Monthly Archives: February 2007

Echoing Santayana, Solzhenitsyn Says Neo-Soviet Russia Repeats the Mistakes of the Past

Did you ever see that movie “Bridge on the River Kwai”? Remember the part at the end where the British officer suddenly snaps out of his ego-induced haze to realize that he’s been helping the Japanese win World War II? It seems that, at long last, Alexander Solzhenitsyn is experiencing a similar moment of clarity.

The International Herald Tribune reports that Solzhenitsyn has confirmed what LR has been saying for months now, that Russia has placed itself into exactly the same social position it was in in 1907, whilst placing itself in the same political position it was in in 1927. In other words, the worst of all possible worlds. It can’t last forever, maybe not even very long.

Nobel laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn warns in the preface to a newly republished article that Russia is still struggling with challenges similar to those of the revolutionary turmoil of 1917 that led to the demise of the czarist empire.

The article — which will appear Tuesday in the influential government daily Rossiyskaya Gazeta — analyzes the roots of the February revolution 90 years ago that forced the abdication of the last czar, Nicholas II, and helped pave the way for the Bolsheviks.

“It’s all the more bitter that a quarter of a century later, some of these conclusions are still applicable to the alarming disorder of today,” Solzhenitsyn wrote in a preface to the article first written in the early 1980s.

Solzhenitsyn’s wife, Natalya, said it should serve as a reminder to Russia’s political class about the dangers stemming from the huge gap between the rich and the poor, and the stark contrast in lifestyle and moral attitudes in the glitzy Russian capital compared to the far less prosperous provinces.

“Alexander Isayevich is deeply worried by this gap,” Natalya Solzhenitsyn told a news conference Monday. “It’s necessary to pay attention to that. If the government fails to do that, consequences would be grave.”

In addition to being printed in the widely read, half-million-circulation newspaper, the article — first published in Russian in a magazine in 1993 — will be also republished as a separate pamphlet under the title “Thoughts On The February Revolution” and sent to officials across Russia, Rossiyskaya Gazeta’s editor Vladislav Fronin said.

“People from the (Ear Eastern) Chukotka region to the Kremlin would be able to read it,” he said.

Natalya Solzhenitsyn said her husband wrote the article for one of the volumes of “The Red Wheel,” the 10-volume saga about the Russian Revolution that he finished in 1990 and considers his most important work. The article has been published repeatedly, but never in such wide circulation, she said.

Solzhenitsyn was arrested for criticizing Stalin in a letter he wrote during World War II, when he was serving as a front-line artillery captain, and spent seven years in a labor camp in Kazakhstan and three more years in internal exile.

He drew on his ordeal in the short novel “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” published in 1962 during a backlash against Stalin. Soon after, however, his writing was suppressed. Subsequent works — including the three-volume “The Gulag Archipelago” (1973-78) — were written in secret and only published abroad.

Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970, and four years later was expelled from the Soviet Union.

Returning to Russia in 1994 to find a country in deep disarray, Solzhenitsyn’s dismal view of 1990s Russia, along with his nationalism and hope for a resurgence of his country, has aligned him with President Vladimir Putin, who has presented his time in office as a period of recovery following economic and social turmoil at home and weakness on the world stage that Russia suffered after the 1991 Soviet collapse.

The 88-year-old has appeared infrequently in public in recent years, and he is believed to be ailing. In rare print or broadcast interviews, he has lamented the state of Russian politics and the government, but also has praised Putin despite the president’s KGB background.

His wife said Monday that Solzhenitsyn had a high opinion of the Kremlin’s increasingly assertive foreign policy.

“He believes that many right steps have been taken in the foreign policy field, and Russia has regained its weight,” Natalya Solzhenitsyn said.

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Russian Situation Normal, All Fouled Up

Writing in the Moscow Times Nikolai Petrov (pictured, left), scholar in residence at the Carnegie Moscow Center, exposes the utter sham of Russian domestic investment. On the one hand, Russia attempts huges projects it cannot possibly realize. On the other, these insane charades draw investment away from the vast majority of the country where it is desperately needed. In other words, welcome to the neo-Soviet Union.

At a recent economic forum in Krasnoyarsk, estimates of total expected investment in Russia’s economy by the year 2020 were more than impressive: The cumulative total in planned investment projects with price tags of $100 million or more could reach $450 billion. Oil and gas projects are set to account for as much as half of these funds, with another one-fifth earmarked for transportation and one-sixth for electrical generation. Two-thirds of the total are slated for projects in locations to the east of the Urals, which is home to only a little more than one quarter of the country’s population.

The disparities are even greater if the potential investment is broken down by region. A mere six of the country’s 88 regions account for more than half of all possible investment funding, standing to receive upward of $15 billion each. These are the Sakhalin, Krasnoyarsk, Yakutia, Irkutsk and Murmansk regions and the Yamalo-Nenets autonomous district. On the other hand, there are 25 regions not slated to receive any investment funding whatsoever. The investment in European Russia may be inadequate to maintain existing activity, but that east of the Urals should allow for the expansion of production.

Focusing on projects valued at $100 million or higher significantly distorts both the general picture and the view in particular regions and economic sectors. This almost completely ignores the rapidly expanding food, light industry, heavy machinery and high-tech sectors of the economy. The planned investment in modernization is minor, with the vast majority of funding to be devoted to new construction.

All of this suggests that Russia, having survived protracted socioeconomic crises, is now set to enter a new phase of economic expansion. The country is set for new industrialization in the east and service sector growth in the west. There remain, however, serious doubts as to whether such ambitious goals can actually be reached.

One of the problems with the plans is that they point more toward the preservation and even strengthening of the economy’s orientation toward the export of resources than toward the high-tech and innovation sectors enjoying such a vogue in most government pronouncements. Moreover, the emphasis on the eastern and northern parts of the country will bring some inevitable consequences, including enormous investment in infrastructure, distant time horizons before the investments reach their full development and recovery.

There is actually a whole range of problems connected with bringing these loudly touted projects to fruition. First off, the planning assumptions are based on current high global commodity prices, and those for energy in particular. If these prices fail to any serious degree, many of the projects will fail due to lack of profitability. Second, the relative abundance of mineral resources and the long-awaited availability of funding will only struggle against two major barriers that will only become worse with time. These are the continued decrease in the working-aged population in the regions where investment is planned to be the greatest and the impoverishment that has resulted from two decades of economic crises and the gradual decline of the former Soviet-era industrial and infrastructure capacities. The overall decrease in numbers of qualified personnel such as designers, builders, engineers and a wide range of other specialists is also unlikely to help matters.

Simply put, the implementation of the more than 400 major investment projects in question over the next five to 10 years is impossible given current stocks of equipment and qualified personnel. There is no way to develop atomic energy at the speed which the Federal Atomic Energy Agency is suggesting without first restoring the necessary nuclear engineering and construction capacities. Work on the colossal scale these projects entail will be impossible due to an elementary shortage in the east of cement and other building materials. These are already insufficient for even the current levels of proposed housing expansion.

Russia is simply not yet ready for such a golden age. Investment projects on this scale are almost physically impossible simply to drop on the rest of the economy. Before this growth can begin, investment is needed in the basic foundations of the economy. If the state is unable to orchestrate the process correctly, then the enormous sums ready to be invested — both state and private — could end up playing a negative role. Instead of rapid growth, we will end up with increased economic dysfunction.

Russia Gets Its Ass Kicked in the Caucasus

The Soviet Union “won” World War II. It’s “victory” was so emphatic that the USSR didn’t manage to last 50 years thereafter before it collapsed. If you ask a Russian nationalist, Russia has “won” in Chechnya, yet we continue to see outbreaks of violence (as often documented on LR) and, much worse, we see a total failure to recreate civilization in Chechnya. In other words, we see the Chechens defeating Russia the same way Russia defeated Napoleon in Moscow.

Now, writing in the Moscow Times Thomas de Waal (pictured above), Caucasus editor at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London, shows how Russia’s tenuous imperial grip in the Caucusus is rapidly unraveling everywhere in the region. In other words, the demonic policies of Vladimir Putin have brought Russia to the brink of ruin.

Late last month, Moscow quietly returned its ambassador, Vyacheslav Kovalenko, to Georgia. The restoration of diplomatic ties occurred with much less fanfare than their angry rupture in October but was in its own way just as significant. Nothing substantial has changed in Georgian-Russian relations since the blowup — only perhaps the belated realization in Moscow that breaking off relations was a strategic mistake.

Georgia has not only endured Russia’s blockade, but used it to become more economically independent. Thanks to Azeri gas, Georgia is surviving the winter and Gazprom has lost a big customer. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has said the economic punishment has helped Georgia diversify its markets.

This own-goal is part of a larger picture about which the Kremlin, preoccupied with Russia’s resurgence as a world power, seems only dimly aware: Russia is losing the South Caucasus.

LR: Actually, Russia is losing not just the South Caucasus but everything there is, including the Russian people themselves, 1 million of them per year. Nobody is nearly is as good at wiping out Russians as Russians.

It is not just Georgia, although recent Russian policy there has been spectacularly unproductive. A country that has 200-year-old historical, cultural, linguistic and religious ties to Russia has now set a firm course in pursuit of NATO membership and alliance with the United States. This was by no means inevitable. It was Russia’s foreign minister at the time, Igor Ivanov, who brokered the deal that led to the resignation of former Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze and Saakashvili’s arrival in power in 2003. I myself heard Saakashvili at his first news conference following the Rose Revolution in Tbilisi going out of his way to say that he wanted “normal” relations with Moscow.

Since then, prickly Georgian nationalism has played its part in the subsequent decline in relations, but the bigger factor has been the high-handed behavior of the bigger neighbor on a whole range of issues, from energy policy to South Ossetia to the treatment of Georgian workers inside Russia.

Now that same highhandedness is harming Moscow’s relations with the two other South Caucasus countries as well.

LR: Russia complains to high heaven about American unilateral behavior, then Russia not only creates a unilateral regime in the Kremlin but conducts itself in exactly that same unilateral manner within its so-called “sphere of influence.” A nation that hypocritical cannot survive, it’s as simple as that.

One of Vladimir Putin’s first acts as president was to visit Baku and start to repair relations with Azerbaijan, the largest, richest and most strategically important country in the South Caucasus. In the 1990s, the adversarial relations between Russia and Azerbaijan were only barely concealed. Putin cleverly played on his common KGB past with President Heidar Aliyev. After Aliyev’s death, he supported and cultivated his successor and son, the Moscow-educated Ilham Aliyev.

That improvement in relations was all but destroyed at beginning of this year, when Gazprom tried to impose higher gas prices on Azerbaijan and Moscow clumsily told Baku to abandon support for the Georgians. Aliyev Jr. promptly used the opportunity to demonstrate that Azerbaijan was an emerging power. He rejected Russian gas, halted oil shipments through the Baku-Novorossiisk pipeline, ordered the pulling of Russian channels from Azeri television, called into question the usefulness of the Commonwealth of Independent States and threw extra support behind a new non-Russian regional project, the Baku-Kars railway line. Azeris cheered enthusiastically.

This is bad enough for Russia. More remarkable is that Armenia, once the most fiercely loyal of Russia’s neighbors, is also experiencing a cooling of affections for Russia. Russian elites have failed to notice that the wholesale grab of Armenian economic assets by Russian companies has turned public opinion there against them. Last autumn, Armenians were outraged when the Russian blockade of Georgia hurt them almost as badly, as most of Armenia’s trade with Russia goes via Georgia. Worse, Armenians in Russian cities were picked up and harassed by the police with almost the same nastiness as Georgians — after all, one person from the Caucasus looks very much like another to your average Russian police officer. The upshot has been unprecedented demonstrations against Russian xenophobia outside the Russian Embassy in Yerevan and the emergence into the mainstream of the first serious Armenian politician to say that Armenia’s future lies with the EU and NATO — former parliament Speaker Artur Baghdasarian.

This should be enough bad news for anyone sitting in the Kremlin. But let’s provide some more. The breakaway Black Sea statelet of Abkhazia is perceived by most of the world as being entirely in Russia’s pocket. Russia saved it from being overrun by the Georgian army in 1993, most of its citizens now have Russian passports, and its elderly residents draw Russian pensions. But the Abkhaz are also a people of the Caucasus, and their support for Russia is based on pragmatism, not love, and it may be that Russian-Abkhaz relations are now declining from their high-water mark. The reason is that many Abkhaz have been waiting for Russia to recognize Abkhazia’s unilateral declaration of independence from Georgia, but the realization is dawning that Moscow is merely playing with them, using the prospect of recognition as a card to play against Georgia and the West. The Abkhaz are not happy about this, and some of them are now saying as much. This does not mean that they will turn back toward Georgia, but it does mean that they may try to engage more with Turkey and Europe and rely less on Russia.

Russia is in such a state of proud introspection that few in the leadership seem to be aware where its Caucasus policy is heading — toward a deeper divorce between the South Caucasus and Russia than at any time since the 18th century. The trouble is that policy toward the region seems to be more driven by domestic and energy politics than the calculations of diplomacy. A friendly policy toward people from the South Caucasus does not win many Russian votes in a year running up to State Duma and presidential elections.

Yet the pity of it is that Russia still has a lot to give the South Caucasus, if only it would seek to cooperate instead of wanting to dominate. The people of the South Caucasus are not instinctively anti-Russian — a huge number have lived in Russia and large numbers work there now. And Moscow has one great asset in the region that could be a source of immense “soft power” — the Russian language. But Moscow is doing nothing to promote it, and Russian is dying out for want of teachers or language centers in all three countries. Entire university libraries full of Russian-language books are being rendered redundant as a new generation of students lacks the ability to read them. I suspect that in about 10 years, someone in Moscow will wake up to this reality — but by then it will be too late.

Peter LaVelle: Scum-sucking traitor to democracy

Well, well, what have we here?

We have Peter LaVelle, world’s goofiest looking “human” (yes, we are spelling his name incorrectly on purpose) writing a blog on state-owned, Kremlin-controlled, KGB-dominated Russia Today television, helping rationalize the neo-Soviet empire of that malignant little troll Vladimir Putin (and no doubt getting paid a pretty penny to do it).

Here’s from his inaugural post on January 12:

Russia is correct to maintain its position that all its customers pay world prices for energy. If that causes pain for the former republics of the Soviet Union, so be it.

Well, we guess that just about says it all. So much for any last vestige of illusion that this wicked, nasty little demon was an “objective” or “reasonable” observer of Russia striking some kind of moderate force. He’s a Russophile propagandist, pure and simple, and LR told you so long, long ago.

First the German Chancellor, then Mark Ames, then Peter LaVelle. Who will the Kremlin buy next to shill for its pathetic, doomed little neo-Soviet enterprise? Al Gore, maybe?

Russian Woman: This is Your So-Called "Life"

The Guardian reports:

For four years girls and young women disappeared from their homes in the drab industrial Russian town of Nizhny Tagil. Their parents called the police and pasted up posters. But in the end it was a stray dog that tracked them down. The decomposing bodies of 30 females aged from 13 to 25 were found in a mass grave in woodland near the village of Levikha, 40 miles away.

The discovery sent a ripple of horror through a country inured to brutal tales. Prosecutors in the town on the eastern flank of the Urals, the crinkle of mountains separating the European and Asian parts of Russia, have now charged eight men aged between 25 and 46 with murder. But it has revealed a catalogue of errors on the part of Nizhny Tagil police who failed to link a string of missing persons reports from 2002 to 2005.

It is thought a gang led by two brothers used a handsome young man to lure the girls to a flat where they were raped and beaten. Those who refused to become prostitutes at the gang’s massage parlour ended up in the Levikha grave. The scale of the horror has reminded rich Muscovites of the brutal life out in the provinces where low pay and lack of work can drive ordinary people to shocking crimes. ‘In four years in Nizhny Tagila, a city of 400,000, girls were going missing left, right and centre and nobody raised the alarm,’ one newspaper commented. ‘Tens of girls and young women missing? And nobody gave a damn?’

Mark Kustovsky, the factory worker who acted as the bait, wooed the women with presents and visits to cafes. His wife said the ringleaders forced him to put bodies in the grave, telling him: ‘If you don’t bury them, you’ll be lying there yourself.’ But the police say he was a willing gang member.

‘The girls who didn’t agree to work in the brothel were taken to the forest and there killed and buried,’ prosecutor Nail Rizvanov said. The gang told the girls they were going for a picnic, feeding them kebabs before they were murdered. It is not clear how they were killed, but some had crushed skulls.

So far, 15 bodies have been identified in a process complicated by wild animals disturbing the remains. One of the girls is thought to be Yelena Chudinova, 15, daughter of one of the gang leaders.

The grave was close to a bus stop and dachas. Towards the end of their spree the gang gave up burying the bodies, just throwing branches over them instead.

Putin Finds Ideal New Defense Chief: An Accountant

RIA Novosti reports that “President” Putin has found the ideal candidate to replace Sergei Ivanov as Secretary of Defense: An accountant named Anatoly Serdyukov.

Vladimir Putin has always been famous for his ability to make unexpected personnel changes.

Although sources on Sergei Ivanov’s staff had hinted that their boss would be promoted soon, nobody could venture to predict how high he would be moved. Some said he was ready for prime minister, a post that could pave his way to the president’s chair. Ivanov, it turns out, has been appointed first deputy prime minister, which should level the playing field for the 2008 presidential elections. Ivanov and his rival in the race, First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, must now prove that they are fit to hold the country’s top post. Medvedev is responsible for the four priority national projects in healthcare, agriculture, education and housing construction. Ivanov has been put in charge of civilian and defense industries.

Can they prove their worth in the 12 months before the elections? Or will Putin propose other candidates, which he has the right to do as president and a citizen of Russia? Nobody can answer these questions yet.

For now, it would be interesting simply to determine why Ivanov has been replaced as defense minister by financier Anatoly Serdyukov, former head of the Federal Tax Service, whom few people in the army know. Statements on this issue by military experts can be reduced to two explanations:

First, by making this sensational change in the defense ministry, Putin has shown the country, the army and the world that he alone is in charge of Russia’s military policy. Defense ministers can change, but the president will always remain in charge of the modernization and rearmament of the armed forces, conversion of the army to a mixed volunteer/conscript system of recruitment, and the social welfare for the military. Judging by the reaction of the army, which has hardly taken notice of the change at the ministry’s top, officers fully agree with this principle.

LR: Yeah, nothing shows the presence of a great leader more than his ability to appoint a totally unqualified fool to a position of great importance and terrify the country into saying nothing about it. Russia! A nation bound for glory!

Second, although many good words have been said about the departing minister (“I think Sergei Ivanov has fulfilled his tasks in the defense ministry honorably” – Putin), military analysts claim there was a note of displeasure in the president’s words. (“In modern conditions, we need someone with experience in the economy and finance to address this task, to organize efficient work [of the armed forces], and to rationally use huge budgetary funds – at least they are huge for Russia” – Putin).

LR: So Ivanov was a failure just like Putin. Naturally, his next step may be the presidency since, like Putin, he posesses the key qualification, slavish obedience to the outgoing president and a firm committment not to send him to prison.

Indeed, spending on the rearmament of the army and the navy has grown by 250% times since 2001; the 2007 budget allocates more than 300 billion rubles ($11.44 billion), or 20% more than in 2006. However, the acquisition of modern hardware is lagging behind requirements in the Russian armed forces, only 20% of whose weapons are modern, and even behind the demands of the Indian army.

India, which is a major military-technical partner of Russia, has bought more than 100 Su-30MKI Flanker multirole fighters, 350 T-90C main battle tanks, four multirole frigates, submarines, supersonic anti-ship missiles, and Smerch multiple-launch rocket systems in the past few years.

Although comparable funds were allocated to the Russian armed forces, they have received only several weapons systems over that same period, including two Su-34 Fullback fighter-bombers late last year, seven modernized Su-30MK2 fighters, one battalion (30) of T-90 tanks, and three ground-based RS-12M2 Topol-M intercontinental ballistic missile systems.

Funds for housing and capital construction, training, recruitment of contract servicemen, and combat training have not been used wisely either. The new defense minister will have to work hard to remedy these shortcomings.

Officers know very little about Anatoly Serdyukov. Apart from serving his obligatory two years of military service (1984-1985) after graduation from the Leningrad Institute of Commerce, he has never had anything to do with the army. He worked for commercial organizations (the furniture business) and tax services, where he has made a career and was head of the Federal Tax Service for the past three years. His colleagues said he was a top-class professional and a workaholic.

LR: In another country, officers might balk at being led by an accountant they’ve never heard of. But in Russia, officers know better than to balk. When the pitches come they swing at them, even if they are being pitched in a different stadium.

At the same time, Serdyukov has done his best to avoid the limelight; he did not give a single interview during his work at the tax service and his face has not become a fixture on TV. According to experts, this means that the issue of military reform, which has been a favorite of the media, will now be toned down.

How soon can Serdyukov learn the ropes in the defense ministry? It is a difficult post with complicated tasks, and it will take some time for him to get his bearings. However, analysts predict that after a new president comes to the Kremlin in 2008, he will appoint a new defense minister who will take on new tasks.

So far, the president has given the task of controlling the situation in the army and navy and their reforms to professionals on the General Staff, who have the skills and experience to fulfill Putin’s orders.

Konnander Says Russia is Toasted by Global Warming no matter How you Slice it

Recent weeks have seen the welcome return to the active blogosphere of three previously moribund Russia blogs: Andy Young’s Siberian Light, Lyndon’s Scraps of Moscow and most recently Vilhelm Konnander’s Weblog: Politics and Security in Russia, Central & Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

La Russophobe comments repeatedly on Andy’s blog, recently quoted Lyndon in her latest Publius Pundit installment, and is now pleased to tout Vilhelm’s recent analysis of the impact of global warming on Russia.

Publishing the wonderfully Photoshopped image of Vladimir “Studboy” Putin which appears above, Vilhelm first quotes Putin joking about global warming as follows: “Russia is a northern country and if temperatures get warmer by two or three degrees Celsius it’s not that bad – we could spend less on warm coats and agricultural experts say that grain harvests would increase further.” Vilhelm then points out what Putin failed to notice: that Gasprom’s export volumes to Europe are down 16% this winter because of unusually warm average temperatures and less need for heating. As Vilhelm states: “It is quite clear that if this tendency would become permanent in years to come, it would have a grossly negative impact on international gas demand and prices.” This loss in revenue would, of course, seriously undermine the Kremlin’s ability to control the country and leverage influence in the West. Vilhelm asks: “So, should we expect Gazprom executives to turn into ardent environmentalists? Will Ivanov and Medvedev campaign to stop global warming for next year’s presidential elections?” By doing so, the Kremlin could theoretically hope to continue a “cold Earth” that would demand hot prices for Russian energy. But Russia can’t play that, because doing so would require Russia itself to adopt sweeping environmental reforms which would cost far more, in creaking backwards Russia, than it could possibly hope to earn from maintained energy sales (which are finite in any case).

So, though Vilhelm doesn’t go so far as to say so, global warming may have a silver lining: It may do the neo-Soviet Union what Star Wars did to the Soviet Union and what World War I did to the Tsar.