Daily Archives: August 6, 2008

August 6, 2008 — Contents

WEDNESDAY AUGUST 6 CONTENTS

(1) EDITORIAL: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Good Riddance

(2) Another Original LR Translation: Listening to Russia — Who Really Rules?

(3) The Russian Army is a Sad Joke

(4) Russia: A Change in Name Only

(5) Open Rebellion in Ingushetia

NOTE: Kim Zigfeld’s latest installment on Pajamas Media reviews the latest data on the explosion of race violence in Russia and offers insights explaining how this is connected to Russia’s economic situation. She also takes Barack Obama to task for shamefully ignoring this horrifying litany of atrocities. Your comments regarding the best way for the U.S. to respond in defense of Russia’s oppressed minorities are welcome.

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EDITORIAL: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Good Riddance

EDITORIAL

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Good Riddance

It was fitting that on the same day the Moscow Times reported the demise of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, whom it called a “literary giant,” it also reported that “prime minister” Vladimir Putin had issued a public pledge to strengthen Russia’s ties with America’s hated foe Cuba, thus inviting a new escalation in the cold war. “We need to rebuild our positions in Cuba and other countries,” Putin declared. In other news, arch American enemy Hugo Chavez was spewing forth plenty of Castro-like anti-American hatred as he took delivery on a couple of dozen Russian war planes. To round things out nicely, another round of the campaign to resurrect and rehabilitate the mass murderer Josef Stalin was announced, this time in the form of smears and slurs against Stalin’s great nemesis, Nikita Khrushchev.

As we report below, Russians overwhelmingly believe that it is Putin, not their so-called “president” Dimitry Medvedev, who wields the real power in their country. And Putin is using that power not to advance the interests of the Russian people but to undermine them by provoking and alienating the world’s most powerful country, just as his Soviet forbears did. Nothing else can be expected, of course, from man who spent his whole life in the KGB. Putin’s actions give the U.S. justification for doing the same in Georgia, Ukraine, the Baltics, and anywhere else that Russia might see as threatening. It’s neo-Soviet suicide, pure and simple.

If Solzhenitsyn had had his right mind, the one that produced The Gulag Archipelago and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, he would have been the world’s leading critic of Putin’s KGB regime. But he didn’t, so he wasn’t. Solzhenitsyn’s brain went soft years ago, right about the time he returned to Russia and decided the thing to do would be to host a TV talk show. The show was, of course, a cataclysmic failure — and Solzhenitsyn has not written a significant book in decades. Instead, he churned out dreck attempting to blame the Jews for the excesses of the USSR and, as we’ve reported several times on this blog, issued numerous statements rationalizing the KGB regime of Vladimir Putin in an apparent attempt to curry favor with power for the sake of his senile ego mania. Putin attempted to praise Solzhenitsyn as some kind of linguist, totally ignoring his work documenting the horrors of Soviet Russia. As Viktor Sonkin, a literature columnist for The Moscow Times Context section and a teacher of cultural studies at Moscow State University, wrote in his column: “Solzhenitsyn understood Western society only superficially, and many alarming things he said about it were simply not correct. Rejecting the ‘bad totalitarianism’ of the Soviet type, Solzhenitsyn was promoting a kind of ‘good totalitarianism,’ as if there were such a thing in the world.”

We warned Mr. Solzhenitsyn that if he wasn’t careful, he was going to pass from this earth in a state of mortal sin, having abrogated his entire life’s work for the sake of his old man’s ego. He ignored us. And now, it is too late. The eulogies can talk about Solzhenitsyn’s courage in standing up to the USSR, but they can’t say he did anything whatsoever in the past ten years to stop Russia from sliding down the path towards becoming a neo-Soviet state. To the contrary, by accepting awards from the Putin regime, history can only conclude that Solzhenitsyn played role, however minor and doddering, in helping Russia become what he loathed and risked his life to chronicle.

In the end, Solzhenitsyn was a traitor to Russia, a traitor to his own ideals. The only thing that can be said in his defense is that his actions were surely a sign of the toll taken on his psyche by being evicted from his own country, his fellow citizens having not lifted a finger to protect him, just as they did nothing to protect Pushkin or Dostoevsky, and the crippling affects of his advanced age and the deprivations he suffered in the GULAG. Solzhenitsyn lived two decades longer than the average Russian man (thanks to his comfy digs in a gated community and plenty of access to elite medical care sponsored by the Putin regime), but he spent more than enough time in Russia to suffer its ill effects.

Solzhenitsyn, like the majority of his craven countrymen, sat by and watched as a proud KGB spy wiped out political opposition, destroyed the mass media and crushed local government, centralizing power under his filthy jackboot. He applauded, like the majority of his malignant countrymen, when that proud KGB spy provoked a new cold war with the United States, the same cold war that reduced the USSR to rubble. His ability to generate literature of import vanished, and he groveled for attention like an aging puppy dog. Years from now, when anyone challenges the latest draconian moves against civil society by Dictator Putin, he’ll undoubtedly whip out the above photograph and claim that he had Solzhenitsyn’s blessing just before he packs off the critic to the neo-Soviet GULAG.

And that will be the story of Solzhenitsyn. Talking about the “good” Solzhenitsyn did long ago now is like talking about how Hitler made the trains run on time. It’s beside the point.

Good riddance, Aleksandr Isakyevich. You used your final years to stab yourself and your country in the back, and you could not have disappeared from this earth soon enough to suit us.

Listening to Russia: Who Really Rules?

The Levada public opinion firm has been running a survey (link in Russian, staff translation, corrections welcome)since december of last year asking Russians who has the “real” power in their country.

The options given: (a) Medvedev; (b) Putin; (c) They share it equally; (d) I have no idea.

In the July poll, only 9% of respondents answered that Medvedev had the real power, down from a high of 22% in April. 36% of respondents answered that Putin has the real power, up from a low of 21% in March. Medvedev’s share of the vote has never exceeded Putin’s at any time while the survey has been running. 47% of respondents said that the two are sharing power as co-presidents, matching the highest prior total, from March. 8% of respondents could not answer, half of the high of 16% from February.

So currently 83% of Russians believe that Vladimir Putin, Russia’s “prime minister,” is at least co-president.

A second question was asked as a follow-up: Is Medvedev merely carrying out Putin’s policies, or is he developing his own?

The options given: (a) He’s following Putin measure for measure; (b) He generally does what Putin would do; (c) He is partically charting a new course; (d) He is entirely his own man; (e) I have no idea.

In the July survey, 31% of Russians said Medvedev was copying Putin jot for jot, the highest share for that answer since December (when it was 40%). 51% said he was generally a mirror of Putin, 3% below the high for that answer which was recorded in April. Only 13% of respondents said that Medvedev was wholly or partially his own man.

Thus, 82% of Russians feel that Dimitry Medvedev, the “president” of Russia, is more or less the “prime minster’s” cyborg.

The Russian Army is a Sad Joke

The Associated Press reports:

At a once-secret airfield outside Moscow, test pilot Sergei Bogdan proudly introduces reporters to what was billed as the latest in Russian military aircraft technology, the Su-35 fighter-jet.

But the plane is only an upgrade of a 20-year-old model – and it can’t match the speed and stealth of the U.S. F-22 Raptor, which entered service in 2005.

Former President Vladimir V. Putin, now Russia’s powerful prime minister, has boasted of new weapons systems and of strengthening the armed forces, raising fears in the West of a Cold War-style military buildup. Flush with oil money, the Kremlin is in the market for new weapons.

But Russia’s state-run defense industries, experts say, face a crumbling manufacturing base and pervasive corruption; they have produced little advanced armament in the Putin era.

The Victory Day parade in Red Square in May was intended to showcase the nation’s military might. Instead, Russia’s arsenal showed its age. Most of the planes, tanks and missiles that rolled past Lenin’s Tomb dated to the 1980s or were slightly modernized versions of decades-old equipment.

Bogdan, affectionately patting his Su-35 in a hangar at the Zhukovsky Flight Test Center outside Moscow, hailed its agility, advanced electronics and new engines: “It’s very light on controls and accelerates really well.”

But Alexander Golts, an independent defense analyst, said the Su-35 is an example of how Russia’s weapons industries are taking old designs out of mothballs and trying to sell them as new.

“The Soviet Union saw a tide of new weapons designs in the late 1980s which didn’t reach a production stage,” he said. “They can be described as new only in a sense that they weren’t built in numbers.”

Russian officials have spent two decades trying to build a so-called fifth-generation fighter equivalent to the Raptor, but the plane still has not made its maiden flight – and analysts are skeptical that the first test flights will take place next year as promised.

The director of the Sukhoi aircraft-maker, which is developing the new fighter, admitted that the company has a long way to go. But he said the pace of construction could accelerate soon.

“I don’t think that we are lagging behind in a critical way,” Mikhail Pogosyan said.

As work to build the new plane drags on, another major weapons program also faces hurdles. The new Bulava intercontinental ballistic missile, designed for use on nuclear submarines, has failed repeatedly in tests. Prospects for its deployment look dim.

“The loss of technologies and the brain drain have led to a steady degradation of military industries,” said Alexander Khramchikhin, an analyst with the Institute for Political and Military Analysis.

Russia’s economic meltdown after the collapse of the Soviet Union put many subcontractors out of business, rupturing long-established production links. Assembly plants were left to rely on limited stocks of Soviet-built components or forced to try to crank up their own production.

“Now, when we finally get state orders, plants often can’t fulfill them due to the lack of components,” Valery Voskoboinikov, a government official in charge of aviation industries at Russia’s Ministry of Industry, testified recently at parliamentary hearings.

Despite Putin’s pledges to modernize arsenals, during his eight years as president the military bought only a handful of new combat jets and tanks.

Russian arms sales have grown steadily in recent years, reaching a post-Soviet record of more than $7billion last year, according to official statistics. Russia accounted for a quarter of global arms sales in 2003-2007, a close second after the United States, according to the latest report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

But Russia has suffered several recent, highly publicized failures in arms exports, in which the broken subcontractor chain and swelling production costs were widely seen as key factors.

Russia recently failed to fulfill China’s order for 38 Il-76 transport planes and Il-78 tankers, leading to the suspension of the deal. Earlier this year, Algeria returned MiG-29 fighter planes it bought from Russia, complaining of poor quality.

“The system has been broken all the way down,” said Anatoly Sitnov, who oversees the aviation industries in the Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Russia’s aging work force presents another challenge. Many highly skilled workers left defense industries in the 1990s for higher-paying jobs in the private sector, and the arms industry’s meager wages have hampered the recruitment of younger workers.

The average age of Russia’s aircraft industry workers is now 45, and that figure keeps rising. “There is an acute shortage of key specialists: turners, welders, millers,” Voskoboinikov said.

Obsolete equipment has hurt efficiency. The last major modernization of defense plants occurred in the early 1980s, and many machine tools used in these factories are even older.

The government has responded by creating huge state-controlled military conglomerates, saying they will streamline manufacturing. Critics say they will stifle competition, encourage corruption and further weaken Russia’s arms industry.

“We built good planes in the past because we had a competition between aircraft makers,” Svetlana Savitskaya, a Soviet cosmonaut who is now a lawmaker, said during parliamentary hearings.

“Pulling all of them together under one roof will end competition and destroy what we had,” she said. “But it could make it more convenient for some to steal government funds.”

Russia: A Change in Name Only

Writing in the Seattle Post Intelligencer Lara Iglitzin, executive director of the Henry M. Jackson Foundation, which has supported NGOs working for human rights and democracy in Russia since 1989, says that Russia is singing the same old neo-Soviet song:

Is there hope for change in the post-Putin era in Russia?

Vladimir Putin’s handpicked successor Dmitri Medvedev has been president of Russia for two brief months. On a recent visit to Moscow, there is palpable optimism for change – although tempered by political reality. “We have a whiff of a thaw in the air,” said Arseny Roginsky of the leading human rights organization, Memorial, using a word closely tied to the Khrushchev era when repressive measures under Stalin were eased.

Yet no one can predict whether that thaw is a reality or just a dim hope. “No one knows where the balance of power lies at this moment,” Roginsky continued, pointing to the current guessing game as to who will hold real power in Russia tomorrow – Putin (in his new job as prime minister) or the newly elected President Medvedev. No one disputes that Putin has the upper hand today. Having centralized political power during his eight years as president, Putin still pulls the political strings in Russia.

While it is too soon to tell if Putin and Medvedev are heading for conflict, in fighting and tension between the Putin and Medvedev circles could be good for Russia’s political system. “If there are two centers of power today, it would be better for civil society, even if the two camps are similar in aims,” says Roginsky, “because it would provide a space for political influence and activism.” Currently, observers agree there is essentially no political life in the country that impacts the state other than what is masterminded from above. Politics has become institutionalized.

“There is 100 percent control of the political sphere. Nothing unexpected can happen without the Kremlin pulling the puppet strings,” says Maria Lipman of the Carnegie Moscow Center. She is skeptical that Medvedev’s election holds any promise for the development of civil society and true political opposition in Russia. While the new president is viewed as a possible reformer, both because of his non-KGB background and his rhetoric since taking power, Putin still has the capacity to limit Medvedev’s scope of action. There is little room for autonomy in his actions given Putin’s huge power base in the government. “Putin has been the only decision-maker, with the authority of a monarch. It will be years before Medvedev develops his own power base that could provide a check on that power,” Lipman predicts.

The government has sidelined political opposition in Russia today despite its tolerance of free speech to a great degree. The Kremlin won’t target everyone who dares defy the system in speech– as long as it feels unthreatened by the dissent. And while the traditional Russian “kitchen conversations” of the past – the private space where Russians were allowed to discuss their views openly – have now expanded to a much larger, more public place, none of it has much if any impact on politics.

An annual, highly critical and well-attended international conference on democracy and Russian politics is held in a big Moscow hotel – with no political results. A recent newspaper expose of money being siphoned off by corrupt officials in the banking community even named names – yet elicited no reaction by the government. On the plus side, the editor of the paper wasn’t thrown in jail – yet no criminal investigation was launched. This results in a total marginalization of any opposition voices.

A booming Russian economy, propped up by oil money, has provided the cover for the Putin drive to centralize political control. Putin routinely compares the wealth-soaked country of today unfavorably with what he calls the “terrible 1990s” – the Yeltsin era of political and economic instability– contending that people suffered under Yeltsin’s brand of democracy. Putin has trumpeted his successes, arguing that Russia can succeed without openness, without democracy – can become rich without freedom. “This was democracy in the 1990s, and it was bad for you, Putin has implied,” says Yuri Dzhibladze of the Center for the Development of Democracy and Human Rights. “Putin has skillfully manipulated the court of public opinion.” Indeed, Russians now live better and have asserted themselves on the global scene: two powerful arguments that have led to Putin’s popularity.

These are persuasive claims for a populace that is living better today than ever, even if the economy rides on the strength of global oil prices. In Moscow it is clear that money is everywhere and corruption is not far behind. Economists agree Russia faces serious challenges and needs to modernize. Yet everyone is risk averse. “The temptation to muddle along is extremely strong,” notes Roginsky. Not yet faced with the crisis confronted by Gorbachev in the waning years of the Soviet era, Russia’s government erratically responds to today’s problems one by one. “When a problem flares up, the government throws a few pennies at it. It’s like emergency medical care,” says Roginsky. Russia was never as rich as it is today.

Yet as the disparity between the very rich and the very poor grows ever wider, it could lead to a social cataclysm, particularly if oil prices drop. While everyone lives a bit better (“except the NGO community,” Roginsky says wryly) much of society is unhappy. Lyudmilla Alexeyeva, the 81-year old veteran of the human rights movement, agreed. “Big business hates Putin for what he did to Mikhail Khodorkovsky,” the oil tycoon who crossed a line into political opposition and was subsequently targeted and imprisoned. “The military hate him because he has ruined the army.” They are not alone: Journalists remember life without censorship during the Yeltsin era. Pensioners resent that their stipends buy less today. Judges have seen their autonomy restricted. Dissatisfaction is widespread, if muted.

Why is this opposition not expressed at the ballot box? Aside from the overt political manipulation of the electoral system resulting in a lopsided result (people were pressured at factories, colleges, businesses and hospitals, for example, to fill out their ballots in front of bosses, just as in Soviet days), people have supported Putin, his protйgй Medvedev and their policies “only because they know nothing else,” Alexeyeva asserts. “They have traded political freedoms for a bit more bread and a calmer life.”

Within this context, it is difficult for the small but active human rights community to have their voices be heard – and for their work to make an impact. “The public doesn’t support civil society, doesn’t take human rights and the rule of law seriously,” Dzhibladze says. The brightest hope today is Medvedev’s talk that reforming the judicial system is a priority. Today, corruption up and down the judiciary threatens the stability of the country. Political bosses still run the show locally. While critics are skeptical of how far Medvedev can go, there is a demand from the business community and parts of the government to make the courts more accountable – and truly independent. Bureaucrats and businesses want to protect themselves from Khodorkovsky’s fate by ensuring an autonomous judiciary. They also want to ensure that they don’t lose their ill-gotten financial gains.

The Carnegie Center’s Lipman concludes that without a strong civil sector in Russia, all talk of a thaw – or real change – will be moot. “Without public activism, all we can hope for is mercy from the bosses. They will throw us something, and we will be grateful.” Until the society forms coalitions that are willing to take risks and to challenge the power structure step by step, change will be slow. Lyudmilla Alexeyeva, having experienced more ups and downs than many of her colleagues, remains optimistic: “In 10-15 years, Russia will be a normal country – in its own way.”

Open Rebellion in Ingushetia

Reuters reports:

More than 80,000 people have signed a petition in the Russian republic of Ingushetia calling on the authorities to sack the Kremlin-backed president and reappoint a previous leader, activists said on Monday.

Assassinations, bomb attacks and kidnaps have intensified in Ingushetia, a small Muslim republic with less than 500,000 people which borders Chechnya where Russian forces fought two wars against rebels since 1994.

The petition is the latest protest against Murat Zyazikov, who became president in 2002.

“Of course people were afraid to fill out the petition because they were worried about being picked up by the security services and beaten,” an opposition activists who called himself Bekkhan said.

“But when we explained to them that this was necessary for the republic, in most cases they signed the petition.”

Last week the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said groups of men attacked and kidnapped opposition activists with impunity in Ingushetia, which borders Chechnya, where Russian forces fought two wars against rebels since 1994.

Russian forces have been trying to quash the growing wave of violence in Ingushetia by tripling the number of soldiers in the republic but residents have grown increasingly frustrated and protested against the authorities.

Bekkhan, the opposition activist, said signatures had been collected over the last six months and the petition called for former president Ruslan Aushev to replace Zyazikov who retains public support of the Russian government.

Aushev was a high ranking army commander who received the Soviet Union’s top award — the Hero of the Soviet Union — and who retains a high degree of respect from people in Ingushetia.

He resigned as Ingushetia’s president in 2001 amid differences with the Kremlin. In 2004 the Kremlin abolished directly elected regional leaders.

“Aushev is a hero of the Soviet Union, not by his words but by his deeds,” a resident of Nazran, Ingushetia’s biggest town, called Islam who signed the petition, said.

A spokesman at Zyazikov’s press office declined to comment on the petition.