Daily Archives: January 12, 2007

The Empire of Lies

ABC News reports on Russia’s growing “Empire of Lies” in which the Russian people are becoming as ignorant of events outside Russia as they were during Soviet times (hat tip: Strade’s Chechnya List):

While the world buzzes with disbelief and fascination over the poisoning and death of a Russian ex-spy, the story has captured scant attention in Russia.

Ask any seemingly cosmopolitan Russians on a downtown Moscow street about their take on the international scandal, and they will most likely shrug and suggest that the former spy Alexander Litvinenko poisoned himself just to make Russian President Vladimir Putin look bad.

The apathy is emblematic of the overall state of public information in Russia today. The episode, which dominated front page news around the world for weeks, has received little attention in the Russian media, with most state-controlled outlets dismissing allegations of government involvement.

Jazz Ayvazyan, a 20-year-old computer programmer who lives in central Moscow, hadn’t heard anything about the poisoning until he traveled to London for business a week after the story broke in early November. But he says he wasn’t at all surprised to see that the news was suppressed.

“There is definitely no press in the pure meaning of this word in Russia at the moment,” he said. “TV news looks like the Soviet propaganda from when I was an 8-year-old boy in the mid-’80s. I just stopped watching Russian channels and replaced them with Discovery kind of entertainment.”

Ayvazyan is an example of how far Russians have come in the decade since communism fell. He drives a fancy car and travels often to Western Europe. But he said that despite the fact that he lives a comfortable lifestyle, he doesn’t feel that he is living in a democratic country.

“People easily get confused about what’s better,” he said. “Ten years ago we were poor money-wise. But there was an attempt to establish real democracy with real freedom. Now we live better, earn more, have the right food, but the relationship with anything that can be called government — police, tax agency, etc. — is much worse. They now feel the power, and they are the power.”

Ayvazyan said this power translates into a high level of corruption that infects every aspect of everyday life. He says he often has to bribe officials to get permits.

“Government and crime are almost same things in Russia at the moment,” he said.

And the poisoning of the ex-spy: “All big crimes are done under supervision of people who are the government or are covered by some people in government. I’m sure that action like poisoning could take place only with participation of government.”

But you won’t see that perspective broadcast on Russia’s main television news programs, which are state-owned and never criticize the government.

Oleg Panfilov, the head of the Moscow-based Journalism in Extreme Situations, called Russian media the “empire of lies.”

“From a position of a freedom of speech, the situation in the Russian mass media can be estimated as catastrophic,” he said. “Television is the core with more than 90 percent of the population depending on it as their main source of information. But now in Russia all five national telechannels are used by the state for propagation, for distribution of an official position.”

Panfilov said that there is next to no opportunity for Russians to receive independent news.

The campaign to control the media began almost as soon as Putin took office in 2000. His administration attacked the wealthy oligarchs who had privatized — often illegally and with disastrous effects for regular Russians — many state enterprises, driving those who dared to use their stations to support political opponents out of the country.

But Russians have never had much experience with independent news.

“In Russia, there never was freedom of speech. The population had 80 years of communistic propagation — they have gotten used to this type of television,” Panfilov said. “Only a small part of the population can search for independent sources of information through the Internet, or by the old Soviet tradition to listen to programs of foreign radio stations in Russian.”

The lack of interest in independent news was demonstrated recently at the annual Andrei Sakharov journalism awards — Russia’s equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize — for investigative journalism. About two dozen people were present at the awards ceremony in Moscow, with almost no press coverage.

Anna Lebedeva won the top award for her work in a small town in central Russia. During her acceptance speech, she said that because of the danger of her work and the lack of public interest, she was considering switching to “writing restaurant reviews.”

“It is a terrible situation,” said Alexei Simonov, the head of the award committee and the president of the Glasnost Defense Foundation. “If you want to risk your life for very little reward, then join this profession.”

Indeed, Russia is the third most dangerous country in which to practice journalism, after Iraq and Alergia. In 2006, two journalists were killed in Russia.

Two years ago, Forbes’ Russian editor Paul Klebnikov, an American of Russian descent, was shot to death on a Moscow street. The publisher of Forbes’ Russian edition has said that the murder is “definitely linked to his professional activity.”

Klebnikov often investigated government corruption and the closed-door dealings of the country’s wealthiest oligarchs. A new trial has recently been opened in the case, overturning the acquittal of two suspects.

In October, Anna Politkovskaya, Russia’s most famous human rights journalist, was gunned down in a contract-style killing in her Moscow apartment building. Known for her critical reporting on the Kremlin and her investigative work in Chechnya, Politkovskaya had received top international awards for her courage.

But in Moscow, her death was barely acknowledged by Putin, who waited days before making a public statement. Some believe that Politkovskaya’s murder and Litvinenko’s poisoning are tied, because the former spy was rumored to be investigating her death.

Politkovskaya described her work, which often took her undercover to Chechnya, as part of the Russian theory of “little business.”

“It’s a special Russian theory that if you can’t change the whole world, you need to do some little things to help specific people,” she said in a phone interview last year. “Russian journalism was and now is the possibility to help people first of all in their everyday life and in their catastrophic life. I decided that it was a very nice theory for me.”

Politkovskaya’s tradition of investigative journalism continues at the muckraking independent publication Novaya Gazeta, where she published her investigative pieces. The work often comes at great risk. In the past two months, two more journalists have received death threats. The paper has a national circulation of 500,000, but it also participates in the practice — widespread in Russia — of accepting money to publish pieces as news.

Still, journalists at the paper are committed to pursuing stories of government corruption and human rights abuses no matter what the cost. In the main newsroom, where heated editorial meetings occur every morning, three photos of slain Novaya Gazeta journalists, including Politkovskaya, are a silent reminder of the grave risks.

“We are considered the last independent newspaper in Russia,” said investigations editor Roman Shleynov. ” We have journalists who will continue Anna’s work. But in Russia, the murdering of journalists is the tradition.”

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The History of Fire Risk in Russia

La Russophobe recently reported that a person is 20 times more likely to be injured by fire in Russia than in the United States, this came on the heels of our reports about horrific fires wiping out dozens of lives in Russian hospitals. It’s important to look back on the past analysts who got Russia right and give credit where credit is due, as well as to highlight Russia’s failure to address basic problems and the contribution of Russophile maniacs to that failure. With this in mind, we reprint an article submitted to us by reader Greg Smith which first appeared in the Johnson Russia List three years ago, on November 24, 2003. Greg will be in St. Petersburg in the Spring and readers may look forward to reading his occasional posts from Ground Zero on this blog:

Yesterday’s tragic fire at a Patrice Lumumba University dormitory highlights Russia’s problems created by a legacy of deferred maintenance of the country’s infrastructure. As a real estate practitioner, I’ve observed with fascinated horror, during almost twenty years of visits there, a bad situation getting worse.

During my first trip, in 1984, I found the state of most structures shocking. One of my fellow travelers, an electrical contractor, pointed repeatedly to jury rigged exterior wiring not contained in conduit. This was in major public buildings in Moscow and Leningrad. Each successive visit has seen some of same buildings continue to deteriorate with little of no maintenance.

The causes of this are several fold. First, much of the physical plant in Western Russia was destroyed or damaged during the Great Patriotic War. Replacement of structures or repairs had to be accomplished in a compressed time frame and quality of both design and craftsmanship undoubtedly suffered. Second, the West rapidly recovered from the war while Russia did not. The US emerged economically strong and via the Marshal Plan rebuilt Western Europe. The USSR believed it had to chose between “Guns and Bricks” it chose guns. A Russian friend once joked that the lights in his stairwell hadn’t worked for years because the Soviets felt the resources were better used for “a hundred Kalashnikov magazines or maybe some parts for a T-62 Tank in Afghanistan.”

The end result of all this was a lot of poorly constructed, poorly maintained buildings. Fifty some odd years later, it appears the chickens are coming home to roost. A few years back, the roof of a lecture hall at St. Petersburg State University spontaneously collapsed. Thankfully this occurred in the early morning hours and no one was killed or injured. About a year later, the same kind of spontaneous structural failure took place in a metro station. Sadly the colleague of a friend of mine was killed.

The third factor seems to be an effect of the unregulated cowboy capitalism of the ’90’s. Developers, wanting to take advantage of new opportunities, clearly cut corners, likely with the connivance of corrupt officials. As I’ve recounted in JRL # 6010, I’ve stayed in a couple of St. Petersburg buildings which required a pad code or skeleton key to get out as well as in. In a major US city, this would be unthinkable.

Solutions won’t be easy. From an economic perspective a national project of capital renovation and repairs wouldn’t be cost effective. In Tatarstan, the central core of Kazan is being abandoned and the population relocated a complete new city, with the attendant utilities, public transportation, fire stations, etc., at the city’s edge. It’s doubtful, however, that resources a would be available to implement this solution on a nationwide basis anytime soon.

As much as my industry chafes under regulatory requirements here in America, the only immediate answer may be more effective statutes governing the construction, renovation and management of real property. More importantly, serious enforcement of existing laws would prevent tragedies l such as the one yesterday. This would require, however, progress on addressing the incredible level of corruption in government and commerce which exists at every level.

First time visitors to Russia often comment to me that the country has so many problems, yet much potential. Wise decisions now, on the part of Russia’s national, regional and local leaders to maintain protect and enhance the nation’s buildings and the safety of its populace will help pave the way for a better future for succeeding generations.

Chavez Goes Berzerk: And Guess Who’s Responsible?

When the New York Times condemns a socialist you know he’s really gone over the edge. Surely this is the case in Venezuela, where lunatic dictator Hugo Chavez has nationalized the telephone and electricity industries. And why? Would Chavez have launched this crazed nationalization had he not been embolded by Russian support, and had he not seen the Russian model starting with YUKOS?

President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela — the very portrait of a modern Latin American strongman — is not content to exercise near-total political and military control of his country. Now he is tightening his grip on the Venezuelan economy. That’s bad news for foreign investors, but even more so for the Venezuelan people who will have to pay the price for an economy plagued by increasing inefficiency and corruption.

Mr. Chávez announced this week that he would nationalize electricity and telecommunications companies. Venezuela’s biggest telecommunications company is partly owned by Verizon Communications. Its largest publicly traded electricity company is controlled by another American company, the AES Corporation. Mr. Chávez also declared his intention to take control of four multibillion- dollar oil projects with significant investments from foreign companies.

State control is rarely an efficient way to run companies. And nationalizations are not a good way to encourage further foreign investment. Mr. Chávez is already using the state-controlled oil company to reward his cronies at the expense of getting the best return on Venezuela’s most lucrative resource.

Exactly what form these nationalizations will take remains unclear. Whatever Mr. Chávez is planning, he needs to fairly compensate shareholders. And while the Bush administration needs to condemn any seizure of American assets, it should choose its words carefully so as not to play into Mr. Chávez’s Yanqui-baiting game.

The administration can best advance American interests, and those of the people of Latin America, through more active engagement of the region’s many democracies. It also needs to press ahead with trade agreements and other forms of economic assistance and cooperation. That is the smartest way to counter Mr. Chávez’s demagoguery.

Mr. Chávez’s latest moves serve as yet another reminder of why America needs to curb its insatiable appetite for oil. The United States is the biggest buyer of Venezuelan petroleum products. If a powerful Hugo Chávez is against U.S. interests, we should stop paying for his Russian fighter jets and helicopters — and his nationalizations — with our gas-guzzling cars and trucks.

Publius Pundit has much more on the Chavez disaster. Click here to read “Red Star over Venezuela” by South America expert A.M. Mora y Leon .

Chavez Goes Berzerk: And Guess Who’s Responsible?

When the New York Times condemns a socialist you know he’s really gone over the edge. Surely this is the case in Venezuela, where lunatic dictator Hugo Chavez has nationalized the telephone and electricity industries. And why? Would Chavez have launched this crazed nationalization had he not been embolded by Russian support, and had he not seen the Russian model starting with YUKOS?

President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela — the very portrait of a modern Latin American strongman — is not content to exercise near-total political and military control of his country. Now he is tightening his grip on the Venezuelan economy. That’s bad news for foreign investors, but even more so for the Venezuelan people who will have to pay the price for an economy plagued by increasing inefficiency and corruption.

Mr. Chávez announced this week that he would nationalize electricity and telecommunications companies. Venezuela’s biggest telecommunications company is partly owned by Verizon Communications. Its largest publicly traded electricity company is controlled by another American company, the AES Corporation. Mr. Chávez also declared his intention to take control of four multibillion- dollar oil projects with significant investments from foreign companies.

State control is rarely an efficient way to run companies. And nationalizations are not a good way to encourage further foreign investment. Mr. Chávez is already using the state-controlled oil company to reward his cronies at the expense of getting the best return on Venezuela’s most lucrative resource.

Exactly what form these nationalizations will take remains unclear. Whatever Mr. Chávez is planning, he needs to fairly compensate shareholders. And while the Bush administration needs to condemn any seizure of American assets, it should choose its words carefully so as not to play into Mr. Chávez’s Yanqui-baiting game.

The administration can best advance American interests, and those of the people of Latin America, through more active engagement of the region’s many democracies. It also needs to press ahead with trade agreements and other forms of economic assistance and cooperation. That is the smartest way to counter Mr. Chávez’s demagoguery.

Mr. Chávez’s latest moves serve as yet another reminder of why America needs to curb its insatiable appetite for oil. The United States is the biggest buyer of Venezuelan petroleum products. If a powerful Hugo Chávez is against U.S. interests, we should stop paying for his Russian fighter jets and helicopters — and his nationalizations — with our gas-guzzling cars and trucks.

Publius Pundit has much more on the Chavez disaster. Click here to read “Red Star over Venezuela” by South America expert A.M. Mora y Leon .

Chavez Goes Berzerk: And Guess Who’s Responsible?

When the New York Times condemns a socialist you know he’s really gone over the edge. Surely this is the case in Venezuela, where lunatic dictator Hugo Chavez has nationalized the telephone and electricity industries. And why? Would Chavez have launched this crazed nationalization had he not been embolded by Russian support, and had he not seen the Russian model starting with YUKOS?

President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela — the very portrait of a modern Latin American strongman — is not content to exercise near-total political and military control of his country. Now he is tightening his grip on the Venezuelan economy. That’s bad news for foreign investors, but even more so for the Venezuelan people who will have to pay the price for an economy plagued by increasing inefficiency and corruption.

Mr. Chávez announced this week that he would nationalize electricity and telecommunications companies. Venezuela’s biggest telecommunications company is partly owned by Verizon Communications. Its largest publicly traded electricity company is controlled by another American company, the AES Corporation. Mr. Chávez also declared his intention to take control of four multibillion- dollar oil projects with significant investments from foreign companies.

State control is rarely an efficient way to run companies. And nationalizations are not a good way to encourage further foreign investment. Mr. Chávez is already using the state-controlled oil company to reward his cronies at the expense of getting the best return on Venezuela’s most lucrative resource.

Exactly what form these nationalizations will take remains unclear. Whatever Mr. Chávez is planning, he needs to fairly compensate shareholders. And while the Bush administration needs to condemn any seizure of American assets, it should choose its words carefully so as not to play into Mr. Chávez’s Yanqui-baiting game.

The administration can best advance American interests, and those of the people of Latin America, through more active engagement of the region’s many democracies. It also needs to press ahead with trade agreements and other forms of economic assistance and cooperation. That is the smartest way to counter Mr. Chávez’s demagoguery.

Mr. Chávez’s latest moves serve as yet another reminder of why America needs to curb its insatiable appetite for oil. The United States is the biggest buyer of Venezuelan petroleum products. If a powerful Hugo Chávez is against U.S. interests, we should stop paying for his Russian fighter jets and helicopters — and his nationalizations — with our gas-guzzling cars and trucks.

Publius Pundit has much more on the Chavez disaster. Click here to read “Red Star over Venezuela” by South America expert A.M. Mora y Leon .

Chavez Goes Berzerk: And Guess Who’s Responsible?

When the New York Times condemns a socialist you know he’s really gone over the edge. Surely this is the case in Venezuela, where lunatic dictator Hugo Chavez has nationalized the telephone and electricity industries. And why? Would Chavez have launched this crazed nationalization had he not been embolded by Russian support, and had he not seen the Russian model starting with YUKOS?

President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela — the very portrait of a modern Latin American strongman — is not content to exercise near-total political and military control of his country. Now he is tightening his grip on the Venezuelan economy. That’s bad news for foreign investors, but even more so for the Venezuelan people who will have to pay the price for an economy plagued by increasing inefficiency and corruption.

Mr. Chávez announced this week that he would nationalize electricity and telecommunications companies. Venezuela’s biggest telecommunications company is partly owned by Verizon Communications. Its largest publicly traded electricity company is controlled by another American company, the AES Corporation. Mr. Chávez also declared his intention to take control of four multibillion- dollar oil projects with significant investments from foreign companies.

State control is rarely an efficient way to run companies. And nationalizations are not a good way to encourage further foreign investment. Mr. Chávez is already using the state-controlled oil company to reward his cronies at the expense of getting the best return on Venezuela’s most lucrative resource.

Exactly what form these nationalizations will take remains unclear. Whatever Mr. Chávez is planning, he needs to fairly compensate shareholders. And while the Bush administration needs to condemn any seizure of American assets, it should choose its words carefully so as not to play into Mr. Chávez’s Yanqui-baiting game.

The administration can best advance American interests, and those of the people of Latin America, through more active engagement of the region’s many democracies. It also needs to press ahead with trade agreements and other forms of economic assistance and cooperation. That is the smartest way to counter Mr. Chávez’s demagoguery.

Mr. Chávez’s latest moves serve as yet another reminder of why America needs to curb its insatiable appetite for oil. The United States is the biggest buyer of Venezuelan petroleum products. If a powerful Hugo Chávez is against U.S. interests, we should stop paying for his Russian fighter jets and helicopters — and his nationalizations — with our gas-guzzling cars and trucks.

Publius Pundit has much more on the Chavez disaster. Click here to read “Red Star over Venezuela” by South America expert A.M. Mora y Leon .

Chavez Goes Berzerk: And Guess Who’s Responsible?

When the New York Times condemns a socialist you know he’s really gone over the edge. Surely this is the case in Venezuela, where lunatic dictator Hugo Chavez has nationalized the telephone and electricity industries. And why? Would Chavez have launched this crazed nationalization had he not been embolded by Russian support, and had he not seen the Russian model starting with YUKOS?

President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela — the very portrait of a modern Latin American strongman — is not content to exercise near-total political and military control of his country. Now he is tightening his grip on the Venezuelan economy. That’s bad news for foreign investors, but even more so for the Venezuelan people who will have to pay the price for an economy plagued by increasing inefficiency and corruption.

Mr. Chávez announced this week that he would nationalize electricity and telecommunications companies. Venezuela’s biggest telecommunications company is partly owned by Verizon Communications. Its largest publicly traded electricity company is controlled by another American company, the AES Corporation. Mr. Chávez also declared his intention to take control of four multibillion- dollar oil projects with significant investments from foreign companies.

State control is rarely an efficient way to run companies. And nationalizations are not a good way to encourage further foreign investment. Mr. Chávez is already using the state-controlled oil company to reward his cronies at the expense of getting the best return on Venezuela’s most lucrative resource.

Exactly what form these nationalizations will take remains unclear. Whatever Mr. Chávez is planning, he needs to fairly compensate shareholders. And while the Bush administration needs to condemn any seizure of American assets, it should choose its words carefully so as not to play into Mr. Chávez’s Yanqui-baiting game.

The administration can best advance American interests, and those of the people of Latin America, through more active engagement of the region’s many democracies. It also needs to press ahead with trade agreements and other forms of economic assistance and cooperation. That is the smartest way to counter Mr. Chávez’s demagoguery.

Mr. Chávez’s latest moves serve as yet another reminder of why America needs to curb its insatiable appetite for oil. The United States is the biggest buyer of Venezuelan petroleum products. If a powerful Hugo Chávez is against U.S. interests, we should stop paying for his Russian fighter jets and helicopters — and his nationalizations — with our gas-guzzling cars and trucks.

Publius Pundit has much more on the Chavez disaster. Click here to read “Red Star over Venezuela” by South America expert A.M. Mora y Leon .