Daily Archives: November 6, 2007

November 6, 2007 — Contents


(1) Zaxi on the Coming Duma Poll

(2) The Resurrection of the Fifth Directorate

(3) Chechnya: Up Close and Personal

(4) Annals of Neo-Soviet Propaganda: Denying Katyn

(5) Putin to Diabetics: Drop Dead!

Zaxi on the Duma Poll

Zaxi Blog reviews the horror of the upcoming “elections” to the Russian parliament:

It must be a sign of the times. How else to explain Vladimir Zhirinovsky playing the part of King Solomon to the Foreign Ministry’s bickering mother in Russia’s latest diplomatic spat?

Russia has been adept at creating frictions out of thin air and these days proved no exception. Somehow the Kremlin is coming away with a hollow feeling from United Russia winning its requisite constitutional majority in the December 2 State Duma vote. It wants to not just dominate – it wants to do so on its own terms. And those terms apparently include a spell of strutting and flaunting. A dose of intimidation for the tut-tut set.

This lack of remorse begins at home. United Russia has metamorphosed the parliamentary election into a presidential one. It is a vote about Vladimir Putin and patriotism. It is a vote about the Russian Slav. And it is also the ultimate display of self-subjugation – United Russia’s brave shedding of pride in any policy or notion that parliament should be a legislative body that writes laws.

United Russia will not debate on television. It will drop its three leaders from the official ballot and run under the single Putin name. And its ads will feature a “Putin Plan” the president himself has had the rare dignity to admit was a hoax. The Kremlin simply has no such doctrine. It is a United Russia invention impressed on the state media and stamped on its campaign posters – under a Lenin bust retouched in Putin’s likeness.

Yet it casts a strong enough spell to make local officials treat small bands of the opposition like radioactive ants. Any association with the unfaithful is now cause for concern. The likes of Mikhail Kasyanov are no longer able to stage a single press conference without the auditorium owner switching off the lights for fear of being questioned about foreign loyalties. The Putin doubters have long been prosecuted. But now they are actually feared. Their contact is liable to spell disaster – loss of state job or business. Prosecution turns to revulsion. The public reflexively gags at the “other.”

This of course is all old news. The Russian collective has happily embraced its new self-image. Now it appears the Kremlin wants to tell the world that its opinion on the matter is no longer polite to express.

It should be fairly clear to Western governments that there is little point to “observing” how the Duma poll actually goes. Whether United Russia wins 70 or 80 percent will depend not on how many ballot boxes are stuffed but on which text the Kremlin hands the television newscaster. The OSCE can only really express itself by treating Russia like a Central Asian republic and boycotting the proceedings as undignified. But this would require a moral resolve this generation of Europeans – save for Britain – clearly lacks. Instead the OSCE finds itself shunted by a Kremlin that decided to cheer itself up one dull morning by slashing the observer mission by 80 percent. Because it wants to show that it can.

The OSCE will also be barred from commenting on the election until it returns home so as not to spoil the victory party. Both know what the final opinion will read. But it will not be read in Moscow. Because the Kremlin wants to show how much this opinion matters.

US Undersecretary of State Nicolas Burns called the whole affair “rather unprecedented.” He was then delivered an official Foreign Ministry response that was more unprecedented still – not least because it came replete with spelling and grammar errors suggesting a rather agitated author. One European official was assigned the wrong first name. An OSCE office earned an improper acronym.

The crux of Moscow’s argument was that US democracy was a rather shambolic affair that could hardly pass judgment on Russia. For example: the United States only had 92 OSCE monitors in November 2004. It “restricted” the 2006 foreign team to 18 members. But Russia had 400 in 2000. And another thing – some US elections include both presidential candidates and all sorts of other types for local posts on one ballot.

“So, in other words, from the standpoint of OSCE norms and standards, American democracy is far from ideal,” That particular Foreign Ministry sentence ended in a comma. The concluding one noted that Washington was using “any available excuse” to deny “the fact of democracy in Russia” by accusing Moscow of failing to abide by “arbitrary” foreign monitoring rules.

Washington never bothered to respond. But Zhirinovsky – of all people and quite unwittingly – did. The Kremlin lapdog xenophobe lamented on REN TV that the OSCE was treating Russia as part of some “axis” that included other misbehaving states like Serbia and Uzbekistan.

Zhirinovsky remarked that OSCE teams no longer visit countries deemed reliable enough to stage an election on their own. Countries like… The United States and such. The fact that Europeans want to come to Russia at all was a sign of disrespect. Replace “disrespect” with “concern” or some such diplomatic lingo and Zhirinovsky is left making a completely valid point.

So how on earth did it come all the way to this – that Zhirinovsky displays more reason than Russia’s Foreign Ministry?

It is simply too surreal to fathom that the Foreign Ministry actually believes the logic of its latest diplomatic note. Thus Russia-watching turns full circle: Boris Yeltsin was tracked for whether he could still walk and talk.

And the Kremlin’s latest temperature is taken by whether ministries have patience to scribble grammatically correct tripe.

The Resurrection of the Fifth Directorate

Paul Goble on the resurrection of the KGB Fifth Directorate:

The attempt by the FSB in Novosibirsk to have the election commission there ban anecdotes about Vladimir Putin as “illegal agitation activity,” a step that body refused to take, has sparked fears that some in the FSB want it to assume the functions of the KGB’s notorious Fifth Chief Directorate. In an article posted online in Karelia, Anatoliy Tsygankov, who writes frequently about the Russian security services, said that the FSB’s Department for the Defense of the Constitutional Order seems to want to harass opponents of the government much as the KGB’s Fifth Chief Directorate did at the end of Soviet times. And while the regional FSB section was rebuffed in Novosibirsk, he continued, the fact that its officers tried to assume this role there should be “a warning sign for the entire country” because in some places, other officials are likely to defer to this power agency.

Indeed, Tsygankov suggested, it was a matter of good fortune that “the chairman of the [Novosibirsk] oblast election commission did not forget in what time we are living” and basing his decision on existing Russian law, “refused to react to political anecdotes” in the way that the FSB hoped. Were this the only example of the KGB’s efforts in this regard, there might be less cause for concern, but Tsygankov continued, the FSB is very much involved with “the current attack on the Constitution of Russia” in another way, through its sponsorship of those who want Putin to remain president in violation of Constitutional norms. Putin himself “has asked them not to do this,” Tsygankov noted, but the FSB officers have continued to organize meetings, marches, appeals and other measures intended to keep the current Russian president in the Kremlin long after his legally permitted two terms. Such contempt for the explicit provisions of the Russian Constitution and Russian laws by officers of the country’s largest security service with regard to this issue, Tsygankov suggested, inevitably leads to other and even more threatening actions, steps that recall some of the worst features of the Soviet past.

That such dangers are all too real now in turn is highlighted by three other reports this week. First, human rights officials have noted that some of the prisoners who took part in prison violence in recent months have died in unexplained and unexamined circumstances when Interior Ministry officials were moving them to distant prisons. According to officials, such prisoners are simply being put in “neighboring” penitentiaries in order to better control them, but reports from the parents of those whose children have died in this process suggest the authorities are misrepresenting the situation, again in violation of the law. To try to stop this violence, these human rights organizations have organized a public appeal demanding that the Interior Ministry and prison officials obey Russia’s laws and Constitution rather than assuming that because they represent the power of the state, they can act with impunity even to the point of killing those in their charge. Second, the Moscow newspaper Gazeta reported yesterday that the Social Chamber’s Commission on Tolerance and Freedom of Conscience has prepared a pamphlet to guide militia officers in their dealings with members of religious groups. The guide, which is to be published in December in 100,000 copies, is designed for the officer on the beat, but whatever the good intentions behind it, both its specific injunctions and the reactions of Interior Ministry officials and activists to its provisions are cause for concern. On the one hand, the pamphlet includes materials only on the four traditional faiths, thus implying that followers of others are not subject to its provisions, and it provides advice such as – “it is prohibited to take dogs into churches, mosques and synagogues” – that raises questions about how serious militiamen will take it. And on the other, the reaction of Interior Ministry officials and religious rights activists suggest that this much ballyhooed pamphlet is unlikely to have any serious effect beyond propagandizing Moscow’s ostensibly good intentions in dealing with Orthodox Christians, Muslims, Jews and Buddhists. Interior Ministry officials told “Gazeta” that they would act with regard to religious leaders just as they act toward anyone else because except for the confidentiality of the confessional, they said, priests and mullahs do not have any special rights or protections. And Ranik Amirov, the head of the Association of Muslim Journalists, told the paper that the pamphlet was unlikely to affect the behavior of the militiaman on the street. The booklet is a “plus” compared to the situation now, but if there is to be real change, he said, the Interior Ministry must include its provisions in its training schools.

The third development reported this week suggests that the willingness of at least some officers in the FSB and other security agencies to ignore the law is undermining public confidence in at least some regions not only in them but also in the central Russian government as a whole. According to the results of a poll taken in Nazran, Ingushetia, 38 percent of the people there believe that Russia’s “special services” are behind the wave of murders and kidnappings there, almost five times the number (8 percent) who blame Islamist extremists for these crimes. Unless the FSB and its allied agencies are reined in and reined in soon, there is a very real danger that the illegal actions of these bodies will cost Moscow even more public trust and that in turn will lead the organs to take even more illegal actions, pushing Russia into a vicious cycle from which it will be difficult to escape unharmed.

Chechnya: Up Close and Personal

A new book on Chechnya is out, One Soldier’s War in Chechnya, written by Arkady Babchenko and reviewed in the Times of London by Max Hastings:

All wars are hell, but some hells are worse than others. If Arkady Babchenko is to be believed, Russian conscripts fighting their country’s long, shambolic war in Chechnya suffered more at the hands of their own people than those of the enemy. Almost daily, young soldiers were sadistically beaten by veterans. Everything not screwed down, including arms and ammunition, was sold in the marketplace, often to the Chechen separatists the army was supposed to be fighting. Officers were at best bunglers, at worst monsters. Almost everyone was drunk, nearly all the time.

“The first time I really got beaten up was on May 9. Victory Day,” recounts the author, a law-school graduate who went to Chechnya in 1996, aged 18. “The reconnaissance boys kicked us out of our beds and beat us the whole night. Towards morning they got tired of that and ordered us to do squats on the floor. We sat down, pressed up tightly against each other, and our mingled sweat ran down our legs, dripped onto the bare floorboards and soon formed a pool beneath us. Andy also dripped pus and blood into the mix as his sores opened up again.”

We know much less about the modern Russian army at war than we do about the Americans in Vietnam, or the British in Iraq. But what we do know suggests that Babchenko’s story is true. Russia today has suddenly become a rich country, on the back of its huge oil and gas reserves. But almost nothing in Putin’s universe works. His country cannot build a car or toaster that any westerner would accept as a free gift. The birth rate is plummeting, gangsterism is endemic, alcoholism a national disease. A deep anger pervades Russian society, as the people strive to understand why the West has so much, while they seem to have so little. “We have a saying,” a girl tourist guide in St Petersburg said to me sadly a couple of years ago, “that one has to be very unlucky to be born in Russia.”

It is entirely credible, therefore, that the Russian army is a brutish, demoralised, drunken rabble, whose conduct in Chechnya has been worse than in Afghanistan, and even less effective. Babchenko describes how a tragic herd of Russian mothers descended on a base in the Caucasus, searching for their sons missing in action. “Before setting off on foot to Chechnya with their photos, they have to look through a mountain of corpses in the refrigerators at the station and in the tents. Constant shrieks and moans can be heard from there and the mothers have aged 10 years when they are led out.”

Soldiers refer to badly burnt corpses as “smoked goods” and the morgues as “canning factories”. The author says: “We heal ourselves with cynicism, preserve our sanity this way so as not to go completely out of our minds.” Some new recruits lacked boots, and were obliged to shovel snow in army-issue slippers. The soldiers were often sick and always hungry, for their rations were grossly inadequate as well as inedible. Desertion was commonplace. Drink and drugs were the only palliatives.

The fate of those who fell into Chechen hands was unspeakable. Yakoviev, one of the author’s comrades, disappeared during the storming of Grozny. He was later found in a cottage cellar by the military police: “The rebels had slit him open like a tin of meat, pulled out his intestines and used them to strangle him while he was still alive. On the neatly whitewashed wall above him, written in his blood, were the words ‘Allah akbar’ – God is great.”

One critic has compared Babchenko’s book to Catch-22 and Michael Herr’s Dispatches. This seems fanciful, for it is repetitive, often incoherent and riddled with clichés. So was the war he is trying to describe, the author might say. But the best narratives of conflict convey its chaos and misery much more reflectively. Despair is the pervasive theme. Here was a teenager thrust into a predicament that carried him to the edge of madness even before he entered the combat zone. He was borne down by the anarchy prevailing in his own army. Each rank exercised a right to assault the one below: colonels punched majors, captains kicked lieutenants, NCOs reduced the faces of privates to bloody pulp.

Yet Babchenko never explains a notable mystery about his experience: after surviving as a conscript, he returned to Chechnya in 2000 as a volunteer, a “contract soldier”. It was then his turn to beat young soldiers. He bears witness to the savagery of Russian military operations, and indeed describes his own descent into casual violence and killing civilians.

About 1m Russians have served in Chechnya over the past decade. Babchenko says that they returned from the ordeal consumed with hatred for authority, indeed for the world. He describes the cripples, their bodies wrecked in the war, who haunt the Moscow subway, singing as they beg: “They sing terribly, but that doesn’t bother them. They hate the people they are singing for. They see the world from below, and not just because they only have half of their bodies left, but because half of their souls are gone, too.”

Babchenko’s narrative is weakened by its bitterness. It is written in the voice of a man who discovered no hint of redemptive quality in his experience. The book makes no attempt to analyse the war in which he played his part. It merely recounts the thoughts and deeds of a humble footsoldier caught in a military maelstrom. If this is how today’s Russian army seems to those at the sharp end, then Putin’s soldiers are more deserving of pity than of the fear that their president’s sabre-rattling is designed to inspire in the rest of us.

Buy it here.

Annals of Neo-Soviet Propaganda: Denying Katyn

Writing in The Economist, Edward Lucas exposes yet another horrifying aspect of neo-Soviet propaganda, which emerged from a recent meeting in Prague:

Over coffee, participants competed to cite new outrages in the pro-Kremlin press. A prime example was an article in the October 18th edition of the official Russian government newspaper, Rossiskaya Gazeta, on the subject of the massacre of thousands of captured Polish officers at Katyn and other locations in April 1940. It was a defining moment in the Gorbachev era when the Kremlin admitted the murderers were not—as the Stalinist falsehood asserted—the Nazis, but the NKVD. Now that clock is running backwards: the September 18th article, by one Aleksandr Sabov, asserts that the evidence of NKVD involvement is flimsy and unreliable. That is roughly akin to a German government newspaper (if such a thing existed) promoting Holocaust denial. Oddly, the article is not on the Rossiskaya Gazeta website (although PDF copies are available on the internet). Perhaps the editors are ashamed of what they printed. Such things stiffen the ex-communist countries’ resistance to Kremlin blandishments. But it would help if their supposed allies would get their act together too. Atlanticist opinion has been bruised and battered by American blunders in presenting the case for missile defence bases in the region. The latest fiasco was when American officials said Russian military experts could be based at the planned anti-missile radar station in the Czech Republic. Given that the Kremlin’s occupation forces left barely 15 years ago, the return of Russian soldiers of any kind would be a ticklish proposition at the best of times. But it turned that the American announcement was the first the Czechs had heard of the notion. Having hung their allies out to dry, the Americans then changed their mind. For eastern Europe’s loyal Atlanticists, the end of the Bush administration cannot come soon enough. But perhaps they should be careful what they wish for.

Today they re-deny Katyn, tomorrow . . . ?

Putin to Diabetics: Drop Dead!

Scholar Paul Goble exposes yet another outrageous incidence of the Kremlin’s total disregard for the well-being of the people it purports to govern:

Despite dramatic increases in the incidence of diabetes in the Russian Federation, that country still lacks a domestic producer of insulin and has not been willing or able to purchase sufficient supplies abroad to meet domestic requirements, according to two Moscow investigators who have examined this situation. As a result, Boris Mironov and Vladimir Chertovich say in an article posted online this week, many Russian diabetics are not getting the medicines they need, a shortcoming in Russian pubic health that often produces other illnesses and premature deaths. To a large extent, of course, the story of Russia’s insulin shortage is part of broader problems there: the reduction of state subsidies for medications, the collapse of the health delivery system in certain regions, and even the inability of many Russians to get to drug outlets because of Russia’s diminished system of public transport. But these problems have been compounded by new reports suggesting that a decision the Russian health ministry made last February when it directed public hospitals and clinics to screen guestworkers for disease and then to those needing it at low cost. That decree, recent reports suggest, has led to a sharp rise in the number of immigrants who come to Russia not to work but rather to obtain inexpensive medical treatment and also to anger among many Russians who conclude that their government appears to be discriminating in favor of immigrants and against Russian citizens.

What makes the insulin situation especially infuriating, Mironov and Chertovich say, is that the Russian government has allocated millions of rubles to remedy it, steps health ministry officials have pointed to with pride, but so far, these funds have not helped any diabetics but rather enriched corrupt officials and businessmen. The two journalists describe how the health ministry has repeatedly given large sums of money to Russian and foreign companies to manufacture insulin even after these companies have failed to deliver on their promises. Only recently, when some of these funds ended up in the U.S., did prosecutors charge anyone with corruption or fraud. Such charges represent a useful first step, Mironov and Chertovich admit, but they argue that what has really occurred in this case is “not theft and not corruption” alone. Rather, they write, it is something much worse: “the intentional murder of the nation” by depriving its citizens of needed medicines. And they conclude in anger that when it comes to the lack of insulin for diabetics and the deaths that have and will result, “the murderers are the power structures of Russia” who allowed this to happen, even though they have sought to present themselves as the guardian of the country.