Daily Archives: May 14, 2008

May 14, 2008 — Contents


(1) EDITORIAL: Neo-Imperialist Russia

(2) Annals of Russian Racism

(3) Lucas on the Red Square Parade

(4) The Wall Street Journal on Georgia

(5) Ukraine: A Beacon of Liberty and Courage

(6) The “Fun House” of Russian Capitalism

NOTE: Oleg Kozlovsky’s English blog has further details about his arrest and appeal, including photographs of his most recent appearance in court and information about the outrageous sham conducted there.

NOTE: Bravo to the people of Serbia for firmly embracing Europe over Russia and dealing a devastating defeat to the pro-Russia party in the recent parliamentary elections. One more pathetic failure for Russia’s KGB government. Publius Pundit has the details.

NOTE: For more on #2 above see the video From Russia with Hate. Be afraid. Be very afraid. This video documenting Russian racism and crude violence won both 2008 Webby Film and Video Awards and Webby People’s Voice Awards nominations.

EDITORIAL: Neo-Imperialist Russia


Neo-Imperialist Russia

Writing in The Nation magazine and republished in the International Herald Tribune, NYU Professor Stephen Cohen (pictured, with our devilish doodles) has issued another one of his treacherous little diatribes seeking to rationalize rather than confront the horrific dangers presented by neo-Soviet Russia. We’ve previously exposed Professor Cohen as the card-carrying neo-Soviet apologist he is. The Nation, you may already know, is an extremist left-wing propaganda screed published by Cohen’s wife, so it’s not surprising that it is the leading source for his malignant drivel.

Cohen complains that the U.S. presidential candidates are not focusing intently enough on his personal area of claimed expertise, Russia, and hence minimizing his significance in the world. We feel his pain. He drags out the old canards about Russia’s nukes and territory, stating that “Russia alone possesses weapons that can destroy the United States” as if this was some kind of news flash. It’s really quite pathetic.

In a second pulse-pounding bulletin, he then states: “U.S.-Russian relations are worse today than they have been in 20 years,” and asks why this is so. He begins:

In the U.S. policy elite and media, the nearly unanimous view is that President Vladimir Putin’s anti-democratic domestic policies and “neo-imperialism” destroyed that historic opportunity. But you don’t have to be a Putin apologist to understand that it is not an adequate explanation.

You don’t have to be, no — but it does help. Who else but an apologist would then state:

Over the past eight years, Putin’s foreign policies have been largely a reaction to Washington’s winner-take-all approach to Moscow, which resulted from a revised U.S. view of how the Cold War ended. In this triumphalist narrative, America “won” the 40-year conflict and post-Soviet Russia was a defeated nation analogous to post-World War II Germany and Japan – a nation without full sovereignty at home or autonomous national interests abroad.

So get this: Russians elected a proud KGB spy not because they themselves decided to, but because they are a nation of mindless monkeys who can do nothing but respond to whatever stimulus the true human beings in the West deign to give them. According to Professor Cohen, it’s we in the West who control Russia’s destiny, not the Russian people themselves. Talk about a Russophobe!

And, it turns out, the West didn’t really win the cold war — or, if it did, it should have acted like it didn’t, because that was the only way to prevent Russians from turning their country into a barbaric neo-Soviet dictatorship. The arrogance and hubris necessary to make a conclusion like this is exactly what Professor Cohen is complaining about in others, isn’t it? Have you ever seen such breathtakingly mindless hypocrisy? Little wonder that a ridiculous, fanatical screed like The Nation is the only outlet for Professor Cohen’s claptrap.

There is not one word — not one single word — of blame for Russia’s current neo-Soviet crackdown laid at the feet of the Russians themselves anywhere in Professor Cohen’s insane diatribe. The farthest he will go is to say that “the Kremlin may have overreacted” to the West’s provocation.

Professor Cohen says that the U.S. must “treat Russia as a sovereign great power with commensurate national interests.” But Russia isn’t a great power. He wants us to treat it like one in order to salve Russian egos, yet he doesn’t call upon Russia to treat its neighbors (like Ukraine, Georgia and Estonia) in a similarly respectful manner. In fact, he totally ignores that Russia treats its neighbors in exactly the same manner that he accuses the U.S. of doing towards Russia.

In a letter to the editor of the IHT, Estonian member of parliament Marko Mihkelson responds to Cohen as follows:

Stephen Cohen presented a dangerous misreading of Russia.

Cohen argues that Russia’s resurgence during the presidency of Vladimir Putin was caused by active U.S. support of democracy and free markets in Central and Eastern Europe. He adds that Russia’s backlash was caused by the collective view in Washington in the post-Soviet period that “America was entitled to Russia’s traditional sphere of security and energy supplies, from the Baltics, Ukraine and Georgia to Central Asia and the Caspian.” Cohen calls for a stop to NATO enlargement and for the U.S. to soften its position on building missile-defense units in the Czech Republic and Poland.

The article reflects a rather old way of thinking. Apparently, Cohen has a difficult time recognizing that the Soviet Empire is history and that the free nations on the Russia’s borders have the right to decide their own future. Over the last 17 years, my country, Estonia, where I serve as a member of Parliament, has rebuilt a stable and prosperous society, which was destroyed by Soviet occupation after World War II. If the promoting of democracy and the rule of law by Russia’s neighbors is seen as threat in Moscow, then the Western world should be seriously worried. Russia’s current foreign policy tools reflect 19th-century thinking. Cohen is worried that the U.S. presidential candidates are not paying enough attention to this challenge, but John McCain has been quite clear in how the West should deal with neo-imperialist Russia.

Back in 1994 opposition leader Grigori Yavlinsky wrote in the New York Times:

An increasingly disquieting feature of Russian politics is President Boris Yeltsin’s ambiguous attitude toward integration with the former Soviet republics. What most worries the democratic opposition in Russia is the absence of a clear stand among the country’s leaders against military and political integration with Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova — the only approach that can truly calm the fears among members of the Commonwealth of Independent States and make talk of neo-imperialism unfounded. The United States and others may well conclude that a neo-imperialist Russia, catering to an outdated notion of its vital interests, is trying to re-create the defunct Soviet empire through military, political and economic integration.

The fact is, no matter how Professor Cohen might like to twist the facts, that neo-imperialism is not fantasy where Russia is concerned, it’s reality. Blogger Valery Dzutsev understands. In a post called “It’s the imperialism, stupid” he writes:

Russia’s inability to progress administrative reforms [is] connected to the issue of contemporary Russian imperialism and fear of territorial disintegrationRussia has been kept together by fear in about the same fashion as the USSR and Russian empire previously. This has become more evident after the wars in Chechnya. So fear obviously evokes either resistance, resilience or surrender or mixture of all of these, in any case it does not seem to be a very strong foundation of the state. Also Russians have the example of the Soviet Union’s – disintegration of a state much stronger and more influential on international scene than contemporary Russia – it was also very strong and less diverse than many other countries in the world. So why should they not fear of disintegration and regard democracy as a way national minorities might gain their political rights including right to secede from Russian Federation? I don’t understand why when it comes to contemporary Russia, the scholars back off and start looking at Russia with a completely different mindset, as if Russia were not an old-fashioned colonial power.

It’s amazing, and terrifying, that a man as utterly clueless and base as Professor Cohen could be teaching Americans about Russia at a major university. How can we be surprised at our inability to respond properly the the outrages heaped upon us by the malignant little troll who prowls the Kremlin’s parapets when we are taught such horrifyingly ignorant and treacherous rubbish as that spewed out by this nasty little academic freak?

Annals of Russian Racism

The Scotsman reports:

With a team in one European final and the eyes of the world set to focus on Russia as it hosts another this month, it is tempting to believe that the Russian football garden has never looked rosier. Big investment, rising standards, top foreign coaching gurus, and an ever growing number of stars from around the world continuing to flock to the local Premier League.

Already in 2004, there were over 200 foreign professionals registered in Russia. Over a quarter of those were Africans. And black players continue to arrive in large numbers, lured, like other foreign mercenaries, by the prospect of huge wages and the chance of a springboard to the big leagues of Western Europe. The six-figure salaries and luxury lifestyle on offer for these players at top Russian clubs are in stark contrast to the welcome often afforded them when they venture into the streets, or onto the pitch.

“I would be happy to sign anyone, but the fans don’t like black players. Quite honestly, I do not understand how they could pay so much attention to skin colour.” That assertion – made by Zenit St Petersburg coach Dick Advocaat earlier this year, was as shocking for its matter-of-factness as for its implications. “For us (signing a black player] is impossible,” he confirmed.

The Dutchman was, bluntly, acknowledging a reality that has blighted the Russian game for years. And Zenit fans, or rather a voluble section among them, are serial offenders.

Two years ago, as Zenit kicked off their 2006/07 Russian Premier League campaign against visitors Saturn, the two team captains, Vladislav Radimov and Antonio Geder met in the centre of the pitch for the traditional raising of the Russian flag. As Geder put his hand on the flag, a chorus of monkey chants rang out around Petrovsky Stadium. Geder, a Brazilian, is black.

In March this year, when Marseille came to town for their meeting with Zenit in the last 16 of the UEFA Cup, it was a similar story. As three of the French club’s black players warmed up on the touchline, they were met with the same monkey chants and even had to suffer bananas being thrown at them. Marseille submitted an official complaint. UEFA spokesman William Gaillard promised an investigation, and pledged zero tolerance approach, but thus far have failed to deliver any sanctions.

Zenit meanwhile issued a less than convincing official riposte: “Zenit unites football players of different nationalities and religions. Our club has millions of supporters in different countries. The club and its players repeatedly took part in the anti-racist programmes permanently expressing their negative attitude to any outbreaks of racism… The club can only express its bewilderment concerning the accusations of racist propaganda made by Zenit fans that appeared after Marseille left St Petersburg.”

Senegalese defender, Pascal Mendy – now at Kaunas and linked in the past with Hearts – claimed during his time at Dynamo Moscow that there were two major problems in Russia: “Racism and the language. I am frightened to go out at night in Moscow. I am scared of racist attacks. After my first match I was attacked by three Russians on my 10-minute walk home. Luckily I’m quick. I ran away from them. That was my debut in Russian football.”

Hearts’ Ghanaian midfielder Laryea Kingston, who spent three years in Russia before moving to Scotland, reinforces the picture painted by Mendy, claiming that, had he not left, he risked losing his family. “They didn’t like it to be honest. There was a lot of racism there, and they experienced that. It was very hard for them. Last season, my wife said she would divorce me, if I stayed there. I had to listen to her.”

One of the African trailblazers was Cameroon defender, Jerry Christian Tchuisse who has had spells with Spartak Moscow and other clubs. In 2006, the Russian Football Union approached him to take part in their Match against Racism, in which the Russian national side took on a team made up of players from Africa and South America plying their trade in the RPL. It was a worthy idea, which caught the attention of the media, and Tschuisse expressed the hope that “it might actually change something.”

The Cameroonian is still in Russia, but his optimism has surely by now waned. Now playing for second division Vityaz, last month he was subjected to the standard monkey howls and insults during a match against Torpedo Moscow. In the dying minutes he lost his cool and reacted angrily to the crowd’s taunts. He was red-carded. The referee’s report noted that he had been dismissed for “responding to the racist taunts of Torpedo (Moscow] fans with a vulgar gesture”.

For all the high-profile initiatives, and official proclamations, that incident suggests a disturbing acceptance of racism as part of the landscape within the officialdom, and that little is really being done to stamp it out at grassroots level.

It is rare though to hear anyone – aside from the black players at the end of the abuse – criticise the governing bodies for not taking a tougher stance.

One who has is Czech keeper Antonin Kinsky, who has played for Saturn since 2004. During a recent match against Khimki, whose fans enjoy a reputation worse even than Zenit’s, he was enraged by the treatment dished out to his black teammates: “I’d like to talk about the behaviour of the Khimki supporters. Journalists don’t write about this, they don’t show it on TV. But whenever (the Malawian] Benni Angbwa or (Brazilian] Zelao touched the ball, they started making monkey noises. Why this disrespect towards black players? I can’t answer this question. But I find it amazing and incomprehensible that the Russian football authorities don’t take any action. How can you allow people to shout that kind of thing? If the suits and the football chiefs don’t do anything, it means they condone that kind of behaviour? If nothing changes, I’ve no idea where this country is headed,” continues Kinsky.

As he was winding down his presidency, Russian leader Vladimir Putin recently expressed concern at the state of the Russian game. His chief gripe was that clubs were spending too much on foreign players and not nurturing homegrown talent. Typically the issue of racism was not raised. Perhaps the man who has just been inaugurated as his successor – Dmitry Medvedev – a Zenit fan – will view it as a matter of greater importance.

The "Fun House" of Russian Capitalism

We wonder how many explicit warnings from prominent Western business publications like the Economist and the Wall Street Journal foreign investors will have to read before their interest in Russia dries up completely. It will certainly be quite difficult indeed to feel any sympathy for anyone foolish enough to put funds in to Russia when those funds slip down the rathole of nationalization. Forbes magazine reports:

Russia’s former president Vladimir Putin has spent the last few years expanding the state’s interest in industries ranging from diamonds to aviation. A new fund for the construction of much needed roads and bridges will be largely funded and overseen by the state. Rosoboronexport, the massive arms-trading entity owned by the government, bought the country’s largest titanium concern and has taken control of a carmaker that has a joint venture with General Motors.

In Russia, entrepreneurs don’t just compete with each other, they have to watch that the government isn’t lurking around the corner, planning to seize the fruits of their hard work. Many large natural-resources companies are partly owned by the government–or at the very least, are vulnerable to the government’s whims. But there is a separate sector, made up of fast-growing consumer products companies, telecoms, pharmaceuticals and others, that operates mostly without government interference.

The danger, though, is that this divided economy could result in stagnation. There is an ever-present fear that the government will arbitrarily choose another sector to sink its teeth into. As the newly minted president, Dmitry Medvedev, takes over from Putin, many in Russia are anxious about which way the economic and political winds are blowing.

This all has its roots not in the gangland crony capitalism of the 1990s, but in the latter years of communism. At the time of the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, there were no companies as we understand them, and there was no competition. In the late 1980s, Mikhail Gorbachev introduced glasnost and perestroika to loosen controls on society and commerce. This move resulted in well-connected people (such as those who had been active in communist groups or the Party) forming semi-private companies, many of which were simply auxiliaries of state-owned companies and were used to siphon profits into their owners’ pockets.

After 1991, state enterprises, which before had received orders concerning how much steel to produce, how much coke and iron to requisition and where to send products or materials, were abruptly left without customers, suppliers or distributors.

As these companies began to go bankrupt, a few canny people, such as Mikhail Fridman and Vladimir Potanin, saw opportunity. They seized the chance to buy shares of privatizing companies on the cheap. Some provided a market for Soviet-era factories’ products or convinced company managers to turn control over to them. And some hired armed guards and simply took the companies with force.

These men and dozens of others (including government officials), benefited from the chaos that ensued in the early 1990s and quickly became the country’s richest people.

By the mid-1990s, most of Russia’s prime assets had been claimed and divvied up. Suddenly, the tycoons realized that to grow these businesses, they needed to introduce Western accounting practices, corporate governance and personnel management. And they also wanted to monetize the assets they had grabbed. Hello, capital markets.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who acquired oil giant Yukos from the state for just $350 million, restructured the company and began to comply with generally accepted accounting principles. He actively lobbied members of the Russian legislature and reportedly met with U.S. officials about a merger with an American oil major. In 2003, just as Yukos was becoming globally competitive, Khodorkovsky was arrested for tax evasion, money laundering and fraud. But perhaps his biggest sin: nearly embarrassing Russia by pursuing a partnership with a big foreign company. Khodorkovsky lingers in prison to this day.

As other large Russian companies flourish thanks to rising oil prices, their major shareholders–mostly tycoons who made a name for themselves in the early 1990s–have been mindful of Khodorkovsky’s fate. The billionaire Russian shareholders of TNK-BP, a joint venture with BP (nyse: BP – news – people ), are said to be negotiating the sale of their share to Gazprom or Rosneft, both government-controlled concerns. Billionaires Vladimir Potanin and Mikhail Prokhorov recently split up their holdings in nickel and diamond companies, probably out of fear of government harassment.

Putin, angered by these men’s seizure of state assets for nothing, has implemented his own plan–a new (old) economy, reminiscent of the Soviet era. Certain sectors, though benefiting financially from the capital markets, would be “nurtured” by government oversight. Other sectors could operate freely–at least for now.

The result? An economy divided into two classes: massive, government controlled natural-resources companies and scrappy private-sector consumer-focused ones.

The larger companies are aware that the state could–as with titanium–suddenly decide that a particular industry is “strategic” or remiss in obeying environmental rules or taxes. So, management often consults the Kremlin before pursuing a big merger. To hedge their political risk many, like the steel giant Mechel, list their shares in London and on the New York Stock Exchange.

Still, companies find themselves in the Kremlin’s cross hairs. Russneft, founded by billionaire Mikhail Gutseriyev, had been one of Russia’s few independent oil companies. But Gutseriyev, faced with a claim that he owed millions of dollars in back taxes, sold out to a Kremlin favorite, metals billionaire Oleg Deripaska–and fled the country.

Below this layer of massive, billionaire-controlled concerns are newer companies, focused on consumer goods, real estate, pharmaceuticals and technology. Some are publicly traded, while others have managed to access foreign and domestic private equity.

New York Stock Exchange-listed beverage maker Wimm-Bill-Dann Foods (nyse: WBD – news – people ), formed by entrepreneurs in the early 1990s (now billionaires) and led by former Coca-Cola (nyse: KO – news – people ) exec Tony Maher, is feverishly developing new products and cutting costs. Sergey Petrov, owner of Rolf, the country’s largest chain of imported-car dealerships, has become a billionaire.

But it the fun-house world of Russian capitalism, Petrov doesn’t need to fear his nominative competitors as much as he needs to fear his own government.

The Horror of Neo-Soviet Military Intentions

Edward Lucas, writing in the Daily Mail:

It was a chilling sight from a different age. Nuclear missile launchers and scores of tanks rolled across Red Square yesterday for the first time since the end of the Cold War. The military hardware – including Topol-M ballistic missiles and T-90 tanks – may be a reminder of the days when the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal cast a shadow over the world, but in truth there is little reason for us to fear the corrupt, decrepit husk of the Russian armed forces. Yet we should be deeply alarmed about the politicians who command them, greeted with the traditional chants of “Ura! Ura!” (Hurrah! Hurrah!) by the 8,000 troops who goose-stepped through the ceremony, which marks Stalin’s victory in the Second World War.

There they stood on their podium, the great leader, Vladimir Putin, and the new president, Dmitri Medvedev. Mr Putin, now prime minister, is credited with rescuing Russia from chaos and poverty, while Medvedev will supposedly add the ingredients of freedom and the rule of law. So those hurrahs from the Russian troops – known as the Red Army until 1946 – in Red Square yesterday are echoed by the Kremlin’s supporters abroad too, who maintain the country is on the verge of a golden age.

But keep the cork in the shampanskoye (Russia’s sickly tank-fermented version of champagne).

The grim military parade reflects the Kremlin’s increasingly ruthless approach to politics – and the direct threat it poses to to Georgia, a plucky western ally on Russia’s southern flank. Even if Mr Medvedev wants to change the style of Kremlin rule, and dares to try, how will the brooding steely figure of the prime minister, his political mentor and the darling of public opinion, react? Mr Putin has said that no big changes in Russia’s policies at home and abroad should be expected. He has come close to humiliating Mr Medvedev over the tiniest perceived differences of opinion. It is his hands that will stay on the levers of power.

Never has the gap between deeds and words seemed bigger. Mr Putin claims to have stepped down out of respect for the Russian constitution, which allows only two successive terms. Yet he remains the most powerful person in the country. Mr Medvedev, a diminutive lawyer with – unusually for the Kremlin – no background in the military or espionage, talks about freedom and the rule of law, which Mr Putin and his ex-KGB pals have trampled into the ground. Make no mistake: Mr Medvedev’s job is to put a presentable face on the sinister regime that runs Russia.

He may criticise, rightly, Russia’s colossal corruption, shambolic public services, crumbling infrastructure, soaring inflation, grotesque abuses of power, sprawling bureaucracy, and overweening state intervention in the economy. But that does not mean he can or will do much about them. A system that has proved so hugely lucrative to the hard men in the Kremlin is not going to disappear over night, if at all. Mr Medvedev’s “hurrah chorus” say that the ruthless tycoon-bureaucrats of the Putin regime will be pensioned off. They will either accept their “severance packages” of a few billion dollars or they can join Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the oil baron who was once Russia’s richest man, in his prison cell near the Chinese border.

But for this to happen, Mr Medvedev will have to turn on his own. Nothing in his eight years in senior positions at Gazprom, Russia’s biggest company, suggests he will do so. For a start, the firm epitomises the overlap between business and politics that he claims to despise. It would be better named ‘Kremlin Inc (Gas Division)’ for its unwavering support of Russian diplomacy. Nor is there any sign that Mr Medvedev will change Russia’s prickly relations with the west, and its bullying of former captive nations.

Earlier this year he described the U.S. as a “financial terrorist” for seeking to impose its accounting standards on the rest of the world. Mr Medvedev has called the British Council, sponsor of folk dancers and well-meaning culture vultures, a nest of spies. His supporters stress he likes rock music and yoga. He has a glamorous and devoutly religious wife. Such clues are spun into an illusory blanket of good intentions. But those who have met Mr Medvedev speak of a pedantic, chippy figure, a nervous nitpicker ill at ease with the limelight.

He may change. Mr Putin did. I remember how he emerged into public view in 1999, looking more like Dobby the house elf from Harry Potter than a world leader. Many thought the third-rate spy with a taste for gutter slang would last months, not years. How wrong they were. It is now Mr Putin who dominates Russian politics. The clan of his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, is history. So are the “oligarchs”, the overmighty tycoons who once ruled the political roost. Some are in exile. Others have kow-towed to the Kremlin, gaining even greater riches in return for obedience.

Under Mr Putin, elections have become a sham, dissent criminalised, the legal system part of the Kremlin, and assassination a tool of foreign policy. Many blame the Kremlin for the poisoning in London of Alexander Litvinenko, who fled to Britain after uncovering what he termed murderous corruption in the FSB, the KGB’s successor. Since then Russia’s relations with Britain have been in a deep freeze, thawed only by the recent “football diplomacy” in which both countries have relaxed visa regulations for each other’s fans.

Changing Russia’s increasingly hard-edged foreign policy stance would be a formidable undertaking for Mr Medvedev. And why bother? The current policy is working well. The Russian people delight in the stability and high living standards that the Putin era has brought – in contrast to the poverty and uncertainty of the 1990s. Many Russians are pleased too that their country is respected (or at least feared) by its neighbours. A muzzled, sycophantic media means that the country’s real problems, and the corrupt, threadbare record of the Putin years, receives little scrutiny. Nor is there much to worry about abroad. The bullying of Georgia has brought only ineffectual bleats of protest from the EU and NATO. Germany’s cosy ties with Russia have created a Trojan Horse in the heart of the west’s two main alliances. Silvio Berlusconi’s Italy and Nicolas Sarkozy’s France adopt the same stance: accepting the riches of trade with Russia, while ignoring the political cost. The U.S. and Britain are too distracted by Iraq and Afghanistan.

Yet Lithuania, one of the smallest and poorest countries in Europe, is bravely challenging the consensus, insisting that the EU toughens its stance before starting talks with the Kremlin. Its neighbour Latvia is scraping together some symbolic diplomatic support for Georgia. Every new man in the Kremlin enjoys a honeymoon with the west. And in each case that is followed by bitter disillusion: Mikhail Gorbachev caved in to hardliners and proved ineffective; Yeltsin succumbed to alcohol and the corruption of his cronies; Mr Putin turned into a menacing autocrat.

How long before we learn our lesson?

WSJ on the Georgia Nightmare

An editorial in the Wall Street Journal:

Vladimir Putin’s last significant act as Russian president was to bring the Caucasus to the edge of another war. His first act as prime minister, a job he assumed this week after installing his protege in the presidency, may be to push it over that edge.

Russia has recently put into higher gear its longstanding efforts to topple the pro-Western government in Georgia. The strategy is to make trouble in the two breakaway regions of Georgia. Mr. Putin issued a decree last month that established official relations with authorities in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which everyone – including, on paper, Russia – considers “sovereign” Georgian territory. In reality, Moscow rules both places, and the decree takes them a big step toward incorporation into Russia.

Less than two weeks later, Russia sent additional forces and heavy weapons into Abkhazia to “supplement” (in its words) the nearly 3,000-strong “peacekeeping” (ditto) contingent. The Russians have been stationed in the coastal region since the early 1990s, when a civil war, with Kremlin help, sundered Georgia. A Russian plane last month shot down an unmanned Georgian spy drone over Abkhazia – which Russia recognizes as Georgian air space – while Abkhaz forces have moved toward the Kodori Valley, now under Georgian control. The Russian Defense Ministry is threatening to send more troops to Abkhazia, saying the Georgians were the ones dangerously redeploying forces into the area, a claim that has been dismissed by the U.N., among others.

President Mikheil Saakashvili, who came to power after Georgia’s 2003 Rose Revolution, has to weigh his military options. But he must also be careful to avoid stepping into a Russian trap. The Kremlin would like nothing better than to goad Mr. Saakashvili, not a cool head in the best of times, into an armed conflict.

Renewed fighting in Abkhazia is a win-win for Russia. Georgia would be outgunned in any direct confrontation with Russian forces. It can’t count on support from Europe. And any hot conflict would impair Georgia’s chances of joining NATO. The calculus changes if the Abkhaz strike first in the Kodori Valley. That would have Russian fingerprints all over it. The U.S. and Europe would be forced to reconsider their relationship with Russia’s young President Dmitry Medvedev, who’s supposed to be kinder and gentler than Prime Minister Putin.

Presumably the Russians are aware of this risk if they provoke war in Georgia. The White House national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, said this week that Russia should “back off.” The West can go further. Short of offering explicit security guarantees, NATO could make clear it won’t stand idly in case of a Russian attack on Georgia, whether on its own or through its Abkhaz proxies. America can expand its military advisory role in Georgia.

The independence of Kosovo, half a continent away, has been cited by Russia and some useful idiots in the West as a legitimate pretext to wrest Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia. As if Russia’s real goal there for the past five years wasn’t to bring about regime change in Georgia. And as if Mr. Putin hasn’t made clear his desire to re-establish a Russian “sphere of influence” in the energy-rich Caucasus and throughout its near abroad.

The spark for the latest Russian aggression wasn’t Kosovo, but Bucharest. Last month, at the NATO summit in the Romanian capital, Germany blocked plans to offer Ukraine and Georgia “membership action plans.” Rather than put these democratic countries on the long road to NATO, Berlin preferred to bend to Moscow. Georgia and Ukraine got a vague promise to join NATO one day and to review their “action plan” applications in December. In other words, their fate is up for grabs.

The Kremlin can smell Western wobbliness better than most. Within days of Bucharest it pounced on Georgia. If Russia gets its way there, the message to larger Ukraine will be similar: You’re part of our world, too, whether you like it or not. Only with Ukraine in the Russian camp, to paraphrase Zbigniew Brzezinski, can Russia become an empire again.

By the same token, only without an empire can Russia ever become a democracy and a good global citizen, and the region free and peaceful. On the line in Georgia today is nothing less than 17 years of American-led efforts to bring about such an outcome in Eurasia.

Ukraine, Beacon of Liberty and Courage

The Associated Press reports:

A gloomy Vladimir Putin wears a Czarist crown, clutching a bag full of dollars and a miniature television tower. Filipp Pishchik says this and similar cartoons, depicting the former president as a corrupt leader who stifles free speech, got him in trouble with authorities and forced him to leave Moscow last year for neighboring Ukraine. “Ukraine is just great,” said the 37-year-old designer and architect. “Here there is hope.”

Since the 2004 Orange Revolution ushered in a vigorous, sometimes chaotic democracy, Ukraine has become an island of freedom and tolerance in an ex-Soviet bloc still dominated by authoritarian regimes, and journalists, political activists, artists, and business professionals have flocked here. In Soviet times, a dissident wanting to live free had only the West to look to. Getting there was hard, the culture alien, the language foreign. Ukraine, however, is an easy visa-free destination for most, Russian is spoken and speech is free.

Rights groups complain that Ukraine is stingy with granting asylum, which guarantees the applicant’s right to stay and work indefinitely. But still, the influx vividly illustrates how far the country’s path has diverged from that of Russia, which by the time of the Orange Revolution had already begun rolling back democratic reform. The number of foreigners registered as living in this country of 46 million doubled to nearly 200,000 from 2003 to 2006, according to United Nations statistics; that does not include the unregistered. The number applying for political asylum rose from 1,800 in 2005 to 2,300 last year.

Pishchik said he moved here after architecture magazines stopped publishing his work, longtime clients left him — hinting they were forced to do so by authorities — and he got threats from security officials. The reason, he says, was the cartoons he displayed in galleries and on Web sites. Today, he lives in a spacious Kiev house loaded with exciting new projects and is married to a Ukrainian artist. “I tell all my friends that they all will end up here one day,” Pishchik says.

Similar stories abound in today’s Ukraine.

Yuriy Svirko, a 33-year-old journalist from Belarus, decided he’d had enough of President Alexander Lukashenko’s iron-fisted rule after he was accused of attacking a presidential body guard and threatened with arrest. (He says it was the guard who attacked him.) Svirko arrived in Kiev right after the Orange mass movement overturned a fraudulent election and brought reformist Viktor Yushchenko to the presidency.

Ukraine today is awash in competitive elections, noisy street protests and heated debates on TV shows and occasional fist fights in Parliament. Opposition rallies are held under the windows of the president’s office, and many have forgotten a time when TV channels were state-controlled. Savik Shuster had a TV political talk show in Russia until it was closed in 2004 as the Kremlin tightened the screws on media. Now he’s in Kiev, hosting a similar program on a Ukrainian channel. “In Ukraine, freedom of speech still exists,” said Shuster, 55. But for Russia today, “openness is like light for a vampire.”

During the past two years, Belarusian expatriates have held an annual “Belarusian Spring” festival, featuring fare banned back home — movies, poetry readings, underground rock bands. This year’s festival kicked off with a dozen activists racing down Kiev’s main avenue on cross-country skis when snow was nowhere to be seen. It was a poke at Lukashenko, a winter-sports fan who every year makes government officials and professional athletes compete with him in a ski competition which he always wins. But rights groups say that while Ukraine is good at welcoming professionals, it is still inhospitable to relatively unskilled political refugees, granting only 3 percent of applications for political asylum, compared with over 30 percent in neighboring Poland.

Ulugbek Zainabudinov, an Uzbek opposition activist, fled to Russia after a bloody crackdown on an uprising in his country. But Russian authorities began arresting the refugees at the Uzbek government’s request, so in 2006 he moved to Ukraine. That year, Ukraine deported 11 other refugees back to Uzbekistan, drawing harsh criticism from human rights groups. All the deportees have been sentenced to lengthy prison terms, the groups say. “The very idea of freedom exists here and it is developing,” said Zainabudinov said. “But I don’t feel safe.” His asylum application has been turned down, and fearing deportation, he is seeking refugee status in Western Europe.

Experts say Ukraine has neither the resources nor the political will to take care of asylum-seekers. Natalia Prokopchuk of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said Ukraine also does a poor job of helping asylum-seekers while their cases are being considered. Natalia Naumenko, spokeswoman for the State Department on Migration, counters that most applicants are illegal migrants caught en route to Western Europe. Dmytro Groisman of the Vinnytsia Rights Groups said the influx of asylum-seekers does not prove that Ukraine has developed into a tolerant and democratic society. Instead, he said, refugees simply had nowhere else to go. “When your apartment is on fire, you would jump anywhere — in the snow, in the water, from the 6th floor,” Groisman said. “People are running where they can.”

Olga Kudrina, 22, is one of the lucky few who received political asylum. Sentenced to prison for unfurling a Putin-must-go banner near the Kremlin, she fled to Ukraine and lives with her baby daughter in a tiny apartment in Vinnytsia, 160 miles southwest of Kiev.

Two colleagues from her banned National Bolshevik Party share her apartment in Vinnytsia and are seeking asylum.

One of them, Mikhail Gangan, 22, came here to escape arrest for breaking into a government building in Moscow and demanding that Putin step down.

“You live calmer, better here,” said Gangan. “You won’t see as many cops on the streets — you can walk down a street and not see a single one. In Russia that cannot happen.”