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.
Russian aircraft were frequently taken by Russian and Ossetian forces for Georgian aircraft, and they were fired upon without identification and in the absence of any aggressive action on their part.
Russian Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov says he enjoyed getting to meet Barack Obama along with other members of the Russian opposition this week and even saw eye-to-eye with the U.S. president on a few things. Interfax reports via Johnson's Russia List:
"I said that I had thoroughly studied the U.S. president's anti-crisis program, that I liked it, as well as that it is socially oriented and primarily aimed at supporting poor people and enhancing the state's role. I said all this to President Obama," he said.
Somehow I don't think you'll be seeing that endorsement on Whitehouse.gov.
Democratic opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, who was at the same meeting, shares his thoughts here.
After today's meeting between Russian opposition leaders and visiting U.S. President Barack Obama, former deputy prime minister turned anti-Putin campaigner Boris Nemtsov -- who was also recently a candidate in Sochi's bizarre mayoral election -- held a conference call with journalists to give his take on the President's visit. Nemtsov had an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal this morning urging the United States not to forget Russia's democratic opposition in the midst of the "reset." Overall, he seemed pleased with the tone Obama had struck:
He believes not only the existing government but in the Russian people. He understands that not only Putin and Medvedev represent Russia, but also the opposition including the democratic opposition represent Russia and business community represents Russia. ...He understand that "reset" is very, very complicated and very difficult task with the existing government of Russia, on the other hand, he understand that America and Russia face huge problems, for examples the Taliban in Afghanistan or North Korean missiles, or Iran threat etc. and no matter who is in power he has to connect.
I was curious what Nemtsov thought of the discussion of democracy in his speech at the New Economic School today, in which he seemed to emphasize the rule of law and fighting corruption over political inclusion or human rights:
He said that in 21st century, the only chance to be successful it to be democracy and be a country or rule of law. This is against Putinism, this is against the authoritarian style of regime we have now....He also spoke about the recognition of borders and and sovereignty of countries. Of course this is about Georgia, and it potentially about Ukraine. I think he did it very openly and made it clear for everybody, for Putina and Medvedev too.
Nemtsov says he understands that Obama has to take concerns other than democracy into account:
"The problem of the democratization of Russia is my problem and the problem of my friends and political colleages. This is not -- fortunately or unfortunately -- Obama's responsibility. I don't think the U.S. can help us to establish democracy."
In light of Obama's cautious response to the Iranian election, and the subsequent criticism of this position, I asked Nemtsov is he belives it is useful for the democratic opposition to have Obama speak out forcefully on their behalf:
I think that Obama as president of the biggest democracy in the world has to speak about that and he did in his speech today. I think it was absolutely clear for everbody. I don't think that Putin will be very excited after his speech...[When he discussed] rule of law, free speech and free elections, it is absolutely clear to Putin and Medvedev and everyone in Moscow what he is talking about.
Yes, it was quite cautious, I agree. But I think this is the good way. If you come to another country like a boss, like a teacher: "Guys, you did terrible here, now I explain to you how to do, how to run the country, how to move forward because I am a great American president and I know how to proceed," I think that such a strategy is not good.
But if you say very frankly and friendly: "Guys, remember, the authoritarian style is the wrong way. Not just for the state but for you," it looks more promising.
NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP/Getty Images
I agree with my FP colleague Chris Brose that U.S.-Russia cooperation in containing Iran's nuclear program is unlikely any time soon, though I don't really see what harm there is in continuing the lobby for it. The Kremlin has its own quarrels with Tehran and may one day -- like China with North Korea -- come around to the view that the aggressive regime to the south is more trouble than it's worth.
I also think that Chris is a bit too quick to dismiss the two diplomatic achievements of the current talks, the reduction in nuclear arsenals and the opening of Russian airpace for U.S. operations in Afghanistan. Yes, the nukes that the U.S. and Russia will have after the cuts could still "annihilate the world several times over" but surely we have to start somewhere. The greenhouse gas reductions in the currently being debated climate bill probably won't be enough to offset the worst effects of global warming, but it allows U.S. negotiators to show up in Copenhagen with a legitimate achievement under their belt. Same goes for next year's Nonproliferation Treaty review conference.
As for the airspace, it's true that the U.S. probably wants to avoid dependence on Russia's good will in Afghanistan. But it's not exactly like there are a lot of great options in the region of Afghanistan. Given that the U.S. is already working with such reliable partners as Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, it certainly seems prudent to look for other options.
So while the disagreements remain sizeable, I wouldn't be quite so quick to dismiss the breakthroughs that were made on some critical issues and the potential for progress on others.
The relationship and power dynamic between Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin remains intriguingly mysterious for the Western media. But it's interesting to see how Russian papers are doing their own "Kremlinology" on factions in the White House. This Nezavistimaya Gazeta article, via Johnson's Russia List, theorizes about Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's absence on Obama's trip to Russia. It's seems they're not buying the broken arm story:
In any event, Obama is not going to be accompanied by State Secretary Hillary Clinton on this visit, and experts ascribe it to two considerations (the formal explanation concerning Clinton's elbow trauma is dismissed, of course). First, official Moscow associates the incumbent US State Secretary with Bill Clinton's Administration and everything that transpired in its period - war in Yugoslavia, 1998 default. Second, the US President apparently wants the triumph he counts on for his own, without the necessity to share it with the Clintons whose clan occupies commanding heights in the Democratic Party.
Discussing the ethics of cosmetic surgery, Slate's William Saletan recalls the strange case of Australian politician Hanjal Ban who at age 23 decided to undergo surgery in Russia to increase her height. She gained around 8 centimeters through a mostly experimental procedure involving breaking her legs in four places and slowly stretching them while they healed. After recovering, Ban went on to successfully win a city council seat inLogan City, Queensland.
Under a pseudonym, Ban wrote a book, God Made me Small, Surgery Made me Tall, and is now republishing a new version, Her Secret, under her own name. Though Ban has vocally said the surgery is not for everyone, book promotion on her official website makes her choice seem almost heroic:
International media recently described her as one of the world's most beautiful politicians. Hanjal's explosive story gripped Australia and gained international attention. Prepare yourself for what you didn't hear in the interviews.
Read how Hajnal over came her darkest moments that almost ended her life. Learn how she turned herself around to become an inspiring role model who exudes confidence, elegance and style.
If you too want to exude confidence and style, The Times of London notes that the surgery is available in at least 18 countries including the U.S. but not the U.K. Do you need to be beautiful to win office? Silvio Berlusconi sure seems to think it can help.
In May, FP and our readers enjoyed going through the many, many silly acronyms in use around the world, including PIIGS, STUC, MILF, and MANPADS. But last week's agreement between Nigeria and Russia on a joint gas venture has a name that tops all of those for awkardness:
It probably seemed a good idea at the time. But Russia's attempt to create a joint gas venture with Nigeria is set to become one of the classic branding disasters of all time -- after the new company was named Nigaz.
The venture was agreed last week during a four-day trip by Russia's president Dmitry Medvedev to Africa. The deal between Russia's Gazprom and Nigeria's state oil company was supposed to show off the Kremlin's growing interest in Africa's energy reserves.
Instead, the venture is now likely to be remembered for all the wrong reasons -- as a memorable PR blunder, worse than Chevrolet's Nova, which failed to sell in South America because it translates as "doesn't go" in Spanish[...]
An article in Brand Republic pointed out the obvious: that the name has "rather different connotations" for English-speakers.
Stan Marsh sympathizes.
DMITRY ASTAKHOV/AFP/Getty Images
The worldwide recession has hit Russia's economy harder than most. The World Bank expects the economy to contract by almost 8 percent this year, its stock market has the dubious honor of being the first bear market since a worldwide stock rally in March. Now, the number of places to escape the doom and gloom is about to shrink significantly, as Russia plans to effectively shut down the entire casino industry on July 1.
The government is shutting down every last legal casino and slot-machine parlor across the land, under an antivice plan promoted by Vladimir V. Putin that just a few months ago was widely perceived as far-fetched. But the result will be hundreds of thousands of people thrown out of work.
And in a move that at times seems to have taken on almost farcical overtones, the Kremlin has offered the gambling industry only one option for survival: relocate to four regions in remote areas of Russia, as many as 4,000 miles from the capital. The potential marketing slogans — Come to the Las Vegas of Siberia! Have a Ball near the North Korean Border! — may not sound inviting, but that is in part what the government envisions.
All the same, none of the four regions are prepared for the transfer, and no casino is expected to reopen for several years. As of July 1, not even two decades after casinos began proliferating here in the free-for-all post-Soviet era, the industry’s workers will be out on the street.
“This is shaking my life to the core — such a blow for me and my family,” said Irina Mysachka, 32, a single mother who is a supervisor at the Shangri-La Casino in Moscow, which appears as orderly and preened (if your tastes run to fire-breathing neon dragons and other Oriental kitsch) as any similar luxury attraction in the United States.
“The authorities are taking this step without thinking at all,” she said. “They have not considered what this decision means for the workers. With the crisis, it is going to be very difficult for us."
The law behind the restrictions was introduced in late 2006, and there appear to be reasons both honest and not-so-honest behind it.
The gambling industry here does not have the loftiest of reputations, and many Russians will not grieve for it. Still, many of the 40 or so casinos in Moscow sought in recent years to behave more respectably, even as hundreds of slot-machine parlors retained a seedy, enter-at-your-own-risk feel[...]
The industry has been largely unregulated, and especially in recent years, almost anyone could get a license, for as little as $50. Russia is not a strait-laced place - rates of smoking and drinking are high - but an outcry about gambling ensued. "It is not only young people, but also retirees who lose their last kopecks and pensions through gambling," Mr. Putin said in 2006.
His plan was announced during a spy scandal between Russia and its neighbor Georgia, and the timing suggested that Mr. Putin was in part seeking to wound the Georgian diaspora here, which is said to have an influential role in the industry.
Shorter Russia: what happens in Moscow is Georgia's fault.
ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images
Yesterday, the World Bank concluded that Russia will be one of the countries hardest-hit by the recession, including not returning to precrisis levels until 2012. But Russian communists believe that the cure lies in a blast from the past:
Russian communists have put up giant billboards of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin in a southern city, promoting his tough methods as the best remedy for the world economic crisis.
Stalin killed millions of people during his 30 year rule until his death in 1953, but many in recession-hit Russia have grown nostalgic for his strong leadership, and he was voted the third most popular historical figure in a nationwide poll.
"Everybody knows that under Stalin our country achieved the highest rate of economic growth and development in other spheres, and the great victory (over Nazi Germany)," Sergei Rudakov, a senior Communist party official in the town of Voronezh, told Reuters by telephone.
Because what the world economy needs right now is a good ol' fashioned purge.
Russia's one-man stimulus machine rolls on:
The prime minister abruptly interrupted a meeting with senior retailers at the Moscow White House, the seat of the Russian government, to drag them on an impromptu visit to a nearby branch of the Perekrestok supermarket chain.
triding angrily through the aisles with a retinue of glum executives in tow, Mr Putin came to a halt in the supermarket's cold meat section and gesticulated towards a packet of sausages priced at just under £5.
Rounding on Yuri Kobaladze, the chain's head of corporate relations, Mr Putin demanded: "Why do your sausages cost 240 roubles? Is that normal?" "But these are high quality sausages," Mr Kobaladze replied, looking crestfallen.
With a look of relief crossing his face, the executive spotted some cheaper sausages.
"Look, these ones are just 49 roubles," he said.
But the prime minister was not to be deterred. "Too expensive," he muttered, before conjuring up a price list from his pocket. "I can show you your mark up. Look at this kind of sausage. You've marked it up by 52 per cent." [...]
Having primed his victim, Mr Putin moved in for the kill. Consulting his crib sheet, he pointed towards a packet of pork fillets.
"This is double the (cost) price," he said to Mr Kobaladze. "Is this normal?"
"Is 120 per cent a high mark up?" Mr Kobaladze responded timidly.
"Very high," the prime minister said.
"It will be lowered tomorrow," the executive replied.
Earlier this month, Putin flew to an industrial town to browbeat factory owners into paying workers back-pay. I see the appeal of Putin's "good czar" strategy, but I wonder in the long term how wise it is to promote the idea that people are struggling just because powerful people are greedy. How long can it be before that anger is turned on the state?
Russia is not happy that the government of Kyrgyzstan changed their mind and decided to allow the U.S. to continue operating at Manas airbase. But then, if I gave someone $2.1 billion for nothing, I'd be pretty upset too:
"The news about the preservation of the base was an extremely unpleasant surprise for us. We did not anticipate such a dirty trick," the foreign ministry source told Kommersant.
Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev announced the decision to close the base in February during a visit to Moscow -- on the same day that Russia unveiled a generous aid package to his impoverished country.
In the package, Russia agreed to settle an estimated 180-million-dollar debt owed by Bishkek to Moscow, extend Kyrgyzstan a grant worth 150 million dollars, and loan it two billion dollars more, news agencies reported at the time.
Russia has consistently denied playing any role in Kyrgyzstan's decision to close the base. But the base's presence had long irritated Moscow, which sees it as an intrusion into its former Soviet domains in Central Asia.
I understand why keeping Manas open is important to the war effort in Afghanistan, but being played like this by Kyrgyzstan against Russia for the personal enrichment of Kurmanbek Bakiyev (the U.S. is paying three times the original rent in order to keep the base open) can't feel like much of a victory for the Pentagon.
Somewhere in Britain, a mystery philanthropist is listening to a one-of-a-kind CD recorded by Mikhail Gorbachev. At least, we certainly hope they are listening to it – the album cost about £100,000.
An "anonymous British philanthropist" bought what we suppose is Mikhail Gorbachev's "debut album", Songs for Raisa, in London this week, bidding $164,940 (about £100,000) at an auction to benefit the Raisa Gorbachev Foundation. Nearly 350 luminaries were present at the private event[...]
Gorbachev was there too, and he brought his singing voice. The former Soviet leader warbled a song called Old Letters. "The performance ... was greeted with delight and a storm of applause," said Pavel Palazhchenko, chairman of the Foundation's press service.
Attendees at the gathering included many famous Brits, ranging from J.K. Rowling to Prime Minister Gordon Brown's wife, Sarah. Also present was Russian billionaire Alexander Lebedev, who is joining Gorbachev in founding a new Russian political party (the pair already own 49% of the Novaya Gazeta). While that process is still being completed, you can judge Gorbachev for yourself by listening to one of his songs here.
AXEL SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images
Michael Schwirtz of the New York Times reported Tuesday on some, uh, innovative crime fighting techniques of Russian police in St. Petersburg. To catch a man seeking to kill his boss, police faked the murder in public, all the way down to staged blood and media reports, and arrested the culprit when he delivered money to an undercover officer for the completed hit.
As Schwirtz highlights, this could be why so few Russians trust the media or the police.
Such elaborate sting operations are not uncommon in Russia, where the police routinely manipulate the news media in criminal investigations, said Yevgeny Vyshenkov, a former police detective here who is now the deputy director of a St. Petersburg Internet news agency, fontanka.ru. In his previous career, Mr. Vyshenkov said, he once had a journalist agree to publish a fake article to coax a suspect to divulge information about accomplices.
Another question: where was all this creative crimefighting after the broad daylight murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya? On Monday, the Russian Union of Journalists released a report condemning Russian authorities for failing to protect journalists.
I'm way late to the story of the Russian military historian who posted an article on the Defense Ministry's website blaming Poland for starting World War II by objecting to totally reasonable Nazi demands. Here's the key exceprt from Col. Sergei Kovalyov article, “Inventions and Falsifications in the Assessment of the Role of the USSR on the Eve and at the Start of World War II”:
“[The war] was begun as a result of the refusal of Poland to satisfy … extremely moderate demands such as including the free city of Danzig in the Third Reich [and] permission for the construction of extra-territorial highways and railroad, which would connect East Prussia with the rest of Germany.”
Sounds reasonable. Not surprisingly the ministry is now distancing itself from the article.
Vladimir Putin reaches for the oldest trick in the Russian political playbook: the good czar riding in to save the people from the nasty local boyars:
Moving quickly to stamp out growing unrest, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin flew to the small town of Pikalyovo on Thursday to demand that angry workers receive wage arrears and rebuke their delinquent employers.
Putin told the owners of the town's three factories that the government had transferred 41.24 million rubles ($1.34 million) to their Sberbank accounts on Wednesday and they had until the end of the day to pay their workers.
"All wage arrears must be settled," Putin said at a meeting with owners and government officials. "The deadline is today."
Turning to the owners, including tycoon Oleg Deripaska, owner of one of the plants, Putin offered a stinging rebuke of their business practices.
"You have made thousands of people hostages to your ambitions, your lack of professionalism -- or maybe simply your trivial greed," Putin said in remarks shown on state television. "Why was everyone running around like cockroaches before my arrival? Why was no one capable of making decisions?"
He threw a pen at a contract and told Deripaska to sign it.
The whole affair was televised, including crowds cheering Putin's arrival.
The Kremlin's first response to this crisis was to pretend it wasn't happening. The new tactic seems to be to blame it on other people.
Susan Boyle has charmed millions of viewers on YouTube, and now her fame has captured the hearts of Russian nationalists:
A Russian far-right party posted an open letter to British talent show singer Susan Boyle late on Tuesday, heaping praise on the 48-year-old Scot and wishing her well after she was admitted to a clinic for exhaustion.
"Susan! You have already gained popularity and many admirers and fans," leader of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, said in an open letter on the party's website www.ldpr.ru.
Andrei Lugovoy, Britain's main suspect in the London murder of Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko, holds a seat in parliament for the ultra-nationalist party which has called on countries belonging to the former Soviet Union to rejoin.
As reality fans know, Boyle did not even finish first on the show, and subsequent reports suggested she is not taking the loss lightly. Zhirinovsky, though, was eager to console her.
LDPR leader Zhirinovsky compared her near-win to that of his own.
"The people also love our party, but, just like you, we do not always get the deserved result at elections," he said.
LDPR came third in the Russian presidential elections in March 2008, behind the Communist party and the winning United Russia party, which saw Dmitry Medvedev replace Vladimir Putin as president.
No doubt Simon Cowell appreciates the comparison, given the reputation for fair elections his shows currently enjoy.
Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
The Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) will conduct joint military exercises in August-September in Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus, the Belarusian defense minister said on Wednesday.
The defense ministers of the post-Soviet security bloc comprising Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan held a regular meeting in Moscow on June 3.
"The joint drills will be held in Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus to practice the deployment of CSTO's joint rapid-reaction force," Leonid Maltsev told reporters after the meeting.
He said the exercises in Belarus will also involve the Russia-Belarus joint military grouping created within the framework of the CSTO.
According to media reports, Russia is planning to build a strong military contingent in Central Asia within the CSTO comparable to NATO forces in Europe.
Russia was highly irritated by 19-country NATO war games held in Georgia last month. Interestingly, Kazakhstan, where part the CSTO drills are to take place, was one of the countries invited to participate in the NATO exercises but declined in solidarity with Russia.
The exercises in Belarus, right on NATO's eastern border, are likely to be seen as a response to NATO's actions in Georgia.
Thankfully, no one was hurt, but this is still not exactly the Russian navy's finest moment:
A Russian warship has mistakenly shelled a village near the northern city of St Petersburg, officials say.
They say the small anti-submarine vessel fired up to 15 artillery rounds at Pesochnoye during target practice late on Thursday.
Some terrified villagers said they thought a war had started, Russia's Ria Novosti news agency reports.
How's that "smaller smarter military" thing going?
An International Herald Tribune survey of the popularity of international leaders in five European countries plus the U.S. found that the U.S. president is still overwhelmingly popular. 78 percent of those surveyed have a positive view of Obama, eight points ahead of the Dalai Lama. The nearest politician is Angela Merkel with 54 percent.
Another interesting result of the survey is that Vladimir Putin seems to be somewhat more popular in Europe than Dmitry Medvedev. Some of this can be chalked up to name recognition but its still a bit surprising given how Medvedev often seems to attend international meetings to play the part of the Kremlin's friendlier, pro-Western face.
In contrat to vlogging, live-journaling Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, Prime Minister Vladimiur Putin has generally preferred to let his actions do the talking. But this Friday, Putin will make his debut as a magazine columnist in the monthly magazine Russian Pioneer. But don't expect an ideological pean to the glories of sovereign democracy.
Putin's topic is management, specifically "why it's hard to fire people." But the released exceprts of the column, as printed by The Independent, do seem to offer a few clues to recent Kremlin infighting though:
Conflicts within a team, especially within a big team, always arise," writes Mr Putin, in extracts leaked to a Russian news agency. "This happens every minute, every second – simply because between people there are always clashes of interest."...
"I can say honestly that while I was president, if I hadn't interfered in certain situations, in Russia there would long ago ceased to have been a government." ...
"In contrast to previous, Soviet rulers, I always do it personally. I usually call the person into my office, look them in the eye, and say: 'There are concrete complaints. If you think this isn't true, then please, you can fight against it; argue your case'."
Photo by Junko Kimura/Getty Images
Why exactly is the EU-Russia energy conference being held in the far-Eastern city of Khabarovsk, 11 time zones from Brussels and a place that even Russian President Dmitry Medvedev avoids visiting unless absolutely necessary? The FT investigates:
Was it a fiendish plot to disorientate the easily divided Europeans ahead of tricky negotiations on Russian gas? It seems not.
The Kremlin, apparently, had not wanted to choose the location for fear of offending powerful regional governors who were gunning for the honour of hosting it, “so they said ‘let the Europeans choose’”, according to an east European diplomat.
José Manuel Barroso, European Commission president, and Václav Klaus, Czech president – the Czechs hold the revolving EU presidency – had a look at the list of prospective sites before Mr Klaus picked Khabarovsk, because “he hadn’t been there before and wanted to see it”, according to a diplomat, who asked not to be named.
That's nice for Klaus, but not so nice for the assembled delegates whose heads, the article notes, "had a pronounced tendency to loll if they were allowed to sit for too long."
This seems too good to be true, but for what it's worth, Canadian defence reporter Dave Pugliese passes along a report that the planned sale of Russian nuclear submarines to Venezuela was scuppered after Hugo Chavez's bodyguards mixed it up with some Russian sailors:
...the KILOs (the subs) destined for Vietnam were originally to be purchased by Venezuela but that deal collapsed after a fistfight on board the Russian cruiser “Peter the Great” when it and other warships were visiting Venezuela.
Venezuela’s leader Chavez was in the process of visiting the Russian flotilla but his bodyguards were prevented from boarding. A fistfight then broke out between the Russian sailors and the bodyguards. The nose of one Russian was broken.
That ended the sub purchase.
Robert Farley notes that the deal is indeed off, and it's certainly not out of the question that the fight took place. But it's likely that the bigger reason Chavez balked at the deal is that his government is low on oil money these days.
THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images
If you're interested in Russian affairs, I highly recommend subscribing to the Johnson's Russia List newsletter, a daily digest of Russian news put together by the Center for Defense Information's David Johnson. Today, I found this progression of news headlines from Russia's official state news agency really amusing:
ITAR-TASS: Russians Become Healthier This Year -Ministry.
ITAR-TASS: Crisis To Cleanse Russian Society, Says Country's Chief Auditor.
ITAR-TASS: Weathermen Forecast Record Harvests Of Grain Crops, Fruit, Vegetables This Year.
ITAR-TASS: Economy Keeps Nosediving Despite Optimistic Forecasts.
Hmm...well thanks for all those optimistic forecasts. This reminds me a bit of Yeltsin-era prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin's famous line, "We hoped for the best, but it turned out as always."
Almost exactly a month after the Russian government declared the anti-terrorist operations in Chechnya had ended, a suicide bomber killed three people at a checkpoint in Grozny. He had been attempting to reach the interior ministry building. Another bombing killed three people in a village in Southern Chechnya earlier this week:
The BBC's Richard Galpin in Moscow says it is rare for Muslim rebels to be able to carry out an attack in Grozny, and a suicide bombing is even rarer.
It would appear to be a message from the separatists that the conflict is not over and that they remain a force to be reckoned with, our correspondent says.
Despite Russian annoyance, NATO is conducting military exercises in Georgia today. But not all states that are elligible to participate are taking part. As Stratfor notes in its (annoyingly gated but possible to get for free) analysis, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Serbia, Estonia and Latvia are all staying out of the drills. The first four countries all have good relations with Russia and aren't that surprising, but Estonia and Latvia have tradionally relished a good chance to thumb their noses at Moscow. What gives?
Stratfor says it's a sign of the times:
Estonia and Latvia have been severely affected by the ongoing economic crisis, with both countries facing double-digit drops in gross domestic product forecast for 2009 (-10.1 percent and -13.1 percent, respectively) as a result of foreign capital flight and exports that are in free fall. Extreme social tension has set in as a result of the harsh economic realities, with both countries witnessing violent protests in January. In the meantime, the Latvian government collapsed early in 2009, and Riga has had to take out a $2.4 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Estonia’s government is set to face a vote of no confidence this week, and a similar loan from the IMF is likely later in 2009.
These conditions have caused Estonia and Latvia to temper their aggressive stance toward Russia. While the two countries are typically vocal and eager to take advantage of Russia’s weaknesses for media attention, they are now backing down as they realize their own positions are weak while Russia’s position is growing stronger. This explains Estonia’s and Latvia’s withdrawal from the NATO exercises, as they realize that their participation would be far more damaging to their relationship with Russia and that their financial situations would make joining in on the drills even more difficult. For these two countries, showing solidarity and support for Georgia makes a great deal of sense in theory (i.e., supporting in principal Georgia’s struggle against Russian influence). But it becomes increasingly hard to justify in practice when Russian influence is being felt in a real sense on their home turf.
As FP's own Evgeny Morozov wrote in Newsweek recently, Estonia has also toned down its cyberwarfare rhetoric directed at Russia. Real rapprochement between the Baltics and Russia is probably still a ways off, but this is an interesting development to watch.
(Hat tip: Johnson's Russia List)
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