Daily Archives: May 30, 2007

EDITORIAL: Calling the People of Russia to Account


In recent days, we’ve reported on two amazingly contradictory developments relating to military policy.

First, on Publius Pundit last week, we reported on how Russia is delivering defensive missile systems to Iran (LR has also addressed this topic in the past). These missiles can be used to shoot down attack aircraft dispatched by NATO or Israel to take out Iran’s nuclear-weapons technology (which, not by coincidence, Russia is also providing to Iran) in the event it becomes a threat to Western security.

Then, yesterday, we reported on how Russia is wailing to high heaven about the defensive missile systems that NATO is installing in Eastern Europe, even going so far as to test offensive ICBM systems designed to overwhelm the NATO defenses through the use of MiRV (multiple reentry vehicle) technology.

This is a new low in the crazed hypocrisy, utterly detached from reality, that was the hallmark of the failed Soviet state. Even if child — but not a Russian — understands that if you object to the use of defensive missile systems in Eastern Europe then you can’t simultaneously insert such systems in Iran for monetary profit. Yet, just as the moronic Soviets did, Russians seem to feel that they can pull the wool over the eyes of the West because they’re so much smarter than we are, and that they can in fact have their cake and eat it too. Do you dare to imagine, dear reader, how the Russians would react if in the immediate wake of a Russian decision to attack terrorist sites in Chechnya with SCUD missiles the US began testing a new Patriot missile destined for Chechnya by way of Afghanistan which the Chechen rebels would use to shoot down the Russian attacks? This kind of hypocrisy cries out to be called uncivilized, relegating Russia to the status of a banana republic like Zimbabwe or Zaire.

And believe it or not, that’s not even what’s most outrageous in Russia’s conduct. Even if Russia had a consistent policy and a legitimate basis to fear invasion by NATO, its provocative actions in testing a new offensive ICBM are totally inconsistent with its powerbase, seeming very like the quixotic antics of the dictator in North Korea. In other words, the Kremlin’s mouth is writing checks that its fists can’t cash. The USSR, with twice as many people as Russia has and a much more vital economic system not dependent on the sale of fossil fuels, was easily routed by the NATO allies in the first cold war, arms-race conflict. What will now happen to Russia? Do Russians really imagine it will be something different? Russians, once again, are allowing their psychedelic fantasies, stoked by petroleum fumes, to control their destiny, barrelling heedlessly down a road that can only lead to their destruction. It’s time to begin asking the question: What will replace Russia, as the Russia replaced the USSR?

And it’s time to focus on the single most important reality of modern Russian life: The Russian people are responsible for this outrage, and deserve our contempt and condemnation in the strongest terms, followed up by a new cold war that will make the first one seem like a tea party. During the first Cold War, it was the vogue to claim that the Russian people were the victims of these types of crazed policies, that they were the helpless slaves of a rogue regime. That’s no longer possible. As Publius Pundit reported yesterday, the Russian people are just as guilty of misconduct as the Kremlin itself. They are actively supporting the Putin regime, empowering it, in both elections and public opinion polls, and there is no reason to think they didn’t do so during even the worst excess of the Soviet era.

In short, the people of Russia are part of the problem, not part of the solution. We trusted them once, and when the USSR collapsed we didn’t take advantage of the situation as we might have done, certainly not a military sense. We’ve napped as neo-Soviet Russia has sought to infiltrate and reconquer nations all along the old Iron Curtain’s folds, from Estonia to Georgia. We’ve allowed that malignant little troll in the Kremlin to consolidate his cruel reign of terror, all the while claiming we were giving Russians the benefit of the doubt.

That means we too are responsible, and we will answer to our children if we shirk out duty now, which could not be more clear. We must demand that the people of Russia take responsibility for their actions and turn back from the brink of disaster, or we must drive them over that brink with all due haste lest we find ourselves fighting a two-front conflict, one against radical Muslim terrorists and the other against the state-sponsored terrorism offered by Russia. It is hard indeed to say which one is worse.

Anna Speaks from the Grave

Writing in the Moscow Times Gregory Feifer, Moscow bureau chief for National Public Radio, reviews Anna Politkovsakya’s missive from beyond the grave:

Such was Anna Politkovskaya’s courage and determination in recording killings, torture and abductions in Chechnya that failing to read her articles in Novaya Gazeta — the country’s most progressive newspaper — meant risking ignorance of what Russia’s chattering classes were saying each week about the government’s latest outrage.

The 48-year-old mother of two adult children was shot dead by an unknown assassin in the elevator of her apartment building last October shortly after she’d completed her last book, commissioned by Random House for publication in English. “A Russian Diary” is an account of the country’s major political events from December 2003 to August 2005. It catalogs a year-and-a-half of President Vladimir Putin’s relentless drive to, in effect, transform his country from a bankrupt would-be democracy into a corrupt authoritarian state in which opposition figures are jailed and Kremlin cronies run the crown jewels of a newly resurrected state-controlled economy.The book opens shortly after the arrest of oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once Russia’s richest man, whose Yukos oil company would be broken up and sold to state-controlled companies in shady closed auctions. Khodorkovsky’s arrest in October 2003 was a wake-up call to the West, where many Russia observers had shut their eyes to Putin’s attacks on democracy, free-market capitalism and above all, his rivals. When the president visited British Prime Minister Tony Blair in London several months earlier, the Times called him Russia’s best leader since Tsar Alexander II, who abolished serfdom in 1861. The book ends with the aftermath of the Beslan school siege, which Putin used as justification to abolish elections of regional governors in favor of Kremlin appointments.

Politkovskaya’s indictment records some of the Putin administration’s worst official corruption and criminal negligence, beginning with the parliamentary elections of December 2003. The Kremlin’s manipulation of the voting was a major step toward Putin’s evisceration of Russia’s liberal opposition parties: None of them won enough votes to make it into the legislature. Politkovskaya describes some of the numerous violations: the beatings and intimidation of regional opposition candidates — one of whom had plastic bags containing human body parts thrown through his window — as well as pervasive evidence of ballot stuffing and the state-controlled media’s refusal to cover the campaigns of Kremlin rivals. Her account belies the weak complaints of observers from the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe, whose failure to properly condemn such abuses amounted to an endorsement of Putin’s victory.
In short, Politkovskaya describes a country in which violent crime trumps rule of law. Some of her most moving passages retell the experiences of Beslan’s victims. She also chronicles the aftermath of other terrorist attacks, the grisly hazing deaths of army conscripts and brutal episodes from the second war in Chechnya that Putin launched in 1999. Here she documents one of its many unpunished atrocities:

Beslan Arapkhanov, a tractor driver, was beaten up in front of his wife and seven small children before being shot dead. By mistake. The security forces were attempting to arrest the fighter Ruslan Khuchbarov. According to highly secret intelligence, Khuchbarov was sleeping that night at No. 11 Partizanskaya Street.

For some reason, however, the soldiers came and shot the guiltless Arapkhanov at No. 1 Partizanskaya Street. Immediately after the murder, an officer entered the Arapkhanovs’ house, introducing himself to the shocked wife as FSB [Federal Security Service] Investigator Kostenko, and presented a warrant to search ‘No. 11 Partizanskaya Street.’ At this point the error became evident, but Kostenko did not so much as apologize to the grieving widow.

That is the reality of our ‘antiterrorist operation.’ What are the seven children of Beslan Arapkhanov going to make of this? What chance is there that they will forgive and forget?

Politkovskaya tells about Putin’s systematic attack against the free press and civil society with his officially sanctioned “Russian Orthodox” understanding of human rights. She describes Putin’s sublime acting skills during a meeting with some of the country’s top human rights defenders: “When need be, he is one of you; when that is not necessary, he is your enemy. He is adept at wearing other people’s clothes, and many are taken in by this performance. The assembly of human rights campaigners also melted in the face of Putin’s impersonating of them and, despite a fundamentally different take on reality, they poured out their hearts to him.”

The Kremlin has managed to resurrect a Soviet-style system of rule, Politkovskaya writes, thanks to popular apathy, “rooted in an almost universal certainty among the populace that the state authorities will fix everything, including elections, to their own advantage.” She asks if the authorities realize the ruinous effect their actions are having on Russia: “Or are they simply mindless, living for the moment? … Does being in power in Russia really mean no more than having a place at the trough?”

This loosely structured and repetitive book is not a personal diary. Politkovskaya’s account would have benefited from including more of her own experiences, such as her alleged poisoning during a plane flight to Beslan, ostensibly to stop her from covering the crisis. Giving voice to the Kremlin’s marginalized victims, she sometimes fails to explain the significance of the figures and events she mentions, which will be known only to dedicated Russia observers. And although Arch Tait’s translation is perfectly readable, one suspects it’s too faithful to the original text and would have improved from finessing.

The book’s major faults are common in Russian journalism. Much of it reads like a sermon, an extended op-ed piece that doesn’t provide the kind of documentation and structure to which Western readers are accustomed. Politkovskaya condemns most Putin opponents as fiercely for their inaction as she criticizes the Kremlin for its crimes. Rightly so, perhaps, but her unrelieved moral outrage and her patronizing tone become tiring, and leave the reader wondering what makes the writer right and pretty much everyone else wrong.

Nevertheless, “A Russian Diary” is an important book. A critical failing of the West’s understanding of Russia is interpreting Moscow’s actions through the prism of Western rationalism, which often makes them appear inexplicable. Much of the country’s real political culture is hidden behind a facade of Western forms. The Kremlin creates fake opposition parties and NGOs, Putin speaks of democracy and justice as overarching values, and the Energy Minister says with a straight face that Russia’s state-controlled oil and gas companies operate as independently as private Western ones.

But there’s no hiding behind Politkovskaya’s blow-by-blow relating of events; the actions speak for themselves. “A Russian Diary” provides a crucial record of the country’s slide toward an isolated, angry reincarnation of its former Soviet self, seen through the eyes of a sensitive and perceptive observer.

Politkovskaya excoriates the Russian public for failing to protest Putin’s transgressions. Her death, like her publications, also passed unmentioned by most Russians. Her mission was to record the regime’s crimes, partly in the hope that their perpetrators would one day be held to account. She died for that aim, and her death become a landmark tragedy in the Russia of Vladimir Putin against which she so bravely campaigned.

Annals of Russian "Justice": Another Failing Grade for Russia

Blogger and attorney Robert Amsterdam reports that Transparancy International has issued yet another failing grade to Putin’s Kremlin, this time over its so-called “justice” system: 

At the end of last week, corruption watchdog Transparency International issued its annual global report with respect to corruption of the world’s judicial systems. The full report is well worth reading, as Russia is heavily featured as one of the countries that has significantly backtracked against international standards with political corruption of the courts. Below is an excerpt of an analysis written by Tom Blass, freelance journalist and consultant with the Foreign Policy Centre, taken from Chapter 2 (“Independence, political interference and corruption”) of the new TI report. (click through to the PDF version to see all the footnotes.)

Combating corruption and political influence in Russia’s court system Tom Blass

Prior to the perestroika process, the judiciary was largely perceived as: ‘Nothing more than a machine to process and express in legal form decisions which had been taken within the [Communist] Party.’ The independence of the judiciary was one aspect of the changes called for by Mikhail Gorbachev in his groundbreaking speech to the 27th Party Congress in 1986.

The reality – a supine, underpaid judiciary, ill-equipped to withstand corruptive practices and the influence of economic or political interests – has proven slow to change, despite a series of reforms by Boris Yeltsin and his successor, President Vladimir Putin.

A 1991 decree by the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Federation established the judiciary as a branch of government independent from the legislature and the state. The following year, a Law on the Status of Judges was introduced that granted judges life tenure after a three-year, probationary period; new powers to review decisions by prosecutors regarding pre-trial detention; and established the role of the judicial qualification collegia – self-governing bodies, composed by and responsible for the appointment and regulation of members of the judiciary. The Yeltsin regime transferred control over the financing of courts from the Ministry of Justice to a judicial department attached to the Supreme Court, further distancing the judiciary from the executive branch.

After Putin was elected president in 2000, he made numerous assertions about the importance he attached to the judiciary. ‘An independent and impartial court is the legal protectedness (sic) of citizens,’ he said in 2001. ‘It is a fundamental condition of the development of a sound, competitive economy. Finally, it is respect for the state itself, faith in the power of the law and in the power of justice.’

President Putin’s Programme for the Support of Courts 2002–06 was structured to increase funding for the court system as a whole, including judges’ salaries. Top pay is now around US $1,100 per month for judges, although average judicial salaries are closer to US $300 per month. More recent developments include a move toward publishing details of court judgements.

While elements of these reforms are positive, new threats to the independence of the judiciary have emerged, with the International Bar Association, the OECD, the International Commission of Jurists, and the US State Department all expressing concerns at practices they perceive as not conducive to the independence of the judiciary.

Judicial appointments

Not all judges welcomed Putin’s attempts at reform. Among his initial targets were the qualification collegia, established in the early transition and responsible for appointing and dismissing judges. Originally these were constituted entirely by judges, but the 1996 Constitutional Law on the Judicial System was amended in 2001 so that one third of the membership would be constituted by legal scholars appointed by the federation council – which is appointed by the president. Under the Law on the Status on Judges 1992, judicial appointments were made by the president ‘based on the conclusions of the collegia relative to the court in question’. The same process applies to the appointment of court chairpersons, whose tasks include allocating cases and overseeing the running of courts. They wield substantial influence over the careers of their fellow judges.

In a 2005 report on proposed changes to the structure of the collegia, the International Bar Association (IBA) said it was ‘particularly concerned by a number of cases of judicial dismissals where undue influence appears to have been wielded by Court chairpersons or other parties’. ‘A system which could allow chairpersons to cow or eliminate independent-minded judges’, it noted, ‘is in practice the antithesis of recognised international standards for the judiciary’.

The IBA cited a number of instances in which it was alleged that undue influence had been brought to bear. In the case of Judge Alexander Melikov, dismissed by a qualification collegium in December 2004, it said it had studied the judge’s allegation that his dismissal followed his refusal to follow the directive of the Moscow City Court chairperson ‘to impose stricter sentences and to refuse to release certain accused persons pending their trials’. The IBA said that it was ‘impressed by his credibility’ and was satisfied there was no legitimate ground for dismissal.

Another recent case further highlighted the role of chairpersons. Judge Olga Kudeshkina was dismissed from Moscow City Court in May 2003 for ‘violating the rules of courtroom conduct and discrediting the judiciary’ after she claimed to have been pressured by the public prosecutor and the chairperson of the court to decide in the prosecutor’s favour in an Interior Ministry investigation.

In a widely publicised letter to President Putin in March 2005, Kudeshkina said the judicial system in Moscow was ‘characterised by a gross violation of individual rights and freedoms, failure to comply with Russian legislation, as well as with the rules of international law’ and that there is every reason to believe that the behaviour of the chairperson was possible because of patronage provided by certain officials in the Putin administration.

Perceived extent of corruption

While it is difficult or impossible to quantify the validity of Kudeshkina’s claims, her letter was in tune with the lack of public confidence in the judiciary. Research by the Russian think tank INDEM goes so far as to quantify the perceived average cost of obtaining justice in a Russian court. At 9,570 roubles (US $358), the figure is still less than the 2001 figure of 13,964 roubles.

Another Russian survey found that over 70 per cent of respondents agreed that ‘many people do not want to seek redress in the courts because the unofficial expenditures are too onerous’, while 78.6 per cent agreed with the statement: ‘Many people do not resort to the courts because they do not expect to find justice there.’ The same organisation estimated that some US $210 million worth of bribes is spent to obtain justice in law courts in a year, out of a total US $3.0 billion in bribe payments.

Senior court officials also hint at corruption within the judiciary. Veniamin Yakovlev, former chair of the Supreme Arbitrazh court, said that while mechanisms had been, and continue to be, put into place to root out corruption and the ‘overwhelming majority’ of judges conducted themselves lawfully, ‘it would be wrong to maintain that the judiciary has been purged of all traces of bribery’. In an interview with Izvestia, Valery Zorkin, current chairman of the constitutional court, was more forthright when he said that ‘bribe taking in the courts has become one of the biggest corruption markets in Russia’.

Anecdotal evidence (including from lawyers within Russia who would not wish to be named) suggests that the corruptibility of courts increases, moving down the judicial hierarchy13 and further away from Moscow.

Legal scholar Ethan Burger points out that large financial stakes and asymmetry between the parties in a court proceeding increases the likelihood of corruption,14 and that it is more likely to occur in trial courts than in the appeal courts since it is ‘easier to bribe a single trial court judge than a panel of appellate judges or members of the Supreme Arbitrazh Court’. Due legal process is altered in one of two ways, according to Burger: a judge may decide a case on its merits, but ask for payment before making a judgement; or the judge may ‘simply favour the highest bidder’.


The challenge now is for the Russian judiciary to build on the various reforms which have already taken place and to win the confidence of court users, regardless of the level of proceedings in which they become involved. But such a transformation will require more than structural or procedural reform.

Successive laws pertaining to the judiciary passed since the dawn of glasnost have reinforced or reiterated its independence. Despite some adjustment of their membership structure, the Judicial Qualification Collegia remain essentially self-governing. Salaries of judges and court officials, while low in comparison to those in Russia’s private sector and the West, have been significantly raised in the past 15 years. Civil society groups in Russia and outside (including TI) have been vocal in calling for greater transparency and openness within the judicial system.

Russian courts already have what is required to be fair, open and transparent. These elements need to be encouraged and consolidated. What follows are six concrete recommendations that can assist in consolidating what is fair, open and transparent in the Russian court system:

● The government should resist any further dilution of the judicial composition of the Judicial Qualification Collegia.
● Judges’ salaries should be regularly reviewed with a view to achieving near-parity with private sector salaries in order to reduce the incidence of bribe taking and to retain talent within the judiciary.
● The programme for publishing court decisions should be accelerated and expanded, with an emphasis on explaining the legal basis of judgements, the nature of disputes, the sums at stake and awards given.
● Local and national public awareness campaigns should be initiated to educate on the role of judges, the concept of judicial awareness and future expectations of the judiciary.
● The government should review existing penalties for corruption within the judiciary.
● Judges should be allocated cases on a randomised basis to minimise bias toward one party.

Warning on Russia: The Neo-Soviet Energy Arsenal

Writing in the Times of London Irwin Stelzer, a business adviser and director of economic policy studies at the Hudson Institute, sounds the warning over Russia’s attempt to weaponize its energy assets and use them like the USSR used nukes:

WHAT do Mikhaïl Khodorkovsky, Mikhaïl Gutseriev, and John Browne have in common? They all thought their desire for profits from Russia’s vast oil and gas reserves trumped Vladimir Putin’s lust for power. Khodorkovsky now languishes in a Siberian jail, and when released will be rearrested and charged with crimes that will get him another 28 years in prison. Gutseriev, head of the mid-sized oil company Russneft, was recently charged with “large-scale tax evasion” and conducting illegal activities as part of an “organised group” – the same charges laid against Khodorkovsky. It seems that the Kremlin deputy chief of staff, Igor Sechin, the former KGB agent who heads state-owned Rosneft, which took over Khodorkovsky’s Yukos oil company, “is extremely ambitious in regard to these [Russneft’s] assets”, according to press reports.

Which brings us to Lord Browne, who also thought there was money to be made in Russian oil. He set up TNK-BP, a joint venture with a group of Russian billionaires that accounts for about 25% of BP’s glo-bal production, and is developing the huge Kovykta gas field in eastern Siberia – or not.

It seems that TNK-BP is in violation of its licence to develop the Kovykta field, according to Oleg Mitvol, deputy head of Russia’s Federal Resource Management Agency. This ratchets up the pressure on the three billionaire partners of BP to sell out to state-controlled Gazprom – several former KGB agents grace its board. “This is just going to be another phone call,” one banker familiar with the matter told the Financial Times. “If they are told to sell, they will sell.”

As did Royal Dutch Shell, which ceded control of its $22 billion Sakhalin-2 natural-gas project to Gazprom, and threw in a $1 billion annual payment to the Russian treasury after environmental authorities threatened to close the project.

Control of 50% of oil and, in effect, all gas production now resides with the state.

Worse still, Russia has successfully gained control of the pipeline networks that deliver fuel to the West. Putin recently persuaded the presidents of Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan to join Russia in building a pipeline to ship their natural gas to western markets through Russia. It seems like only yesterday that I was briefed at the State Department on American plans to encourage the construction of a new pipeline that would hook up with existing lines through the Caucasus and Turkey, bringing Central Asian gas to Europe without passing through a Russian bottleneck. Those plans are now dead, or at least on life support.

Putin also recently approved plans to build an oil pipeline to the Baltic port of Primorsk, bypassing independent-minded Belarus.

All of which gives him huge influence in western Europe. “If power is measured by the fear instilled in others – as many Russians believe – [Putin] is certainly winning,” says The Economist.

None of this would matter if we were dealing with ordinary commercial transactions, aimed at maximising the economic value of Russia’s natural endowments. But that is not the case. First, the takeovers of Shell, BP and other assets hardly represent transactions at market prices. Putin takes his inspiration from Mario Puzo’s The Godfather rather than Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, and makes potential sellers offers they just can’t refuse.

Second, Putin’s goal is not the mere profit maximisation that guides decision-making in market economies. It is to gain influence over the foreign policies of European countries and, to a lesser extent, America. He has already shown that he is willing to cut off gas to Europe, and cooperates with Opec to damage the American economy by keeping oil prices high. A nuclear umbrella prevented the Soviet army from rolling across Europe, but it is no match for supply cut-offs that can throw western economies into recession.

Russia achieved this dominant position for two reasons. The first is that the world’s capitalists behave as Lenin knew they would: “They will furnish credits . . . supply us materials and technical equipment which we lack . . . restore our military industry for our future attacks against our suppliers.” The West has supplied Russia with the technical skills and capital needed to exploit oil and gas resources and sold important bits of western energy infrastructure to Gazprom, chaired by Dmitry Medveded, who is first deputy prime minister of the Russian federation. Never mind that Russia will not allow such foreign investment in its infrastructure, or that it is using its oil and gas wealth to beef up its military. “Our military is the second most powerful force in the world after America’s,” a Russian official trumpeted this month.

The second reason Russia has gained such a dominant hand in its negotiations with energy-dependent countries is the inability of the West to forge a common strategy, the necessary ingredients of which are clear: increase storage facilities as insurance against gas-supply interruptions; finance pipelines that avoid Russian-controlled territories; refuse to sell infrastructure to Gazprom; construct terminals that can receive liquefied natural gas (LNG) from Africa and the Middle East; unite to create countervailing buyer power.

Russia, Tony Blair pointed out last week, is “prepared to use [its] energy resources as an instrument of policy”. But the West is unprepared to use its financial and technical resources in the same way. That failure, warns Blair as he heads off into the sunset, “could be as crucial to our country’s [and, I would add, the West’s] future as defence”.

May 29, 2007 — Contents


(1) The Flames of Cold War, Sparked by Russia, Roaring

(2) Bukovsky will seek Presidency

(3) Hoagland on the Neo-Soviet Union