If you're the type of commuter who starts to sweat inside a crowded subway car, just reading about the latest development of the Mars500 project may be enough to make your stomach queasy. Today, six astronauts sealed themselves off in a space ship simulator "destined" for Mars, marking the first of 520 days they will spend shut off from the world around them. (To fully appreciate the claustrophobia they will endure, note that the "Habitable Module" where they will live is a mere 20m long.) Their mission is part of a project at Moscow's Institute for Biomedical Problems designed to study the effects of space travel to the mysterious Red Planet, where so far only robotic feet have tread.
Technically speaking, the team's journey is even shorter than your commute: all 18 months of the project will take place inside a stationary craft at the Institute. This fact constrains the mission in a few important ways. For one thing, the crew won't actually experience the feeling of weightlessness. (Apparently for some this isn't the only lure of becoming an astronaut.) But scientists have gone out of their way to ensure that the simulation is as realistic as possible. The project will include a month of "surface operations" in which three crew members will enter the craft's so-called "surface module," a chamber that mimics the conditions on Mars.
Lest the remaining 490 days seem too terrestrial, the project's organizers have taken additional measures to enhance the authenticity of the experience. For one thing, the astronauts "will have to cope with limited consumables." (Read: they'll be hungry.) In addition, their one mode of communication with the outside world-email-takes the "instant" out of instant messaging. Scientists say they will simulate a 20 minute delay in email exchange-what they would expect if the astronauts were millions of miles (instead of just a few feet) away. Sounds like a throwback to the days of dial-up to me.
ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images
Zurab Tsereteli, 76, a controversial sculptor known for his grandiose work, was to receive the Legion of Honor from French ambassador Jean de Gliniasty at the Russian Academy of Arts in Moscow on Tuesday evening, news agencies reported.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy said the award honored Tsereteli's “services to our country and the devotion to France that he exhibited,” as well as his contribution to strengthening ties between France and Russia.
Yep, the homeland of Auguste Rodin just conferred its highest honor on the designer of the above 9/11 memorial, a structure so ugly that Jersey City officials changed their mind and rejected it after actually seeing the thing.
At least from this Wikipedia article, it does seem like France has been going a little overboard with conferring the legion on foreigners during the Sarkozy years.
The aliens came for him on September 18, 1997. Kirsan Ilyumzhinov was at home in his Moscow apartment when they came in and abducted him, taking him to their space ship where they communicated with him telepathically.
That's the tale Ilyumzhinov told a popular Russian television host in a program that aired last week.
But Ilyumzhinov isn't simply one of the thousands who claim to have been abducted by aliens, he's also the governor of the Russian republic of Kalmykia and a former president of the World Chess Federation.
Now a Russian parliamentarian wants Ilyumzhinov questioned, fearing he may have given the aliens "secret information," according to the Echo of Moscow radio station.And not just interrogated by anybody, but by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
State Duma Deputy Andrei Lebedev apparently wants to know what the governor found out from the aliens, what he told them, and whether his close encounter will affect his job performance.
Ilyumzhinov was already known as a pretty eccentric guy for his ongoing campaign to turn his impoverished republic in into the world capital of chess, including a $30 million "chess palace."
DMITRY ASTAKHOV/AFP/Getty Images
And for his next trick...
He has put a tiger to sleep, ridden bare-chested on horseback and even saved baby seals from being clubbed to death. Today it was the turn of polar bears to feature in Vladimir Putin’s latest animal adventure.
The action-man Prime Minister was filmed attaching a tracking device to a sedated polar bear and helping scientists to measure and weigh the animal during a visit to the Franz Joseph Land in Russia’s Arctic far north.
Wearing a specially monogrammed red winter jacket, Mr Putin stroked the 230kg (36 stone) bear and shook its paw, saying “Be healthy”, as a commentator for state television told viewers that it could “wake up at any moment”.
Mr Putin, who asserted Russia’s “profound geopolitical interests” in the region during his visit, declared to the camera: “The bear is the master of the Arctic.”
As a dislocated Brooklynite, I've been following the New Jersey Nets' faltering attempts to build a new stadium in my borough for years now -- my distaste for poor urban planning and eminent domain abuse only slightly outweighing my fantasy of one day seeing Lebron James play ten minutes away from where I grew up. The story has already drawn in an unlikely cast of characters including rapper Jay-Z and Russian oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov, but Robert Mugabe? Really?
The New York Post reports:
Democratic Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., a member of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, wants to know if companies controlled by Prokhorov in Zimbabwe violate federal rules that forbid American citizens and companies, and subsidiaries set up in the United States, from doing business with brutal strongman Robert Mugabe, his regime or associates.
Prokhorov's Renaissance Capital investment bank has interests in the Zimbabwean stock exchange, banks, a cellphone company, mining and a swanky, private big-game reserve. The company is intertwined with Onexim, the $25 billion Prokhorov-controlled investment fund behind the deal to bring the struggling NBA team to Brooklyn.
Pascrell said he will ask the Treasury Department, which oversees the sanctions, to investigate Onexim. In 2008, Onexim became a 50 percent owner of Renaissance Capital, which has been actively investing in Zimbabwe since 2007.
The Nets currently play in East Rutherford, New Jersey, located in Pascrell's district, so he's not exactly an impartial observer. On the other hand, the NBA has only itself to blame if this blows up into a scandal. Renaissance Capital hasn't exactly gone out of their way to hide their business ties to Zimbabwe: there's a Harare office listed on their website.
DMITRY KOSTYUKOV/AFP/Getty Images
With 46 world leaders coming to Washington next week for the nuclear summit, you can expect a pretty heavy PR offensive from all the governments involved. So watch out for some aggressive spinning, from some dubious sources, to end up making its way into the Washington press.
Yesterday, for instance, Politico ran an article from one Nikolai Patrushev, titled "New era for U.S.-Russia relations." The piece praises the nuclear arms reduction treaty signed by Presidents Obama and Medvedev this week, but also argues that there is a "natural connection between offensive and defensive weapons" -- a reference to the planned U.S. missile shield in southeastern Europe and makes the case for Russia's proposed "pan-European security treaty," an alternative to NATO.
Several things are interesting about this piece. First, Patrushev is identified only as "the secretary of the Security Council of Russia." While accurate, this ID leaves out the thing that Patrushev is far better known for -- as a quick Wikipedia search would have revealed -- replacing Vladimir Putin as director of Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor to the Soviet KGB. A lifelong KGB/FSB man, Patrushev is one of the most prominent members of the siloviki -- the security service elite loyal to Putin -- and led the organization until 2008.
Secondly, a nearly identical version of the piece ran in the Guardian a day earlier. In contrast to Politico, the British paper chose to identify Patrushev as "former director of the Russian FSB, the successor organisation to the KGB, and the current secretary of the security council of Russia."
I wrote to Politico editor in chief, John Harris, to ask why the site had chosen to run a previously published piece by someone with Patrushev's background and without full attribution. He replied:
We were pitched by a Patrushev representative. We would not have run if we had known a similar version had run elsewhere.
Harris declined to provide more details on who the representative was or why Patrushev was not more fully identified.
The Russian government is represented in Washington by PR firm Ketchum Communications, so I wrote to Ketchum Vice President Matt Stearns to ask if his company had placed the piece. Writing from a business trip to Moscow, Stearns responded:
We don't typically comment about our work on behalf of Russia. That said - the defense minister also had a piece in the WSJ this week that you may have seen.
It certainly seems like someone got their money's worth.
MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/AFP/Getty Images
The situation in Kyrgyzstan is rapidly evolving, with reports that President Kurmanbek Bakiyev has fled the country, the unconfirmed death of Interior Minister Moldomus Kongantiyev in the protests, and a declaration by opposition leaders of the formation of a new government. In this age of mass digital media, viral videos of the unfolding events are uploaded virtually as they happen. Here's a roundup of some of the best footage online.
Gunshots and explosions are clearly audible in the above video from the AP, which also appears to show protesters marching through the streets, weapons in hand, and seemingly in control.
This footage from Russia Today, which is funded by the Russian government, shows government forces taking position, and protesters chasing after fleeing riot police. One policeman is injured in the video, and swarmed upon by the crowd.
Watch the above clip for a video compilation of foreign news reports.
The Euronews footage above is notable for its filming of indiscriminate shooting by government forces, starting at the 0:46 mark.
You can follow the protests on Twitter with #Krygyzstan, and watch Passport for future updates.
It appears that Russian Defense Minister Sergei Lavrov isn't quite ready to pop the champagne on the new nuclear arms reduction agreement due to be signed in Prague this week:
Russia will have the right to exit the accord if “the U.S.’s build-up of its missile defense strategic potential in numbers and quality begins to considerably affect the efficiency of Russian strategic nuclear forces,” Lavrov told reporters in Moscow today.
The issue of missile defense was the major sticking point in negotiations over the treaty, particularly after the United States announced plans to build new facilities in Bulgaria and Romania.
As FP's Josh Rogin reported last month, a workaround solution to the issue was reached, in which the issue of missile defense is not mentioned in the body of the treaty itself, but discussed in the preamble sections written by each side. The Obama administration has been adamant that the treaty does not limit the U.S. right to expand missile defense, and will likely make that case to skeptical Senate Republicans. Lavrov, apparently, didn't get the memo:
Russia insists that the agreement includes a link between offensive and defensive systems.
“Linkage to missile defense is clearly spelled out in the accord and is legally binding,” Lavrov said today.
Despite it's best efforts to separate the issues of arms reduction and missile defense, Russia doesn't seem likely to let its opposition to the new system go. Lavrov knows that ratification of the treaty won't be a cakewalk for the Obama administation and that his statements can be used as ammunition by the treaty's opponents. So while Obama and Medvedev may put pen to paper this week, the next stage of the missile defense fight is just beginning.
Hat tip: Johnson's Russia List
MICHAEL ECKELS/AFP/Getty Images
Update: Argh...It seems this may have been a very well-executed April Fools joke by the Moscow Times. Well played guys. The Chavez thing is real though.
Vladimir Putin's political party United Russia is known for appointing celebrities with dubious political credentials to prominent positions, but usually they're at least Russian celebrities. Now, according to the Moscow Times, they may be looking a bit futher afield, recruiting British supermodel and tabloid favorite, Naomi Campbell:
“She is a young, sexy, intelligent woman who has shown how the new Russia can attract the best in the world,” said the source, who asked for his name not to be used because he was not authorized to speak to the press despite working in the United Russia press office.
“Once she modernized the fashion world, now she is part of the modernization of Russia,” the source said.
The British model, who is engaged to real estate mogul Vladislav Doronin, currently spends much of her time in Moscow and recently guest edited the Russian edition of Vogue, where she appeared clothed in only a big snake.
The source’s use of the term "modernization" is a deliberate echo of President Dmitry Medvedev’s call for the modernization of the country. The source refused to say if party head and current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin or Medvedev knew of Campbell’s interest in United Russia.
Oh brother. It's certainly possible that the spokesman was going off the reservation, but a few more anonymous Duma sources confirm it and this doesn't exactly seem out of character for United Russia. Duma deputy Sergei Markov is quoted in the article saying that "gymnasts Kabayeva and Svetlana Khorkina have shown that women with a strong presence in previous nonpolitical spheres can become capable members of United Russia.” So there.
The source of the story also notes that Campbell would be United Russia's highest profile black member, and perhaps only the second or third black member of the party. I guess Volgograd Obama didn't work out.
As for Campbell, we should have seen this coming. When the volatile supermodel interviewed Hugo Chavez for GQ back in 2008, she memorably asked him "if he would ever be photographed without a shirt, like Russian [then-] president Vladimir Putin."
She's a natural!
Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of Russia's security council and former director of the FSB, isn't saying that Georgia's behind this week's terrorist attacks, but you never know:
“All theories have to be checked. For example, there is Georgia and the leader of that state, Saakashvili, whose behaviour is unpredictable,” Mr Patrushev told the Kommersant newspaper.
“He has already unleashed war once. It is possible that he may unleash it again. We have had information that individual members of Georgian special forces support contacts with terrorist organisations in the Russian North Caucasus. We must check this also in relation to the acts of terror in Moscow.”
Patrushev's statement was similarly phrased to Sergei Lavrov's speculation that the attacks could have originated from Afghanistan or Pakistan. Anything could be possible," the defense minister said yesterday.
For what it's worth, a Chechen separatist group claimed responsibility for the attacks today.
Ever wonder why Vladimir Putin is so much more popular in Russia than his presidential successor, Dmitry Medvedev?
Their reactions to yesterday's subway bombings in Moscow shows why.
Putin said he'd like to "drag out of the sewer" the organizers of the attacks. And Medevev? He'd like the Supreme Court and the High Court of Arbitration to come up with some ways to improve counterterrorism laws.
"I think we should give attention to some issues relating to improvement of the legislation aimed at preventing terrorism, including clear work of various agencies in charge of investigating such crimes," he reportedly said.
Later on, Medvedev seemed to understand Russians' need to hear some tougher language, and promised to crush the attackers. "These are animals. Irrespective of their motives, what they do is a crime by any law and any moral standards," he said. "I have no doubt that we will find and destroy them all." But there's no question which of the two leaders has his finger on the pulse.
MAXIM SHIPENKOV/AFP/Getty Images
For the first time, U.S. and British troops will participate in Moscow's Victory Day celebrations, marking the 65th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany. But if Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov has his way, they may see an old familiar face around town when they get there:
Posters of Josef Stalin may be put up in Moscow for the first time in decades as part of the May 9 observance of Victory Day - the annual celebration of the defeat of Nazi Germany.
The World War II victory came at appalling cost to the Soviet Union - at least 27 million of its citizens are estimated to have died. The toll feeds Russia's self-image as a nation of exceptional valor and any criticism of its wartime role sets of resentment. Stalin's case is especially touchy: should Russians honor him for leading the country's glorious sacrifice, or denounce him for his decades of brutal rule included sending tens of millions into labor camps?
Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov believes Stalin should get his due as the Soviet commander-in-chief. "How did people go into the war? ... They went to war with the cry 'For the homeland! For Stalin!'" Luzhkov said on state TV news channel Vesti on Sunday.
Planners say the posters will only be at spots where veterans will gather, not on the parade ground where the international troops will March. It should also be noted that any parade on Red Square will necessarily March past the well-preserved remains of Vladimir Lenin, but this does seem like an unnecessary provocation.
Putin and Medvedev haven't weighed in, but to his credit, State Duma Chariman Boris Gryzlov has denounced the plan to honor the leader who was "guilty in the deaths of millions of people," so it's quite possible that Luzhkov will back down.
ALEXAEY SAZONOV/AFP/Getty Images
Russia is a country that has yet to come to terms with its history. Russian public opinion is sharply divided on every one of their previous General Secretaries and Presidents, with the exception of relatively minor figures like Malenkov, Chernenko, Andropov, and... Lenin? For whatever reason, Lenin, the man who led the October Revolution and founded the Soviet Union, has received considerably less public attention than his succesors.
Recently, though, Lenin has re-entered public consciousness as Russians have begun to debate whether the government should move Lenin's corpse from its present location in Red Square, where it is publicly displayed in a mausoleum, and bury it elsewhere. (Instead of making any predictable jokes, I refer the reader to an unrelated FP post on zombies.)
Today, Sergei Karpentsov provided Russians with a third option: perhaps after watching one too many horror movies, Karpentsov, armed with a gas-powered pistol, attempted to break into Lenin's tomb and shoot his corpse. After being arrested, Karpentsov declared that
"My main demand is the quick bulldozing of the mausoleum which contains the body of the anti-Christ...I wanted to open fire on the tomb with an assault rifle but I was advised not to do that in case the tomb is armour-plated."
Later, Karpentsov added that "I have drawn attention to this issue with my actions."
Yes you have, Sergei, yes you have.
ELENA PALM/AFP/Getty Images
Today Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his Indian counterpart Manmohan Singh met in New Delhi to sign a number of bi-lateral commercial agreements. While the agreements cover a wide variety of topics, including space exploration, fertilizer importation, and commodities trade, nuclear energy and defense are what have received the most attention.
Edging out competition from France and the United States, Russia won contracts to build up to 16 new civilian nuclear power plants in India, six of which are expected to be completed by 2017, according to Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov. This is sure to leave a sour taste in the mouths of many American firms, especially after the success of the 2005 Indo-U.S. civilian nuclear agreement.
Additionally, the two countries signed a multi-billion dollar deal which will see Russia refit Indian aircraft carriers, help India develop transport aircraft, and supply India with 29 new MiG fighter jets.This should leave Russia well positioned to remain India's largest military hardware supplier. Currently, Russia accounts for approximately 60-70% of India's total defense spending.
While New Delhi's goal of diversifying its energy supplies and moving away from coal may be admirable -- in 2003, coal was estimated to account for almost 70% of India's energy consumption -- you've got to question the wisdom of sinking billions of dollars into improving commercial ties with Russia when your country's per capita GDP puts you in the bottom quartile of the world.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin reflects on Russia's preparations for the Vancouver Games:
"Maybe the money was spent not on what was needed but instead on what someone wanted to spend it on," Putin told top sports officials that he summoned for a grilling Friday about Russia's worst-ever performance at the Winter Games.
Putin, chairing a meeting to analyze the reasons behind the Olympic flop, said the government had spent about 3.5 billion rubles ($117 million) in three years to prepare for the Vancouver Games — a sum that he claimed was comparable with those spent by the nations that won the most medals.
"I have got an impression that the more money we spend, the more modest the results are," he said, adding that the sum was five times the amount that Russia had spent on preparations for the 2006 Winter Games in Torino.
For a clue as to why the money was misspent, Putin might want to check out Miriam Elder's recent dispatch for FP:
[T]hose who oversee athletics in Russia often have few sports credentials other than close ties to Putin (who is, after all, a judo master). Mutko, who was appointed sports minister last year, was deputy mayor of the St. Petersburg mayor's administration where Putin got his start in politics in the 1990s.
Sergei Naryshkin, another St. Petersburg ally and Kremlin chief of staff, heads the swimming federation. Vladimir Lisin, a Kremlin-friendly metals tycoon recently named Russia's richest man, heads the shooting federation, while Mikhail Prokhorov, Russia's second-richest man and future owner of the New Jersey Nets basketball team, heads the biathlon union.
Russian athletics are currently governed by an odd system in which political cronies are running sports federations and athletes like speedskating gold-medalist Svetlana Zhurova serve in parliament. Seems like it might work better the other way around.
Give Aleksandr Bastrykin points for ambition:
A Russian official has proposed compiling a database containing the
fingerprints of the entire population of Russia's volatile North
Caucasus region, RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service reports.
Aleksandr Bastrykin, the head of the Investigative Committee of the Russian
Prosecutor-General's Office, also proposed on March 4 the
reregistration of all motor vehicles in the North Caucasus and issuance
of new license plates.
He said such measures would help "stabilize" the situation in the region.
That's somewhere around five and a half million people.
Human rights activist Lyudmilla Alekseyeva criticized the proposal as "discriminatory," which, it seems to me, is kind of the point.
The Times's France-blogger Charles Bremner speculates about the motivations behind France's recent overtures to Russia, which include an elaborate state visit to Paris by President Dmitry Medvedev, a gas deal between GazProm and France's GDF Suez, and the planned sale of four Mistral warships to Russia:
Sarkozy's calculations are simple, they make sense for France and they are being welcomed by both left and right. Sarkozy's overtures to Barack Obama have failed. The American leader looks down on him -- though he has finally invited him for his first White House visit later this month. Sarkozy received nothing from the Americans for resuming full Nato membership. Germany has so far beaten France hands down in reaping benefit from trade with Russia. So France is reverting to the old Russia card that was first played by President Charles de Gaulle in the 1960s.
A longtime Sarko-watcher, Bremner also suspects the president finds Medvedev easier to deal with than the pricklier Vladimir Putin.
For a very different take on the Mistral sale, see Georgian National Security Advisor Eka Tkeshelashvili's inverview with FP from last week.
Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images
Ukraine's new president, Viktor Yanukovych, appears to be sending signs this week that he won't just be toeing the Kremlin line. On Monday, he made Brussels, not Moscow, the destination for his first foreign trip and he's now indicating that Ukraine won't be joining Nicaragua and Nauru in the breakaway region recognition club:
"I said before that we are against a politics of double standards," Yanukovych said, referring to Kosovo, which unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in February 2008.
"It was already obvious back then that ... frozen conflicts would only get worse. Another perfect example is South Ossetia," he added, as quoted by the Ukrainskaya Pravda newspaper.
"It's my view that we must yet again underline that international law should apply to all without exceptions," he went on, saying that the recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia was "not currently on the agenda."
This goes against the platform of Yanukovych's own party, according to RIA-Novosti, which also cites many "experts" as believing that Yanukovych will "disappoint" Moscow. The president heads to Russia later this week. Should be an interesting visit.
Russian Deputy Prime Minsiter Igor Sechin apparently blew his top after Kommersant published an article suggesting that Russian financial support for Cuba was being linked to recognition of the breakaway Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia: The Miami Herald reports:
In an article Feb. 12 in the daily Kommersant, reporter Andrei Odinets said that Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's tour of Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Mexico was intended to restart – in the aftermath of the Caucasus war – Moscow's "diplomatic offensive in Latin America, which last year began to choke."
"It is possible that Moscow will encourage Russian investment in Cuba's mineral riches if Havana announces its recognition of [South Ossetia and Abkhazia]," Odinets wrote. "Russia already has worked such a scheme in Venezuela," trading oil-exploration money for diplomatic support, he said..
In an angry letter to Kommersant on Monday, Sechin derided Odinets as a self-appointed expert in foreign policy and an inept journalist. Some of Odinets' information was "biased and untrue," Sechin said. The reporter's allegation that Cuba's diplomatic support could be purchased was "detrimental to the principles of [Russo-Cuban] cooperation and long-term friendship, historically based on the shared values and trust acquired during the long and difficult years of working together."
In the friendship between Moscow and Havana "there is no place for cold financial calculation or ambition," Sechin wrote.
Strangely, in the letter, Sechin doesn't seem to deny that there was quid-pro-quo in the other countries that have recognized the breakaway regions, just that such cynical maneuvering would be unthinkable given the long history of Cuban-Russian cooperation. Is he suggesting that there is room for cold financial calculation in the frienship between Moscow and Caracas or Moscow and Managua? I'm not even going to ask about Nauru.
Kadyrov had filed libel suits against Lyudmila Alexeyeva, head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, Oleg Orlov, head of rights watchdog Memorial, and Novaya Gazeta — all having accused the Chechen leader of ordering kidnappings and killings in the North Caucasus republic.
Numerous human rights activists and Public Chamber members had called on Kadyrov to drop the proceedings, and the Chechen president "stresses that the opinion of the people who have addressed him in letters is very important to him," his spokesman, Alvi Karimov, said in a statement posted on the Chechen government's web site Tuesday.
But Kadyrov was apparently also nudged within his own family: His mother, Aimani, asked him to withdraw the lawsuits, saying it was against Chechen traditions to enter into disputes with the elderly, Karimov said.
Not that the 82-year-old Alexeyeva has much interest in staying out of trouble.
Georgia just can't get Vladimir Putin out of its mind.
A new cartoon of extremely poorly-drawn yellow characters on Georgian TV called The Samsonadzes -- an obvious knock-off of The Simpsons -- is rising high in the ratings chart. Creator Shalva Ramishvili disavows his show is a copy:
The Samsonadzes is a native Georgian serial about a Georgian family... I want to say to Simpsons fans, please do not think that our show is an imitation or a rip off of The Simpsons. Yes of course it was an inspiration for us, but the Samsonadzes is not a copy.
A recent episode featuring Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin makes it hard to disagree on the "native Georgian" part, at least. Ramishvili described the importance of including Putin and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in a recent episode:
Having the Russian leaders on the show was like fulfilling a civic duty. The whole world is interested in the relationship between Russia and Georgia and we all know what Russia did in Georgia during the war [of August 2008].
Apparently, there's a trend of Eastern European knock-offs of The Simpsons: check out this "cult hit" on YouTube of The Simpsons set in rural Estonia.
Via FP contributor Ashby Monk, here's an interesting story from Bloomberg News that hasn't gotten much attention. It seems that Russia tried to use its vast financial holdings and conspire with China to create "economic disruptions" in the United States in 2008. An astonishing scoop, if true.
The source of the tale is Hank Paulson, the former U.S. Treasury secretary whose memoir, On the Brink, is coming out soon.
The Russians made a “top-level approach” to the Chinese “that together they might sell big chunks of their GSE holdings to force the U.S. to use its emergency authorities to prop up these companies,” Paulson said, referring to the acronym for government sponsored entities.
China rejected the idea, according to Paulson, and the Russians are denying the story. Monk, an expert on sovereign wealth funds, comments:
If true, it would appear that Russia was plotting economic warfare against the US during the summer of 2008; I don’t really know what else to call it. Their intention was to use their sovereign wealth to purposely weaken and damage the US economy. The fact that all this apparently occurred around the same time that Russia was engaged in a traditional war with Georgia, a US ally, lends some credibility to the idea.
Russia ended a five-month diplomatic freeze with Ukraine yesterday as new ambassador Mikhail Zurabov arrived in Kiev to present his credentials. The new friendliness is the result of the Jan. 17 election that dealt a crushing blow to anti-Russian president Viktor Yushchenko and set the stage for a run-off that will bring to power either Prime Minisiter Yulia Tymoshenko or former prime minister Viktor Yanukovych, who have both promised better relations with the Kremlin. The Russians are keeping a lower profile this time, though:
Moscow's satisfaction with his demise is tempered by a wariness that its influence can go only so far, analysts say. Wary of another backlash, Russian leaders refrained from endorsing any candidate in January's first round of voting, while making it clear they could not work with Mr. Yushchenko, The Kremlin instructed Russian television networks to air balanced coverage of the race.
"Russia should be very happy that this strong anti-Russian trend in Ukraine is over," said Sergei Markov, a member of parliament from the ruling United Russia Party who observed the Jan. 17 election. "But I wouldn't call it a feeling of triumph. The mood is more cautious."
With Mr. Yanukovych back from disgrace and running again, the Kremlin cultivated both him and Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, the Orange heroine who later turned against Mr. Yushchenko. She finished second to Mr. Yanukovych earlier this month and will face him in the runoff.
In November, Mr. Putin praised Ms. Tymoshenko's work as prime minister after striking a deal with her on gas prices. Later he denied favoring her candidacy and noted that United Russia is allied with Mr. Yanukovych's Party of Regions.
It seems to me that Russia would probably be better off with Yanukovych who, as Samuel Charap wrote this month, is less likely to be able to form a solid governing coalition and would be a weaker leader in Ukraine's fractious political landscape. He also draws most of his support from Russian-speaking voters.
As everyone knows, one-time Orange Revolution heroine Tymoshenko is more than capable of playing the Ukrainian nationalist card when it's convenient and with a wider base of support, might be more likely to resist Russian influence. Russia has had trouble holding on to even the best of friends recently and Tymoshenko doesn't seem like the most reliable of allies.
Kirill, speaking during a weekend visit to Kazakhstan, said the Haitian people bore responsibility for the calamity because they had turned away from God, the Ferghana.ru news agency reported late Monday.
"Haiti is a country of poverty and crime, famine, drugs and corruption, where people have lost their moral face," Kirill was quoted as saying.
He compared Haiti with the Dominican Republic, which are located on the same Caribbean island.
"I've visited the island divided between two countries, the Dominican Republic and Haiti. One of them is developing, while the other is affected by crimes, economic recession and political unrest. That part of the island was shattered by the earthquake," he said.
The patriarch also compared Haiti with Kazakhstan, noting that Kazakhstan has not experienced any earthquakes recently despite its seismological position, the news report said.
I suppose it's possible from the quotes that Kiril was just making a David Brooks-ish argument about Haiti's "culture of failure" making them more vulnerable to the damage rather than their sinful ways actually causing the quake, but the comparison to Kazakhstan really doesn't make much sense in that context.
Guess Kirill's not a Jon Stewart fan.
YURI KADOBNOV/AFP/Getty Images
Just two days after President Viktor Yushchenko was ignominiously defeated in the first round of Ukraine's presidential election, Moscow has decided to send an ambassador to Kiev for the first time in five months. Yushchenko has been a thorn in the Kremlin's side ever since coming to power in the 2004-2005 Orange Revolution promising to limit Russian influence and establish closer ties with Europe. President Dmitry Medvedev, told the new ambassador Mikhail Zurabov, "I hope that when the final results are compiled in Ukraine, a workable, effective leadership will appear disposed to the development of constructive, friendly and comprehensive relations with the Russian Federation."
In a new piece for Foreign Policy, Samuel Charap of the Center for American Progress explains why the West shouldn't be too worried about a more Russia-friendly government in Kiev:
Yanukovych and Tymoshenko will prioritize repairing Ukraine's relationship with Moscow, but largely because its current state of disrepair is untenable, not in order to cede sovereignty to the Kremlin. Yanukovych is no pro-Russian stooge, and during his brief tenure as prime minister in 2006 and 2007 he did little to act on Moscow's policy wish list. Indeed, the economic interest groups that back him would never allow him to sour relations with the West, where they send the majority of their exports, or open Ukraine's markets to Russian oligarchs.
So despite what's been claimed, this election will not mark a major geopolitical departure for Ukraine. There may no longer be an idealistic pro-Western dreamer at the helm in Kyiv, but a foreign policy pragmatist who moderates divisive rhetoric while continuing practical cooperation might well prove preferable.
Ultimately, Charap feels that the advantages for Europe and the United States in dealing with a Ukrainian state that could actually govern, would outweigh the damage done to narrowly-defined western interests.'
Anders Aslund took a much darker view of the potential for Russian meddling in the most recent print edition. Also of interest, Federico Fubini's profile of the always-intriguing Yulia Tymoshenko from last April and Julia Ioffe's report on how the Tymoshenko campaign created a public panic over swine flu to scare up votes.
ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images
U.S. conservatives have blasted James Cameron's blockbuster space epic Avatar for depicting U.S. marines as villains, others have critiqued it as a patronizing tale of a white American rescuing a native people from the ravages of imperialism, but the most unique criticism of the film yet may come from the St. Petersburg Communist Party:
In the recently issued statement they claim that the sci-fi blockbuster is trying to justify the Nobel Prize award given to Barack Obama, but fails in its task as no one would believe that a US marine in the film (who the Communists describe as a “murderer and oppressor of Iraq, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Haiti and Somalia”) can stand for good.
It should be noted that the production of Avatar began four years ago when Obama wasn’t even in office.
“It is quite funny to watch how the activists of the national liberation movement of Pandora accept a Pentagon-made mutant instead of judging him by the laws of the revolutionary time,” the communists noted.[...]
“The carefully concealed nature of an aggressor, traitor and maniac quickly discerned itself in Cameron's film – according to the plot, Venezuela has already been invaded, Chavez is killed, and the hordes of G.I. break out into the Solar System, burning everything in their path. Conditionally separating the film’s heroes from the bad ones – Republicans (the head of the human’s colony and the marines), and good ones – Democrats, led by Jake Sully and fanatical botany professor (Sigourney Weaver), Cameron comes to the absurd – taking the side on of an extraterrestrial civilization in conflict with humanity.”
At the end of the statement is the demand “to ban the presentation of all Cameron’s films in Russia until he recognizes the plagiarism and robbing of Soviet science fiction in order to create his low-grade blockbuster.”
The KPLO also claim the the planet Pandora was ripped off from a 1960s Soviet science-fiction novel.
Russia Today notes that, "The Communists of St Pete and Leningrad Region are known for their strange statements on all important Russian and international events," and this is not their first foray into film criticism. Two years ago they attacked Ukrainian actress Olgo Kurylenko for consorting with "enemy of the Soviet people" James Bond.
Former Russian Finance Minister and distinguished economist Yegor Gaidar passed away at his home outside Moscow at the age of 53. Gaidar is best known as the architect of "shock therapy," the rapid privitization of the Russian economy in the early 1990s. He also served for several months as prime minister under Boris Yeltsin's presidency. He was also a longtime friend of Foreign Policy and served for many years as a contributing editor and member of our editorial board.
The tributes have begun pouring in from Gaidar's friends as well as his enemies today, but one of the most moving was a post on the American Enterprise Institute's Enterprise blog by Leon Aron, director of Russian studies at the AEI and a friend of Gaidar's. It is reprinted in full here with his permission:
Egor Gaidar, the man to whom Boris Yeltsin entrusted Russia’s free-market revolution, died yesterday. He was 53.
Every time we had dinner in D.C. or Moscow in the past seven years, he looked worse and worse. He took bad care of himself. He drank more and more. Last time I saw him in his favorite D.C. restaurant, Morton’s, he looked like an old man and, formerly a hearty eater and a gourmand, barely touched his steak.
He was deeply depressed—by the direction Russia was taking; by his inability to do anything about it; and by the vicious calumny spread by the Kremlin about Russia’s freest years, the 1990s, and about his reforms, which literally saved the country from the famine everyone expected in 1992. It will take decades to clear out the Augean stables of the monstrously irrational and wasteful Soviet economy, but the first few, heaviest shovelfuls were Egor’s.
Throughout it all, he continued to write complicated and important books that only a brilliant economist and economic historian could have conceived and produced, and that future generations of Russians will enjoy and appreciate. (We were fortunate to publish excerpts from his last book, The Death of an Empire, as an AEI paper.)
Following Yeltsin’s death less than three years before and that of the “godfather of glasnost,” Alexander Yakovlev, in 2005, it is almost like nature itself has conspired to make the Gorbachev-Yeltsin-Gaidar revolution an aberration and Putinism Russia’s norm. As if Dostoevsky’s Great Inquisitor was right when he told the imaginary Christ: you have come to make people free, but they don’t want to be free.
I know that this is not so, and I know, too, that deep down, Egor did not believe this. But it must have been so hard to keep faith. The last eight years have gradually killed him. He died of a broken heart.
DENIS SINYAKOV/AFP/Getty Images
In an unusual turn of events, a Russian court has overturned the result of a mayoral election in the city of Derbent. Reportedly, riot police used tear gas and shot at voters, preventing them from entering polling stations. Threats were made to local election officials, frightening them enough that more than a third of the polling stations never opened.
The St. Petersburg Times reports that it is "extremely rare" for an election to be overturned, and that in the past cases, judicial interventions were seen as Kremlin machinations to oust successful opposition candidates. That makes the current decision even more noteworthy, since the incumbent, a member of the dominant United Russia party (UR), officially carried the election with 67.52 percent of the vote.
It's worth asking if the case is linked to a power struggle between Russian President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin, who, in the 2012 elections, will be eligible to run for a third term as president. There has been growing speculation about a possible rift between the two men, even though Medvedev has said that he and his former political guardian would "agree on how not to elbow each other out and make a decision that is useful for the country."
Vanity Fair dubbed Putin the world's most influential person in 2007; Forbes puts him at #3 in 2009, topped only by Hu Jintao and Obama. UR is Putin's powerbase - after stepping down as president, he became the party's chairman. And it's a powerful group indeed, controlling 70 percent of the parliament's seats and exerting enormous influence on the country.
Putin handpicked Medvedev as his successor, tying him inextricably to UR. But since coming to office, Medvedev has also consolidated his own supporters, replacing officials appointed by Putin with his own men and women. And this court decision comes just days after Medvedev sharply addressed the UR's 11th Congress, making clear allusions to electoral fraud: "Sadly, some regional divisions of United Russia. . . show signs of backwardness and concentrate their political activity on intrigues and games within the apparatus," he said. That intrigue will no longer be tolerated, he suggested, saying "such people need to go, as do some other political customs."
But Medvedev's track record doesn't scream "liberal democrat!" The best indication of what to expect in 2012 might be Putin's take on elections in general, as he phrased it back in 1998. "One has to be insincere and promise something which you cannot fulfill," he said. "So you either have to be a fool who does not understand what you are promising, or deliberately be lying."
Photo:ELENA PALM/AFP/Getty Images
Take this for what it's worth, but a new poll shows that Russia's slumping economy and recent evidence of vote-rigging in national elections might finally be having an effect on public support for Russia's ruling tandem:
Public trust in the work of President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin each fell six percentage points on Oct. 24-25 from a week earlier, the poll said.
Fifty-six percent of 2,000 people polled said Medvedev held their trust, down from 62 percent a week earlier. Sixty-six percent trusted Putin, down from 72 percent.
Support for the pro-Kremlin party of power, United Russia, fell four percentage points to 53 percent, the poll showed.
That would put Medvedev's approval rating about even with Obama's.
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