Daily Archives: November 12, 2007

November 12, 2007 — Contents


(1) EDITORIAL: Georgia is Burning, and We Lit the Match

(2) Russia Terrorizing the Baltics

(3) Russian Spies Swarm Britian, Create Terror Risks

(4) The Business of Cold War

(5) Annals of Shamapova

EDITORIAL: Georgia is Burning


Georgia is Burning, and We Lit the Match

Russia is not interfering in the internal affairs of Georgia but it is increasingly concerned about possible provocations in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has said. “We are not interfering in the internal affairs of Georgia or telling Georgian politicians what they should be doing or when. These are not our methods,” Lavrov told a briefing in Moscow on Friday.

Mr. Lavrov’s comment would offend the intelligence of a turnip.

Is this maniac, this card-carrying psychopath, really asking us to believe that if Russia were behind the protests in Georgia, if it were seeking to destabilize the pro-West regime of President Mikheil Saakashvili by any means possible, desperate to prevent Georgia’s ascension into the ranks of NATO, then he would admit it?

Yes, that’s just what he’s doing. Remember when a certain shoeless Russian said he’d “bury” us?

That is the level of propaganda, subhuman to the Nth degree, that is now being spewed forth from neo-Soviet Russia. The country has become fully detached from any vague concept of reality. It has crushed all the outlets of truth (newspapers, TV stations, NGOs) which might have brought in a bit of that reality, just as in Soviet times. Now, as then, it is unable to realize how utterly ridiculous its pronouncements make it seem anyplace outside of Russia’s borders.

Russia is engaged in a secret war in Georgia seeking to enslave the tiny country just as in Soviet times. Everybody knows Russia is governed by a proud KGB spy who spent his whole life learning how to lie, and whose word means absolutely nothing. After all, didn’t Russia just unilaterally repudiate a major arms control treaty in Europe? As a letter to Robert Amsterdam states, referring to Russia’s unilateral repudiation of the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty:

The way it is done (the moratorium) is significant. Putin is dismantling the cold war settlement. The first was YUKOS. Emboldened by the lack of reaction, he proceeds cautiously with the moratorium. There are two elements to moratorium: it is unilateral and it is reversible, as Kosachev took pains to point out yesterday. The reversible part, I think, is not meant to mark the moratorium as a bargaining chip, (marking bargaining chip as a “bargaining chip” makes it loose much of its value), but as a precaution if Americans would decide to take the stand against the new revision of the cold war settlement. They will not, of course. Other things will follow soon – let us wait for the next spring. All this is a grand preparation for fulfillment of Putin’s life mission – the ultimate reversal of the cold war results – restoration to Russia of most of the territories of the former Soviet Union.

Yet, the Kremlin apparently believes we will forget all that is obvious and listen to its siren song once again, out of cowardice or stupidity.

No chance. The Bush administration is showing remarkable aplomb on this issue, despite leading the world astray on Russia for many years. Matt Bryza, assistant secretary of state for European affairs and the top U.S. official for the Caucasus responded to Lavrov’s outrageous statement by saying clearly and simply: “The president of Georgia has shown remarkable leadership.We trust in Georgia, the people of Georgia, the leadership of Georgia.”

After all, facts are facts: Not only did the Georgian parliament unanimously approve President Saakashvili’s decision last week to declare a state of emergency following yet another attempt by Russia to foment undermine his government — exactly as it did in Ukraine only months ago — but immediately after making the decision Saakashvili announced elections would occur to find out what the people really want. It’s clear that this is exactly the result Russia wanted when it caused the street protests that triggered the emergency; having achieve this, Russia will now use every means possible to rig the elections and drive Saakashvili from power. Even if Russian forces don’t succeed, they’ll still have created a enough instability to make it difficult for NATO to admit Georgia as a member, since NATO’s constitution requires stability as a prerequisite.

Let’s be clear: What we are seeing in Georgia today is not one little bit different from what we saw in Hungary and Czechoslovakia as the Iron Curtain descended across the continent after World War II. The only reason Russia doesn’t use exactly the same kind of brute military force is that Russia isn’t strong enough to do so. Nonetheless, Russia is doing everything it can to reassert imperial control over Georgia, Ukraine and even the Baltic nations (as we report today) — all the parts of its former Soviet empire. And Russia’s aggression doesn’t stop there. It’s waging a full-scale cold war against Great Britain, buzzing it with nuclear bombers and (as we also report today) deluging it with spies that make it harder for Britain to focus its resources on combating radical Islamic terror. In a very real sense, Vladimir Putin is acting in concert with Osama Bin Laden.

Russia is, of course, establishing a rather dangerous precedent, and perhaps there’s a glimmer of hope in that. Suppose a few thousand protesters appear in Moscow this week, surround the Kremlin, hang Vladimir Putin in effigy, call him a terrorist and demand he step down. Does he now have to call elections at the protesters’ whim, any time Garry Kasparov says so, in order to prove he’s really what the people want?

We can just hear the Russophile bagmen screeching now: Putin would surely win those elections, there would be no point! Putin has no opposition!

Wrong, on both counts. It’s absolutely clear that Saakashvili will win the snap elections he’s called, everyone knows that. And the fact that Saakashvili has allowed an opposition to exist in Georgia is obviously proof that he’s actually a democrat — unlike the dictator Putin who has violently snuffed out every last vestige of true opposition politics in Russia. There’s far more need for protesters to confront Putin than Saakashvili, and no thinking person can dispute that.

Oh, the Russophile vermin will wail, what about the economy, the economy! What about Putin’s brilliant economy?

Yes, what about the economy. Georgia’s gross domestic product grew by 9.6 percent in 2006 and officials forecast 2007 growth of 14.5 percent. The government has boosted tax revenues and private investment is up. Per capita income has risen from $700 a year in 2003 to $1,500 now. When this kind of growth occurs in Russia, for the Russophile rabble it’s conclusive proof that the regime responsible must be left alone. But when it occurs in Georgia, suddenly it means nothing.

Georgia is posting better economic growth numbers than Russia is, and Georgia doesn’t have massive oil revenues like Russia does. Its economic growth is much more real and therefore more impressive, because the accident of rising world oil prices isn’t the primary cause. And let’s not forget that Georgia is accomplishing this in face of massive Russian economic sanctions and other forms of destabilizing attacks. Russia faces no such obstacles.

There’s no doubt that President Saakashvili could be doing more, and the West is right to hold him to a high standard of democratic fair play. He needs to protect his country against efforts to subvert its freedom, but he also has to win the propaganda war the Kremlin is waging. His country’s future depends on it.

But it’s equally true that the West has not done nearly enough to guarantee Georgia’s sovereignty against Russian encroachments. Having failed to provide sufficient security to this small country besieged by a larger one, can we really be surprised if we see a bit of paranoid behavior? We lit the match that sparked the conflagration now burning in Georgia by failing to do enough to show Russia it wouldn’t be allowed to get away with this behavior. Now, it’s up to us to extinguish the flames and contain Russian aggression, just as we successfully did in the first cold war.

After all, even paranoids have enemies. The United States has presidential elections scheduled for November 2008. Let’s just imagine that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran comes to visit the United Nations next week, and while he’s here he uses some of his country’s oil revenues to buy himself a few thousand protesters (he can get them off the rack at Moveon.org, cheaper by the dozen; a few members of Congress might even come along). Let’s say they go down to Washington DC and camp outside the White House. They hang George Bush (let’s say he’s only on his first term) in effigy and call him a terrorist. They call for his impeachment, and they won’t leave no matter what until Bush agrees to move up the November elections to January and stand for reelection right away. Should he do it? Should he prove to this cadre of wackos, lackeys of a foreign rogue regime, that the country really supports him?

Judge not, lest ye be judged.

If we allow Russia to swallow Georgia the way we allowed the USSR to swallow Czechoslovakia, we condemn ourselves to the same protracted struggle to free it once again. Those who cannot remember history are doomed to repeat it. As Robert Amsterdam tirelessly points out, too many are ready to be bullied by the Kremlin’s crude tactics.

And there’s simply no reason for it. As a new report from the European Union indicates, the EU alone has a population 3.5 times larger than Russia, ten times the military spending and fifteen times the economic base (in other words, a huge amount of room to expand military spending even more). If you add America into this mix, you have a an entity that can quite simply brush Russia aside like so much lint. We have nothing to fear from Russia but fear itself, and that is what Russia is hoping to maximize, saying our hand until it can somehow improve its own enough to fight a real battle.

Now is the time to do act, before we bequeath to our children the same nightmare we lived through.

They won’t forgive us if we do that.

Russia Terrorizing the Baltics

Russia’s war of imperial aggression against its former Soviet slave states continues all along its border, from Stettin to Triest and on to central Asia. The International Herald Tribune reports on Russia’s amazing hubris in directly challenging the sovereignty of the Baltics. The EU and NATO must rush to their defense:

EVEN as Jonas Kronkaitis, now retired as Lithuania’s top general, admires the transformation of this once drab Soviet city into a proud member of the New Europe, a worry eats at him: Russian power is rapidly returning to the Baltics, only this time the weapons are oil and money, not tanks.

Kronkaitis has a unique perspective. He fled Lithuania to America as a boy in 1944, and served nearly 30 years in the United States Army before returning to command his newly independent country’s military in the 1990’s. He engineered its entry into NATO in 2004, thinking this would help cement security for the tiny Baltic nation. Now he says his hopeful view was wrong.

The signs of Russia’s resurgent influence are everywhere in Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia: in Kremlin-financed media; in the financing of local politicians and economic development; in a growing assertiveness, encouraged by Moscow, among the third of the Baltic population that is of Russian heritage; in the Kremlin’s manipulation of its energy supplies as a bludgeon.

These tactics — especially the use of Russian cash — have evoked stress in the Baltics that was unthinkable even five years ago.

“What we are afraid of is the very huge money that comes from Russia that can be used to corrupt our officials,” Kronkaitis said in an interview. “And I’m talking about very large money. Money can then be used to control our government. Then Lithuania, in a very subtle way, over many years perhaps, becomes dominated and loses its independence.”

“Over many years” may be an understatement, Baltic nationalists say. In 2004, Lithuania’s president was impeached for alleged connections to Russia’s secret service and big business.

It all seems part of a strategy by President Vladimir Putin to revive Russian power in much of Eastern Europe.

For the Balts, any move that angers Russia runs huge risks. Last month, for example, the Estonian state prosecutor charged four ethnic Russians with organizing riots in April to protest the government’s move of a statue of a Soviet soldier from the capital to a suburb as the anniversary of victory in World War II neared. The Russian-language press had egged on the protesters.

“There is reason to believe that financial support and advice to organize mass disorders was also received from the Russian Federation,” the prosecutor said. After the riots, hackers briefly paralyzed Estonia’s government and banks, and Estonia said the cyberattacks were traced to Kremlin addresses.

The tensions over the riots come as the Baltic countries are trying to challenge Russia’s energy monopoly. All three are resisting an ambitious Russian-German plan to build a pipeline under the Baltic Sea that would send gas directly from Russia to Western Europe — bypassing the Baltics and cutting them out of transit fees and access to the flow. Estonia has led this opposition, with a challenge on environmental grounds. Many Balts find it disheartening that the former German chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, sits on the board of the joint venture, in which Russians hold a 51 percent interest.

Gazprom, the Russian oil giant, already controls more than 35 percent of Baltic gas companies. Latvia has been cut off from an old Russian oil pipeline since 2003 and Lithuania since 2006, forcing them to import more expensive oil by ship. The Russians blame pipeline problems, but Latvians and Lithuanians don’t believe that; Estonia was shut off for several weeks after the spring riots.

Any Baltic defiance of Russian pressure is made more emotional by their shared and bitter history. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania began the 20th century under Russia’s czars but gained independence after World War I.

Then, after the Hitler-Stalin nonaggression pact in 1939, Soviet troops swept in and Stalin deported hundreds of thousands of Balts to die in Siberian gulags. When Hitler’s troops marched through in turn, many Balts saw the Germans as liberators — and significant numbers collaborated with the Nazis to annihilate the region’s Jews.

After the war came an influx of Russian workers whose presence would, in time, be cited by the Soviets to claim that these states should never again get independence. For its part, the Putin government has campaigned for ethnic Russians to insist on attaining a stronger voice by accepting Baltic citizenship.

“In the Baltics, history is a ghost that still walks the streets in a very active way,” said Daina Eglitis of George Washington University. “It’s not just past, it’s present. But people have different readings on it.”

One example is a Vilnius tourist attraction, the torture chambers of the old KGB headquarters, which had been Gestapo headquarters. It is now the Museum of Genocide Victims, but “genocide” applies only to what Russians did to Balts — not to what Nazis and their local collaborators did to Jews.

The museum all but ignores the Baltic people’s role in the Holocaust, an omission that angers not only Jews, but also Russians, who view the Soviets as liberators and are now reasserting control over the historical record. For example, a new pan-Baltic Russian-language television station, financed by the Kremlin, often features documentaries that praise the Soviet Union.

About one-third of Lithuania’s television stations are already in Russian. “Russians buy our politicians, they buy our press, and they buy our minds — I think that’s all,” Indre Makaraityte, editor of Revival, an independent Lithuanian newspaper, said sarcastically.

She organized a demonstration in May to support Estonia against the ethnic Russians’ protests and show solidarity with the West. But she says she was disheartened when European and American leaders took a week to condemn Russia after the riots.

“We became members of NATO and EU expecting we would be defended immediately,” she said. “There’s a fear of Russia, and a fear that we are again alone, not defended by our Western partners. They are too naïve in evaluating Russia.”

Russian Spies Swarm Britian, Create Terror Risks

The Times of London reports that frenzied, aggressive spying by Russia is forcing British authorities to divert resources from their fight against terrorism. In other words, Vladimir Putin is acting in league with Osama Bin Laden

A 23-YEAR-OLD man has been arrested under the Official Secrets Act for allegedly attempting to pass military information to the Russians. The suspect, who lives in Yorkshire, had worked at a government establishment but is not a former serviceman. He was arrested in a Metropolitan Police operation on Wednesday. A Scotland Yard spokeswoman confirmed a suspect was being held at a Yorkshire police station. She said he had been arrested under the Official Secrets Act and for a suspected explosives offence after certain materials were found. It is claimed the man, from Skipton, North Yorkshire, was trying to leak military secrets from his previous occupation to the Russians. Scotland Yard would not comment on the allegations. Police have searched a residential and business address linked to the suspect. He had only recently moved to Yorkshire.

One of the most recent cases of an arrest under the Official Secrets Act involved Ian Parr, a former employee at BAE Systems Avionics. He subsequently admitted the offences and was jailed for 10 years in April 2003. Parr, from Rochford, Essex, tried to sell the Russian confidential details of seven defence projects, including a missile system then being deployed in Iraq. He met his “contact” in a pub but later found out he was in fact trying to betray his country to an undercover MI5 officer. Sentencing Parr, Judge Michael Hyam said the sentence reflected the seriousness of the offences. “I cannot accept that you were so naive that you did not know what you were doing was a risk to the nation’s security,” he said.

UK-Russia relations have deteriorated in the last two years. There was particular anger that the Russian authorities refused to extradite suspects thought to be involved in the death of Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB officer who died of radiation poisoning last November. Last July the British government expelled four Russian diplomats from London in response to the lack of cooperation over the Litvinenko investigation. The Kremlin responded by expelling four British embassy staff. The security and intelligence services are known to be on alert over the passing of British defence secrets to Russia. Just two days before last week’s arrest Jonathan Evans, the director-general of MI5, warned of the continuing espionage threat from Russia.

“There has been no decrease in the numbers of Russian intelligence officers conducting covert activity in the UK, despite the cold war ending nearly two decades ago,” he said. “MI5 is expending resources to defend the UK against unreconstructed attempts by Russians, and others, to spy on the UK. “The size and nature of this threat means that MI5 still has to devote significant amounts of equipment, money and staff to countering this threat, when they could be devoted to countering the threat from international terrorism.”

Last night Peter Hill, 23, a risk analyst, was charged for possession of explosive materials including sodium chlorate and a metal hollow tube. He was bailed until April next year pending further inquiries into alleged breaches of the Official Secrets Act.

The Business of Cold War

The Times of London reports on how Vladimir Putin is destroying genuine capitalism in Russia in favor of weaponizing the nation’s economic assets for renewed struggle with the West, establishing corporatized regime (“Kremlin, Inc.”) which cares nothing for the interests of the people of Russia — the same situation as in Soviet times, the same situation that brought the USSR to ruin.

WHEN one of the top directors of Gazprom, the Russian state-owned gas giant, was recently summoned to a meeting with his chairman, the billionaire executive did not go to the company’s lavish new head offices in a high-rise south of Moscow’s city centre. Instead his chauffeur-driven limousine and chase car crammed with armed bodyguards headed straight for the Kremlin. After a brief walk along the building’s eerily silent corridors, which run along sumptuous, gilded halls, he was ushered into the office of Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s deputy prime minister and close protégé of the president, Vladimir Putin.

But what outsiders could have mistaken for an exchange between a powerful Kremlin figure and a wealthy businessman seeking to curry favour was instead a routine corporate meeting which, in Russia at least, no longer raises eyebrows. For Medvedev – who until recently was being tipped as Russia’s next president – is one of the country’s most senior government figures and chairman of Gazprom’s board of directors. As a result, the 42-year-old has three offices, one in the White House, Russia’s seat of government, another in the Kremlin, the president’s official residence, and a third at Gazprom’s headquarters.

Also on the gas giant’s board are Viktor Khristenko, Russia’s minister for industry and energy, and German Gref, who until two months ago was economic development and trade minister. Far from being an anomaly, Gazprom’s unusual boardroom lineup is the result of a deliberate policy introduced by Putin of appointing trusted Kremlin insiders to head Russia’s largest state companies. Instead of being an obstacle, the fact that they also hold senior state positions appears to have become an essential requirement.

After nearly eight years in power the policy has become so widespread that Russia’s largest companies are all controlled by bureaucrats, cabinet ministers and Kremlin bigwigs whose biographies in many cases share one thing – a KGB past. Personally appointed by Putin, they answer only to the president.

Critics have dubbed the system Kremlin Inc or Korporatsiya, the Corporation, likening the country to a multinational, the state to a boardroom and the president to its chief executive. Putin, who curbed the power of the oligarchs – in some cases by jailing them – is accused by critics of giving birth to a new breed of state tycoons. “Only in Russia are business-men also big state bureaucrats,” said Stanislav Belkovsky, a political commentator linked to Boris Berezovsky, the oligarch turned fierce Kremlin critic. “The country is not run by politicians serving the state but by a clan of business-men who often use the state’s instruments, including its security services, to make money.”

Even a partial list of state figures who officially also hold senior positions in business is bewildering. Igor Sechin, a former KGB officer who is now deputy head of Putin’s presidential administration, is chairman of Rosneft, the huge state-run oil company. Sechin’s No 2 on the board is Sergei Naryshkin, a deputy prime minister who is chairman of Channel One, one of two state television networks.

  • Viktor Ivanov, another former KGB officer and close Putin aide, heads Aeroflot, the state-owned airline. In addition, he chairs the board of directors of Almaz-An-tey, the state missile-production monopoly.
  • Sergei Ivanov, the hawkish deputy prime minister and former KGB officer widely tipped as another favourite for the presidency, heads the newly formed monopoly United Aircraft Corporation, a merger of Russian aircraft-design bureaus.
  • Alexei Kudrin, Russia’s finance minister, is the chairman of Alrosa, the world’s second-largest producer of diamonds. Until last year, Vladislav Surkov, one of Putin’s most trusted Kremlin advisers, was also on the board of Transnefteprodukt, a state oil-pipeline group.

In the case of Andrei and Dimitry Patrushev, who respectively work as an adviser to Rosneft’s board of directors, and vice-presi-dent of the state-run bank VTB, the link to Russia’s sprawling state bureaucracy is through their father, Nikolai – a close Putin loyalist who heads the FSB, the former KGB. “Frankly I don’t know of any other country where so many high-ranking state officials also head state companies,” said one Western oil-industry source.

“It’s a bizarre situation which surely leads to daily conflict of interests. Imagine a British cabinet minister moonlighting as the chief executive of a state company. Instead of properly regulating the economy, the state actually owns the economy.” Putin’s supporters – and there are many – say the policy is justified as it reestablished the state’s control in the world of big business and put an end to the chaos of the 1990s when, under Boris Yeltsin, state-owned enterprises were sold to well-con-nected tycoons for a fraction of their value.

Cabinet ministers who are at the helm of big corporations are not there to enrich themselves, say many in Russia. Instead they attend board meetings and make appointments to ensure that the state’s interests, as seen by Putin, are met. They are his eyes and ears, not oligarchs. Putin’s detractors, however, suspect – but given the lack of transparency and the Kremlin’s tight control on the media, have found little evidence – that members of the Korporatsiya have long become multimillionaires. Privately at least, few dispute that state officials are allowed to have businesses on the side. More than one is rumoured to own a villa in Sardinia.

Putin did not simply appoint state officials to head Russia’s largest corporations. In most cases he either created or turned the companies into what they are today. From the start of his presidency he has aggressively moved to bring much of Russia’s oil and gas industry back under Kremlin control, often wrestling ownership from the oligarchs.

By far the most hostile takeover was against Mikhail Khodor-kovsky, the former owner of the Yukos oil company and once Russia’s richest man. He incurred Putin’s wrath not just because he developed political ambitions. His crime in the eyes of the Kremlin was considering selling part of Yukos to an American oil company and seeking to negotiate the construction of a new pipeline without Putin’s consent. Jailed and found guilty of embezzlement and fraud in a politically motivated trial, Kho-dorkovsky is now serving an eight-year sentence in Siberia. Yukos was slapped with a £10 billion bill in unpaid back taxes, forced into bankruptcy and stripped of its main assets, which were sold to Rosneft in a process that even some Kremlin aides described as state-spon-sored theft.

Sechin, Rosneft’s chairman and a close Putin aide, has been widely described as the driving force behind the onslaught on Yukos, one in which the Russian president is said to have taken a keen and personal interest. In 2004, before the demise of Yukos, Rosneft was worth an estimated £4.5 billion. It is now valued at about £40 billion.

But Putin’s most cherished pet project by far is Gazprom. Once a Soviet behemoth, under the Russian president the company has experienced a giddy expansion. Putin, who is determined to see Russia regain some of the influence it lost with the collapse of communism by turning it into an energy superpower, has astonished aides and foreigners alike with his knowledge of minute details about Gazprom. No important company decision is taken without first consulting the president. Two years ago the state took a majority stake in the gas giant. It then purchased the oil company Sibneft from Roman Abramov-ich, Russia’s richest man and owner of Chelsea football club. Insiders say that soliciting rival bids was never considered. Gazprom, which some describe as a state within a state and a powerful tool of Russian foreign policy, is now worth more than £120 billion. Ranked by the value of its stock, the company is the fifth-largest corporation in the world. Its executives vow to make it the biggest. Putin’s hands-on interest in Gazprom is such that until recently many expected him to take over as chief executive when his second and last term ends in March – the Russian constitution bars presidents from serving more than two consecutive terms. He is now more likely to stay on as leader of United Russia, a pro-Kremlin party that could win as much as 70% in parliamentary elections next month. Either way, he will retain much influence over the huge state corporations created during his tenure.

Kremlin Inc continues to grow fast as the state is now reaching out far beyond the energy sector. Mining, shipping, the railway and airline industries as well as car manufacturing are all coming under the government’s control. Other state giants are being created and more state appa-ratchiks are being ushered in to boardrooms. Influential Russian business-men say that if the state is interested in buying out a company there is only one choice: sell. To oppose a takeover is as pointless as it is dangerous. “Private companies can make a more attractive offer to win you over,” said one Russian entrepreneur who made a fortune in the oil industry and sold out shortly after the Kremlin began to show interest in the energy sector. “The state can send in the tax police and raid your headquarters with armed officers. Best option is to accept the first offer. You make decent money instead of powerful enemies.”

Given the political power of some of Putin’s appointees, murky behind-the-scenes battles have been inevitable. Sechin’s interests as Rosneft chairman, for instance, are said to have clashed with Medvedev’s at Gazprom. A proposed merger between the two state-controlled behemoths was abandoned in 2005 due to rivalries between the two men’s power bases in the Kremlin. The two sides also clashed over the spoils of Yukos.

The byzantine power struggles, both inside and outside the boardroom, are set to intensify now that there is growing insecurity over who will rule Russia after the March presidential elections. Equally unclear is what political influence Putin will retain and, crucially, in what capacity.

“Make no mistake, if you area Kremlin insider and a member of Kremlin Inc you are far from poor,” said a Gazprom source. “And if you are up there with the big boys, your biggest fear is that the complex balances of power which have been formed over the last few years are going to be shattered with the end of Putin’s presidency. “If a new boss comes in, so do his people. And they will want a slice of the cake. “Expect turmoil and intrigue – behind the scenes, of course. Expect pit bulls fighting under a carpet, as we say in Russia.

“But, whatever the outcome, Kremlin Inc is here to stay.”

Once Again, Shamapova Goes Down in Flames

Well, Maria Shamapova reached the finals of the year-end WTA Championships in Madrid, Spain. But she may have wished she hadn’t.

How did she get there? Well, first she needed one American, Venus Williams, to drop out of the draw entirely, just to get a place in it. Based on her record, she didn’t deserve to be there. Then, she needed to have both the world #1 and another American, Serena Williams, placed in the opposite half of the draw from her, so that she only needed to win matches against her woeful, pathetic countrywoman Svetlana Kuznetsova (who lost every single one of the three matches she played in the round-robin format) and Daniela Hantuchova (the weakest player in the draw) in order to advance to the semi-finals. Then, upon reaching the semi-finals, she needed to draw her ridiculously inept countrywoman Anna Chakvetadze, who would hand her the match like a patsy (2-6, 2-6).

In other words, business as usual for Shamapova, the luckiest human being on the face of the earth. It’s really a double humiliation for Russia, as its top-ranked player disgraced herself and the “Russian” who did (relatively) well is the one who lives and trains in the United States.

But, as usual, no amount of luck could help her once she got to the finals against world #1 Justine Henin. Shamapova needed eight — count them, eight — set points to win the first set, lost the second and was non-competitive in the third. In other words, it easily could have been a straight-set loss.

With typically mind-boggling detachment from reality (in this way at least, she’s a classic Russian through and through), Shamapova declared: “After a match of nearly three and a half hours, it is always disappointing to be the loser; but at the end of the week there can only be one winner and that was Justine. She really came through and played good tennis in the end. But I’m in a much better place than I was two weeks ago. Right now I’m not asking myself any more questions.”

And undoubtedly she isn’t. More’s the pity.