Daily Archives: May 11, 2008

May 11, 2008 — Contents


(1) The Sunday Photos

(2) The Sunday Swan Song

(3) The Sunday Spy

(4) The Sunday Atrocity

(5) The Sunday Funnies

The Sunday Photos: Oborona Marches for Change

On May 1 in St. Petersburg Oborona activists, along with other opponents of the status quo in Russia, held a “march for freedom and justice.” The participants paraded along Nevsky Prospect and other principal streets of the “Northern Capital” and held a rally at Pioneer Square. The dissenters chanted slogans such as: “We need another Russia!” and “Putin, go skiing in Magadan!”and “The Plan of Putin is Russia poverty!”and “This is our city!”

The event ended with a concert hosted by actor Alexei Devotchenko, a member of the United Civil Front (FSI). He invited opposition leaders express themselves in the language of music, calling Putin’s regime “illegitimate” and condemning the participation of the Russian Orthodox Church in the activities of state. He followed Garry Kasparov, who said that United Russia was “looting” the country. Andrei Illarionov also spoke, asking those assembled to remember those who could not be present because they had been incarcerated, and calling for freedom for all political prisoners of the Putin regime.

The Sunday Swan Song . . . Not

The Associated Press reports:

When Boris Yeltsin left the Kremlin eight years ago, he gave Vladimir Putin the pen he had used to sign important documents and decrees, a gesture symbolizing the transfer of power to Russia’s new president.

When Putin left the Kremlin, he took the pen with him.

Putin, who became prime minister Thursday, has signaled that he intends to remain Russia’s principal leader, at least in the short term _ and possibly much longer. He is keeping the trappings of his presidency and many of its powers as well. It was not always meant to be this way. Putin initially said he intended to hand the full powers of the presidency to his chosen successor and step aside. But as the time drew near, he clearly changed his mind as infighting between rival Kremlin factions spilled into the open, threatening to undermine political stability.

Veterans of the secret services have come to dominate the government under Putin, a 55-year-old former KGB officer. These powerful figures, known as the “siloviki,” have been given leading roles in major businesses _ including oil companies and aircraft and automobile manufacturers _ that Putin has brought back under state control. They see Putin as the key to preserving their positions and continued access to financial flows. Some of them opposed Putin’s choice of Dmitry Medvedev, a 42-year-old lawyer, who was inaugurated as president on Wednesday. Putin may have decided to stay around to keep the peace and protect his protege until he consolidates his position. Immensely popular and at the height of his powers, Putin appears to want Russians to see him as still in charge and to anticipate his return to the presidency in 2012, which he has not ruled out.

In a fervent 45-minute speech Thursday before parliament, Putin laid out huge ambitions for the economy and boasted that under his leadership Russia “had not just changed but become a different country.” He was approved by a vote of 392-56, with only the Communists opposing him. Medvedev, by contrast, was a lackluster supporting player, introducing Putin in a bland five-minute address that underlined Putin’s potency. Putin left the Kremlin on Wednesday, but just moved down the road to the building known as the White House, the government headquarters near the U.S. Embassy. In anticipation of his arrival, the prime minister’s fifth-floor office overlooking the Moscow River has been renovated and its staff greatly expanded. Many of those who served him as president have made the switch, and others are expected to follow.

Putin will continue to travel to work in a motorcade from the same wooded estate in one of Moscow’s most exclusive suburban neighborhoods where he lived as president and which is now his to keep. While quietly laying the groundwork for expanding the scope of the prime minister’s office, Putin has firmed up his position by becoming chairman of the Kremlin’s dominant political party, which gives him control over parliament and strong leverage over regional leaders. Members of that party still have Putin’s portrait in their offices. Putin has said he feels no need to hang the portrait of Russia’s new president in his office in a traditional sign of respect. Other government officials will hang a picture of Medvedev and have to decide whether to take down Putin. Many are expected to hedge their bets by displaying both.

Aluminum magnate Oleg Deripaska, whom Forbes magazine calls Russia’s richest man, said recently that it is clear Putin remains in charge. “In Russia, in our culture we need to have a leader,” Deripaska said at a lunch with foreign journalists. With Putin in control, Deripaska said there is no risk of political instability. “There is no chance for any intrigue. Don’t bet on it,” he said. Putin and Medvedev, who have worked together since the early 1990s, stress their friendship and full agreement on Russia’s course.

But Putin seems to be taking no chances that Medvedev will turn against him. His party has a 70 percent majority, which gives it the power to change the constitution, block legislation or impeach the president. As prime minister, Putin will control the budget and oversee gigantic state corporations, including Gazprom, the world’s largest natural gas producer. These corporations, staffed with Putin loyalists, have allowed Russia to reassert its global might. Both men have said Medvedev will set foreign policy.

Boris Makarenko, an analyst with the Center for Political Technologies, said there will be no need to amend the constitution, which in spelling out the powers of the president and prime minister leaves room for interpretation. “The gray areas will be shared differently than they are now,” he was quoted in Vremya Novostei as saying. An early signal of the level of Putin’s influence will come when Russia forms a new government. Most members of his team are expected to remain in high posts. Another important sign will be the TV coverage of Putin and Medvedev on national channels, which are all under Kremlin control and have served as a political bellwether. Medvedev has been given lavish coverage, but Putin remains the main hero of the evening news.

The Sunday Spy

The Globalist reviews the KGBification of Russia:

From former Communist Party Secretary General Yuri Andropov to former Russian President Vladmir Putin, the KGB has shaped the course of Russian politics for the last three decades. Andropov hoped to achieve substantive reforms to save the hemoraging Soviet Union. But Putin and his former KGB brethren — many of whom got to occupy high places in Russian government and industry during his presidency — seem to desire only wealth and political power.

In the waning years of Leonid Brezhnev’s 18-year rule, which encompassed a period from 1964 to 1982 and entered Russian history as a period of stagnation, then-KGB chief Yuri Andropov was thought to be the most cultured and open-minded member of the ruling Politburo. This may seem ironic, because as a Soviet secret police boss, he was in charge of spying on the West, fomenting unrest in the developing world and suppressing domestic dissent. He did it all well. Abroad, the late 1970s were characterized by seemingly unstoppable gains for the Soviet Union and its allies, from Nicaragua and Grenada in the Western Hemisphere to Angola and Ethiopia in Africa — and Indo-China and Afghanistan in Asia.

Previously non-allied nations and Western clients were one by one falling into the Soviet orbit. At home, meanwhile, the dissident movement that flourished in the 1960s and early 1970s was ruthlessly rooted out.

Soviet dominance?

Because he was required to achieve real results, Andropov had to gain thorough knowledge of reality — not live in a dream world of Leninist ideology as his Kremlin colleagues did. What he saw horrified him. He realized that the Soviet Union, behind a façade of unity and strength, was a ramshackle collection of often medieval, grotesquely inefficient and incompatible parts. Its technology, social and economic infrastructure and economic efficiency lagged far behind the United States and Western Europe.

Soviet decline

Whatever achievements were seen immediately after World War II had mostly disintegrated and, unbeknownst to the senile old men living behind the Kremlin wall, the USSR was becoming a third world nation. Andropov was a highly educated, cultured man who was tough, but well-read. He reportedly enjoyed reading some of the very same dissident Russian writers his KGB had banned from publishing. He understood that, unless major reforms were implemented, the Communist system was doomed. The problem was Brezhnev — who kept on living. By the time the Great Leader finally died in 1982 at the age of 75, Andropov was mortally ill himself. Despite being only 70, a relative youngster by the standards of the 1980’s Soviet Politburo, Andropov died of kidney failure in February 1984 — only 16 months after succeeding Brezhnev as Secretary General of the Communist Party. Few Russians who lived through those 16 months have anything nice to say about Andropov. The first thing he did was tighten discipline at the workplace.

Return to party discipline

He clamped down on absenteeism — by sending police officers and volunteer vigilantes to stores during working hours, with orders to stop working-age shoppers and demand why they were not at work. Other harsh measures, reminiscent of Lenin’s murderous War Communism during the Russian Civil war in 1918-1920, were also introduced. But in hindsight, it seems that Andropov was merely working to establish impeccable Bolshevik credentials before embarking on a path of reform.

Nixonian reformer?

Richard Nixon may have served as a template. He came to power as the standard-bearer of the American Right, then initiated détente with Russia and China and ended the war in Vietnam — something no liberal Democrat would have ever been able to do. The problem with Andropov was that he died before the reform stage could begin. However, he had enough time to promote and bolster one of his most talented protégés — Mikhail Gorbachev. Gorbachev, it should be noted, came from Stavropol, Andropov’s power base, and he consistently enjoyed the KGB chief’s patronage since joining the Politburo in 1979. When they first began in 1985, Gorbachev’s perestroika, glasnost and other reforms were the same package that had been conceived at the KGB headquarters on the Lubyanka Square during the time of Andropov.

Overdue reforms

Like his late patron, Gorbachev intended to keep the fundamentals of the Communist system in place — but loosen some of the most hide-bound economic and political restrictions that prevented the USSR from competing efficiently on the global stage. The problem was that even Andropov and his KGB did not appreciate how thoroughly the entire Soviet system had rotted through. Like a dead tree in the woods, it could remain upright as long as no one touched it. Any attempt to adjust it resulted in an immediate, clamorous collapse.


Communist Party reformers, starting with Gorbachev himself, were caught offguard by the ignominious disintegration of communism and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Andropov had to gain thorough knowledge of reality — not live in the Kremlin’s dream world of Leninist ideology. What he saw horrified him. So was the KGB. Its officers — who had been the true masters of the country for 80 years — found themselves out of work. Under Boris Yeltsin, the power of the secret police — now renamed the Federal Security Service, or the FSB — was curbed substantially, its ranks thinned out and its bloody archives were thrown open to historians.

Many former KGB officers employed their skills by working for the newly rich oligarchs, or for organized crime conglomerates. Even Putin had to go to work as a factotum for St. Petersburg’s reformist mayor Anatoly Sobchak. Initially, when Putin unexpectedly became Russia’s leader, he too seemed to be following in Andropov’s footsteps. He talked of boosting discipline at all levels of government, administrative reform and greater openness to the rest of the world. He appeared to be moving slowly in practice, but that seemed justified. After all, to cite Otto von Bismarck, isn’t politics in a democratic state “the art of the possible?” The important thing was that he seemed to be moving in the right direction.

The rise of Putin

However, Putin’s rise was a combination of wild luck — his own — and monumental stupidity and overconfidence — that of those rich Russian oligarchs who picked him to succeed Boris Yeltsin in 1999. Putin’s rise was a combination of wild luck — his own — and monumental stupidity and overconfidence — that of those rich Russian oligarchs who picked him to succeed Boris Yeltsin.
The oligarchs thought they controlled Russia and couldn’t conceive that this uncomplicated, unambitious and seemingly unconnected guy could turn the tables on them. Especially since all the political infrastructure around him remained in their hands. But they failed to take two facts into consideration. First, Putin did have at least some connections in the KGB establishment and, second, the Russian state — although greatly weakened after the collapse of the Soviet Union — was still a formidable force.

Putin’s old colleagues in St. Petersburg did what other KGB officers were doing after the fall of the Soviet Union — find jobs in the nascent private enterprises. The main difference was that in Russia’s second-largest city, working for private businesses often meant becoming involved with a highly diversified and powerful private enterprise-gangster network. It is not for nothing that St. Petersburg has been nicknamed Russia’s “Crime Capital.”

The KGB’s “old boy network”

Most prominent members of Putin’s administration, as well as those who head powerful “silovik” ministries and agencies and run the increasingly dominant, state-owned energy and natural resource enterprises, were mainly St. Petersburg law and order alumni and personal acquaintances of the president from his former life. Even Andropov and his KGB did not appreciate how thoroughly the entire Soviet system had rotted through The quiescent early years of Putin’s rule were merely a time when those people moved into the position of power, took over the Russian state — and gathered strength. In the end, the KGB — which initiated the process of reforming the tottering Soviet Union — has ended up on top. Those who were junior officers when the reform project was conceived now run Russia and its energy monopolies.

Era of corruption

The difference is that Andropov, for all his faults, was trying to make the country better. In contrast, too many of his former employees — for all their talk about addressing Russia’s monumental social, environmental, health and other problems — think primarily of stuffing their own pockets and staying in power. Government graft, bribery and corruption, which has always been a problem in Russia, has now probably surpassed Nigerian proportions.

The Sunday Atrocity: Neo-Stalinism in Georgia

Paul Goble reports:

Moscow’s charge that Tbilisi preparing to invade Abkhazia is just as absurd as Stalin’s suggestion that Finland was planning to attack the USSR in 1939, according to a Moscow military analyst. But far more serious, the Russian Federation could soon find itself in a similar military situation to that in the Winter War, one in which the Russian side lost. In an interview to Georgia’s Interpressnews agency late yesterday, Pavel Fel’gengauer, military affairs analyst for Moscow’s Novaya gazeta, discussed the current military situation in Abkhazia, Moscow’s propaganda campaign against Tbilisi, and what is likely to happen next. Fel’gengauer, who is widely recognized as one of Russia’s most astute national security analysts, said that the Russia side had introduced forces into the Tkvarchel district that “unlike peacekeepers” have “artillery and heavy weapons,” a projection of force apparently intended to help drive the pro-Tbilisi “Abkhaz government in exile” out of Kodorskiy gorge.

That has long been a goal of the Abkhaz government, many of whose members believe that a major “cause of the non-recognition of the independence of Abkhazia” by Russia is that government and its role in maintaining Georgian control of the highland districts of their breakaway republic. Assertions by the Russian foreign ministry that “Georgia is preparing a place des armes I the Kodorsky gorge for an attack on Abkhazia are laughable,” Fel’gengauer says, because “even if the entire Georgian army were to be placed [there], it would be physically impossible to attack Sukhumi.” Indeed, the “Novaya gazeta” commentator says, “the declarations by the Russian side [on this point] recall [Stalin’s] propagandistic preparation for the [Soviet] attack on Finland in 1939 when [Moscow] accused the Finns of aggression.” Today, “military actions are being prepared in Kodorskiy gorge but not by the Georgians.”

According to his information, Fel’gengauer said, Abkhazian units are assembling near the village of Tsebella in the lower part of the gorge. From there they can reach the upper reaches of the gorge by passing along the new road Tbilisi has built. Using howitzers and Grad rockets, they can prevent the Georgians from an effective response. In addition, the additional Russian “peacekeeping forces” now in the Kodorskiy gorge will be in a position to prevent the Georgians from attacking Abkhazia on its flanks.” When his Georgian interlocutor noted that this was not a pleasant prospect, Fel’gengauer said that he understood but that “unfortunately, everything is going in that direction.” But then he pointed out that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is “speaking the truth when he says that Russia does not intend to conduct a serious fight with Georgia. Moscow only wants to teach Tbilisi a lesson.” Moscow understands that “threats by Russia against Georgia are insufficient” to force the Georgians to leave the Kodorskiy gorge and not begin military actions in other directions.” And consequently, it has introduced its own forces to help the Abkhaz achieve their goals against the pro-Tbilisi government.

But Fel’gengauer implies, Moscow may have seriously miscalculated. If events develop and get out of hand, “then Russia in reality will find itself in a worse situation than the Soviet Union did in 1939 in connection with Finland.” That is because whatever Russia’s diplomats or generals say, “in the contemporary world, no one will believe them.” And consequently, Fel’gengauer argues in conclusion, unlike the Finns in 1939, “Georgia today will receive what it has always wanted – international support.

The Sunday Funnies

Putin says to Medvedev: “Can you believe it?
These guys actually think you’re the boss now!”

Source: Ellustrator.

Hat tip: Reader Elmer.