Tales of the Iron Curtain, Descending
A few months ago Russian opposition leader Oleg Kozlovsky was drafted into the Russian Army. Then, a short time later, he was un-drafted.
It’s no flight of fancy to say that this blog (a term that certainly includes you, the reader) had a something to do with his release. Because of our leadership in covering the story, it made it into both the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune, and from there into a number of other forums and the attention of significant world leaders. What was obviously a plan to crush Kozlovsky with dedovshchina torture fizzled like a cheap firecracker and went up in smoke.
It would be a mistake to think, though, that the malignant forces of evil in the Kremlin saw that as much of a setback. The real point of moving against Kozlovsky, after all, was to intimidate, threaten and silence others, not just him. And the Kremlin’s action hasn’t even been declared illegal in a lawsuit, nor have damages been paid to Kozlovsky. Until that happens, the Kremlin will conclude it accomplished the lion’s share of its objectives.
But the lion’s share isn’t total victory. Kozlovsky lived to tell the tale and he did tell it — on the storied pages of the Washington Post in his own editorial, while he was sitting in jail on yet more trumped-up charges. He hasn’t been silenced or intimidated; in fact, the Kremlin’s action has given him new credibility and may ultimately blow up in its face, just like British action against Gandhi and Southern action against Martin Luther King did.
And now, there’s more bittersweet news along these same lines to report.
Back in August, we were the first in the English-speaking world to tell the full story of blogger Savva Terentyev, who had been arrested and faced two years in prison for a comment he wrote on another blogger’s post. Just imagine what his fate would have been for an actual post on his own blog!
Now the Moscow Times reports that Terentyev has been tried and convicted for the act of writing a comment on a blog post. His only consolation is that he received not actual jail time but a 1.5-year suspended sentence — meaning that for the next year and a half the Kremlin can chuck him into prison any time it wants if he’s not a really, really good boy. As Alexander Verkhovsky, director of the SOVA centre in Moscow, a non-governmental group that monitors extremism, told Reuters: “This was an absolutely unjustified verdict. Savva for sure wrote a rude comment, but this verdict means it will be impossible to make rude comments about anybody.” The Kremlin’s chilling message has been sent out loud and clear, far and wide: “If we’ll do this to a mere commenter, just imagine what we’ll do with the actual bloggers themselves.”
But still, a suspended sentence isn’t nothing. Just like with Kozlovsky, it shows the Kremlin knows its own weakness, that it can’t risk doing what it wants and has to move in careful, baby steps down the road to dictatorship. We played our part in bringing sufficient pressure to bear on the Kremlin that Savva is still at liberty to blog again, if he’s got the guts. It will be a drawn-out process to liquidate the last vestiges of civil society in Russia, and that means its defenders have a chance.
But not much of one, unless of course the forces of good in the West, led perhaps by John McCain and others who clearly see our peril, use these victories as a springboard towards a confrontation that will ultimately force back the tide of repression now sweeping over neo-Soviet Russia.
Paul Goble reports:
The Kremlin has dispatched its own “agents of influence” to political forums on the Internet both to portray itself as having more support than it has and to suggest that its opponents who would like to see a more democratic Russia with closer ties to the West are an ever more marginal group, according to an intriguing online analysis. In a three-part study, the Independent Consumers Association (ICA) noted a striking difference between those who post on these sites and those who take part in surveys where it is possible to vote only once from a single computer.
Having noted that the percentage of forum participants with liberal and democratic views formed 70 to 80 percent in 1999 while four years later, their opponents, who backed more anti-democratic positions constituted 60 to 80 percent of those posting messages, the ICA asked what could explain such a change. And what it found was that “such a sharp quantitative jump did not correspond to the spectrum of public opinion and essentially diverged from the data of Internet voting on key problems of contemporary Russian life” – and moreover diverged along a single anti-democratic and anti-Western axis.
Today, the ICA analysts note, “80 percent of the authors on all web forums very aggressively and with unanimous curse the United States. But in voting on those sites where it is possible to vote only once from a single computer, 84 percent of the Russian-language users of the Internet support the United States.” This divergence between the content of the forums and voting of this kind is found “everywhere,” the ICA analysts say, an indication that a relatively small number of people are flooding the forums with messages listed under various screen names in order to distort the picture of Russian opinion online. “In liberal and neutral social-political forums of the Russian segment of the Internet, the activity of an extremely large number of similar personages has grown” to the point that they sometimes come to define the core of that forum, especially since they share so many common features that set them apart as a distinctive group, despite their claims of diversity.
The ICA analysts refer to members of this group as “the agents of influence of the siloviki” or “Commando G” [for “gosudarstvenniki” or etatists] and point to a number of their common characteristics, both in terms of the approaches they adopt and the specific positions they put forward in their posts. Among these are “round-the-clock presence on the forums” rather than during peak hours as is the case with most users, a close tracking of the positions of the Russian government no matter how often they change, “unlimited devotion” to the Russian leader, and positive characterizations of the Soviet and Russian security services. The ICA analysts then list some more specific attitudes of Commando G including their specific and consistent attacks on opponents of the regime, the “low cultural level and characteristic language” of its members, and the tendency to denounce anyone who disagrees as “an enemy of Russia.”
Many of these Commando G types frequently change their screen names or use more than one, the ICA study concludes, all the better to suggest that there are more people who agree with them than is in fact the case and what is probably even more important that there are far fewer who disagree with the Kremlin line. The ICA study also provides additional evidence of specific links between Commando G and the Russian security agencies and acknowledges that the Russian government, given its desire to control all the media, has no choice but to adopt such innovative measures in order to try to bring the Internet forums to heel.
Obviously, ICA is not able to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt in the sense that many of the attitudes and patterns of behavior it points to could in fact be true of the rapidly growing Runet itself. But its conclusions are not only intriguing but suggestive of some of the innovative ways researchers may be able to track government involvement online. However that may be, the ICA study concludes on what is an optimistic note for all those who care about media freedom, the basis of democracy and an open society. What the Kremlin and its security agency allies have been doing, the ICA analysts say, is generating some countervailing forces the Russian leadership did not expect. “People on Internet forums attempt to defend and support one another” whenever they are confronted by a coordinated action of groups like Commando G. That act of cooperation is highly empowering, as is the fact that however much power this pro-Kremlin group may have there are ways to post a response, including reports like the one ICA has prepared.
Joshua Keating of Foreign Policy says that Russia is “closed for business” and blames Dmitri Medvedev:
Last month, Dmitry Medvedev assured a group of international CEOs that he would work to enforce the rule of law and establish “absolutely independent modern courts that comply with the country’s economic development level.” But if the assembled corporate leaders were hoping that the new Russian president would be true to his word, and the corruption and politically motivated prosecutions of the Putin era would end, this has not been an encouraging couple of days.
Yesterday, most of the expatriate staff of TNK-BP, an oil venture co-owned by British Petroleum, were denied extensions of their work visas. CEO Robert Dudley e-mailed employees this morning telling them to prepare for relocation as early as next week. The standoff between BP and its Russian partners has been escalating for months but after today, it appears that that the Russian shareholders have effectively wrestled the company away from the departing Brits. (Medvedev has denied accusations that the government is intervening on behalf of the Russian oligarchs on TNK-BP’s board as well as the rumors that his old company Gazprom plans to take control of what’s left of the company.)
Also today, new charges were filed against Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Once Russia’s richest man, the former CEO of oil company Yukos has languished in a Siberian prison since a tax-evasion conviction in 2003 that was widely seen as punishment for the tycoon’s political ambitions. Khodorkovsky has now been charged with embezzling more than $28 billion and stealing 350 million tons of oil. Kohodorkovsky’s lawyers had hoped he could be released early after having served more than half his original sentence, but the new charges could keep him behind bars for another 20 years. One of his lawyers, Robert Amsterdam, told Bloomberg: “I don’t think they’re even trying to make these new charges look real.”
Russia’s leaders have created a legal system in which it’s essentially impossible for a business to operate legally, making anyone who does business there subject to arbitrary prosecution. It’s an arrangement that’s well-suited to protecting state power, but not very effective at promoting economic growth. If Medvedev really wants to make Russia the world’s fifth largest economy by 2020, he’s going to need to try a littler harder.
While President Bush is spending his birthday week with “smart guy” Dmitry Medvedev, his secretary of state is embarking on you might call a tour of the front lines of Western-Russia tension. Tomorrow, Secretary Rice travels to Prague to formally sign an agreement on the construction of a U.S. missile-defense radar system in the Czech Republic. Later in the week, she heads to Georgia, an American ally locked in a standoff with Russia over its increasingly violent breakaway provinces.
Russia strongly opposes the building of the missile-defense shield and the Foreign Ministry has warned that “appropriate steps” will be taken to punish the Czechs. Since the Russians’ amped-up support for the Georgian provinces began as retaliation for Western recognition of Kosovo, it’s safe to assume they don’t make such threats idly. But compared with historically unstable Geogia, there’s not much Russia could do to push around the Czech Republic, a country where Moscow hasn’t held much sway since the Velvet Revolution of 1989.
In fact, it’s clear Czech leaders are excited to be under the U.S. military’s protective wing, and the same goes for Georgia’s efforts to join NATO. Poland, which the U.S. hopes will also host part of the missile defense system, is still holding out, but that seems to be mostly about the Poles negotiating a better deal.
These countries, even if purely for cynical reasons, see cooperating with the U.S. as a strategic advantage. Russia, on the other hand, only seems to influence other nations by undermining their governments or shutting off their energy supplies. This can work in bordering countries like Georgia or Ukraine, but places like the Czech Republic and Poland no longer have to fear Russian tanks rolling down the street.
There’s a lesson here: For all the talk of the Putin/Medvedev tandem’s international assertiveness, they seem to lose a lot more battles than they win. And despite everything that has gone wrong in the last eight years, the United States still seems to be much better at making and keeping friends than the Russians.
The Chicago Tribune reports:
Igor Shopen jabbed a branch into the edge of the Volga River, a stone’s throw from the Saratov Oil Refinery’s rust-covered storage tanks. In a matter of seconds, black crude billowed from the riverbed like ink from a squid.
In the air, the scent of oil hung thick and heavy. Along the shore, piles of picnic trash dotted the beach. Tossing the stick onto the brown-black sand, Shopen’s voice quavered as he sized up the fate of a river long revered as a gateway into the soul of Russia.
“What we face here now is the question of ecological collapse—the question of life or death of the environment here,” said Shopen, a local environmentalist who as a boy spent his summers swimming in the Volga. “I am proud of this great river and I want it to remain great after I’m gone.”
The river that Russians call Mother Volga has been the country’s lifeblood for centuries, as beloved here as the Mississippi is in the U.S.
Today, however, segments of the Volga serve as little more than ashcans for riverside factories that are pushing the river toward the brink of environmental ruin. Russian scientists estimate that a third of the country’s wastewater gets dumped into the Volga basin, and much of that water is poorly filtered.
“In recent years, industrial activity has been on the rise in Russia, and that’s very dangerous because the wastewater-cleaning facilities at industrial plants date back to Soviet times,” said Galina Chernogayeva, a scientist at the Institute for Global Climate and Ecology, which studies water pollution in Russia. “They need modernization.”
Historically, Russia has never been a good guardian of its environment.
During the Cold War, large-scale radiation discharges at weapons manufacturing facilities in central Russia and Siberia were hushed up for years by Soviet authorities. Cancer rates have risen dramatically in villages along the Techa River in the Ural Mountains, not far from a plutonium plant that for decades secretly dumped more than 20 billion gallons of radioactive waste into the river. Along the Barents Sea and the country’s eastern Pacific coast, submarines containing nuclear fuel rust in ports, awaiting dismantling.
Under former President Vladimir Putin, the country rebounded on the back of booming oil prices but failed to steer any of that newfound wealth toward safeguarding the environment. Now, authorities say, Russia cannot afford to ignore the health of its waterways much longer.
Putin’s handpicked successor, President Dmitry Medvedev, said that if the country continues to neglect its environment, “in 10, 20 or 30 years we may find ourselves in a situation when part of the country’s territory will be unfit for living.”
“Environmental protection,” Medvedev told law students in St. Petersburg in June, “is a question of national security.”
Some of Russia’s most iconic bodies of water are also its most endangered. For 40 years, a paper mill in east Siberia has been dumping chlorine and other contaminants into Lake Baikal, the world’s largest and deepest freshwater lake. Siberia’s Ob and Amur Rivers are also heavily polluted, scientists say.
But it’s the Volga that may be the country’s most abused waterway.
Europe’s longest river, the 2,300-mile Volga begins in the Valdai Hills north of Moscow and meanders through the dense birch woodlands of central Russia before emptying into the Caspian Sea. During the Soviet era, the country’s military-industrial complex freely polluted the Volga for decades while it rushed to meet Moscow’s production quotas. In the name of industrialization, the river was dammed in places, creating large reservoirs that slowed water flow and allowed pollutants to accumulate.
The Volga can still be saved, environmentalists say, but time is running out. A pollution study released by Chernogayeva’s institute last year found that most of the water in the Volga basin could be characterized either as “contaminated” or “dirty,” a designation based on an analysis of the type and severity of pollution found in samples.
At the river’s delta near the city of Astrakhan, pollution from nearby factories and farms is causing algae blooms that rob fish stocks and the region’s wetland wildlife of oxygen, “dramatically affecting the ecosystem of the river there,” said Valentina Bryzgalo, chief researcher at the Hydrochemical Institute in Rostov-on-Don.
Tributaries that feed into the Volga aggravate the river’s plight. The city of Chapayevsk on the Chapayevka River, a Volga tributary, is so polluted with dioxins and other contaminants that the mayor has proposed shutting down the city and resettling its 70,000 inhabitants.
In Saratov, a refinery has been polluting the Volga since it began operation in 1920, said Shopen, who heads the Saratov branch of Green Patrol, a Russian environmentalist group. Collection ponds just 50 yards from the river bank are coal-black with oil contamination.
“The problem is that the refinery is so old, and its condition is far from perfect,” Shopen says. “So some of the oil just seeps into the ground or collects in these ponds, and groundwater underneath carries the oil into the river.”
At a refinery outfall that empties into the river, the water is black and viscous. A small plastic barrier installed by the refinery’s owner, TNK-BP, helps contain the oil-contaminated water, but during spring rains, it overflows and streams toward the river, Shopen says. TNK-BP placed the boom there three weeks ago at Green Patrol’s urging; before, only a swatch of fabric was used to contain the oil.
Locals say the segment of the Volga that flows past Saratov used to teem with fish. Today, says Viktor Matarkulov, a 58-year-old railway worker, “there’s very little fish, and the fish we catch smells of oil. If we go on abusing the Volga like this, there won’t be any fish left at all.”
On a recent cloudless afternoon, Alexei Nefyodov, 17, and Dmitry Lesin, 15, did backflips off of a pile of old tires stacked in the water. When they were done, they said they would do what they always do—head home and shower off the film of oil.
“All of the oil here worries us,” shrugged Nefyodov as he toweled himself off. “But we’ve got no other place to swim.”
Paul Goble reports:
The security situation is deteriorating across the entire North Caucasus, with local officials blaming foreign financing of the anti-government bands, human rights organizations blaming the oppressive actions of local officials, and Moscow officials blaming the unwillingness of local security officials to do what is necessary. A lengthy article in a recent edition of “Nezavisimaya gazeta-Regiony” entitled “The North Caucasian Arc of Instability” suggests that the situation there is very different from and far more threatening than the one the Kremlin and its supporters have been offering the world in recent months. FSB General Vladimir Pronichev told the paper’s Vladimir Mukhin that the situation in Chechnya, Ingushetia and Daghestan remains “very unstable,” as a result of the efforts of “definite forces” to “destroy our [Russian state] by means of destabilizing the social-political situation in the region.”
His remarks follow a statement by Chechen Interior Minister Ruslan Alkhanov last week who linked what he described as the “activization” of the militants to the “financial assistance” the Grozny official said they were receiving from “their Arab sponsors.” In order to get more such funds, he continued, the militants seek to “demonstrate their military power.”
“Unfortunately,” Alkhanov acknowledged, “periodically they are able to do so.”
But regardless of whether Alkhanov’s explanation is correct, Mukhin underscores that now the militants are able to act more than “periodically” not only within Chechnya but elsewhere in the North Caucasus and possibly into central regions of the Russian Federation itself. Indeed, he says, “the raids of the militants are becoming a regular phenomenon.” The situation in Daghestan is particularly worrisome from Russia’s point of view. Last week, that republic’s Interior Minister Adil’gerei Magomedtagirov admitted that security there had “sharply deteriorated and the members of the illegal armed formations had increased” in recent months.
The minister said that law enforcement personnel there were doing everything they could but what he called “destructive forces, acting in the North Caucasus, are prepared even at the cost of the lives of hundreds of innocent people” to deceive the people of Daghestan and “impose on them alien views.”
But “Nezavisimaya gazeta-Regiony” reports that many in Moscow “doubt that the law enforcement organs of Daghestan are working to capacity,” a failing that they quite obviously believe has given a new opening to the militants. Meanwhile, the security situation in other formerly quieter regions of the North Caucasus is deteriorating as well, the Moscow paper reports. Ingushetia, as a recent Human Rights Watch (HRW) report pointed out, is becoming ever more destabilized, with officials engaged in arbitrary abductions and killings that are fueling the violence. And in Kabardino-Balkaria, the paper continued, the law enforcement authorities appear to be “ignoring a possible sharpening of the situation,” failing to draw the necessary conclusions from their discovery of bomb-making equipment last weekend and portraying various actions there as simply the work of criminals.
Mukhin concludes his article with the following words: “Thus, the situation in many regions of the North Caucasus has now become more serious. Unfortunately, objective factors have promoted this development,” including aid to the militants from abroad and poverty at home.
But, he points out, “a fact remains a fact: the intensiveness of the attacks of the extremists in the south of the country is growing. And judging from what is going on, the federal force structures still have not figured out how to neutralize the heightened activity of the militants” operating against them. Should there be a military clash between the Russian Federation and Georgia, that situation would undoubtedly become even worse. But even if such a conflict is avoided, conditions in the North Caucasus will remain explosive, however much Moscow claims otherwise and however little the rest of the world pays attention.
An armed group raided a village in the southern Russian republic of Ingushetia overnight, killing three men linked to the security forces, Russian news agencies reported on Wednesday. The raid on Tuesday night adds to growing instability in the republic — which borders restive Chechnya — where assassinations, bomb attacks and kidnappings are a weekly occurrence. “Victims of the attacks include a policeman, a local teacher of basic military skills and an ex-interior ministry officer,” Interfax news agency quoted an Interior Ministry spokesman as saying. News agencies said between 10 and 30 men came from the Caucasus mountains, stole vehicles and drove to the homes of the four men, killing three and injuring the fourth in a small southern village of the republic. Last year the central government in Moscow boosted the number of its soldiers in Ingushetia and declared a counter-terrorist operation in the region to combat increased rebel activities. Now military helicopters fly hourly over Ingushetia and the army sweeps the roadsides daily for bombs. Gunmen have tried to kill the unpopular president of Ingushetia and have assassinated one of the republic’s top judges.
Reuters also reports:
Three policemen were shot and killed early on Tuesday in Baksan, a small town in Russia’s North Caucasus region of Kabardino-Balkaria, news agency Interfax said quoting local law enforcement. “Criminals attacked a highway patrol post situated in the so-called Baksan circle and shot dead three members of the police with an automatic weapon,” police said. Two wars in nearby Chechnya since 1994 have impoverished and scarred the North Caucasus, and sporadic violence across the region happens almost daily, but attacks in Kabardino-Balkaria are less frequent than other provinces. In January unidentified assailants in Kabardino-Balkaria attacked and killed the regional head of a police unit charged with fighting organised crime. Another police officer from the same unit was shot dead in May at a car wash. It is unclear if these attacks are linked to a wider low intensity rebellion across the north Caucasus against Russian forces or to local criminal groups.
An editorial in the Telegraph calls for Russia’s expulsion from the G-8:
The Prime Minister is sometimes accused of running the country on the principles of Soviet diktat, and Gordon Brown is certainly not a politician used to taking “niet” for an answer. But that is precisely the response he received during his first meeting with Russia’s new president, Dmitri Medvedev, at the G8 summit in Japan, where he raised a number of important issues that have led to the recent dramatic decline in relations between Moscow and London.
The leaders met against a backdrop of alarming reports that Russia now constitutes the third largest threat to Britain’s national security after Iran and al-Qa’eda, and that Moscow’s FSB intelligence service was directly responsible for the murder of Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko, who was poisoned with polonium-210 in a London hotel in 2006.
Not surprisingly, Mr Brown is keen for Moscow to hand over the prime suspect in the Litvinenko murder case, the former FSB agent Andrei Lugovoi, to stand trial. The Prime Minister also sought an assurance from Mr Medvedev that he would reopen the British Council offices in St Petersburg and Ekaterinburg, which were closed when Britain decided to press charges against Mr Lugovoi.
Mr Medvedev responded negatively to both requests, as he did on another urgent issue: the future of BP’s joint venture with a consortium of Russian investors to develop Russia’s vast energy resources. Lord Robertson, the former defence secretary, who is the venture’s deputy chairman, has accused his Russian partners of waging a campaign of intimidation to force BP to end its participation.
Mr Brown sought assurances that the Russians would stop causing difficulties for BP employees working in Russia, but received none.
It is all a far cry from those heady days five years ago, when Vladimir Putin made his historic state visit to Britain. That was when Tony Blair and other world leaders believed Russia could become a valued ally and partner in tackling global issues, from climate change to terrorism. It also explained Moscow’s invitation in 1998 to participate in the annual G7 summit for world leaders, which duly became G8.
That was before Russia’s oil riches began to swell the Kremlin’s coffers, since when Moscow’s ruling elite has been inclined to indulge in the politics of gangsterism and corruption, rather than democracy and the rule of law. Britain is far too small a country to tackle Russia’s bully-boy tactics alone: that is a job that requires the Western powers to act in unison.
They could make a start by threatening to expel the Russians from the elite G8 club, unless they agree to mend their uncouth ways.