Daily Archives: July 31, 2007

Annals of Beslan

As much Putin’s handiwork as Basayev’s?

The Oman Observer reports:

Previously unseen film [LR: Watch the video here] proves that the bloody end to the 2004 Beslan siege was caused by security forces firing on a school crammed with hostages, not by blasts from within, a victim support group says. The Beslan Mothers’ Committee says the footage disproves the official version that the detonation of a boobytrap device planted by Chechen separatists inside the building caused the carnage at School No 1, in the southern Russian town of Beslan.

Some 333 victims, half of them children, were killed in the siege, which ended in chaos when security forces stormed the school gymnasium to free more than 1,000 children and parents held captive for three days. Committee head Susanna Dudiyeva said the video supports her conviction that security forces fired two grenade launcher rounds on the sports hall, igniting a fire that quickly engulfed the building.

“Why did they fire where there were children, on the sports hall?” Dudiyeva said to reporters after the film was shown at a local cultural centre this week. Investigators have yet to deliver a final report on modern Russia’s most harrowing hostage tragedy. Relatives of the dead say the videotape, received anonymously by post, supports their conviction that there has been a cover-up. “The prosecutor’s office rejects or ignores all our inquiries and insists that only the terrorists are to blame for what happened,” said Dudiyeva.

“We do not agree with that. We keep finding new evidence and we intend to prove to the prosecutor’s office what really happened.” Nobody answered a telephone call seeking comment yesterday from the Prosecutor General’s press office. Officials have said the more than 30 militants who seized the school on September 1, 2004, the first day of the academic year, had been determined to cause massive loss of life.

Many male hostages were executed, ruling out a negotiated solution. Only one captor survived, Nurpashi Kulayev, who was jailed last year for life for his part in the siege. The film, apparently shot by an investigator on a hand-held camera with the time and date shown on the screen, gives a graphic timeline of events on September 3, as the three-day hostage crisis descends into bloody chaos.

In one scene shot at lunchtime, escaping children run into the arms of civilian and military rescuers and beg for water. Then, at 3:08 pm, there are two loud blasts and sustained automatic gunfire. A large cloud of smoke can be seen rising outside the school building. At 5:49 pm, after the crisis is over, investigators examine some of the boobytrap devices that did not go off, lying on a table in a small room.

They are made of plastic bottles filled with ball bearings. One voice is heard saying: “They said there were two explosions, a hole in the wall and then they started running. “The hole in the wall is not from this (kind of) explosion. Apparently someone fired,” the voice continues, adding that many victims bore no sign of shrapnel wounds.

Video links from the Pravda Beslana website as to what occurred at Beslan during the tragedy can be accessed here (if you don’t speak Russian you can just click the links, they all lead to videos).

Explaining Russia’s Unsafe Skies

UPI reports:

All seven people aboard a cargo plane died when it crashed near Moscow’s Domodedovo’s airport just after takeoff Sunday. The freight plane destined for Siberia lifted off the runway, flew two miles then crashed, bursting into flames, RIA Novosti reported. The plane belonged to the cargo airline Atran. It was built in 1964 and was to be retired in November. The plane’s three flight recorders were found and the crash is under investigation, RIA Novosti said.

The International Herald Tribune outlines five key reasons why it isn’t safe to fly on Russian airlines. Good luck, those of you who intend to fly from Moscow to Sochi for the 2014 Olympics. La Russophobe certainly won’t be doing so (if you think the train might be better option, it’s probably because you haven’t been on a Russian train).

(1) TOO MANY AIRLINES: After the Soviet Union collapsed, state-owned Aeroflot splintered into 500 “babyflots,” of which 182 remain. Smaller ones, struggling to survive, are more apt to cut corners on maintenance and safety. Fleets are aging; many airliners are of Soviet vintage or are bought secondhand from the West.

(2) COMPETITION: Is fierce, and many managements are so attentive to fuel costs that they fine pilots who abort flights or even landings, even when the pilot is acting out of concern for safety. Pilots are paid according to how many hours they are in the air, a practice that can exhaust them and impair their judgment.

(3) REGULATORY BODIES: Russia has five. Duties overlap and at least two both regulate airlines and investigate their crashes. Often the only conclusion they can agree upon is pilot error, leaving the deeper causes of a disaster unexplored.

(4) TRAINING AND SALARIES: State flight schools license pilots who have logged only 50 hours in the air, compared with 150 in the West. Instructors’ salaries are low and trainees’ food allowances are just 50 rubles (US$1.90 or €1.40) a day.

(5) LAWSUITS: Russian courts don’t award large settlements to the relatives of crash victims. After one crash last year that killed all 170 people on board, the airline offered to pay just US$11,500 (about €8,600) for each fatality.

Nationalizing the Neo-Soviet Economy

Streetwise Professor illustrates the neo-Soviet nationalization of Russia’s economy. So much for capitalism!

Recent weeks have seen the continuation of the methodical march of Putinism and Russian resource nationalism. BP surrenders Kovytka. Gazprom and the Russian government (is there a difference?) begin making noises about elbowing their way into ExxonMobil’s Sakhalin I project (heretofore largely thought immune to predation). And in today’s Eurasian Daily Monitor, Vlad Socor reports that Transneft–Russia’s oil pipeline monopoly–is squeezing the Caspian Pipeline Consortium through demands for renegotiation of existing deals and demands for new capital, with demands backed up by the old standby–outrageous bills for back taxes.

The craven behavior of BP and Shell in the face of Putin’s predations at their expense has undoubtedly emboldened the Russians to take additional steps. Similarly, the sotto voce responses of the Eurowimps are also music to Putin’s ears. When will Europe awaken to the tightening grip of the Russian python?

The losers here are not just the shareholders of integrated oil majors, or American or European consumers of gasoline and natural gas. Though they may not realize it now, it will soon become apparent to the Russian people that they will be the biggest losers. I have been reading every political economy book that discusses the role of a nation’s resource endowment on its political structure that I can get my hands on. This research emphasizes a theme that I have explored before on SWP, namely that rent intensive economies (notably those with outsized endowments of natural resources) are prone to authoritarianism and dictatorship, and that increasing economic inequality and the suppression of commercial and political activity go hand in hand with growing state control over the natural resource sector. Thus, though the energy boom (and the nickel boom and the copper boom and the aluminum boom and the gold boom) will enrich the “elite” (though referring in that way to the thuggish siloviki who rule Russia sounds discordant) with access to the rents, it will condemn most Russians to a penurious economic future and a deprivation of their civil and political liberties.

To follow Putinism is to watch these theories in action. They describe Russian political developments post-2000 to a “T.” The most depressing thing is that inasmuch as these models characterize stable equilibria as a function of underlying endowments, it is unlikely that Russia will leave this trajectory. Revolution and violence are possible, but the likely results of such an explosion would mainly be (a) much death and destruction, and (b) a replacement of the old set of rent parasites with a new set. So, it is well to wish the destruction of Putinism, it is far harder even to imagine how that can be accomplished.

This is particularly true because Putin is doing the basic blocking and tackling needed to secure an authoritarian regime. The moves to revise the history textbooks provided to Russian primary and secondary students and Putin’s historical revisionism (e.g., his assertions that Russia and the USSR have a pristine record as compared to those blood-stained Americans) represent classical authoritarian moves to control the future by controlling the past. Presenting a unifying historical narrative congenial to the regime and suppressing the voicing of any alternative, more discordant, narrative reduces the costs of maintaining control. Similarly, the harassment and sometimes suppression of any non-state organization that could serve as a focal point for collective action directed against the regime is a traditional means of retaining and strengthening control. The atomization of Russian society, and the replacement of myriad spontaneous and organic links of individuals and groups across society with managed vertical relations intermediated by the state and its creatures (a wheel and spoke vs. a network model of society) cripple the formation of alternative sources of power and influence that can challenge the regime.

Not a happy vision, indeed. But Western nations need to develop a Russian policy based on a sober assessment of current realities, and likely future developments. Happy talk in Kennebunkport, or pitiful plaints about the desire for normal relations with Russia, or craven energy executives opening their wallets just after Putin took their watches, are all manifestations of denial. A denial of the reality of “modern” Russia (which is oh-so-much like not-so-modern Russia, and pre-modern Russia). Until the scales drop from European and American eyes, and they devise policies that deal with realities rather than deny them, Putin will march from triumph to triumph. It is unlikely that Putinsim–which is just a latter-day Russian version of natural resource sustained authoritarianism–can be quashed completely, and Russia transformed into a liberal (in the classical sense) modern state and civil society. However, unified resistance can mitigate its more deleterious consequences (at least for non-Russians.) As long as short sighted, commercial interests drive European policy in particular, however, such resistance is unlikely to arise.

Collective action is needed, but collective action is always difficult due to free riding and rent seeking. The entire justification for a European Union is its purported ability to facilitate collective action on matters of common interest and concern. Insofar as Russia policy is concerned, it has failed miserably in this task. The “interests” of individual states, and more shockingly, individual companies within these states (most notably German and Italian), have precluded any robust collective response to Putin’s march. Until that changes, Putin wins, and Russians (and myriad others) lose.

Politkovskaya Lives

The Miami Herald reviews Anna Politkovskaya’s final writing in the following essay. October 7th, the one-year anniversary of Anna’s cowardly murder, is fast approaching, and La Russophobe welcomes commemorative submissions from readers to be published that day.

”The more I think about it, the more I would be betraying these people if I walked away,” the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya told an interviewer in 2002. “The only thing to do is to take this to the bitter end, so that no one can say that when things became difficult, I ran away.”

Politkovskaya, who served as a special correspondent for Novaya Gazeta newspaper, did not run away, and whomever ordered the assassins’ bullets that cut her down outside of her Moscow flat in October 2006 failed to still the echoes of that voice, a fact her newly published book powerfully brings home.

An uncommonly eloquent and impassioned voice for what she saw as the destruction of Russia’s nascent democracy under the rule of President Vladimir Putin, Politkovskaya made her name reporting from the ground in the most brutal days of Russia’s war in Chechnya, painting vivid and often shocking portraits of the agony inflicted on civilians there by Russian forces, Chechen warlords and Islamist rebels alike, and how actors on many sides of the conflict cynically profited from the destruction. Her earlier book A Small Corner of Hell remains a definitive portrait of the conflict.

Later, as the bloodshed spilled to neighboring Caucasus regions such as Ingushetia, North Ossetia and Moscow itself, Politkovskaya reported that, too, and set the stage for A Russian Diary’s account of the ways in which Chechnya was the template for the deformed authoritarian state that, in Politkovskaya’s view, has taken present-day Russia by the throat and has no intention of letting go.

Here at first-hand we see the violence and fraud that surrounded Russia’s 2003 parliamentary elections and 2004 presidential elections: Candidates opposing Putin’s United Russia party receive body parts in plastic bags; in Chechnya, the amount of votes cast is 10 percent more than there are registered voters; a steady, casual and cynical co-opting of other journalists and human rights activists by the state marches forward with disturbing regularity. It is a state that Politkovskaya reveals to be brutal and incompetent. It is hard to read of the callous treatment of the relatives of victims of the 2002 Dubrovka theater siege (where Chechen militants seized a Moscow theater, and security services responded by pumping in an unknown chemical agent that killed three times as many hostages as it did attackers), or that of the grieving parents of the Beslan school siege two years later (an even-worse terrorist outrage and government failure which killed more than 300, mostly children) and not share Politkovskaya’s righteous anger.

Throughout the book we see the face of the new Russia that Politkovskaya believes is being constructed, and it is not a pretty picture. We see it in Ramzan Kadyrov, the Moscow-backed current president of Chechnya, portrayed as a ranting, uneducated thug in a long interview that Politkovskaya conducted in August 2004. Kadyrov has been accused of directing the abduction, torture and murder of hundreds, perhaps thousands of people. We see the face of the new Russia in the bat-wielding pro-government shock troops of the Nashi (”Ours”) movement, whose similarity to another political youth wing 70 years earlier in another European country appears to be more than simply alliterative.

And yet there are also stories of immense courage and resilience in the midst of what appears to be overwhelming, unyielding state machinery and popular apathy (at one point Politkovskaya witheringly compares modern Russian society to “a collection of windowless, isolated concrete cells”).

Opposition politician Irina Hakamada stands against Putin in the 2004 ballot and declares that ”I am going into this election as if to the scaffold. . . . There are normal people in Russia who know what they [the Putin government] are up to.” Observe the unexpected courage and grace of the oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, condemned to prison when the Russian state set its sights on Yukos, the petroleum company he controlled. Also flitting like a ghost through the diary entries is Alexander Litvinenko, the former lieutenant-colonel in the Federal Security Service (a successor to the KGB) who went into exile in London and became one of the most bitter and vocal critics of the Putin government. Following Politkovskaya’s murder, Litvinenko spoke out strongly, accusing Putin of involvement. A month later he followed her to the grave, poisoned after meeting with another former Russian spy.

Though the overall tone is not one of defeat — Politkovskaya introduces us to many ex-servicemen, pensioners and victims of terrorism fighting for their rights — there is a palpable gloom that pervades the book, a sense that, before getting any better, things will get much, much worse and that, when any change comes, it is likely to be bloody.

In an entry from October 29 2004, almost exactly two years before her own murder, Politkovskaya penned a bitterly eloquent epitaph for what she saw as having become of modern Russia. “Any of us might now go to buy bread and never return. . . . The Russian people remained silent, hoping it would be the neighbors they would come to get.”

Annals of Educated, Cultured Russia

The Moscow Times reports yet more evidence of cultured, erudite, sophisticated Russia under the capable hands of Vladimir Putin:

It Girl Ksenia Sobchak was named the seventh most powerful celebrity in the country Friday, but she said she couldn’t care less. Sobchak, the socialite seen as Russia’s answer to Paris Hilton, was making her debut on Forbes Russia’s third annual celebrity rich list, coming in at No. 49 with an estimated earnings of $1.2 million. But her rating for the magazine’s parallel celebrity power list, based not only on income, but also on media coverage and public recognition, propelled her past such dignitaries as Natalya Vodyanova and conductor Valery Gergiev.

Sobchak was among 13 new celebs to join the list of the country’s 50 most powerful and highest earning celebrities, along with Olympic figure-skating champion Evgeni Plushenko and film director Fyodor Bondarchuk. “I couldn’t care less,” Sobchak said by telephone. “These lists are rather relative in all respects,” she said in a tired voice. In addition to her regular duties as a television host, Sobchak has recently co-authored a book and dabbled as an acrobat and a clown in the popular “Circus of the Stars” television show. Sobchak declined to discuss her earnings, but Kirill Vishnepolsky, deputy editor of Forbes Russia, said she had told the magazine her earnings were higher than Forbes’ estimates.

In its third annual ranking, the magazine found that the country’s top athletes, comedians and singers collectively earned more than $168 million over the past year — still only a drop in the bucket by Western standards. In this year’s ranking, seasoned celebrities gave way to younger stars or dropped off the list altogether. “A change of generations is happening in Russian show business,” the magazine said.

Dima Bilan, who came second in last year’s Eurovision Song Contest, made $4.1 million over the past year, becoming the 12th highest paid celebrity. By comparison, pop diva Alla Pugachyova earned an estimated $3.5 million. Comedy Club, a new crop of stand-up comedians, earned $4.4 million last year, compared with $3.5 million the year before. Yevgeny Petrosyan, a Soviet-era comedian, dropped off this year’s list. Comedy Club also came second in the power ranking, a sign that Russians are increasingly discovering a taste for Western-style, stand-up comedy. “That strokes our ego,” said Anna Bogomolova, a spokeswoman for Comedy Club, adding that the high ranking would help the company develop into a “serious production studio.” She declined to comment on the Forbes’ estimates of the studio’s earnings.

Russian stars are still cheap. Their collective earnings of $168.4 million does not compare to the incomes of their Western counterparts. American television celebrity Oprah Winfrey alone earned $260 million last year, according to the Forbes list of the top 100 U.S. celebrities.

The country’s celebrities may earn less in part because Russians spend more on alcoholic beverages than on music, books and movies, said the magazine. In 2006, Russians paid $4 billion to go to the movies and sports events, listen to music and watch films, but spent four times as much — $16 billion — on beer last year, the magazine said.

Russians are willing to shell out money for films, but there are still relatively few modern movie theaters across the country, Vishnepolsky said. “The entertainment culture is still underdeveloped and infrastructure is lacking,” he said.

There were just two film directors and one actor — the usual suspects on the U.S. list — in this year’s Russian ranking. Film director Bondarchuk and actor Gosha Kutsenko are this year’s newcomers, who earned $1.9 million and $1.3 million respectively. Celebrity veteran Nikita Mikhalkov clocked in at $1.4 million, compared with $1.5 million the year before. Last year, box office takings stood at $412 million, an 18 percent increase over the year before, according to consultancy PricewaterhouseCoopers. The box office market is expected to more than double to $941 million in the next five years, the consultancy said last month. Overall, Russia’s entertainment and media industry had the highest growth rate in Europe and reached $19.9 billion last year, PwC said, estimating it to be $21.1 billion in 2007. [LR: Here we go again with the “growth rate”! At least this article gives us a bit of perspective, pointing out that one big-time American celebrity earns more than all of Russia’s combined. But it’s not making clear how easy it is to have a high growth rate when your base is virtually zero] This year’s 10 richest stars, including seven hockey players, a boxer and a basketball player, have all made their fortunes in sports. Maria Sharapova, who earned $23 million, remains Russia’s richest star for a third straight year. [LR: In other words, these people didn’t earn their money in Russia]

“Our legs are better than our brains,” Vishnepolsky said. “We are better at hockey than at singing.”

Other newcomers include pop singer Zhanna Friske, football player Yegor Titov, figure skater Ilya Averbukh and pianist Denis Matsuyev. This year’s losers include Soviet-era pop singer Valery Leontyev, pop band Umaturman, and tennis players Marat Safin and Yelena Dementieva, who didn’t make it to the list. Also among the absentees was Mstislav Rostropovich, who ranked 50th last year with an income of $1.3 million last year. He died in April. To compile this year’s list, the magazine analyzed a number of factors, including celebrity estimated earnings, press mentions and Rambler.ru hits from July 2006 to June 2007.

July 30, 2007 — Contents


(1) On Siberian Secession

(2) Kasparov Puts One Across the Kremlin’s Bow

(3) Once Again, Russia Convicted of Sub-human Behavior in the ECHR

(4) Annals of the Horrors of Nashi

(5) Annals of Russian Tennis Dominance