Daily Archives: October 30, 2006

Happy Day of Soviet Political Prisoners!

Interfax reports that today used to be the annual day in Russia for commemorating Soviet political repression. Apparently, Russians now think that repression was a good idea, as the subsequent post on Vladimir Rakhmankov illustrates.

There are some 900,000 victims of political reprisals in Russia, according to the Memorial international charitable human rights society. “Among them are those who suffered political repression and also members of their families, and most of them are elderly people whose ranks are thinning,” the Memorial’s Executive Director Yelena Zhemkova told Interfax on Sunday.

Victims of political repression will be commemorated in Russia on Monday, October 30. This date was formerly observed as the Day of Soviet Political Prisoners. Zhemkova complained that authorities have not been attentive enough to victims of political reprisals. “The recent shift from social benefits to cash payments had an impact on the Law on the Rehabilitation of Victims of Political Repression, passed 15 years ago, causing the victims’ living standards to fall. Matters related to social benefits for victims of political reprisals were relegated to regional authoritieis. Of course, those residing in Moscow and St.Petersburg are better off than in poorer regions. Therefore, ex-prisoners of the same concentration camp, who live in different regions, are entitled to different cash benefits,” Zhemkova said.

Rakhmankov Convicted

The International Herald Tribune reports that only days after the assassination of Anna Politkovskaya blogger Vladimir Rakhmankov has been convicted of “insulting the president” and fined the equivalent of two and half months’ average salary by an Ivanovo court (that’s like fining an American journalist $10,000 after he watches Mike Wallace get assassinated — how much more reporting do you think he’d do?). In the post that follows this one, we see more evidence of the Kremlin’s crackdown on the Internet.

A media rights group on Friday denounced the conviction of a Russian journalist who has been fined for writing a satirical article about President Vladimir Putin, saying the court’s decision underlined shrinking media freedom in Russia. The Paris-based Reporters Without Borders condemned the conviction of Vladimir Rakhmankov as “utterly grotesque.” Rakhmankov, editor of the online publication Kursiv in the city of Ivanovo, northeast of Moscow, was sentenced earlier this week to pay a 20,000-ruble (US$750, €600) fine by a court on charges of insulting the president in an article headlined, “Putin as Russia’s phallic symbol.”

“Prosecuting a journalist on a charge of insult because of a satirical article is a flagrant violation of free expression,” Reporters Without Borders said in a statement. “The situation of Russian journalists in the provinces is often very tough because of the high degree of concentration of authority,” it added. Rakhmankov’s article, published in May, poked fun at Putin’s state-of-the-nation address, in which the president called for measures to boost the country’s birth rate, which is dwindling. The publication suggested that animals at a local zoo eagerly heeded Putin’s call, Russian media reported. Local prosecutors launched an investigation on their own initiative and without the Kremlin making any public statements about the case. Since taking office more than six years ago, Putin has presided over what critics say is a steady rollback in press freedoms won since the Soviet collapse. Top independent television stations have been shut down and print media have also experienced growing official pressure. The shrinking press freedom in Russia was spotlighted by the Oct. 7 killing of journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who exposed killings, torture and other abuses against civilians in Chechnya. Politkovskaya’s contract-style murder in her apartment building set off a chorus of protest from foreign governments and international organizations.

Annals of Managed Democracy

The Moscow Times fills us in on the details of a Neo-Soviet “press conference”:

“After the words ‘his citizens’ — uproarious applause.

“After the words ‘Ask a question to the president of Russia’ — hands should go up.

“First question — from a veteran. Then — from the plant.”

These were just some of the instructions doled out to Irina Yashina shortly before watching President Vladimir Putin in a live, televised Q&A session Wednesday.

Yashina, an editor at the Zavodskaya Pravda newspaper, run by the Dagdizel heavy machinery plant in Kaspiysk, Dagestan, was assigned the “plant” question.

The question, as it turned out, was a plea for the president to press the Defense Ministry to order more torpedoes and other military hardware made in Kaspiysk.

The city in the North Caucasus was one of 10 locales specially selected for television uplinks during the three-hour session with the president, which was broadcast on state-run Channel One and Rossia.

Within hours following the afternoon call-in show, reports surfaced of officials’ behind-the-scenes efforts to make sure the president’s PR offensive came off without a hitch.

Natalya Krainova, a Dagestani journalist, said in an interview Thursday that when she asked Yashina how the uplink with Putin had gone, Yashina gave her the piece of paper with the instructions on it.

Krainova said Yashina insisted she had written the instructions herself last week and learned them by heart.

“This sounds strange, given that the instructions on the paper included how to behave during the uplink,” Krainova noted.

Orders not to drink, smoke or chew during the broadcast were issued to a crowd in Irkutsk that had gathered for the uplink there, Regnum News Agency reported.

Regional authorities and Rossia television crews carefully managed everything that respondents in Bryansk, Baltiisk and Nakhodka said and did during their exchange with Putin, Gazeta.ru reported.

A Kremlin official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said preparation for the uplinks was handled by television reporters, who traveled to the uplink sites well in advance of the seemingly informal show. The official added that no one in the presidential administration told questioners which questions to ask.

Spokespersons for the All-Russia Television and Radio Broadcast Company, which runs Rossia, declined to comment.

Yashina could not be reached in her office Thursday.

On multiple occasions, a call was put through to her phone, and each time someone on the other end picked up and immediately hung up the phone.

Sharp & Sound on the Blogosphere Brouhaha

Sharp & Sound’s Evegeny Morozov, a columnist for the Russian newspaper Akzia, had a piece in the International Herald Tribune with more detail on the “Zhe-Zhe” brouhaha. It turns out that what’s actually happening is yet another Kremlin push to control the Internet, with a smokescreen attacking America for doing the same.

If you are an aspiring dictator looking for ways to muzzle the independent media, do a stint in Moscow. The Kremlin’s successful recipe has been at work for a decade. First, take a reclusive oligarch who made his fortune by financing murky privatization deals in the 1990s but remained loyal to the regime. Then, throw in some elections, for which the regime would require media assistance. Have the oligarch buy some lucrative media asset enshrined by the Russian intelligentsia. Finally, find a controversial figure to run it.

Russians have been eating this cake ever since former President Boris Yeltsin’s reelection in 1996 was at stake. A decade later, the consolidation of Russian media in the hands of people and institutions affiliated with Kremlin has been almost completed. But as independent media were fighting for survival, many dissidents found asylum online. Banned from television, radio and many newspapers, they had no choice but to start blogging. Liberals and nationalists, Communists and reformers – all sorts of commentators that never fit with the Kremlin-controlled media – became not only visible, but appealing to the most dynamic sector of the Russian electorate: the youth.

By 2006, the number of Russian blogs hit the 1,000,000 mark. Surprisingly, most of them are hosted on a popular American service LiveJournal, not on a domestic blogging service. There are quite subtle explanations for LiveJournal’s popularity: Many Russians would not trust a Russian company to handle their personal information like passwords and credit cards, nor would they want to be subject to Russia’s draconian legal system and “dialogues” with the secret services. Therefore, when a two month-old Russian start-up with the funky name of Sup (“soup” in English) announced last week that it would take over the Cyrillic segment of LiveJournal from its American parent, the Russian blogosphere exploded with buzz.

Plenty of speculation about the Kremlin’s vicious plan to control and censor the blogosphere flooded the Internet. In a country that still mourns over the recent murder of Anna Politkovskaya, one of its most critical voices, many think that a crackdown on bloggers is long overdue. What’s so pernicious about the deal is that it replicates the very Kremlin model that poisoned the rest of the Russian media. All ingredients are in order. The oligarch (Aleksandr Mamut, one of the few oligarchs who made a smooth transition between the regimes, owns Sup); the upcoming 2007 and 2008 elections; the independent media asset with tremendous popularity; and the controversial figure in charge (Sup’s chief blogging officer is Anton Nossik, the father of the Russian Internet and, among other things, a former associate of Gleb Pavlovsky, the Kremlin’s spindoctor).

Sup already announced the creation of an “abuse team.” Typically, abuse teams monitor, warn and suspend blogs that post inappropriate content; prior to the deal, this function was performed by LiveJournal’s American abuse team. Given Sup’s roots and potential ideology, one can hardly expect that the scope of discussions allowed on the Russian Internet will increase. If history is anything to judge by, the days of the Russian blogosphere buzzing with criticial opinions are numbered. Unfortunately, a simple solution of migrating to another blog service would only disrupt the existing communication networks that have made LiveJournal so popular.The truly extremist bloggers represent very tiny and rather isolated communities, which will easily migrate elsewhere.

But thousands of more mainstream bloggers, who have filled in the void left by the disappearance of independent media, will become divided, some of them falling for the Sup offer, some of them migrating to other services, and some of them stopping to blog altogether (a trend that has started after Sup’s announcement). Thus, with the direct or indirect assistance from Sup, the Kremlin will manage to burden and, perhaps, even reverse the process that has made opinion-sharing in Russia so easy. Who would be to blame for destroying a viable and vibrant public forum and turning it into another Kremlin- medicated sanatorium? Nossik, Sup’s blog boss, who increasingly resembles Ivan the Terrible killing his son in that famous Repin painting, should top anyone’s list of suspects.

Russian Racism: Does the Right Hand Know What the Left Hand is doing in Britain?

The International Herald Tribune reports that the British Foriegn Office has issued a report stingingly attacking Russia’s human rights record, and Russia has responded with typical defensiveness and lack of reform. Now if only the Foreign Office would speak to the Home Office and convince them to stop denying reqests for asylum from the victims of racial injustice in Russia because, according to the Home Office, there isn’t any.

Russia on Friday angrily dismissed British criticism of the nation’s human rights record, saying it reflected bias and “double standards.” Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin said in a statement that the criticism of Russia contained in the British Foreign Office’s annual human rights report was “based on distorted perceptions of the real state of affairs and fraught with gross mistakes and references to unverified sources.” In its report, the Foreign Office voiced concern about the human rights situation in Russia, which holds the rotating chairmanship in the Group of Eight leading industrialized nations this year and hosted its summit in St.Petersburg in July. “Nationalism, public mistrust of the criminal justice system and state influence and control of the media are all increasingly worrying issues in Russia,” the Foreign Office said. It also reaffirmed concerns about continuing human rights abuses in Chechnya and other provinces in Russia’s restive North Caucasus region.

“The North Caucasus remains the region where human rights abuses give rise to the most serious concern,” it said.”Notwithstanding a reduction in the number of reported human rights abuses, the situation in the region remains one of Europe’s most serious human rights issues.” Kamynin angrily dismissed the criticism and sought to turn the tables on British authorities, accusing London of the failure to extradite people who were facing terror charges in Russia — an apparent reference to Chechen rebel envoy Akhmed Zakayev. Moscow was angered by the failure to obtain the extradition of Zakayev who is wanted in Russia on murder and kidnapping charges. Zakayev, who had served as aide to the late Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov, was given refuge in Britain in 2003. “One has the impression that London is still unaware of the counterproductive and fruitless character of attempts to use double standards in the human rights sphere and to politicize the human rights theme,” Kamynin said in the statement. Russia has bristled at Western criticism of a rollback on democratic freedom under President Vladimir Putin, again highlighted by the Oct.7 contract-style killing of journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who exposed killings, torture and other abuses against civilians in Chechnya.

Read the full Foreign Office report here. Read the Russia report starting on page 86 of this document.