Daily Archives: January 25, 2007

Pestilence and Hemorrhagic Fever Decimate European Russia

INTERFAX reports:

MOSCOW. Jan 24 (Interfax) – One hundred thirty-three people, including 14 children, have been hospitalized in the Lipetsk and Voronezh regions with hemorrhagic fever, the information department at the Russian Emergency Situations Ministry told Interfax on Wednesday. The number of people with symptoms of hemorrhagic fever seeking medical assistance began to grow in September in the Voronezh region and in December in the Lipetsk region. “The situation was caused by an increase in the number of rodents due to favorable weather conditions, which resulted in an ample food supply in that period,” the ministry said.

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Neighbor Finland Knows Russia only too Well

Finnish expat blogger Tero Paananen of The Mad Finn has this to say about the ridiculous notion that there is some “third way” for Russia (in short, he sees it merely as the enabling of dictatorship and failure):

The situation of NGOs has gone from bad to worse in Russia during President Vladimir Putin’s reign. The authorities are doing their utmost to eliminate the emergence of a free civil society. The government is trying to subjugate any signs of civil expression, subordinate public opinion to state interest, and incorporate civil society into the government’s statial strategy.

Many NGOs in Russia defend those most vulnerable, and it is exactly these organisations that suffer the most from government repression. Those at the receiving end of this repression are thus the weak and the helpless. If we close our eyes from this, and choose to cooperate with “front” organisations enjoying state blessing, we are not only wasting our financial support, but are doing real damage to the very people we wish to help.

Stating a few obvious facts: The Russian Federation is a state, which engages in an open war of terror against its own citizens. Authorities at both federal and local level attack, terrorise, and kill their own fellow citizens. Russia is no state governed by law.

Government pressure on NGOs does not depend on the NGOs themselves, but on the political and economic interests of the ruling elites. Authorities do not react to the actions of NGOs, but create themselves the conditions, in which NGOs are left with no way out; in which NGOs cannot avoid an open confrontation.

It is the moral duty of Finland and other free nations, especially in the EU, to help our partners in Russia to survive. We cannot let the authorities intimidate our friends, drive them into a corner, and destroy everything we have achieved together in the past ten years. It is vital to continue the work and support one another.

Finnish experts often highlight the “uniqueness” of Russia’s development; most likely, this is because we wish to monopolise the expertees on Russia. It seems that Finns have stressed Russia’s uniqueness for so long that we have begun to believe in it ourselves. The end result of this is that the average Finn has a very hazy knowledge of our eastern neighbour; even those who have visited Russia only see what they want to see.

Many are simply unable to regard Russia with common sense, according to the same human standards that we regard other states and cultures. Instead, many choose to spread all sorts of fictitious legends and metaphysical constructions about Russia. It often seems that economists have the clearest idea of what is going on in Russia, because they usually understand the value of money. And money is the only thing Russia’s ruling elite is ever interested in.

The uniqueness of Russia’s development, the so-called “Third Road”, is the artificial ideological construct that the notion of a “Sovereign Democracy” that Putin’s regime has declared is based on. This “Sovereign Democracy” is ruled by the “Power Vertical” — the authoritarian power apparatus of Putin’s presidential administration. By stressing Russia’s uniqueness, we are, in fact, lending support to the development of authoritarianism that lies behind the troubles Russia is facing today.

The Mad Finn also notes that Finns are putting their money where there mouths are:

I’m proud to report news about the birth of the Finnish-Russian Citizen’s Forum by a group of human rights activists from Finland and Russia. Founding members include, among others, a Finnish Member of Parliament and my brother. The press release about forming the organization follows.

FINNISH-RUSSIAN CITIZENS’ FORUM ESTABLISHED

A group of persons worried about the development of democracy and the state of human rights in Russia has established a non-governmental organisation, Finnish-Russian Citizens’ Forum.

The organisation’s aim is to “promote cooperation between citizens and different peoples in Finland and the Russian Federation by supporting non-governmental organisations in their effort to strengthen democracy, human rights, and freedom of speech in Russia”.

The murder of the Russian journalist and civil rights activist, Ms Anna Politkovskaya, acted as a catalyst for establishing the Citizens’ Forum. This sad event served to consolidate cooperation between people concerned about Russia’s current development, prompting several appeals, public discussions, and demonstrations in autumn 2006.

The Citizens’ Forum supports Russian non-governmental organisations, which are now facing difficulties in their work due to Russia’s new draconian law on NGOs. The Citizens’ Forum will invite representatives of Russian organisations to Finland, organise visits to Russia, and distribute information about the situation in Russia.

The Citizens’ Forum will soon open its web site at www.finrosforum.fi.

The Chairperson of the Finnish-Russian Citizens’ Forum is Ms Heidi Hautala, MP (The Greens). The organisation’s Deputy Chairman is Mr Jukka Mallinen, Chairman of the Finnish PEN Club. The Citizens’ Forum has a nine-member Board. Mr Mikael Storsjö, entrepreneur, serves as the board’s Secretary, and Ms Iida Simes, producer, as the Board’s spokesperson.

The name of the new organisation translates into Swedish as “Finsk-ryska medborgarforumet”, and its domicile is in Helsinki. The Citizens’ Forum carries an unofficial name in Russian: “Finsko-rossiyskiy grazhdanskiy forum”.

Lipman Exposes Russian Economic Failure

Writing in the Washington Post, Russia pundit Masha Lipman lays out the hard facts concerning Russian progress under Vladimir Putin:

Since the beginning of Russian economic reforms 15 years ago, liberal scholars and experts inside and outside Russia have talked about a democratic polity, rule of law, liberal political freedoms and civic liberties as necessary prerequisites for stable economic development.

But after fifteen years the country can’t boast about achieving any of these things. All political institutions except the presidency have been emasculated. All political power has been concentrated in the Kremlin. Decision-making is hidden from the public eye. Public political competition is non-existent and the mass media tightly controlled so Kremlin policy-makers do not have to worry about accountability. The judicial branch is effectively controlled by the executive, so in sensitive cases any court decision may be bent in order to further the interests of the ruling elite. The state has steadily increased control over the public space – autonomous public activism is unwelcome. Activist groups and figures are either co-opted, or, if they don’t submit to the Kremlin’s control, they are marginalized, neutralized and discredited. The most recalcitrant are intimidated and harassed.

Meanwhile, the GDP has steadily grown, amounting to about one trillion U.S. dollars in 2006, and the macroeconomic indices are quite impressive. Russia has radically reduced its foreign debt. The stabilization fund where excessive revenues (the fund is financed by export duties and the royalty on oil) from high oil prices have been accumulated since 2004 is close to 100 billion U.S. dollars. Moreover, it may be argued that never in Russia’s history has the proportion of those who enjoy reasonably decent living standards been as high as it is today. Though the disparity of income is huge and growing, the number of those below the poverty line has decreased from about one-third to about one-quarter of the population. Substantial increase in people’s salaries and pensions has resulted in a consumer boom which is registered in national statistics, and may also be observed in any of the country’s shopping malls whose number is also growing. People not only buy more, they also feel better. At the end of 2006 the country’s leading independent polling agency reported a noticeable improvement of general sentiments and expectations.

So has Russia defied the liberal logic? Of course what lies beneath Russia’s economic success is the high prices of oil and gas, rather than improved economic policies. As a major exporter of both commodities, Russia has benefited tremendously. The question is what use Russia has made of this amazing stroke of luck.

It is increasingly evident that the opportunity created by the high energy prices has been largely squandered. Rather than taking advantage of this blessed spell in order to intensify the urgently needed reforms (the monumental distortions of the 70-year old Communist economy call for long-term and persistent reform effort), the Russian government has suspended or frozen nearly all structural change. In contrast to its macroeconomic records, in labor efficiency, transparency, and competitiveness, Russia’s ratings are disgracefully low.

Diversification of the economy remains a distant dream. About 60 percent of the Russian budget’s income is generated by oil and gas revenues, making Russia vulnerable to the fluctuation of the world prices on energy, metals, and a few other commodities.

The best assets are increasingly concentrated in the companies that either state-owned or controlled by the state. As a result, power and property are closely entangled. Economic and business decisions are politicized, and political decisions driven by narrow economic interests. The empowered state bureaucracy is driven by self-seeking interests and an anxiety about losing the perks of power, rather than by modernization and national development.

As in any area, in governance the lack of competition leads to a deterioration of quality. Indeed, the quality of governance is quite low. Decisions are frequently ad-hoc and not adequately prepared. But in the absence of public accountability nobody is held responsible and poor performance is not improved.

As a result, Russia faces everything from inefficient law-enforcement to inefficient health care (in Russia average life expectancy for men is barely 60, which is the official retirement age). The income-generating industries are not in good shape either.

As the government has radically expanded its role in the most lucrative areas of the economy, the growth of oil production has slowed down and the production of gas is barely growing at all. The government has strongly limited the participation of foreign companies in Russia’s strategic industries, but in order to explore new deposits Russia needs large investment and technology that it does not seem to have. There is serious reason to doubt whether Russian can go it alone.

Increasingly, Russia’s economic success looks temporary rather than sustainable. The paradox of the country’s bad politics and good economy is thus resolved by the time factor. In the longer run, bad politics leads to economic deterioration.

The economists warn that Russia has exhausted the potential of the oil growth and point out the need to limit the involvement of the state in the economy, to counteract the anti-liberal trend of centralization and creeping nationalization and to push for modernization.

Switching to non-economic language, Russia needs to unleash public energies and initiatives rather than expand state control, and to encourage active public participation rather than passive compliance. This is impossible without a political improvement, and this is the only way to improve economic policies.

Annals of Russian Hypocrisy:

Writing in National Interest, Igor Khrestin, a Russian Studies researcher at the American Enterprise Institute, and John Elliott, a research associate in Russia and Eurasia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, expose the propaganda spewed out by the Kremlin’s Dmitry Peskov over Russian support for Iran:

In a recent interview with National Interest online, President Putin’s first deputy secretary, Dmitry Peskov, firmly asserted that Russia is “the last country in this world that would want to have a nuclear weapon at its southern borders.”

The current Russian policy in the region, however, indicates otherwise. After Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani publicly mused in 2001 that the “application of an atomic bomb would not leave any thing in Israel”, and despite an International Atomic Energy Agency finding that Iran was in non-compliance with the safeguards agreement of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Mr. Peskov refers to Iran’s right to “peaceful nuclear energy.” As such, Moscow habitually rejects comprehensive sanctions against Tehran and has effectively stalled the process by brandishing its veto power at the UN Security Council.

With the nuclear issue on the backburner, the Iranian regime is actively equipping and training militia groups and death squads operating in Iraq—without forgetting to dole out generous support to Hizballah and Hamas for actively terrorizing the Israeli population. Contrary to its supposed “partners in the war on terror” in the West, Russia considers neither group to be a terrorist organization. Moreover, after gaining control of the Palestinian parliament, Hamas representatives took up President Putin’s generous offer to visit Moscow last spring. Conspicuously, just days before the visit, local authorities in provincial towns of Volgograd and Vologda shut down two regional newspapers for reprinting the infamous “Muhammad cartoons.”

The doublethink on Iran and its proxies reflects a wider struggle in elucidating Russia’s Middle East policy—how does a nation balance vulnerability to Islamic extremism in its predominantly Muslim backyard with the continued support for a regime that can potentially—and fatally—endanger global security?

Russian and Iranian interests are historically divergent, with perceived spheres of influence overlapping in the Caucasus and the Caspian. In 1828, when the Russian tsar sent a diplomatic mission to negotiate the settlement terms of the second Russo-Persian war (the Treaty of Turkmanchai, which stipulated Iran’s surrender of modern-day Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia), a frenzied mob massacred practically the entire delegation. Among those killed was chief envoy and famous Russian playwright Alexandr Griboyedov, whose crime apparently consisted of not removing his boots in front of the Shah.

Ideologically, the two states could also not be further apart. The 1979 Islamic Revolution may have shattered Iran’s alliance with the United States, but neither did it bring Tehran and Moscow any closer. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini purged leftists from the revolutionary coalition and considered the Soviet Union “godless.” In 1989, Khomeini penned a letter to Mikhail Gorbachev, urging the Soviet leader “to seriously investigate Islam—not because Islam or the Muslims need you, but because Islam can bring comfort and salvation to all people and solve the problems of all nations.”

While reality got in the way of realizing the Ayatollah’s dream, Iran did expand relations with Russia after the Soviet collapse. On August 25, 1992, Tehran and Moscow signed an US $800 million deal for Russian companies to build two nuclear reactors at Bushehr, as well as committed to sales of military hardware. During the lean and tumultuous 1990s, when oil prices bottomed out and Russia painfully deconstructed its command economy, the hard currency may have proved essential to prop-up the vast military-industrial complex. As Viktor Mikhailov, Russia’s then-minister of nuclear energy, stated: “What could Russia have brought onto world markets? We only had one strength: our scientific and technical potential.” Yet in 1995, after considerable American pressure, Boris Yeltsin halted weapons deliveries to Iran.

Economic considerations are hardly a concern for the current Russian government. The flow of petrodollars cleared all of the country’s external debts and bumped gold and foreign currency reserves to nearly $300 billion—with another $90 billion stashed in the rainy-day Stabilization Fund, accrued from windfall oil profits. With confident stride, Russia has begun to write off debts to poorer nations.

But one of the first steps of Putin’s presidency was to resume the sales of weapons to the Iranian regime. Recently, Moscow has landed somewhere around $1 billion for the sale of 29 Tor-M1 missile complexes, giving Tehran the ability to earnestly defend their “nuclear right.” While these sophisticated systems may not render Iran’s various strategic sites invincible, they nevertheless add a formidable layer of protection against potential U.S. or Israeli air strikes. On a visit to Jerusalem in 2005, however, President Putin firmly reassured the Israelis that “[Russia has] not taken a single step to disrupt the balance of forces and we will follow that pattern in the future.”

Russia’s resurgent realpolitik has not gone unnoticed in the Middle East. Recently, the Arab and Iranian press roundly lauded Russia’s assertive role in the region. But at whose expense? As BBC correspondent and Middle East expert Konstantin Eggert explained in Lebanon’s Daily Star: “The rationale for Russia’s new course in the Middle East lies in the same motivation that drives Moscow’s foreign policy as a whole: primarily, deep dislike of the United States combined with a desire to at least partly avenge Russia’s defeat in the Cold War.”

Moscow’s policy towardTehrancould also cost it in areas where Russia-U.S. partnership has blossomed. Congress may well decide to vote down the recent “123 agreement”, which allows greater collaboration in civilian nuclear energy. The Russian government, which agreed to host spentU.S.nuclear fuel on its territory, would stand to lose an estimated $20 billion. In addition, several Russian companies have already been sanctioned byWashingtonfor supplying hardware toTehran, including state weapons manufacturer Rosoboronexport.

With the gradually worsening state of affairs between Russia and the West, it now becomes the job of officials such as Mr. Peskov, but ultimately, President Putin himself, to convince Moscow’s “partners in the war on terror” otherwise.

LR Big(ger) in Europe

It’s been almost half a year since we last reviewed the compositon of our readership by region of the world. Whilst we were not looking, La Russophobe has morphed into an international blog. As the charts below show, whilst the United States accounts for by far the single largest share of LR’s readership, five months ago it was a majority, and now it is minority. Our Russian readership has nearly tripled, as has our British contingent. This not to say that there are fewer American readers now, they have dramatically increased in number; in September there were only 3,500 visits to the blog but in January there will be nearly 9,000 — this means there were nearly 2,000 American visits in September and there will be more than twice as many such visits in January. But the share of non-American readers has increased even faster, which is not surprising given that America is more remote from the issues we cover involving the rise of the neo-Soviet Union than those in Europe. Of course, Americans should not think that their relative isolation means they can afford to relax, as World War II and the Cold War clearly showed. Nearly one out of every ten readers of this blog is Russian, and that’s encouraging.

JANUARY 2007

SEPTEMBER 2006

Update on Novaya Gazeta

La Russophobe is proud to announce that our post translating Novaya Gazeta‘s article about the Kremlin’s killer squads is now in the top dozen Google hits when you search the paper’s name in English, out of nearly 300,000 available. Given that this post has only spent a few days in the blogosphere, this should be taken as an encouraging sign by NG’s editors and staff that there is a vast reservoir of goodwill, respect and admiration the paper’s heroic work (it’s also some indication of LR’s ever-increasing clout in the blogosphere). Truly, NG’s writers are the greatest patriots alive in Russia today, maybe the greatest who have ever lived, risking their very lives to save an ungrateful country from its greatest enemies, those malignant little trolls who dwell within the Kremlin walls. Let there be no doubt that history will so record their struggles. They do, however, seem to be a bit confused in the management of their website, having allowed their article to simply go missing from its former address and end up buried in their archives, making other sources easier to access the story from.

This is a good time, then, to remember the excellent effort of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to meet with NG’s editors in the aftermath of the Politkovskaya killing when she visited Moscow, a powerful snub to the Kremlin. Here is a transcript of the meeting, from the Department of State’s website:

AMBASSADOR BURNS: It’s good to see all of you and once again not only convey my own sympathies but also introduce Secretary Rice and Sean McCormack, Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs. Madame Secretary, it’s terrific to have you here and thank you very much.

SECRETARY RICE: Thank you very much. First let me say that I am very much saddened, as was the entire world, by the brutal murder of Anna Politkovskaya. She was a heroine to many people.

She stood for what is best in independent journalism, a willingness to try to get to the truth at whatever cost. And if I may just say to you, Ilya, that while I know the world has lost someone who was a symbol, you have lost your mother and we are very saddened by that. But her work goes on, and Novaya Gazeta is a fine publication that I think represents a very good independent voice here in Russia.

The role of the independent press is extremely important in society, particularly for democratic development. And it’s important not just because it is an important value to have an independent press, although it is one of the most important values of democracy. But it also is important to the proper functioning of government in democracy.

People need information in order to hold their government accountable. And only through an independent press can that information be developed and communicated. And whether it is in fighting corruption or questioning government policies or communicating to the government the concerns of people, an independent press plays an extremely important role.

I want to encourage you to keep working. It is extremely important work, and we are very supportive of the role of independent media here in Russia. We know it has not been easy, but it is an important path — an important road — even if it’s not an easy one.

I am happy to take your questions or listen to any comments that you might have.

DMITRIY MURATOV: Indeed we must continue the work of Anna. However, in the course of the last six years, this is the third such tragic death at Novaya Gazeta. [Igor] Domnikov was murdered by professional killers, and now his assassins are in court. He was killed because of his professional activity. It was a corrupt official — a deputy governor of one of the regions of Russia — who actually ordered his assassination.

There was another mysterious death three years ago as well, when our deputy editor in chief who was also a Duma deputy [Yuri] Shchekochikhin was killed while working on a commission investigating corruption. His assassins have not been found. Now Anna [Politkovskaya] has been murdered. The people who killed her first followed her and watched her for a long time. They knew exactly when she would return after visiting her sick mother, and they knew that a week before she had buried her father. So when I learned of her assassination, I wondered how human beings could even sink that low.

I need to ask a purely human question: Is the price we pay for the right to engage in our professional duties as journalists not too high?

SECRETARY RICE: You have recalled for us a very sad history of the last six years and one with which I am familiar. There have been many tragedies for Novaya Gazeta, and you must feel it very personally. We have told the Russian Government that these murders and the murders of other journalists must be thoroughly investigated and people must begin to understand that those who have done this will pay the price.

It’s hard for me to answer your question because I know these have been great personal losses. It’s difficult to step back and give an abstract answer to a very personal human question. But I think that if you look at history and struggles in many different countries under many different historical circumstances, there have been people who sacrificed on the basis of principle, people who sacrificed for a cause and those sacrifices are never in vain because ultimately freedom will win out.

In particular, investigative journalists are very often in danger because by their very nature they expose the truth. Very often they run afoul of those who have a lot at stake and a lot to lose if the truth comes out. I recognize that it’s a very dangerous profession, but without investigative journalists who are willing to seek the truth, it’s very hard for a democracy to function.

If it is any comfort at all — at a personal level I’m sure that it’s not– at a professional level if it is any comfort you should know that these murders have received worldwide attention. People are watching. People are pressing for a full investigation and for punishment of those who have committed these crimes. You are not alone in your struggle.

QUESTION: How important is it for a politician to have feelings and emotions? I’m talking about feelings of kindness and openness.

SECRETARY RICE: It is important for people who are engaged in politics to have human emotions, compassion, and most importantly to have principles. I watch very carefully the influence and tremendous effect that political leaders can have on the lives of ordinary people, and they need to be people who understand their impact.

It’s very important for politicians, particularly in democratic societies, not to lose touch with the people that they represent. Even the President of the United States leaves the White House and visits with school children, or goes to a retirement home and sees the effects of our policies on older people. I think it’s very important for politicians, and I know that when the President does this it has a big effect on him.

Ultimately I think a politician has to lead people and not be led by them, and that very often means making difficult, sometimes unpopular decisions. People expect their leaders to do exactly that. If the job were only to make easy decisions, anyone could do it. Because it’s often a matter of difficult decisions, I think it takes a very special person to be a politician in a democracy. I admire very much our people who have entered political life. I admire people who want to serve their country in that way. It’s not easy because you’re very often making difficult, unpopular decisions for the good of a large number of people.

QUESTION: So politics is not just a form of business?

SECRETARY RICE: No, it’s not. It’s a form of service. [Politicians have] different values than those who go into other professions.

QUESTION: It’s part of the service sector?

SECRETARY RICE: No, it’s a form of public service.

MURATOV: I read a study by Reporters Without Borders [the Worldwide Press Freedom Index for 2005] that placed Press Freedom in Russia in 138th place. However, the United States is in 137th place for Press Freedom in Iraq. Is this due to self-censorship or is it government policy?

SECRETARY RICE: It’s certainly not government policy. But I’ll tell you something, I watch our reporting on Iraq every day, and our reporters in Iraq are very tough on the U.S. Government. It was the American press that exposed the very bad events at Abu Ghraib. That came out first in the American press. I don’t know what study you’re talking about, but the U.S. press reports exactly what they think, and they try to do it accurately. With press reporting — with freedom of the press– goes responsibility. It’s not just reporting anything you hear or anything someone tells you. The American press tries to be accurate in what they are reporting, but they report in the very toughest of circumstances.

There is one circumstance that sometimes the American press will not report: if it is going to put our soldiers in danger. Then they may decide that they do not want to report on something that might cost American soldiers their lives. That’s another part of press responsibility. The government can’t force The New York Times not to print something, but The New York Times can decide if something is potentially dangerous to the lives of American soldiers and not print it.

QUESTION: Moscow is the tail end of a long and difficult trip. Do you think there will be a second nuclear test? What should we do about the North Koreans? Should we start buying gas masks for the Russian Far East?

SECRETARY RICE: It has been a long trip, but it’s been a very good trip because I was able to see the strong cohesion, the strong unity of the international system in opposing what North Korea has done.

I have just talked with Sergey Lavrov and I will talk later with President Putin. The most important thing now is that we need to implement fully the Security Council resolution that we have passed so that we can deal with the risks associated with the North Korean program. I don’t know if North Korea will test again. They crossed a line in the international system when they tested the first time. I don’t know if they will test again. But if they were to test again, they would only deepen their own isolation because I think there would be even another response, a greater response if they tested again.

The most important goal now must be to get North Korea to dismantle the nuclear program that it has. We have an agreement from last September in the context of the six-party talks about how to get the dismantlement of the North Korean program, and we need to implement that. But you’re right, it’s a very dangerous situation, and the international community needs to be serious in its response to North Korea and to show North Korea that it really has no other option but to dismantle its nuclear program if it wishes to receive any benefits from the international system.

QUESTION: What about gas masks?

SECRETARY RICE: Not yet.

DMITRIY MURATOV: [Gives the Secretary a business card of Anna Politkovskaya’s] This was hers.

SECRETARY RICE: Thank you, I’ll keep it as a good memory.