Daily Archives: July 30, 2007

On Siberian Secession

Blogger and ace Russia scholar Paul Goble offers the following twopart overview of the Kremlin’s alienation of Russia’s eastern provinces, which now are looking to China and independence to secure their future. What a wonderful legacy that Great Leader Vladimir Putin is leaving behind him! How wise were the people of Russia to choose such brilliant visionary!

And how long before Putin must rely upon the tactics of Stalin to hold his sham nation together?

Transbaikal residents overwhelmingly identify themselves as “Siberians” regardless of their ethnicity, a new survey shows. And while most would settle for greater autonomy, a significant share says that they would welcome independence should the Russian Federation dissolve in the future. In an article provocatively titled “Will the Russian Federation Survive Until 2014?” Vitaly Kamyshev, a “Sibiryak” himself, reports that Irkutsk’s “Who’s Who” Agency determined that 80 percent of residents there identify as “Siberians” while only 12 percent say they are “Russians”. The same poll also found that approximately three Transbaikal residents out of five want greater autonomy for Siberia as a whole and that one in four – some 25 percent – are for a Siberia independent of the Russian Federation. (Unfortunately, Kamyshev does not give details on exactly when this poll was conducted or how many it queried.)

One reason for this perhaps surprising choice is the campaign by local Siberian activists to promote the ideas of 19th century “oblastniki” like Grigoiy Potanin and Nikolai Yadrintsev, who argued that Russia treated “Siberia as a colony,” and thus to gain seats for themselves in local legislatures, the last place where real electoral politics occur. But to far greater extent, this striking shift in self-identifications is an obvious reaction to three policies of President Vladimir Putin.

First, his re-centralization of power and his reduction in the size of inter-regional transfers have re-ignited long-simmering tensions between Moscow and the regions.

Second, Putin himself has unwittingly put regionalism in play by his efforts to combine existing federal units into new and larger ones, a process by which he clearly hopes to push out the ethnic dimension of Russian federalism. In Siberia and the Russian Far East, five small regions are now set to be combined with larger ones. On the one hand, that has the effect of undermining the importance of ethnicity as Putin wants, at least in some cases, but only at the cost of leading non-Russian elites to seek new accords on a regional basis with Russian ones, an effort that by itself makes regional identities more important than ethnic ones. On the other, by putting the question of the borders of regions into play again, Putin has unintentionally encouraged others especially in places far from Moscow to think about how they would redraw the political map of the Russian Federation in order to maximize their power. Elites in Khabarovsk kray, for example, having gotten approval to absorb two numerically small non-Russian areas, now talk openly about a greater Khabarovsk that would both become the largest federal unit in the country and have much greater influence in national politics.

And third, Putin has sought to downplay ethnic Russian identity as well by promoting the non-ethnic “Rossiyane” as the future civic nation the Russian president says the country must have given its ethnic divisions. That does not satisfy many ethnic Russians or many ethnic non-Russians, and regionalism may become the choice of both.

Now as in the past, Moscow has sought to limit the rise of Siberian identity by playing up what it says is the threat of Chinese colonization of the region. But that argument, Kamyshev says, may be wearing thin: Ever more people in Siberia believe they are a colony already and some think they would be better off with a different master. None of this, of course, is to say that Siberian regionalism as either an identity or a movement is strong enough to pose any immediate threat to Moscow. But it is to suggest that downplaying ethnicity as Putin has done may not translate directly and without any problems into Russian patriotism. Instead, as this Irkutsk poll suggests, many who others view as members of particular nationalities or as inevitable “Rossiyane” may decide to view themselves in regionalist terms, a development that could pose serious challenges for Russia’s development not only in 2014 but perhaps much sooner.

Although they have attracted little attention to date, residents and even officials in some predominantly Russian regions appear to be just as interested in asserting sovereignty or even seceding as are their counterparts in many of the non-Russian regions and republics of the Russian Federation. In an article appearing in this week’s “Nashe vremya,” Aleksandr Gazov argues that it is a mistake to focus only on non-Russian secessionist challenges even though he concedes that “the main moving force of any ‘liberation movement’ is membership in a particular nationality.” But there is no reason to think that one such “particular nationality” cannot be Russian, Gazov suggests, especially because the three major impulses for secession – anti-Moscow attitudes, a sense of the loss of historical status, and economic problems – can affect Russians just as much as non-Russians.

The “Nashe vremya” journalist then surveys some of what he suggests are the most intriguing examples of ethnic Russian secessionist ideas and movements before producing a ranking generated by a foreign human rights activist of the probabilities that any one of these or indeed of non-Russian challenges will succeed. In the first instance, he points to secessionist groups in Novgorod, Pskov and Bryansk. In all three cases, local officials appear to be backing local intellectuals who argue that Moscow has taken something away from them: democracy in the case of Novgorod and economic opportunities in the case of Pskov and Bryansk. Then, he considers nationalist and secessionist trends among non-Russian groups not only in the North Caucasus – the only region most Muscovites think there is any secessionist challenge at all – but also in the Middle Volga among the Tatars, Bashkirs, Komi, Mordvin, and Mari and in Siberia among the Sakha and Buryats.

Gazov also considers the interesting case of Karelia, an ethnic republic whose population is now overwhelmingly ethnic Russian rather than the titular Karels or Finns. He notes that a Petrozavodsk city deputy has called for erecting a statue of Marshal Gustav Mannerheim, the Finnish leader who fought against Soviet forces. And finally he examines three broader Russian secessionist groups: those who want to form a truly Russian republic by jettisoning all non-Russian areas within the Russian Federation, those who back a Urals Republic, and finally those who want Siberia to be an independent state.

In some of these places, Gazov says, secessionist ideas are discussed only on the Internet among small coteries of intellectuals. But in many and especially Siberia, there is evidence that increasingly powerful governors are intrigued by the idea of independence and covertly support groups who push ideas the governors themselves cannot do openly. He writes: “today’s governors are welcome guests at all kinds of international events and are already accustomed to conduct foreign policy negotiations on their own. It is thus not surprising that in their minds arises the thought about an independent Siberia, free from Moscow, the Kremlin and the entire rest of the country.” But of course, Gazov continues, even the most powerful of such governors recognize that they cannot at th epresent moment at least “speak openly about such things” but they have every reason not to prevent others from doing so – or even helping them from behind the scenes.

Another force standing behind any drive for Siberian independence is Beijing, which has long cast a covetous eye to the resources and open spaces of the country to its north, Gazov writes. And the Chinese appear to be providing some funds to get Russians to speak out in favor of this alternative. “Already today,” Gazov continues, “in Irkutsk, Omsk and Novosibirsk ever more often are heard calls for more active cooperation with China which must become the chief ally of an independent Siberia.” At the end of his article, Gazov reproduces an estimate prepared by Costa Rican human rights activist Maximiliano Herrera as to the probability that any region in Russia may secede in the long term. This list is, as Gazov notes, only one person’s opinion, but it is intriguing, and it has now been introduced to the Russian audience. Herrera, who maintains his own website and whose complete list of the likelihood of secessionist challenges around the world can be found online as well, gives the following estimates of the chances for successful secession by regions in Russia:

Adyrgeia – 15 percent
Bashkortostan – more than 20 percent
Eastern Siberia – 30 percent
Daghestan – 40 percent
Ingushetia – 35 percent
Kabardino-Balkaria –20 percent
Kaliningrad – 35 percent
Kamchatka –15 percent
Karachai-Cherkessia – 15 percent
Magadan – 15 percent
Mari El – 20 percent
Primorskiy kray – 20 percent
Sakhalin – 20 percent
North Osetia – more than 20 percent
Stavropol kray – 10 percent
Tatarstan – more than 40 percent
Tuva – 10 percent
Chechnya – 55 percent
Chukotka – 20 percent
Sakha – 20 percent

What is most intriguing about this list, of course, is that Russian regions appear as likely or even more likely than non-Russian ones to secede. That is Gazov’s point, but to date, few in Moscow or elsewhere are prepared to take that seriously or to think about reworking the country’s federal system in order to keep the country in one piece.

Kasparov Puts One Across the Kremlin’s Bow

Other Russia offers readers Garry Kasparov’s recent column in the Wall Street Journal exposing the Kremlin as containing a mafia regime:

Don Putin

When Vladimir Putin took power in Russia in 2000, the burning question was: “Who is Putin?” It has now changed to: “What is the nature of Putin’s Russia?” This regime has been remarkably consistent in its behavior, yet foreign leaders and the Western press still act surprised at Mr. Putin’s total disregard for their opinions.

Again and again we hear cries of: “Doesn’t Putin know how bad this looks?” When another prominent Russian journalist is murdered, when a businessman not friendly to the Kremlin is jailed, when a foreign company is pushed out of its Russian investment, when pro-democracy marchers are beaten by police, when gas and oil supplies are used as weapons, or when Russian weapons and missile technology are sold to terrorist sponsor states like Iran and Syria, what needs to be asked is what sort of government would continue such behavior. This Kremlin regime operates within a value system entirely different from that of the Western nations struggling to understand what is happening behind the medieval red walls.

Mr. Putin’s government is unique in history. This Kremlin is part oligarchy, with a small, tightly connected gang of wealthy rulers. It is partly a feudal system, broken down into semi-autonomous fiefdoms in which payments are collected from the serfs, who have no rights. Over this there is a democratic coat of paint, just thick enough to gain entry into the G-8 and keep the oligarchy’s money safe in Western banks.

But if you really wish to understand the Putin regime in depth, I can recommend some reading. No Karl Marx or Adam Smith. Nothing by Montesquieu or Machiavelli, although the author you are looking for is of Italian descent. But skip Mussolini’s “The Doctrine of Fascism,” for now, and the entire political science section. Instead, go directly to the fiction department and take home everything you can find by Mario Puzo. If you are in a real hurry to become an expert on the Russian government, you may prefer the DVD section, where you can find Mr. Puzo’s works on film. “The Godfather” trilogy is a good place to start, but do not leave out “The Last Don,” “Omerta” and “The Sicilian.”

The web of betrayals, the secrecy, the blurred lines between what is business, what is government, and what is criminal — it’s all there in Mr. Puzo’s books. A historian looks at the Kremlin today and sees elements of Mussolini’s “corporate state,” Latin American juntas and Mexico’s pseudo-democratic PRI machine. A Puzo fan sees the Putin government more accurately: the strict hierarchy, the extortion, the intimidation, the code of secrecy and, above all, the mandate to keep the revenue flowing. In other words, a mafia.

If a member of the inner circle goes against the Capo, his life is forfeit. Once Russia’s richest man, Mikhail Khodorkovsky wanted to go straight and run his Yukos oil company as a legitimate corporation and not as another cog in Mr. Putin’s KGB, Inc. He quickly found himself in a Siberian prison, his company dismantled and looted, and its pieces absorbed by the state mafia apparatus of Rosneft and Gazprom.

The Yukos case has become a model. Private companies are absorbed into the state while at the same time the assets of the state companies move into private accounts.

Alexander Litvinenko was a KGB agent who broke the loyalty code by fleeing to Britain. Worse, he violated the law of omertà by going to the press and even publishing books about the dirty deeds of Mr. Putin and his foot soldiers. Instead of being taken fishing in the old-fashioned Godfather style, he was killed in London in the first recorded case of nuclear terrorism. Now the Kremlin is refusing to hand over the main suspect in the murder.

Mr. Putin can’t understand Britain doing potential harm to its business interests over one human life. That’s an alien concept. In his world, everything is negotiable. Morals and principles are just chips on the table in the Kremlin’s game. There is no mere misunderstanding in the Litvinenko case; there are two different languages being spoken.

In the civilized world, certain things are sacrosanct. Human life is not traded at the same table where business and diplomacy are discussed. But for Mr. Putin, it’s a true no-limits game. Kosovo, the missile shield, pipeline deals, the Iranian nuclear program and democratic rights are all just cards to be played.

After years of showing no respect for the law in Russia, with no resulting consequences from abroad, it should not come as a surprise that Mr. Putin’s attitude extends to international relations as well. The man accused of the Litvinenko murder, Andrei Lugovoi, signs autographs and enjoys the support of the Russian media, which says and does nothing without Kremlin approval. For seven years the West has tried to change the Kremlin with kind words and compliance. It apparently believed that it would be able to integrate Mr. Putin and his gang into the Western system of trade and diplomacy.

Instead, the opposite has happened — the mafia corrupts everything it touches. Bartering in human rights begins to appear acceptable. The Kremlin is not changing its standards: It is imposing them on the outside world. It receives the stamp of legitimacy from Western leaders and businesses but makes those same leaders and businesses complicit in its crimes.

With energy prices so high, the temptation to sell out to the Kremlin is an offer you almost can’t refuse. Gerhard Schröder could not resist doing business with Mr. Putin on his terms and, after pushing through a Baltic Sea pipeline deal while in office, he had a nice Gazprom job waiting for him when he left the chancellorship. Silvio Berlusconi also became a Putin business partner. He even answered for Mr. Putin at an EU meeting, vigorously defending Russian abuses in Chechnya and the jailing of Mr. Khodorkovsky and then joking to Mr. Putin, “I should be your lawyer!” Now we see Nicolas Sarkozy boosting the interests of French energy company Total in the Shtokman gas field.

Can Mr. Sarkozy possibly speak out strongly in support of Britain after making big deals on the phone with Mr. Putin? He should know that if Gordon Brown gets Mr. Putin on the line and offers to drop the case against Mr. Lugovoi, perhaps Total will find itself pushed out to make room for BP.

We in the Russian opposition have been saying for a long time that our problem would soon be the world’s problem. The mafia knows no borders. Nuclear terror is not out of the question if it fits in with the Kremlin business agenda. Expelling diplomats and limiting official visits is not going to have an impact.

How about limiting the Russian ruling elite’s visits to their properties in the West? Ironically, they like to keep their money where they can trust in the rule of law, and so far Mr. Putin and his wealthy supporters have every reason to believe their money is safe. They’ve been spending so much on ski trips to the Alps that they recently decided to bring the skiing to Russia by snapping up the Olympic Winter Games.

There is no reason to cease doing business with Russia. The delusion is that it can ever be more than that. The mafia takes, it does not give. Mr. Putin has discovered that when dealing with Europe and America he can always exchange worthless promises of reform for cold, hard cash. Mr. Lugovoi may yet find himself up for sale.

Kasparov Puts One Across the Kremlin’s Bow

Other Russia offers readers Garry Kasparov’s recent column in the Wall Street Journal exposing the Kremlin as containing a mafia regime:

Don Putin

When Vladimir Putin took power in Russia in 2000, the burning question was: “Who is Putin?” It has now changed to: “What is the nature of Putin’s Russia?” This regime has been remarkably consistent in its behavior, yet foreign leaders and the Western press still act surprised at Mr. Putin’s total disregard for their opinions.

Again and again we hear cries of: “Doesn’t Putin know how bad this looks?” When another prominent Russian journalist is murdered, when a businessman not friendly to the Kremlin is jailed, when a foreign company is pushed out of its Russian investment, when pro-democracy marchers are beaten by police, when gas and oil supplies are used as weapons, or when Russian weapons and missile technology are sold to terrorist sponsor states like Iran and Syria, what needs to be asked is what sort of government would continue such behavior. This Kremlin regime operates within a value system entirely different from that of the Western nations struggling to understand what is happening behind the medieval red walls.

Mr. Putin’s government is unique in history. This Kremlin is part oligarchy, with a small, tightly connected gang of wealthy rulers. It is partly a feudal system, broken down into semi-autonomous fiefdoms in which payments are collected from the serfs, who have no rights. Over this there is a democratic coat of paint, just thick enough to gain entry into the G-8 and keep the oligarchy’s money safe in Western banks.

But if you really wish to understand the Putin regime in depth, I can recommend some reading. No Karl Marx or Adam Smith. Nothing by Montesquieu or Machiavelli, although the author you are looking for is of Italian descent. But skip Mussolini’s “The Doctrine of Fascism,” for now, and the entire political science section. Instead, go directly to the fiction department and take home everything you can find by Mario Puzo. If you are in a real hurry to become an expert on the Russian government, you may prefer the DVD section, where you can find Mr. Puzo’s works on film. “The Godfather” trilogy is a good place to start, but do not leave out “The Last Don,” “Omerta” and “The Sicilian.”

The web of betrayals, the secrecy, the blurred lines between what is business, what is government, and what is criminal — it’s all there in Mr. Puzo’s books. A historian looks at the Kremlin today and sees elements of Mussolini’s “corporate state,” Latin American juntas and Mexico’s pseudo-democratic PRI machine. A Puzo fan sees the Putin government more accurately: the strict hierarchy, the extortion, the intimidation, the code of secrecy and, above all, the mandate to keep the revenue flowing. In other words, a mafia.

If a member of the inner circle goes against the Capo, his life is forfeit. Once Russia’s richest man, Mikhail Khodorkovsky wanted to go straight and run his Yukos oil company as a legitimate corporation and not as another cog in Mr. Putin’s KGB, Inc. He quickly found himself in a Siberian prison, his company dismantled and looted, and its pieces absorbed by the state mafia apparatus of Rosneft and Gazprom.

The Yukos case has become a model. Private companies are absorbed into the state while at the same time the assets of the state companies move into private accounts.

Alexander Litvinenko was a KGB agent who broke the loyalty code by fleeing to Britain. Worse, he violated the law of omertà by going to the press and even publishing books about the dirty deeds of Mr. Putin and his foot soldiers. Instead of being taken fishing in the old-fashioned Godfather style, he was killed in London in the first recorded case of nuclear terrorism. Now the Kremlin is refusing to hand over the main suspect in the murder.

Mr. Putin can’t understand Britain doing potential harm to its business interests over one human life. That’s an alien concept. In his world, everything is negotiable. Morals and principles are just chips on the table in the Kremlin’s game. There is no mere misunderstanding in the Litvinenko case; there are two different languages being spoken.

In the civilized world, certain things are sacrosanct. Human life is not traded at the same table where business and diplomacy are discussed. But for Mr. Putin, it’s a true no-limits game. Kosovo, the missile shield, pipeline deals, the Iranian nuclear program and democratic rights are all just cards to be played.

After years of showing no respect for the law in Russia, with no resulting consequences from abroad, it should not come as a surprise that Mr. Putin’s attitude extends to international relations as well. The man accused of the Litvinenko murder, Andrei Lugovoi, signs autographs and enjoys the support of the Russian media, which says and does nothing without Kremlin approval. For seven years the West has tried to change the Kremlin with kind words and compliance. It apparently believed that it would be able to integrate Mr. Putin and his gang into the Western system of trade and diplomacy.

Instead, the opposite has happened — the mafia corrupts everything it touches. Bartering in human rights begins to appear acceptable. The Kremlin is not changing its standards: It is imposing them on the outside world. It receives the stamp of legitimacy from Western leaders and businesses but makes those same leaders and businesses complicit in its crimes.

With energy prices so high, the temptation to sell out to the Kremlin is an offer you almost can’t refuse. Gerhard Schröder could not resist doing business with Mr. Putin on his terms and, after pushing through a Baltic Sea pipeline deal while in office, he had a nice Gazprom job waiting for him when he left the chancellorship. Silvio Berlusconi also became a Putin business partner. He even answered for Mr. Putin at an EU meeting, vigorously defending Russian abuses in Chechnya and the jailing of Mr. Khodorkovsky and then joking to Mr. Putin, “I should be your lawyer!” Now we see Nicolas Sarkozy boosting the interests of French energy company Total in the Shtokman gas field.

Can Mr. Sarkozy possibly speak out strongly in support of Britain after making big deals on the phone with Mr. Putin? He should know that if Gordon Brown gets Mr. Putin on the line and offers to drop the case against Mr. Lugovoi, perhaps Total will find itself pushed out to make room for BP.

We in the Russian opposition have been saying for a long time that our problem would soon be the world’s problem. The mafia knows no borders. Nuclear terror is not out of the question if it fits in with the Kremlin business agenda. Expelling diplomats and limiting official visits is not going to have an impact.

How about limiting the Russian ruling elite’s visits to their properties in the West? Ironically, they like to keep their money where they can trust in the rule of law, and so far Mr. Putin and his wealthy supporters have every reason to believe their money is safe. They’ve been spending so much on ski trips to the Alps that they recently decided to bring the skiing to Russia by snapping up the Olympic Winter Games.

There is no reason to cease doing business with Russia. The delusion is that it can ever be more than that. The mafia takes, it does not give. Mr. Putin has discovered that when dealing with Europe and America he can always exchange worthless promises of reform for cold, hard cash. Mr. Lugovoi may yet find himself up for sale.

Kasparov Puts One Across the Kremlin’s Bow

Other Russia offers readers Garry Kasparov’s recent column in the Wall Street Journal exposing the Kremlin as containing a mafia regime:

Don Putin

When Vladimir Putin took power in Russia in 2000, the burning question was: “Who is Putin?” It has now changed to: “What is the nature of Putin’s Russia?” This regime has been remarkably consistent in its behavior, yet foreign leaders and the Western press still act surprised at Mr. Putin’s total disregard for their opinions.

Again and again we hear cries of: “Doesn’t Putin know how bad this looks?” When another prominent Russian journalist is murdered, when a businessman not friendly to the Kremlin is jailed, when a foreign company is pushed out of its Russian investment, when pro-democracy marchers are beaten by police, when gas and oil supplies are used as weapons, or when Russian weapons and missile technology are sold to terrorist sponsor states like Iran and Syria, what needs to be asked is what sort of government would continue such behavior. This Kremlin regime operates within a value system entirely different from that of the Western nations struggling to understand what is happening behind the medieval red walls.

Mr. Putin’s government is unique in history. This Kremlin is part oligarchy, with a small, tightly connected gang of wealthy rulers. It is partly a feudal system, broken down into semi-autonomous fiefdoms in which payments are collected from the serfs, who have no rights. Over this there is a democratic coat of paint, just thick enough to gain entry into the G-8 and keep the oligarchy’s money safe in Western banks.

But if you really wish to understand the Putin regime in depth, I can recommend some reading. No Karl Marx or Adam Smith. Nothing by Montesquieu or Machiavelli, although the author you are looking for is of Italian descent. But skip Mussolini’s “The Doctrine of Fascism,” for now, and the entire political science section. Instead, go directly to the fiction department and take home everything you can find by Mario Puzo. If you are in a real hurry to become an expert on the Russian government, you may prefer the DVD section, where you can find Mr. Puzo’s works on film. “The Godfather” trilogy is a good place to start, but do not leave out “The Last Don,” “Omerta” and “The Sicilian.”

The web of betrayals, the secrecy, the blurred lines between what is business, what is government, and what is criminal — it’s all there in Mr. Puzo’s books. A historian looks at the Kremlin today and sees elements of Mussolini’s “corporate state,” Latin American juntas and Mexico’s pseudo-democratic PRI machine. A Puzo fan sees the Putin government more accurately: the strict hierarchy, the extortion, the intimidation, the code of secrecy and, above all, the mandate to keep the revenue flowing. In other words, a mafia.

If a member of the inner circle goes against the Capo, his life is forfeit. Once Russia’s richest man, Mikhail Khodorkovsky wanted to go straight and run his Yukos oil company as a legitimate corporation and not as another cog in Mr. Putin’s KGB, Inc. He quickly found himself in a Siberian prison, his company dismantled and looted, and its pieces absorbed by the state mafia apparatus of Rosneft and Gazprom.

The Yukos case has become a model. Private companies are absorbed into the state while at the same time the assets of the state companies move into private accounts.

Alexander Litvinenko was a KGB agent who broke the loyalty code by fleeing to Britain. Worse, he violated the law of omertà by going to the press and even publishing books about the dirty deeds of Mr. Putin and his foot soldiers. Instead of being taken fishing in the old-fashioned Godfather style, he was killed in London in the first recorded case of nuclear terrorism. Now the Kremlin is refusing to hand over the main suspect in the murder.

Mr. Putin can’t understand Britain doing potential harm to its business interests over one human life. That’s an alien concept. In his world, everything is negotiable. Morals and principles are just chips on the table in the Kremlin’s game. There is no mere misunderstanding in the Litvinenko case; there are two different languages being spoken.

In the civilized world, certain things are sacrosanct. Human life is not traded at the same table where business and diplomacy are discussed. But for Mr. Putin, it’s a true no-limits game. Kosovo, the missile shield, pipeline deals, the Iranian nuclear program and democratic rights are all just cards to be played.

After years of showing no respect for the law in Russia, with no resulting consequences from abroad, it should not come as a surprise that Mr. Putin’s attitude extends to international relations as well. The man accused of the Litvinenko murder, Andrei Lugovoi, signs autographs and enjoys the support of the Russian media, which says and does nothing without Kremlin approval. For seven years the West has tried to change the Kremlin with kind words and compliance. It apparently believed that it would be able to integrate Mr. Putin and his gang into the Western system of trade and diplomacy.

Instead, the opposite has happened — the mafia corrupts everything it touches. Bartering in human rights begins to appear acceptable. The Kremlin is not changing its standards: It is imposing them on the outside world. It receives the stamp of legitimacy from Western leaders and businesses but makes those same leaders and businesses complicit in its crimes.

With energy prices so high, the temptation to sell out to the Kremlin is an offer you almost can’t refuse. Gerhard Schröder could not resist doing business with Mr. Putin on his terms and, after pushing through a Baltic Sea pipeline deal while in office, he had a nice Gazprom job waiting for him when he left the chancellorship. Silvio Berlusconi also became a Putin business partner. He even answered for Mr. Putin at an EU meeting, vigorously defending Russian abuses in Chechnya and the jailing of Mr. Khodorkovsky and then joking to Mr. Putin, “I should be your lawyer!” Now we see Nicolas Sarkozy boosting the interests of French energy company Total in the Shtokman gas field.

Can Mr. Sarkozy possibly speak out strongly in support of Britain after making big deals on the phone with Mr. Putin? He should know that if Gordon Brown gets Mr. Putin on the line and offers to drop the case against Mr. Lugovoi, perhaps Total will find itself pushed out to make room for BP.

We in the Russian opposition have been saying for a long time that our problem would soon be the world’s problem. The mafia knows no borders. Nuclear terror is not out of the question if it fits in with the Kremlin business agenda. Expelling diplomats and limiting official visits is not going to have an impact.

How about limiting the Russian ruling elite’s visits to their properties in the West? Ironically, they like to keep their money where they can trust in the rule of law, and so far Mr. Putin and his wealthy supporters have every reason to believe their money is safe. They’ve been spending so much on ski trips to the Alps that they recently decided to bring the skiing to Russia by snapping up the Olympic Winter Games.

There is no reason to cease doing business with Russia. The delusion is that it can ever be more than that. The mafia takes, it does not give. Mr. Putin has discovered that when dealing with Europe and America he can always exchange worthless promises of reform for cold, hard cash. Mr. Lugovoi may yet find himself up for sale.

Kasparov Puts One Across the Kremlin’s Bow

Other Russia offers readers Garry Kasparov’s recent column in the Wall Street Journal exposing the Kremlin as containing a mafia regime:

Don Putin

When Vladimir Putin took power in Russia in 2000, the burning question was: “Who is Putin?” It has now changed to: “What is the nature of Putin’s Russia?” This regime has been remarkably consistent in its behavior, yet foreign leaders and the Western press still act surprised at Mr. Putin’s total disregard for their opinions.

Again and again we hear cries of: “Doesn’t Putin know how bad this looks?” When another prominent Russian journalist is murdered, when a businessman not friendly to the Kremlin is jailed, when a foreign company is pushed out of its Russian investment, when pro-democracy marchers are beaten by police, when gas and oil supplies are used as weapons, or when Russian weapons and missile technology are sold to terrorist sponsor states like Iran and Syria, what needs to be asked is what sort of government would continue such behavior. This Kremlin regime operates within a value system entirely different from that of the Western nations struggling to understand what is happening behind the medieval red walls.

Mr. Putin’s government is unique in history. This Kremlin is part oligarchy, with a small, tightly connected gang of wealthy rulers. It is partly a feudal system, broken down into semi-autonomous fiefdoms in which payments are collected from the serfs, who have no rights. Over this there is a democratic coat of paint, just thick enough to gain entry into the G-8 and keep the oligarchy’s money safe in Western banks.

But if you really wish to understand the Putin regime in depth, I can recommend some reading. No Karl Marx or Adam Smith. Nothing by Montesquieu or Machiavelli, although the author you are looking for is of Italian descent. But skip Mussolini’s “The Doctrine of Fascism,” for now, and the entire political science section. Instead, go directly to the fiction department and take home everything you can find by Mario Puzo. If you are in a real hurry to become an expert on the Russian government, you may prefer the DVD section, where you can find Mr. Puzo’s works on film. “The Godfather” trilogy is a good place to start, but do not leave out “The Last Don,” “Omerta” and “The Sicilian.”

The web of betrayals, the secrecy, the blurred lines between what is business, what is government, and what is criminal — it’s all there in Mr. Puzo’s books. A historian looks at the Kremlin today and sees elements of Mussolini’s “corporate state,” Latin American juntas and Mexico’s pseudo-democratic PRI machine. A Puzo fan sees the Putin government more accurately: the strict hierarchy, the extortion, the intimidation, the code of secrecy and, above all, the mandate to keep the revenue flowing. In other words, a mafia.

If a member of the inner circle goes against the Capo, his life is forfeit. Once Russia’s richest man, Mikhail Khodorkovsky wanted to go straight and run his Yukos oil company as a legitimate corporation and not as another cog in Mr. Putin’s KGB, Inc. He quickly found himself in a Siberian prison, his company dismantled and looted, and its pieces absorbed by the state mafia apparatus of Rosneft and Gazprom.

The Yukos case has become a model. Private companies are absorbed into the state while at the same time the assets of the state companies move into private accounts.

Alexander Litvinenko was a KGB agent who broke the loyalty code by fleeing to Britain. Worse, he violated the law of omertà by going to the press and even publishing books about the dirty deeds of Mr. Putin and his foot soldiers. Instead of being taken fishing in the old-fashioned Godfather style, he was killed in London in the first recorded case of nuclear terrorism. Now the Kremlin is refusing to hand over the main suspect in the murder.

Mr. Putin can’t understand Britain doing potential harm to its business interests over one human life. That’s an alien concept. In his world, everything is negotiable. Morals and principles are just chips on the table in the Kremlin’s game. There is no mere misunderstanding in the Litvinenko case; there are two different languages being spoken.

In the civilized world, certain things are sacrosanct. Human life is not traded at the same table where business and diplomacy are discussed. But for Mr. Putin, it’s a true no-limits game. Kosovo, the missile shield, pipeline deals, the Iranian nuclear program and democratic rights are all just cards to be played.

After years of showing no respect for the law in Russia, with no resulting consequences from abroad, it should not come as a surprise that Mr. Putin’s attitude extends to international relations as well. The man accused of the Litvinenko murder, Andrei Lugovoi, signs autographs and enjoys the support of the Russian media, which says and does nothing without Kremlin approval. For seven years the West has tried to change the Kremlin with kind words and compliance. It apparently believed that it would be able to integrate Mr. Putin and his gang into the Western system of trade and diplomacy.

Instead, the opposite has happened — the mafia corrupts everything it touches. Bartering in human rights begins to appear acceptable. The Kremlin is not changing its standards: It is imposing them on the outside world. It receives the stamp of legitimacy from Western leaders and businesses but makes those same leaders and businesses complicit in its crimes.

With energy prices so high, the temptation to sell out to the Kremlin is an offer you almost can’t refuse. Gerhard Schröder could not resist doing business with Mr. Putin on his terms and, after pushing through a Baltic Sea pipeline deal while in office, he had a nice Gazprom job waiting for him when he left the chancellorship. Silvio Berlusconi also became a Putin business partner. He even answered for Mr. Putin at an EU meeting, vigorously defending Russian abuses in Chechnya and the jailing of Mr. Khodorkovsky and then joking to Mr. Putin, “I should be your lawyer!” Now we see Nicolas Sarkozy boosting the interests of French energy company Total in the Shtokman gas field.

Can Mr. Sarkozy possibly speak out strongly in support of Britain after making big deals on the phone with Mr. Putin? He should know that if Gordon Brown gets Mr. Putin on the line and offers to drop the case against Mr. Lugovoi, perhaps Total will find itself pushed out to make room for BP.

We in the Russian opposition have been saying for a long time that our problem would soon be the world’s problem. The mafia knows no borders. Nuclear terror is not out of the question if it fits in with the Kremlin business agenda. Expelling diplomats and limiting official visits is not going to have an impact.

How about limiting the Russian ruling elite’s visits to their properties in the West? Ironically, they like to keep their money where they can trust in the rule of law, and so far Mr. Putin and his wealthy supporters have every reason to believe their money is safe. They’ve been spending so much on ski trips to the Alps that they recently decided to bring the skiing to Russia by snapping up the Olympic Winter Games.

There is no reason to cease doing business with Russia. The delusion is that it can ever be more than that. The mafia takes, it does not give. Mr. Putin has discovered that when dealing with Europe and America he can always exchange worthless promises of reform for cold, hard cash. Mr. Lugovoi may yet find himself up for sale.

Kasparov Puts One Across the Kremlin’s Bow

Other Russia offers readers Garry Kasparov’s recent column in the Wall Street Journal exposing the Kremlin as containing a mafia regime:

Don Putin

When Vladimir Putin took power in Russia in 2000, the burning question was: “Who is Putin?” It has now changed to: “What is the nature of Putin’s Russia?” This regime has been remarkably consistent in its behavior, yet foreign leaders and the Western press still act surprised at Mr. Putin’s total disregard for their opinions.

Again and again we hear cries of: “Doesn’t Putin know how bad this looks?” When another prominent Russian journalist is murdered, when a businessman not friendly to the Kremlin is jailed, when a foreign company is pushed out of its Russian investment, when pro-democracy marchers are beaten by police, when gas and oil supplies are used as weapons, or when Russian weapons and missile technology are sold to terrorist sponsor states like Iran and Syria, what needs to be asked is what sort of government would continue such behavior. This Kremlin regime operates within a value system entirely different from that of the Western nations struggling to understand what is happening behind the medieval red walls.

Mr. Putin’s government is unique in history. This Kremlin is part oligarchy, with a small, tightly connected gang of wealthy rulers. It is partly a feudal system, broken down into semi-autonomous fiefdoms in which payments are collected from the serfs, who have no rights. Over this there is a democratic coat of paint, just thick enough to gain entry into the G-8 and keep the oligarchy’s money safe in Western banks.

But if you really wish to understand the Putin regime in depth, I can recommend some reading. No Karl Marx or Adam Smith. Nothing by Montesquieu or Machiavelli, although the author you are looking for is of Italian descent. But skip Mussolini’s “The Doctrine of Fascism,” for now, and the entire political science section. Instead, go directly to the fiction department and take home everything you can find by Mario Puzo. If you are in a real hurry to become an expert on the Russian government, you may prefer the DVD section, where you can find Mr. Puzo’s works on film. “The Godfather” trilogy is a good place to start, but do not leave out “The Last Don,” “Omerta” and “The Sicilian.”

The web of betrayals, the secrecy, the blurred lines between what is business, what is government, and what is criminal — it’s all there in Mr. Puzo’s books. A historian looks at the Kremlin today and sees elements of Mussolini’s “corporate state,” Latin American juntas and Mexico’s pseudo-democratic PRI machine. A Puzo fan sees the Putin government more accurately: the strict hierarchy, the extortion, the intimidation, the code of secrecy and, above all, the mandate to keep the revenue flowing. In other words, a mafia.

If a member of the inner circle goes against the Capo, his life is forfeit. Once Russia’s richest man, Mikhail Khodorkovsky wanted to go straight and run his Yukos oil company as a legitimate corporation and not as another cog in Mr. Putin’s KGB, Inc. He quickly found himself in a Siberian prison, his company dismantled and looted, and its pieces absorbed by the state mafia apparatus of Rosneft and Gazprom.

The Yukos case has become a model. Private companies are absorbed into the state while at the same time the assets of the state companies move into private accounts.

Alexander Litvinenko was a KGB agent who broke the loyalty code by fleeing to Britain. Worse, he violated the law of omertà by going to the press and even publishing books about the dirty deeds of Mr. Putin and his foot soldiers. Instead of being taken fishing in the old-fashioned Godfather style, he was killed in London in the first recorded case of nuclear terrorism. Now the Kremlin is refusing to hand over the main suspect in the murder.

Mr. Putin can’t understand Britain doing potential harm to its business interests over one human life. That’s an alien concept. In his world, everything is negotiable. Morals and principles are just chips on the table in the Kremlin’s game. There is no mere misunderstanding in the Litvinenko case; there are two different languages being spoken.

In the civilized world, certain things are sacrosanct. Human life is not traded at the same table where business and diplomacy are discussed. But for Mr. Putin, it’s a true no-limits game. Kosovo, the missile shield, pipeline deals, the Iranian nuclear program and democratic rights are all just cards to be played.

After years of showing no respect for the law in Russia, with no resulting consequences from abroad, it should not come as a surprise that Mr. Putin’s attitude extends to international relations as well. The man accused of the Litvinenko murder, Andrei Lugovoi, signs autographs and enjoys the support of the Russian media, which says and does nothing without Kremlin approval. For seven years the West has tried to change the Kremlin with kind words and compliance. It apparently believed that it would be able to integrate Mr. Putin and his gang into the Western system of trade and diplomacy.

Instead, the opposite has happened — the mafia corrupts everything it touches. Bartering in human rights begins to appear acceptable. The Kremlin is not changing its standards: It is imposing them on the outside world. It receives the stamp of legitimacy from Western leaders and businesses but makes those same leaders and businesses complicit in its crimes.

With energy prices so high, the temptation to sell out to the Kremlin is an offer you almost can’t refuse. Gerhard Schröder could not resist doing business with Mr. Putin on his terms and, after pushing through a Baltic Sea pipeline deal while in office, he had a nice Gazprom job waiting for him when he left the chancellorship. Silvio Berlusconi also became a Putin business partner. He even answered for Mr. Putin at an EU meeting, vigorously defending Russian abuses in Chechnya and the jailing of Mr. Khodorkovsky and then joking to Mr. Putin, “I should be your lawyer!” Now we see Nicolas Sarkozy boosting the interests of French energy company Total in the Shtokman gas field.

Can Mr. Sarkozy possibly speak out strongly in support of Britain after making big deals on the phone with Mr. Putin? He should know that if Gordon Brown gets Mr. Putin on the line and offers to drop the case against Mr. Lugovoi, perhaps Total will find itself pushed out to make room for BP.

We in the Russian opposition have been saying for a long time that our problem would soon be the world’s problem. The mafia knows no borders. Nuclear terror is not out of the question if it fits in with the Kremlin business agenda. Expelling diplomats and limiting official visits is not going to have an impact.

How about limiting the Russian ruling elite’s visits to their properties in the West? Ironically, they like to keep their money where they can trust in the rule of law, and so far Mr. Putin and his wealthy supporters have every reason to believe their money is safe. They’ve been spending so much on ski trips to the Alps that they recently decided to bring the skiing to Russia by snapping up the Olympic Winter Games.

There is no reason to cease doing business with Russia. The delusion is that it can ever be more than that. The mafia takes, it does not give. Mr. Putin has discovered that when dealing with Europe and America he can always exchange worthless promises of reform for cold, hard cash. Mr. Lugovoi may yet find himself up for sale.

Once Again, Russia Convicted of Subhuman Behavior in Chechnya by the European Court

Prague Watchdog reports that Russia has once again been convicted of Chechen war crimes by the European Court for Human Rights (pictured, left) It’s the sixth such conviction for Russia this year alone. There are no words which can adequately describe the nature of this outrage, or the fact that this barbaric country sits on the G-8 and holds a U.N. Security Council veto, much less the fact that the world is planning to hold the 2014 Olympic games right in the very region where these outrageous crimes are occurring. That’s one of the great Western failures of the Post-War world.

The European Court of Human Rights announced today that the Russian authorities are guilty of a series of murders and other serious crimes committed by federal forces in the Chechen village of Novye Aldy on February 5, 2000. In addition, it held it responsible for the murder of two residents of the Chechen village of Gekhi committed by federal forces in August of the same year.

After reviewing the case — “Musayev and Others versus Russia” — the Strasbourg court upheld the claims of the five applicants and gave a unanimous ruling that several articles of the European Convention for Human Rights had been violated, in particular those concerning the right to life, the prohibition of inhuman or torture and the right to an effective remedy. The court ordered the Russian state to pay its victims compensation for material and moral damage totalling 143,000 euros and compensation for the costs and expenses of the hearings worth nearly 21,000 euros.

The interests of the applicants are represented by lawyers for the “Memorial” Human Rights Centre and the London-based European Human Rights Advocacy Centre (EHRAC). Human rights organizations held parallel press conferences in Moscow and Grozny today, and we will also publish a report concerning these.

According to information collected by human rights activists in the aftermath of the “mop-up” in the village, federal units in Novye Aldy killed several dozen civilians. They also engaged in looting, arson and rape. The Russian judicial system has so far failed to establish the identity of those guilty, and no one has been punished.

A second case on which a ruling was made in Strasbourg today involves two residents of the Chechen village of Gekhi, Ali and Umar Musayev, who were arrested by federal soldiers on August 8 2000 after an armoured personnel carrier was blown up nearby the village. A month later, in the presence of the Chechen authorities, the father of the Musayev brothers exhumed four bodies in the local cemetery, two of which were those of his sons and bore the signs of violent death.

After unsuccessful attempts to obtain justice in Russia, the mother of the victims, Aminat Musayeva, appealed together with her husband to the Strasbourg Court, which had accepted their complaint in 2001. In its decision today, the European Court ruled that Russia must pay the claimants moral damages in the sum of 130,000 euros and legal costs of 285 euros.

According to Prague Watchdog’s archive, five decisions have already been taken this year on “Chechen” cases. In all of them the claims of the applicants were met in full or almost in full.

____________________________________________________

A list of earlier rulings by the European court this year:

April 5: disappearance and death of a 61-year old Chechen man, Shakhid Baysayev, who was detained during a mop-up operation conducted by Russian police force units (OMON) in the Chechen village of Podgornoye in March 2000.

May 10: abduction and murder of Shamil Akhmadov, a Chechen resident who was arrested during a large-scale special operation in the city of Argun in March 2001.

June 21: murder of Chechen activist Zura Bitiyeva and her husband, son and brother, who were shot dead by unknown gunmen at their home in the Chechen town of Kalinovskaya in May 2003

July 5: abduction and murder of Ruslan Alikhadziyev, Speaker of the Parliament of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, who was arrested by federal soldiers in May 2000 in his home in Shali and then “disappeared”.

July 12: murder of Chechen national Ayubkhan Magomadov, who was arrested by an armed unit of the Federal Security Service in October 2000 in his home in the village of Kurchaloy and then “disappeared”.

Russia’s response to this litany of outrages? It is now trying to cut off access by its citizens to the ECHR. The International Herald Tribune reports:

Russia wants to restrict the flow of appeals to the European Court of Human Rights, where a growing number of Chechens have been winning cases against the Russian government. The country’s Supreme Court this week described plans to allow its citizens to file human rights cases against the state in Russian courts — something they cannot do now. The government says the changes will make it easier for Russian to protect their rights without turning to the European court.

But Chechens — who say they are often subject to torture, summary executions, indiscriminate bombings and forced disappearances — fear the government wants to deprive them of their only hope for justice. Russian authorities have denied that military and security forces are guilty of atrocities in the southern Muslim republic of Chechnya, where two wars have been fought to impose Moscow’s control. But they have restricted journalists’ access to the area. When Chechens go to police with allegations of abuse, their cases rarely make it to court, leaving victims with little choice but to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights.

The court, in Strasbourg, France, has issued at least 10 verdicts against Russia in the past few months in cases concerning the Chechen wars. Some 200 are still pending. Rights advocates say President Vladimir Putin’s government is irritated by the international exposure of atrocities in Chechnya brought by each new case. Fatima Bazorkina’s is one such case: Watching the news on Russian channel NTV in February 2000, she said, she saw a Russian officer ordering her son to be killed. “Kill him, damn it. … Get him over there, shoot him,” the officer said, Bazorkina recalled over the phone from her home in Ingushetia, a region bordering Chechnya. Bazorkina has not seen her son, Khodzhimurad Yandiyev, since. Authorities said her son had been abducted by unknown men. The officer Bazorkina said she saw ordering her son’s killing, later identified as Col.-Gen. Alexander Baranov, has been promoted, according to the Stichting Russian Justice Initiative, which helps victims of rights abuses in the North Caucasus — the troubled region that includes Chechnya — seek justice at home and in Strasbourg.

The European Court ruled in March that Russian authorities were responsible for Yandiyev’s presumed death and failed to adequately investigate. The court said the suffering caused to his mother qualified as inhumane and degrading treatment and ordered the government to pay her €35,000 (US$48,400). Russians have been able to appeal to the Strasbourg court since their country ratified the European Convention on Human Rights in 1998. Russians now file more complaints with the court than citizens of any other European country. By the beginning of 2007, they had filed about 20,000 cases against the state, according to Russia’s Constitutional Court. Russia’s Supreme Court said this week that lawyers will draft legal changes to allow Russians to file human rights cases against the state in Russian courts.

“We are talking about reforming the Russian legal system in such a way that a number, a significant number, of the reasons our citizens turn to the European Court will be removed because of the availability of real and effective ways to protect their rights in their own nation,” Constitutional Court chairman Valery Zorkin said in an opinion piece in the official newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta. He denied this would limit Russians’ right to appeal to the European Court.

Magomet Mutsolgov, who filed a complaint last year over the disappearance in Ingushetia of his brother Bashir, said the planned changes were “an attempt to replace the European Court. It is an attempt to deprive the people in the North Caucasus of their last hope to stand up for their constitutional rights,” Mutsolgov said. He said his brother was last seen in December 2003 as he was stopped by security officers at a checkpoint. There has been no official investigation. “There are some Russian officials who want to improve the country’s image and reduce the flow of Russian citizens’ complaints” to the European court, said Ole Solvang, head of the Stichting Russian Justice Initiative. “The right way to reduce the number of complaints (to the European Court) is not to allow abuses in the first place, and if they take place to thoroughly and effectively investigate them,” he said. Solvang said Russian prosecutors do not refuse to investigate alleged government atrocities in Chechnya but investigations inevitably stall.

Annals of the Horrors of Nashi

Writing in the Daily Mail, blogger Edward Lucas rips Putin’s Russia a new one over its appalling propagandization of Russia’s young people, just as Hitler did.

Remember the mammoths, say the clean-cut organisers at the youth camp’s mass wedding. “They became extinct because they did not have enough sex. That must not happen to Russia”. Obediently, couples move to a special section of dormitory tents arranged in a heart-shape and called the Love Oasis, where they can start procreating for the motherland. With its relentlessly upbeat tone, bizarre ideas and tight control, it sounds like a weird indoctrination session for a phoney religious cult. But this organisation – known as “Nashi”, meaning “Ours” [LR: A better translation would be “us Slavic Russians” — you won’t find too many dark-skinned people at Nashi’s camp, nor will you find Nashi encouraging Slavic Russians to breed with non-Slavs] – is youth movement run by Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin that has become a central part of Russian political life. Nashi’s annual camp, 200 miles outside Moscow, is attended by 10,000 uniformed youngsters and involves two weeks of lectures and physical fitness. Attendance is monitored via compulsory electronic badges and anyone who misses three events is expelled. So are drinkers; alcohol is banned. But sex is encouraged, and condoms are nowhere on sale.

Bizarrely, young women are encouraged to hand in thongs and other skimpy underwear – supposedly a cause of sterility – and given more wholesome and substantial undergarments. [LR: This is what happens in Russia, basic facts from the West get perverted in the manner of whisper-down-the-lane as they travel across the frozen tundra to reach Moscow. Tight underwear affects male potency, not female.] Twenty-five couples marry at the start of the camp’s first week and ten more at the start of the second. These mass weddings, the ultimate expression of devotion to the motherland, are legal and conducted by a civil official.

Attempting to raise Russia’s dismally low birthrate even by eccentric-seeming means might be understandable. Certainly, the country’s demographic outlook is dire. The hard-drinking, hardsmoking and disease-ridden population is set to plunge by a million a year in the next decade.

But the real aim of the youth camp – and the 100,000-strong movement behind it – is not to improve Russia’s demographic profile, but to attack democracy. Under Mr Putin, Russia is sliding into fascism, with state control of the economy, media, politics and society becoming increasingly heavy-handed. And Nashi, along with other similar youth movements, such as ‘Young Guard’, and ‘Young Russia’, is in the forefront of the charge. At the start, it was all too easy to mock. I attended an early event run by its predecessor, ‘Walking together’, in the heart of Moscow in 2000. A motley collection of youngsters were collecting ‘unpatriotic’ works of fiction for destruction. It was sinister in theory, recalling the Nazis’ book-burning in the 1930s, but it was laughable in practice. There was no sign of ordinary members of the public handing in books (the copies piled on the pavement had been brought by the organisers).

Once the television cameras had left, the event organisers admitted that they were not really volunteers, but being paid by “sponsors”. The idea that Russia’s anarchic, apathetic youth would ever be attracted into a disciplined mass movement in support of their president – what critics called a “Putinjugend”, recalling the “Hitlerjugend” (German for “Hitler Youth”) – seemed fanciful. How wrong we were. Life for young people in Russia without connections is a mixture of inadequate and corrupt education, and a choice of boring dead-end jobs. Like the Hitler Youth and the Soviet Union’s Young Pioneers, Nashi and its allied movements offer not just excitement, friendship and a sense of purpose – but a leg up in life, too. Nashi’s senior officials – known, in an eerie echo of the Soviet era, as “Commissars” – get free places at top universities. Thereafter, they can expect good jobs in politics or business – which in Russia nowadays, under the Kremlin’s crony capitalism, are increasingly the same thing.

Nashi and similar outfits are the Kremlin’s first line of defence against its greatest fear: real democracy. Like the sheep chanting “Four legs good, two legs bad” in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, they can intimidate through noise and numbers. Nashi supporters drown out protests by Russia’s feeble and divided democratic opposition and use violence to drive them off the streets. The group’s leaders insist that the only connection to officialdom is loyalty to the president. If so, they seem remarkably well-informed.

In July 2006, the British ambassador, Sir Anthony Brenton, infuriated the Kremlin by attending an opposition meeting. For months afterwards, he was noisily harassed by groups of Nashi supporters demanding that he “apologise”. With uncanny accuracy, the hooligans knew his movements in advance – a sign of official tip-offs.

Even when Nashi flagrantly breaks the law, the authorities do not intervene. After Estonia enraged Russia by moving a Soviet-era war memorial in April, Nashi led the blockade of Estonia’s Moscow embassy. It daubed the building with graffiti, blasted it with Stalin-era military music, ripped down the Estonian flag and attacked a visiting ambassador’s car. The Moscow police, who normally stamp ruthlessly on public protest, stood by.

Nashi fits perfectly into the Kremlin’s newly-minted ideology of “Sovereign democracy”. This is not the mind-numbing jargon of Marxism-Leninism, but a lightweight collection of cliches and slogans promoting Russia’s supposed unique political and spiritual culture. It is strongly reminiscent of the Tsarist era slogan: “Autocracy, Orthodoxy and Nationality”. The similarities to both the Soviet and Tsarist eras are striking. Communist ideologues once spent much of their time explaining why their party deserved its monopoly of power, even though the promised utopia seemed indefinitely delayed. Today, the Kremlin’s ideology chief Vladislav Surkov is trying to explain why questioning the crooks and spooks who run Russia is not just mistaken, but treacherous.

Yet, by comparison with other outfits, Nashi looks relatively civilised. Its racism and prejudice is implied, but not trumpeted. Other pro-Kremlin youth groups are hounding gays and foreigners off the streets of Moscow. Mestnye [The Locals] recently distributed leaflets urging Muscovites to boycott non-Russian cab drivers. These showed a young blonde Russian refusing a ride from a swarthy, beetle-browed taxi driver, under the slogan: “We’re not going the same way.” Such unofficial xenophobia matches the official stance. On April 1, a decree explicitly backed by Mr Putin banned foreigners from trading in Russia’s retail markets. By some estimates, 12m people are working illegally in Russia.

Those who hoped that Russia’s first post-totalitarian generation would be liberal, have been dissapointed. Although explicit support for extremist and racist groups is in the low single figures, support for racist sentiments is mushrooming. Slogans such as “Russia for the Russians” now attract the support of half of the population. Echoing Kremlin propaganda, Nashi denounced Estonians as “fascist”, for daring to say that they find Nazi and Soviet memorials equally repugnant. But, in truth, it is in Russia that fascism is all too evident. The Kremlin sees no role for a democratic opposition, denouncing its leaders as stooges and traitors. Sadly, most Russians agree: a recent poll showed that a majority believed that opposition parties should not be allowed to take power.

Just as the Nazis in 1930s rewrote Germany’s history, the Putin Kremlin is rewriting Russia’s. It has rehabilitated Stalin, the greatest mass-murderer of the 20th century. And it is demonising Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s first democratically-elected president. That he destroyed totalitarianism is ignored. Instead, he is denounced for his “weak” pro-Western policies. While distorting its own history, the Kremlin denounces other countries. Mr Putin was quick to blame Britain’s “colonial mentality” for our government’s request that Russia try to find a legal means of extraditing Andrei Lugovoi, the prime suspect in the murder of Alexander Litvinenko.

Yet the truth is that Britain, like most Western countries, flagellates itself for the crimes of the past. Indeed, British schoolchildren rarely learn anything positive about their country’s empire. And, if Mr Putin has his way, Russian pupils will learn nothing bad about the Soviet empire, which was far bloodier, more brutal – and more recent. A new guide for history teachers – explicitly endorsed by Mr Putin – brushes off Stalin’s crimes. It describes him as “the most successful leader of the USSR”. But it skates over the colossal human cost – 25m people were shot and starved in the cause of communism.

“Political repression was used to mobilise not only rank-and-file citizens but also the ruling elite,” it says. In other words, Stalin wanted to make the country strong, so he may have been a bit harsh at times. At any time since the collapse of Soviet totalitarianism in the late 1980s, that would have seemed a nauseating whitewash. Now, it is treated as bald historical fact.

If Stalin made mistakes, so what? Lots of people make mistakes.

“Problematic pages in our history exist,” Mr Putin said last week. But: “we have less than some countries. And ours are not as terrible as those of some others.” He compared the Great Terror of 1937, when 700,000 people were murdered in a purge by Stalin’s secret police, to the atom bomb on Hiroshima. The comparison is preposterous. A strong argument can be made that by ending the war quickly, the atom bombs saved countless lives. Franklin D Roosevelt and Harry Truman may have failed to realise that nuclear weapons would one day endanger humanity’s survival. But, unlike Stalin, they were not genocidal maniacs.

As the new cold war deepens, Mr Putin echoes, consciously or unconsciously, the favourite weapon of Soviet propagandists in the last one. Asked about Afghanistan, they would cite Vietnam. Castigated for the plight of Soviet Jews, they would complain with treacly sincerity about discrimination against American blacks. Every blot on the Soviet record was matched by something, real or imagined, that the West had done. But the contrasts even then were absurd. When the American administration blundered into Vietnam, hundreds of thousands of people protested in the heart of Washington. When eight extraordinarily brave Soviet dissidents tried to demonstrate in Red Square against the invasion of Czechoslovakia, in 1968, they were instantly arrested and spent many years in labour camps.

For the east European countries with first-hand experience of Stalinist terror, the Kremlin’s rewriting of history could hardly be more scary. Not only does Russia see no reason to apologise for their suffering under Kremlin rule, it now sees the collapse of communism not as a time of liberation, but as an era of pitiable weakness.

Russia barely commemorates even the damage it did to itself, let alone the appalling suffering inflicted on other people. Nashi is both a symptom of the way Russia is going – and a means of entrenching the drift to fascism. Terrifyingly, the revived Soviet view of history is now widely held in Russia. A poll this week of Russian teenagers showed that a majority believe that Stalin did more good things than bad. If tens of thousands of uniformed German youngsters were marching across Germany in support of an authoritarian Führer, baiting foreigners and praising Hitler, alarm bells would be jangling all across Europe. So why aren’t they ringing about Nashi?

Annals of Russian Tennis "Dominance"

If things go on in the world of women’s tennis as they are right now, by the end of this year Russia will no longer have four women ranked in the world’s top 10 as it currently does, but only three. Nadia Petrova, currently ranked in the top 10, has fallen to #14 based on her performance in 2007 alone.

And Maria Sharapova won’t be Russia’s highest-ranked player. Sharapova, #2 in the world, has fallen to #6 based on her 2007 performance. She’s been passed by current #4 Svetlana Kuznetsova, and current #7 Anna Chakvetadze is within easy striking distance of her as well.

So Kuznetsova and Chakvetadze are Russia’s best players of 2007. Well, kind of they are.

You see, Kuznetsova hasn’t won a single tournament all year long. She’s passed Sharapova by on this year’s rankings without doing so, which tells you something about how Sharapova has fared. In Kuznetsova’s last three tournaments, she was eliminated each time by a lower-ranked player, twice in straight sets. She’s reached the finals in four of the twelve tournaments she’s played this year (a far better record than Sharapova), but she’s lost every single time once she got there, stretching the winner to three sets only once and getting beaten by a higher-ranked player in only one of the four finals outings (echoes of Anna Kournikova).

In reality, the only credible record by a Russian player this year has been Chakvetadze (the one whose last name belies her actually being Russian), winner of three tournaments. But these were all lowly tier III and IV events (Hobart, S’hertogenbosch and Cincinnati) and in two of the three outings she prevailed in the finals against an opponent not ranked in the world’s top 60 players. She did, however, record Russia’s best win by far this year when she prevailed over world #3 and top seed Jelena Jancovic, hottest player on the tour this year, at S’hertogenbosch in the Netherlands in June.

The only Russian player to win a tier I or II event this year is Petrova, who despite that has slippped well out of the world’s top 10 this year. Petrova won the big event tier II in Paris, but only because she was lucky enough to face a player not ranked in the world’s top 30 in the finals (though granted, even that wasn’t enough to help Kuznetsova).

Conclusion: We have the same messed-up idea about Russian women playing tennis that we do about Russian economics and government. We have the vague idea that things are going well, when in fact it’s all illusion.