Daily Archives: March 12, 2008

March 12, 2008 — Contents


(1) Another Original LR Translation: Golts on the Transition

(2) Annals of the Amsterdam Video

(3) Confronting Putin on Human Rights

(4) NATO Must Protect Ukraine and Georgia

(5) More on the Russian Joke

Another Original LR Translation: Golts on the Transition, by Our Original Translator

Moment of Truth?

Aleksandr Golts

Yezhednevniy Zhurnal

March 10, 2008

The next two months promise to be very curious indeed. It would seem that after eight years at the post of head of state Vladimir Putin has finally started to say what he really means. The first seance of truth occurred right after discussions with his western European colleague Angela Merkel. In response to the frequently asked question about his views toward the expansion of NATO to include Ukraine and Georgia, Putin gave an extraordinarily unexpected answer. The main problem now, in his opinion, was that “in the modern world the constant expansion of a military political alliance, in the absence of a conflict between two mutually antagonistic systems, is in our view not only pointless, but also dangerous and counterproductive. It gives the impression of being an attempt to create an organization that would take over the role of the UN… Already NATO is exceeding the limits of its mandate. We have noting against aid to Afghanistan, but when it is provided by NATO, this becomes an issue. This is not a problem involving the North Atlantic region, and they know this perfectly well.”

This at last is a serious conversation. Without any silliness about how NATO achieved military dominance over Russia on account of Romanian and Bulgarian tank divisions. Putin for the first time has clearly and succinctly formulated exactly what it is that is bothering the Kremlin: it is that a new system for international security is being created, one in which Russia will be relegated to a less than modest position. It is now clear (as Putin essentially acknowledged) that from a military point of view nothing is threatening Russia. Furthermore, he does not want to draw attention to the fact that in Afghanistan that cursed NATO is actually protecting Russian security (recall that in Summer 2001 the Russian General Staff was planning to send a force of 60,000 men to the south, supposedly to oppose the Taliban).

Exactly the same logic now explains the sharp reaction of Moscow to the U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty and Washington’s plan to locate its third ABM system in Europe. Once again the issue is not that Moscow is seriously concerned that the U.S. is developing the capability to deliver with impunity a nuclear first strike against our country. Rather, it is something altogether different: The Kremlin is afraid that as a result of the U.S. basing an ABM system in Europe Russia may lose its status as a country capable of destroying the most powerful state in the world.

Hence, Putin has for the first time formulated what it is that actually annoys him about the increased activism of NATO (and the West as a whole). It is hardly the military threat, as he himself insisted in his speech in Munich. Rather, it is the loss of international influence and status. Even more revealing was his remark that President-elect Dmitriy Medvedev is, “in the good sense of the word, no less than I, a Russian nationalist. I do not think that it will be any easier for our partners with him than it was with me.” From the context it is more-or-less clear that Putin did not have in mind a nativist type of nationalism, with its obvious ethnic underpinning and deep-seated hatred of foreigners (although just to be on the safe side the Russian government-owned television stations carefully avoided any discussion of nationalism in their reporting). No, the issue here was something else. None other than the Successor, as a civilian lawyer, acquainted his senior (a practical lawyer) with the concept of a “nation-state”. And Putin drew from that the single, very natural conclusion for a person of a patriotic frame of mind: that nationalism consists of defending one’s own interests in conflict with other governments. In general, Putin’s conception is closest to the definition provided by the encyclopedia of Brokgauz and Efron : “Nationalism is the transformation of the living national consciousness into an abstract principle, affirming the “national” in absolute opposition to the “universal”, and “one’s native own” in absolute terms against “the foreign”. In essence, this is yet another variation on the hallowed theme of Sovereign Democracy.

If so, then exactly now, as he is wrapping up his term as President, Putin has formulated the main point of conflict in his foreign policy. The West is looking for some sort of universal starting point. And for NATO, this starting point is common democratic values. Transparency in government, accountability of the executive branch of government to the legislative, and free elections: the presence of all these are among the requirements for admission into the Northern Atlantic alliance. Exactly on this basis, President Putin suspects, a “replacement” is being created for the UN. With the “old” UN everything was clear. Any government, regardless how authoritarian or democratic, had the right to vote. But everything was controlled by just the five most powerful countries as of 1945. And Moscow, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, had special rights.

Putin the “Russian nationalist” does not believe that shared values can unite countries. Since he doesn’t believe in these values, he considers any reference to them to be a trap. It turns out, however, that refusing to participate in these values means being excluded from the formulation of important decisions (as happened in the case of Kosovo). But Putin is, of course, just certain this is a conspiracy of the West. By this logic it is completely natural to try and remind everyone of one’s presence through the use of every means of pressure at one’s disposal – withdrawing from the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty, threatening to withdraw from the Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile (IRBM) treaty, announcing that one will aim nuclear missiles at Poland and the Czech Republic (if they allow basing of an ABM system on their soil) and the Ukraine (if it enters NATO). But the fact that these threats have no effect gives rise to annoyance and disappointment. If Medvedev will try, as suggested by Putin, to carry out the same policies, he will encounter the exact same difficulties.

And here’s more Golts, from the Moscow Times:

The official Kremlin line is that President Vladimir Putin will hand the country over to Dmitry Medvedev in excellent condition. Upon closer examination, however, it turns out that the country’s problems are approaching a crisis point in almost every area. This is because what the Kremlin calls modernization is nothing more than pumping petrodollars into ineffective and outdated institutions, without using those resources to improve or replace them.

Only a few days ago, the Defense Ministry announced that it had drafted a bill to extend the term of service for military officers by five years. Officials have painted the initiative in glowing terms, and it apparently provides officers with the chance to continue serving in order to earn higher rank. Officers themselves will make the decision whether to serve the extra five years. In reality, however, the bill is only the latest attempt to mitigate the severe problem of insufficient number of personnel in the armed forces.

One of the main reasons for this crisis was the military’s decision to cut the mandatory service term from two years to one, making it necessary for the Defense Ministry to call up twice the usual number of 300,000 recruits. But statistics indicate that only 843,000 young men will turn 18 in 2009. About half will enter college and receive deferments. In addition, a significant percentage will gain exemptions on medical grounds. As a result, Medvedev will be forced either to drastically reduce the size of the army or to cancel military deferments for college students, thereby crippling the existing educational system. Anticipating the impending crisis, the military brass began calling college graduates to active service as privates. They accomplished this by liquidating military departments at almost 200 universities and institutes. These programs previously provided students with military training and conferred the rank of lieutenant, while exempting most, but not all, of them from mandatory service.

But if college military departments are shut down, the flow of officer-recruits will dry up as well. And last year Putin signed legislation ending the practice of calling up reserve officers for active duty. It would seem that closing an unusual institution for training officers in peacetime is a positive step in the right direction. After all, it has often been noted that such officers are of little practical benefit. They are incapable of teaching their subordinates anything useful and spend their time counting the days until their discharge.

This is why the Defense Ministry is doing everything it can to retain officers at their commands. But last year, the military added one year to the minimum period of service required to advance to the next rank. Prior to that, the top brass suggested granting company commanders the rank of major. And now we hear of their plan to extend the officers’ terms of service by five years. There is an obvious reason for all of these measures — they are trying every possible method to force officers to serve longer terms at the lowest rank of platoon or company commanders.

Were the Kremlin planning to have a small professional army, everything would be fine. High bonuses for accumulated time on the job could compensate for many years of service at low rank. But in Russia’s mass-mobilization army, the ability to rise rapidly through the ranks is one of the main — if not the only — motivating factors for officers to continue serving. Considering the low salaries and poor conditions that military officers must endure, even the slightest delay at the bottom rung of the career ladder makes extended service pointless. There is no basis for believing that an officer who has earned the right to retire with a pension will choose to extend his service for as much as a single day. These half-baked proposals clearly will not solve the crisis of the insufficient number of officers in the armed forces.

The picture that emerges for the military in 2009 is not very optimistic. There will be no troops serving, nor will there be officers to command them. When this crisis hits, the generals will throw themselves at the feet of the new commander in chief and say, “Dear, kind tsar! Nothing has worked — not transferring a percentage of the draftees to contract service, nor switching to one year of mandatory service nor eliminating officer-recruits.”

Maybe we should go back to the way it was before. That request just might be approved.

Annals of the Amsterdam Video: Amsterdam 1, Putin 0

Robert Amsterdam reports:

A reader kindly [NB: he’s talking about us!] sent us an email alerting us to the fact that the BBC is broadcasting a segment featuring clips of the Yekaterinaburg prison abuse tape, which this blog first brought to public attention (on Dec. 10) on our YouTube channel. The BBC report, which can be viewed online here, includes interviews with Lev Ponomarev and a surviving paratrooper who had been paralyzed by the beatings, torture, and human rights abuses he suffered during his imprisonment in the much feared Yekaterinaburg facility.

The story of this video and its exposure to a wider audience has taken some interesting turns in recent months. The video was up on this blog and YouTube for about two months before Lev Ponomarev (a Russian human rights leader frequently featured here) traveled to the United States to raise awareness of the issue, and then following a breakthrough investigative article by Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal including a link to the video, within days tens of thousands of people had viewed it and commented on it. After the video reached about 45,000 views in just three days, there appeared to be an organized wave of hostile comments – consistently against the victims and in support of the OMON and the Russian government. Using similar language, a variety of YouTube users attacked us for the provocation of putting this video up, and, in masse, flagged the video for “inappropriate content” and forcing the website to remove it (see Robert Amsterdam’s statement on the issue here). A few weeks later, after complaints and a secondary review, the video was successfully reinstated, and the event was covered by the Wall Street Journal.

However, all is not well. Once Lev Ponomarev returned to Russia from his trip to the United States, criminal charges were filed against him for slander against General Yuri Kalinin, head of the prison system. Stay tuned for more information. We are happy to see that this important story is finally getting covered by major media, and we hope that more people can be brought around to initiating a dialogue with Russia over human rights in its prison system.

Confronting Putin on Human Rights

Prima News reports:

The Initiative-taking Group on the Organization of a Public Tribunal for the Investigation of Crimes Against Humanity in the Russian Federation has been founded. Members include human rights activists Ludmila Alekseyeva, Valerie Abramkhin, Andrey Babushkin, Valerie Borshev, Lev Ponomarev, Yuri Samodurov, Mikhail Trepashkin, and Ernst Cherny. The first hearing of the tribunal is planned in April.

In a March 6 statement sent out by the “For Human Rights” movement, the Initiative-taking Group stated: “The need for this public tribunal is caused by the realities of today’s life. Russian human rights organizations, which regularly obtain numerous citizen complaints of grave crimes carried out by representatives of Russian “power” structures (siloviki), have repeatedly addressed the General Procurator’s office of the Russian Federation (RF), the Investigation Committee of the Procuratorship of the RF, and other relevant authorities with the demand that they conduct a thorough investigation of the facts and punish the guilty. However, none of these cases has been pursued, and the guilty have not been punished.

We believe that the public tribunal must be concentrated on two themes.

The first theme is information obtained by human rights activists about the torture and even, allegedly, murder of prisoners. This information has not been investigated by the authorities. Moreover, according to our information, numerous prison colonies have become torture zones, in which prisoners regularly undergo collective punishments and torture, but the complaints of prisoners are not investigated.

The second theme is the numerous kidnappings of young people in the republics of the North Caucasus by representatives of the “power” structures. Many disappear without leaving a trace. In those cases where kidnapped young people survive and are freed, they testify to torture and beatings and the participation in these actions by representatives of the authorities.

The basic purpose of the public tribunal is to draw attention to the themes listed above, and to ensure official investigation and punishment of the guilty parties.

The first session of public tribunal is planned for April 2008.”

NATO Must Protect Ukraine and Georgia

An editorial in the Washington Post:

The April NATO summit meeting in Bucharest, Romania, could well be dominated by debate over how the alliance can succeed in Afghanistan. But another topic, barely discussed so far, may be almost as important: whether NATO can extend its last major mission of expanding Europe’s zone of security to former communist countries.

Since NATO was created to defend the West against the Soviet Union, its greatest accomplishment may have been its role in consolidating democracy in Romania and nine other former Eastern Bloc states, then admitting them to its ranks in two successive waves in 1999 and 2004. The process paved the way for the expansion of the European Union, ended the continent’s Cold War division, and ensured that liberal values would define its future. But it left out some critical places: most of the former Yugoslavia as well as the former Soviet republics of southeastern Europe.

The Bucharest summit is set to decide whether two of the former parts of Yugoslavia — Croatia and Macedonia — as well as nearby Albania should be offered full membership. At the same time, the alliance owes answers to Ukraine and Georgia, both of which have formally asked NATO for a Membership Action Plan, the bureaucratic vehicle used to guide countries through military and democratic reforms. The decisions are harder than those of the past because of the greater instability of those two countries and the greater resistance of Russia to further NATO expansion. At a meeting of foreign ministers in Brussels last week, Germany and France spoke up against Ukraine and Georgia, largely out of fear of offending Moscow.

For just those reasons, the United States should push the alliance to move forward. Russia’s repeated and heavy-handed maneuvers against Ukraine and Georgia in the past several years have dramatically demonstrated Moscow’s ambition to destroy those countries’ freedom and independence. President Vladimir Putin’s recent threat to target Ukraine with nuclear weapons should have been a wake-up call for any Western government that doubted whether Ukraine needed defending.

While the U.S. administration is clearly sympathetic to the two states, it has held back from pressing its case with the reluctant Europeans. Yet Putin surely will regard a failure by the Bucharest summit to act on Ukraine and Georgia as an admission that they are outside its sphere and an invitation to escalate his bullying. President George W. Bush, who oversaw NATO’s last expansion eastward, should reinforce that legacy by insisting that the alliance reach out to these threatened democracies.

More on the Russian Joke

The Chicago Sun Times reports:

A joke circulating among Russians these days has Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev waking up in the Kremlin in 2023 with vicious hangovers.

Putin says to Medvedev: ”Which of us is president and which of us is prime minister today?”

”I don’t remember,” Medvedev replies. ”I could be prime minister today.”

”Then go fetch some beer,” Putin says.

The new odd couple in Russian politics has become ideal fodder for keeping the cherished, and in Soviet times, once dangerous Russian tradition of poking fun at leaders through satirical jokes called ”anekdoty.” The latest crop of jokes plays on Russia’s new power-sharing agreement — where Medvedev will be sworn in as president on May 7 and Putin, his stern mentor and predecessor, will serve under him as prime minister. The jokes tend to tap into the widespread speculation that it’s really Putin who will be the boss. Puns are crucial in many of the jokes about Medvedev, whose last name stems from the Russian word for bear.

In one, Putin is asked if he will have Medvedev’s portrait in his office.

An angry Putin replies: ”I’ll put his hide on the floor instead.”

Anekdoty have long been a litmus test of public opinion and individual liberties in a country where in the past people faced exile, prison or worse for expressing their opinions directly. ”Anekdoty sometimes live for a day and sometimes survive for centuries,” said linguist Sandjar Yanyshev. ”They remain the main genre of oral tradition in Russian folk culture.” George Orwell once called the joke ”a tiny revolution.” Nowhere was that taken more literally than in the Soviet Union, where people circulated jokes at their peril about the nation’s communist leaders.

Soviet citizens told stories lampooning Josef Stalin’s heavy Georgian accent. His successor, Nikita Khrushchev, was ridiculed for his redneck joviality. Leonid Brezhnev was mocked for his mumbling speech and his later senility, while Mikhail Gorbachev was ridiculed for his reputedly domineering wife and for his short-lived campaign to eradicate alcoholism. Even after the Soviet Union, the anekdoty tradition survived. Russians told tall tales built around President Boris Yeltsin’s heavy drinking, and even the popular Putin could not escape barbed jokes about his KGB history and his use of salty slang. Anekdoty remained mostly an oral tradition until the collapse of the Soviet Union, when the first printed anthologies often outsold serious novels.

In an online poll at anekdot.ru, one of the most popular Medvedev jokes is one that clearly pinpoints the puppeteer in Russia’s politics.

In the joke, Putin takes Medvedev to a restaurant and orders a steak. ”What about the vegetable?” the waiter asks. Putin looks at Medvedev and says, ”The vegetable will have steak, too.”