Daily Archives: January 2, 2007

Happy New Year in Russia Means Out with the New, in with the Old

The Russian foreign ministry has spoken out in opposition to the Iraqi government’s liquidation of crazed dictator Saddam Hussein. RIA Novosti reports:

The execution of the former Iraqi president has led to escalation of violence in the mid-East country, Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokesman said Sunday. Saddam Hussein was executed by hanging early Saturday. He was sentenced to death November 5 for the 1982 reprisal slayings of 148 Shiite Muslims from a town where assassins allegedly tried to kill the former Iraqi leader. “Instead of so much needed national reconciliation and concord, the Iraqi people are facing a new wave of fratricide and numerous casualties,” Mikhail Kamynin said in a statement. The Russian diplomat said this fact should be recognized “by all those who have sent troops to Iraq and whose ‘coalition liberation mission’ resulted in an execution of the former notorious dictator.” Kamynin said that these [coalition] forces are responsible for the current crisis and bloodshed in Iraq. “A hasty and cruel execution, which its external supporters were not ashamed to broadcast to the whole world, will certainly widen the split in the Iraqi society,” he said.

Interestingly, one news outlet (in India) has translated Kamynin’s remarks differently: Instead of the “resulted in the execution” it stated “resulted in the murder.” Whether the translation is accurate or not, it does seem to reflect the general attitude in Moscow. Ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky certainly took the latter view, organizing a protest of the killing at the Iraqi Embassy in Moscow. A Duma leader merely referred to the killing as “illogical” since he predicted it would lead to an increase of tensions rather than a decrease. No such views were expressed by Russians, of course, when Shamil Basayev met his end in Chechnya.

Russian opposition to the demise of Hussein, one of the world’s most brutal and genocidal dictators, shows the utter absence from Russian foreign policy not merely of morality but of rationality. Blinded by knee-jerk hatred of all things Western just as in Soviet times, Russia simply does not care, just as the USSR did not, whether it utterly alienates itself in the eyes of the world and seems to enjoy barrelling down the road of hypocrisy and failure that can only lead to its destruction. As if to confirm this, Russia also announced that, no matter what the world thinks, it is going to make friends with North Korea:

Russia is determined to strengthen its ties with North Korea despite the reclusive Asian dictatorship’s illegal nuclear program.

“Our goal is to develop and deepen these (Russian-North Korean) relations, despite the current situation,” Valery Sukhinin, Russia’s newly appointed ambassador to North Korea, said Friday according to a report carried by the RIA Novosti news agency.

RIA Novosti described Sukhinin as an expert on North Korea who had already spent 17 years there, including time studying at Pyongyang University.

According to the agency, Sukhinin said Russia and North Korea had historically been friends. He said “the resolution of the Korean Peninsula’s nuclear crisis remains a common task for all participants of the six-party talks, which comprise Russia, China, Japan, the two Koreas and the United States.”

In September 2005, North Korea agreed to scrap its nuclear program in return for international aid and security guarantees. However, it has continued to develop ballistic missiles and in October carried out its first underground nuclear test.

“We believe that this problem should be resolved on the basis of the September 2005 joint statement, and we are focusing our efforts in that direction,” Sukhinin said.

RIA Novosti said Sukhinin intends to start his tour as ambassador in January.

Sukhinin believes that economic relations between Russia and North Korea should be improved once North Korea pays back to Russia the $8 billion debt it borrowed from the former Soviet Union, the Russian news agency said.

The Return of "Tantrum Politics"

The LA Times reports that Russia has returned to the childish Soviet tradition of “tantrum politics” as it’s sole pathetic means of responding to being denied what it wants (well, that and murder):

Russia has brandished a new weapon in its diplomatic arsenal: the Security Council tantrum.

Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin barged out of the U.N. chamber Dec. 11, canceling a crucial meeting on Iran’s nuclear program.

Asked to explain why the 15-nation council’s major powers would not be able to address the Iranian nuclear crisis, Churkin said: “Because. Because I said so.”

The Russian’s outburst reflected anger over a U.S. decision to raise concern about political developments in Belarus, a Russian ally that has gained international condemnation for its repressive policies.

But it also echoed a classic Soviet practice at the United Nations dating back to 1945, when Soviet strongman Joseph Stalin’s envoy, Andrei Gromyko, also used bluster to exact political concessions, threatening to pull out of the newly created organization unless the Security Council veto was expanded. Stalin won that fight.

The practice reached its peak more than a decade later when another Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, famously banged his shoe on his table in the U.N. General Assembly.

‘A negotiating tactic’

It’s something we used to associate with the Soviets, but the Russians have sort of taken this over,” said Edward Luck, a Columbia University historian who studies the United Nations. “This is a negotiating tactic. The other side has to make it up to you as though you have been deeply offended. We’ve done it at times, and others do it.”

Churkin’s angry reactions to diplomatic affronts have become so common that some U.N. diplomats have invented a word to describe it: Vitalyation (rhymes with “retaliation”). But the former Soviet official has parlayed Russian outrage into tactical diplomatic victories.

2006 in Review: Russia vs. America

Russia and America, by the numbers:

20

Per capita, twenty times more people are killed by fire each year in Russia than in the United States

11

The average wage for an American is eleven times higher than for a Russian (even though per capita wealth generation is only five times greater, because corruption, see below, is three times lower)

5

Per capita, the average American generates five times more wealth than the average Russian, and the average Russian is five times more likely to be murdered than the average American

4

Per capita, four times more people commit suicide in Russia each year than in the United States

3

Russia is three times more corrupt than the United States

2.5

Per capita, America has 2.5 times more international tourism arrivals than Russia

2

Per capita, twice as many people are killed on Russia’s highways each year than the US (even though there are far more cars per capita on the US roadways than on Russia’s). Per capita, twice as many women are murdered by their husbands in Russia compared to the United States. Per capita, nearly twice as many people are killed by cigarette smoking each year in Russia compared to the United States, and nearly twice as many are infected with AIDS. America’s population is double that of Russia and growing, while Russia’s is half that of America’s and shrinking.

0.3

Per capita, 30% more (0.3 times) more Russians get divorced than Americans (though the most minor discrepancy between Americans and Russians on this list, it’s probably the most depressing; it shows that Russian women, like Russians generally, are far more likely than Americans to accept their wretched circumstances rather than try to change them; Russian women are twice as likely to be killed by their husbands, but not twice as likely to divorce them).

Postcard from the Nationalism/Racism Vortex of Putin’s Russia

The Chicago Tribune reports:

Nationalism has been on the rise in Russia, and now it appears it’s out on patrol.

On a recent Sunday morning, three busloads of Russian teenagers wearing green armbands emblazoned with the word “Locals” stormed into a bustling produce market in this Moscow suburb, screaming “Down with migrants!”

They stalked past aisles of dried fruit and pickled garlic, singling out traders with non-Slavic faces and demanding to see passports and proof that their produce was safe. Some of the teens looked to be as young as 14. Though they had no authority, they carried on like immigration agents, barking out demands and commandeering the market for nearly two hours.

“They were humiliating us, and I don’t know why,” said Zoya Abdullayeva, 40, a native of Russia’s restive Chechnya province who sells cabbage at the market. “They looked for anyone with dark hair and dark skin. It was a circus.”

Russia is in the throes of its worst wave of xenophobia since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. Ethnic violence is on the rise, nationalist movements are picking up steam and the government has passed anti-migrant laws aimed at placating a nation warier than ever about foreigners’ place in society.

“Protecting” Russian interests

In 2004, 146 non-Russians were victims of ethnic violence, according to the Sova Center, a Moscow human-rights organization that tracks ethnic violence in Russia. This year, there were 437 attacks on non-Russians, 47 of them murders.

Unable to stem the tide of nationalism, the Russian government has taken steps that, to some, appear to fan the flames. Russian President Vladimir Putin on Oct. 5 urged stricter enforcement of Russia’s immigration laws, citing the need to “protect the interests of Russian producers and the Russian population at large.”

Deportation of more than 1,000 Georgians followed. Then, at Putin’s request, the government imposed restrictions on migrants that ban them from working at outdoor markets after April 1. The move deals an economic blow to migrants from the Caucasus and Central Asia, many of whom work at markets selling produce, clothes and household goods.

In the long run, the Kremlin will have to reconcile its crackdown on migrants with a dwindling population that loses an average of 700,000 people each year and labor shortages that could cripple the economy.

But with parliamentary elections next December and a presidential election in March 2008, the anti-migrant measures are sure to garner favor among Russians who argue that foreigners take away jobs and raise crime rates. Those sentiments are no longer harbored only by Russia’s disgruntled and poorly educated; in many ways, nationalism has gone mainstream.

“In Russia, these xenophobic ideas are shared by well-educated people, well-educated, politically active youth and even by academics,” said Alexander Verkhovsky, director of the Sova Center. “It has become the dominating idea in society, and that’s a bad sign.”

A year and a half ago, Sergei Fateyev quit his job as an economist at a quasi-governmental firm and formed Mestnye, the Russian word for “locals.” The group takes aim at migrants who “violate our laws and traditions,” Fateyev said during an interview at a posh Moscow nightclub.

His group began with 250 members. Today it is 150,000-strong and enjoys the backing of the governor of the Moscow region, Boris Gromov. The raids carried out by Mestnye on Nov. 26 involved 6,500 members descending on 20 suburban Moscow markets. Traders at the Reutov market said some Mestnye teenagers took over trading stalls, shouting, “Don’t buy goods from migrants–buy from Russian traders!”

“The markets are stuffed with migrants, both illegal and legal,” said Fateyev, 35, an articulate, cautious Russian. “They keep our farmers, Russian farmers, from selling their goods at markets. We don’t know how and where they store their products. Many of them have no medical documents, and they may have an infection that spreads.”

Traders in Reutov said the raids accomplished little. Fights between activists and traders broke out at some of the markets. “They’re just kids, too young to understand anything,” said Elena Ivshina, a trader and ethnic Russian.

While Fateyev’s group is building steam, Alexander Belov’s Movement Against Illegal Immigration is a national phenomenon.

Belov is the poster child for Russian nationalism. When an Aug. 29 bar fight between Russians and Chechens ignited a wave of riots in the northern town of Kondopoga, Belov and his activists appeared on the scene to rev up anger toward local Chechens. Russians responded by firebombing Caucasian-owned restaurants and businesses, prompting scores of local Chechens and other Caucasian migrants to flee.

Belov, 30, calls Russia’s problem with migrants “a disease that needs to be cured right now. I’d even say it’s a little too late.”

“Russia for Russians”

What worries human-rights advocates like Verkhovsky is that the majority of Russians espouse the sentiments Belov preaches. According to a recent poll from the Levada Center in Moscow, 54 percent of respondents backed the slogan “Russia for Russians.” Fifty-two percent support curbing the number of migrants who can enter Russia.

Nationalism is especially prevalent among Russia’s youth, who did not grow up in a Soviet system where Tajiks, Armenians, Georgians, Uzbeks and Kyrgyz were all Soviet citizens. Their identification with ethnic Russia, with Russian culture and the Russian Orthodox Church, has strengthened in post-Soviet times. More recently, it has been kick-started by Putin’s push for Russians to regain a sense of national pride.

For many Russians, however, national pride has given way to nationalism, human-rights advocates say.

“They’ve been brought up with these nationalist sentiments,” said Ali Nassor, a lecturer at St. Petersburg State University and co-leader of the St. Petersburg African Union.

St. Petersburg has been the site of a disturbing string of racially motivated attacks against migrants and African and Indian college students in recent years. “The average Russian feels, `These people live here at my expense. I’m poor because of them.’ In this way, migrants become the enemies,” Nassor said.

A byproduct of that hatred has been violence directed at migrants. Kuvanichbek Soltonoyev is one of the latest victims. On Nov. 19, the 26-year-old Kyrgyz construction worker was on a Moscow commuter train when 23 Russian skinheads saw him in a nearly empty car and attacked, said his lawyer, Dmitry Volinkin.

One attacker used a heavy metal chain to pummel Soltonoyev’s head. Others kicked the young Kyrgyz and jumped on his torso, breaking two of his ribs. They tried to throw him out a train window but failed.

“They yelled, `Russia for Russians,’ and `This is a white wagon,'” Volinkin said.

When the train stopped at a depot in Romashkovo, the attackers got off and placed the battered Soltonoyev halfway out of the train car, with his head and torso hanging outside. The attackers stayed on the platform to watch what would happen, but a passenger noticed Soltonoyev and pressed the car’s stop button before the train passed into a tunnel.

The attack fractured Soltonoyev’s skull and left him in a coma for four days. One of his ears was nearly torn off. He is conscious now but faces months of rehabilitation, says his aunt, Kukunay Balkabekova.

Eleven of the 23 attackers were arrested, Volinkin said. Only three remain in custody.

Postcard from the Nationalism/Racism Vortex of Putin’s Russia

The Chicago Tribune reports:

Nationalism has been on the rise in Russia, and now it appears it’s out on patrol.

On a recent Sunday morning, three busloads of Russian teenagers wearing green armbands emblazoned with the word “Locals” stormed into a bustling produce market in this Moscow suburb, screaming “Down with migrants!”

They stalked past aisles of dried fruit and pickled garlic, singling out traders with non-Slavic faces and demanding to see passports and proof that their produce was safe. Some of the teens looked to be as young as 14. Though they had no authority, they carried on like immigration agents, barking out demands and commandeering the market for nearly two hours.

“They were humiliating us, and I don’t know why,” said Zoya Abdullayeva, 40, a native of Russia’s restive Chechnya province who sells cabbage at the market. “They looked for anyone with dark hair and dark skin. It was a circus.”

Russia is in the throes of its worst wave of xenophobia since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. Ethnic violence is on the rise, nationalist movements are picking up steam and the government has passed anti-migrant laws aimed at placating a nation warier than ever about foreigners’ place in society.

“Protecting” Russian interests

In 2004, 146 non-Russians were victims of ethnic violence, according to the Sova Center, a Moscow human-rights organization that tracks ethnic violence in Russia. This year, there were 437 attacks on non-Russians, 47 of them murders.

Unable to stem the tide of nationalism, the Russian government has taken steps that, to some, appear to fan the flames. Russian President Vladimir Putin on Oct. 5 urged stricter enforcement of Russia’s immigration laws, citing the need to “protect the interests of Russian producers and the Russian population at large.”

Deportation of more than 1,000 Georgians followed. Then, at Putin’s request, the government imposed restrictions on migrants that ban them from working at outdoor markets after April 1. The move deals an economic blow to migrants from the Caucasus and Central Asia, many of whom work at markets selling produce, clothes and household goods.

In the long run, the Kremlin will have to reconcile its crackdown on migrants with a dwindling population that loses an average of 700,000 people each year and labor shortages that could cripple the economy.

But with parliamentary elections next December and a presidential election in March 2008, the anti-migrant measures are sure to garner favor among Russians who argue that foreigners take away jobs and raise crime rates. Those sentiments are no longer harbored only by Russia’s disgruntled and poorly educated; in many ways, nationalism has gone mainstream.

“In Russia, these xenophobic ideas are shared by well-educated people, well-educated, politically active youth and even by academics,” said Alexander Verkhovsky, director of the Sova Center. “It has become the dominating idea in society, and that’s a bad sign.”

A year and a half ago, Sergei Fateyev quit his job as an economist at a quasi-governmental firm and formed Mestnye, the Russian word for “locals.” The group takes aim at migrants who “violate our laws and traditions,” Fateyev said during an interview at a posh Moscow nightclub.

His group began with 250 members. Today it is 150,000-strong and enjoys the backing of the governor of the Moscow region, Boris Gromov. The raids carried out by Mestnye on Nov. 26 involved 6,500 members descending on 20 suburban Moscow markets. Traders at the Reutov market said some Mestnye teenagers took over trading stalls, shouting, “Don’t buy goods from migrants–buy from Russian traders!”

“The markets are stuffed with migrants, both illegal and legal,” said Fateyev, 35, an articulate, cautious Russian. “They keep our farmers, Russian farmers, from selling their goods at markets. We don’t know how and where they store their products. Many of them have no medical documents, and they may have an infection that spreads.”

Traders in Reutov said the raids accomplished little. Fights between activists and traders broke out at some of the markets. “They’re just kids, too young to understand anything,” said Elena Ivshina, a trader and ethnic Russian.

While Fateyev’s group is building steam, Alexander Belov’s Movement Against Illegal Immigration is a national phenomenon.

Belov is the poster child for Russian nationalism. When an Aug. 29 bar fight between Russians and Chechens ignited a wave of riots in the northern town of Kondopoga, Belov and his activists appeared on the scene to rev up anger toward local Chechens. Russians responded by firebombing Caucasian-owned restaurants and businesses, prompting scores of local Chechens and other Caucasian migrants to flee.

Belov, 30, calls Russia’s problem with migrants “a disease that needs to be cured right now. I’d even say it’s a little too late.”

“Russia for Russians”

What worries human-rights advocates like Verkhovsky is that the majority of Russians espouse the sentiments Belov preaches. According to a recent poll from the Levada Center in Moscow, 54 percent of respondents backed the slogan “Russia for Russians.” Fifty-two percent support curbing the number of migrants who can enter Russia.

Nationalism is especially prevalent among Russia’s youth, who did not grow up in a Soviet system where Tajiks, Armenians, Georgians, Uzbeks and Kyrgyz were all Soviet citizens. Their identification with ethnic Russia, with Russian culture and the Russian Orthodox Church, has strengthened in post-Soviet times. More recently, it has been kick-started by Putin’s push for Russians to regain a sense of national pride.

For many Russians, however, national pride has given way to nationalism, human-rights advocates say.

“They’ve been brought up with these nationalist sentiments,” said Ali Nassor, a lecturer at St. Petersburg State University and co-leader of the St. Petersburg African Union.

St. Petersburg has been the site of a disturbing string of racially motivated attacks against migrants and African and Indian college students in recent years. “The average Russian feels, `These people live here at my expense. I’m poor because of them.’ In this way, migrants become the enemies,” Nassor said.

A byproduct of that hatred has been violence directed at migrants. Kuvanichbek Soltonoyev is one of the latest victims. On Nov. 19, the 26-year-old Kyrgyz construction worker was on a Moscow commuter train when 23 Russian skinheads saw him in a nearly empty car and attacked, said his lawyer, Dmitry Volinkin.

One attacker used a heavy metal chain to pummel Soltonoyev’s head. Others kicked the young Kyrgyz and jumped on his torso, breaking two of his ribs. They tried to throw him out a train window but failed.

“They yelled, `Russia for Russians,’ and `This is a white wagon,'” Volinkin said.

When the train stopped at a depot in Romashkovo, the attackers got off and placed the battered Soltonoyev halfway out of the train car, with his head and torso hanging outside. The attackers stayed on the platform to watch what would happen, but a passenger noticed Soltonoyev and pressed the car’s stop button before the train passed into a tunnel.

The attack fractured Soltonoyev’s skull and left him in a coma for four days. One of his ears was nearly torn off. He is conscious now but faces months of rehabilitation, says his aunt, Kukunay Balkabekova.

Eleven of the 23 attackers were arrested, Volinkin said. Only three remain in custody.

Postcard from the Nationalism/Racism Vortex of Putin’s Russia

The Chicago Tribune reports:

Nationalism has been on the rise in Russia, and now it appears it’s out on patrol.

On a recent Sunday morning, three busloads of Russian teenagers wearing green armbands emblazoned with the word “Locals” stormed into a bustling produce market in this Moscow suburb, screaming “Down with migrants!”

They stalked past aisles of dried fruit and pickled garlic, singling out traders with non-Slavic faces and demanding to see passports and proof that their produce was safe. Some of the teens looked to be as young as 14. Though they had no authority, they carried on like immigration agents, barking out demands and commandeering the market for nearly two hours.

“They were humiliating us, and I don’t know why,” said Zoya Abdullayeva, 40, a native of Russia’s restive Chechnya province who sells cabbage at the market. “They looked for anyone with dark hair and dark skin. It was a circus.”

Russia is in the throes of its worst wave of xenophobia since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. Ethnic violence is on the rise, nationalist movements are picking up steam and the government has passed anti-migrant laws aimed at placating a nation warier than ever about foreigners’ place in society.

“Protecting” Russian interests

In 2004, 146 non-Russians were victims of ethnic violence, according to the Sova Center, a Moscow human-rights organization that tracks ethnic violence in Russia. This year, there were 437 attacks on non-Russians, 47 of them murders.

Unable to stem the tide of nationalism, the Russian government has taken steps that, to some, appear to fan the flames. Russian President Vladimir Putin on Oct. 5 urged stricter enforcement of Russia’s immigration laws, citing the need to “protect the interests of Russian producers and the Russian population at large.”

Deportation of more than 1,000 Georgians followed. Then, at Putin’s request, the government imposed restrictions on migrants that ban them from working at outdoor markets after April 1. The move deals an economic blow to migrants from the Caucasus and Central Asia, many of whom work at markets selling produce, clothes and household goods.

In the long run, the Kremlin will have to reconcile its crackdown on migrants with a dwindling population that loses an average of 700,000 people each year and labor shortages that could cripple the economy.

But with parliamentary elections next December and a presidential election in March 2008, the anti-migrant measures are sure to garner favor among Russians who argue that foreigners take away jobs and raise crime rates. Those sentiments are no longer harbored only by Russia’s disgruntled and poorly educated; in many ways, nationalism has gone mainstream.

“In Russia, these xenophobic ideas are shared by well-educated people, well-educated, politically active youth and even by academics,” said Alexander Verkhovsky, director of the Sova Center. “It has become the dominating idea in society, and that’s a bad sign.”

A year and a half ago, Sergei Fateyev quit his job as an economist at a quasi-governmental firm and formed Mestnye, the Russian word for “locals.” The group takes aim at migrants who “violate our laws and traditions,” Fateyev said during an interview at a posh Moscow nightclub.

His group began with 250 members. Today it is 150,000-strong and enjoys the backing of the governor of the Moscow region, Boris Gromov. The raids carried out by Mestnye on Nov. 26 involved 6,500 members descending on 20 suburban Moscow markets. Traders at the Reutov market said some Mestnye teenagers took over trading stalls, shouting, “Don’t buy goods from migrants–buy from Russian traders!”

“The markets are stuffed with migrants, both illegal and legal,” said Fateyev, 35, an articulate, cautious Russian. “They keep our farmers, Russian farmers, from selling their goods at markets. We don’t know how and where they store their products. Many of them have no medical documents, and they may have an infection that spreads.”

Traders in Reutov said the raids accomplished little. Fights between activists and traders broke out at some of the markets. “They’re just kids, too young to understand anything,” said Elena Ivshina, a trader and ethnic Russian.

While Fateyev’s group is building steam, Alexander Belov’s Movement Against Illegal Immigration is a national phenomenon.

Belov is the poster child for Russian nationalism. When an Aug. 29 bar fight between Russians and Chechens ignited a wave of riots in the northern town of Kondopoga, Belov and his activists appeared on the scene to rev up anger toward local Chechens. Russians responded by firebombing Caucasian-owned restaurants and businesses, prompting scores of local Chechens and other Caucasian migrants to flee.

Belov, 30, calls Russia’s problem with migrants “a disease that needs to be cured right now. I’d even say it’s a little too late.”

“Russia for Russians”

What worries human-rights advocates like Verkhovsky is that the majority of Russians espouse the sentiments Belov preaches. According to a recent poll from the Levada Center in Moscow, 54 percent of respondents backed the slogan “Russia for Russians.” Fifty-two percent support curbing the number of migrants who can enter Russia.

Nationalism is especially prevalent among Russia’s youth, who did not grow up in a Soviet system where Tajiks, Armenians, Georgians, Uzbeks and Kyrgyz were all Soviet citizens. Their identification with ethnic Russia, with Russian culture and the Russian Orthodox Church, has strengthened in post-Soviet times. More recently, it has been kick-started by Putin’s push for Russians to regain a sense of national pride.

For many Russians, however, national pride has given way to nationalism, human-rights advocates say.

“They’ve been brought up with these nationalist sentiments,” said Ali Nassor, a lecturer at St. Petersburg State University and co-leader of the St. Petersburg African Union.

St. Petersburg has been the site of a disturbing string of racially motivated attacks against migrants and African and Indian college students in recent years. “The average Russian feels, `These people live here at my expense. I’m poor because of them.’ In this way, migrants become the enemies,” Nassor said.

A byproduct of that hatred has been violence directed at migrants. Kuvanichbek Soltonoyev is one of the latest victims. On Nov. 19, the 26-year-old Kyrgyz construction worker was on a Moscow commuter train when 23 Russian skinheads saw him in a nearly empty car and attacked, said his lawyer, Dmitry Volinkin.

One attacker used a heavy metal chain to pummel Soltonoyev’s head. Others kicked the young Kyrgyz and jumped on his torso, breaking two of his ribs. They tried to throw him out a train window but failed.

“They yelled, `Russia for Russians,’ and `This is a white wagon,'” Volinkin said.

When the train stopped at a depot in Romashkovo, the attackers got off and placed the battered Soltonoyev halfway out of the train car, with his head and torso hanging outside. The attackers stayed on the platform to watch what would happen, but a passenger noticed Soltonoyev and pressed the car’s stop button before the train passed into a tunnel.

The attack fractured Soltonoyev’s skull and left him in a coma for four days. One of his ears was nearly torn off. He is conscious now but faces months of rehabilitation, says his aunt, Kukunay Balkabekova.

Eleven of the 23 attackers were arrested, Volinkin said. Only three remain in custody.

Postcard from the Nationalism/Racism Vortex of Putin’s Russia

The Chicago Tribune reports:

Nationalism has been on the rise in Russia, and now it appears it’s out on patrol.

On a recent Sunday morning, three busloads of Russian teenagers wearing green armbands emblazoned with the word “Locals” stormed into a bustling produce market in this Moscow suburb, screaming “Down with migrants!”

They stalked past aisles of dried fruit and pickled garlic, singling out traders with non-Slavic faces and demanding to see passports and proof that their produce was safe. Some of the teens looked to be as young as 14. Though they had no authority, they carried on like immigration agents, barking out demands and commandeering the market for nearly two hours.

“They were humiliating us, and I don’t know why,” said Zoya Abdullayeva, 40, a native of Russia’s restive Chechnya province who sells cabbage at the market. “They looked for anyone with dark hair and dark skin. It was a circus.”

Russia is in the throes of its worst wave of xenophobia since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. Ethnic violence is on the rise, nationalist movements are picking up steam and the government has passed anti-migrant laws aimed at placating a nation warier than ever about foreigners’ place in society.

“Protecting” Russian interests

In 2004, 146 non-Russians were victims of ethnic violence, according to the Sova Center, a Moscow human-rights organization that tracks ethnic violence in Russia. This year, there were 437 attacks on non-Russians, 47 of them murders.

Unable to stem the tide of nationalism, the Russian government has taken steps that, to some, appear to fan the flames. Russian President Vladimir Putin on Oct. 5 urged stricter enforcement of Russia’s immigration laws, citing the need to “protect the interests of Russian producers and the Russian population at large.”

Deportation of more than 1,000 Georgians followed. Then, at Putin’s request, the government imposed restrictions on migrants that ban them from working at outdoor markets after April 1. The move deals an economic blow to migrants from the Caucasus and Central Asia, many of whom work at markets selling produce, clothes and household goods.

In the long run, the Kremlin will have to reconcile its crackdown on migrants with a dwindling population that loses an average of 700,000 people each year and labor shortages that could cripple the economy.

But with parliamentary elections next December and a presidential election in March 2008, the anti-migrant measures are sure to garner favor among Russians who argue that foreigners take away jobs and raise crime rates. Those sentiments are no longer harbored only by Russia’s disgruntled and poorly educated; in many ways, nationalism has gone mainstream.

“In Russia, these xenophobic ideas are shared by well-educated people, well-educated, politically active youth and even by academics,” said Alexander Verkhovsky, director of the Sova Center. “It has become the dominating idea in society, and that’s a bad sign.”

A year and a half ago, Sergei Fateyev quit his job as an economist at a quasi-governmental firm and formed Mestnye, the Russian word for “locals.” The group takes aim at migrants who “violate our laws and traditions,” Fateyev said during an interview at a posh Moscow nightclub.

His group began with 250 members. Today it is 150,000-strong and enjoys the backing of the governor of the Moscow region, Boris Gromov. The raids carried out by Mestnye on Nov. 26 involved 6,500 members descending on 20 suburban Moscow markets. Traders at the Reutov market said some Mestnye teenagers took over trading stalls, shouting, “Don’t buy goods from migrants–buy from Russian traders!”

“The markets are stuffed with migrants, both illegal and legal,” said Fateyev, 35, an articulate, cautious Russian. “They keep our farmers, Russian farmers, from selling their goods at markets. We don’t know how and where they store their products. Many of them have no medical documents, and they may have an infection that spreads.”

Traders in Reutov said the raids accomplished little. Fights between activists and traders broke out at some of the markets. “They’re just kids, too young to understand anything,” said Elena Ivshina, a trader and ethnic Russian.

While Fateyev’s group is building steam, Alexander Belov’s Movement Against Illegal Immigration is a national phenomenon.

Belov is the poster child for Russian nationalism. When an Aug. 29 bar fight between Russians and Chechens ignited a wave of riots in the northern town of Kondopoga, Belov and his activists appeared on the scene to rev up anger toward local Chechens. Russians responded by firebombing Caucasian-owned restaurants and businesses, prompting scores of local Chechens and other Caucasian migrants to flee.

Belov, 30, calls Russia’s problem with migrants “a disease that needs to be cured right now. I’d even say it’s a little too late.”

“Russia for Russians”

What worries human-rights advocates like Verkhovsky is that the majority of Russians espouse the sentiments Belov preaches. According to a recent poll from the Levada Center in Moscow, 54 percent of respondents backed the slogan “Russia for Russians.” Fifty-two percent support curbing the number of migrants who can enter Russia.

Nationalism is especially prevalent among Russia’s youth, who did not grow up in a Soviet system where Tajiks, Armenians, Georgians, Uzbeks and Kyrgyz were all Soviet citizens. Their identification with ethnic Russia, with Russian culture and the Russian Orthodox Church, has strengthened in post-Soviet times. More recently, it has been kick-started by Putin’s push for Russians to regain a sense of national pride.

For many Russians, however, national pride has given way to nationalism, human-rights advocates say.

“They’ve been brought up with these nationalist sentiments,” said Ali Nassor, a lecturer at St. Petersburg State University and co-leader of the St. Petersburg African Union.

St. Petersburg has been the site of a disturbing string of racially motivated attacks against migrants and African and Indian college students in recent years. “The average Russian feels, `These people live here at my expense. I’m poor because of them.’ In this way, migrants become the enemies,” Nassor said.

A byproduct of that hatred has been violence directed at migrants. Kuvanichbek Soltonoyev is one of the latest victims. On Nov. 19, the 26-year-old Kyrgyz construction worker was on a Moscow commuter train when 23 Russian skinheads saw him in a nearly empty car and attacked, said his lawyer, Dmitry Volinkin.

One attacker used a heavy metal chain to pummel Soltonoyev’s head. Others kicked the young Kyrgyz and jumped on his torso, breaking two of his ribs. They tried to throw him out a train window but failed.

“They yelled, `Russia for Russians,’ and `This is a white wagon,'” Volinkin said.

When the train stopped at a depot in Romashkovo, the attackers got off and placed the battered Soltonoyev halfway out of the train car, with his head and torso hanging outside. The attackers stayed on the platform to watch what would happen, but a passenger noticed Soltonoyev and pressed the car’s stop button before the train passed into a tunnel.

The attack fractured Soltonoyev’s skull and left him in a coma for four days. One of his ears was nearly torn off. He is conscious now but faces months of rehabilitation, says his aunt, Kukunay Balkabekova.

Eleven of the 23 attackers were arrested, Volinkin said. Only three remain in custody.

Postcard from the Nationalism/Racism Vortex of Putin’s Russia

The Chicago Tribune reports:

Nationalism has been on the rise in Russia, and now it appears it’s out on patrol.

On a recent Sunday morning, three busloads of Russian teenagers wearing green armbands emblazoned with the word “Locals” stormed into a bustling produce market in this Moscow suburb, screaming “Down with migrants!”

They stalked past aisles of dried fruit and pickled garlic, singling out traders with non-Slavic faces and demanding to see passports and proof that their produce was safe. Some of the teens looked to be as young as 14. Though they had no authority, they carried on like immigration agents, barking out demands and commandeering the market for nearly two hours.

“They were humiliating us, and I don’t know why,” said Zoya Abdullayeva, 40, a native of Russia’s restive Chechnya province who sells cabbage at the market. “They looked for anyone with dark hair and dark skin. It was a circus.”

Russia is in the throes of its worst wave of xenophobia since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. Ethnic violence is on the rise, nationalist movements are picking up steam and the government has passed anti-migrant laws aimed at placating a nation warier than ever about foreigners’ place in society.

“Protecting” Russian interests

In 2004, 146 non-Russians were victims of ethnic violence, according to the Sova Center, a Moscow human-rights organization that tracks ethnic violence in Russia. This year, there were 437 attacks on non-Russians, 47 of them murders.

Unable to stem the tide of nationalism, the Russian government has taken steps that, to some, appear to fan the flames. Russian President Vladimir Putin on Oct. 5 urged stricter enforcement of Russia’s immigration laws, citing the need to “protect the interests of Russian producers and the Russian population at large.”

Deportation of more than 1,000 Georgians followed. Then, at Putin’s request, the government imposed restrictions on migrants that ban them from working at outdoor markets after April 1. The move deals an economic blow to migrants from the Caucasus and Central Asia, many of whom work at markets selling produce, clothes and household goods.

In the long run, the Kremlin will have to reconcile its crackdown on migrants with a dwindling population that loses an average of 700,000 people each year and labor shortages that could cripple the economy.

But with parliamentary elections next December and a presidential election in March 2008, the anti-migrant measures are sure to garner favor among Russians who argue that foreigners take away jobs and raise crime rates. Those sentiments are no longer harbored only by Russia’s disgruntled and poorly educated; in many ways, nationalism has gone mainstream.

“In Russia, these xenophobic ideas are shared by well-educated people, well-educated, politically active youth and even by academics,” said Alexander Verkhovsky, director of the Sova Center. “It has become the dominating idea in society, and that’s a bad sign.”

A year and a half ago, Sergei Fateyev quit his job as an economist at a quasi-governmental firm and formed Mestnye, the Russian word for “locals.” The group takes aim at migrants who “violate our laws and traditions,” Fateyev said during an interview at a posh Moscow nightclub.

His group began with 250 members. Today it is 150,000-strong and enjoys the backing of the governor of the Moscow region, Boris Gromov. The raids carried out by Mestnye on Nov. 26 involved 6,500 members descending on 20 suburban Moscow markets. Traders at the Reutov market said some Mestnye teenagers took over trading stalls, shouting, “Don’t buy goods from migrants–buy from Russian traders!”

“The markets are stuffed with migrants, both illegal and legal,” said Fateyev, 35, an articulate, cautious Russian. “They keep our farmers, Russian farmers, from selling their goods at markets. We don’t know how and where they store their products. Many of them have no medical documents, and they may have an infection that spreads.”

Traders in Reutov said the raids accomplished little. Fights between activists and traders broke out at some of the markets. “They’re just kids, too young to understand anything,” said Elena Ivshina, a trader and ethnic Russian.

While Fateyev’s group is building steam, Alexander Belov’s Movement Against Illegal Immigration is a national phenomenon.

Belov is the poster child for Russian nationalism. When an Aug. 29 bar fight between Russians and Chechens ignited a wave of riots in the northern town of Kondopoga, Belov and his activists appeared on the scene to rev up anger toward local Chechens. Russians responded by firebombing Caucasian-owned restaurants and businesses, prompting scores of local Chechens and other Caucasian migrants to flee.

Belov, 30, calls Russia’s problem with migrants “a disease that needs to be cured right now. I’d even say it’s a little too late.”

“Russia for Russians”

What worries human-rights advocates like Verkhovsky is that the majority of Russians espouse the sentiments Belov preaches. According to a recent poll from the Levada Center in Moscow, 54 percent of respondents backed the slogan “Russia for Russians.” Fifty-two percent support curbing the number of migrants who can enter Russia.

Nationalism is especially prevalent among Russia’s youth, who did not grow up in a Soviet system where Tajiks, Armenians, Georgians, Uzbeks and Kyrgyz were all Soviet citizens. Their identification with ethnic Russia, with Russian culture and the Russian Orthodox Church, has strengthened in post-Soviet times. More recently, it has been kick-started by Putin’s push for Russians to regain a sense of national pride.

For many Russians, however, national pride has given way to nationalism, human-rights advocates say.

“They’ve been brought up with these nationalist sentiments,” said Ali Nassor, a lecturer at St. Petersburg State University and co-leader of the St. Petersburg African Union.

St. Petersburg has been the site of a disturbing string of racially motivated attacks against migrants and African and Indian college students in recent years. “The average Russian feels, `These people live here at my expense. I’m poor because of them.’ In this way, migrants become the enemies,” Nassor said.

A byproduct of that hatred has been violence directed at migrants. Kuvanichbek Soltonoyev is one of the latest victims. On Nov. 19, the 26-year-old Kyrgyz construction worker was on a Moscow commuter train when 23 Russian skinheads saw him in a nearly empty car and attacked, said his lawyer, Dmitry Volinkin.

One attacker used a heavy metal chain to pummel Soltonoyev’s head. Others kicked the young Kyrgyz and jumped on his torso, breaking two of his ribs. They tried to throw him out a train window but failed.

“They yelled, `Russia for Russians,’ and `This is a white wagon,'” Volinkin said.

When the train stopped at a depot in Romashkovo, the attackers got off and placed the battered Soltonoyev halfway out of the train car, with his head and torso hanging outside. The attackers stayed on the platform to watch what would happen, but a passenger noticed Soltonoyev and pressed the car’s stop button before the train passed into a tunnel.

The attack fractured Soltonoyev’s skull and left him in a coma for four days. One of his ears was nearly torn off. He is conscious now but faces months of rehabilitation, says his aunt, Kukunay Balkabekova.

Eleven of the 23 attackers were arrested, Volinkin said. Only three remain in custody.

Is the Beeb Bending Over for the Kremlin?

Britain’s Telegraph reports:

Leading dissidents from the former Soviet Union have demanded an investigation into the BBC Russian Service, which they have accused of caving in to pressure to be less critical of President Vladimir Putin’s regime.

They have written to Mark Thompson, the BBC director-general, demanding an examination of what they claim is a string of examples of pro-Putin bias on the taxpayer-funded service, which has a weekly audience of two million.

The service went off air in Moscow and St Petersburg last month around the time of the murder in London of Alexander Litvinenko, a former officer in the Russian security service. “Unexplained technical difficulties” with the BBC’s local partners were blamed, but there is still no service in Moscow.

The dissidents, led by Oleg Gordievsky, the former KGB spy turned MI6 agent, and Vladimir Bukovsky, an author who spent 12 years in Soviet prison camps, are particularly angered by the unexpected axing of a programme presented by Seva Novgorodsev that had run for 19 years.

Novgorodsev, who still broadcasts on the Russian Service, received the MBE from the Queen in 2004. His programme regularly had guests who were enemies of the Moscow regime, such as Litvinenko and the journalist Anna Politkovskaya whose murder he was investigating.

The BBC has also received a protest letter signed by 1,000 listeners around the world.

The dissidents’ letter states: “At a time when Britain needs a strong voice in Russia more than at any point over the past decade, the taxpayer-funded BBC Russian Service radio seems to have considerably mellowed in its tone towards the Russian government.

“By design or by neglect, it has become more accommodating of Russian government views, dispensing with difficult questions and denying a platform to some critics.

“Is the BBC Russian Service trying to soften up its news coverage mindful of the Kremlin’s ever-watchful eye over the airwaves? The UK taxpayer funds the BBC World Service so that Britain can have a strong voice in the world and it should not be compromised.”

A BBC spokesman said: “The service remains an important and strong source of impartial and independent news and current affairs renowned for asking difficult questions on behalf of its listeners.

We reject any suggestion that we have made compromises in our questioning of any point of view in any debate.”

Russia adds insult to injury on Sakhalin-2

The Financial Times reports that the Kremlin has only just begun to steal:

Royal Dutch Shell and its two Japanese partners are to be made to share the burden of the huge cost overruns of Sakhalin-2, it emerged on Thursday, in news that cast a less favourable light on their deal to cede control of the project to Gazprom.

Just days after confirming that Russia would pay the companies $7.45bn to establish its controlling stake in the project, the government said it would require the three foreign owners to meet $3.6bn of the additional costs of Sakhalin-2 themselves.

Jonathan Wright of Citigroup said: “It depends on what you expect for oil and gas prices, but my figures suggest an internal rate of return for the project of 11 per cent. That’s above the cost of capital, but not sufficiently above it, given the region and the risks involved, to be able to say this is an attractive project.

“This news is definitely not making a good project turn bad, but it is making a difficult project slightly worse.”

He added: “This looks like payback for the negotiations last year, when Gazprom reached an agreement on taking a stake in the project, only to be told the following week that the costs had doubled.”

Details of the extra costs to the three companies – Shell, Mitsui and Mitsubishi – in a confidential agreement apparently leaked by the Russians, show the three companies will have to increase risk exposure and reduce the value of this month’s deal.

Earlier this month, they ceded control of Sakhalin-2 to Gazprom, Russia’s state-backed gas giant, after months of sustained attack by government agencies on aspects of the project such as its rising cost and environmental record.

Shell, which owned 55 per cent of the project, Mitsui and Mitsubishi halved their stakes and offered Gazprom 50 per cent plus one share. On the day the deal was signed, the Kremlin said environmental issues would be resolved and agreed to a doubling of the cost to $20bn.

Sakhalin-2 is governed by a production sharing agreement that allowed foreign shareholders to recoup costs fully before sharing profit with the Russian state.

But it emerged on Thursday that foreign shareholders would recoup only about $15.8bn and have to put up $3.6bn themselves. Gazprom, as a new shareholder, would be exempt from this cost increase.

Andrei Dementyev, Russia’s deputy minister for energy, told Vedomosti, a business daily partly owned by the Financial Times, that “foreign investors should take engineering risks upon themselves”.

Shell declined to comment on the agreement. Observers say that Russia, by leaking the information to the media, was adding insult to injury.

The Russian government has now set its eyes on Kovykta, the massive gas field in Eastern Siberia controlled by TNK-BP. Alexei Miller, Gazprom chief executive, on Thursday met with Victor Vekselberg, one of TNK-BP’s Russian shareholders, to discuss “co-operation” between the companies.

The Jamestown Foundation’s Vladimir Socor takes the West to task for making facile, rose-colored assumptions about Russia as an energy partner:

The Kremlin’s confiscatory assault on Royal Dutch Shell and threats to other Western energy majors in Russia on Black Tuesday, December 12 (see EDM, December 13) is the latest in a series of moves disproving Western wishful thinking about Russia’s energy policy.

That wishful thinking burgeoned, ironically, in the wake of the January 2006 Russian gas supply cutoff to Ukraine, which rippled downstream in a number of European countries. While the “wake-up call” for coordinated Western energy policies resounded mainly in the editorial pages after that crisis, most Western governments and energy corporations embraced the set of illusory assumptions that are now being laid to rest by Moscow’s own actions.

Assumption One during 2006 held that Russia and Western consumer countries would benefit through strategic relations of “reciprocal access.” Namely, access by Western energy majors and “national champion” companies to Russian oil and gas deposits in return for Russian companies’ acquisition of Western infrastructure, distribution systems, and direct access to Western consumers. However, by the year’s second half, Russia embarked on a policy of excluding Western investors (most notably in the super-giant Shtokman gas field) and, by the year’s end, threatening confiscatory measures against existing Western projects in Russia (Shell, ExxonMobil, BP) under tax or ecological regulatory pretexts. Meanwhile, turning the “reciprocity” into unilateralism, Russia’s state energy companies rapidly acquired infrastructure and production assets in the West as well as in countries that traditionally supply the West with energy.

The year’s Assumption Two, equally popular and partly related to the first, spoke of “mutual dependence.” It held that the West’s growing dependence on Russian supplies is not particularly risky because it is offset by Russia’s dependence on revenue from Western importers of Russian energy. As the year wore on, this Western postulate shattered against Russia’s active planning for construction of oil and gas pipelines leading to the Asia-Pacific region, setting the stage for Moscow to play Western against Far Eastern consumers in a none-too-distant future. Moreover, the “mutual-dependence” assumption blithely ignored Russia’s advantage as a single-actor exporter versus a multiplicity of eager, uncoordinated, and often competing Western buyers, with ample scope for manipulation by Russian state companies. Mutual dependence might become possible between the European Union collectively and Russia, if the EU develops a common energy policy, which however does not seem to be on the cards for now.

Assumption Three during 2006 held that Moscow cannot afford to exclude or mistreat Western energy companies because Russia’s state companies do not have sufficient means to invest in energy projects on Russian territory. However, Moscow successfully challenged that proposition through the Initial Public Offerings of Gazprom, Rosneft, and other state companies, which quickly raised multibillion-dollar investment funds on Western capital markets. Those IPOs launched a process of transferring Western resources to Russia for energy projects under the Russian state’s discretionary control, and without a real say by Western consumer countries regarding future production levels or the export destinations. When Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the go-it-alone policy on Shtokman, he did so with the argument that Russia does not need to invite Western investors, as it can raise the necessary capital on Western financial markets. The Kremlin took that argument one step further in December by embarking on what is, in fact, a forcible divestment of Western energy majors involved in Russian projects.

The year’s Assumption Four clings to a hope that Russia’s ratification of the Energy Charter Treaty and signing of the attendant Protocol would help the West overcome its collective vulnerability on energy security. It envisages, primarily, that Russian state pipeline monopolies would provide transit of oil and gas from third countries via Russia to Western consumer countries. However, Moscow’s actions during the year showed how risky this proposition is. The Russian government shut off energy pipelines repeatedly in 2006, not only to Ukraine and Georgia early in the year, but also to EU member country Lithuania (adding to the earlier oil pipeline shutoff to Latvia); it blocked access for oil from Kazakhstan via Russian ports or pipelines to EU member countries; conclusively thwarted the Odessa-Brody oil transport project, which was an EU priority; it is attempting to kill the Nabucco gas transit project, also an EU priority; and is blocking the expansion of the Caspian Pipeline Consortium (CPC) line, threatening to transfer its section on Russian territory into Transneft’s control and imposing extortionate terms of transit on the ExxonMobil, Chevron, and other companies on that pipeline.

Thus, the idea of relying on Russia for transit under the Energy Charter Treaty and Protocol has been shown during 2006 to entail unacceptable risks. This idea is partly an excuse for not pursuing direct Western direct access by pipelines to the eastern Caspian basin. Moscow’s refusal to adopt the Treaty and Protocol is a blessing in disguise for the West and should re-focus attention on access to the Caspian basin.

Moscow actively cultivated that set of Western assumptions during most of 2006; but apparently felt strong enough to dispense with parts of that discourse in the latter part of the year, and to resort to overt bullying by the year’s end. The comfortable assumptions about Russia’s energy policy in 2006 should now come to the end of their 12-month lifespan.

Who will the Kremlin murder in 2007?

Polonium and Russia

The LA Times reports that the use of polonium as a murder weapon is a concept so sophisticated that it could only have originated with the secret services and its use is still so complex and dangerous that the mishaps witnessed in the Litvinenko attack are only to be expected.

The poisoning death of Alexander Litvinenko in November caused by the radioactive isotope polonium-210 sparked a sharp interest in the exotic material, but the onetime Russian spy was not the first to swallow the lethal element.

At the height of World War II, in an isolated medical ward at the University of Rochester in New York, Dr. Robert M. Fink gave water laced with polonium-210 to a terminal cancer patient and injected four others with the isotope. None of the five apparently died from the minute doses, though one succumbed to his cancer six days later.

The ethically dubious experiment, prompted by concern for the safety of workers in the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb, yielded the first solid information about the isotope’s health effects on humans.

It also underscores the mystery and intrigue that have marked the history of the element since it was discovered by Marie and Pierre Curie a century ago. The isotope has left a distinctive trail of deaths, most of them a consequence of ignorance.

Although scientists suspected polonium-210 was dangerous, they failed to appreciate how easily it could spread — escaping laboratory confinement like a genie from a bottle and spreading its lethal radiation on faint currents of air.

Engineers have struggled to find a use for the isotope, incorporating it for a time in spark plugs, nuclear warhead triggers and spacecraft power supplies. It plays a small role today as an antistatic agent for printing presses.

Assassins may have finally hit on its most effective use.

“The scientific community is intrigued” by Litvinenko’s slaying, said radiation biologist David A. Dooley, who studied exposure levels in workers who produced polonium for the Manhattan Project. “It’s pretty clever they came up with this.”

In many ways, polonium-210 is an ideal poison for espionage — deadly, and undetectable until it’s too late.

A dose of the white powder smaller than a grain of salt could have been dropped into Litvinenko’s drink at the Millennium Hotel’s Pine Bar in London without altering the taste, according to chemist John Emsley of Cambridge University.

Within minutes of ingestion, the energetic particles shooting off the polonium-210 molecules began killing the cells lining Litvinenko’s gastrointestinal tract. As the cells sloughed off, they caused nausea, severe internal bleeding and enormous pain.

“It was as if his internal organs received a severe sunburn and peeled,” said Peter Zimmerman, a physicist at King’s College London.

Pound for pound, polonium-210 is at least a million times more toxic than hydrogen cyanide, the poison used to execute prisoners in gas chambers, according to medical toxicology books. Radiation safety experts calculate that a single gram of polonium could kill 50 million people and sicken another 50 million.

But it is extremely hard to get. About 100 grams — or 3 1/2 ounces — are produced each year, primarily by Russia.

It is also elusive. Whereas most radioactive elements emit gamma rays, which register on radiation detectors, polonium-210 instead emits alpha particles.

“There was no way that forensic scientists could detect it” until it had done its damage, Emsley said.

Unlike other radioactive elements, polonium-210 is relatively safe to transport. Highly lethal gamma rays pass through most substances, but alpha particles — each composed of two protons and two neutrons — can be blocked by a sheet of paper or the thin layer of dead cells on the surface of the skin.

To kill, polonium must be inhaled or ingested so that it is in direct contact with healthy tissue.

“I could put it in a tiny Ziploc bag, and I would be fine,” said Dooley, president and chief executive of MJW Corp., a consulting firm in Amherst, N.Y., that specializes in radiological and health physics services.

But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to handle. Polonium-210 is a determined escape artist.

The energy produced as it naturally disintegrates is so great that “small chunks, perhaps a few hundred atoms in size, are blasted out of the surface and then drift around the room,” Zimmerman said.

“It would tend to creep around the lab,” Dooley said. “If you had polonium in an open jar and you left it overnight, the next thing you knew, it would be all over the lab. It would jump on a dust particle and end up on lab benches and floors and things.”

Since identifying polonium-210 as the poison that killed Litvinenko, investigators have found traces of it in hotel rooms, airplanes, embassy rooms and other sites in the U.S. and Europe visited by Andrei Lugovoy, a former KGB bodyguard who is considered a potential suspect in the case. Lugovoy has said he is being set up by persons unknown.

Polonium-210 is found in very low concentrations in Earth’s crust. It makes its way into plants, food and water, and occurs in trace amounts in tobacco smoke. Most people’s bodies contain about one-millionth the level of a toxic dose, said Vilma Hunt, who studied the health effects of polonium-210 at the Harvard School of Public Health.

Of polonium’s 25 isotopes, polonium-210 is the most stable. After 138 days, half of it decays into a nonradioactive isotope of lead. It takes 10 half-lives — about three years — for all of it to be converted into lead.

In the process, it emits a significant amount of heat. A 1-gram lump will reach more than 500 degrees Fahrenheit.

The first polonium death occurred in 1927.

The victim was Nobus Yamada, a Japanese researcher in Marie Curie’s lab in France. In 1924, he worked with Curie’s daughter Irene Joliot-Curie to prepare polonium sources. After returning home the next year, Yamada fell ill.

“There was a poisoning from the emanations,” he wrote Irene, according to Susan Quinn, author of “Marie Curie: A Life.”

Marie and Pierre Curie discovered polonium while they were searching for the cause of excess radiation in a uranium-rich ore called pitchblende. In 1898, they traced the radiation to a substance that they dubbed radium F. When Marie Curie determined that it was a unique element, she named it polonium to bring attention to the plight of her homeland, Poland, which had been partitioned among Russia, Prussia and Austria.

The Curies’ daughter Irene also fell victim to the isotope. She died of leukemia in 1956, 10 years after a sealed capsule of polonium-210 was accidentally broken in her laboratory at the Radium Institute in Paris.

About the same time, scientists developing Israel’s nuclear program were exposed to its lethal effects.

The first signs of contamination were the traces of radiation on the laboratory desk of Israeli physicist Dror Sadeh. He had taken what he thought were adequate precautions against the hyperactive element.

But those precautions weren’t enough. Radiation was discovered “in my private home, and on my hands too and on everything that I touched,” he wrote in his diary.

Within a month, one student who worked in Sadeh’s lab at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, was dead from leukemia. The lab’s supervisor died a few years later — contaminated by polonium-210 as well, Sadeh suspected.

As a product, polonium-210 has been mediocre at best.

Its first use was in automobile spark plugs. The alpha particles emitted during its decay helped produce a stronger spark, claimed a 1929 patent issued to J.H. Dillon of the Firestone Tire & Rubber Co.

The company began marketing the plugs in 1940, but their benefits were never proved.

Polonium-210 played a key role in World War II. Manhattan Project engineers alloyed the isotope with beryllium and used it to produce the neutrons that triggered the atomic bomb’s chain reaction.

Because of polonium’s short half-life, the nuclear triggers lost their effectiveness in two years and had to be continually replaced. By the 1970s, engineers abandoned it in favor of the hydrogen isotope tritium, with a half-life of 12.3 years.

Polonium was considered as a power source for U.S. satellites, but its short half-life again limited its utility, and plutonium was used instead. The Soviets, however, did employ polonium to keep their Lunokhod moon rovers running in the 1970s.

Engineers finally found a viable use for it in printing plants and textile mills, capitalizing on its electron-grabbing ability to neutralize the static electricity generated by moving sheets of paper or fabric. Typically, a small amount of the radioactive material is embedded in a gold foil that is placed near the sources of static electricity.

It is also used in photo labs, embedded in the bristles of cleaning brushes to counter the static electricity that causes dust to cling to pictures.

Polonium-210 could theoretically be extracted from either the foil or the brushes in a quantity sufficient to poison someone, Emsley said, but it would require a sophisticated knowledge of chemistry and a well-equipped laboratory.

Most of the research about polonium-210’s health effects stemmed from concerns for the safety of the 2,000 workers who produced the isotope for the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

To test its effects, doctors recruited terminal cancer patients who were willing to participate in radiation experiments in 1944, according to reports prepared later by the Department of Energy.

Fink and his colleagues determined that most of the polonium went into the gastrointestinal tract and was eliminated in feces. It also collected in the spleen, kidneys and liver.