Daily Archives: February 5, 2007

All aboard the Happy Bus: Vote for "President" of Russia

The Wall Street Journal identifies six candidates for the post of “President” of Russia in 2008. Who do you think is the best alternative from their slate? Vote below:

Who should succeed Vladmir Putin as “President” of Russia in 2008?
Dmitry Medvedev
Sergei Ivanov
Mikhail Fradkov
Vladimir Yakunin
Mikhail Kasyanov
Garry Kasparov
Free polls from Pollhost.com

While considering how to mark your ballot, consider this from the Washington Post on how the Kremlin is seizing control of even the most seemingly mundane aspects of the mass media to manipulate the public for its own crass purposes:

Every Sunday morning, two favorites of President Vladimir Putin play prominent supporting roles on a television game show called “Happy Bus.” In sunny clips spliced into the show’s airtime, Dmitri Medvedev and Sergei Ivanov hand out awards and urge young people in general to live healthy lives. Ostensibly, the two men have perfectly straightforward reasons for appearing on the show: Each week, one team of contestants is sponsored by Gazprom, the state-controlled energy giant chaired by Medvedev. The opposing team is sponsored by the New Generation Foundation, headed by Ivanov, who is also defense minister.

But “Happy Bus” is widely viewed here as proof of the Kremlin’s ability to commandeer the airwaves — even the most trifling show — to aid Putin in anointing a successor. By most accounts, the president has narrowed his choice to Medvedev or Ivanov, and over the last year each man’s image, particularly Medvedev’s, has been rigorously burnished. “Happy Bus” debuted in May on NTV, a network owned by a Gazprom subsidiary.

With the centralization of power in the Kremlin, Russian politics has become ever more tightly scripted, and genuine electoral competition has withered. Whoever turns out to be Putin’s nominee will dominate television and almost certainly ride unimpeded through the presidential elections in early 2008, analysts said. “Putin, Medvedev and Ivanov are the three main heroes, the three main characters on the news,” said Anna Kachkayeva, a professor of broadcast journalism at Moscow State University. “It’s a command from the administration.” Producers at Russian television stations, including the makers of “Happy Bus,” declined to discuss coverage of Ivanov and Medvedev.

In presidential politics, Russia has an electoral college of one — Putin. When Vladimir Ustinov, the former prosecutor general and a perceived favorite of the security services, started making some very president-in-waiting noises last year, Putin fired him. He was rehired as justice minister, a much less influential position. Putin himself denies he is the decider. “There will be no successors. There will be candidates for the post of president of Russia,” he said Thursday at his annual news conference, which this year ran to three hours and 30 minutes and was attended by about 1,200 journalists. “I reserve the right to express my preference. But I will only do it once the election campaign begins.”

Since the reelection of Boris Yeltsin in 1996, when a group of media tycoons threw the full weight of their television stations behind his faltering candidacy and demonized his Communist opponent, tight management of broadcast journalism has been a critical instrument in Russian presidential elections, including Putin’s two campaigns. But unlike in 1996, when the power of television was wielded by wealthy businessmen, today those media assets are controlled by the state or companies loyal to the Kremlin.

Ivanov, 54, has long been well known both at home and abroad as minister of defense. Medvedev, 41, was an obscure figure until 15 months ago. In November 2005, Medvedev and Ivanov were simultaneously made first deputy prime ministers, in addition to their other titles. Since then, Medvedev’s public image, down to his haircut (shorter and more stylish), weight (he’s clearly lost a few pounds) and choice of clothes (more casual), has been carefully refashioned. The makeover has become the talk of the town. The wooden, cautious and loyal official of a year ago has become a self-confident and assertive politician tinged with some very Putinesque characteristics — in particular, his occasionally brusque scoldings, sometimes directed at other ministers, delivered with the colloquial phrases and tightly coiled physicality that many Russians love in their president.

Speaking in November about improving health care and access to drugs, Medvedev said: “There are swindlers who manufacture pharmaceuticals. Then there are other swindlers who sell those pharmaceuticals, and there are still other swindlers who act as intermediaries using state funds. The situation in the pharmaceutical industry is disgusting.”

Medvedev, who is married and has one child, is a lawyer by training and first worked with Putin in the city administration of St. Petersburg in the 1990s. Putin brought him to the Kremlin, where he became chief of staff in the presidential administration. He is regarded as a relatively liberal counterweight to the staffers around Putin who served in the security services. Medvedev has no background in the KGB or its successor agencies.

He never publicly criticizes Putin, however. And he defends Gazprom, where the Kremlin placed him in charge in 2002, from charges that it is secretive, bloated and inefficient, and is used by the state as a political weapon to punish neighboring countries. On television recently, he called Gazprom a “crucial Russian company” and noted that its capitalization has jumped from $10 billion to $225 billion under state control.

Increasingly, Medvedev speaks of his modest background. “Just like everyone else, I lived in the kinds of apartments that used to be given to Soviet citizens, first a communal one and later a cramped apartment in St. Petersburg,” he said in a television interview in November. “And like everyone else, I went, and still go, to a polyclinic,” the state-run outpatient facilities that many Russians avoid. For all the campaign-style insights he offers into his background, Medvedev remains studiously ambiguous about his ambitions. “I find it distressing that I have been made a participant in some sort of race,” he said. Nonetheless, he is now the second-most-popular politician in Russia after Putin, according to opinion polls and analysts. In a poll conducted in November by the independent Levada Center, 38 percent of respondents said they would vote for Medvedev for president, making him the leading candidate. Ivanov trailed with 23 percent. Little more than a year ago, Medvedev’s rating was barely above zero.

While image-building is not unique to Russia, and Medvedev’s new position in government ensured he would get more news coverage, the almost universally friendly treatment he has received on Russian television has been striking. Among 2,064 news stories on Medvedev in 2006, there was not a single negative report on the news broadcasts of six television channels, including the three major national stations, according to a survey by Medialogia, an analytical group in Moscow. There were 17 negative reports on Ivanov, most of them centered on a brutal hazing incident in the military to which he was slow to respond, according to Medialogia.

Other potential candidates are not treated so kindly. In the same period, there was not a single positive report on Mikhail Kasyanov, a former prime minister and Putin critic who has said he may seek the presidency. Of the 40 stories in which Kasyanov was the main subject, 60 percent were negative and the balance neutral, according to Medialogia statistics. The Kremlin declined a request to allow a Washington Post reporter to accompany Medvedev on a typical daily event; he is normally covered by a small pool of reporters.

Last week was typical. Three of the national channels, ORT, RTR and NTV, ran expansive reports Wednesday night on a meeting chaired by Medvedev in which he talked about raising the birthrate and other projects. Medvedev held up a certificate that will guarantee cash payments to women who have a second child, and his remarks were spliced with images of cooing babies in maternity wards.

No critic of the management of the so-called National Projects was quoted on any of those news reports. The Kremlin declined a request to allow a Washington Post reporter to accompany Medvedev on a typical daily event; he is normally covered by a small pool of reporters.

“The National Projects are an imitation of activity,” Ivan Melnikov, deputy chairman of the Communist Party, said in parliament last month. “Upbeat TV pictures that we see practically every day have nothing to do with the real state of things.”

“He is being built up, and he is changing himself,” said Igor Bunin, head of the Center for Political Technologies in Moscow, referring to Medvedev. “The first task was to get people to recognize him. . . . The next task was to associate him with most pleasant things from the state. He cuts all the ribbons now. “At the beginning, he was soft, like a teddy bear, but now he seems much stronger. Like Putin, he can summon up some thunder and lightning when he criticizes incompetent officials.” Bunin added, “There may be no final decision, but he is candidate number one, with Ivanov in reserve.”

Russian Media Lies about Freedom House

A reader points out the following story from Radio Free Europe in which the duplicity of Kremlin-controlled Russian media outlets is exposed:

Russia
: Misprint Or Provocation?

By Victor Yasmann

February 2, 2007 (RFE/RL) — A tempest is brewing in Moscow over a recent U.S. report that gives Russia poor marks for human rights and civil liberties. But the commotion is based on incorrect figures, disseminated in the Russian press, that give the country even lower marks than it actually received. Freedom House, the U.S.-based organization promoting democratic principles, on January 17 issued its annual “Freedom in the World” report.

The report, which ranks countries around the world according to their protection of political and civil liberties, this year marked no change in Russia ‘s score.

Freedom House researchers did note a further deterioration of human and civil rights in the country in 2006, citing mounting state control of the economy and the intensified crackdown on nongovernmental organizations. But the downturn was not enough to alter Russia ‘s ranking.

Bad, But Not The Worst

On a scale of 1 to 7 — 7 being the lowest — Russia received a 5 for civil liberties and a 6 for political rights. It also retained the general “not free” rating it has had since 2004.

On February 1, however, the state-run news agency RIA Novosti reported — either intentionally or unwittingly — that Freedom House had given Russian the lowest grades in both numerical categories, ranking it alongside countries like Cuba , Libya , and North Korea .

The Freedom House report is readily available on the Internet. But that wasn’t enough to keep the semi-official “Rossiiskaya gazeta” and “Kommersant” newspapers from quickly running with the RIA Novosti report. Even the liberal Ekho Moskvy radio station repeated the figures.

‘Incompetent Preaching’

Angry reactions from Russian officialdom followed shortly. “The absurdity of such an evaluation leaves no room for comment,” huffed a statement from the Russian Foreign Ministry.

Ella Pamfilova, head of the presidential council on civil-society institutions and human rights, said Russia has no need for “incompetent preaching” and accused Freedom House of maintaining “links with the CIA.” Mikhail Margelov, who chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Federation Council, announced Russia would ignore the report.

The reports stumped even veteran rights activists like Lyudmila Alekseyeva, the founder and chairwoman of the Moscow Helsinki Group, who told journalists that although Freedom House was correct in noting the overall deterioration in liberties, equating Russia with North Korea was an exaggeration.

Getting It Right

Remarkably, even as the falsified figures were spreading throughout Russia‘s mainstream media, a number of publications tied to the secret-service community — including the St. Petersburg-based RosBalt news agency and the “Trud” daily — printed the correct ratings.

The situation leaves Russia watchers with a question: Were the wrong figures published by RIA Novosti and “Rossiiskaya gazeta” a mistake — or an effort to discredit Freedom House?

Norway Kicks Some Russian Ass in U.S. Corporate Battle

A reader offers the following fascinating tale of Russian corporate intrigue from the Ukraine:

It seems that Russia and Norway are locked in a battle for control of a Ukrainian telecommunciations company called Kyivstar GSM. In 2004, a Russian-controlled company called Storm LLC and a Norwegian-controlled company called Telenor Mobile Communications AS established Kyivstar as a joint venture, and signed a shareholders agreement (this followed about six years of negotiations). Storm was the proxy of the Russia-controlled firm Altimo Holdings & Investment Ltd., the Russian control being funneled through a Cyprus proxy company known as Hardlake and a minority shareholding company called Alpren. They soon began to fight over control (basically, the Russian side wanted to seize it), and proceeded to arbiration in New York as per the terms of the 2004 agreement (Telenor insisted on this provision because it feared the reliability of the Ukrainian courts and the motivations of its Russian partner, which turned out to be quite a good idea).

Despite entering into arbitration, Storm immediately began to claim that the arbitration clause was not binding (likely as soon as it saw that it had little chance of winning in the American court). It claimed that its General Director, one Valeriy Nilov, was not authorized to sign the arbitration agreement with Telenor and tried to disavow it. Shortly after the arbitration began, Alpren filed a lawsuit in Urkaine seeking to have the arbitration agreement declared invalid. In a classic Russian move, it “forgot” to tell either Telenor or the New York arbitrators that it had done so until the Ukrainian court had ruled in its favor. It then informed the New York arbitrators of the results, but they valiantly refused to stop their activities and Storm filed suit in a New York state court to block the arbitration from going forward based on the Ukrainian court’s order. Telenor moved the case to federal court where it convinced the judge to side with Norway.

On December 15th of last year, the federal judge determined that the Ukrainian court proceeding “had a number of curious features.” First of all, though a representative of Storm appeared and claimed to oppose the proceedings because it was in arbitration, the whole thing only lasted ten minutes. Then, Storm’s representative in the proceeding was not only not a lawyer, he was an Altimo executive. This caused the federal judge to decide that Storm’s opposition may have been “somewhat perfunctory.” In other words, it was a classic Russian tour-de-force. Therefore, though the Russian companies were represented by expensive lawyers from the top American firm of Cravath Swaine & Moore, the federal judge nullified the Ukrainian proceedings and ordered the arbitration to go forward.

Russia Losing Control of its Nukes

The Economist confirms suspicions that Russia is losing control over its nukes and couldn’t care less (either that, or it’s intentionally abusing its nukes in concerted effort to undermine the West):

A CHANCE, you might think, for Russia to show the co-operation that its president, Vladimir Putin, regularly promises in clamping down on the global traffic in dangerous nuclear materials. Yet the release last week of new titbits about a Georgian sting operation which reportedly netted just short of 80 grams of highly-enriched weapons-useable uranium, a Russian citizen from Vladikavkaz in North Ossetia (a part of Russia) and several Georgian accomplices—was a “provocation”, thundered Russia’s foreign minister.

The sting was first reported in February last year, and Russia loathes Georgia. But there is more to the Kremlin’s nuclear frostiness. While it continues to co-operate with America in securing dangerous nuclear materials around the world—most recently airlifting back to Russia a whopping 286 kilos of highly-enriched uranium fuel from a research reactor in Dresden in former East Germany—Russian officialdom’s souring mood at home augurs ill.

Russia is not the only country with a nuclear-smuggling habit. Excluding the Georgian sting operation, a database maintained by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United Nations nuclear guardian, has clocked 16 confirmed cases worldwide since 1993 where highly-enriched uranium or plutonium (both, in the right form, can be used as the fissile core of a nuclear weapon) has been lost, stolen or seized from would-be traffickers, mostly in Europe and Russia. But not all countries bother to report: China, India and Pakistan have been among the 95 contributors to the list only since last year. Coverage is most patchy in the least secure parts of the world, including Africa and the Middle East.

The Georgian case is alarming. The uranium being hawked was enriched to about 90%, and intended for weapons use (fuel for nuclear-power reactors is typically enriched to 5% or less; most research reactors run on more highly-enriched stuff, meaning 20% or more). Georgian officials say their prisoner revealed that his bagful came from an as yet undiscovered stash of 2-3kg; not enough for a weapon—that takes up to 25kg—but still a threat.

This case uncannily resembles one in 2003, when 170 grams of similar material was seized on the Georgian-Armenian border; its Armenian smuggler said he had picked it up in Vladikavkaz too, though tests showed the material had originated at a Russian nuclear site in Novosibirsk.

Though the quantities of weapons-grade material seized by police are usually quite small, the consequences of any falling into terrorist hands are huge. Al-Qaeda’s leader, Osama bin Laden, has called the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction a “religious duty”. Some experts think building a bomb is beyond the capabilities of such a group; others don’t. But a “dirty bomb”, made by packing conventional explosives around the nuclear waste and other radioactive materials that make up most of the lost or stolen material reported to the IAEA, would be horribly disruptive.

And reported cases may hardly be the half of it. Those trying to find a buyer are more likely to get caught; those who already have one can avoid police stings.

Nor is al-Qaeda the only potential customer. Chechen rebels who attacked a Moscow theatre in 2002 had first considered an assault on a nuclear research reactor at the nearby Kurchatov Institute. Among other terrorist mischief in Russia, an article in the September 2006 issue of the Annals of the American Academy lists the casing of nuclear reactors, monitoring the trains that transport Russia’s nuclear weapons and even a plan to hijack a nuclear submarine.

At a summit in Bratislava in 2005, the Russian and American presidents agreed to speed a global effort to secure all dangerous nuclear materials. This included repatriating fresh and spent fuel from the more than 100 nuclear research reactors in 40 countries that Russia and America between them supplied during the cold war. Some of these are being converted to run on less dangerous low-enriched uranium. Meanwhile, America’s National Nuclear Security Administration is beefing up reactor security in those ill-governed places where it consists of poorly paid guards and flimsy locks.

Russia’s concerns about terrorism are one incentive to fix its nuclear problems. Another is huge dollops of American cash. Since the Soviet Union collapsed, America has helped dismantle thousands of surplus nuclear warheads, consolidate a vast archipelago of nuclear materials, and find jobs for otherwise unemployed Russian weapons scientists.

The window for such co-operation is closing, says Laura Holgate of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, an independent outfit that has paid for the return of some Russian reactor fuel from abroad. Much of the easier work in Russia has been done. But officials there still reject help at their most sensitive nuclear sites, where the bulk of the most dangerous materials are kept. Without America looking over its shoulder, says Ms Holgate, it is unclear that Russia will be so conscientious in maintaining security and prosecuting wrongdoers. And if, as Georgia found, it resents being told its nuclear controls aren’t perfect, there won’t be much outsiders can do to help anyway.

Annals of Shamapova

Well, two top-ten Russian ladies made it to the semi-finals of the ATP tour event in Tokyo Japan last week. Guess how many of them made it to the finals?

Yup, zero.

World #8 Elena Dementieva, the serveless wonder, was destroyed in easy straight sets by Martina Hingus, who retired from tennis and is now making a comeback, slicing through the “top ten” Russians like a hot Swiss Army knife through butter.

And world #1 Maria Sharapova (who is only #3 on the 2007 rankings, and #1 over the past 365 days because the real #1, Justine Henin-Hardenne, didn’t play the Austrialian Open)? She was blown off the court in the first set by Ana Ivanovic of Serbia, a player not even ranked in the world’s top 15. Sharapova managed to take only 1 game from Ivanovic in the first set and then quit after the first game of the second, crying about an alleged injury. Sharapova barely managed to squeak by hometown girl Ai Sugiyama in the quarters, losing the first set to a Japanese player not ranked in the world’s top 25 (in the match previous, Sugiyama had defeated Russian Maria Kirilenko).

So much for the best-laid plans of Shamapova. Only two other top-ten players — Hingus and the woeful Dementieva — entered the Tokyo draw, so Sharapova undoubtedly thought she would have easy pickings in the land of the rising sun. Such a pity the scheme didn’t work out. Well, better luck next time, Maria.

In a truly breathtaking display of hypocrisy, Maria tried to blame her “injury” on having to play two tournaments, Tokyo and Australia, back-to-back. But the only reason she was playing Tokyo was to collect a bunch of essentially free ratings points against also-ran competition. Nobody forced her to play Tokyo. That’s to say nothing of the pathetic spectacle of a so-called professional “athlete” whining and crying about it being “too hard” to put forth all that work (just as Maria tried to blame her abysmal first-round performance at the Aussie Open on the weather).