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Monday, July 10, 2006

Neo-Soviet Russia Brilliantly Exposed by the Heroic Telegraph

In a brilliant magnum opus of journalism, the Telegraph reports a host of more chilling reminders of the rise of the Neo-Soviet Union:

Aleksei Mikheyev looks down at his wasted and paralysed legs. He lifts one, then drops it. It flops, ragdoll like, back on to the bed. "You want to know what I think of Mr Putin," he asks, his voice emotionless. "Look at me. I can't walk, I can't even go to the lavatory alone. My mother must take me."

"So let me tell you something," he says, his tone turning icy. "You never, ever want to take a phone call from Putin." In Russia, a "phone call from Putin" - or "zvonokPutin" - is a chilling euphemism for having electrodes attached to your ears.

Exhausted, Mr Mikheyev levers himself flat and closes his eyes. The heat in the tiny bedroom of the shabby flat he shares with Ludmila, his mother, is stifling. Its corridors are too narrow for a wheelchair: its four flights of concrete stairs make it impossible for him to get outside to the rubble-strewn road on which he lives in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia's third largest city.

On Saturday, Mr Mikheyev will celebrate his 30th birthday. On the same day, in the somewhat more salubrious surroundings of the Palace of Congresses in St Petersburg, Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, will host the annual G8 summit. For Mr Putin, chairing a meeting of the world's richest industrialised countries, will be the pinnacle of his six-year presidency. His message will be clear: Russia is back and aggressively eager to use the fact that it has the world's largest gas reserves to regain its status as a superpower.

Under Mr Putin's leadership, Russia, virtually bankrupted by its former leader Boris Yeltsin, is now awash with oil and gas money, has a booming economy and is home to more than 100,000 dollar millionaires. To his supporters, he is a strong leader who has restored the mother country's pride. To his critics, he is a 21st century tsar: a tyrant willing to brook no opposition.

Mr Putin is well aware of his country's tarnished reputation in the West, where criticisms about human rights and questionable democratic credentials have led to protests over his right to chair a G8 summit. He has gone to great lengths to shed Russia's stereotypical image as an autocratic bully ahead of Saturday's meeting, even hiring an American PR firm, Ketchum's - some say at a cost of £4 million - with a team of 50 spin doctors and media specialists in nine countries.

The campaign has brought dramatic and, at times, bizarre changes in the atmosphere at the Kremlin, which had of late regained much of its Soviet-era reputation for secrecy. On Thursday, the president answered questions from the public in a two-hour webcast. Despite months of frosty relations with Washington, he took the opportunity to say that the US is "one of our partners in the world", adding: "I believe President Bush is a decent person [and] one of the people I consider as a friend."

Next week, he will give four interviews to American, Canadian, French and German channels. It is also believed that Ketchum's influence is behind one particularly uncharacteristic act recently. The president baffled the world when he stopped a young boy walking through the Kremlin, asked him his name and then lifted up his T-shirt and kissed his stomach. During the webcast, Mr Putin said: "I just wanted to pet him like a kitten, nothing more."

This Saturday, as Mr Putin poses proudly, George W Bush, Tony Blair and the other G8 leaders will queue up to pump his hand for the photographers. Beneath the careful orchestrations, however, the initial icy blast of a new Cold War may be blowing. Much has changed since Mr Bush lauded his Russian counterpart as "straightforward and trustworthy" in 2001. As Dick Cheney, Mr Bush's vice president, said last month, Russia is "unfairly and improperly restricting the rights of her people".

In a similar vein, a Foreign Policy Centre report published this month said that Russia did not belong in the G8 - to which it is was admitted in 1997 - and that its presidency risked stripping the legitimacy from the group of democracies.

For Mr Putin, it seems, no amount of money spent on spin doctors can hide the reality that the Kremlin is quietly reasserting the centralised control that was the hallmark of the Soviet era. The press has been muzzled, human rights movements harassed and anyone opposing the president politically shown the door of the State Duma. Businesses are beset by corruption and state-controlled companies now run 40 per cent of the economy. And then, of course, there is the brutal war against Chechnya.

''Putin has always wanted autocratic rule,'' Mr Mikheyev says. ''And he is a ruthless, single-minded man. I should know. I got the phone call."

It was while Mr Putin was the head of the FSB, the successor to the KGB (and still known as the KGB by most Russians), that the "zvonokPutin" technique was perfected. "Mr Putin was feared when he was KGB chief," says Mr Mikheyev, a former traffic policman. "People here support him because he is restoring Russia's national pride but no one is under any illusion about his ruthless determination for autocratic rule as president."

Mr Mikheyev's tale is chilling. In 1998, he gave a young woman a lift home and, as the last person to see her before she went missing, was arrested. Held in a cell 6ft by 15ft, he endured days of agonising torture. "They punched and kicked me then attached the electrodes," he says, closing his eyes at the memory. "I signed a confession to make them stop. Then they showed me a map and insisted I tell them where the body was. I couldn't - I hadn't done anything."

In desperation, he broke free and jumped from a second-floor window. The 30ft fall on to a motorbike broke his back. The next day the "missing" girl turned up alive and well. For six years, the state prosecutor, appointed by Mr Putin, threw out Mr Mikheyev's complaints. This year, after an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights, the first by a Russian, he was awarded £170,000 - a fortune for a family which exists on 3,500 roubles (£70) a month - paid by Mr Putin's government.

Mr Mikheyev's experiences were a foretaste of what other ordinary Russians could expect once Mr Yeltsin named Mr Putin as his successor. Tatyana Trepashkin, 34, also knows how ruthless the president can be towards those who oppose his policies.

Her asthmatic husband, Mikhail, 48, a lawyer, been languishing in jail in the Urals since September 2005. Mr Trepashkin had been representing an American woman whose mother was among 300 people who died in four apartment block explosions across Russia in 1999. When he revealed that he had evidence that implicated the FSB, in the attack, he was arrested. No one had claimed responsibility for the blasts, but Mr Putin, playing to the general suspicion that the Chechens were to blame, used it as a means of justifying his military re-occupation of the country. He was furious with Mr Trepashkin.

Mrs Trepashkin, fearful for her safety and that of her two young daughters, will talk only if we meet at a park bench 10 miles outside Moscow. She speaks in whispers. "Our apartment is likely bugged. The KGB burst in, the children were terrified. They just dragged Mikhail away, and I haven't been allowed to see him since. I know he is crammed in lice-infected cells with many others. I know Putin wants him out of the way, to silence him."

Though Mr Trepashkin's appeal was set for last month, it has been postponed until the end of this month. "That is because Putin doesn't want the publicity to tarnish his reputation before G8," says Yevgeny Ikhlova, of Za Prava Cheloveka, a human rights group. "Once the summit is over and the world leaders have gone, Trepashkin will be simply kept in prison."

Yet while claims of abuse have trebled in Russia in the past five years, Mr Putin's popularity soars. He has paid off the national debt and built a "stablisation fund" of £33 billion. But it has been at the expense of some of its finest businessmen.

Take Gazprom, now Russia's biggest company, worth £55 billion and holding one-fifth of the world's gas reserves. Its major shareholder is now the Kremlin, in the guise of Rosneft - whose shares go on sale in London and Moscow the day before the G8 opens. Its chairman is Dmitri Medvedev, Mr Putin's chief of staff, and Rosneft's chairman is Igor Sechin, a reclusive former KGB officer who is the president's right-hand man.

Morgan Stanley, Dresdner Kleinwort, and the other investment banks that are managing the flotation, say drily in its prospectus: "Crime and corruption create a difficult business climate in Russia." Noting that government officials control the company, the prospectus goes on to say that their "interests may not coincide with those of other shareholders... may cause Rosneft to engage in business practices that do not maximise shareholders value".

Richard Allen, a former national security adviser to Ronald Reagan, learned that the hard way. He invested £38,000 in Yukos, the Russian oil giant. The company was plundered by the Kremlin and sold to Rosneft for a pittance through a "mysterious" third party.

The government had forced Yukos into bankruptcy by demanding £20 billion in back taxes and sent its oligarch owner, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, to a Siberian labour camp. Mr Allen lost his investment and is now urging a boycott of the Rosneft flotation.

"The average investor taking part in the float might as well invest in a crap shoot run by thugs if they are looking for cheap thrills," he says. "Or they can spend their money on a rollercoaster ride. Either way, they will lose their money." His advice to potential investors? "Run, don't walk, to the exit."

Marina Khodorkovsky, Mikhail's 72-year-old mother, has been shocked by how Rosneft has used its oil and gas might to force Russia's neighbours to toe the line. In January, it cut supplies to Ukraine and Georgia, both pro-Western states. "Putin is a vengeful and envious man,' says Mrs Khodorkovsky spiritedly. As she shows me around the school and orphanage that Yukos founded (its assets, too, have now been frozen and its future uncertain), she points to posters of her son with Mr Bush and Mr Blair. "British business trusted Mikhail," she says. "But not Rosneft, I think. When my son was named one of the leading businessmen of the 20th century, Putin was furious. Will they want to deal with Gazprom?"

Mrs Khodorkovsky last heard from her son on his birthday last month, when he was allowed a brief telephone call. In prison, he was recently knifed and needed five stitches to his face. "They watch him constantly, but when he is attacked they turn a blind eye," she says bitterly.

"Sometimes I feel I will never see my son again."

In the Western media, Khodorkovsky's plight has been a cause célèbre: in Russia's, it is barely mentioned. That, though, is hardly surprising: those who do not peddle Mr Putin's line usually find themselves unemployed. Leonid Parfyonov, Russia's "Jeremy Paxman", was sacked when the widow of a Chechen who said her husband had been murdered by Russian agents was interviewed on his news programme. Similarly, Raf Shakirov, who edited Izvestia, Russia's oldest daily newspaper, was sacked for showing pictures of the victims of the Beslan school siege.

Last week, Thomas de Waal, the British journalist and author of Chechnya: A Small Victorious War, was blacklisted by the FSB and denied a visa "in the interests of state security". America's ABC station was also barred after it ran an interview with Shamil Basayev, the Chechen rebel leader. When Irina Khakamada stood against Mr Putin in presidential elections two years ago, she was denied television airtime and her rallies were disrupted. Not surprisingly, Mr Putin received 71 per cent of the vote, while she polled less than four per cent. "There is no democracy in Russia," she said recently.

Last week, as the streets of picturesque St Petersburg were scrubbed for the summit, FSB officers were dropping off calling cards at the homes of known anti-G8 protesters. One, who did not want to be named, said his 67-year-old mother has been terrified by their demeanour and questioning. "We know they will be trying to keep us in the background," he said. Mr Putin has spent £70 million improving his country's tarnished image in the West, backing pro-government rock groups, new patriotic magazines and radio programmes, and funding an English-language television channel promoting government doctrine. He is not about to allow anti-globalisation protesters to hijack the political spotlight. But whether the Russian president manages to woo his critics or not, he is confident that his oil and gas reserves will ensure that his relationship with the West remains, at the least, cordial. As one of his closest aides said last week: "In the contemporary world, only power is respected. The West talks about democracy, but they're thinking about our natural resources."

Those Russians who have been on the receiving end of his unyielding authority would no doubt agree. In the park near her home, Mrs Trepashkin says it is a trump card on to which Mr Putin is desperate to cling. "He is a cruel man who is terrified of losing his power," she says. "He must control all the time. Russia is not a democracy. That is for foreign consumption," she says, glancing anxiously over her shoulder as strangers wander too near. "Don't look at which flat I go into," she begs. "I try to keep quiet, not to draw attention." In an instant she is gone, dragging her daughters behind her.

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