Daily Archives: October 22, 2007

EDITORIAL: The Way We See It


The Way We See It

In her most recent column on the Pajamas Media mother blog, where she’s a Russia correspondent, La Russophobe‘s publisher Kim Zigfeld speculated that the coming interregnum of power in Russia — where the dictator Vladimir Putin will pretend to be prime minister while, apparently, the current prime minister (Viktor Zubkov) will pretend to be president — may offer Putin the perfect opportunity to launch a major escalation in the Kremlin’s neo-Soviet crackdown, purging the last vestiges of civil society from the Russian landscape in a manner not meaningfully different from the approach taken by Josef Stalin (who, not coincidentally, the Kremlin is now busily rehabilitating). Putin could have it appear that others were doing the dirty work, and return to the formalities power superficially unscathed, thence to rule Russia indefinitely without even the vaguest whiff of opposition.

As if to confirm this scenario, the Other Russia blog ominously reported days later that the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe has not yet been invited to monitor the upcoming parliamentary elections in Russia (the Guardian has more detail). These elections are the crucial first step in achieving Putin’s master plan, stamping out the last brushfires of opposition political party activity (Other Russia itself has been officially barred from taking part, as have other critical opposition contenders) while simultaneously affecting his sham transition to the post of party leader and prime minister. Other Russia quoted Urdur Gunnarsdottir, spokeswoman for the elections division of the OSCE, declaring: “We haven’t gotten any invite yet. We’ve received assurances from Russian representatives that an invitation will be forthcoming, but we haven’t had one. The elections were called in early September. So this is indeed getting quite late. And the later we get the invitation, the more difficult it is for us to do it in a proper way.” So it’s not clear whether the Kremlin will simply subvert, or actually interrupt, the OSCE’s activities in Russia, but either way the prospects are ominous indeed.

We also report today on an effort to literally dig up Stalin, raising a monument to the maniac that was distasteful even to Communist freak Nikita Krushchev and display it once again in a public square. And the ultimate conspiracy theory is even more gloomy. Such a theory would hold that Putin himself is essentially no different than Zubkov, that both are utter non sequitors plucked out of obscurity by the hidden “powers that be” in Russia and manipulated like marionettes to do the bidding of secret forces that are largely unknown outside the Kremlin’s darkened halls of power. Whether those forces consist of oligarchs, KGB masterminds or a combination of both hardly matters. What matter is, they are evil. What matters is, Russia is an Evil Empire.

Writing in Foreign Policy, senior U.S. Senator John McCain recently called explicitly for the Western democracies to eject Russia from the G-8 organization, where it already sticks out like a sore thumb. Senator McCain has long been the leading figure in recognizing the threats posed by the neo-Soviet state, and the world is only now beginning to realize how right he has been all along — but one shouldn’t overlook the fact that the ultimate wellspring for this knowledge was the valiant Russian hero Anna Politkovskaya. Perhaps even she couldn’t have fully comprehended, though, how very real the possibility is that a window is forcefully closing for Russia over the course of the next few months, and that in 2008 we may see horror unfold before our eyes in Russia that is unprecedented in all of human history because it has been wrought willingly by the people of Russia by means of elections that, until now, have been at least partially free.

When Senator McCain was a younger man, during the height of the first cold war, there was for Western policy makers at least a small comfort to be found in the speculation that the people of Russia were as much the victims of neo-Soviet oppression as we ourselves were. There was the hope that, given the chance, they’d build a different kind of country — and that such in inclination would undermine the viability of the Soviet dictatorship over time. Indeed, there was hope when the USSR teetered and fell that they’d gotten the chance and in fact done so.

No such luck. Instead, given the chance, the people of Russia have chosen to be ruled by a proud KGB spy, and they’ve turned a blind eye to his obliteration of hope for democracy and freedom in Russia. Had we been more aware of this possibility, we wouldn’t have been so likely to think that the removal of Mikhail Gorbachev from power was actually the end of our problems with Russia. In fact, given the reality that Gorbachev was ultimately willing to step aside and be replaced by a radically different kind of leader, Boris Yeltsin, one could make the case that he was more liberal and pro-freedom than Vladimir Putin. Gorbachev, at least, didn’t spend his whole career as a KGB field operative.

As Lenin asked: What should we do now?

The answer is simple. We should, and must, do what Lenin did — what Ronald Reagan did. We must fight the Evil Empire by every means at our disposal. As we report today, the neo-Soviet dictatorship isn’t a domestic Russian affair, but rather an aggressively imperialistic machine no different than the original version (though surely less powerful, at least at present, and therefore more ripe for confrontation), with Russia’s actions in regard to Kosovo being a perfect example. In doing so, we not only protect our own security, we offer the people of Russia their last, best chance for some kind of security of their own.

And meanwhile, we must warn the people of Russia to either join the fight or get out while the getting is good. An iron curtain is descending across the continent once again, and soon your freedom to leave will be gone, just as it was in Soviet times. Don’t forget: Just as in Soviet times, all exit transit from Russia passes through two tiny portals, Moscow and St. Petersburg, portals which can easily be shut down at a moment’s notice. The puny opposition forces the Russian people have generated indicate clearly they would not rise up to stop such a move, and in any case the Kremlin maintains the same total monopoly of force it always has. Russia’s population loss makes the conclusion inescapable for the Kremlin. A massive crackdown with echoes of the worst the USSR had to offer is coming.

You’ve been warned.

And this warning doesn’t apply only to Russians, of course. Any foreigner in Russia is a target, as a news story in today’s Moscow Times indicating new xenophobic crackdown in the visa regime indicates. Most of all, foreign assets in Russia are not safe, and any foreigner who would defend them, rather than hand them over to the state, risks facing the same fate met by Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Last Friday, the U.S. stock market lost 2.5% of its value; today, the Russian stock market was down 3.5% of its value. You can be sure, this kind of thing causes a major neo-Soviet freakout in the Kremlin every time it happens.

The Moscow Times, itself, is the canary in the mine in this regard. How long before the Kremlin finds some excuse to close it down? Already, all the major foreign NGOs are under vicious attack, and many have been shut down or emasculated. Shamefully, you’ve done nothing to organize and protect them, but rather have sought appeasement with the Kremlin. When the MT goes, at the latest, you foreigners should be right behind it — if you’ve got the sense God gave a lemon.

Putin and Kosovo

The Weekly Standard reports:

RUSSIAN TYRANT-IN-WAITING Vladimir Putin’s plan to restore a one-man dictatorship in Moscow has caused anxiety in the thin ranks of Russian liberals as well as among partisans of secure independence in the former Soviet republics. It should also stimulate concern in Europe, the United States, and the Far East, since it is clear that Putin desires recovery of Russian spheres of influence, temporarily lost with the collapse of communism.

Mostly unnoticed, Putin has resorted to a weapon that served his absolutist predecessors: pan-Slavic ultranationalism with the pretext of solidarity among Christian Orthodox peoples. The sharp point of this blade is visible in the troubled ex-Yugoslav successor states. Russia is reestablishing itself as a regional power in the Balkans.

Putin and his cohort in the Russian business mafia have adopted Serbia as a surrogate, and continue to obstruct the full and legal independence of Kosovo. In Kosovo’s neighbor Montenegro, which gained independence from Serbia last year, Putinite investors have bought up a considerable share of attractive beachfront properties, intending to revive the local tourist industry on a betting-and-brothel basis.

Russian banking and other commercial operations are expanding in the so-called “Serb Republic” that occupies north and east Bosnia- Herzegovina. Twelve years after the Dayton agreement to stop the fighting in that mutilated country, the “Serb Republic” continues to rule almost two-thirds of Bosnian land.

Serbs use the continued existence of the Bosnian “Serb Republic” against U.S.-E.U. proposals for Kosovo independence. The arguments from Belgrade and Moscow are simple and brutal: if Kosovo becomes independent, the Bosnian “Serb Republic” will demand the same status. Meanwhile, the Serbs and Putin paint the Kosovo Albanians as potential al Qaeda recruits, with Serbian propaganda at home as well as inside the Beltway emphasizing that the Albanians are, in their majority, Muslim. This demographic fact is well known, but Kosovars and Albanians in general are not exclusively Muslim. And they have shown little propensity for Islamist ideology, notwithstanding Serb claims that independent Kosovo would become a “Muslim rogue state.”

Catholics account for 10 to 15 percent in the Kosovo population of two million. Catholic churches are found in most larger (and some smaller) towns, and Catholics were victims of Serbian violence before and during the U.S.-led intervention of 1998-99. Catholic clergy and intellectuals possess influence among their co-ethnics far beyond what their numbers might suggest. It is not by accident that the main street in Prishtina, the Kosovo capital, was renamed after 1999 for Mother Teresa, an Albanian from neighboring Macedonia. And Albanians remain so non-sectarian in their national sentiments that even if the West were to abandon them to the Serbs, it is almost impossible to imagine them turning to radical Islam as a solution to their frustrations. Albanians want to be accepted as Europeans, and not viewed as Middle Eastern intruders in the continent.

Serbs and their sympathizers–including a lobby of former U.S. diplomats and functionaries–also threaten a serious upheaval if the Kosovo Albanians are granted complete freedom. The Serbs and their enablers warn belligerently that their defiance of Albanian majority rule will begin with seizure of the northern tip of Kosovo, which has a Serb majority as well as significant natural and other economic resources.

Russian meddling in this trouble zone is not mere posturing for the benefit of the Slav and other Orthodox publics. Russia is joined by China in using Kosovo as a foil. Beijing says it will use its U.N. Security Council veto to forestall a free Kosovo, because of its problems with Tibet and Eastern Turkestan, both regions where local non-Chinese claim their historic tenancy has been diluted by massive Chinese immigration and politico-economic domination. The Russo- Chinese anti-democratic pair in the U.N. is supported in their anti- Kosovo position by Spain, which cites nationalism among the Basques and Catalans as its worry. Cyprus backs Serbia because of its own partitioning between Orthodox Greeks and Muslim Turks, and Slovakia also opposes Kosovo’s liberation. Why Slovakia? The Slovaks have a considerable history as Russian pawns–they commandeered the process of repression in the former Czechoslovakia after the Soviet intervention of 1968. But their leaders additionally play on fears, among the Slav majority, of their Hungarian minority of some 10 percent.

To most Westerners, the fate of Kosovo is eclipsed by the challenges in Iraq and Iran. Amazingly, however, Washington policy gadflies claim that nation-building in the Balkans–including the disastrous division of Bosnia-Herzegovina–has succeeded and provides a fruitful example to be imitated in Baghdad. Bosnian Muslims as well as Croatians and Kosovar Albanians say otherwise–that their confidence that outside intervention would benefit them has vanished as they witness UN and EU incompetence or worse in dealing with them.

Failure to respond to Putin’s intrigues in the Balkans will only encourage the new Russian imperialism elsewhere. Russia also blocks common international policies on Iran and Burma. Russian parliamentary elections will come on December 2, 2007, followed by the deadline for the U.N. negotiations on Kosovo December 10. U.S. policy must be consistent and principled, and must not give way in the face of Putin’s machinations in Kosovo, lest a reinvigorated foreign offensive by Russia undermine the trend toward freedom in places far from, and far more prominent, than the small states of the former Yugoslavia.

Uh-Oh: Here Comes Stalin

Paul Goble reports:

Russians in Barnaul who revere the memory of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin hope to dig up a memorial to him that was buried during Nikita Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization campaign a half century ago and restore it to a place of honor in their Siberian city of 600,000. But as the Russian Agency for National News reported [last week], their project faces a number of hurdles. First of all, they have so far collected only 5,000 rubles (about 200 US dollars) for this project, far less than they will need to exhume the statue and put it back up. Second, local officials appear anything but enthusiastic about this effort. On the one hand, the city’s cultural commission told this project’s supporters, Barnaul has already filled its most public space with monuments. And putting a statue of Stalin there would “destroy the architectural arrangements.” On the other, they noted, it might be possible to put the statue somewhere else, perhaps through the creation of “an alley of historical memory” where the city could commemorate “various people who had left their mark in the history of the country.” But they pointed out that they do not yet know whether Stalin would make that list. And third – and this couldin fact put a stop to this effort – the advocates of digging up the Stalin statue do not know precisely where it is buried. As a result, the Stalin enthusiasts are currently digging or planning to dig in several places around the city in the hopes that Stalin will once again turn up.

Russian Corruption: Pervasive and Demonic

Once again, we see proof that Russia is getting the worst of all possible worlds. It has elected a proud KGB spy as its leader, yet it does not receive the “law and order” one would expect from such a decision. To the contrary, it maintains one of the world’s highest murder rates and a barbaric level of corruption, as the New York Times reports in the following story. And meanwhile, Russia is losing all its civil rights and liberties exactly as one would expect in such a case. We also see the childish, barbarically ignorant view that the West cannot defend itself from brilliant Russian minds. They thought the same in the USSR. Now, the USSR is no more.

PERHAPS the most famous con artist of the Soviet era was a fast-talking, eye-winking, nimble-fingered, double-dealing journeyman named Ostap Bender. He was fictional, the antihero of a satirical novel about a quest for lost jewels called “The 12 Chairs,” but his casual disdain for the law reflected a widely held cynicism here. “This misdeed, though it does come under the penal code, is as innocent as a children’s game,” Bender says of a scheme to use a purloined document to steal another man’s identity. Were Bender to ply his trade these days, he would undoubtedly be sitting in front of a computer, spewing out e-mails that slyly ask for credit card information or hawk sexual aids and other flimflam. Russia has become a leading source of Internet ills, home to legions of high-tech rogues who operate with seeming impunity from the anonymous living rooms of Novosibirsk or the shadowy cybercafes of St. Petersburg.

The hackers go by names like ZOMBiE and the Hell Knights Crew, and they inhabit such a robust netherworld that Internet-security firms in places like Silicon Valley have had to acquire an expertise in Russian hacking culture half a world away. The security firms have not received much assistance from the Russian government, which seems to show little interest in a crackdown, as if officials privately take some pleasure in knowing that their compatriots are tormenting millions of people in the West. In fact, Russian hackers became something akin to national heroes last spring when a wave of Internet attacks was launched from Russia against Web sites in Estonia, the former Soviet republic. The incidents began after the Estonians angered the Kremlin by moving a Soviet-era war monument.

The motive for most wrongdoing, though, tends to be greed. In 2005, Russians broke into the State of Rhode Island Web site and then brazenly proclaimed that they had swiped credit card information from 53,000 transactions. Officials acknowledged the theft, though they said the scope was smaller.

The perpetrators in these affairs are rarely if ever caught, but it is not hard to deduce their backgrounds. Russia has long had a strong system of math and science education, and until the relatively recent upturn in the economy, the multitudes of whiz kids who graduated from its schools often had poor job prospects. At the same time, they were entering a society that for decades had built up a deep skepticism about the virtues of following the rules. Under Communism, the thicket of strictures that governed almost every aspect of life was considered so inane that only fools were thought to abide by them. “The law in Soviet times had a different function,” said Georgy Satarov, president of the Indem Foundation, an independent watchdog group in Moscow. “The law was not oriented toward protecting the interests of citizens. It’s the party that protects the citizens, and that’s all.”

One result was that corruption was rampant in Soviet times, and has endured, if not gotten worse. Russia ranked 143 out of 180 countries and territories — on a level with Gambia, Togo and Indonesia — in a recent survey of government corruption conducted by Transparency International, a nonprofit group. (The higher the number, the more corrupt.)

The ethos has often been that if provincial governors and traffic cops and everyone else have their hands out, why should I play it straight? This penchant has not stayed rooted to Russian soil. In the United States, a center for health care fraud is Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, which has one of the nation’s largest concentrations of Russian immigrants. In other words, the neighborhood has a number of people who grew up in a society where everyone finagled to get by, and few saw anything wrong with putting one over on a callous government.

“This is a country where everybody used to moonlight,” said Gary Shteyngart, the Russian-American author. “It’s a country where there was never enough money, the money that the government paid was kind of a token, and you had to make your way by hook or by crook. There was always a great entrepreneurial spirit in Russia, but it has always been directed at things that not only help people, but also hurt people.”

Of course, Russia is not the only generator of Internet havoc. For similar historical and social reasons, such problems have cropped up across the sphere of Soviet influence, from the Czech Republic to Ukraine to Kazakhstan. Internet security experts say that only the United States and China rival Russia in hacker activity. But Russia has only 28 million Internet users, according to rough estimates, compared with 210 million in the United States and 150 million in China, meaning that Russia has a higher percentage of scammers. VeriSign, the Internet services company, considers Russian hackers to be the worst, in part because they tend to have ties to organized crime outfits that embezzle money with stolen bank and credit card information.

While the West has complained about Russian laws and enforcement, some Russian officials take issue with the criticism. Aleksei Likhachev, a member of Parliament, acknowledged that there had been fewer criminal cases in Russia than elsewhere, but said officials were still learning how to conduct such inquiries. “It is just that this work is much younger and much less developed in Russia,” he said. Still, executives at technology companies in Russia said the Kremlin under President Vladimir V. Putin has demonstrated that when it wants action, it gets it. “The problem is that you have got a very educated mass of a population, but you have got completely ignorant, stupid lawmakers,” said Anton Nossik, a senior executive in Moscow at the company that oversees Livejournal.ru, the Russian version of the blogging and discussion portal. “Law enforcement has no incentive and no motivation to prosecute,” he said. “They say, ‘We are not receiving complaints,’ or ‘The complaints that we are seeing are not well formed.’ They find pretexts not to prosecute.” Russian Livejournal blogs are regularly hijacked, typically by people who have stolen passwords.

Even so, there remains a sense here that Russian hackers afflict the West far more than Russia, so why bother with them. On a Livejournal Russian forum last week, The New York Times asked participants why Russians have a reputation for Internet crime. “I don’t see in this a big tragedy,” said a respondent who used the name Lightwatch. “Western countries played not the smallest role in the fall of the Soviet Union. But the Russians have a very amusing feature — they are able to get up from their knees, under any conditions or under any circumstances.”

As for the West? “You are getting what you deserve.”