Daily Archives: August 26, 2007

August 26, 2007 — Contents

SUNDAY AUGUST 26 CONTENTS


(1) The Sunday Photos: Sakharov Edition

(2) The Sunday Funnies

(3) Sunday Travel Section Part I

(4) Sunday Travel Section Part II

(5) Georgia on His Mind

NOTE: Amnesty International now has even more evidence of Russia’s outrageous violation of the arms embargo in Sudan, a story we reported some time ago. Robert Amsterdam has the details. This is barbarism, pure and simple. If we don’t stop it now, we’ll have to stop it later at much greater cost.

NOTE: Good news! Yuri Felshtinsky’s book some Blowing Up Russia, written with the help of murdered dissident Alexander Litvinenko, about the KGB blowing up apartment buildings in Moscow to whip up support for the war in Chechnya will receive repeated attention from the prestigious American political network C-SPAN. It will air a program discussing the book today, Sunday August 26th, at 11 am (prime American political TV watching time) and on Sunday September 2nd at midnight. It has already aired the program yesterday, Saturday August 25th, in actual prime time at 8 pm! This shows that the West will not be such an easy mark for Russia the second time around!

The Sunday Photos: Oborona Celebrates Sakharov’s Birthday


Photos of Oborona members observing the birthday of dissident Andrei Sakharov, one of the greatest Russian patriots of the 20th Century (Праздник Свободы – Сахаровская Маёвка) this past May, from the Oborona website:

The sign notes Sakharov’s birthday on May 21 (he would have been 86 this year) and quotes him as follows: “I stand against totalitarianism, against the violation of human rights, against enslavement.” More timely words were never spoken, as Oborona clearly understands.

He remembers. Do you?


She remembers. Do you?

The Sunday Photos: Oborona Celebrates Sakharov’s Birthday


Photos of Oborona members observing the birthday of dissident Andrei Sakharov, one of the greatest Russian patriots of the 20th Century (Праздник Свободы – Сахаровская Маёвка) this past May, from the Oborona website:

The sign notes Sakharov’s birthday on May 21 (he would have been 86 this year) and quotes him as follows: “I stand against totalitarianism, against the violation of human rights, against enslavement.” More timely words were never spoken, as Oborona clearly understands.

He remembers. Do you?


She remembers. Do you?

The Sunday Photos: Oborona Celebrates Sakharov’s Birthday


Photos of Oborona members observing the birthday of dissident Andrei Sakharov, one of the greatest Russian patriots of the 20th Century (Праздник Свободы – Сахаровская Маёвка) this past May, from the Oborona website:

The sign notes Sakharov’s birthday on May 21 (he would have been 86 this year) and quotes him as follows: “I stand against totalitarianism, against the violation of human rights, against enslavement.” More timely words were never spoken, as Oborona clearly understands.

He remembers. Do you?


She remembers. Do you?

The Sunday Photos: Oborona Celebrates Sakharov’s Birthday


Photos of Oborona members observing the birthday of dissident Andrei Sakharov, one of the greatest Russian patriots of the 20th Century (Праздник Свободы – Сахаровская Маёвка) this past May, from the Oborona website:

The sign notes Sakharov’s birthday on May 21 (he would have been 86 this year) and quotes him as follows: “I stand against totalitarianism, against the violation of human rights, against enslavement.” More timely words were never spoken, as Oborona clearly understands.

He remembers. Do you?


She remembers. Do you?

The Sunday Photos: Oborona Celebrates Sakharov’s Birthday


Photos of Oborona members observing the birthday of dissident Andrei Sakharov, one of the greatest Russian patriots of the 20th Century (Праздник Свободы – Сахаровская Маёвка) this past May, from the Oborona website:

The sign notes Sakharov’s birthday on May 21 (he would have been 86 this year) and quotes him as follows: “I stand against totalitarianism, against the violation of human rights, against enslavement.” More timely words were never spoken, as Oborona clearly understands.

He remembers. Do you?


She remembers. Do you?

The Sunday Funnies: Reanmiation Edition — The Adventures of Dr. Frankenputin

A South African reader has forwarded the following gems, readers can look forward to more of his referrals as he’s already sent quite a wealth of items that we now have backlogged for future use:

Doesn’t the above remind you of that evil scientist in the Bugs Bunny cartoons?


And it seems the analogy is irresistible since several cartoonists have picked up on it:

The Sunday Travel/Literary Section: Pasko on Radishchev

Robert Amsterdam offers another brilliant report from Grigori Pasko, on the road in Russia (RA also offers an interview with Pasko by the German press, translated here; it’s an outrage that Pasko hasn’t received more recognition from the English-language press).

[In his next several offerings, Grigory Pasko continues his literary search for the real Russia by following in the footsteps of famous Russian authors. This time, his journey traces that of Alexander Nikolayevich Radishchev (1749-1802), a radical social critic inspired by the French Revolution who wrote the scathing 1790 critique of Russian society, A Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow. A furious Catherine the Great wanted him executed for treason, but instead sentenced him to Siberian exile, from which he returned only after her death. Unrepentant, Radishchev continued to agitate for reform of the autocracy, earning the wrath of Catherine’s successor. He committed suicide rather than endure another Siberian exile. Grigory’s first stop is Tver, an ancient city northwest of Moscow that gained notoriety in 2005 as the legal address of «Baikalfinansgrupp», a mysterious and unheard-of company that acquired «Yuganskneftegas» in the first of the sham auctions to dismember YUKOS, immediately resold it to the state oil company Rosneft, and promptly disappeared from the face of the earth. – Robert Amsterdam]

The Eyes of My People

By Grigory Pasko, journalist

They were sitting on a bench, not far from the building of the administration of the city of Tver. There were three of them: two men and one woman. It was morning. They were searching for a way to get drunk. I started a conversation with them because a woman sitting nearby had refused to be interviewed, citing a bad mood. They were talking about how life, in general, isn’t bad; that you can’t trust the government in anything; that a Russian has to rely only on himself for everything… Then they asked me for ten rubles for beer.

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The look on Pyotr Paramonov’s face (Photo by Grigory Pasko)

One of them, Pyotr Paramonov, a laborer from a construction site (see photo), recalled that the Russian writer Saltykov-Shchedrin had been a vice-governor. Then he sadly added: “There aren’t any Saltykov-Shchedrins any more…”.

I don’t know what the inhabitants of Tver were like in Radishchev’s day, but in my conversations with the people of the city I saw only characters from Erofeev’s opus «Moscow-Petushki». They were just as unhurried, well-read and just as sad. “Everything on earth has to take place slowly and incorrectly, so that humans would not be able to become proud, so that people would be sad and confused”.

Another thing that struck me was the look on Pyotr Paramonov’s face. I had already read about this look someplace… Of course, in Erofeev! “I like it that the people of my country have such vacant and bulging eyes. This instils in me a feeling of legitimate pride… What eyes! They’re constantly popping out, and yet there’s no tension in them whatsoever. A total absence of any sense at all – but then, what power! (What spiritual power!) These eyes won’t sell. They won’t sell a thing and they won’t buy a thing. Whatever might happen with my country, in days of doubt, in days of burdensome contemplation, in an hour of trials and tribulations of any kind at all – these eyes will not blink. They couldn’t care less… I like my people.”

In all likelihood, I would be able to share the optimism of the writer Erofeev only if I had drunk as much liquor as he did when he journeyed from Moscow to Petushki. Or maybe even more.

…I gave them thirty rubles. What else can I do for my people?

The Sunday Travel Section: Oh, Those Russians

A group of drivers traveling in rally convoy across the globe chanced into Russia this past June, and came face-to-face with Russia in all its horror. The Star Online reports (hat tip — reader “Ron Raygun”):

My new co-driver Haizam and I spend the whole day at the Moscow workshop – thank goodness we have a contact here through the Moscow ambassador to Malaysia who introduced us to his friend, Sergei, who has an auto parts distribution business.

We have discovered it is particularly important in Russia to “have contacts” to get things sorted.

I get up at 5am to see my wife Pin off to the airport in one of Moscow’s legendary illegal taxis – she is flying to St Petersburg to meet us there the next day. As it is Haizam’s first day driving, we leave early. Also, we don’t want to run the risk of our car breaking down, always a possibility after a day in the workshop!

Although we were all in a convoy and navigation is fairly easy, many cars go astray outside the major ring road outside Moscow. However, the main road leading to St Petersburg is typically Russian – some parts of it good, some patchy, many badly potholed. Haizam gets the feel of driving Custard Tart fairly quickly – the characteristics of an older car that isn’t 100% with its steering wheel play and poor brakes is difficult to get used to.

One of the high points of our long 700km drive from Moscow to St Petersburg is our stop at the BP station – one of two foreign oil companies allowed to operate in Russia. We are thrilled to find a mini-mart selling snacks, smiling staff and clean toilets! This is rare in Russia, and we feel momentarily as if we are in (western) Europe!

We finally get into St Petersburg where we see magnificent large buildings and traffic choking the roads. After hours of being stuck in the rush hour, we inch our way to our hotel – an inevitable Soviet-era monstrosity on the outskirts of town, but at least this one has its casino and “ladies” entertainment out of sight! We quickly shower and escape to meet Pin downtown at a charming Georgian restaurant for dinner.

DAY OFF IN ST PETERSBURG
(WEDNESDAY, JUNE 20)

St Petersburg must rate as one of the most charming cities in the world – a tiny place linked by canals and rivers, and entirely “walkable”. It is even prettier in summer, when it enjoys “white nights” all season. No darkness at all, the city comes alive with the opera, live concerts and ballets in courtyards. Haizam, Pin and I do a walking tour of some of the older quarters where we meander through alleyways past iron statues of old Russian leaders and sample local delicacies at food markets with a young Russian tour guide who is saving up money to go to America. We even see a stunning mosque in the middle of town, amidst period cathedrals – amazing that these have managed to survive the wars. As our car gave no trouble the day before, we are confident we are able to take a break and spend the whole day out. I have borscht, a traditional Russian soup, for lunch. It seems as if daylight will never end.

We nonetheless go back to the car to check that it is OK in preparation for tomorrow’s drive to Talinn, Estonia, and fortunately nothing has come loose or needs repair. When we meet Pin for dinner later at her hotel in front of the majestic St Isacc’s Cathedral, we discover Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and his wife, Jeanne, are staying there – on honeymoon we are told. The whole street outside had been cordoned off, with security detail milling about the lobby. There must have been around 20 cars with black windows outside. Clearly the Russian government is being careful with security.

ST PETERSBURG TO TALINN
(THURSDAY, JUNE 21)

Our routine starts at 5am as we do final checks and head towards the Estonian border. Unsurprisingly, we drive for miles on horrible potholed roads and in light rain. The Russian traffic police are everywhere and having an absolute field days stopping rally drivers for all sorts of reasons – from not having the right papers or stamps in passports to unexplained “offences” which need on-the-spot settling of fines of US$100-US$400 (RM350 -RM 1,400) per car.

Although we are lucky, we feel it is totally unscrupulous and the whole business leaves us a very sour taste of Russian life. Some of our fellow drivers are charged ridiculous amounts of money for minor offences. It is a real shame that unscrupulous locals are allowed to interfere with us, seemingly in connivance with the Rally’s local logistics company.

Upon our arrival at the Russian-Estonian border, the situation gets worse. All the promised expedited exits from Russia do not materialise. Two immigration officers laboriously check each car’s documents and driver’s passports in between their lunch and tea breaks. We are lucky – we only wait five hours. Some of our fellow drivers waited almost 10 hours for their papers to be processed.

By the time we entered Estonia – connected to Russia by a bridge – we are ready to celebrate freedom. Being in Russia has been an experience we want to quickly forget, especially the corruption, inefficiencies and badly maintained roads.

Estonia is very pretty. Green hills, proper roads and smart petrol stations line the streets. There is also a general air of liveliness and freedom, and none of the oppressiveness that we felt in Russia. Then we realise that Estonia is a member of the European Union. What a difference to general standards this made.

Although we have missed the day’s time trials, we head towards Talinn, surrounded by a historic square, a wonderful church and hundreds of curious onlookers! We park in a multi-storey car park that reminds us of Malaysia – and spend the evening at a local karaoke with young Estonians with smiling, happy faces.

What a change from Russia this is.

Georgia on His Mind

The Wall Street Journal interviews Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili, who is reported to have ordered his military to fire on Russian planes making renewed incursions into Georgian airspace:

On Aug. 8, a missile the size of a bus struck near a village some 50 miles north of this Eurasian country’s capital city, Tbilisi. It failed to explode. In all likelihood the missile came from Russian jet fighters violating Georgian airspace, as Georgians quickly claimed — the incident was eerily similar to one in March, when Russian attack helicopters flew at night and, without provocation, fired missiles into Georgian territory.

In both cases, Georgian authorities showed the world radar flight path data as proof. The world did nothing the first time, and will likely do nothing again. Meanwhile, unexplained incursions continue daily. This is the kind of near-lethal brinkmanship which Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili believes will only encourage more belligerence from Russia.

[illustration]

Mr. Saakashvili has spent his first three-and-a-half years in office impelling his country forward economically, courting NATO and EU membership, eradicating corruption and trying to woo Russian-supported secessionists back into the fold. Above all, he strives daily to keep his country, with a population of four million, on the mind of Western nations so its security and success will seem synonymous with theirs — and keep the Russians at bay. The Russians still seem to perceive post-Soviet Georgian independence as a kind of betrayal, responding with an array of destabilizing policies, such as the imposition of embargoes on Georgian goods.

Earlier this summer, I spent some time with Georgia’s president, checking on his progress. He has quite a story to tell, particularly about the economy. According to Mr. Saakashvili, Georgia’s GDP was less than $3 billion five years ago. It’s now $8 billion and will double in three years, and he is straightforward about his inspiration.

“I finally met Margaret Thatcher in London this year,” he shouts over the noise of helicopter engines as we fly adjacent to the snow-peaked Caucasus mountains. “I always admired her, and I always thought, if I could do in Georgia a fraction of what she did in the U.K., I would be very happy. … And she said to me, ‘you are doing all the things in Georgia that I wanted to do in the U.K. and more . . . ‘”

It’s a strange place for an interview, but Mr. Saakashvili keeps a merciless schedule. On this day, after a speech in the main square of Tbilisi, he is presiding over five separate ribbon-cutting ceremonies around the country.

We begin the tour with a three-kilometer visit down a coal mine that has sat unused for 15 years, with the mining community above it going to ruin. It is now being revitalized with German money and machinery. We end the tour past midnight, at a new Turkish-built airport at the resurgent Black Sea resort of Batoumi.

Just four years ago, before the nonviolent Rose Revolution disposed of the Shevardnadze regime and soon voted in Mr. Saakashvili, Georgia was widely considered a failed state on a par with Zimbabwe — with corruption rampant, a stagnant economy and several civil wars smoldering.

That’s changing. Three years ago, Mr. Saakashvili famously fired 15,000 traffic policemen and dissolved the pervasive bribery ethos in one stroke. The country is booming: Everywhere new hotels, factories and well-lit roads proclaim the changes. Even the old Soviet tower blocks look festive and newly painted. Foreign investment flows in from every quarter: Kazakhstan to the east, Turkey to the south, Europe and the U.S., the Gulf States, even from Russia, despite all of Mr. Putin’s embargoes — and despite the shadow of two secessionist “black holes” inside Georgia backed by Russian arms and money: Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Mr. Saakashvili points out a little town in the distance, Tskhinvali, the disputed heart of South Ossetia, nothing more than a sprinkling of houses on a rise of farmland deep inside Georgian territory. “We’ve offered them everything they want . . . language rights, their own political structures, cross-border rights to their fellow Ossetians. … They probably would agree if they were free to do so.”

I point down to the terrain beneath us and comment that if the well-regulated squares of green fields down below are any indication, Georgia’s agriculture is doing well. “In Soviet times,” he says, “all this was a chaotic mess. In contrast, you’d fly over Western Europe and see miles of perfectly cultivated land . . . Now Georgia is the same. It’s beautiful to look at. That’s the aesthetic look of the free market.”

A day or two later, at a dinner for Georgian businessmen, the president delivers a speech hammering home his well-honed message of self-help. “The government is going to help you in the best way possible, by doing nothing for you, by getting out of your way. Well, I exaggerate but you understand. Of course we will provide you with infrastructure, and help by getting rid of corruption, but you have all succeeded by your own initiative and enterprise, so you should congratulate yourselves.”

Mr. Saakashvili’s style of leadership feels like a permanent political campaign — which it is, in a way. He seems determined to show citizens how it’s being done, visibly to demonstrate accountability, transparency and political process, so they grow accustomed to the sight of politicians answering to them — in short, to Western political habits. All the while, he’s exhorting and explaining, striving to change attitudes ingrained through decades of Soviet rule and 15 years of stagnation, strife and corruption. “I keep telling people that this is not a process like some silver-backed gorilla leading them to new pastures. They must do it themselves, and they are.”

Mr. Saakashvili famously gets very little sleep, calling his aides at 2 a.m. to remind them of neglected tasks. During the day, he never stops moving.

On one occasion, a sudden onset of severe bad weather forces down both his helicopter — and the one behind it that is full of his security — in farmland beside a small town. No matter. His aides borrow what conveyances they can, and we end up with the president driving a 1956 Volga modeled on a postwar American Dodge. As the sleet and hail hammer down, the car lurches along and we all double up in helpless laughter because the windshield wipers don’t work. Mr. Saakashvili sticks one free arm out the driver’s-side window to wipe the windshield manually while he drives.

At one point I ask him if security and dealing with Russian threats are a top priority. “We have two limbs of Georgia which are currently detached,” he says, careful not to sound provocative, “and we have a hostile, powerful northern neighbor, even more powerful every day with oil money. But we can’t be living in a state of gloom and paranoia. . . . When the Russians imposed the embargo on our wines, we simply found new markets. Like-minded countries such as Poland and the Baltic states actively sought out our products.

“When Russia cut off gas supplies, we had to work on developing new sources. So we’re developing hydro-power and coal and nuclear energy. Next year, we’ll be fully supplied by Azerbaijani power. . . . Everyone said we’d never survive but our success gives confidence to everyone else.”

Mr. Saakashvili notes that his country had to diversify its markets anyway. “Georgia’s natural strength is its role as a crossroads both culturally and geographically. It was always a kind of bridge on the old Silk Road. So we’re building up our highway system; we’re completing our rail link from Batoumi to Istanbul through to Europe; we’ve got the new international airport there.

“Eastwards we’re connecting all the way to China via a ferry across the Caspian. It will offer an alternative to the trans-Siberian railway. And of course, the same goes for pipelines such as the Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline which goes through Georgia.”

I ask him if the Russians are making a big push now with maximum pressure while they can, realizing that before long, consumer countries will develop alternate supply routes to avoid Russian strategic pressure. “No, I don’t think the Russians are calculating logically or strategically,” he says. “I think it’s an emotional and volatile process for them. Logically, they should realize that stable relations all around will pay off for them more in the long run. Instead they’re driving countries to find alternative partners . . .”

He also speaks about Russia’s domestic anti-Georgian campaign. “It wasn’t working very effectively until they actually went to all the schools and asked for a list of all the children with Georgian names. Suddenly, the parents realized this was serious. That and the endless corruption of the Russian system became unbearable for them — so now we have tens of thousands of qualified Georgians . . . coming back and repatriating their money to Georgia.”

There is a general sense in Georgia that the U.S. could be more supportive but badly needs Russian help over such critical areas as Iran, North Korea and the fight against terror. Does Mr. Saakashvili think that the U.S. could do more? “All we ask for is moral support,” he answers. “It’s all about shared values. You can see that the U.S. has a lot of moral authority here. We have a historic sympathy for the U.S. and the West. America should know how strong it still is and keep up the pressure at the highest levels. It should help enhance stability and serve as a deterrent to Russian adventurism.”

Mr. Saakashvili also says that “Europe is waking up. After the French election, I was invited on a full state visit. That did not happen in the time of [former President Jacques] Chirac — he had other priorities. Europe is becoming aware that it must engage with the ‘near abroad’ region between itself and Russia. Europe is ending its false pragmatism.

“In return,” he continues, “we are doing our utmost to stay engaged in the international community and to fulfill our obligations. Georgia has 2,000 troops in Iraq now deploying to the Iran border . . . to interdict arms smuggling across the border and we have told them not to be passive — [instead] to be active and get results. Before now they were in the Green Zone but now they will be acting as part of the surge, going wherever US troops can go. . . . failure in Iraq will be a disaster for everyone.

“For us it’s also a matter of national pride. Georgian soldiers have always been famous for their courage but they’ve never fought as Georgians — they’ve always fought in others’ armies. We’ve had generals in Mameluke, Russian and Soviet armies — even top U.S. generals. Now they will be serving in our name and for our country. In the 1920s Georgian officers fought for Polish independence to keep out the Bolsheviks (Retired U.S. Gen. John Shalikashvili’s father was one.) Poland has just put up a monument to those officers (to the chagrin of Mr. Putin).”

Nearing the end of our time together, I ask Mr. Saakashvili, whose administration will surely be remembered for the number and pace of its reforms, if he feels he can let up. Is he on schedule, and what’s left undone?

Mr. Saakashvili responds by stressing the importance of integrating Georgia’s ethnic minorities. “There used to be areas where only Russian was spoken and the central government had no influence. Now they are all voluntarily learning Georgian. It’s important that we show an example to secessionist zones, that they have nothing to fear, that in fact their identity will be better protected by us than Russia.”

He also speaks about the vital importance of “ridding ourselves of corruption,” of reaching “the point of irreversibility. That’s why we are in a hurry. If you relax on corruption it will come back in two months.”

Mr. Saakashvili notes of his own country as well as many others emerging from the shadows of communism: “These are not societies with much experience in democratic processes. In parts of Eastern Europe they keep electing useless populists who are corrupt. So far the people here have made the right choices but we must govern in a way that’s instructional and symbolic so it settles in the public’s consciousness, and they learn to evaluate you by achievement. Democracy means constantly outperforming yourself or you are out on your backside. That’s as it should be.”

As night falls, back in the sky, we fly close enough to the Abkhazia border to see the contrast between well-lit Georgia and Russian darkness over the secessionist zone. From up above, and on the ground, the symbolism is clear enough.

But to Mr. Saakashvili, the more important issue might be: Is this distinction clear to his friends in the West — and how far will they go to stop the darkness from spilling over into Georgia?