Daily Archives: April 20, 2007

Making Dissent Illegal

The Associated Press reports that the Kremlin is moving quickly to make public opposition a crime, just as in Soviet times:

Russian lawmakers on Wednesday endorsed new restrictions on political extremism that will toughen punishments and could make it easier for the Kremlin to apply the rules to its opponents.

As parliament’s lower house voted, a court considered a request from authorities to label an increasingly vocal opposition group as extremist.

The moves follow police crackdowns on opposition demonstrations in Moscow and St. Petersburg and signaled President Vladimir Putin’s determination to control dissent in the run-up to parliamentary elections in December and a presidential ballot next March.

The State Duma voted unanimously to allow up to three years’ imprisonment for vandalism motivated by politics or ideology. The loose wording of the measure could allow authorities to punish any participants in an opposition protest if violence erupted.

Meanwhile, Moscow City Court started considering the chief prosecutor’s request to declare the already-banned National Bolshevik Party an extremist organization a move that would allow officials to increase punishment for its members and could discourage other Kremlin foes from joining it in protests.

The National Bolshevik Party, led by irreverent ultranationalist novelist Eduard Limonov, has played a key role in organizing “Dissenters’ Marches,” the latest of which were held in Moscow and St. Petersburg over the weekend.

Club-wielding police beat many participants and detained hundreds, drawing wide criticism from human rights groups and some Western governments and reinforcing opposition contentions that Putin’s government is strangling democracy ahead of the elections.

“Our No. 1 goal is to end trampling on constitutional rights and create institutions that would allow public control over government,” said Mikhail Kasyanov, Putin’s former prime minister and now a Kremlin critic who took part in Saturday’s protest in Moscow.

Kasyanov reaffirmed his intention to run for president next March while speaking to reporters Wednesday. Russia’s fragmented opposition groups are yet to decide on whether to nominate a single opposition candidate.

Garry Kasparov, one of the organizers of the Other Russia coalition of liberal and leftist forces, to which Kasyanov’s party belongs, expressed hope that the opposition could agree on fielding single candidate in the fall.

Kasparov, a former chess world champion who has become a fierce Kremlin critic, hinted that he was unlikely to seek that role. “I believe today this wouldn’t help the coalition,” he said on Ekho Moskvy radio, adding that he needed to concentrate on coordinating opposition efforts.

A group of opposition politicians and liberal economic experts on Wednesday presented a social program for a future opposition presidential candidate.

“It’s an attempt to create a basis for a neo-liberal social course,” said Irina Khakamada, a Kasyanov ally.

The program criticized the Kremlin for failing to turn the nation’s soaring oil revenues toward improving health care, social insurance and education. “The state has received huge oil proceeds, but nothing has changed in the social sphere,” Khakamada said.

As with most actions by the opposition, the presentation was ignored by state-controlled nationwide television stations that focus on lavish coverage of Kremlin activities.

Urkaine Shows Russia what Real Democracy Is

Writing in the Washington Post, columnist Anne Applebaum exposes the fraud that is Russian “democracy” by comparing it to Ukraine:

And now, alert readers, it is time for a test: Here are two demonstrations representing two political movements that took place recently in two neighboring countries. For which country should fans of “democratization” cheer loudest?

Example No. 1: This demonstration took place in Moscow on Saturday. More precisely, it took place on Pushkin Square, legendary site of Soviet-era dissident meetings. Some 2,000 to 3,000 people came to show their opposition to the Kremlin, and they were greeted by some 9,000 club-wielding riot police officers. About 200 people were arrested, including Garry Kasparov, the former world chess champion whom Pravda described as “a political pawn who has sold his soul to the traitors who plot Russia’s demise.” Later, Kasparov was charged with “shouting anti-government slogans in the presence of a large group of people.”

Example No. 2: This demonstration began in Kiev some days ago and continues. More precisely, it is taking place in the Maidan, also called Independence Square, the legendary site of the Orange Revolution protests of 2004. The organizers are the anti-Orange, pro-Russian Party of the Regions. Their goal is to prevent Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko from calling new elections. At their zenith last week, the protests attracted between 35,000 and 70,000 people, depending on whose estimate you prefer. They were not attacked by riot police. No one has been arrested.

Now, there are some inherent difficulties in judging the merits of these demonstrations, particularly if you are looking for good guys and bad guys. For it is true that the Russian demonstrators are, in their own words, fighting for freedom of speech, the press and association; that they oppose President Vladimir Putin’s increasing authoritarianism; and that they deplore his virtual elimination of political opposition. It is true that there are worldly, well-connected, well-known English speakers in their ranks. It is also true that they enjoy very little popular support, in part because the Russian media portray them, as the newspaper Izvestia did, as a tiny group of malcontents, probably paid from abroad, who deliberately provoked a fight with the peaceful authorities.

The Kiev demonstrators, by contrast, oppose the Westernization of their country, dislike the idea of Ukraine growing closer to NATO and the European Union, and generally wish for a return to the days when their country was a client state of Russia. Most of their supporters are provincial, not so well connected and probably don’t speak English. There are no world chess champions among them. Nevertheless, they do enjoy an important measure of popular support: Although it does seem that their demonstration isn’t nearly as much fun as the Orange Revolution was — one observer described the demonstrators as “silent, poorly dressed throngs of mostly younger men shuffling along Hrushevsky Street under blue flags” — their leader, Viktor Yanukovych, is in fact the elected prime minister of his country, and they did vote for him in democratic elections.

It’s a tough choice, I know: Intuitively, one wants to see brighter prospects for democracy in Russia. The Russian opposition is brave, its cause is admirable, and its members and methods are familiar. Unfortunately, the opposition’s protest is not evidence of democratization in Russia but rather of its absence. The truth is that the Russian authorities have, through censorship and intimidation, largely eliminated genuine political debate in their country. As the police reaction to Saturday’s demonstration well illustrates, even the tiny number of people who want to maintain some kind of public presence outside the mainstream must now be prepared to encounter violence.

By contrast, Ukraine, though frequently condemned as a disorganized political basket case, does slowly seem to be transforming itself into a country where people can at least choose from two clear political options, after a more-or-less open debate. Yushchenko’s decision to call for new elections is indeed controversial. It is, however, being examined by the Ukrainian Constitutional Court, and all sides have agreed to abide by the court’s conclusions. Yanukovych’s call for demonstrations in Independence Square was a stunt. However, the stunt was legal, nonviolent and one that he has every right to try.

To put it crudely, overly simply and in language everyone can understand: Ukraine, for all of its multiple faults, is a free country in which anti-democratic forces can demonstrate. Russia remains an authoritarian country in which democratic forces are beaten up and arrested.

Myself, I wish the Russians luck — but at the moment, I’m cheering loudest for Ukraine.

LR: us too!

The End of Opposition in Russia

The Guardian reports:

After four years as a member of St Petersburg’s legislative assembly, Sergei Gulyaev was packing up. Boxes, files and a 2007 calendar showing him in a moody leather jacket – all were being carted out of his office. Last month Gulyaev failed to win re-election to the city’s assembly. The local elections in 14 regions across Russia were a rehearsal for parliamentary elections in December and for next year’s presidential poll.

But the end of Gulyaev’s political career had little to do with the voters. In December he and two colleagues voted against a decision by President Vladimir Putin to reappoint a staunch loyalist as St Petersburg’s governor. Forty-seven other deputies voted in favour.

The Kremlin’s revenge was swift. Before the election the city’s electoral commission kicked Gulyaev and his liberal Yabloko party off the ballot paper. Despite all evidence to the contrary, it claimed that 34 signatures on an election petition had been forged.

Liberal voters in St Petersburg were left with nobody to vote for. To no one’s surprise, the two pro-Kremlin parties came first and second, leaving the new assembly without dissenting voices. “The decision to stop us standing was revenge for our position,” Gulyaev said. “There is no democracy in Russia. There is de jure democracy. But in reality it doesn’t exist.”

Seven years after Putin took over as president from an enfeebled Boris Yeltsin, Russia has gone back, critics say, to the classic authoritarian model of the state that flourished under the tsarists and the communists.

The accidental anarchy of the Yeltsin era – when TV stations were free to portray the leader as an occasional drunk – has disappeared. Instead Putin, a former KGB agent, has clinically restored the old system of Russian authoritarianism: critics of the president mysteriously fail to appear on television; courts eagerly anticipate the Kremlin’s wishes; the killers of troublesome journalists are rarely caught.

The tiny opposition compares Putin’s Russia to Leonid Brezhnev’s Soviet Union in the mid-1970s, another golden economic period characterised by high oil prices and a strongly “personalist” regime. “Of course we can always find some differences with Soviet times, the Brezhnev time or the tsarist times. But on the whole what has happened in Russia is a classic restoration of authoritarianism,” said Vladimir Ryzhkov, one of a handful of independent MPs left in Russia’s duma (parliament). “It’s a restoration in several aspects. It’s a restoration of the traditional Russian model of the state, society and political system and of rhetoric in Russian-western relations.”

As with Gulyaev, Ryzhkov’s political career is almost over. Last month the supreme court liquidated his liberal Republican party on the grounds that it had too few members. Ryzhkov says he lugged five boxes into court proving that the party had 58,000 members. The court ignored this evidence, he says.

The ruling follows numerous changes by the Kremlin to the electoral system. Putin has abolished elections for provincial governors – he now appoints them. He also imposed Moscow’s control over local budgets. Under the latest rules of the game, political parties must have 50,000 members and be represented in half of Russia’s provinces.

The old mixed constituency and list system has been replaced by a list-only system, making it impossible for popular independent local candidates to stand again as MPs. The hurdle for parties to win seats in the duma has gone up from 5% to 7% of the overall national vote. With fewer Russians voting, the minimum 25% turnout rule has disappeared. Moreover the Kremlin has invented a social democrat-style “opposition” party called A Just Russia, which competes for votes against Putin’s ruling United Russia party. But both parties patriotically support the president, while maintaining the illusion of democratic rivalry. A Just Russia also takes away votes from the communists and nationalists. Kremlin political theorists describe this form of politics as “managed democracy”.

The effect of these changes will be to kill off the country’s few genuinely independent political actors, critics suggest. Even before anyone has gone to the polls, the shape of the next duma is widely known. It will be made up of four parties: United Russia, A Just Russia, the ultra-nationalists and the communists.

“Either you are part of the game or part of the pseudo-opposition, where you co-operate with the Kremlin guys and never touch Putin – or you can’t participate in politics,” Ryzhkov said. His assessment of Putin’s Russia is bleak: “Almost all the results of perestroika and democratisation have been killed.”

But there are growing signs that the Kremlin’s attempts to micro-manage the elections and ensure the smooth transition of power from Putin to a hand-picked successor are not going quite as well as they might.

The trouble started in St Petersburg, Putin’s backyard and where he grew up. Last month Gulyaev led 5,000 demonstrators down Nevsky Prospekt, the city’s central boulevard. The avenue finishes at the Neva river and the Hermitage museum, the tsar’s former palace and the scene of an uprising by another angry group, the Bolsheviks, in 1917.

The protesters included representatives from all the main opposition parties: Yabloka, Garry Kasparov’s United Civil Front, the National Bolsheviks and the Popular Democratic Union. They included hundreds of locals, fed up with rising prices, corruption and the lack of electoral choice. Some people were also unhappy about plans to construct a giant tower for the state-owned energy firm Gazprom in St Petersburg.

It was the largest anti-Putin demonstration the country has seen. Protesters blocked traffic for two hours. Police arrested 113 people. The size of the march appears to have surprised and rattled the Kremlin. Last month authorities in Nizhny Novgorod crushed a similar demonstration, detaining dozens of activists before they had a chance to assemble in the city’s Gorky Square.

Further anti-Kremlin demonstrations are planned in Moscow and St Petersburg. This month opposition leaders will meet to agree on a unified candidate to stand in the presidential election in March next year.

State-run television channels have reported none of this. Since 2001 the Kremlin has enjoyed a monopoly on state-run television, the main source of information about society for 85% of Russians. The situation in the print media is mixed. While most publications take a pro-Kremlin line, Russia has four relatively independent newspapers, including Kommersant and the respected business daily Vedomosti. There is also a liberal radio station, Echo Moscow. Collectively, however, these reach only a tiny audience.

The government dismisses western accusations that the country is backsliding on democracy as a “misperception”. Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin’s chief press spokesman, said: “We are convinced this is wrong. Russia has come a tremendous way in 15 years from a one-party totalitarian regime to a multi-party democracy with free elections and a free press.”

He dismissed the idea that Yabloko’s failure to take part in the St Petersburg elections was due to sinister government forces. “It wasn’t a plot by the Kremlin. There are laws in this country. You have to perform certain formalities to participate in elections. They failed to do that.” The authorities had taken a tough line on recent pro-democracy marches because of the “threat of extremism”, he added.

Most political observers believe that the regime is impregnable, especially when world gas and oil prices remain high. They point out that Putin enjoys broad support. “One fact about the contemporary Russian situation is that the majority or a plurality of the population supports the current president. The majority isn’t very much. But 55-57-58% express their trust in Putin personally,” said Russia’s leading election expert, Dr Grigorii Golosov, a professor of politics at St Petersburg’s European University. “But judging from recent elections, only 31% of the population is prepared to vote for United Russia. Plurality support is definitely there.”

Nobody believes that St Petersburg, the scene of uprisings in 1905 and 1917, is on the brink of another one. “We don’t want a revolution,” Gulyaev says. “We merely want free political debate in the media and the guarantee of participation in the elections. These are fundamental things.”

Russia’s Worst Enemies: The Outrageous Lies from Russia Blog Just Keep Right on Coming

“We can also compare the Russian GDP as a share of e.g. of the USA figure, and see how fast Russia is closing the gap [under the reign of Vladimir Putin].”

Jon Hellevig (pictured)
Russia Blog
March 29, 2007

Mr. Hellevig of Russia Blog is a shameless Russophile liar (and, to make things even worse, he’s channeling Vladimir Zhirinovsky). His editor, Charles Ganske, and his publisher, Yuri Mamchur, are either equally shameless liars or utterly incompetent loons: The gap between America and Russia in gross and per capita GDP has not closed during the reign of Vladimir Putin, it has dramatically widened.

The data for Russia’s GDP, as collected by the World Bank and reported by Reuters, is here. The same data for the United States is here.

What does the World Bank data show? It shows this:

(1) In 2000 Russia’s GDP was roughly $260 billion, and in 2005 it was roughly $760 billion

(2) During that same period, America’s GDP
soared from $9.7 trillion to $12.5 trillion

(3) Thus, the gap between America and Russia in 2000 when Putin took power was roughly $9.5 trillion. Today, the gap is over $11.5 trillion. The gap between the U.S. and Russia has not closed it has DRAMATICALLY WIDENED — to the tune of $2 TRILLION. That’s a massive 20% increase in the gap.

(4) In 2000 Russia’s per capita GDP was $1,710, and in 2005 it was $4,460.

(5) During that same period, America’s GDP per capita soared from $34,400 to $43,740.

(6) Thus, on a per capita basis, according to the World Bank, the gap between America and Russia in 2000 was $32,700; today, it stands at $39,700. In other words, the per capita gap did not close, it DRAMATICALLY WIDENED — to the tune of $7,000 per person. An average Russian earns less than $5,000 in a year.

(7) During this same period, consumer price inflation averaged ten times higher in Russia than it did in the U.S., meaning that the actual gap is far larger than it superficially appears because the value of the gains received by the Russians deterioriated much more than the American gains.

Mr. Hellevig and his editor/publisher chose to totally disregard the World Bank data that Reuters relies on (not surprising from this propagandist, since it utterly refutes his thesis). What source did he choose? He states: “According to our source, Deutsche Bank (Deutsche Bank http://www.deutsche-bank.de).” That’s just the main page of a website (in German — Russia Blog is published in English) with no apparent data on Russia at all. God only knows where he gets his “data” from. In other words, typical neo-Soviet propaganda garbage.

Mr. Hellevig also lied brazenly when he wrote that “the Russian GDP in dollar terms has increased fivefold during Putin’s term from 2000 to 2006.” An increase from $260 to $760 billion is not a fivefold increase. It’s an increase of less than threefold, and the per capita increase is even less than that. And it doesn’t factor in Russia’s massive inflation, it’s just the raw figure. It’s not wages, which have not even doubled while Putin ruled, much less increased “fivefold,” so it means little to the Russian people. And the only reason this increase occurred is that the price of oil happened to rise, something that Putin had absolutely nothing to do with.

When will Russia Blog stop telling these outrageous, self-serving lies? Mr. Hellevig is a lawyer who makes money convincing hapless foreigners to invest money in Russia (a bias he doesn’t even try to disclose), and Russia Blog is run by propagandizing Russophile maniacs bent on rationalizing and thus facilitiating the cruel, draconian rule of Vladimir Putin.

If Russia is to have any hope of a future, people like this must be stopped. They are Russia’s worst enemies.

April 19, 2007 — Contents


(1) How the Kremlin Wins Friends and Influences People

(2) Yulia Tymoshenko in Foreign Affairs

(3) Putin will Stop at Nothing

(4) Expel Russia from the G-8

(5) Russia: The World’s Most Dangerous Airways