looking south, Georgia dropped visa requirements for Turkish citizens last year, and Turkish Airlines now treats Georgia’s new airport in Batumi as part of its domestic network. While the Russian flag is almost invisible in Tbilisi, the blue and gold European Union flag is everywhere. “This is a way of preparing people to think of themselves as Europeans,” Nestle’s Emborg said.
George Balanchine Street
U.S. influence is on display at a new $62 million airport terminal in Tbilisi, where the gates are emblazoned with the English words “Welcome to Georgia.” Taxis traveling to the new Marriott Courtyard hotel head down George W. Bush Street. At the corner of George Balanchine and John Shalikashvili Streets, two boulevards recently named for prominent Georgian- Americans, stands the new U.S. embassy, a $56 million building where 480 people work. On May 2, the U.S. Navy destroyer USS The Sullivans conducted exercises with the Georgian Navy on the Black Sea, for 150 years a Russian lake. On the same day, General David McKiernan, commander of the U.S. Army in Europe, arrived in Georgia to watch U.S.-led military exercises. Georgia’s success in distancing itself from Russia may teach the Kremlin to moderate its stance toward the new nations on its fringe, said Thomas de Waal, Caucasus editor of the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting.
Waning Russian Influence
“Russia is rich, but it is losing its influence heavily in the South Caucasus — it is relying disastrously on hard power,” he said by e-mail. “The Russian blockade has pushed Georgia further into the American embrace, and Russia is doing nothing to cultivate its major asset in the region, the Russian language.” Back in Gori, one mile from the museum marking Stalin’s birthplace, a Turkish-Georgian company is building a military base that will comply with NATO standards and house a brigade of Georgian troops. Nearby, a billboard displays a photograph of Saakashvili and Bush shaking hands.