Daily Archives: July 2, 2008

July 2, 2008 — Contents


(1) EDITORIAL: Unwanted

(2) Felgenhaur on Georgia, Ukraine

(3) Russia Wins by Learning from Non-Russians

(4) Uh-Oh: Here Come those Pesky Chechens

(5) Stormclouds Over Ingushetia




Beating down the audience is what the crudest entertainments try to do, and in this respect, and in every other, “Wanted” is nothing new.

Those are the words of New York Times film critic A. O. Scott, reviewing the new major motion picture Wanted starring Angelina Jolie and directed by Timur Bekmambetov, whom Scott describes as “a Russian filmmaker who has earned a cult following with his razzly-dazzly thrillers Day Watch and Night Watch.

While it’s very unlikely that any Slavic Russian would acknowledge a person with Central Asian name like “Bekmambetov” as being “Russian” in any sense that means anything (not to long ago, Russians were rounding up people with last names like that and ejecting them from the country as spies), the irony of Bekmambetov is really quite extreme. Let’s reflect upon a little, shall we?

But before we do, a word about Ms. Jolie. Here we have an actress who, in her private life, pretends to be all about world peace and uplifting the condition of the world’s hapless minions. And yet, what kind of movies does she make? Empty-headed shoot-em-up bloodbaths that make light of violence and have nothing to say about anything, that’s what. Wow, what a fraud.

And she’s in good company where this “Russian” filmmaker is concerned. Anyone who knows a thing about Russian people knows how heartily they love to claim cultural superiority, to look down their noses at Hollywood movies as being devoid of emotional sensitivity or intellectual substance. And yet, if you read Scott’s review you find that not only is Mr. Bekmambetov doing exactly that, he’s not even being original about it. Check out this damning passage:

What does turn up looks familiar — the slowed bullets, the air that ripples like water, an underground group, here called the Fraternity — especially if you’ve seen “The Matrix.” Although Mr. Bekmambetov and his team take plenty of cues from that film, they have tried to distinguish their dystopian nightmare by borrowing from even farther afield. To that end the Fraternity practices its murderous skills on pig carcasses (much as Daniel Day-Lewis does in “Gangs of New York”) while bunkered in a sprawling factory (that looks like Hogwarts). I’m pretty sure I saw the fabulous recovery room — a concrete spa filled with sunken tubs and lighted candles where Fraternity members go for restorative soaks after a hard day of carnage — in a layout in Vogue.

So Bekmambetov is not only copying America at the superficial level, he’s copying it right down to the roots, and not even doing it all that well. Scott says the movie boils down to “a grindingly repetitive rotation of bang-bang, boom-boom, knuckle sandwiches and exploding heads.” His conclusion: “Things happen in Wanted, but no one cares. You could call that nihilism, but even nihilism requires commitment of a kind and this, by contrast, is a movie built on indifference.”

To us, that sounds just like Russia itself, in microcosm. Things are happening (the population is shrinking, art is being stifled, journalism censored, politics castrated) but nobody cares. Instead of bringing a new sensibility to cinematic art when given its chance, Russia’s contribution is to further deaden it, almost as if simply for the fun of it. Russia these days it seems has nothing to offer the world by cynicism and nihilism — or in fact, perhaps they don’t even have the energy and perseverance to raise themselves to that level.

Have a proud KGB spy as president? Why not! Start up the cold war by buzzing American with nuclear bombers and providing weapons to rogue leaders in Iran and Venezuela? Hell yeah, let’s give it a go! We’ve already got the world’s largest supply of territory? So there’s nothing for it but to grab some more — let’s take the Arctic!

It’s as if, some time ago, the whole nation resolve to launch itself upon a massive suicide pact, thumbing its nose at a world that somehow never managed to offer the recognition and worship it craved.

Felgenhaur on Georgia, Ukraine

The brilliant Pavel Felgenhaur, writing in the Eurasia Daily Monitor:

In the past Russia strongly protested the expansion of NATO to include Central European states that were Soviet clients and former Warsaw Pact members during the Cold War, as well as the Baltic republics that were part of the Soviet Union. In the end, however, Russia backed down and accepted the inevitable shrinking of its effective sphere of influence. Now the rulers in Moscow seem to be ready for a major confrontation that includes the threat of military force against the pro-Western governments in Georgia and Ukraine, which aspire to join the alliance.

After a recent meeting between Russian and Georgian Presidents Dmitry Medvedev and Mikhail Saakashvili in St. Petersburg, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told journalists, “We told the Georgians that their desire to join NATO will not help solve the problems of Abkhazia and South Ossetia; it will lead to renewed bloodshed” (RIA-Novosti, June 6). Later Lavrov added in a radio interview, “We will do anything not to allow Georgia and Ukraine to join NATO” (Ekho Moskvy, April 8).

Speaking last week in Sevastopol in Crimea, the main base of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov warned Ukraine that joining NATO would have serious consequences: “A complete disruption of military-industrial ties between Russia and Ukraine is inevitable, as well as the reduction of other trade and economic ties and an introduction of a visa regime.” Ivanov implied that NATO would “force Ukraine to introduce a visa regime.” Ivanov added, “More than 30 million Russians live outside Russia, and we are morally responsible for them” (RIA-Novosti, June 14).

Russian officials connect the possible future Ukrainian NATO membership with the fate of the Black Sea Fleet. Ivanov announced, “It is hard to imagine the Russian Black Sea Fleet without its main base; the fate of Sevastopol matters for all those who lived in the Soviet Union, it is our city.” Ukraine’s call for the withdrawal of the fleet from Crimea was perilous, because “it is dangerous to play not only with fire but also with history” (Itar-Tass, June 14).

Ivanov’s rhetoric matches other recent official statements. Russia’s permanent representative to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, said in a TV interview: “The Black Sea Fleet simply does not have any other home; no Russian politician will agree for the fleet to leave Sevastopol, and this will not happen” (Vesti TV June 12). A rejection of Ukraine’s NATO accession or the possible future withdrawal of the Russian fleet from Crimea after 2017, when the present lease of the Sevastopol base expires, are today part of Russia’s official foreign policy. Western assurances that Sevastopol will not be used as a NATO naval base after the Russians withdraw are not taken seriously. But there is a lot of time till 2017 and the Ukrainian NATO accession may not be swift, since today the majority of Ukrainians are against NATO membership and the government in Kyiv has promised a national referendum to decide on membership (RIA-Novosti, June 16).

Russia does not at present have the infrastructure on its own Black Sea coast to house the Black Sea Fleet, and building the needed facilities will require lots of time and money. What is worse, Russia does not have adequate military shipbuilding or ship-maintenance facilities on the Black Sea to keep a large fleet. The flagship of the Black Sea Fleet, the cruiser Moskva, has been repaired and modernized in Mykolaiv in Ukraine at a naval shipyard where in Soviet times all the aircraft carriers were built. Russia has managed to build several relatively small naval ships since 1991 (frigates and coastal patrol boats) in St. Petersburg and Kaliningrad, but not enough to replace its rapidly aging navy. Without access to the Mykolaiv yard, there may not be much fleet left to withdraw from Sevastopol (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, June 12).

At present Moscow is using threats that Ukrainians will suffer if their nation joins NATO or if the Russian fleet is ousted from Sevastopol. At the same time, Russia has been supporting pro-Russian separatist feelings in Crimea and making territorial claims on Sevastopol. Moscow needs a pro-Moscow allied government in Kyiv or, if that is impossible, a separation of Crimea and Eastern and Southern Ukraine (with Mykolaiv), where millions of Russian speakers may either want to join Russia or form an allied protectorate.

The situation is different in Georgia, where a vast majority voted to join NATO in a referendum on January 5. There is no hope in Moscow that any anti-NATO pro-Russian forces may come to power in Tbilisi, and military action in support of separatists in Abkhazia and South Ossetia is being seriously contemplated (see EDM, June 12). The Russian Foreign Ministry has officially announced that Moscow refuses to discuss with Tbilisi the legality of the deployment of additional troops and armaments in Abkhazia, because the troops “prevented a Georgian blitzkrieg” (www.mid.ru, June 17). When substantial talks are essentially stopped while additional troops are deployed, it’s more than just a threat of the use of force.

Russia Wins by Learning from Foreigners

Alexei Bayer, writing in the Moscow Times:

Economists and investors like talking about the BRIC countries, meaning Brazil, Russia, India and China. Besides making a clever acronym, it would seem that the four don’t have a lot in common as far as history, culture or economic structure is concerned.

But the BRIC countries are all vast landmasses occupied by large populations with relatively low per-capita incomes that have enjoyed rapid economic growth over the past decade. In addition, they are drawing closer together. Look at the young players on the Russian football team who embarrassed established European powers and thrilled fans in Austria and Switzerland.

Despite its loss to Spain in the semifinal, Russia’s fantastic performance at the European football championship united the nation and brought overjoyed fans to the streets. But sports is never free of politics — especially not among former Cold War powers, who for four decades after World War II fought proxy battles at Olympic stadiums and ice rinks around the world. There has been a persistent drumbeat in the pro-government Russian media implying that the team’s success — combined with a win earlier this year at the World Hockey Championship in Quebec and Zenit victory in the UEFA Cup, as well as the first-place finish by singer Dima Bilan on Eurovision — are somehow the result of Vladimir Putin’s eight years as president.

The myth being promulgated by the Kremlin describes Russia as downtrodden when democrats were in power in the 1990s. State assets were squandered and sinister elements abroad conspired to keep Russia weak. But now, under Putin’s firm and wise leadership, Russia has risen from its knees. It is rich, economically powerful, politically stable and once more respected by foreigners. Is it a surprise that sports victories have followed?

But in recent history, there is little connection between sporting success and economic prosperity or political stability. Argentina won its two football World Cups in 1978 and 1986, when the country was oppressed by a military junta and struggled with hyperinflation. Moreover, midway between its two football victories, the country experienced a disastrous military misadventure in the Falklands.

Brazilians, meanwhile, have been playing football with a little less dazzle since they began their current spurt of economic growth around 2002. Universal favorites, they failed to make it to the final of the 2006 World Cup.

In Russia, the success of its football team makes a mockery of the Kremlin’s political doctrine. Its leaders never tire of talking of the country’s special historic path. They reject Western experience and denounce its model for democratic society and a market economy. Russia, they claim, is sui generis — it needs its own “sovereign democracy” as well as an economy that is dominated by the state and managed by bureaucrats.

Yet, the football team won because Guus Hiddink, a world-class coach with a proven international track record, was brought in, not some corrupt nincompoop with Leningrad ties to Putin.

Another myth is that Russia is finally reclaiming the Soviet-era grandeur. This is nonsense. Watching Russian fans nowadays brings tears to my eyes when I compare them with what Soviet fans used to look like at international competitions. Only two decades ago, they were shabby, uptight and frightened members of tiny delegations — hand-picked by the Komsomol after a lengthy vetting process. They got puny amounts of hard currency, which they scrupulously saved, eating canned fish in their hotel rooms so that they could buy Western goods anywhere they could. They sat sheepishly in their seats and chanted half-heartedly when prompted by their brooding KGB chaperones.

Russia has indeed risen from its knees. But contrary to conventional wisdom, it didn’t happened under President Vladimir Putin, but in 1991, when it sent communism to the dust heap of history.

Uh-Oh, Mr. Putin: Here Come the Chechens

Prague Watchdog reports:

The Chechen underground, it seems, has got its second wind. The beginning of the spring and summer campaign has been marked by several high-profile attacks. However, in the absence of any plausible statistics it is rather difficult to judge to what extent the current activity of the saboteurs is unique. Does it exceed the figures for the same period last year, or the year before? While it would obviously be wrong to jump to conclusions, the frequency and scale of operations during the past month are none the less unprecedented. The Alkhazurovo raid in May, the similar attacks in Benoy, the shelling of a convoy near the village of Chishki, the shooting-up of an armoured personnel carrier near Bamut: such is the list – doubtless an incomplete one – of sabotage actions by the Chechen underground.

While there is, of course, a possibility that this tightly-packed series of events may have been accidental, it is not too great. What is certainly not open to doubt is the fact that the death-knell of the Chechen resistance, which the Kadyrovite and federal authorities have been trying to ring for many years, entirely without its consent, will once again be indefinitely postponed.

Ruslan Martagov, a consultant for the Moscow-based Anti-terror Foundation, says that bold and large-scale attacks by the guerrillas should be expected this summer. He is convinced that the current aggravation marks the beginning of a new phase of armed struggle. “A resistance movement,” he explains, “cannot for long remain a thing in itself, because it then turns into a secret masonic lodge that has to influence the course of events by means of hidden political levers. The underground possesses no such levers, and the only way it can introduce correctives into the system is by making a substantial military impact. Accordingly, it needs new supporters, and these can only be attracted by a demonstration of strength and heroism, a commitment to ideas of revolutionary change in society and the ability to sacrifice one’s life for the sake of those ideas.”

Martagov does not place much credence in the notion that young people will take part in an armed rising under the influence of the ideas of radical Islam. “There is no particular ban on religious faith in the republic,” he says. “Of course, so-called ‘traditional Islam’ occupies the dominant position – it’s advocated by the authorities and imposed from above, but for the most part heterodox Muslims in Chechnya are not subjected to such a degree of harassment that the only way out for them is to take up arms.” According to Martagov, the mass discontent of young Chechens has quite a different character. “We’ve appointed a Bey, a medieval Sultan. When everything revolves around one man and for one man, Chechens radically rebel.”

The Chechen political analyst Zaindi Choltayev puts this idea even more strongly. “Chechen society has always been characterized by a high degree of capacity for consensus, which forms the basis for the solution of all problems. The tendency of the authorities towards control in every sphere conflicts with our national mentality.”

Choltayev believes that that there are now fewer and fewer objective reasons for discontent in Chechnya. The republic is completing the process of its reconstruction, while the level of violence and arbitrariness on the part of the local and federal law enforcement agencies is steadily declining. While there may only be a meagre growth in the number of jobs, the most important thing is that there are now some rules which, although they are imperfect, make it possible for people to achieve at least some degree of interaction with the authorities. There can be no doubt that this situation is more comfortable for the republic’s residents than the one that has prevailed there for many years. However, relative social prosperity is unable to provide the much-needed confidence that all is right with the current Chechen world.

“One-man authoritarian government is perceived as something alien, something that’s been imposed on us and is therefore felt to be an extremely offensive form of government,” Choltayev says. What is more, Chechens are stubbornly unwilling to reconcile themselves to conditions that are inferior to those experienced by people in the rest of Russia. Of course, in the scheme devised by the Kremlin authors of the Chechen ghetto, the entire Chechen people are guilty of trying to secede from Russia, and must therefore be kept under permanent control. But the Chechens are unlikely to consent to having the principle of collective responsibility applied to them. They are demanding a more civilized approach, based upon law – each person must be answerable for actions committed.

“Beyond Chechnya’s borders,“ Choltayev explains, “there are political freedoms, even though they’ve been reduced to miserable proportions. In Chechnya such freedoms don’t exist. Here people have not been left the opportunity of expressing their disagreement with the existing state of affairs through the courts or the media. There was one “St Yury’s Day” – the presidential elections, but even that has been taken away from them. So the only way to oppose the current regime is to pick up a cobblestone or an automatic weapon.”

Choltayev is convinced that the alien system that has been introduced into Chechen society by means of military force and political diktat will remain a constant source of active dissent and military conflict. Until the Kremlin realizes that it has no option but to reckon with the foundations and essence of the Chechen way of life, the underground will continue to operate, drawing the republic’s youth into its ranks. “The older people find it easier to tolerate what’s going on, because they remember the Soviet times and the violence back then. The present system is unpleasant, of course, but it’s almost a rehash of Communist totalitarianism. In addition, the older people are burdened with families and obligations to relatives. But the young can tear up bonds which are still fragile and proceed regardless – to fight injustice.”

Another Chechen expert, who is currently living in Moscow, believes that the current explosion of activity by the guerrillas is linked to structural changes in the Chechen resistance. He wishes to remain anonymous, as he was earlier closely connected with former Chechen president Aslan Maskhadov and was subsequently forced to leave Chechnya in order to escape persecution. In his view, after the deaths of Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev and Shamil Basayev (particularly the latter), when the underground formed a new military strategy, the new leadership of the guerrilla movement was for a long time unable to decide on the planning of its military goals. The seizing of major population centres seemed to Dokka Umarov too expensive a way of demonstrating the mojahedins’ military effectiveness, and terror against the civilian population was not justified, as Putin had given the understanding that he was ready to make any sacrifices in order to preserve the government and its reputation.

The resistance is returning to large-scale operations in Chechnya precisely now because the work of internal unification has been completed. An announcement by the Caucasus Emirate has permitted the obtaining of support from abroad. New resources, both financial and human, have made their appearance. The influx of young men to the guerrilla movement over the past year has been very high. And finally, having tasted money and luxury, the Kadyrov regime has grown lazy and has lost its overtly repressive nature. The Kadyrovites have stopped feeling like medieval mercenaries, and want to become civil servants and oligarchs.

Stormclouds over Ingushetia

Prague Watchdog reports:

For the sake of dramatic effect it could be said, as some experts have done, that Ingushetia is now on the brink, and that on the other side lie open disobedience and disloyalty to the federal centre, armed struggle running parallel with civic protests which are assuming an increasingly ambitious and large-scale form, Salafism, Wahhabism, and so on. All of these factors are already present, and the dynamic they create as they grow is an explosive one. Yet it is premature to draw the conclusion that events in Ingushetia will inevitably follow the Chechen pattern.

The depth of Ingushetia’s loyalty to the federal centre, something for which the republic has always been famed, is rather difficult to measure. But neither the Ossetian-Ingush conflict, during which Moscow, in the opinion of the Ingush, provided exclusive and disproportionate armed support to the Ossetian side, nor the Chechen wars, which passed like a fiery, inhuman mangle across the territory of fraternal Chechnya, were able to shake the foundations of the Ingush people’s civic identity. Most Ingush continued to see themselves as citizens of Russia and did not even think about the possibility of living a separate existence, despite the fact that the Chechens had been trying to draw Ingushetia into its separatist project ever since the days of Dudayev.

Today the situation has radically changed. Magomed Yevloyev, owner of the “Ingushetiya.ru” website, says: “In Karabulak there is an old man who keeps a watchful eye on people’s moods – especially the moods of the young. On public transport and in the streets he listens carefully to what people are saying. He recently told me: ‘We’ve lost Ingushetia. Young Ingush have a very narrow field of ideas. On the buses and minibuses the only conversations you hear are about guerrillas, emirs, the Emirate, where road-mines were laid, where federal troops came under fire, where police were killed. The armed underground is an example to be emulated, and armed struggle is now seen not merely as something normal, but as a necessity. To die in battle means to fulfil the lofty destiny of a man, a warrior and a Muslim.’”

When in 2004 groups of guerrillas under the leadership of Shamil Basayev took control of a significant portion of Ingushetia, local residents greeted them as liberators and earnestly implored them to stay. This can hardly be regarded as evidence of anti-Russian sentiment. In the Caucasus, abrechestvo [“noble” banditry, tr.], even in its modern separatist or radical Muslim forms, is perceived by a great many people as a struggle for justice. For the vast majority of Chechens and Ingush, who do not share the goals and objectives of the resistance, the guerrillas are akin to a rural police force which may do something to limit the arbitrariness of the local authorities and the federal law enforcement agencies.

In recent years the situation in Ingushetia have begun to change rapidly. Abductions and law enforcement operations had turned the small republic into a place where no one could feel safe. The authorities’ claims that they were hunting for extremists sounded here like an open lie, as it is well known that in a significant number of cases the people who suffer during the so-called “mop-ups” [zachistki] are innocent. They are often young Ingush men who are suspected of having links with the underground, and who are members of Salafist Muslim protest groups. The special services are unable to furnish proof of their involvement in the illegal armed units, and so these young men become the victims of brutally inhuman provocations or of open and arbitrary violence. They are abducted from their homes or on the street by unidentified persons, after which they disappear forever – or they are murdered in public places or by ambush, and afterwards weapons or ammunition are placed beside their corpses so that they can be officially declared to have been guerrillas.

Here it needs to be observed that for the local population the men who are killed or abducted are wholly innocent, because their guilt has not been proved in any court. The law enforcers’ behind-the-scenes logic dictates the need to act with the maximum of harshness and beyond the limits of the law, since the collection of the material required by Russia’s penal code to inflict punishment on those involved in armed struggle is frequently impossible. Such logic is naturally rejected by people who consider that in conditions of the arbitrary extra-legal assertion of power anyone may turn out to be its prey, on the slightest unfounded suspicion.

During the “mop-ups”, civilians who inadvertently find themselves on the scene of the special operations often become victims. The most egregious case of this kind was the murder of a six-year-old boy, Rakhim Amriyev, in November 2007. The pillaging and theft of personal property which are a mandatory element of the law enforcement operations, give rise to disgust with the federals and lack of trust in them, forcing people to doubt that these troops have any serious motivation at all.

Generally speaking, some 200 kidnappings and over 500 murders in the space of a few years are too many for a republic with an entire population of only about 300,000. Account needs also to be taken of the archaic way of life of the Ingush, whose degree of kinship goes beyond even that of a gigantic family in which affiliation is counted only up to the seventh generation. They consider as relatives all members of the same teip who had common roots at the beginnings of the emergence of the Ingush ethnos. This means that each murder or abduction causes pain in the hearts of thousands. Moreover, reports of any law enforcement operation immediately spread throughout the republic, become surrounded by amass of gory details and rumours, grow enlarged and hypertrophied. The sadism and cavalier behaviour of the uniformed executioners is a permanent source not only of fear, but of anger.

During the first war, in his capacity of Ingushetia’s leader, Ruslan Aushev succeeded in paralyzing the activity of the special services on the republic’s territory, despite their constant attempts to deploy their forces here. Although by the onset of the second war he had almost no resources left with which to protect the residents of the Ingush mountain villages on the border with Chechnya, and later the refugees who were accommodated in camps, he continued vehemently to resist the federal centre which, considering Ingushetia to be the military rear zone of the Chechen guerrillas, was gradually establishing control over a republic that was a suspicious rebel base.

Another general, Murat Zyazikov, who was himself a product of the special services, to all intents and purpose delivered the republic up to looting. To this day it is the special services, and not the local authorities, that are the true owners of Ingushetia. This is the reason for the extraordinary popularity of the poll the opposition is now conducting for Aushev’s return. Let us merely note that a campaign of this kind is a reflection of the hope that the situation can still be rectified by the use of legitimate, legal means to replace an unjust ruler. In other words, these campaigns, like the meetings and protest rallies, are in their way an appeal to Russian law and likewise point to the inertia of the desire of the Ingush to live in union and peace with Russia.

A special object of discontent is the incredible corruption in which the republic’s government is mired. This is a large and separate subject, and one we shall not address here.

Today more and more young Ingush are taking up arms and going off to fight. In the forest they have no option but to act within the framework of radical Salafist doctrine, which declares Russia to be criminal state of infidel kufrs who are imposing their way of life, religion and values on Muslims, who by accepting them become apostates.

For the time being the spread of this ideology is severely curtailed by the contempt the Salafists feel for the traditional Ingush way of life – Adat – which they have maintained for centuries. It is even claimed that many young Ingush, unwilling to fight under the banner of the Wahhabists, are conducting military operations independently of the underground, shelling federal positions and organizing the placing of road-mines.

But it is all changing. If Magomed Yevloyev’s old man is right, and anti-Russian sentiments are covering Ingushetia like a snow-ball, the assertions of a few particularly radical experts who predict that it is precisely from here in the North Caucasus that that the fire will start to burn may turn out to be prophetic.