Daily Archives: March 16, 2008

March 16, 2008 — Contents

SUNDAY MARCH 16 CONTENTS

(1) The Sunday Photos

(2) The Sunday Conversion

(3) The Sunday Shell Game

(4) The Sunday Travel Section

(5) The Sunday Salute

(6) The Sunday Funnies

NOTE: For the Sunday Movie Review, see Publius Pundit. If you’ve seen the film or not, feel free to leave your thoughts/reactions as a comment. Only related to Russia because we say so.

The Sunday Photos

Oleg Kozlovsky speaking to Echo of Moscow radio on the day he received his formal discharge papers after being illegal conscripted into the Russian Army to silence his political activism in the lead-up to the “presidential elections.”

Kozlovsky celebrates his freedom
with his Oborona comrades on March 4th,
just after the “presidential elections”:


A political billboard in Moscow, just before elections

The fine print in the blue center section of this billboard standing on a Moscow street tells you that it was installed by the state-owned “Russia” television network. This appears below the Russian national crest with the double-headed eagle, making it appear that this is an official government pronouncement, which in fact it basically is. In the white top section, the date “March 2” is given — the date on which “presidential elections” were to be held in Russia. The sign was standing long before that date, it was blogged in early February, it’s not a message of congratulations. The red section reads: “The election of President Dimitry Medvedev.” As a reader points out in the comments, it could be a Photoshop — if so, it’s excellent political satire.

The Sunday Conversion: Russia’s Future is with Islam??

ITAR-TASS reports that, having alienated the entire Western world and terrified of Chinese territorial encroachment, the course of action has become obvious to the Kremlin:

Russia is set for strategic cooperation with the Islamic world, Russian President Vladimir Putin says in a welcoming letter addressed to a summit meeting of the Organizastion of the Islamic Conference that opened in Senegal’s capital Dakar Thursday. Russia, which has an observer status in the organization, has sent a delegation, too. It is chaired by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. “For Russia, a deepening of relations of friendship and cooperation with the Islamic world is a strategic course, and we have solid grounds for this rapprochement,” Putin says. “Bringing us closer to each other is our common commitment to the consolidation of collective and legal foundation of relationship between countries and the UN’s central role in it.”

Paul Goble reports:

The Russian Federation may soon become a full member of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) if proposed changes in that organizations charter are approved, a development that would entail profound consequences for the OIC, for Russian foreign policy and for Muslims inside the Russian Federation. At a meeting in Senegal this week of the foreign ministers of the OIC countries, that organization’s general secretary announced that member states have been asked to approve some radical changes in the organization’s institutional structure and requirements for membership . Under the new rules, the group, organized in 1972 and now including 57 Muslim-majority countries, would thus be open to states where Muslims are minorities, if two-thirds of the current countries approved. Among the first states in that category likely to be admitted, if these still controversial measures go through, is the Russian Federation.

Moscow has had observer status at the OIC since 2005, and two senior officials this week signaled that the Russian government would like to have still closer ties with the group. On the one hand, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov took part in the Dakar sessions. And on the other, Valery Blatov, spokesman for the Russian foreign ministry, said that Russia wants even closer ties with the OIC than it has now and has even included a section to that effect in its new concept paper on Russian foreign policy.

Many factors are currently pushing Russia in the direction of closer cooperation with the Muslim world in general and OIC in particular. First of all, both Moscow and the Muslim world now view the West as the enemy, and thus they have a vested interest in cooperating on the principle that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Second, Russian leaders clearly see the declining fortunes of the United States in the Middle East in the wake of Iraq and Afghanistan as an opportunity to restore and even increase Russia’s influence in a region that ever more Russian commentators have identified as central to Russian geopolitical interests. And third, Russia itself has a growing Muslim population of its own. Demonstrating the Kremlin’s interest in ties with the larger Muslim world is thus politically useful domestically and even more a way to direct the actions of Russia’s Muslims toward foreign policy initiatives Moscow would like to see advanced. (For a useful survey of these and other factors currently pushing Moscow in the direction of expanded contacts with the Muslim world in general and the OIC in particular, see the 2500-word Islam.ru article devoted to this question with appended sources).

If the OIC does agree to include the Russian Federation as a member – and this step appears highly likely although not yet certain – that move will affect everyone involved. Most immediately, it will likely lead the OIC itself to be increasingly outspoken against the West. At the Dakar foreign ministers’ meeting, OIC members condemned “certain Western countries” but not Russia for failing to combat Islamophobia, even though few Western countries have as bad a track record in that regard as does Vladimir Putin’s regime.
At the same time, the inclusion of the Russian Federation as a member of the OIC and the possibilities that would offer for its foreign policy almost certainly would contribute to a further tilt in the direction of neo-Eurasianism, the view that Russia, as a special case, must combine Orthodox and Muslim values.

That could create some problems domestically among Russians who view this idea as a not so subtle attack on the centrality of the Orthodox Church or on Russia as a European country, and it would certainly exacerbate tensions with Western countries that would see such a Russian self-definition as fundamentally antagonistic to Western values. Perhaps the most paradoxical impact of Russian membership in the OIC, however, would be on that country’s more than 25 million Muslims. Most of the Faithful there would immediately and overwhelmingly welcome this step, seeing it as a confirmation that the Russian leadership views them as an important partner.
But at the same time, Russian membership would certainly lead many of Russia’s Muslims to demand better treatment and a larger place in Russian life because they would be able to argue that unless Moscow treats them well, it will find it difficult to advance its interests in the Islamic world. And consequently, what Moscow and the OIC states are almost certainly viewing exclusively as a foreign policy question likely would have an answer whose domestic consequences inside the Russian Federation almost certainly would be far greater, all the more so for being unrecognized and unplanned.

The Sunday Conversion: Russia’s Future is with Islam??

ITAR-TASS reports that, having alienated the entire Western world and terrified of Chinese territorial encroachment, the course of action has become obvious to the Kremlin:

Russia is set for strategic cooperation with the Islamic world, Russian President Vladimir Putin says in a welcoming letter addressed to a summit meeting of the Organizastion of the Islamic Conference that opened in Senegal’s capital Dakar Thursday. Russia, which has an observer status in the organization, has sent a delegation, too. It is chaired by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. “For Russia, a deepening of relations of friendship and cooperation with the Islamic world is a strategic course, and we have solid grounds for this rapprochement,” Putin says. “Bringing us closer to each other is our common commitment to the consolidation of collective and legal foundation of relationship between countries and the UN’s central role in it.”

Paul Goble reports:

The Russian Federation may soon become a full member of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) if proposed changes in that organizations charter are approved, a development that would entail profound consequences for the OIC, for Russian foreign policy and for Muslims inside the Russian Federation. At a meeting in Senegal this week of the foreign ministers of the OIC countries, that organization’s general secretary announced that member states have been asked to approve some radical changes in the organization’s institutional structure and requirements for membership . Under the new rules, the group, organized in 1972 and now including 57 Muslim-majority countries, would thus be open to states where Muslims are minorities, if two-thirds of the current countries approved. Among the first states in that category likely to be admitted, if these still controversial measures go through, is the Russian Federation.

Moscow has had observer status at the OIC since 2005, and two senior officials this week signaled that the Russian government would like to have still closer ties with the group. On the one hand, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov took part in the Dakar sessions. And on the other, Valery Blatov, spokesman for the Russian foreign ministry, said that Russia wants even closer ties with the OIC than it has now and has even included a section to that effect in its new concept paper on Russian foreign policy.

Many factors are currently pushing Russia in the direction of closer cooperation with the Muslim world in general and OIC in particular. First of all, both Moscow and the Muslim world now view the West as the enemy, and thus they have a vested interest in cooperating on the principle that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Second, Russian leaders clearly see the declining fortunes of the United States in the Middle East in the wake of Iraq and Afghanistan as an opportunity to restore and even increase Russia’s influence in a region that ever more Russian commentators have identified as central to Russian geopolitical interests. And third, Russia itself has a growing Muslim population of its own. Demonstrating the Kremlin’s interest in ties with the larger Muslim world is thus politically useful domestically and even more a way to direct the actions of Russia’s Muslims toward foreign policy initiatives Moscow would like to see advanced. (For a useful survey of these and other factors currently pushing Moscow in the direction of expanded contacts with the Muslim world in general and the OIC in particular, see the 2500-word Islam.ru article devoted to this question with appended sources).

If the OIC does agree to include the Russian Federation as a member – and this step appears highly likely although not yet certain – that move will affect everyone involved. Most immediately, it will likely lead the OIC itself to be increasingly outspoken against the West. At the Dakar foreign ministers’ meeting, OIC members condemned “certain Western countries” but not Russia for failing to combat Islamophobia, even though few Western countries have as bad a track record in that regard as does Vladimir Putin’s regime.
At the same time, the inclusion of the Russian Federation as a member of the OIC and the possibilities that would offer for its foreign policy almost certainly would contribute to a further tilt in the direction of neo-Eurasianism, the view that Russia, as a special case, must combine Orthodox and Muslim values.

That could create some problems domestically among Russians who view this idea as a not so subtle attack on the centrality of the Orthodox Church or on Russia as a European country, and it would certainly exacerbate tensions with Western countries that would see such a Russian self-definition as fundamentally antagonistic to Western values. Perhaps the most paradoxical impact of Russian membership in the OIC, however, would be on that country’s more than 25 million Muslims. Most of the Faithful there would immediately and overwhelmingly welcome this step, seeing it as a confirmation that the Russian leadership views them as an important partner.
But at the same time, Russian membership would certainly lead many of Russia’s Muslims to demand better treatment and a larger place in Russian life because they would be able to argue that unless Moscow treats them well, it will find it difficult to advance its interests in the Islamic world. And consequently, what Moscow and the OIC states are almost certainly viewing exclusively as a foreign policy question likely would have an answer whose domestic consequences inside the Russian Federation almost certainly would be far greater, all the more so for being unrecognized and unplanned.

The Sunday Conversion: Russia’s Future is with Islam??

ITAR-TASS reports that, having alienated the entire Western world and terrified of Chinese territorial encroachment, the course of action has become obvious to the Kremlin:

Russia is set for strategic cooperation with the Islamic world, Russian President Vladimir Putin says in a welcoming letter addressed to a summit meeting of the Organizastion of the Islamic Conference that opened in Senegal’s capital Dakar Thursday. Russia, which has an observer status in the organization, has sent a delegation, too. It is chaired by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. “For Russia, a deepening of relations of friendship and cooperation with the Islamic world is a strategic course, and we have solid grounds for this rapprochement,” Putin says. “Bringing us closer to each other is our common commitment to the consolidation of collective and legal foundation of relationship between countries and the UN’s central role in it.”

Paul Goble reports:

The Russian Federation may soon become a full member of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) if proposed changes in that organizations charter are approved, a development that would entail profound consequences for the OIC, for Russian foreign policy and for Muslims inside the Russian Federation. At a meeting in Senegal this week of the foreign ministers of the OIC countries, that organization’s general secretary announced that member states have been asked to approve some radical changes in the organization’s institutional structure and requirements for membership . Under the new rules, the group, organized in 1972 and now including 57 Muslim-majority countries, would thus be open to states where Muslims are minorities, if two-thirds of the current countries approved. Among the first states in that category likely to be admitted, if these still controversial measures go through, is the Russian Federation.

Moscow has had observer status at the OIC since 2005, and two senior officials this week signaled that the Russian government would like to have still closer ties with the group. On the one hand, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov took part in the Dakar sessions. And on the other, Valery Blatov, spokesman for the Russian foreign ministry, said that Russia wants even closer ties with the OIC than it has now and has even included a section to that effect in its new concept paper on Russian foreign policy.

Many factors are currently pushing Russia in the direction of closer cooperation with the Muslim world in general and OIC in particular. First of all, both Moscow and the Muslim world now view the West as the enemy, and thus they have a vested interest in cooperating on the principle that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Second, Russian leaders clearly see the declining fortunes of the United States in the Middle East in the wake of Iraq and Afghanistan as an opportunity to restore and even increase Russia’s influence in a region that ever more Russian commentators have identified as central to Russian geopolitical interests. And third, Russia itself has a growing Muslim population of its own. Demonstrating the Kremlin’s interest in ties with the larger Muslim world is thus politically useful domestically and even more a way to direct the actions of Russia’s Muslims toward foreign policy initiatives Moscow would like to see advanced. (For a useful survey of these and other factors currently pushing Moscow in the direction of expanded contacts with the Muslim world in general and the OIC in particular, see the 2500-word Islam.ru article devoted to this question with appended sources).

If the OIC does agree to include the Russian Federation as a member – and this step appears highly likely although not yet certain – that move will affect everyone involved. Most immediately, it will likely lead the OIC itself to be increasingly outspoken against the West. At the Dakar foreign ministers’ meeting, OIC members condemned “certain Western countries” but not Russia for failing to combat Islamophobia, even though few Western countries have as bad a track record in that regard as does Vladimir Putin’s regime.
At the same time, the inclusion of the Russian Federation as a member of the OIC and the possibilities that would offer for its foreign policy almost certainly would contribute to a further tilt in the direction of neo-Eurasianism, the view that Russia, as a special case, must combine Orthodox and Muslim values.

That could create some problems domestically among Russians who view this idea as a not so subtle attack on the centrality of the Orthodox Church or on Russia as a European country, and it would certainly exacerbate tensions with Western countries that would see such a Russian self-definition as fundamentally antagonistic to Western values. Perhaps the most paradoxical impact of Russian membership in the OIC, however, would be on that country’s more than 25 million Muslims. Most of the Faithful there would immediately and overwhelmingly welcome this step, seeing it as a confirmation that the Russian leadership views them as an important partner.
But at the same time, Russian membership would certainly lead many of Russia’s Muslims to demand better treatment and a larger place in Russian life because they would be able to argue that unless Moscow treats them well, it will find it difficult to advance its interests in the Islamic world. And consequently, what Moscow and the OIC states are almost certainly viewing exclusively as a foreign policy question likely would have an answer whose domestic consequences inside the Russian Federation almost certainly would be far greater, all the more so for being unrecognized and unplanned.

The Sunday Conversion: Russia’s Future is with Islam??

ITAR-TASS reports that, having alienated the entire Western world and terrified of Chinese territorial encroachment, the course of action has become obvious to the Kremlin:

Russia is set for strategic cooperation with the Islamic world, Russian President Vladimir Putin says in a welcoming letter addressed to a summit meeting of the Organizastion of the Islamic Conference that opened in Senegal’s capital Dakar Thursday. Russia, which has an observer status in the organization, has sent a delegation, too. It is chaired by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. “For Russia, a deepening of relations of friendship and cooperation with the Islamic world is a strategic course, and we have solid grounds for this rapprochement,” Putin says. “Bringing us closer to each other is our common commitment to the consolidation of collective and legal foundation of relationship between countries and the UN’s central role in it.”

Paul Goble reports:

The Russian Federation may soon become a full member of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) if proposed changes in that organizations charter are approved, a development that would entail profound consequences for the OIC, for Russian foreign policy and for Muslims inside the Russian Federation. At a meeting in Senegal this week of the foreign ministers of the OIC countries, that organization’s general secretary announced that member states have been asked to approve some radical changes in the organization’s institutional structure and requirements for membership . Under the new rules, the group, organized in 1972 and now including 57 Muslim-majority countries, would thus be open to states where Muslims are minorities, if two-thirds of the current countries approved. Among the first states in that category likely to be admitted, if these still controversial measures go through, is the Russian Federation.

Moscow has had observer status at the OIC since 2005, and two senior officials this week signaled that the Russian government would like to have still closer ties with the group. On the one hand, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov took part in the Dakar sessions. And on the other, Valery Blatov, spokesman for the Russian foreign ministry, said that Russia wants even closer ties with the OIC than it has now and has even included a section to that effect in its new concept paper on Russian foreign policy.

Many factors are currently pushing Russia in the direction of closer cooperation with the Muslim world in general and OIC in particular. First of all, both Moscow and the Muslim world now view the West as the enemy, and thus they have a vested interest in cooperating on the principle that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Second, Russian leaders clearly see the declining fortunes of the United States in the Middle East in the wake of Iraq and Afghanistan as an opportunity to restore and even increase Russia’s influence in a region that ever more Russian commentators have identified as central to Russian geopolitical interests. And third, Russia itself has a growing Muslim population of its own. Demonstrating the Kremlin’s interest in ties with the larger Muslim world is thus politically useful domestically and even more a way to direct the actions of Russia’s Muslims toward foreign policy initiatives Moscow would like to see advanced. (For a useful survey of these and other factors currently pushing Moscow in the direction of expanded contacts with the Muslim world in general and the OIC in particular, see the 2500-word Islam.ru article devoted to this question with appended sources).

If the OIC does agree to include the Russian Federation as a member – and this step appears highly likely although not yet certain – that move will affect everyone involved. Most immediately, it will likely lead the OIC itself to be increasingly outspoken against the West. At the Dakar foreign ministers’ meeting, OIC members condemned “certain Western countries” but not Russia for failing to combat Islamophobia, even though few Western countries have as bad a track record in that regard as does Vladimir Putin’s regime.
At the same time, the inclusion of the Russian Federation as a member of the OIC and the possibilities that would offer for its foreign policy almost certainly would contribute to a further tilt in the direction of neo-Eurasianism, the view that Russia, as a special case, must combine Orthodox and Muslim values.

That could create some problems domestically among Russians who view this idea as a not so subtle attack on the centrality of the Orthodox Church or on Russia as a European country, and it would certainly exacerbate tensions with Western countries that would see such a Russian self-definition as fundamentally antagonistic to Western values. Perhaps the most paradoxical impact of Russian membership in the OIC, however, would be on that country’s more than 25 million Muslims. Most of the Faithful there would immediately and overwhelmingly welcome this step, seeing it as a confirmation that the Russian leadership views them as an important partner.
But at the same time, Russian membership would certainly lead many of Russia’s Muslims to demand better treatment and a larger place in Russian life because they would be able to argue that unless Moscow treats them well, it will find it difficult to advance its interests in the Islamic world. And consequently, what Moscow and the OIC states are almost certainly viewing exclusively as a foreign policy question likely would have an answer whose domestic consequences inside the Russian Federation almost certainly would be far greater, all the more so for being unrecognized and unplanned.

The Sunday Conversion: Russia’s Future is with Islam??

ITAR-TASS reports that, having alienated the entire Western world and terrified of Chinese territorial encroachment, the course of action has become obvious to the Kremlin:

Russia is set for strategic cooperation with the Islamic world, Russian President Vladimir Putin says in a welcoming letter addressed to a summit meeting of the Organizastion of the Islamic Conference that opened in Senegal’s capital Dakar Thursday. Russia, which has an observer status in the organization, has sent a delegation, too. It is chaired by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. “For Russia, a deepening of relations of friendship and cooperation with the Islamic world is a strategic course, and we have solid grounds for this rapprochement,” Putin says. “Bringing us closer to each other is our common commitment to the consolidation of collective and legal foundation of relationship between countries and the UN’s central role in it.”

Paul Goble reports:

The Russian Federation may soon become a full member of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) if proposed changes in that organizations charter are approved, a development that would entail profound consequences for the OIC, for Russian foreign policy and for Muslims inside the Russian Federation. At a meeting in Senegal this week of the foreign ministers of the OIC countries, that organization’s general secretary announced that member states have been asked to approve some radical changes in the organization’s institutional structure and requirements for membership . Under the new rules, the group, organized in 1972 and now including 57 Muslim-majority countries, would thus be open to states where Muslims are minorities, if two-thirds of the current countries approved. Among the first states in that category likely to be admitted, if these still controversial measures go through, is the Russian Federation.

Moscow has had observer status at the OIC since 2005, and two senior officials this week signaled that the Russian government would like to have still closer ties with the group. On the one hand, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov took part in the Dakar sessions. And on the other, Valery Blatov, spokesman for the Russian foreign ministry, said that Russia wants even closer ties with the OIC than it has now and has even included a section to that effect in its new concept paper on Russian foreign policy.

Many factors are currently pushing Russia in the direction of closer cooperation with the Muslim world in general and OIC in particular. First of all, both Moscow and the Muslim world now view the West as the enemy, and thus they have a vested interest in cooperating on the principle that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Second, Russian leaders clearly see the declining fortunes of the United States in the Middle East in the wake of Iraq and Afghanistan as an opportunity to restore and even increase Russia’s influence in a region that ever more Russian commentators have identified as central to Russian geopolitical interests. And third, Russia itself has a growing Muslim population of its own. Demonstrating the Kremlin’s interest in ties with the larger Muslim world is thus politically useful domestically and even more a way to direct the actions of Russia’s Muslims toward foreign policy initiatives Moscow would like to see advanced. (For a useful survey of these and other factors currently pushing Moscow in the direction of expanded contacts with the Muslim world in general and the OIC in particular, see the 2500-word Islam.ru article devoted to this question with appended sources).

If the OIC does agree to include the Russian Federation as a member – and this step appears highly likely although not yet certain – that move will affect everyone involved. Most immediately, it will likely lead the OIC itself to be increasingly outspoken against the West. At the Dakar foreign ministers’ meeting, OIC members condemned “certain Western countries” but not Russia for failing to combat Islamophobia, even though few Western countries have as bad a track record in that regard as does Vladimir Putin’s regime.
At the same time, the inclusion of the Russian Federation as a member of the OIC and the possibilities that would offer for its foreign policy almost certainly would contribute to a further tilt in the direction of neo-Eurasianism, the view that Russia, as a special case, must combine Orthodox and Muslim values.

That could create some problems domestically among Russians who view this idea as a not so subtle attack on the centrality of the Orthodox Church or on Russia as a European country, and it would certainly exacerbate tensions with Western countries that would see such a Russian self-definition as fundamentally antagonistic to Western values. Perhaps the most paradoxical impact of Russian membership in the OIC, however, would be on that country’s more than 25 million Muslims. Most of the Faithful there would immediately and overwhelmingly welcome this step, seeing it as a confirmation that the Russian leadership views them as an important partner.
But at the same time, Russian membership would certainly lead many of Russia’s Muslims to demand better treatment and a larger place in Russian life because they would be able to argue that unless Moscow treats them well, it will find it difficult to advance its interests in the Islamic world. And consequently, what Moscow and the OIC states are almost certainly viewing exclusively as a foreign policy question likely would have an answer whose domestic consequences inside the Russian Federation almost certainly would be far greater, all the more so for being unrecognized and unplanned.

The Sunday Shell Game


The Economist reports:

THE drama surrounding Norilsk Nickel, the world’s largest nickel producer, has all the elements of an airport thriller: billionaire oligarchs invading the French resort of Courchevel; models flown in from Moscow; wads of cash flying like confetti; all-night discos, magnums of champagne and buckets of caviar; and the whole thing topped off with a police raid. The scene then shifts to the Arctic city of Norilsk, built by slave labour under Stalin, and the nickel giant that generated all this wealth, now at the centre of a takeover battle. The Norilsk saga is being closely watched because it is a test of how the rules of business in Russia are changing.

Norilsk Nickel was one of many firms sold at a knock-down price in the 1990s in Russia’s infamous loans-for-shares privatisation scheme. Vladimir Potanin, one of the original set of Yeltsin-era oligarchs, was partly responsible for the scheme, which gave him and Mikhail Prokhorov, his young business partner, control of the firm for a song. The privatisation was indefensible from almost any point of view—but it worked. Today Norilsk Nickel is more transparent, efficient and profitable than it has ever been. It has a proper board of directors, professional managers and is worth nearly $60 billion.

The pair made a good team: Mr Prokhorov ran the business and Mr Potanin handled the politics. Between them they owned 54% of the firm. Tall, handsome and outrageously rich, Mr Prokhorov became Russia’s most eligible bachelor. He worked hard, but he played even harder. In January 2007 he was arrested by French police after his antics in Courchevel on suspicion of running a prostitution ring, but a few days later he was released without charge. Nobody can be sure if he was set up or if his outrageous behaviour simply went too far. “Senior people in the Kremlin told Mr Potanin to tell his friend to tone it down, but Prokhorov would not listen,” says a businessman familiar with the situation. After the incident Mr Potanin, who holidayed with Mr Prokhorov in Courchevel, distanced himself from his partner and condemned his behaviour.

Their split was, perhaps, inevitable. Mr Prokhorov ran the show, but all the credit went to Mr Potanin. Having transformed Norilsk Nickel, Mr Prokhorov faced the far less exciting prospect of having to run it. So he made a symbolic offer to sell his 25% stake to Mr Potanin for $15 billion. When Mr Potanin refused (some say he could not raise the money, others claim he did not even try), Mr Prokhorov turned to Oleg Deripaska, Russia’s richest man and one of the most aggressive oligarchs. Mr Deripaska owns 66% of privately held RUSAL, the largest aluminium producer in the world. For the stake in Norilsk, he has offered Mr Prokhorov 11% of RUSAL‘s stock and an estimated $6 billion in cash (the exact sum is unknown). And if RUSAL does not go ahead with its planned flotation within the next year, Mr Deripaska has promised to buy Mr Prokhorov’s stake.

The deal could reshape Russia’s metals industry. RUSAL sees the purchase of Mr Prokhorov’s 25% stake in Norilsk as the first step towards a full merger or takeover, and has loudly declared its intentions to the media, though not to Norilsk itself. Alexander Bulygin, RUSAL‘s boss, justifies the takeover on the basis that it would enable his firm to diversify into other metals, in keeping with a global trend for such deals.

Even if the industrial logic is sound, however, Norilsk Nickel’s managers are irked that RUSAL has not made a formal approach and has not explained how it could possibly execute a merger. Given that RUSAL is a private company registered in Jersey, Norilsk’s minority investors are unlikely to be interested in a share-swap. And RUSAL does not have the cash to buy them out: it is thought to be heavily indebted, even before borrowing $4.5 billion to help it pay for Mr Prokhorov’s stake. The worry in Mr Potanin’s camp is that RUSAL has its eye on Norilsk’s cashflow and plans to sneak an extra person or two onto its board of directors, install new management and then milk the company. Many Russian oligarchs did this in the 1990s to the detriment of minority investors.

The plot thickens

So Mr Potanin has brought in another metals magnate, Alisher Usmanov, who owns iron-ore mines and has links to Gazprom, Russia’s state-controlled gas giant. Mr Usmanov’s private company, Gazmetall, has made a formal approach, through a foreign bank, to Norilsk. A merger with Gazmetall would certainly make it harder for RUSAL to take over Norilsk. But it could also pave the way for a merger of all three firms.

The management of Norilsk Nickel stresses that its job is to act in the interest of all its shareholders. So far it has managed to resist the pressure from its two biggest shareholders. And it has asked its minority investors to attend a shareholder meeting on April 8th and to vote in a co-ordinated way in order to protect their interests. What will happen before or after that date is hard to predict. But already the Norilsk saga holds some lessons.

The most striking thing about the affair is that a set of business tycoons have, so far, behaved in a way that is a lot more civilised than anything seen from the Russian state. When state firms want a private asset, they send in the tax police, the security services and a few health and safety inspectors, before making an offer. Here, big private firms are dealing with each other mostly using bankers and lawyers.

Admittedly, all of the oligarchs squabbling over Norilsk have powerful friends in the Kremlin, which may be why it has not sided with any of them. Yet if Mr Prokhorov manages to sell his stake in Norilsk, it will strengthen property rights. He will be almost the only tycoon to have cashed out assets privatised in the 1990s. To date, the Kremlin has treated oligarchs like renters rather than owners and no significant sale has been possible without its blessing, even when no foreigners are involved.

The Kremlin certainly wishes to see a large national mining and metals champion, but it does not seem to mind about its exact form. Many combinations are possible and the very fact that the outcome is unknown, and is not being dictated by the state, is a sign of progress.

What matters, in the end, is not just the outcome, but also how it comes about. It is heartening to see a Russian company with professional managers who no longer treat minority shareholders as just an obstacle. When the rule of law is non-existent and the Kremlin often acts like a gangster, it falls to business leaders to work out the rules and abide by them. If they can manage this, they will take Russia forward. If they fail, they will reinforce the worst clichés about its business practices.

The Sunday Travel Section: Russia Spits in your Eye

The Moscow Times reports:

Surly babushkas. Sky-high prices. Hotels that claim to have only pricey deluxe suites available when many of the rooms are obviously empty. These are some of the complaints that foreign visitors to Moscow have posted on the web site TripAdvisor, which released a survey this week calling the Russian capital the third-unfriendliest city in Europe.

Moscow ranked third in a list of “European Cities with the Most Unfriendly Hosts” according to the more than 1,400 travelers from around the world queried by TripAdvisor, a portal that calls itself the world’s largest online travel community, with more than 25 million visitors per month. The rudest locals live in Paris, while the second-rudest live in London, according to the survey. The survey results, released this week, ranked the top European cities in a broad range of categories, including the best bargain (Prague), the most expensive (London), the dirtiest (also London) and the most boring (Brussels).

Moscow only came up in one category: the most unfriendly hosts.

Dmitry Shultsev, a spokesman for the city government’s tourism committee, denied that Moscow was an unfriendly place and suggested that the report was deliberately biased in order to scare away potential visitors. “We do not agree with this,” Shultsev said by telephone Thursday. “Every year Moscow is becoming more comfortable, more interesting, cozier and more attractive for our guests from abroad.” Similar reports have appeared in the international media just before the start of every tourist season for the past five years, Shultsev said. “They do everything possible to keep Russia down and to depict it in a negative light in order to reduce the flow of foreigners in Moscow,” he said.

A London-based spokesman for TripAdvisor called the allegation “ridiculous” and insisted that the report was simply based on travelers’ answers. “The survey also has London as the dirtiest and most expensive,” Ian Rumgay said. “So is that a plot to dissuade people from going to London?” Rumgay said he could not think of a previous occasion when local tourism officials had responded critically to a negative result in a TripAdvisor survey.

The rankings were based on answers by users who had agreed to participate in the survey, said Rumgay, who provided data that suggested Russian tourism officials did not have that much to worry about. The rankings were determined by travelers’ responses to the question “What European city’s locals do you think are the most unfriendly hosts?” Given a list of cities, 40 percent chose Paris, 8 percent chose London and only 7 percent chose Moscow, Rumgay said. “So despite coming in third, Moscow in reality did not fare that badly,” he said.

Rumgay could not say how many of the 1,400 survey respondents had actually been to Moscow. He conceded that London and Paris may have been popular responses because they are heavily visited cities. In previous TripAdvisor surveys, Moscow’s name did not come up at all, Rumgay said, suggesting that may reflect the growing number of foreigners visiting Russia. TripAdvisor maintains a database of reviews written by travelers who offer opinions about hotels, restaurants and tourist attractions around the world. The Moscow section of the web site contains testimony about the quality of service on offer at various hotels and words of caution to future travelers. Some reviews are horror stories with scathing titles such as “Beware the Babushkas!” Shultsev, however, insisted that Moscow hotel staff were well-trained and denied that they were rude to foreign guests. “Such things never happen in Moscow’s leading hotels,” he said. “It might be possible that in certain second- and third-tier hotels the level of service is not high enough because of repairs or renovation. But to suggest that someone would insult or offend a foreign guest — this is something I will never agree with.”

Foreign visitors provided more critical accounts when told about the survey results in central Moscow on Thursday. “It took two hours for the hotel to find our reservations, and the whole time we were just sitting on our baggage in the hallway,” Julia Feld, a tourist from Luxembourg, said while standing near the Kremlin. “But they were very friendly about it,” her companion, Norbert Tewner, quickly interjected. Sitting on a sofa in the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, German tourist Elizabeth Forsting, 44, expressed frustration about an attempt to get directions. “In London, if you stop someone on the street, they’ll help you,” she said. “Here, when I showed people a map, they wouldn’t help me at all. I asked five different people for help, and they were all very unfriendly.”

Forsting, who has previously visited countries like Thailand and Mexico, said her problems did not just stem from the language barrier. “I’ve been many other places where they don’t speak English,” she said. “But here they won’t even try to help you by hand gestures or whatever.” Forsting’s anecdote echoed the results of a June 2006 survey that called Moscow one of the least polite cities in the world. In the survey, Reader’s Digest magazine ranked Moscow 31st out of 36 cities after sending reporters to assess the politeness of locals by carrying out various tests, such as seeing whether store clerks said “thank you” after a purchase or noting how often people held doors open for them. The magazine found that Moscow and Bucharest were the rudest cities in Europe.

Not all the foreigners interviewed Thursday agreed that Muscovites were bad hosts. “If that’s true, we certainly haven’t felt it,” said Martino, a 35-year-old French backpacker who declined to give her last name. Luciano Rossi, a member of the Italian parliament who was on an official visit to Moscow, defended Russian hospitality when asked for comment on Red Square. “I suggest that people respect the style of Russia,” he said. “I myself am not a big fan of the kind of globalization that says that everything has to be the same.”

The number of foreign tourists in Moscow reached 4.1 million in 2007, up 7.5 percent from the previous year, according to the city government’s tourism committee. In 1999, there were less than 1.5 million tourists. One tourism expert agreed that the infrastructure supporting tourism in Moscow had improved tremendously in the past 10 years. Still, the city has a long way to go before it will be on par with major European capitals, said Helene Lloyd, director of TMI, a marketing and public relations company that studies the tourism sector. “I think the problem is that tourism is still not really considered an important sector for Russia,” Lloyd said. “Until that happens, things are obviously going to go very slowly.”

The Sunday Salute: LR on MT

As the screenshot shown above indicates, a screenshot of La Russophobe appeared as the lead to an article in the Moscow Times on Friday called “Under Western Eyes” in which the paper takes a look at English-language blogging about Russia, calling us “notorious” for our “anti-Russian slant.” Publisher Kim Zigfeld was interviewed by the reporter for the piece. Here’s the article:

When Rebecca Roberts, a 26-year-old Australian lawyer, moved to Moscow for work, she did not know what to expect. Like many new arrivals, she was both amused and confused by the nightclubs, the girls, the money and the haircuts. But then she saw an article in Britain’s The Guardian newspaper recommending a blog about Russia’s nightlife, “Moscow Doesn’t Believe In Tears.”

“I find that the international papers are all focused on taking a superficial look at Russian politics and guide books are often outdated and boring when you are trying to live as a local,” said Roberts. “Blogs like ‘Moscow Doesn’t Believe in Tears’ are hilarious as they are written with a familiar Western view on things that are part of my daily experiences.”

The popularity of blogging in Russia is evident from the sheer number of blogs that crop up on the Yandex search engine. But there are also countless blogs about Russia that are run by Westerners, many of whom live abroad. Their focuses range from nightlife, like “Moscow Doesn’t Believe In Tears,” to politics, like “La Russophobe.”

“Originally, I was going to do a Moscow food blog (or rather, an anti-food blog, as I have a pretty dim view of the restaurant scene),” said the writer of “Moscow Doesn’t Believe In Tears” in an interview. Her identity is an open secret in the expatriate community, but one that she prefers to keep in the real world because she does not want her name attached to anything she says online.

“A good deal of the visitors arrive at my blog looking for where to pick up prostitutes in Moscow. Unfortunately, they come away empty-handed because that’s a topic that has been extensively, depressingly covered in other publications,” she said.

One of her blog entries, titled “I hate Moscow” reads, “Everyone hates Moscow. Everyone except the people who just got here, with a degree in Russian history and a fresh copy of Dostoevsky in their back pocket. And even they are beginning to realize that the waitresses are mean and it’s hard to cross the street.”

Now living abroad, she said she did not intend her blog to be anti-Moscow. “Unfortunately, the longer the blog went on, it began to reflect my deepening personal feelings about the city, which is that it’s a depressing, overpriced [expletive] that should be fumigated.”
Another blog notorious for its anti-Russian slant is “La Russophobe.” One image on the web site depicting Vladimir Putin’s face morphing into a skull embodies the blog’s stance on Russia.

“I started blogging to warn the world about what I felt was a coming neo-Soviet style crackdown on civil society in Russia and an aggressively imperialistic foreign policy leading to a new Cold War,” said Kim Zigfield, the blog’s writer, in an interview. Zigfield lives in New York and writes for Russia! magazine as well as Pajamas Media, an association of 90 worldwide bloggers, where she is a Russia correspondent. “The main reason I started my blog was that I didn’t find what I wanted to read on other blogs, and I saw those who wrote about Russia making some fairly serious mistakes and misleading statements that I thought should be corrected,” she said. Zigfield said only 10 percent of the blog’s readers are from Russia, and only half of those are Russians — the audience is mainly international.

“They are people who are concerned about the threats they see being posed by Russia and want more information, and there are others who are what I call ‘Russophiles,’ or apologists for the Kremlin, who come to criticize me.” She took inspiration from a blog by Edward Lucas, the Central and Eastern Europe correspondent for The Economist magazine. She read it shortly after starting to write and felt that the focus of his writing was too broad.

Not long after she started her blog in 2006, jailed oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s attorney Robert Amsterdam also began a web site. “I feel I broke the ground for him and helped him become the formidable force he is today in the blogosphere, and I’m now a regular reader and great admirer. His is the only Russia blog on which I regularly post comments. It’s very comforting to have him around, as well.”

Other blogs start out with different aims. “Initially, I started it [the blog] as a way to keep in touch with family and friends in a general way. I didn’t even put much thought into it. You can see this in the name, which I don’t like, but now it’s difficult to change because it is a bit of a brand,” said Sean Guillory, who runs “Sean’s Russia Blog.” Guillory, who now lives in Los Angeles, started his blog in the autumn of 2004 just before he came to Russia on a Fulbright-Hays Scholarship. Originally it was intended to be a blog leaning toward Russia’s historical past rather than its political present. But Guillory became interested in certain contemporary themes and found that they took over his writing. “Anyone who looks through the blog’s archives, which include 563 posts, sees that my interests tend to focus on Russian youth politics, particularly Nashi, high politics and bit of what people call Kremlinology, nationalism, racism, and extremism, Russian-Western relations, and Western representations of Russia in the media.”

“Overall, I try not to fall under the typical binary of pro-Russia and anti-Russia,” Guillory said. “I’m more interested in how Russia actually exists. For example, I think the constant pointing out that Russia is authoritarian, not democratic, and Putin is a former KGB agent is rather trite and doesn’t say much except that Russia is not like us. Okay, fine, it’s not. But then what is it?”A post about the Dissenters’ March in December of last year is typical of Guillory’s style: “The ‘March of Dissent’ has certainly come and gone. The demonstration was modest and certainly ineffective on a political level. And while I don’t think the event should be overblown, I do think the march does raise some interesting questions about the Russian state: how it deals with opposition and, perhaps, how it understands its power.”

One-third of the visitors to the web site are from the United States, but Guillory is less interested in numbers than he is in the amount of time that people spend browsing his blog. For example, the 12 percent of people that spend over an hour on his web site use it for interaction, whether for comments, research or links. Despite being recognized at parties and quoted in the press, Guillory is a little uncomfortable about his success. “On the one hand blogging is a very egotistical, even narcissistic endeavor. You do it with the assumption that not only might people want to read what you have to say, but that you should actually say it,” an act that he describes is a cry for recognition.

“When I do get recognition, it still freaks me out no matter how much I enjoy it. When I find out people I know and respect are readers, it makes me uneasy, like someone is watching me without my knowing. I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to it. I’m still amazed that people read it at all.”

The Sunday Funnies: "Presidential Election" Edition

Our beloved Cartoon Master friend from South Africa offers a choice selection of gems on the “presidential elections” Russia claims to have conducted: