Daily Archives: June 18, 2008

June 18, 2008 — Contents

WEDNESDAY JUNE 18 CONTENTS

(1) EDITORIAL: Putin’s Russia, Heading for the Abyss

(2) Busting the Myth of Godless Communism

(3) Annals of Russian Military Impotence: Comes a Laughingstock

(4) Annals of Russian Barbarism

(5) Annals of “Pacified” Chechnya

EDITORIAL: Putin’s Russia, Heading for the Abyss

EDITORIAL

Putin’s Russia, Heading for the Abyss

In September of last year, we reported on how “Russia” had won a European basketball title by relying on the play of an American. This paralleled the success of “Russian” tennis player Maria Sharapova, who abandoned Russia as a child and learned how to play in the United States, going on to become Russia’s highest-ranked player in history (and, for that matter, the success of the Russian football side, coached by a Dutchman).

It seems Russians have decided that letting Americans do their winning for them is the best way to achieve glory, so they’re doing it again. Now the Russian women’s basketball team is going to field an American player in its bid for a medal at the Beijing Olympiad.

These are just a few more signs of the apocalypse for neo-Soviet Russia, and there are lots more where they came from.

For instance, on Sunday the Constitution of the new nation of Kosovo came into force, after the fledgling country had been recognized by all the major Western powers. Then on Monday it was reported that Russia’s Foreign Ministry had stated: “This act continues a string of measures for the arbitral formalization of the territory’s sovereignty and the policy of violating international law, only aggravating the tense situation in Kosovo and isolating the Serb population.”

Just as in Soviet times, Russia continues to live in a dream world where the victories of American athletes prove Russian sports supremacy and where the recognition of dozens of countries for a new nation means nothing and Russia imagines it can decree reality utterly on its own. Russia believes it can demand that the world stay out of Russia’s “internal” affairs — like the human rights disaster that is Chechnya — and yet Russia feels itself free to barge right in to the internal affairs of other nations, like Kosovo and Georgia (which recently announced it will block Russia’s entry to the WTO because of barbarically aggressive Russian moves in Abkhazia). It imagines Chechnya has been pacified, yet we routinely report outbreaks of bloody violence and terror — and below we report two more.

Cut off from the flow of real information and criticism in exactly the same way that the old USSR was, like the infamous Emperor with his New Clothes Russians live ever more fully in a dream world, unaware of the consequences and marching lemming-like towards a massive abyss of failure exactly like the one the USSR encountered.

In a June 6th op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, American Enterprise scholar Michael Rubin referred to the current ruler of Turkey as a man whose “impatience with the rule of law and dictatorial tendencies make him appear less an aggrieved democrat, and more a protégé of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin – a man whom Western officials now acknowledge to be a dictator.” The piece was headlined: “Turkey’s Putin Deserves to Go.”

Putin is now a buzzword for oppression, not so different from Hitler or Stalin. This is the reality, no matter how deep the people of Russia choose to thrust their heads into the sand to avoid seeing it. And with every single day that passes, this reality is etched more deeply in stone.

Busting the Myth of Godless Communism

To those who think that religion was repudiated in the USSR, Alexey Bayer sends this greeting card in the Moscow Times. In fact, of course, the Soviet Union was one of the most pathologically religious states the world has ever seen.

Marxism-Leninism, the official Soviet ideology, was based on strict scientific principles — or so its founders claimed. They believed that they discovered the universal laws of human history, much like physicists or chemists identified the laws that define the material world. Communists were militant atheists, dynamiting houses of worship, jailing and executing clerics and inculcating into generations of Soviet kids the belief that God doesn’t exit.

But communism itself was often called a 20th-century religion. Like most religions, it tried to explain the meaning of life. It provided its version of salvation and its own vision of paradise. But the happiness it promised could only be achieved in this world, and even under best circumstances one couldn’t hope to enjoy it longer than one’s lifetime. And communism was going to provide happiness to all of its citizens, not just the few chosen ones.

Communism had an almost Talmudic reverence for the written word of its founding fathers and prophets. It had a large pantheon of saints and heroes, as well as the black list of persecutors and heretics, whose books were strictly proscribed.

But, for all its scientific claims, communism, like most religions, encouraged belief in miracles among its followers. Nothing supernatural, of course. Unlike the incorruptible bodies of early Christian martyrs, Lenin’s flesh was kept from putrefaction by science, not divine intervention. But the miracles of communism were no less improbable than those in medieval hagiography.

Communism offered a miraculous, easy solution to a variety of problems that bedeviled humanity for most of its history. By abolishing private property, it would automatically eliminate the exploitation of workers, abolish greed and even put an end to prostitution.

Miracles would not cease there either. Communism was supposed to have transformed Russia, a backward agrarian nation, into an industrial powerhouse virtually overnight. Enthusiastic labor by liberated coalminers, known as Stakhanovites, would allow them to increase productivity 10-fold using nothing more than old mining tools. Collective farmers were expected to boost crops and milk production in defiance of genetics, which was declared a “bourgeois pseudoscience” by no less of an authority than Josef Stalin.

Marxism-Leninism seems to have been tailor-made for Russia, where the favorite fairy-tale character has always been Ivan the Fool, a ne’er-do-well who accidentally catches a talking goldfish and gets all his problems solved miraculously.

The Communist ideology is gone, but not the belief in miracles. Listening to Vladimir Putin at the end of his second presidential term, I could never shed the impression that he now believes that high oil prices and his policies of enriching his cronies under the guise of selective renationalization have transformed Russia into a thriving economy. I would bet that he believes that all of those shiny Porsche Cayennes racing around Moscow represent the real Russia. I wonder, though, whether he knows that the country’s economy is less than 1/10th of the size of the U.S. economy, that its manufacturing industries are not competitive or that, by some measures such as life expectancy, Russia is closer to sub-Saharan Africa than to Europe.

And now, the same mistake is being made by his successor. President Dmitry Medvedev spoke about Moscow becoming a global financial hub at the recent St. Petersburg International Economic Forum. True, Medvedev has introduced some welcome changes to the way the country is governed, but they don’t begin to create the judicial system or a streamlined, efficient bureaucracy that an international financial hub requires.

In the early 1960s, when Nikita Khrushchev promised to catch up to and overtake the United States, a popular joke made the rounds: “We can catch up to America, but we must never overtake it. If we do, they’ll see our bare behind.”

Annals of Russian Military Impotence

Writing in the Moscow Times Kevin Ryan, a former U.S. defense attache to Russia, is a senior fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, highlights Russia’s military impotence outside “it’s own neighborhood.” Clearly, NATO needs to focus its spending not on protecting itself from a Russian attack, but in bolstering the defenses of those poor nations who are unfortunate enough to find themselves in Russia’s “neighborhood” and therefore subject to Russian bullying. This is a moderate and manageable expense that will pay great dividends in terms of world peace and the promotion of democracy. It should be undertaken without delay.

Since Vladimir Putin came to power and steadily increased the country’s defense budget, there has been a lot of talk about Russia’s resurgent military power and its threat to the United States and Europe. Last winter, for example, the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov was sent on a cruise through the Atlantic, only its second trip in that ocean since the end of the Cold War.

Moreover, in February, a low-level Tu-95 bomber flew over the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz and other U.S. vessels in international waters near Japan. This, along with the display of weapons during the May 9 military parade, was trumpeted as an example of Russia’s reborn military strength.

The overflight was certainly a surprise, but only because the propeller-driven planes, which were introduced in 1956, were able to stay in the air. But one would have to ask why Russian strategic bombers would “buzz” an aircraft carrier? It serves no operational purpose, and, far from demonstrating a new strength, it underscores an old weakness — an inability to project any kind of power other than nuclear weapons.

Military officials openly hype the notion of resurging Russian power, and some defense observers in Washington seem only too willing to start preparing for a return to Cold War conditions. But that would be a waste of the United States’ time and money. Russia’s military flexing is hollow, and its aggressive arms sales are doing little to rebuild the country’s ability to compete with United States.

The reality is that the Russian military remains underfunded and poorly equipped. Unless it elects to employ its still-dangerous and potent nuclear arsenal, the military is not a threat to anyone outside its own neighborhood. Defense leaders understand their situation, of course, and had hoped that the increase in sales of Russian military weapons abroad would help fund their own needs back home. But this has not happened.

Behind steady weapons sales to China and India and new contracts with smaller countries like Algeria and Venezuela, Russia has gained market share in arms sales to developing countries, perennially placing first or second among exporters. But those successes have not resulted in the hoped for benefits for the military.

Profits from foreign sales have been plowed back into the arms companies themselves and the pockets of newly rich government officials rather than into weapons for the country’s military. When military hardware rolled across Red Square in May for the first time in 17 years, it was as if the tanks and weapons had been parked nearby, waiting since the last parade. All of the equipment displayed this year was already produced or under development in the early 1990s.

Although state television announcers lauded BMP-3 personnel carriers and T-90 tanks as the latest technologies, the country’s arms manufacturers are still making and selling the same equipment they have been for the last decade and a half, with only minor modifications.

Russian equipment has traditionally been popular with smaller militaries because it is inexpensive and rugged. But even those qualities are eroding. India has attempted to return the aircraft carrier, Admiral Gorshkov, which Russia sold to India for $1 billion, because it doesn’t work. Algeria similarly returned 15 MiG-29 fighters this year because they were of inferior quality.

Despite efforts to streamline arms manufacturers and make them more competitive globally, they have not produced much for the military at home. In the past 17 years, Russia has signed contracts with India alone for over 640 T-90 tanks but has delivered less than half of this amount to its own forces. The country’s shipbuilding industry has been unable to complete construction of the one new nuclear-missile submarine in its shop for over 12 years.

The real audience for the Kremlin’s muscle flexing and increased arms sales is the domestic audience and not the United States. Publicizing military achievements, even hollow ones, is intended to build confidence in the government and counter the realities of corruption and hazing in the military. Increasing foreign arms sales is about building an industrial base in Russia that can create jobs and improve the standard of living.

The United States can save its money and stop worrying. The Russian military is not a threat.

Annals of Russian Barbarity

Paul Goble reports:

The growing number of attacks in the Russian Federation against members of minority groups as well as against those who seek to defend them and the increasing willingness of many Russians to accept such actions as normal represent threaten the chances for the emergence of freedom and democracy there, according to a Moscow commentator.In an essay posted online recently, Sobkorr.ru’s Sergey Petrunin writes that the willingness of Russians and to laugh off these events or to ignore them altogether not only creates a climate in which more such attacks are likely but also promotes the “dehumanization” of the population that helped produce the horrors of Stalinism and fascism.

When individuals and groups look or are encouraged to look “at the suffering and destruction of others with indifference,” he writes, then such people can be easily transformed into “bio-robots” acceptant of and consequently ultimately capable of almost any crimes as the world of the camps showed. Indeed, he suggests, the tendency to laugh off such events may be even more harmful than the events themselves, contributing to the destruction of “the world of human interrelationships,” the conversion of people into beasts, and the launch of “a senseless and pitiless war of all against all.” The occasion for Petrunin’s bitter reflections was an event that occurred earlier this week. Members of a pro-Kremlin youth group pelted two of Russia’s most distinguished human rights activists, Lev Ponomaryev and Ludmila Alekseyeva, with eggs, when the latter were speaking out against the actions of Kopeik prison camp jailers which resulted in the death of four inmates.

“The 18 provocateurs broke into the hall during the middle of the press conference, silently threw eggs [at the two activits] .. and then ran away, “without identifying themselves or making the kind of statement which would have identified them more specifically and allowed society to know who these miscreants were. The reaction of many people to this was not widespread horror at this attack against Ponomaryev and Alekseyeva, the 82-year-old doyenne of Russian human rights activism, but rather a willingness to ignore it altogether – few Russian or Western media outlets covered it — or the kind of “hee-hee” snickering that has greeted many other outrages, Sobkorr.ru reported. But the attack against the two human rights activists like the throwing of sex toys onto the stage where opposition figures are appearing is far from the only disturbing development in Russia that is receiving this kind of treatment, Petrunin points out.

There are regular clashes between members of different ethnic groups. There are attacks on migrants and others by skinheads. And there are car burnings almost every night. These things are “no longer some kind of a warning,” the Sobkorr.ru commentator says. “This is the world in which we live, and it is terrifying to imagine how [this all] will end.” That is all the more so because for Russians as for many others there are some frightening precedents. “Since 1914,” he writes, “millins of people looked on the death and suffering of those around them. And then [the terrible revolutions of] 1917 came and the still more terrible years of 1918, 1919, 1920 …”

For some groups in the population of the Russian Federation, the impact of such actions is compounded by the attitudes of Russian officials. Recently, Moscow prosecutors announced that they would not open a criminal case regarding the beating of Yulduz Khaknazarova, an Uzbek student in Moscow. Although she was beaten by skinheads to within an inch of her life on May 11th and has been undergoing medical treatment since then, Russian officials have treated Khaknazarova as if she were the problem rather than the victim of the actions of others. Indeed, one militiaman reportedly asked her why she had thrown herself on the tracks of Moscow metro.

Such violence and the unwillingness of Russian officials to take action is reflected in the following statistic: During the first five months of this year, there were no fewer than 144 xenophobic attacks against minorities, attacks that have resulted in 76 deaths and at least 163 wounded. In very few of these cases have the militia or other force structures arrested anyone and in even fewer have prosecutors brought perpetrators to trial, a pattern that makes many of the more violent groups feel themselves invulnerable and thus leads many of the members of these groups to assume that the Russian population and the Russian authorities are in fact on their side.
And many of these xenophobic groups view the popular reaction to the liberation of an officer who sought to kill Anatoliy Chubais and continuing demands that no Russian soldier be punished for crimes in Chechnya as additional evidence that their views enjoy increasingly widespread support.

Many years ago, Nadezhda Mandelstam, the great Russian memoirist and herself a victim of Stalin’s crimes, wrote that “happy is that country where the despicable will at least be despised.” Following her lead, all those who care about human rights must agree that Russia today is not a happy one, however much oil money it may now have.

Annals of "Pacified" Chechnya

The Associated Press reports:

A group of militants opened fire on a convoy of security officers in Chechnya on Monday, killing three and injuring five, a local interior ministry official said. The unit of border guards were attacked in their cars on a road in a central district of the republic, the official said, on condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to speak to the media. The officers, whose unit belonged to the local branch of the Federal Security Service, returned fire, dispersing the attackers, the official said. Police helicopters chased the militants, he said.

The attack came despite major fighting ending years ago in Chechnya, which experienced two separatist wars in the past 13 years. But the region and neighboring provinces in Russia’s North Caucasus remain plagued by violence. In Ingushetia, unidentified militants killed a Russian soldier and wounded another on Monday, police said. The attack occurred near the village of Ordzhonikidzevskaya, near the Chechen border, police said. Police also said that two local police officers were wounded late Sunday in a separate ambush in the town of Malgobek. Government critics attribute the growing number of attacks in the region — mostly against police — to anger fueled by abductions, beatings, unlawful arrests and killings of suspects by government forces and local allied paramilitaries.

The International Herald Tribune reports on another incident:

Militants have burned a Russian armored vehicle in Chechnya and also killed a soldier and wounded several police officers in a neighboring North Caucasus province, officials said Tuesday. A group of rebels fired rocket-propelled grenades at the armored vehicle in the village of Bamut in southern Chechnya late Monday, the regional branch of Russia’s Interior Ministry said. The crew of the armored vehicle managed to get out unhurt, but a resident was wounded in crossfire, the ministry said.