Daily Archives: June 22, 2008

June 22, 2008 — Contents


(1) The Sunday Photos

(2) The Sunday Film Review

(3) The Sunday Book Review

(4) The Sunday Saga

(5) The Sunday Sob Story

(6) The Sunday Funnies

THE SUNDAY STEETWALKER: The Russian newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda, now with an English edition, chronicles the rise of prostitution in Russia as its reporters endeavor to set up a whorehouse. In a four-part installment: one, two, three, four. The money paragraphs:

We did not actually open a bordello afterwards, thank God. But we learned a great deal. There were no women among our applicants with a higher education. They were almost all factory workers — sewers, cooks, janitors and painters, who changed their profession often. One reason why they constantly shifted between jobs was their immense boredom. And the negative influence of fictional stories about oligarchs thirsting for young girls and fairytale blockbusters like “Pretty Woman” and “Glossy” should not be forgotten. Many poor village girls are tired of dancing around in their thick rubber boots and homemade clothes with drunken slobs at square dances. They long for more fashionable love affairs. And while our country is pretending to wage war against prostitution, the phenomenon is growing and gaining pace like a locomotive.

Annals of Potemkin Russia!

The Sunday Photos: Postcards from the National Assembly

Oborona posts photographs from the first meeting of the new “National Assembly” shadow parliament organization which is being supported by groups across the opposition spectrum:

The best and the brightest?

The last, best hope for Russia?

Garry Kasparov shows the strain

Andrei Illarionov meets with delegates . . .

. . . and addresses the Assembly.

The Sunday Film Review: Politkovskaya

JB Spins reviews a new film on Anna Politikovskaya:

If ever there was a woman who personified strength, dignity, and a commitment to human rights, it was Anna Politkovskaya, the crusading Russian journalist assassinated for investigating the neo-Soviet Putin regime. Unfortunately, there is not much human rights watching going on at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, besides Letter to Anna, Eric Bergkraut’s dogged documentary investigation into her death (trailer here).

Of the thirty two films at the HRW Fest, five focus their fire on Israel and four concentrate on America, clearly safe targets to shoot at. Few films at the fest, besides Letter, tackle a government perfectly willing to murder those who questions its policies, as in the case of Politkovskaya in Putin’s Russia. (To be fair, it sounds like China’s Stolen Children also deserves recognition for taking on the country’s one child policy, but the fest completely ignores Iran, Cuba, Venezuela, and North Korea.) However, the sins of the festival should not be held against Letter, a first-rate documentary.

When Politkovskaya looks into the camera and tells Bergkraut she expects to be killed, it is spooky. Obviously, she knew what she was talking about, having already survived a poisoning attempt (evidently no Polonium was available to those would-be assassins). Politkovskaya made her name exposing human rights abuses (real ones) in Chechnya, again nearly getting killed in the process. It was while filming a documentary on the Russian Dirty War that Bergkraut filmed hours of interview footage with Politkovskaya, which formed the backbone of Letter.

Although one could uncharitably characterize Letter as a film built around outtakes, much of that footage is quite insightful. Perhaps most controversial will be his decision to begin by taking the audience through her assassination step by step. As Bergkraut marshals the facts and circumstances around the event he makes a compelling case against the Putin machine. By American legal standards, he would probably have enough to indict, but not convict. Of course, on a common sense level, the notion that a free-agent in Putin’s Russia would take out a prominent Putin critic without the go-ahead from the highest levels, stretches all believability.

Things are bad in Russia—no question. Relatively few have been willing to publically challenge Putin’s authoritarian rule. Some of those who did join Politkovskaya, like democracy activist Garry Kasparov, participated in the film. We also hear from expat billionaire Boris Berezovsky, perhaps a problematic anti-Putin spokesman, but always a good interview.

Letter would make for good, if depressing, companion viewing with Poisoned By Polonium, as Litvinenko appears in the former and Politkovskaya is also featured in the latter. Politkovskaya had everything to live for, having just heard she was about to become a grandmother. However, she never backed down in her attempts to hold Putin’s government accountable for its crimes. If you want to see what “patriotic dissent” looks like, Politkovskaya is its human face.

Bergkraut makes another credible case against Putin’s criminal reign, and give Susan Sarandon credit for recording the English narration (and Catherine Deneuve for the French), but are people paying attention to the increasingly frightening developments in Russia? Letter screens only once during the fifteen day film festival, Thursday the 26th, at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater.

The Sunday Book Review

Edward Lucas reviews Marshall Goldman for the Wall Street Journal:

Natural gas is a monopolistic business: Building even one pipeline is expensive; building another makes no commercial sense. Russia, with its huge natural-gas reserves, uses its monopoly on east-west pipelines to promote Russia’s political interests — and reacts toughly when challenged. Marshall Goldman sets out these disturbing truths in “Petrostate,” a bleak and yet spirited account of Russia’s energy politics. The West, Mr. Goldman makes clear, should be wincing at its own vulnerability.

The story, as Mr. Goldman tells it, starts with the first oil boom in the czarist era, when Russia and America together produced 97% of the world’s oil. Foreign companies were booted out of the Soviet Union by Lenin and Stalin, only to be invited back in again (on different terms) when their technological expertise was missed. After the fall of communism there was a reverse involvement: Foreigners rushed into Russia to help set up a post-communist economy, only to retreat a few years later.

In between came the era of Soviet go-it-alone energy policy, when oil and gas revenues became the vital prop for Leonid Brezhnev’s ailing planned economy. As in so many other parts of the Soviet system, ingenuity battled with incompetence, and incompetence won. The Central Intelligence Agency may have helped matters along by encouraging the Saudis to crash the oil price in the 1980s — Mr. Goldman suggests as much — but in the end, he argues, it was the Kremlin’s mismanagement of its energy reserves that doomed the Soviet system.

Such incompetence lingers. The greedy and shortsighted engineering practices of the past all but ruined many Russian oil fields: It was routine to pump water in to get oil out, regardless of the consequences. The challenge for current Russian engineers is to coax Russia’s shattered geology to cough up more oil — for example, by drilling horizontally, not vertically. That’s a tricky technical challenge. Arguing over the best approach to oil-extraction is at the root of the current row between BP and its Russian partners. The Russians want a dash for cash, while BP is seeking careful, long-term management of the oil fields.

Russia shows more savvy when it comes to selling natural gas abroad, where it has used its pipelines to skewer Europe, striking bilateral deals that might make short-term sense for individual countries but that undermine the leverage and bargaining power of the continent as a whole. Europe is three times bigger than Russia by population and about 10 times bigger in economic terms, yet the eagerness of individual countries for Russia’s terms makes Europe politically vulnerable to Moscow’s divide-and-prosper strategy. As Russia builds relationships with energy companies that might have been in a position to seek other sources of gas, Europe’s ability to diversify its suppliers diminishes — and becomes a prohibitively costly proposition.

Standing in the nerve center of Gazprom’s Moscow headquarters — staring at a 100-foot wall that electronically displays the spiderweb of natural-gas pipelines spreading across Europe from Russia — Mr. Goldman marvels: “What an empowering feeling! Should they choose to, those Gazprom functionaries could not only cut off natural gas from the furnaces and stoves of 40 percent of Germany’s homes but also the natural gas that many German factories need for manufacturing.”

In other words, Ronald Reagan’s warnings in the 1980s, about the political dangers of Western Europe’s dependence on Soviet gas, now seem prescient. Today Western Europe relies on Russia for half of its natural-gas imports.

It is sometimes argued that Russia’s increasing energy consumption and its stagnant production — its output of natural gas has been virtually flat for the past four years — will lead to gas shortages in Europe. (They are already biting hard in Russia.) Mr. Goldman dismisses such fears, though much too briefly to be convincing. He also sees no danger of an international natural-gas cartel forming along the lines of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, one that would presumably include Turkmenistan, Venezuela and Trinidad.

Russia would never let its decision-making be affected by others, Mr. Goldman says. That may be true in the case of price-setting (where the economics are quite different from the oil market, because oil is traded on the spot market, whereas the international gas business is mainly based on long-term contracts). But a possible Organization of Gas Exporting Countries could still help bolster Russia’s position by consolidating producer power in exploration, pipeline routes and the market for liquefied natural gas.

The biggest hole in “Petrostate” is its skimpy treatment of the European Union. An important question facing the EU now, for instance, is whether its energy liberalization policy — unbundling the wholesale and retail businesses in gas and electricity — will help or hinder the Kremlin. A fragmented market may be even easier to manipulate. Mr. Goldman’s sharp mind would be well-suited to untangling such intricacies.

The unanswerable question is whether the Kremlin — or more precisely, Vladimir Putin — will use gas as a weapon to gain international political influence. The optimistic view is that business normalizes politics — in this case, that Russia’s need to be a dependable partner will require it to soften its political edge and conform to international standards of behavior. Pessimists fear that gas dependency will lead to the Finlandization of Europe. On the evidence so far, the pessimists have the better chance of being right.

The Sunday Saga: Dead Leaves in the Wind

The Economist reports:

FEW things symbolised the Soviet attitude to truth more than the Katyn massacre: having shot 20,000 Polish officers in cold blood, the Kremlin then blamed it on the Nazis. And few things symbolise better modern Russia’s lingering clinch with the Soviet past than the failure by relatives of the victims to get justice from the Russian legal system.

Last month a court in Moscow rejected a request to hear a case on two issues: the declassification of documents about Katyn and the judicial rehabilitation of the victims. That was shocking (imagine a German court telling Holocaust survivors that Auschwitz files were a military secret). But the Katyn relatives want to take their case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, and for that other legal avenues must be exhausted first.

Last week, however, an appeal court overturned the lower court’s ruling and ordered it to hear the case. Other signals coming from the top, including an interview given to a Polish newspaper by an adviser to former President Vladimir Putin who called Katyn a “political crime”, suggest that the Russians are changing their attitude. One risk for them is a defeat at Strasbourg. Another is the effect on public opinion of a new film, “Katyn”, by Andrzej Wajda, Poland’s best-known director, that is filling cinemas in the West and in Russia.

Yet the signals remain mixed. Plenty of Russians still argue that Katyn has been exaggerated by the Poles. Some mainstream media have resurrected Soviet-era falsifications. In Russia’s ally, Belarus, the defence ministry’s magazine says that the whole thing is a slanderous plot to defame the heroic anti-fascist struggle. Another Moscow court recently brushed aside an attempt by Memorial, a Russian human-rights group, to declassify the Katyn files.

The relatives pursuing cases over Katyn insist that they do not want financial compensation from the Russians. “It is about honour and justice,” says Ireneusz Kaminski, a Cracow law professor who has masterminded their campaign. If Russia’s new leadership wants to distance itself from the revisionist Soviet nostalgia of recent times, coming clean about Katyn would be a good start.

The Sunday Sob Story

The BBC reports:

The unpredictability and corruption of the Russian legal system can baffle investors, and lead others to offer bribes to try to get things to go their way. Since coming to office, Russia’s new President, Dmitry Medvedev, has promised to change things.

Near his flat in an ordinary street in the sprawling suburbs of northern Moscow, I met a man with a horrific tale to tell of what can happen when the system of backhanders backfires. Mikhail Yatsyk’s mother was a lawyer. She agreed to pay a bribe to an investigator.

Broken deal

The deal was that her client would face trial on lesser charges. But it did not work out so Mr Yarsyk’s mother, Yelena, asked for her money back. “My mother called me in the middle of the night,” he says. “She said this police investigator she’d been working with was driving her out to the country. “Apparently, he’d agreed to pay back the money she’d given him as that bribe. Next morning, I called her mobile – and a police officer took the call. He told me my mother had been shot.”

Mikhail Yarsyk

Mr Yarsyk says his mother was taken away and killed

The investigator in question was found guilty of her murder. He is now serving 15 years’ hard labour. It is not just criminal cases affected by this phenomenon. Paul Melling is a partner at the law firm Baker and McKenzie in Moscow. He has worked in Russia since the late Soviet period. He explains the possible pitfalls of going to court.

“The commercial court system has improved really out of all recognition,” he says of the changes he has seen. “But of course it’s the case that if you’re litigating against the politically influential, or if you’re litigating against the extremely wealthy, then your chances of getting a fair result from the court are less.”

Poor reputation

Mr Medvedev has conceded that there are massive failings. Shortly after taking office, he spoke of a legal system where courts reach verdicts under pressure, or for money. Vladimir, east of Moscow, was one of the centres of political power in medieval Russia.

Yury Bespalov

Mr Bespalov’s efforts to clean up the courts have not been popular

Today, apart from the historical buildings at its centre, it is a typical collection of Soviet-era tower blocks, and tumbledown wooden houses. Things have changed here in the last 12 months – since Yury Bespalov became chairman of the regional court and set about sacking the people who were lining their pockets.

“Today, officials can’t control the courts here,” he told me, his pronunciation becoming more precise as he became increasingly emphatic. “The courts are now working efficiently and honestly. Of course there are people in very high offices here who are unhappy about it. “These people need to be educated. They need to be told that the courts are no longer their servants. It’s something officials find difficult to accept.”

You can understand why he might face opposition. Earlier this month, one of Russia’s most senior prosecutors, Vasily Piskaryev, put the illicit revenues of corrupt officials at $120bn (£60bn) a year. Paul Melling says the element of uncertainty in the legal system can make foreign businesses worry. “There’s still this fear, particularly at boardroom level, of many multinationals, that you can’t be confident of getting the correct decision out of a court. “And for every time one case goes wrong in a highly publicised way, it has an incredibly adverse impact.”

Mr Medvedev clearly sees the shortcomings of his country’s legal system as an obstacle to its continuing enrichment. He faces a battle with those who are already doing very well under the current, rotten, system. “The severity of Russian laws is softened by the fact that obeying them is optional,” the Russian satirist Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin observed in the 19th Century.

In the 21st Century, his words still ring true.

The Sunday Funnies