Daily Archives: June 4, 2008

EDITORIAL: More of the Same


More of the Same

We’re the first ones to admit that we’re not perfect, so maybe we missed it.

In our own defense it would have been pretty easy to miss, perhaps, since many people couldn’t even name Vladimir Putin’s predecessor as prime minister of Russia.

Did that man — Victor Zubkov — who assumed office on September 14, 2007, ever pay a state visit to France?

How about his predecessor, Mikhail Fradkov, who ruled between March 2004 and the time Zubkov took the reins?

Were either of them ever photographed arriving in Paris and shaking the hand of the French president, as “Prime Minister” Putin is shown in the photograph above taken last week? The Moscow Times reports that “Putin then headed for a working dinner with President Nicolas Sarkozy at the Elysee Palace late Thursday evening, a rare honor from the French head of state for visiting head of government.” Has any other Russian prime minister ever been treated in a remotely similar manner?

Because, as far as we can recall, no such thing ever happened. As far as we know, when Vladimir Putin was “president” of Russia it was he who made such trips and shook such hands. And now that he’s “prime minister” — he’s still doing it. And in particular, French presidents do not normally receive visiting prime ministers from other countries. It’s particularly odd in this instance, since Medvedev is scheduled to negotiate a major agreement with the EU in the coming weeks with Sarkozy as a key player, and yet it is Putin and not Medvedev who carries out this meeting.

One could not ask for a more emphatic statement that Putin has not relinquished the reins of power than this photograph. In no way is Putin a “prime minister” remotely like those who have come before. He cannot be dismissed by Medvedev, and he is not acting like a “prime minister” but rather like the head of state, and he is being treated as such by other countries. As the International Herald Tribune reported: “In general, Putin spoke for Russia as if he still ran it – which most analysts believe he still does.”

Meanwhile, state propaganda organ Russia Today is bragging that Putin has just acquired “final say on foreign bids to buy Russian companies in 42 ‘strategic’ sectors including oil, gas, media and telecoms” by means of a new law passed specifically to formally expand his ministerial powers. And that’s just a few weeks after he took office! What will be left of the presidency by the time Medvedev completes “his” first term? Nothing at all.

The malignant little troll is urinating on the institution of democracy and laughing as he does so, secure in the knowledge that the world will allow him to act with impunity just as it did Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin, waiting to respond only once the crisis stage has been reached.

Russian Act of War Against Georgia Confirmed

The Telegraph reports:

The Kremlin is guilty of committing an act of war against Georgia, according to a United Nations report.

The inquiry, released [last] Monday, concluded that Russia shot down a Georgian reconnaissance aircraft as it flew over Georgia last month. The report gives the first independent backing to claims made by Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia’s president, that Russia was responsible for a series of aggressive acts that have brought the two former Soviet neighbours close to war.

Georgia has accused Russia of firing missiles into its territory in the past, but UN observers have never found enough evidence to blame Moscow categorically. But this time the UN team’s conclusions were unequivocal.

Radar records, witness testimony and video from the unmanned drone showed that it had been shot down by a Russian missile fired from a Russian fighter jet. In the absence of compelling evidence to the contrary, “this leads to the conclusion that the aircraft belongs to the Russian airforce,” the report said.

While Russia continued to deny the incident – at least the third of its kind in the last two months – Georgia said it was evidence that Moscow was giving military backing to rebels in Abkhazia, a territory that broke with Georgia in the early 1990s. “Georgia today is in a very difficult situation because foreign-armed forces have entered its territory,” Mr Saakashvili said. “The UN has released a report in which Russia is directly accused of aggression against Georgia. For the first time, the UN has directly pointed the finger at Russia.”

The UN said Russia’s act was a breach of a 1993 ceasefire that ended a civil war in Abkhazia, but it also criticised Georgia for sending drones into Abkhaz airspace – while reiterating that the rebel province remained part of Georgian territory.

Watch the video here.

Writing in the Moscow Times Ron Asmus, executive director of the Transatlantic center of the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Brussels and Mark Leonard, executive director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, call upon the West to stand up to Russian aggression in Georgia in order to prevent war, pointing out that Russian “peacekeepers” are in fact responsible for provoking that war.

The West could be sleepwalking into a war on the European continent. Georgia, which burst into view with a moving display of democratic ambition during the Rose Revolution of 2003, is teetering on the brink of war with Russia over the separatist Georgian enclave of Abkhazia. The outcome of this crisis — involving a fledgling democracy with aspirations to join NATO and the European Union — will help determine the rules of the post-Cold War security system. But Western diplomats are not sending strong enough signals to either side.

Moscow seems determined to provoke Tbilisi to take military action that would discredit Georgia in Western eyes and kill the country’s aspirations to join NATO. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin used the West’s recognition of Kosovo as a pretext to strengthen his own country’s links with the breakaway republic. One of his last acts as president was to establish “direct official relations” with Abkhaz quasi-state bodies, a move just short of outright diplomatic recognition. In early May, Moscow sent an extra 1,000 “peacekeeping” troops to the region, using the cover of a United Nations mandate to change the balance of power in the enclave.

Yet Georgia also is far from perfect. Its president, Mikheil Saakashvili, is charismatic, brash and a touch authoritarian. He arouses as much anxiety in European capitals as he does admiration. Saakashvili sees himself as a “father of the nation” and is determined to unify his country. If he is forced to choose between Georgian unity and the West, there is a danger he will be tempted to try a land grab of Abkhazia by force.

But despite of its president’s mercurial character, Georgia represents the best hope for democracy in the region. The recent presidential and parliamentary elections — which Saakashvili’s party won handsomely — have gone some way toward undoing the damage that his 2007 crackdown did to his democratic credentials.

What should the West do? Thus far, U.S. and EU actions have been largely limited to issuing statements calling for restraint — statements that seem to have had little impact on either side. Unconditional Western support for Georgia could encourage Tbilisi to take actions that it may regret later. Yet preaching at Tbilisi without providing it with any credible support is not a viable strategy. In fact, the EU’s attempts to avoid entanglement could simply end up strengthening the hawks on both sides.

The West needs to understand that the best way to keep the peace is to get involved, rather than standing on the sidelines. The United States and the EU need to send a clear signal to both sides. President Dmitry Medvedev must be told that future relations with the West — from visits to cooperation agreements — will be influenced by Russian behavior toward its neighbors.

On the other hand, Washington and Brussels must also send a message of tough love to Tbilisi, making it clear that Western support is conditional on Georgian restraint. If Georgia attempted to pursue a land grab, it would end any hope of integration into the West.

Above all, Western countries need to get directly involved in building confidence between the two sides. The current peacekeeping and negotiating formats are not working. For years they froze the tensions in Abkhazia, but now they have become pawns of Russian policy. Moscow is using the UN and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe peacekeeping mandates as a fig leaf to legitimize a military buildup. It claims to be a mediator but is de facto a party in the conflict.

In the early 1990s, Western countries urged Russia to assume a leading peacekeeping role because they were not willing to put their own forces in. But today these peacekeepers are leading the region closer to conflict. Western countries must be prepared to withdraw those mandates and insist on new missions that are truly neutral and include greater Western participation, both civilian and military. Finally, Western governments need to help create a real peace process about Abkhazia’s future. The Georgian strategy of publishing peace plans for Western consumption is not enough. Georgia must show that it is willing to engage in a real dialogue, without any preconditions, with the Abkhaz leadership.

The key to a long-term solution will be breaking down the isolation on both sides of the conflict by creating new human and economic ties and the kind of security that will allow people to start returning to their homes.

Ultimately the stakes in this crisis go well beyond the Caucasus. The escalation threatens to make a mockery of the principles on which the West has worked to build a post-Cold War peace — principles that transcended spheres of influence and that gave all countries, big and small and irrespective of their geography, the right peacefully to determine their own future. Moscow agreed to those principles in the 1990s, but now, flush with nationalism and petrodollars, it flouts them. The West should not. That is why the situation in Georgia is a litmus test for us.

Annals of Russian Hypocrisy on Memorials

Remember how Russians said it was unthinkable and outrageous to move a memorial in Estonia that deals with Russia? It seems that when the shoe is on the other foot, it doesn’t fit. Reuters reports:

Authorities in the Chechen capital have dismantled a memorial to the victims of Soviet repression, triggering public outrage in the southern Russian region.

Workmen appeared without warning last week and dismantled the monument, erected by Chechen separatist leader Dzhokbar Dudayev who fought Russia’s armies in the 1990s.

“I’m outraged. To move such a monument you should ask the people,” Zaur Timerbayev, who lives in the city, said.

“There should be a referendum. This is a catastrophe.”

Thousands of Chechens died when Soviet leader Josef Stalin deported almost the entire 500,000 population in 1944 for suspected collaboration with Nazi Germany during World War Two. In 1956 the Soviet leadership encouraged Chechens to return.

Just a 20 minute walk from the centre of Grozny, the monument — a stone fist clutching a sword and surrounded by Chechen tombstones — dominated a busy road junction.

After two wars since 1994 between Russian soldiers and Chechen forces, Kremlin-backed Ramzan Kadyrov rules with little opposition and public dissent is now rare.

He wants to build a new monument commemorating the Soviet deportation of the Chechens on the outskirts of the city.

“The original place for the memorial was not very convenient,” Kadyrov said in comments distributed by his press service.

“The new location will include a place for ceremonies, a mosque and a composite history of the subject. An obelisk will be built with all the names of the people who died in the relocation of the Chechens.”

But many Chechens were angry the memorial has been dismantled.

“I consider the removal of this monument as abuse,” 59-year-old Idris Gaitukayev said.

“I was born during the time of the expulsions, many of my compatriots died and I am seriously affected by what happened during this terrible period of my people’s history.”

Dudayev, a former Soviet air force general, emerged as head of the Chechen separatist movement after the 1991 break up of the Soviet Union.

He ordered the monument to be built and it has long been associated with him and Chechen nationalism. A laser-guided missile killed Dudayev in 1996 at the end of the first war in Chechnya when Chechen fighters forced Russian soldiers to leave.

Annals of Russian Racism

Susanne Scholl, Moscow‑bureau‑chief of‑Austrian Public Television, writing in the Moscow Times:

In Russia, if you have dark hair and a slightly swarthy complexion, you are likely to be in danger. Sadly, the country’s leaders have tolerated, if not encouraged, fear of foreigners and assaults on those whose appearance differs from the average Russian.

In a residential area of Moscow, a group of adolescents, many with shaven heads and wearing combat boots, marches and shouts Russian nationalist slogans. When they come across three Azeri boys, they don’t hesitate. Soon, one of the boys — only 13 years old — lies severely injured; he will have to be hospitalized. The other two are injured as well. The perpetrators are never caught. Bashir Osiyev, 24, an Ingush-born clerk in a Moscow bank, is assaulted by a group of skinheads while walking home with a friend. The friend is badly wounded but manages to escape. Osiyev dies after being stabbed in the back. Two of the assailants are injured in the course of the fight and arrested after seeking medical assistance at a hospital. The others are never caught.

Two men from the Caucasus are on their way to the metro and are attacked by a group of adolescents with knives. Both are treated in the hospital, the perpetrators escape unrecognized.
In a small town in central Russia, two Uzbeks are viciously beaten up by a group of teenagers.
All of these incidents occurred within just one week. They are picked at random from an endless series of similar assaults, many of which end fatally.

The authorities tend to play down these attacks as the acts of rowdies — even when the perpetrators are caught and can be prosecuted. This is because charging someone with racism and xenophobia is more complicated and the process more drawn out than winning a conviction for simple thuggery. Indeed, racists can be assured of considerable sympathy from the security forces and the public. After all, these attacks generally don’t occur in some dark alleyway. In most instances, they take place in crowded markets, metro stations, or simply in busy streets.‑Pedestrians nearby look the other way, even if the victims are women and children.

A Chechen friend of mine and her 14-year-old son were attacked on the street by three drunken skinheads. The skinheads began to push them around and harass them, as people on the street looked away and kept moving. My friend managed to talk insistently to the three until eventually they left her and her son alone, only to pounce on a married couple that happened to be passing by. The man looked like he was Jewish, they insisted loudly, and started to push him around. But he’s Russian, his frightened wife insisted, whereupon the three apologized and let him go.

Neither husband nor wife were alarmed that the three drunks were chasing Caucasus natives and Jews but pressed charges because they, as Russian citizens, had been harassed. My friend didn’t. It would not do any good, she said resignedly, and then spoke of how her 12-year-old daughter is repeatedly told at school that all Chechens are criminals and that nobody likes them.
Since the day that then-President Vladimir Putin spoke on television of wasting Chechen terrorists in the outhouse, hatred of Caucasus natives has become all but socially acceptable.

Once again, a subgroup of the population has been declared outlaws and potential terrorists, satisfying people’s urge to find a clearly identifiable enemy who can be blamed for all that is wrong in the country. While there has been no lack of speeches calling for tolerance and condemning racist and anti-Semitic attacks, the situation barely changes. The Soviet Union was anything but tolerant. But since its collapse, a gnawing feeling of inferiority has crept into Russian society. Both the state and openly racist, xenophobic and anti-Semitic groups — of which there are dozens, as well as more than 100 clearly xenophobic publications — increasingly ignore the country’s multi-ethnic character. In an everyday context, this is reflected in slogans like “Russia for Russians,” which really means white European Russians.

The attacks therefore are directed in equal measure against people from the former Soviet republics in Central Asia, as well as Russian citizens from the Caucasus or who belong to one of the country’s 90 national minorities. The state hypocritically expresses its concern while doing nothing to oppose it, because too many officials are only too willing to exploit such sentiments.

The Saga of Arnold Meri

Marko Mihkelson, the chairman of the European Union Affairs Committee in Estonia’s parliament, writing in the Moscow Times:

In recent days, the court proceedings in the small Estonian town of Kardla, where Arnold Meri stands trial for crimes against humanity, have gained much attention in the Russian press.

Unfortunately, this case reveals dramatically how biased and truth-fearing the media landscape of Russia is today. Naturally, no word is spoken or written about the fact that Meri is accused of carrying out deportations under Estonian legislation and international law.

The Russian media only proclaim that Meri was given the Hero of the Soviet Union award and that, in their view, the court case of the 88-year-old veteran is only a political trial orchestrated by the Estonian authorities. It is all supposed to serve the purpose of “rewriting” the outcomes of the World War II, we are told.

Following this logic, it might be assumed that all heroes of the Soviet Union enjoy a life-long immunity and can kill, rape or deport with impunity. It is sad if this is the contemporary Russian view of the rule of law.

There is no statute of limitations on crimes against humanity. It is not important who committed them and when. Eleven persons accused of crimes against humanity have been convicted in Estonia from 1995, eight of whom participated the deportation of civilians in the 1940s. Even the European Court of Human Rights in its decision of Jan. 17, 2006, supported the Estonian court practice of trying and prosecuting crimes against humanity.

Meri is accused of carrying out deportations of 251 people — mostly women and children — from the Estonian island of Hiiumaa on March 25, 1949. On that day, the Soviet occupation forces deported altogether 20,000 people from Estonia.

Unfortunately, that was not the only tragedy in the sufferings of the Estonian people in the 1940s. A similar episode occurred on June 14, 1941, when the People’s Commissariat for Interior Affairs of the Soviet Union organized the deportation of more than 10,000 residents of Estonia, among whom nearly 5,000 women and 2,500 children. More than 3,000 of them were sent directly to prison camps, where the majority were killed or died.

For most Russians, the Soviet Union’s victory in World War II, which is officially called the Great Patriotic War in Russia, has been elevated to the single most important historical event. No one today questions the importance of the Allies’ defeat of Nazism. What raises concerns, however, is that the victory over Nazi Germany is told in rigorous black-and-white terms. We know that history is a growing collection of narratives with countless nuances. No historical event occurs in a vacuum. This is true for the Great Patriotic War, and it is important to analyze all of events that preceded and followed the war.

I am convinced that many Russians are more knowledgeable and balanced than the ruling elite in analyzing and interpreting World War II and its aftermath.

Deep wounds in the memory of nations heal very slowly. The feelings of distrust and even hatred can be easily fomented and manipulated. It is very difficult to earn respect by trampling on the truth, and leaders who try to stifle the historical sense of entire nations with this peculiar weapon of history are doing a terrible disservice to their citizens, the consequences of which may be irreversible.

Ilya Ponomarev, a State Duma deputy from A Just Russia and is one of the founders of the Left Front movement, offered a counterpoint in the same issue:

For the past week, Russian television has been stoking the public’s passions over Estonia’s charges of war crimes against Arnold Meri. Judging from the coverage, you would think that serious domestic problems, such as increasing neo-Nazism or the lack of housing for veterans, have been resolved.

Of course, it is always easier for the Kremlin and its media outlets to criticize other countries than itself. It is more expedient to fight against imaginary foes than taking on the real threats to society.

Russia’s leaders never tire of displaying hypocritical self-righteousness, crying out passionately about justice — particularly when these public stances bring in so many political dividends.

The more Russia bickers with the Baltic states, the more it resembles a fixed contest in which the results are settled beforehand. The ruling elites of both sides compete with one other at tossing out nasty accusations before their electorates in an attempt to divert attention away from the real problems of everyday life. This happened not long ago with the dispute over moving the Bronze Soldier monument from central Tallinn, and it is happening again now. It seems that those in power are happy, even if a decorated war hero must now stand trial — and this is a man who, in 1941, didn’t quit the field of battle against the Nazis, even after sustaining four battle wounds, and who is now unafraid to stand up for his fellow war veterans, despite suffering from a serious illness.

I do not want to address Meri’s specific actions in 1949 for which he now stands accused — the deportation of the Estonia civilians to Siberia. Let’s leave it to the lawyers to determine whether Meri organized the deportations or was just carrying out orders. There is a more important issue that has gotten lost in the Meri affair: Instead of focusing on one person for crimes against humanity, the authorities should initiate an international tribunal against the entire Communist regime for crimes against humanity. Although the wealthy and ruling elite in the former Soviet republics might find this initiative attractive, the overwhelming majority of the people, who live worse now than they did 20 years ago, would never support this idea. In the absence of a Nuremberg-like trial, however, any attempt to single out one person smacks of a politically motivated campaign to find a scapegoat.

In reality, of course, politicians and the media don’t care that much about Meri or his alleged crime of “genocide,” despite the passionate debates on television talk shows. They relish the opportunity to generate good public relations with voters, especially since the government has nothing to say regarding the real problems facing society. How many rating points has United Russia racked up by renaming streets in Pskov and Altai in honor of Arnold Meri? As is often the case, one man’s meat is another man’s poison.

And for its part, Estonian leaders are manipulating the issue to marginalize opposition groups. They also are trying to provoke Russia to take retaliatory actions, which would then prompt the European Union to come to Estonia’s defense.

Both the Russian and Estonian sides should be ashamed of themselves for how they have cynically exploited the Meri affair for political gain.

The spindoctors on both sides who stand behind their respective PR campaigns should think more about the millions of Russian and Estonian lives that were lost during World War II and its aftermath. They should also think about their children, who will grow up one day and look back on what the Meri trial and cry, “Shame on you!”

Germany Presses Russia on Human Rights

The International Herald Tribune reports:

The case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the imprisoned former boss of the Russian energy company Yukos, and other human rights issues will be high on the agenda when Chancellor Angela Merkel meets President Dmitri Medvedev of Russia in Berlin this week, officials confirmed Monday.

This is Medvedev’s first foreign visit in Europe since taking office last month, and by making Germany his first stop the Kremlin is confirming the enduring importance of the two countries’ bond, German officials said.

“Germany and Russia are forming a close, friendly and strategic relationship,” Merkel said in her weekly podcast, in which she set out what kind of ties the government hoped to develop with Medvedev.

These include Germany supporting Russian efforts to modernize its economy while also tackling corruption, strengthening the rule of law and establishing a more effective judiciary – issues that Medvedev pledged to deal with once he took office.

“If Medvedev is serious about a state based on the rule of law, then the case of Khodorkovsky provides an opportunity to test that commitment,” said Eckart von Klaeden, the foreign policy spokesman for Merkel’s conservative bloc in Parliament.

Khodorkovsky, once regarded a rival to former President Vladimir Putin, was arrested in October 2003 on charges of tax fraud and received a 10-year sentence in May 2005. Putin is now the Russian prime minister, a role he assumed after Medvedev took over the presidency in May.

The German business community, which in the past has criticized Merkel’s direct language with Putin over human rights, is hoping for a new start to the Berlin-Moscow relationship under Medvedev.

Merkel, who was raised in communist East Germany, speaks Russian and understands the country. She had broken ranks with previous chancellors by adopting a much more public and critical stance toward the Kremlin’s positions on press freedom and the rule of law.

German managers had warned her that this kind of approach could damage economic ties. But over the past year, trade has been flourishing, with German exports to Russia reaching record levels, according to the East Committee for the German economy, which promotes German companies throughout the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

Merkel’s focus on the rule of law has won some support by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who until recently was reluctant to deal with the issue.

During his visit last month to Russia – where he met Medvedev, as well as representatives of the business community and student and nongovernmental organizations – Steinmeier called on the Kremlin to introduce a legal system that is transparent. And in a surprise development, Steinmeier had a long meeting with Khodorkovsky’s lawyer, Yuri Schmidt, in a hotel in St. Petersburg.

“Our meeting lasted for about 90 minutes,” Schmidt told the Russian news agency Interfax on Monday. “During that time we discussed the entire range of issues. In particular, we discussed the possibility of a lawful release of Khodorkovsky.”

German officials said it was unclear whether Medvedev had the power to intervene in the case or whether Putin would give him leeway to do so.

Indeed, Putin, who as president was the catalyst for initiating the court proceedings against Khodorkovsky, said that he would advise his successor against granting Khodorkovsky any “privileges.”

According to Khodorkovsky’s lawyers, prosecutors are preparing a new case against him based on charges of money laundering and embezzlement.