Daily Archives: December 10, 2006

The Sunday Photos: One YouTube is Worth a Thousand Words

Putin’s Application to Join the Michael Jackson Club

Everything Old is New Again (a clip from one of LR’s favorite films, “Burnt by the Sun” directed by Nikita Mikhailkov)

Putin Gets Jiggy With Religion (note the parodies; the Russian text that appears in white at one point says: “Not a God, not a Tsar, and not a Hero!”)

Politkovskaya Gets Posthumous Hero Award

The sign held by the person in the ground reads “Putin is a Murderer” (in Finnish)

Playfuls.com reports: The Vienna based International Press Institute (IPI) posthumously awarded murdered Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya the title World Press Freedom Hero. “Her murder is a shock and loss. IPI believes that she made a significant contribution to journalism and to the cause of human rights,” IPI Director Johann Fritz said. Politkovskaya, who was shot outside her Moscow apartment on October 7, was only one of over 20 journalists killed in Russia since 2000. The investigative journalist wrote for the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, and was working on a story on torture in Chechnya when she was killed. Fritz said Politkovskaya’s nomination for the award was also a call on the Russian authorities to “ensure that there is a thorough investigation in her murder” in a country where, the IPI said, journalists were often killed with impunity.

Politkovskaya collected kudos from various American journalists, as reported by Radio Free Europe:

“Her manner, often quiet, often shy, belied her brave and fearless work as a journalist enraged by the injustice and corruption,” said Katrina van den Heuvel, the editor and publisher of the liberal U.S. magazine “The Nation.” She was also an acquaintance of Politkovskaya, the 43rd journalist to be killed in Russia since 1993.

Musa Klebnikov, the widow of Paul Klebnikov, the American editor of the Russian edition of “Forbes” magazine who was gunned down in Moscow in 2004, also knew Politkovskaya. She said Politkovskaya was a woman who understood the perilous nature of her work but refused to give it up. “When I met Anna last year, she was surprised by her own longevity. She said: ‘Given what I do, it is in fact a miracle that I am alive today.’ She knew the risk, but didn’t stop. Anna felt the need to establish a connection to those who are suffering regardless of their actions and circumstances. She wanted them to be seen and heard. This was her great humanistic impulse.”

Kati Marton, a member of the board of directors for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) , a nonprofit U.S. institution monitoring acts of violence against journalists around the world, said Politkovskaya typified the extraordinary bravery of journalists who put their lives at risk on a near-daily basis: “For us at CPJ, Anna’s murder was a death in the family,” Marton said. “I’ve had the privilege of knowing a handful of journalists who were fired by Anna’s kind of courage, men and women who accept that every time they leave their homes, they face the prospect of assassination. They kiss their children good-bye in the morning knowing that they may not see them again in the evening.”

David Remnick, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and editor of the “The New Yorker” magazine, noted that her celebrated reputation in the West was a distinct contrast from her reputation at home in Russia. “It was one of the great ironies, not unexpected under the circumstances, that she would receive all her awards that I can think of in the West, particularly in the United States,” he said. “So, she had this bifurcated life of coming to the Waldorf-Astoria, whatever hotel ballroom in New York, or Paris, or London, to receive accolades for her bravery, for her prose, and her passion. And then she would return home to be vilified by her government.”

Meanwhile, “Preisident” Putin was quoted as saying “As far as I know, relatives of the late Anna Politkovskaya are satisfied with the investigation.” However, he did not give further information on the investigation process and that he stressed that the Russian authorities did not make any special commitments to investigate the murder and it was investigated as any other crime “in the framework of the law.” He then claimed that “definite results” had been achieved, but not apparently in finding the killer. Rather, he touted his investigators’ discovery that “certain political shadowy figures” were trying to spin Politkovskaya’s killing for “certain purposes” and commented that “it’s sometimes hard for me to grasp the great, unfounded proclamations that Russian authorities participated in the murder, that special forces are trying move the inquest down a false path. I am convinced that is not the case.” He then contradicted his earlier statement, claiming: “The most professional forces from Russian law enforcement structures have been called to the investigation.” Then again, perhaps Putin was simply repeating his belief that all members of the Russian law enforcement “structures” are equally honest and near to perfection.

The Violence in Chechnya Continues Apace

The International Herald Tribune reports more evidence that the Kremlin does not have Chechnya under control by any means:

Russia: Separate attacks in Chechnya and two neighboring Russian provinces killed two people and injured 10 others, authorities said Friday.

A roadside bomb struck a Russian military armored personal carrier outside Chechnya’s capital, Grozny, on Thursday, killing one serviceman and wounding seven others, regional police officials said. The injured suffered shrapnel wounds and were hospitalized.

In Ingushetia, another troubled southern region which neighbors Chechnya to the west, two gunmen in the regional capital, Nazran, opened fire Friday at a car carrying local police, wounding three officers. Police said they were searching for the attackers.

Separately, a local judge in Dagestan, which is east of Chechnya, was killed in the provincial capital, Makhachkala, police said Friday. He was shot twice in the head and his body was found at his apartment. The killing was believed to have occurred Tuesday, police said.

Major fighting has died down in Chechnya since the second war started in 1999 and the separatists were driven from power, but the mostly Muslim region is plagued by rebel attacks as well as violence blamed on federal troops and forces of the Moscow-backed Chechen government.

Nearby regions have also been affected by increasing violence, some of it stemming from criminal gang feuds, some spilling over from Chechnya.

Also Friday, lawmakers in the Russian parliament’s lower house gave final backing to a bill that would delay the introduction of jury trials in Chechnya from 2007 to 2010.

The bill’s pro-Kremlin sponsors argued that the postponement was necessary for technical reasons, such as the absence of an office to compile lists of jurors.

The move would also preserve Russia’s moratorium on the death penalty, which cannot be introduced here until suspects throughout the country are guaranteed a trial by jurors.

Russia adopted the moratorium in 1996 as a condition for joining the Council of Europe, which has pressed Moscow to abolish capital punishment permanently. But most Russians, frightened by crime and terrorism, oppose its abolition.

Times of London Thunders

A British reader tells us that when the Times of London (which he says used to known as “The Thunderer”) runs an opinion piece as lead article, which happens rarely, it’s a matter of great significance, indicating an expression of the solidified views of the British establishment. Here’s such an example, from yesterday’s edition, and not suprisingly it took the proud KGB spy who reigns over Russia to provoke it. Amazingly blunt, it’s nothing short of an accusation of personal dishonesty against “President” Putin.

It’s now being reported that the BBC has been forced off the Russian radio airwaves for more than two weeks now, with no satisfactory explanation forthcoming from the Russian authorities. Is it censorship? Even if it’s not, how much longer can we expect the Kremlin to allow foreign broadcasts in Russia? And if the BBC gets out of line in the meantime, how long before their correspondents and editors start getting knocked off? Stiff upper lip, mates. You’re the vanguard of the final conflict.

Something to Hide?
Moscow is breaking a promise to cooperate in the Litvineno affair

There is one consolation for the team of Scotland Yard detectives trawling Moscow for evidence in the murder of Alexander Litvinenko — it is unseasonably warm. Otherwise, their work has been made so difficult, so quickly, that pessimists would say they had flown into a trap where they can do little but watch the trail go cold.

Having promised last week to co-operate fully with the British investigation, the Russian Prosecutor-General has thrown four separate obstacles in its way. He has told the visiting detectives that they may request interviews but only observe them, and then only if the interviews are granted. He has ruled out extraditing any Russian citizen for trial in Britain. He has announced his own investigation into the alleged attempted murder of two of Mr Litvinenko’s associates — who, as Russian citizens, provide a pretext for giving the Russian inquiry priority over the British one. And he has twice postponed interviews with the man Scotland Yard most wants to question.


That man is Andrei Lugovoy, the former KGB colonel, who not only met Mr Litvinenko on the day he appears to have been poisoned but also allegedly occupied a hotel room where traces of polonium-210 have been found. Mr Lugovoy has told The Times that he has nothing to hide. Even so, he has been unavailable since the Scotland Yard team’s arrival: they have been denied access to him at a clinic where a third figure in the affair is said to be suffering from acute radiation sickness.

It would be wrong to take entirely at face value Mr Litvinenko’s self-assessment as a persecuted crusader for justice. His loyalties and business dealings were complex and possibly compromised. That he was a strange man does not make his murder any less sinister. The Kremlin had at least three compelling reasons to wish to silence him. First, he claimed before his death to have evidence linking the murder of Anna Politkovskaya, the journalist and outspoken critic of Russian policy in the Caucasus, to state security forces. Secondly, he had written a book accusing the FSB of planning to blow up an apartment building to bolster President Putin’s case for invading Chechnya in 1999. A new and heavily annotated edition of the book is due to be published next month. Thirdly, as we report today, he claimed to have uncovered a Kremlin-backed plan to blackmail or eliminate foreign-based Russian citizens holding assets salvaged from Yukos, the oil company founded by the jailed tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

Suggestions that the Russian state was involved in Mr Litvinenko’s murder have been dismissed by the Kremlin as preposterous. In a civilised world, they would be just that, and the murder may yet prove to be the result of a private business deal that went wrong. A more likely scenario, however, is that Mr Litvinenko was the victim of over-mighty, underemployed Russian security forces that are themselves increasingly abusing their power in business dealings. The rise of the FSB to the dominant position that its predecessor, the KGB, once enjoyed, fuels corruption, inhibits the economy and democracy, and has the potential to become a serious political embarrassment for Mr Putin. Yet it is largely a problem of his own making, as is the rise of the slavishly pro-Putin youth groups accused of harassing Britain’s Ambassador to Moscow for attending an opposition conference last summer. Mr Putin should remember that power corrupts, and centralised power corrupts the figure at the centre.

Another Sign of the Neo-Soviet Apocalypse

Jurist reports that last Wednesday “President” Putin signed a bill eliminating the minimum turnout requirement for presidential elections.

Russian President Vladimir Putin [official profile] on Wednesday signed into law [press release] a controversial bill that eliminates a rule requiring at least 50 percent of voters to turn out in order for poll results to be validated. Putin signed the measure despite opposition by Ella Pamfilova [official profile], the chairwoman of Putin’s Human Rights Council [official website], and other critics who argued that the minimum turnout rule is an important means of political protest because people can express discontent with the system by not voting. The new law also expands the list of people who are ineligible to run for election and bans political parties and candidates from campaigning against their opponents on television. Putin’s opponents say his actions are part of a plan to decrease democratic freedoms in Russia. Putin has also signed laws making it more difficult for certain candidates and small parties to register and run in elections, changes critics say are part of an effort by the Kremlin [official website] to ensure Putin is replaced by an approved successor when his term ends in 2008. Putin has, however, ruled out a constitutional amendment [JURIST report] that would allow him to pursue a third term in office. Parliamentary elections are scheduled for December 2007 with presidential elections following in March 2008. Reuters has more.

So the upshot is that Putin is now free to do whatever he likes to drive down turnout among any voter groups not likely to vote for him (or his chosen successor) and no matter how few people go to the polls the results will still be valid.

It’s a true hallmark of Putin’s fundamental illegitimacy that he feels this measure is necessary after he has already totally obliterated opposition political parties, removed the “against all ” option from the ballot, seized control over all the television networks and terrified all possible opponents with a string of brutal killings. Apparently, he still thinks he might lose. There would be some hope in that, if not for the fact that like cowardly lemmings the Russian people have sat idly by watching their electoral system be destroyed.

Here is the brilliant Masha Lipman’s commentary, from the Washington Post (Masha is the editor of the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Pro et Contra journal and writes a monthly column for The Post):

MOSCOW — “Give the elections back to the people, bastards!” These words were emblazoned on a bright yellow banner more than 30 feet long that hung over the Moscow River facing the Kremlin. A couple of young activists positioned themselves in the ropework holding up the banner for about 30 minutes, until they were taken off and delivered to a police station.

Such extravagant political performances may be typical at, say, a Greenpeace protest but not over something that has in fact become increasingly common: a government encroachment on voting rights.

Russia is undergoing yet another round of election-rule tightening — as usual, a product of the country’s rubber-stamp legislature. The protesters see it as marking the “virtual elimination of the system of free elections” in Russia, as they said in their statement. Over the past two years, election rules have been repeatedly refashioned and readjusted so that no undesired forces or figures can slip through the process.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin has managed to obstruct the financing of unwelcome political projects. Russian businessmen, while afraid to sponsor autonomous political activity, have given generously to pro-Kremlin political groups, movements and initiatives. With the best and biggest companies increasingly coming under the Kremlin’s control, pro-Kremlin political forces are assured of virtually unlimited budgets. In addition, political loyalists can draw on what’s called the “administrative resource” — a network of administrators at various levels who are eager to do the regime’s bidding.

In such a political environment, election results are preordained. There is a flatness about campaigns — a lack of enthusiasm and emotion. Which is the way the Kremlin likes it.

One of the innovations of the new election bill is a ban on creating a “negative image” of political opponents. This is one way of depriving a campaign of any meaning whatsoever, as just challenging the policies of the incumbent authorities can now be interpreted as a violation of the law.

So while there is always a constituency that dutifully turns out on Election Day to vote “as the bosses say,” a great many others will choose to stay home, since they assume their vote will make no difference.

Of course, a low turnout might call into question the legitimacy of the representative branch, but apparently the Kremlin thinks it can live with this image problem. Another provision of the new bill eliminates the minimum percentage turnout requirement for an election to be valid. The ruling elite thus largely reduces its power base to the core of Soviet-style voters who accept a no-choice vote — while alienating the more advanced and entrepreneurial elements of the population.

Essentially, the protesters hanging on the ropes with their banner over the Moscow River can do nothing about all this. A boycott of elections — proposed in their statement as the “only real means of political struggle left in the opposition’s arsenal” — will make no sense if there is no minimum-turnout requirement. The authority of the Kremlin, on the other hand, is unconstrained.

And thus the encroachment on political rights will continue. One recent initiative has been to abolish mayoral elections. With gubernatorial elections already replaced by Kremlin appointments, this is a logical next step in the dismantling of representative democracy.

A common argument has it that President Vladimir Putin may have cracked down on freedoms and democracy and recentralized power in the Kremlin, but at least he has ensured order and stability. In fact, Putin may have “stabilized” public politics, but there’s no more law or order about his regime than there was in Boris Yeltsin’s “chaotic” Russia.

The political scene has been fully cleared of genuine competition, and the executive and legislative branches filled with loyalists who need not worry about public accountability. As a result, the members of this greedy bureaucracy have become a privileged circle in which they seek to amass power, which in Russia is closely linked to property and wealth. In the process, they force those with less clout to sell their lucrative properties, as happened not long ago with a Urals titanium factory. If the owner doesn’t accept the deal, he can expect the tax police to “discover” huge instances of evasion, the environmental agency to reveal improper use of his lands or the prosecutor’s office to begin proceedings against him. All these government agencies would be working on behalf of the powerful buyer. This is hardly law and order.

Meanwhile, the regime’s loyalists are themselves engaged in a fierce struggle, especially as the crucial 2007-08 elections draw near. All are wondering what the power shifts that Putin has in mind will mean for them personally. Thus, disputes among them grow ever more intense and vicious, creating an atmosphere of rampant corruption and crime. Court rulings are commonly twisted as a result of bribery or pressure from the executive. Contract killings are used to settle scores with rivals and adversaries.

Aside from the recent high-profile assassinations, there have been the killings, in a period of less than three months, of three bankers, one of them deputy chairman of the central bank. All were slain by contract murderers. A contender for the mayoralty in a Far Eastern town was killed at the height of the election campaign. A pro-Moscow Chechen commander was shot by a group of Chechen law enforcers in broad daylight in the middle of Moscow — in front of passersby and a group of Moscow militiamen who, according to newspaper reports, watched from across the street. None of the perpetrators was arrested.

Real competitive politics, if they were ever allowed, might be a threat to the ruling elite. Fierce infighting within the regime is a threat to the entire nation and its future.

Morozov Interviews Wilson

Here’s an interview (podcast form) of Andrew Wilson, author of “Virtual Politics: Faking Democracy in the Post-Soviet World” by Sharp & Sound blogger Evgeny Morozov, director for New Media with Transitions Online (www.tol.org) and newspaper columnist on neo-Soviet affairs.