Just six months ago, the Kremlin declared "mission accomplished" in settling the restive, largely-Muslim region of Chechnya, and pledged to withdraw at least half its troops stationed there. Russian soldiers have allegedly resorted to brutal tactics in the decade-long effort to subdue the region, including the systematic beating and raping of Chechen civilians, widespread detention and torture, and the murder of human rights and opposition activists.
But the Kremlin has claimed victory in the regional struggle time and time again, and the most recent claims of success seem as wrong as ever; yesterday the Georgian Daily reported that "Moscow is planning to increase the number of units in the North Caucasus military district by a factor of four, according to officers there..." The plans come amidst an escalating Islamic insurgency in Ingushetia, the region bordering Chechnya to the west.
There's no doubt that the Kremlin is facing a protracted struggle. Doku Umarov, one of the most prominent members of the insurgency (who has been reported dead on a number of occasions) released a lengthy statement in 2007 on the Al-Qaeda affiliated website Kavkaz Center, in which he declared Muslim rule:
I reject all laws and systems established by infidels in the land of Caucasus.
I reject and declare outlawed all names used by infidels to divide Muslims.
I declare outlawed ethnic, territorial and colonial zones carrying names of "North-Caucasian republics", "Trans-Caucasian republics" and such like.
I am officially declaring of creation of the Caucasus Emirate...
We will relentlessly wage war on everyone who will oppose the establishment of the Sharia, Inshaallah. And those who openly violate that which was established by Allah and scorn the Islamic religion should not think that we will leave it unpunished. That is a serious delusion."
Photo: KAZBEK BASAYEV/AFP/Getty Images
Whenever somoene tries to express just how freaking big Russia's territory is, the phrase "11 time zones" inevitably comes up. But that may be changing soon:
The time difference between Moscow and Vladivostok might be cut to four hours from the current seven if a Primorye region lawmaker gets his way. Gennady Lazarev, a United Russia deputy and rector of the Vladivostok State Economics and Service University, said the change would promote economic ties between Moscow and the Far East.
“Our working day ends when it starts in Moscow. It’s both inconvenient for us and Moscow,” he said in a statement published on his university’s web site.
Lazarev also said the time difference created many inconveniences for businessmen and politicians who travel often between Moscow and the Far East. A change would ease traffic jams in Vladivostok because some organizations would start their working days earlier, at 6 a.m or 7 a.m., he said. He said he had the support of several colleagues and promised to raise the issue in the Primorye region legislature.
I see why that would be annoying, though it will probably be pretty confusing if various Russian regions start changing their time zone unilaterally. Then again, the opposite extreme -- China's system of having a 3,000 mile long country all in one zone -- is equally silly.
There was a funny scene during Hillary Clinton's visit to the Russian republic of Tatarstan.
Tatar President Mintimer Shaimiev told Clinton that Tatarstan adopted the slogan "Bez buldirabiz " ("Yes, we can!") six years ago -- intended to promote Tatarstan as a model of political and economic development in the Russian Federation.
Clinton replied by saying that she would tell U.S. President Obama that he owes that famous slogan to the Tatars.
Moscow will blast clouds from the sky this winter to save money on snow removal, a city official said Wednesday, but the plan threatens to anger the surrounding region, which would have to cope with the extra powder. ....
Luzhkov is a long-time proponent of fighting clouds by spraying liquid nitrogen, silver, or cement particles into the cloud mass, which forces precipitation to fall before it can reach the capital and spoil holidays like Victory Day and City Day.
Last month, Luzhkov proposed expanding the technology to fight the snow drifts that snarl traffic every winter.
“What if we force this snow to fall beyond Moscow? The Moscow region will have more water, bigger harvests, while we will have less snow,” he said at an award ceremony for Moscow’s best-kept yard. He said that using the Air Force to prevent massive snowfall would be three times cheaper than using the regular system of trucks and snow-melting stations.
City hall estimates that the project will save the city $10.2 million in snow removal. Needless to say, officials in the surrouding region are less than thrilled with the plan. Locals have also criticized Luzhkov's previous cloud prevention schemes, noting that they make "the cucumbers turn yellow."
Alexander Kadobnov/AFP/Getty Images
It appears you can talk all manners of trash about the vilest and most murderous despot the world had ever known. Is there no justice?
Josef Stalin's grandson, Yevgeny Dzhugashvili, sued a Russian newspaper for libel after it claimed Stalin personally ordered the killing of Soviet citizens. He requested an apology, and of course, some money. But alas, the courts threw it out and it appears it wasn't even a show trial. For shame. Dzhugashvili has five days to appeal, thus saving the glorious image of his grandfather.
Stalin starved millions of Ukrainians to death during his attempt at collectivization, jailed and murdered dissidents and even those suspected of possibly being dissidents. He institutionalized the Gulag, killed every single other official from the beginning of the revolution and ended up ordering more deaths in one day than Pinochet did in his entire reign. He turned neighbors against each other and forced poor Soviet schoolchildren to read his feeble attempt at prose.
But Dzhugashvili doesn't think we need to bring that up.
The BBC reports that many think the libel case was a way for the Kremlin to try to rehabilitate Stalin's image.
The ruling further proves that you can criticize leaders in Russia all you want, just not the current ones.
DMITRY KOSTYUKOV/AFP/Getty Images
It seems that Karma is alive and well in the universe.
Allegations of fraud have surrounded recent elections in Russia. In 2007, in what has been described as "the least democratic election since the USSR collapsed," opposition parties alleged that campaign literature was seized and candidates were excluded from the ballot; The Kremlin apparently forced millions of public workers to vote; and a senior election official reported that he was instructed to make sure that United Russia, the ruling party, received double the number of votes expected -- the claim of rigging is strongly supported by a number of statistical anomalies.
The 2008 election of President Dmitry Medvedev also had plenty of allegations of stacking the deck; including further claims that public employees were pushed to vote for Putin's favorite, that local officials were told to produce a strong majority on Medvedev's behalf, and that potentially strong opponents were excluded from the ballot.
Yesterday, elections for a new city council in Moscow were held, and it should come as little surprise that there have already been more allegations of fraud. But even if Medvedev had a hand in ensuring the re-election of the sitting mayor, a member of the United Russia party, there was a twist of poetic justice. The president struggled to vote -- an electronic box repeatedly refused to take Medvedev's ballot.
Photo: VLADIMIR RODIONOV/AFP/Getty Images
There's some interesting Kremlinology in Charles Clover's Financial Times piece today about President Medvedev's decision to hire two new speechwriters:
Mr Medvedev’s new head speechwriter, Eva Vasilevskaya, previously worked with him when he was first deputy prime minister and has been a member of his speechwriting team since he came to the Kremlin. She will play a central role in drafting the annual address to the general assembly, expected in late October or early November, the most important speech of the year for Mr Medvedev.
Alexei Chadaev, a conservative political commentator, is expected shortly to be named as a speechwriter working alongside the Kremlin’s first deputy chief of staff, Vladislav Surkov, who oversees management of the Kremlin’s domestic political machine. Mr Chadaev is known for a public criticism of Mr Surkov’s ideology in January. Yet to be confirmed, his appointment has been widely reported by Moscow papers with close links to the Kremlin and people in the Kremlin have confirmed that background checks are being carried out.
The reshuffle underlines a new ideological direction Mr Medvedev appears to be taking, away from that of his predecessor and mentor, Vladimir Putin, prime minister, who remains the hegemonic figure in Russian politics. Until now Mr Medvedev has made only a handful of appointments, mostly federal governors, and overwhelmingly those surrounding him are Mr Putin’s former staff.
It's easy to read too much into moves like this and it's hard to see how new speechwriters will make Medvedev more politically independent if the people surrounding him actually implementing policy are still Putin loyalists. Still, expect plenty of tea leaf reading after the assembly speech as analysts search for signs that Vova and Dima aren't getting along.
VLADIMIR RODIONOV/AFP/Getty Images
Combating alchohol abuse has always been something of a non-starter in Russian politics. This is, after all, a country whose former president was once found by the Secret Servce thoroughly sauced outside the White House, wearing nothing but his underwear trying to hail a cab so he could get a pizza.
But current President Dmitry Medvedev is trying to change things with a proposal to ban outdoor beer sales in his country, a first step in getting Muscovites to lay off alcohol. He also wants to limit the hours of the day alcohol can be sold.
This week, a bill was submitted to lawmakers that would triple the tax on beer from 3 rubles per liter to 10 rubles per liter by 2012. Wine and spirits would also see a sharp increase.
State prosecutors are also moving to ban liquor sales in airports. Under Russian law, no beverage with alcohol content above 15 percent can be sold in crowded or dangerous places, and prosecutors say this means airports.
Russians drink five gallons of pure ethanol a year, double what is considered dangerous by the WHO. And on average, 30,000 people a year die from alcohol poisoning in the country. Over half of the deaths of the 15 to 54-year-old demographic between 1990 and 2001 are attributed to alcohol.
"I have been astonished to find out that we now drink more than we did in the 1990s, although those were very tough times," Medvedev said.
He is a fan of Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev's anti-alcohol reforms in the 1980s aimed at curbing consumption, even though he acknowledges that the plan had major flaws. Gorbachev destroyed the majority of vineyards and wineries in Georgia, probably the birthplace of wine (This didn't help the growing anti-Russia sentiment in the Southern Caucasus at the time). He also shut down distilleries and breweries. Most notably, the Soviet Union suffered tremendous sugar shortages, because people turned to moon shining. (The Russian word for ‘shine is Samogon) Stores also ran out of window cleaner and aftershave. It is estimated that 13,000-25,000 people died from drinking ill-made moonshine.
Medvedev's plan is much more cautious but many Russians are still wary.
"It's impossible. He doesn't stand a chance," a Russian construction worker told The Los Angeles Times."The Russian man will always be drinking. Russians don't surrender."
ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images
Two Scientology groups brought their case to the court because they wanted to be listed as religious organizations, but Russian authorities denied their request because to be on that list a group must exist for at least 15 years. The court sided with the Scientologists.
This development comes not long after Germany's battle with the religious group. When Scientology's Berlin church opened, many Germans complained they were being harassed to join the group, and were worried about cult-like practices. For this reason, some German politicians called for the church to be banned. Germany's domestic intelligence has been gathering information on the group and its potential threat to "Democratic order."
The church claims that after all of the surveillance, no wrongdoing has been discovered and that they are merely a church committed to understanding the human spirit.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
The E.U. Fact-Finding Mission's recently released report on the conlifct in Georgia poses a bit of a challenge. The Associated Press went with "EU report: Georgian attack started war with Russia," the New York Times was more evenhanded with "E.U. Report to Place Blame on Both Sides in Georgia War", the Wall Street Journal split the difference with "Tbilisi Started '08 War, but Moscow Also at Fault, EU Finds."
Having read the report's conclusions, these are all basically correct. The authors do state explicitly that "Operations started with a massive Georgian artillery attack" on the night of Aug. 7 and that this attack was not justifiable under international law. They also say that Georgian claims of a Russian military incursion prior to this attack are not "sufficiently substantiated." Point for the Kremlin, but from that point on the Russians don't look very good.
The report rejects Russian claims of genocide by Georgia against Russian civilians, accuses the Russian military of allowing human rights abuses, including widespread rape, by South Ossetian forces against Georgian civilians, states that Russian troops "continued their advances for some days after the August ceasefire was declared," and finds that while their initial military reponse was justified, they went "far beyond the reasonable limits of defence" by moving into Georigan territory. In an interesting passage, the authors write:
In a matter of a very few days, the pattern of legitimate and illegitimate military action had thus turned around betweeen the two main actors Georgia and Russia.
The report also describes provocative Russian acts in the lead-up to the war, including "the formalising of links with the breakaway territories, the granting of Russian passports to their populations, and declarations about using the Kosovo precedent as a basis for the recognition fo South Ossetia and Abkhazia".
Another important passage:
"This Report shows that any explanation of the origins of the conflict cannot focus soleley on the artillery attack on Tskhinvaliin the night of 7/8 August and on what then developed into the questionable Georgian offensive in South Ossetia and the Russian military action. ...It must also take into account years of provocations, mutual accusations, military and political threats and acts of violence both inside and outside the conflict zone. It has to conside, too, the impact of a great power's coercive politics and diplomacy against a small and insubordinate neighbour, together with the small neighbour's penchant for overplaying its had and acting in the heat of the moment without careful consideration fo the final outcome, not to mention its fear that it might permanently lose important parts of its territory through creeping annexation."
In retrospect Russia's excessive use of force during the conflict seems not just brutal but politically stupid. Through years of pressure, the Kremlin had goaded Saakashvili into an ill-advised attack that provided the Russian miltiary with cover to consolidate control over the breakaway regions. If they had stopped there, Russia could have (somewhat credibly) painted Georgia as the aggressor and (much less credibly) justified their incursion as a humanitarian intervention.
Thanks to their attacks on non-disputed Georgian territory, their complicity in human rights abuses by South Ossetian forces, and their violations of the ceasefire, it's hard to see Russia as anything but a bullying aggressor. And with Saakashvili still in power and the underlying political dynamics basically unchanged, it's hard to see what they gained from it.
DMITRY KOSTYUKOV/AFP/Getty Images
Izhmash Arms, makers of the developing world's favorite automatic weapon, the AK-47, is facing bankruptcy, thanks to competition from cheap knockoffs:
According to Izhmash Arms' parent company, the Rosoboronexport State Corporation -- which has a monopoly on supplying Russian arms to the international market -- there are about eight countries in which dozens of business are making their own versions of the Kalashnikov. And they are doing this without passing on any licensing fees to the Russians.
And now it appears that the financial difficulties facing the weapons manufacturer have reached crisis point: its very existence is threatened. A businessman in Izhevsk has filed a motion to declare Izhmash Arms bankrupt because of outstanding debts of around 8 million rubles (around €180,000 or $265,000). The case has caused a sensation in Russia because for a long time the Russian armaments industry has been one of the only industries considered competitive on an international basis. And Izhmash, which was founded in 1807 by Russia's royals, is one of the largest firearms manufacturers in Russia.
However, arms exports have fallen dramatically over the past year, falling from around $10.8 billion (€7.4 billion) worth of weaponry in 2007 to a mere $3.5 billion (€2.4 billion) in 2008.
According to the Der Spiegel article, Izmash's problems are partly of its own making. Licenses to manufacture the AK were granted generously to like-minded regimes throughout the third world during the Cold War. After the Soviet Union fell, the companies that were already making the weapons saw no reason to stop.
RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP/Getty Images
Mikhail Prokhorov is the chairman of Russia's largest gold producer, and now he will team up with hip-hop's largest gold-record producer.
Prokhorov, Russia's richest man (even after a $7 billion loss last year), bought the New Jersey Nets yesterday for $200 million, making him the first Russian owner of a U.S. sports team. This also makes him business partners with Jay-Z. (Who seems to be getting a lot of play in foreign policy circles these days)
The first order of business will be to move the Nets to Jay-Z's native Brooklyn, and begin building the new stadium. The deal seems to be as much about business as it is about pleasure for the 6ft. 7in. Prokhorov, who said in a statement, "I have a long-standing passion for basketball and pursuing interests that forward the development of the sport in Russia."
He also claims he will be, "the only NBA owner who can dunk."
The stadium will be fewer than 10 miles from Brighton Beach, an area of Brooklyn rich with Russian influence, Bloomberg reports.
The move to Brooklyn has been a goal of Jay-Z's (basketball discussion starts at 5:30); however it remains unclear if Jay-Z will get what he really wants. (Hint: he made a controversial song about him)
Al Bello/Getty Images
It appears that the Obama administration's revised plans for a missile shield will heavily focus on the Caucasus, perhaps even that perpetual thorn in the Kremlin's side, Georgia:
US defense officials have not specified the radar’s new proposed location, but some Georgian and Russian officials and commentators have been quick to suggest that the Pentagon has Georgia in mind. These analysts said that if the United States is thinking about the South Caucasus, Georgia would be the best place for the radar deployment. Armenia, they say, would not wish to anger its close strategic ally Russia by hosting the radar, while Azerbaijan would not want to put its already strained relationship with Iran to the test.
Russian military analyst Vladislav Shurygin said that intelligence provided by the radar might also help Georgia to protect itself from Russian missiles. "We should not have any illusions about the US plans," he told the Regnum news agency. US officials have long maintained that the defense system would focus on Iran, rather than Russia.
Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. James Cartwright has said that Russia should actually be reassued by a Caucasus location since the radar won't be aimed at them:
“The X-band radar is a single directional,” he said. “In other words, when you put it down, it points in a single direction. And it will be very clear that it is pointing south towards Iran.”
That might be true, but the Bush adminstraion also argued that the Eastern European location had nothing to do with Russia and was purely aimed at Iran, which did little to assuage Moscow's concerns. I would imagine that an expanded U.S. troop presence in Georgia would annoy Russia as much, if not more, than having them in Poland.
Russian liberals are outraged by the recent decision to restore a Moscow's Kurskaya Metro Station (Shown above) to its original 1950s appearance, including a quote praising Joseph Stalin:
A fragment of the Stalin-era Soviet national anthem, it reads: "Stalin reared us on loyalty to the people. He inspired us to labour and heroism."
It will be seen by millions of Muscovites. The metro, which is state-owned, estimates 7-9 million people use it every day, making it the busiest underground transport system in the world.
Giant sword-shaped commemorative plaques dedicated to the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany in the Second World War in the same station have also been altered with the name of the modern-day Russian city of Volgograd changed back to its wartime name of Stalingrad.
"For the Motherland! For Stalin!," reads another newly restored slogan.
"This is the fruit of creeping re-Stalinization," said Arseny Roginsky, Chairman of human rights group Memorial. "They (the authorities) want to use his name as a symbol of a powerful authoritarian state which the whole world is afraid of."
A lot of the original Soviet artwork is still up in Moscow's stations, especially the larger ones on the city's ring line. Ideology aside, these stations are absolutely gorgeous and are one relic of this very dark period that Russians can justifiably be proud of. It would be a shame for them to be completely redone.
On the other hand, it certainly seems like it wouldn't that hard to maintain the stations' original aesthetics while eliminating mass murder-glorifying rhetoric that went out of style during the Krushchev era.
Yesterday I mentioned the "hijacked" cargo ship Arctic Sea had been carrying weapons from Russia to the Middle East. Now, the BBC reports that the editor of a Russian maritime journal who proposed the theory has been forced to flee:
Mr Voitenko - who was among the first to cast doubt on official explanations about the ship's disappearance - told the BBC it was nonsense to suggest pirates had been involved.
Instead he suggested the ship may have been carrying a secret shipment of weapons as part of a private business deal by state officials.
Speaking to the BBC from Turkey, Mr Voitenko said he had received a threatening phone call from "serious people" whom he suggested may have been members of Russia's intelligence agency, the FSB.
The caller told Mr Voitenko that those involved in the mysterious case of the Arctic Sea were very angry with him because he had spoken publicly, and were planning on taking action against him, he said.
"As long as I am out of Russia I feel safe," Mr Voitenko told the BBC. "At least they won't be able to get me back to Russia and convict [me]."
Guess he hit a nerve.
While I would take any new reports about the hijacking of the Arctic Sea with a heaping barrelful of salt, some of the latest theories are at least interesting. In an interview with Time this week, the European Union's rapporteur on piracy said Israeli intelligence likely intercepted the ship, which was carrying a secret shipment weapons to the Middle East:
[H]e says only a shipment of missiles could account for Russia's bizarre behavior throughout the monthlong saga. "There is the idea that there were missiles aboard, and one can't explain this situation in any other way," he says. "As a sailor with years of experience, I can tell you that the official versions are not realistic."
Kouts says an Israeli interception of the cargo is the most likely explanation. But this theory, which some Russian analysts put forward in the days after the Arctic Sea was rescued and which Kouts agreed with in his interview with TIME, has been vehemently denied by Russia's envoy to NATO, Dmitri Rogozin, who says Kouts should stop "running his mouth."
The theory is supported by the fact that Israeli President Shimon Peres made a surpsie visit to Moscow the day after the ship was rescued.
Not so fast say repoters from Israel's YNet, who find the admiral's theory implausable. According to their anonymous sources, the Arctic Sea made a stop in Kaliningrad -- a Russian military outpost popular with arms dealers -- before picking up its stated cargo of timber in Finland:
Sources say the Arctic Sea docked in Kaliningrad in June to undergo various repairs. The same sources say a deal was previously struck between Russian and Middle Eastern businessmen, agreeing on the sale of some of the S-300 missiles located at the port.
Some sources claim the Russian military's weapons industry was implicated in the deal and transferred a number of new missiles, including the X-500, to the port to be included in the sale. However the Kremlin was uninvolved, and apparently the deal was carried out in secret between businessmen from the private sector.
After the deal was executed, an intelligence agency whose identity so far remains unexposed learned of the ship's departure with the weapons in tow towards Algeria, a country located on a regularly used route for the transfer of weapons to Iran and Syria. The intelligence agency then transferred an anonymous tip to the Russian authorities, according to the investigation.
According to Russian sources the "hijackers", who in actuality were Russian intelligence officers, remained on the ship and reported to their superiors that they had found the missiles on board. On August 12 Russia announced it had sent naval officers to rescue the vessel and its crew.
The sources say the period of time between the hijacking and the Russian rescue mission was due to the Kremlin's desire to capture the ship away from the eyes of the media, in order to avoid an embarrassing incident that may have harmed its relations with Iran and Algeria.
Again, I'm not endorsing any of these theories, but the story just gets more fascinating.
Ricky LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images
The Moscow Times reports that Russia has issued new guidlelines to law enforcement officials about how to define extremism:
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Winnie the Pooh share a dubious honor: Anyone who depicts either of them with a swastika can be punished under the law.
The Justice Ministry published the latest — and biggest — update to its list of extremist materials on its web site this week, and many of the 414 new entries are so vague or controversial that analysts say they threaten to discredit the list all together.
The list is important because police officers and other law enforcement officials use it in street checks, apartment searches and criminal cases.
Among the new entries, extremist material is identified as “a picture of Winnie the Pooh wearing a swastika,” “a self-made template for a future newspaper, comic or other print materials,” and “a flag with a cross.”
And just when you thought that was all:
A closer look at the list brings other surprises. For example, item No. 402 is the LiveJournal blog Reinform.livejournal.com.
The blog has not been suspended by LiveJournal’s abuse team and is being updated almost daily. Its owner wrote on its front page that he had opened the blog after seeing prosecutors mistakenly name the then-nonexistent blog as extremist.
MJ Kim/Getty Images
In a move towards great transparency and accountability, the Kremlin yesterday released figures detailing a recent order of new furniture. It sounds simple enough but, as is usually the case with Russian politics, it quickly became the stuff of legends -- or at least, Aesop's fables. The total value of the interior ministry's furniture tender, it appeared, was $755,900 (24.4 million roubles) and included a cherry wood bed with head and footboards coated in a thin layer of 24 carat gold. Though other items will be delivered to an address in the exclusive dacha district on the outskirts of Moscow where many senior officials live in state-owned homes, the gilded bed will be sent to the ministry headquarters.
Unsurprisingly, the news has received much criticism in a country where the economy shrank 10.9 percent in the last quarter. I think the question praying on all our minds is: who's going to be sleeping in the gold bed?
This Russia Today headline caught my eye on today's Johnson's Russia List e-mail:
“Opposition candidates will get the right to lose elections”
The article itself is a little hard to follow but it seems that Moscow has instructed local election authorities to stop blocking opposition candidates from registering to run in local elections. The line is from Boris Makarenko of the Center for Political Technologies:
“Opposition candidates have too often been denied the right to lose elections with dignity,” Makarenko added. “Now they will be given this right.”
I'm sure they will appreciate that.
Visiting Abkhazia, Vladimir Putin says more and more people in the West are coming around to Russia's point of view on last summer's war with Georgia:
The E.U.'s report on the war's origins comes out in September.
Mr. Putin said world opinion has turned in Russia’s favor since last year, and that “practically all of international society” has acknowledged that Georgia was the aggressor in the conflict.“In the West, what is called the West, we have plenty of supporters,” he said, in remarks to Abkhaz journalists. “They are all under a certain pressure from NATO’s leading country, the United States. And, to put it bluntly, many of them don’t publicly state their positions, because they would then diverge from the U.S. position.”
In the above vlog post, standing on the shore of what I assume is the Black Sea, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev unloads on Ukraine's government, explaining the many grievances that have led him to not send a new ambassador to Kiev. Full transcript here.
Whatever you say about Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, the guy is comfortable making big promises:
Every year the economy suffers losses but also sees gains and no one knows what's going to happen tomorrow. The only thing I can say is that we'll fully rebuild Chechnya and solve every social problem. Chechnya will be the most successful region in Russia and the world.
Has no interest in feigning sympathy for his recently deceased enemies:
[Recently murdered human rights activist Natalia Estemirova] never had any honor or sense of shame. And still I appointed her head of a [civil society advisory] commission with the mayor of Grozny as her deputy. I wanted to be objective about addressing the issue. But she didn’t like it. She would say stupid things. I told her, "You're a woman, and we're trying to do something for the people. But if it doesn't work, don’t blame us."
And little shame in sucking up to the boss:
By lowering his status [by stepping down as president], Putin again showed his strength and that he's a servant of the people. But that doesn’t change my attitude toward him. I'd still give my life for him.
RFE/RL: Would you like to see Putin become president again?
Kadyrov: Very much. I want Putin to be president of Russia for life.
Check out the whole unbelievable interview with Radio Free Europe, especially Kadyrov's explanation of how human rights groups and violating his human rights by saying such nasty things about him.
Beijing appears to be following the Kremlin's lead in a campaign to sever NGO's from foreign sources of funding. The Christian Science Monitor reports:
It began with a tax notice for $200,000. Three days later, on July 17, officials raided the group's Beijing office and seized its computers. Then, just before dawn on July 29, police detained its founder, Xu Zhiyong at his home
On the same day, government officials went to the office of Yi Ren Ping, another nongovernmental organization, and confiscated copies of its newsletter on the grounds that it didn't have a publishing license.[...] The two NGOs are among a growing number here using the law to hold authorities to account on issues such as food safety, patient rights, and illegal detention.
But they share another common thread: Both received grants from American and other foreign donors. The tax fine for Open Constitution Initiative, the group headed by Mr. Xu, was assessed largely on a donation from Yale Law School. Xu, a lawyer and elected legislator, is being detained on suspicion of tax evasion, according to an OCI official.
The harassment of these and other foreign-funded NGOs in Beijing has raised fears of a Russian-style squeeze on civil society. Since 2006, Russia has stripped the tax-free status of many foreign foundations and forced NGOs to report their activities in exhaustive detail, while accusing foreign-funded human rights groups of being Trojan horses for Western powers. It recently amended its NGO law, easing some of these controls.
As we all know, photos are a key part of showing the public who a politician is and what he/she stands for. This weekend, ten years after becoming Boris Yeltsin's heir, Vladimir Putin posed for another set of mostly-shirtless vacation photographs (and a video here). I've been lucky enough to receive secret memos pairing these photos with the specific messages Putin's handlers wanted to send.
"Can build his own fire...with the help of 8 people and two boats."
"Forces rivers to flow backwards with his mind"
"Remembers to remove his shirt when lost"
"Kind and sensitive to his trusty steed...and owns a killer pair of Foakleys"
"Is a freakin' sea monster"
More seriously, the Moscow Times points out the collapse of the Russian economy and oil prices have barely affected Putin's popularity among Russians (H/T to MW).
ALEXEY DRUZHININ/AFP/Getty Images
Big news stories (which is what we in the biz like to call events of unspeakable horror and human tragedy) have an annoying tendency to occur in the middle of August, when reporters are on vacation and fewer people are reading. These events also have a tendency to involve Russia.
August 19, 1991 - Communist hardliners disgruntled at Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms launch an unsuccessful coup attempt that leads to the break-up of the Soviet Union.
August 14, 1992 - The Georgian-Abkhazian war begins, with the conflict involving large numbers of Russian citizens.
Early August 1994 - The notorious MMM pyramid scheme collapses, leaving millions of Russians without their life-savings, a sum believed to be up to $1.5 billion.
August 24, 1995 - The Russian interbank credit system breaks down, leading to the ruin of 28 Russian banks.
August 29, 1996 - A Russian Tupolev TU-154 crashes over the Arctic Ocean, all 141 people on board die.
August 17, 1998 - The Russian government defaults on its foreign and domestic debt and the ruble loses two-thirds of its value in the next four weeks.
August 7, 1999 - Chechen fighters invade Dagestan, signaling the start of the second Chechen war.
August 8, 2000 - A bomb explodes in a pedestrian underpass in central Moscow killing 13 people.
August 12, 2000 - The Russian nuclear submarine Kursk sinks in the Barents Sea; all 118 sailors on board die.
August 8, 2002 - Floods and strong winds kill 59 people in the Russian Black sea city of Novorossiisk.
August 19, 2002 - A military Mi-26 helicopter is shot down over Chechnya, 126 servicemen die.
August 1, 2003 - A suicide bomber attacks a military hospital in the Russian North Ossetia town of Mozdok, killing over 50.
August 24, 2004 - Two Russian passenger planes are blown up by Chechen terrorists, over 90 people die.
August 31, 2004 - A Chechen suicide bomber blows herself up outside Moscow's Rizhskaya metro station, killing 10. The next day, September 1, sees the start of the Beslan school siege.
August 21, 2006 - Nationalists explode a bomb at Moscow's Cherkizovo market, killing 13.
August 22, 2006 - A Russian Tu-154 plane crashes in Ukraine, 170 lose their lives.
August 8-12, 2008 - Russia and Georgia fight a war over South Ossetia after Georgian forces attempt to bring the republic back under central control.
Perhaps the Kremlin might consider adopting Slate editor David Plotz's modest proposal.
"Prime Minister Putin, you've shot a tiger, taught the world judo, exhibited your paintings, showed off your muscular physique, rescued workers from greedy factory owners, and even danced to Abba for charity? What are you going to do next?"
"Well, nameless blogger, I'm going to go a mile underwater."
Over the weekend, Vladimir Putin did just that (checking another box off what must be a very ambitious bucket list) by diving in a mini-submarine to the bottom of Lake Baikal. He joined a team "studying gas hydrates and natural seepage of crude oil on the bottom of" the lake.
At the end of the voyage, Putin assured reporters that his next adventure did not lie in space, saying "there's enough work on Earth." Perhaps he's referring to his failures in the world of finance.
ALEXEY DRUZHININ/AFP/Getty Images
Sean's Russia blog has a follow-up post on Joachim "Volgograd Obama" Crima, the Guinea-Bissau immigrant who is vying to become Russia's first black elected officia. While early coverate of Crima's speculated that his campaign was a ploy to take votes away from the United Russia party in Volgograd, he turns out to be a member of the party and a pretty big fan of Vladimir Putin:
“I’ve lived in Russia many, many years and I see how Vladimir Vladimirovich runs the country. I think that if the country had a hundred of such people like Putin, Russia would be the first in the world. I respect him very much and want to follow his example. He’s an excellent person, and a serious figure on the world stage.”
The novelty of Crima's campaign continues to attract media attention and says he is brushing up on his English and French because of all the foreign reporters who have been calling him. Even is Crima's intentions are genuine, much of the Russian media's coverage remains condescending and racist, and Crima isn't exactly discouraging them by promising to "toil like a negro" and smiling for pictures holding watermelons.
Whatever happens, some very strange cultural dynamics are on display here. Read the SRB post for more details.
Joachim Crima -- a 37-year-old immigrant from Guinea-Bissau is trying to become Russia's first black elected official, running in district elections in the Volgograd region. Naturally, Crima, who has lived in Russia for 12 years, has been dubbed "Volgograd Obama," though as RIA-Novosti reports, his campaign rhetoric isn't exactly "Yes we can."
I want to make the lives of people who I consider my compatriots better. I am ready to work from morning until evening to resolve their problems. In other words, I am ready to toil like a negro," he said
I must admit, when I saw that quote in RIA-Novosti's story, and the fact that Crima apparently sells watermelons for a living, I wondered if the whole thing wasn't a very nasty hoax. But AFP's Anna Smolchenko called up Crima, who says he doesn't mind using racial stereotypes to his advantage:
If Russians are accustomed to calling dark-skinned people 'negroes' then so be it. I am not in the least bit offended because you have to be proud of who you are."
If he says so. Something still feels very off about this whole thing. Crima seems to not have a chance in hell at beating the local United Russia candidate, and despite the credulous media reports, it seems like no one is really taking him seriously:
There is an impression that he is laughing at himself, saying 'I am a Russian Obama'," Viktor Sapozhnikov, chief of the district election commission, said.
If he goes through with his plan to run for office, said Sapozhnikov, voters would cast ballots for him either "for the sake of a joke" or as an act of protest against Russia's moribund political life.
Sean's Russia blog also has a round-up of some of the uglier racist reactions from Russian Web commenters. Rather than being a sign of social progress, the fact that the very idea of a black man running for office is being treated as a joke seems like a sign of just how entrenched racist attitudes are.
None of the articles I've read so far have looked into who's backing Volgograd Obama's run, but I think it's fair to wonder if they really have his interests -- or those of Russia's black population -- in mind.
The first ever mayor's race in Russia's Star City -- the cosmonaut training town which until recently was a military facility until recently but is still largely closed to outsiders -- did not go so well. For one thing, the winner is already under arrest:
The winning candidate, Nikolai Rybkin, a former deputy director of the cosmonaut training center, was arrested four days before the June 28 elections. Nevertheless, he won 82.6 percent of the vote, according to a tally on the Central Elections Commission’s web site.
Rybkin, a retired FSB colonel, ran as an independent candidate. Runner-up Nikolai Yumanov, an adviser to the United Russia mayor of Shchyolkovo, gained 11.4 percent of the votes. Oleg Sokovikov, who finished third with 2.6 percent, is an assistant of United Russia State Duma Deputy Vladimir Pekarev.
The arrest even boosted Rybkin’s voting tally, Vladimir Reznikov, a member of his campaign team, said by telephone from Star City. “The preliminary rating was a little bit lower,” he said.
Rybkin’s lawyer, Roman Smadich, said Monday that the elections were legal.[...]
Rybkin is being investigated on smuggling charges involving a company called Rosmoravia that allegedly smuggled Chinese goods into Russia via its northwestern borders. Investigators said he was among Rosmoravia’s founders.
Rybkin's legal difficulties notwithstanding, the dismal showing by Yumoanov and Sokovikov are also an embarassment for Vladimir Putin's United Russia party. If Rybkin is still unable to perform his duties after three months -- hard to do when you're in jail -- President Dmitry Medvedev can dismiss him.
Star City was founded in 1960 as a training center for cosmonauts. Though it's just 30 kilometers from Moscow, for years during the Soviet era, it didn't appear on any official maps.
Now it may be giving Olympic city Shochi a run for it's money as the world's strangest mayor's race.
Photo: Radio Nederland Wereldomroep via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons License.
An open letter to President Obama from a number of Eastern European former heads of state and intellecutals was published yesterday in the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza. The signatories include former presidents Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa and the editor of Foreign Policy's Bulgarian edition, Ivan Krastev. An exceprt:
We welcome the "reset" of the American-Russian relations. As the countries living closest to Russia, obviously nobody has a greater interest in the development of the democracy in Russia and better relations between Moscow and the West than we do. But there is also nervousness in our capitals. We want to ensure that too narrow an understanding of Western interests does not lead to the wrong concessions to Russia. Today the concern is, for example, that the United States and the major European powers might embrace the Medvedev plan for a "Concert of Powers" to replace the continent's existing, value-based security structure. The danger is that Russia's creeping intimidation and influence-peddling in the region could over time lead to a de facto neutralization of the region. There are differing views within the region when it comes to Moscow's new policies. But there is a shared view that the full engagement of the United States is needed.
Many in the region are looking with hope to the Obama Administration to restore the Atlantic relationship as a moral compass for their domestic as well as foreign policies. A strong commitment to common liberal democratic values is essential to our countries. We know from our own historical experience the difference between when the United States stood up for its liberal democratic values and when it did not. Our region suffered when the United States succumbed to "realism" at Yalta. And it benefited when the United States used its power to fight for principle. That was critical during the Cold War and in opening the doors of NATO. Had a "realist" view prevailed in the early 1990s, we would not be in NATO today and the idea of a Europe whole, free, and at peace would be a distant dream.
We understand the heavy demands on your Administration and on U.S. foreign policy. It is not our intent to add to the list of problems you face. Rather, we want to help by being strong Atlanticist allies in a U.S.-European partnership that is a powerful force for good around the world. But we are not certain where our region will be in five or ten years time given the domestic and foreign policy uncertainties we face. We need to take the right steps now to ensure the strong relationship between the United States and Central and Eastern Europe over the past twenty years will endure.
You can read the whole thing at Radio Free Europe.
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