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Saturday, March 31, 2007

March 31, 2007 -- Contents

SATURDAY MARCH 31 CONTENTS

(1) Annals of Cold War II: Here Come the Spies

(2) Who's Afraid of a Big Bad Bolshevik?

(3) You're Only Stealing from Yourselves, Russians


Annals of Cold War II: Send in the Spies

The Moscow Times reports on yet another convincing demonstration by Russia that it is a friendly, reliable country that means the USA no harm:

A senior U.S. counterintelligence official said Thursday that Russia had fully restored its espionage capabilities against the United States after a period of decline following the Cold War.

Joel Brenner, the head of the Office of the National Counterintelligence Executive, said the United States was concerned that Russia was continuing to ramp up its operations.

"The Russians are now back at Cold War levels in their efforts against the United States," he said at an event held by the American Bar Association, a lawyers' group. "They are sending over an increasing and troubling number of intelligence agents."

The comments come at time of greater tension between the two countries. President Vladimir Putin has sharply criticized the United States in recent months, and he told Arab leaders in a letter Thursday that Washington should set a time limit for its military presence in Iraq. Also Thursday, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov criticized the United States for conducting naval maneuvers in the Persian Gulf.

Brenner, whose job is to oversee counterintelligence strategy and policy for U.S. intelligence chief Mike McConnell, did not provide details about suspected Russian intelligence operations in the United States. Sensitive counterintelligence activities are classified.

But he said Moscow appeared less interested in U.S. commercial and military technology than other countries, including China, which U.S. officials including China, which U.S. officials have described as the greatest counterintelligence threat facing the United States.

McConnell also warned the U.S. Senate last month that Russia was taking a step backward in its democratic progress and could be heading for a controlled succession to Putin. Moscow responded by describing his remarks as "outdated assumptions."

The U.S. government has suffered several embarrassing security breaches at the hands of Russian and Soviet intelligence moles, including former CIA case officer Aldrich Ames and former FBI agent Robert Hanssen.

Brenner said Ames provided the Soviets with enough information about U.S. officials to "decapitate" America's leadership in the event of war.

But Moscow intelligence does not now appear interested in posing a physical threat to U.S. leaders. "It's not a strike threat they're after. I don't want to give that impression," Brenner said.

Russian officials have expressed frustration at what they see as U.S. foreign policy unrestrained by consultation with other world powers, including Russia. They have criticized the expansion of NATO into the former Soviet sphere of influence and U.S. plans to install radar and interceptors in Eastern Europe as part of a missile defense program.

In turn, U.S. officials have warned that Russia's increased assertiveness in challenging U.S. policy is complicating cooperation on important foreign policy goals, including counterterrorism, nonproliferation and the promotion of democracy in the Middle East.

Both sides have denied that the tension means a return to the Cold War.

The Kremlin said Thursday that Putin had sent a letter to a summit of Arab leaders calling for a time limit on the U.S. military presence in Iraq.

Putin said in the letter to the summit, which opened Wednesday in the Saudi capital, that Russia highly valued "the Arab world's contribution to building a just, multipolar world order and political and diplomatic settlement of crises."

In what sounded like a veiled criticism of the United States, Putin complained in the letter against a "policy of unilateral use of force and a desire to monopolize conflict settlement." He also criticized those seeking to "provoke a confrontation between civilizations and faiths."

Lavrov, meanwhile, criticized the United States for conducting naval maneuvers in the Persian Gulf.

Lavrov said: "The Persian Gulf is in such a troubled state today that any actions in the region, especially those with the use of the navy and other military forces, should, of course, take into account the need to prevent the exacerbation of the situation even further. It has already been heightened to the limit."

The U.S. exercise, which ended Wednesday, was the largest show of force in the Gulf since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, with 15 ships, 125 aircraft and 13,000 sailors taking part in maneuvers a few dozen kilometers off Iran's coast.

Who's Afraid of a Big Bad Bolshevik?

Vladimir Putin, that's who. As well he should be, given the fact that today's Russia is exactly like Russia of 1917, with a tiny class of super-rich "oligarchs" sucking the blood of a vast ocean of impoverished masses and hence ripe for class warfare and revolution. Kommersant reports:

Rosokhrankultura, the federal mass media and culture oversight agency, has sent Kommersant a warning not to use the word combination “National Bolshevik Party” or the abbreviation NBP, inasmuch as the National Bolshevik Party is not officially registered. The agency cited “the impermissibility of violations of the requirements of the legislation of the Russian Federation” in a letter signed by deputy chairman of the agency Alexander Romanenko.

Romanenkov's letter makes reference to the March 12, 2007, article “They Voted with Their Hands and Feet at the Polls” describing actions staged by the National Bolsheviks at polling places during the regional parliamentary elections. “In the Russian federation, there is no political party with the name National Bolshevik Party,'” Romanenkov writes. Therefore, “the information published by the editorial staff of Kommersant newspaper about the existence and activity of a political party with the name National Bolshevik Party,' as well as about specific persons who are allegedly members and activists in the NBP, can be construed as falsification of socially significant information, the circulation of rumors in the guise of reliable reports and as information that does not correspond with reality.” Rosokhrankultura posted a letter to the media on its website in July 2006 forbidding them to use that word combination and threatening them with the cancellation of their licenses.

“I know that all publications try to avoid that word combination so as not to receive a warning,” commented Igor Yakovenko, general secretary of the Journalists' Union. “I can say with complete certainty that Rosokhrankultura's claims are groundless and are politically motivated.” Kommersant was unable to find other publications that had received warnings. “I wrote, write and will continue to write NBP,'” said Newsweek reporter Aidar Buribaev, “because it is now a real political force and interesting events happen around it.” Gazeta newspaper political reviewer said, “I write both the full name and the abbreviation, but there has been no scolding from the authorities.”

Head of the Kommersant legal department Georgy Ivanov noted that “the warning has no legal consequences.” National Bolshevik leader Eduard Limonov advised the newspaper to refer to those who share his views by their Russian nicknames of limonovtsy or natsboly.

You're Only Stealing from Yourselves, Russians

The Moscow Times reports that the chickens of Russian contempt for legality in general and copyright law in particular are coming home to roost:

The low level of intellectual and other property rights protection in information and communication technologies is holding Russia back compared with many ex-communist countries, Global Information Technology said in a new report.

The report, covering 122 countries, ranks Russia 70th in its assessment of "the impact of information and communication technology, or ICT, on the development process and the competitiveness of nations for the year 2006-2007."

Russia rose two places from last year, when it placed 72nd, partly due to its high capacity for innovation and more widespread Internet use by business.

The authors of the report, which was released Wednesday, define the rating criteria as the degree to which a country is prepared to participate in and benefit from information and communication technology.

Despite a series of official pronouncements about Russia's quantum leap in the IT industry, the country fared relatively poorly next to some other former Soviet countries, especially the Baltic states. Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, the Slovak Republic, Hungary, Slovenia, Poland and Romania all placed ahead of Russia.

Estonia, which ranked 20th, stands out for the impressive progress realized in the space of a decade in networked readiness as well as general competitiveness, driven by an efficient government ICT vision and strategy, the report said.

For the first time, Denmark topped the rankings, followed by Sweden and Singapore.

The report's authors ranked countries based on 67 criteria, which were divided into three components -- environment, readiness and usage.

Russia placed 82nd in terms of its market and political, regulatory and infrastructure landscape; 75th in openness toward new technologies; and 73rd in usage rates. The report shows that Russia's IT industry suffers from a high level of government regulation and limits on press freedom, and that it spends little on staff training.

Russia scores relatively well in the quality of its math and science education and the amounts businesses are prepared to spend on research and development. It also performs well in the time that it takes to enforce a business contract, clinching a surprising fifth place in a country known for bureaucratic delays.

Recent government efforts to boost and diversify the economy are reflected in the report, with the country ranking 50th and 60th in an e-government readiness index and e-participation respectively. The report went on to chide the government for assigning ICT a back seat in its vision of the future, however.

Physical infrastructure also registers some improvement, with both telephone lines and electricity production receiving a boost. The country still lags behind in the availability of telephone lines, where it is ranked 90th, while its high-speed and public Internet access leaves much to be desired, the report said.

One conspicuous drawback of the latest report, however, is the absence of up-to-date data on Russia's ICT infrastructure. The data on phone lines, electricity production and the tertiary environment are two to three years old, making the overall assessment incomplete.

March 30, 2007 - Contents

FRIDAY MARCH 30 CONTENTS

(1) Yet Another Journalist in the Kremlin's Crosshairs

(2) Kiselyov on Khodorkovsky

(3) Annals of the Neo-Soviet Robber Barons

(4) You say you want a Scientific Revolution?

(5) Pining for Dictatorship

Friday, March 30, 2007

Yet Another Journalist in the Kremlin's Crosshairs

The Moscow News reports:

The Committee to Protect Journalists is alarmed by the criminal prosecution of Viktor Shmakov (pictured, left), editor-in-chief of the opposition newspaper Provintsialnye Vesti (Provincial News) in the Russian republic of Bashkortostan, the watchdog said in a web release.

Prosecutors in the regional capital Ufa, 680 miles (1100 kilometers) east of Moscow, have charged Shmakov with “public calls for the realization of extremist activity using mass media” and “calls for insubordination to legal authorities,” according to local press reports. If convicted in the trial that began March 21, Shmakov faces up to five years in prison.

The charges against Shmakov stem from two articles published in an April 2006 edition of Provintsialnye Vesti that criticized corruption and human rights abuses in Bashkortostan. The articles also called for the resignation of the republic’s president, Murtaza Rakhimov, who has ruled the oil-rich and mostly Muslim republic since 1993, according to local press reports. Shmakov did not write the articles. Authorities have filed the same charges against the author, local opposition leader Airat Dilmukhametov. “The prosecution of our colleague Viktor Shmakov is another disturbing example of Russian authorities’ use of the full force of criminal law to stifle critical reporting and opinion,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “Political criticism is not a crime. All charges against Viktor Shmakov must be dropped immediately.”

The persecution of Shmakov started on April 28, 2006, when Federal Security Service (FSB) agents arrested him for his paper’s critical reporting. He was sentenced to two months in jail, while the FSB and Interior Ministry said they were conducting a joint investigation into his alleged extremist activities. On May 16, 2006, the Supreme Court of Bashkortostan ruled that authorities did not have enough evidence to hold Shmakov, and ordered his release. However, authorities delayed implementing the court’s decision for 48 hours before releasing the journalist on May 19, 2006. Bashkortostan prosecutors had initially added the charge of “organizing mass unrest” to Shmakov’s indictments, a count that provides for up to 10 years in prison, but later reduced to the lesser charge of “calling for insubordination to legal authorities” in August 2006.

The CPJ press release states:

The persecution of Shmakov started on April 28, 2006, when Federal Security Service (FSB) agents arrested him for his paper’s critical reporting. He was sentenced to two months in jail, while the FSB and Interior Ministry said they were conducting a joint investigation into his alleged extremist activities. On May 16, 2006, the Supreme Court of Bashkortostan ruled that authorities did not have enough evidence to hold Shmakov, and ordered his release. However, authorities delayed implementing the court’s decision for 48 hours before releasing the journalist on May 19, 2006.

Kiselyov on Khodorkovsy

Writing in the Moscow Times, pundit Yevgeny Kiselyov (pictured) analyzes the proceedings in the Khodorkovsky retrial:

For over a week now I have been perplexed by the fact that those monitoring human rights in Russia have not come up with an answer for the following question: Why after four years of relentlessly prosecuting the Yukos case did Moscow's Basmanny District Court decide in favor of former CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky on March 20?

Why has the court -- the very name of which has become synonymous with selective application of the law, or simply lawlessness -- suddenly granted the defense's motion against hearing the latest charges against Khodorkovsky and his former business partner Platon Lebedev in a court in the remote Chita region?

There was another decision from the court, on Monday, that muddied the waters a bit but likely didn't represent a change in the outcome. I will return to that later.

The fact remains that over the last four years the court has handed down dozens of rulings regarding Khodorkovsky, Lebedev and Yukos. The defense lawyers have, as a rule, challenged the actions by the Prosecutor General's Office. The court, as a rule, has decided in favor of the prosecution. That's why the latest decision was so surprising.

Those who prepared the proceedings moved the hearing to Chita, almost 6,000 kilometers away. This would have made it more difficult for the press, defense witnesses and defense lawyers to attend. It looked like a move to reduce publicity after the initial Moscow proceedings were accompanied by daily demonstrations and the presence of high-profile supporters.

Shifting the venue to Chita was against the law, which states that defendants should be tried either in their city of residence or where prosecutors claim a crime was committed. Nobody expected the court to allow an end run around this requirement.

Even less expected was its subsequent change of mind.

Some starry-eyed optimists might suggest the court has just decided that strict adherence to the law is paramount. But the shift is more likely linked to a comment by Yury Shmidt, Khodorkovsky's lawyer. He said that when the court openly and repeatedly sides with the prosecution it helps the defense. The more Khodorkovsky's rights are violated, the greater the chance he will win when he seeks redress from the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

The Strasbourg court will examine if the defendants had access to objective and impartial proceedings; whether the adversarial principal of justice was properly applied; if the defendants' procedural rights were ignored; if the proceedings were open to the public and media; and how state-controlled media covered the proceedings.

There were clearly violations. Neither Khodorkovsky nor his lawyers was given sufficient time to become acquainted with the prosecution's materials in the case. The defense was refused the right to introduce documents, reports by independent experts and other materials into the record of the court's proceedings. And, as defense lawyers have often pointed out, the verdicts have been nearly verbatim repetitions -- including grammatical errors -- of the indictment.

It is not hard to imagine Khodorkovsky and Lebedev winning their case in Strasbourg.

Until recently, Russian authorities have maintained a very condescending attitude toward the Strasbourg court. It might have been unpleasant losing different cases in the court, but the decisions obtained on human rights violations there don't have the power to overturn rulings from Russian courts. Telling the public that the problem is in the court's anti-Russian bias, fanned by enemies who cannot bear to watch the country's return to power and greatness, is also an integral part of the strategy.

But the authorities now seem to realize that decisions from Strasbourg have legal as well as political consequences. The legal consequences could roll over into financial penalties in the billions of dollars.

As a case in point, this year the European Court of Human Rights is expected to hear complaints connected with the Yukos case. A parallel process has been taking place quietly and unobtrusively. Yukos shareholders have filed a lawsuit against the Russian government demanding compensation for what was essentially the nationalization of the oil company. The amount they are suing for, $50 billion, is the largest in the history of legal arbitration.

Although the authorities are publicly silent about the case, they are taking it very seriously. They have spared no expense in hiring a major U.S. law firm, Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton, and bringing in top-notch Russian lawyers.

The first hearings at the International Court of Arbitration at The Hague will come at the end of the spring. The court could rule that the case is outside of its jurisdiction, which would end Russia's problems. If it takes the case, the proceeding could stretch out for years. Imagine the difficulties for Moscow if the Strasbourg court ruled in Khodorkovsky's favor while The Hague was still considering the unlawful nationalization complaint.

The Kremlin now has to deal with the possibility that future verdicts from Strasbourg will be used in arbitration lawsuits or criminal proceedings against the state or senior Russian officials.

This helps explain why President Vladimir Putin replaced Pavel Laptev, who ended his term in Strasbourg in disgrace, with Veronika Milinchuk, a close associate of Justice Minister Vladimir Ustinov, as representative to the human rights court. Her appointment came with the announcement that, henceforth, the country's representative to Strasbourg will hold the post of deputy justice minister.

Ustinov has his own reasons for being concerned about the result of the proceedings in Strasbourg. After all, it was he who ran the Prosecutor General's Office that brought criminal charges against Yukos executives, applied for warrants to conduct searches and arrests, and managed to obtain the strict verdicts it was seeking against the accused.

Taken together, all of this suggests that the looming hearings in Strasbourg might be behind the decision to transfer the trial back to Moscow.

If this is the case, we might even expect the new proceedings to be conducted in accordance with all proper procedures. Even if it adds a year to the duration of the hearings, it will be worth it. A facade of irreproachable punctiliousness will have to be maintained during the process of reaching the predetermined guilty verdict. Only then will the state have any hope of defending its actions in Strasbourg.

Monday's decision on the legality of moving Khodorkovsky and Lebedev to Chita might introduce some confusion here. But, as a member of Khodorkovsky's legal team explained to me, the ruling was of no real importance.

For the defense, what is important is that it has in hand a decision with greater legal bearing. This is the Basmanny District Court ruling that the investigation into the charges against Khodorkovsky and Lebedev can't be carried out in Chita, and this ruling can only be overturned by a higher court. If the Moscow City Court upholds the decision, this supports my theory that there is a political consideration in relation to the Strasbourg Court in play. If the Moscow City Court does overturn the decision, I'm wrong, and the Basmanny District Court ruling was just a blip.

We probably won't have to wait long to find out what the real case was.

Annals of the Neo-Soviet Robber Barons

The Economist explains how, after liquidating Mikhail Khodorkovsky as a political rival, the Kremlin then turned it's attention to pilfering his assets.

There were no bids from mysterious bimbos, and the auctioneer was not wearing a bow tie. Although the sale on Tuesday March 27th of a 9.4% stake in Rosneft, a state-controlled Russian oil firm, lacked some of the quirks of previous Russian auctions, it did exhibit some traditional features. It lasted only a few minutes, and the goods went for a song to the expected winner—in this case, Rosneft itself.

This was the first in a series of auctions of the remaining assets belonging to Yukos, once Russia’s top oil company, which was forced into bankruptcy (wrongly, it says) last year by alleged tax arrears and penalties amounting to roughly $33 billion. Yukos’s stake in Rosneft was a leftover from the knock-down sale, in 2004, of most of its main subsidiary to a farcical front company, which was itself acquired by Rosneft soon afterwards. The price for this week’s lot, which included some lesser assets, of 197.8 billion roubles ($7.6 billion), represented a 10% discount on market value: nice business for Rosneft, though less good for the Russian state and people.

Other would-be buyers—including Gazprom and some foreign energy firms, possibly in collaboration with Russian ones—are likely to come forward. Most important for the future of the Russian oil industry will be the fate of Yukos’s two remaining production units and its network of refineries. Having just borrowed $22 billion from a clutch of foreign banks, Rosneft looks poised for more bargain buys. Since it is also Yukos’s second-biggest creditor, after the taxman, Rosneft should recoup much of its outlay swiftly.

The most interesting aspect of this week’s sale, which was held at Yukos’s now-sombre headquarters, was not the identity of the winner but that of the only other bidder: TNK-BP, an Anglo-Russian oil firm that British Petroleum (BP) bought into before the Kremlin circumscribed foreign participation in Russia’s energy sector. In a replay of Shell’s experience on Sakhalin island, TNK-BP is having trouble holding onto its investments, in particular the giant Kovykta gas field in Siberia that it controls. Ludicrous licensing requirements are helping Gazprom to muscle its way into that project—and perhaps into overall control of the company.

Lord Browne, BP’s chief executive, visited Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, last week. Speculation has it that TNK-BP’s participation in the auction was meant to confer legitimacy on the event (Russian law requires there to be at least two bidders), and thus to curry favour with the Kremlin—and perhaps also with Rosneft, who might be a more palatable partner than Gazprom. Though TNK-BP insisted that its interest in the auction was real, it seemed to wane pretty quickly. Meanwhile, more charges are being brought against Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Yukos’s former boss, who was arrested in 2003, and PricewaterhouseCoopers, Yukos’s auditor, has also been targeted by prosecutors. Those cases also seem designed to help justify the sell-offs. But larceny, even with a (relatively) respectable face, is still larceny.

You Say you want a Scientific Revolution?

The Associated Press reports on an encouraging sign of rebellion within Russia's scientific intelligentsia:

Russia's scientific elite, in a rare show of disobedience to the Kremlin, on Wednesday voted against a government-proposed charter that would have transferred control of the historically independent Academy of Sciences to the state. The academy has spearheaded fundamental research for nearly three centuries and enjoyed a high degree of autonomy even in Soviet times, when it refused to expel dissident physicist Andrei Sakharov. The Education Ministry had proposed creating a supervisory board consisting mostly of government representatives that would oversee the academy's work, budget and property, including vast real estate assets. Instead, senior members of the academy voted unanimously for regulations that would allow it to keep its autonomy.

The vote was a rare statement of dissent against President Vladimir Putin's government, which has established tight control over Russia's political, economic and social life. First steps toward imposing greater government control began last year when parliament passed a law stipulating that the academy's top executive must be approved by the president and its charter approved by the government. The Education Ministry proposed an academy charter that would create an advisory body made up of nine people, only three of whom would be scientists; the rest would be government ministers, lawmakers and Kremlin officials.

Under the ministry's proposal, the advisory body would control research, decide which scientific projects to pursue and distribute state funding. "Whether people having no relation to science can make decisions about scientific work is a big question," said academy spokeswoman Irina Presnyakova. "The scientific community has enjoyed specific freedoms and autonomy everywhere and at all times," Zhores Alferov, a Nobel physics laureate and senior academy member, said on NTV television.

Founded by Peter the Great in 1724, the Academy of Sciences has cherished its autonomy. In the Soviet era, it refused to accept some senior Communist Party members whom it saw unqualified. The state-funded academy commands a budget of $1.2 billion, has 400 research institutes and some 200,000 scientists across the country. Critics say the government's move is also aimed at gaining control over the academy's lucrative real estate assets, including palaces and other sites in Moscow and St. Petersburg. "The Kremlin and the government have long been eyeing this tasty morsel and of course the academicians don't want to see their financial and moral situation weakened," said Yevgeny Volk, head of the Heritage Foundation's Moscow office. Volk predicted a tough battle between the academy's leaders and the government, saying that the authorities could offer additional perks to the academicians in exchange for control over the organization.

Dmitry Livanov, a deputy education minister, said that the ministry wouldn't approve the academy's version of its charter, but added that it was ready for a "constructive dialogue," the ITAR-Tass news agency said. If the Education Ministry and the academy fail to reach a compromise, the government has the power to enforce its version of the charter. However, the Kremlin would likely try to avoid an open clash with the widely respected body that could erode the government's prestige ahead of the parliamentary election this fall and the presidential vote in March 2008. Academy president Yuri Osipov predicted difficulties getting its version of the new charter approved by the government, even though he insisted it fully complied with Russian law, but he vowed to resist government moves for control. "We don't take seriously anything that is made up by outside people having no relation to us," he said on NTV.

Pining for Dictatorship

One of the more truly absurd bits of propaganda circulated about Russians is that the only reason they support Soviet policies is their poverty and cruel circumstances. Give Russians financial stability, they say, and they'll favor democratic polices just as much as anyone.

HA! Check out this forum on Way to Russia where the participants wax nostaligic about the USSR despite the alleged booming Russian economy and rock-solid leadership of wildly popular Vladimir Putin. The dominant theme seems to be how superior Soviet culture was to what Russia has today. For instance, one poster writes:

Westerners often think that the Soviet Union was some Nazi-era state and that if the Germans had won WWII, the 3rd Reich would have looked something like the USSR. That's completely opposite of the truth. Sure the Soviet economy wasn't anything to boast about and most people were poor by western standards, but Soviet culture was IMENSELY superior to the culture today. Soviet culture was in more ways than not, an extension of traditional Russian culture, based on peace, love, and friendship. The Soviet Union may not have had a high standard of living, but it had it's dignity. Why do you think the Middle East and Islam is so hateful of the west? Because they want to stand up for their cultural values which have intertwined their society for thousands of years. The only other option for them is to be turned into a cesspool like Russia has been.
It's quite true, of course, that the highly stylish manner Stalin developed for sending folks off the the GULAG cannot ever be compared to the crude tactics of today's Russian rulers. But can you imagine what people would say about a forum of Germans talking about the high points of Nazi culture? Why oh why won't they say that about neo-Soviets? After all, the Soviet regime murdered far more Russians than the Nazis.


Thursday, March 29, 2007

March 29, 2007 -- Contents

THURSDAY MARCH 29 CONTENTS

(1) Annals of the Neo-Soviet Union: Human Rights into the Crapper

(2) What's Next? A Fry Cook for President?

(3) It Takes One to Know One

(4) LR on DAN

(5) Annals of Shamapova: Misery in Miami


Annals of the Neo-Soviet Union: Human Rights into the Crapper

The Associated Press reports:

Russia's human rights climate is deteriorating, and Soviet-style restrictions on freedom of speech and expression are multiplying, Russian and international activists warn.

Nina Tagankina, of the Moscow Helsinki Group, said there has been an "overall worsening" of the situation in Russia and that authorities are prohibiting more peaceful protests and rallies.

The Vienna-based International Helsinki Federation said in a report that Russian authorities have imposed tighter restrictions on the freedom of association and were resorting to intimidation and abuse of opposition activists.

"The actions of the police ... remind one of the intolerance of political pluralism that existed here in the Soviet Union," Executive Director Aaron Rhodes said in a statement Tuesday. "Russia is moving toward a one-party state."

Over the weekend, police in the central city of Nizhny Novgorod violently dispersed an anti-government rally dubbed the March of Those Who Disagree. Three weeks earlier, police in St. Petersburg clubbed protesters and dragged them into waiting buses during a demonstration against President Vladimir Putin and Kremlin policies. An anti-government protest in Moscow in December was similarly quashed by a huge police presence that dwarfed the demonstrators.

The crackdown in Nizhny Novgorod led the United States on Monday to decry "Russian government heavy-handedness" against people trying to exercise democratic rights.

It "raises serious concerns about Russians' ability to exercise their rights to assembly, free speech and peaceful protest," State Department spokesman Tom Casey said.

In a letter to Russia's human rights ombudsman, leading rights activists said the breakup of the demonstrations was blatantly illegal. They also quoted Putin as saying earlier this month that "no one has the right" to deprive dissenters of the right to protest.

"A legal question arises: to what extent is policy in the country determined by the guarantees of the Constitution and to what extent by law-enforcement agencies and local governments?" said the letter, signed by Moscow Helsinki Group chairwoman Lyudmila Alexeyeva, For Human Rights chairman Lev Ponomaryev and 18 other activists.

Tagankina also said a new law imposing tighter restrictions on rights groups violated their freedom of expression and prevented many from operating freely.

A Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said that Putin's administration does not believe there is a human rights crisis in Russia or that "democracy is in bad condition," but acknowledges that "like in any country ... there is still plenty to be done to improve democratic mechanisms."

He said he was not familiar with the International Helsinki Federation report, but that foreign asessments of human rights in Russia are often subjective and biased.

What's Next? A Fry Cook for President?

A few weeks ago, La Russophobe reported on the interesting decision of the Kremlin to make an accountant its Defense Minister. Now, continuing the same "logic," the Kremlin announces that a physicist will be placed in charge of electoral fairness. What's next, a pastry chef at the United Nations? Monsters & Critics reports:

With presidential and parliamentary elections looming in the next year, Russia's Central Elections Commission Tuesday voted Vladimir Churov, a physicist and acquaintance of President Vladimir Putin, as its new chairman.

The commission voted 13-2 to make Churov its head. There were no other candidates for the position. Churov's appointment came after Putin chose not to renominate two-time commission chair Alexander Veshnyakov following regional elections earlier this month. Veshnyakov, whose tenure began in 1999, had made it clear he was interested in a third term. No explanation has been given for his omission from the elections body.

Media have speculated that criticism of initiatives launched by United Russia, the country's main pro-Kremlin party, caused Veshnyakov to be considered a possible risk during 2008 presidential elections and 2007 parliamentary elections. After being elected Tuesday, Churov told members of the elections commission that, unlike Veshnyakov, he was 'inclined to a lesser degree to comment on the existing law and more (inclined) to carry it out,' Interfax reported.

The former physicist, who worked under Putin in St Petersburg's city hall in the 1990s, said the commission would be not 'indifferent, but equally close, to all parties.' Lyubov Sliska, deputy speaker of the lower house of parliament and a member of United Russia, called Churov a 'very responsible person and a brave deputy.' Churov was elected to parliament in 2003 as a member of the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party. During the new commission's first meeting on Tuesday, ex-head Veshnyakov used his parting address to criticize recent legislation increasing the minimum number of members a political party must have to 50,000 from 10,000. He also spoke out against the practice of prominent party members winning party-list nominations, only to step down and give their seat to a less-known party member. But, he said, his departure should not be seen as 'an expulsion of people who advocate democratic principles in Russian elections,' adding in remarks quoted by Interfax, 'it's certainly not that way.'

Vladislav Surkov, an adviser to Putin, said Tuesday the Russian president would award Veshnyakov for his 'service before the fatherland.'

It Takes one to Know One

RIA Novosti reports that Alexander Lukashenko believes Russia is a "monster." Well, takes one to know one, so it's hard to argue. Once again, Russia is shown to be alienating every potential friend on the face of the earth, just as in Soviet times.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said Wednesday his country will strive for a good relationship with Russia despite recent bilateral problems but called its eastern neighbor "a monster."

Earlier this year, the neighbors were embroiled in an energy dispute after Russia doubled the natural gas price to $100 per 1,000 cubic meters and Minsk in response introduced a transit levy of $45 per metric ton for Russian crude pumped to Europe via Belarus. Russia briefly halted supplies to Europe, accusing Belarus of tapping its oil transits. Lukashenko said Belarus will develop good-neighborly relations with Russia and the West. "We have a huge monster - Russia - in the east and the European Union in the West," he said, adding that his country has developed trade with the EU. "As soon as we began talking to the European Union, Russians started crying that Lukashenko was betraying Russia. But Lukashenko is not a man to betray anyone," he said.

Lukashenko said Belarus is Russia's stronghold given U.S. plans to deploy elements of its missile shield in Central Europe and plans by Ukraine and Georgia to join NATO. He said Belarus, which is building a union with Russia, will fulfill its defense obligations despite recent difficulties in bilateral relations. "We will not blackmail Russia despite recent complications," the president said adding that defense was not a subject for blackmailing. "I think common sense and a desire to continue our relations on a decent basis will prevail in Russia. We are ready," he said. Lukashenko also said he will soon meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss bilateral issues and further steps on the creation of the Union State.

LR on DAN

Check out La Russophobe's guest post on Darkness at Noon regarding the interesting philosophical question of whether to treat Russia with tough love or soft love. DAN would love to receive reader comments on this topic (he's instigated the discussion with a thoughtful and interesting post of his own), which is of particular interest to him.

Annals of Shamapova: Misery in Miami

A major tennis tournament is underway in Miami, Florida -- the Sony Eriksson Open, where male and female players compete together just like a Grand Slam and a huge number of ranking points are in play. More Russian humiliation? Oh my, yes.

The seven Russians among the 32 seeds are (well, were): Maria Sharapova, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Nadia Petrova, Anna Chakvetadze, Dinara Safina, Vera Zvonoreva and Maria Kirilenko.

Kirilenko was eliminated in her opening match in easy straight sets by a lower-ranked, unseeded player.

That same player, a rusty Venus Williams, stretched Shamapova to three sets in her second match; Shamapova "won" despite making 1/3 more errors than she struck winners and losing her serve not once, not twice, but three different times in the third set. So much for little miss "power shot"!

Kuznetsova, ranked #3 in the world, lost her third match to a player not ranked in the top 15 and not seeded in the top 10 -- going out meekly 3-6 in the third set. Zvonoreva was pulverized in her third match, but by the number one player in the world, Henin-Hardenne. World #2 Sharapova was destroyed even more emphatically in her third match by Serena Williams, a player not ranked in the world's top 15, winning only two of 14 games played. For a player ranked #1 just days ago, Sharapova's shoddy play was a true scandal. She struck twice as many errors as winners, double-faulted eight times, had her serve broken five out of seven times (yielding serve on 83% of her opponent's opportunties to break), never had a break point of her own and her opponent won twice as many points during the course of the match. She was blown off the court in less than an hour, exposed as a fundamentally inferior player when compared to a true champion, even a rusty one on the comeback trail.

Petrova ousted Safina in their third match to become one of only two Russians to reach the quarterfinals (thanks to being lucky enough to play another Russian!). Chakvetadze became the only Russian to beat a non-Russian to reach the quarters, taking out the lowest seed, and was on track to meet Petrova in the semis if they could both win their quarters matches. Chakvetadze did so, taking out a lower-ranked Chinese player, but Petrova was left to face world #1 Justine Henin-Hardenne. Three guesses as to what happened to Petrova. That's right: Straight-set loss.

The net result (excuse the pun!) was that the only one of Russia's seven seeds to reach the semi-finals in Miami was the one player, Chakvetadeze, whom Slavic Russians would least accept as actually being "Russian." Russia's two top-five players both utterly humliated themselves, once again. Ask any tennis fan who they'd rather see play Justine in the finals of a big tournament, Serena Williams (not top 10) or Kuznetsova or Sharapova (both top 10). It's a no brainer.

Oh the pain, the pain. So much for the idea of Russian "dominance" in the sport of tennis (remember, the ladies are a million times better than the men, so we won't even go there).

March 28, 2007 -- Contents

WEDNESDAY MARCH 28 CONTENTS

(1) FSB Implicated in Politkovskaya Killing

(2) Murder in Russia

(3) Racism in Russia

(4) Oborona Website back in Action

(5) Annals of Cold War II: Europe Seeking to Kick the Russia Habit


Wednesday, March 28, 2007

FSB Implicated in Politkovskaya Killing

Reader Jeremy Putley points to the following horrifying item from the Radio Free Europe newswire on Monday (it was picked up by Strade's Chechyna List the same day):



FSB, PRO-MOSCOW CHECHEN LEADER IMPLICATED IN POLITKOVSKAYA KILLING


Five former members of the now disbanded Gorets armed unit headed by Movladi Baysarov have accused pro-Moscow Chechen administration head Ramzan Kadyrov of sending three of their former colleagues to Moscow to kill Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, and of having them murdered upon their return to Chechnya. In a 1,200-word missive sent to Daymohk and Chechenews and reposted on March 23rd by chechenpress.org, the five outlined Baysarov's collaboration with the GRU and the Russian 58th Army beginning in 1996, and his estrangement from Kadyrov after Kadyrov's father's death in a terrorist attack in May 2004. They alleged that Kadyrov personally selected three of their colleagues and dispatched them to Moscow, where they murdered Politkovskaya on orders from an FSB Colonel identified as Igor Dranets. On their return to Chechnya, the three men reported personally to Kadyrov on their mission, after which they were purportedly executed by members of Kadyrov's security guard. Baysarov protested the killing of his men and then left for Moscow, where he was gunned down in the street on November 18 by police sent by Kadyrov from Grozny.

Murder in Russia

Writing in Forbes Gary Weiss, who has covered business for more than 20 years as an investigative reporter and author, encapsulates the crude thuggery Russia practices against journalists of every stripe and the even more crude silence of the Russian people in the face of this outrage. Gary's latest book is Wall Street Vs. America: The Rampant Greed and Dishonesty That Imperil Your Investments. He is also a blogger. Importantly, he exposes the absurd Russophile canard that murdered Forbes editor Paul Klebnikov was somehow Kremlin-friendly and hence that his killing was not further proof of Kremlin malignancy.

A delegation of the Committee to Protect Journalists was in Moscow recently--a high-octane one, led by Wall Street Journal managing editor Paul Steiger and former Time Inc. editor-in-chief Norman Pearlstein. There were meetings with Russian officials and journalists, but this was not one of your standard feel-good cultural exchange projects.

The subject was--and is--murder. Thirteen journalists have been killed in Russia since 2000, in a brutal and systematic campaign to snuff out free speech and terrorize the former Soviet republics. One of the slain journalists was Paul Klebnikov, an American who was gunned down on the streets of Moscow in July 2004.

Now I'm realistic, or perhaps a bit cynical. I don't expect most people in this country to be too surprised or even upset about any of this. After all, this is Russia--the country that almost blew us to bits during the Cold War, and where American citizens live and work in an atmosphere of fear, violence and intimidation.

Still, you should care a great deal--you should be screaming and hollering, in fact--about the slaying of Paul Klebnikov, a brilliant investigative journalist who was editor of the Russian edition of Forbes magazine. This brazen murder, which has never been solved, was a crime against America as much as it was against Paul, his family and his information-hungry Russian readers.

The time has arrived for our government to initiate an investigation, with the aim of apprehending and prosecuting Paul's murderers wherever they may be.

That could open up a hornet's nest of international complications, which is why a formal U.S. investigation has not been launched. But failure to act would play into the hands of the terrorists who carried out this murder. Let's review for a moment why Paul was killed, and why it requires a strong U.S. response that--for understandable reasons--has not yet been forthcoming.

Unlike the other brave Russian journalists who were murdered, Paul's audience was as much this country as it was Russia. He wrote books that shaped American perceptions of Russia's new elite, in addition to his groundbreaking Russian-language investigative reporting.

At the time of his death, Paul was believed to have been investigating a complex web of money laundering involving a Chechen reconstruction fund, reaching into the centers of power in the Kremlin and involving elements of organized crime and the FSB (the former KGB).

Paul was murdered to prevent you from knowing about any of this. His murder was intended to send a message: No one, not even an American citizen, is immune to the forces in Russia who believe that a free press impinges on their license to steal.

Paul's murder was, in other words, an act of terrorism, and it needs to be treated as such by this country.

By law, this country can prosecute the murderer of a U.S. citizen overseas when the U.S. attorney general certifies that the murder "was intended to coerce, intimidate or retaliate against a government or a civilian population." That's as neat a description of Paul's slaying as I have ever found.

Ironically, the Russian authorities--for their own purposes--agree that it was an act of terrorism. They've maintained that Paul's death was ordered by Khozh-Akhmed Nukhaev, a Chechen separatist leader and organized crime boss who is already branded a terrorist and wanted by Moscow.

Nukhaev is an obvious suspect because he was the subject of a book that Paul wrote, Conversation With a Barbarian--a critical one, as its title suggests. But Nukhaev is just too convenient a suspect, in the view of many Americans and Russians familiar with the case. For one thing, he is, conveniently, missing.

Two Chechens were put on trial as the actual triggermen in Paul's murder, and both were acquitted. Prosecutors appealed, and a new trial is set for Feb. 15. However, there is no assurance that the defendants will actually bother to attend the trial. Both were freed after the acquittal, and one is believed to have left the country. That alone makes the chances of obtaining justice at a new trial questionable at best.

Russian authorities have maintained that the gunmen were tasked to their mission by Nukhaev. However, Chechen gunmen and killers have been known to perform "muscle" work outside of Chechnya.

The first task of any American investigation would be to clear up the question of Nukhaev's culpability.

An American interagency group has been monitoring the Russian investigation, and that could be the nucleus for a formal U.S. investigation that would call on the resources of the intelligence community. But there must be a free and open exchange of information between agencies--and that, apparently, has not been happening on the crucial issue of Nukhaev.

Scott Armstrong, a veteran investigative journalist and founder of the National Security Archive, who has been following the Klebnikov case, has been told by law enforcement and intelligence sources that significant intelligence on Nukhaev and on Chechen hoodlum gangs has not been shared with law enforcement.

The U.S. needs to resolve its interagency differences and use the full resources of the intelligence community to determine if indeed Nukhaev ordered Klebnikov killed. If he did, we should find him, arrest him and prosecute him. If not, we should find out who did--and put him behind bars if Russian authorities are unwilling to do so.

Obviously, this will cause (to put it mildly) complications in our relations with Russia, which has resented even the private pressure that has been applied in the Klebnikov case.

One might also argue that it sets a precedent whereby other nations may seek to prosecute Americans under their definition of terrorism. All that needs to be taken into consideration, as does the impact of our relations with Russia. But these factors are, I believe, outweighed by our own national interest in preserving the safety of American journalists and businessmen living and working in Russia.

The parallels between Klebnikov's slaying and the murder of Don Bolles, an Arizona journalist slain in 1976, are becoming increasingly apparent. Bolles was killed for probing the mobsters and land-fraud schemes that plagued the Southwest in the mid-1970s.

The Bolles murder resulted in the creation of the Arizona Project, a consortium of journalists that was created to continue Bolles' work. Scott Armstrong and I, along with Richard Behar and others, are members of Project Klebnikov, which has similar aims in continuing Paul's legacy. (This column, incidentally, speaks only for myself, not for the project.)

Thanks to dedicated and relentless police work, Bolles' killers were eventually brought to justice. No such outcome is likely in Russia, because Russia today is more akin to the Arizona of the 1870s than the Arizona of the 1970s--replete with robber barons, overnight fortunes, corrupt sheriffs and gunslingers for hire.

That is a domestic affair within Russia, I guess--but not when terrorism against Americans is involved.

Our government has the tools it needs to speak back to the hoodlums who sent that message to America 30 months ago. Time to use them.

Racism in Russia

News24 reports on the increasing horrors of racism in Russia, including state complicity:

Racism in Russia reached a new peak last year with far right groups carrying out more brazen attacks and the state organising a crackdown on ethnic Georgians, said a human rights group on Monday.

In its annual report the respected monitoring centre Sova said that far right skinhead groups were no longer operating in the shadows. Researcher Galina Kozhevnikova said: "In place of knuckle-dusters, knives and fists, skinheads are switching to guns and bombs. "We are seeing crimes of a demonstrative character, not committed under cover of darkness in back courtyards but in the presence of cameras and crowds, with the intention of creating an effect."

Far right extremists were diversifying outside Moscow and had organised co-ordinated rallies across Russia, she added. In particular, she referred to the break-up by skinheads of a gay rights march last May and a racially motivated bomb attack on a Moscow market in August that left 11 people dead. By a conservative estimate, the number of victims of racist attacks last year rose by 17% to 539, of whom 54 people died, said the report.

'Discriminatory campaign'

Sova also took aim at President Vladimir Putin's government over an anti-Georgian crackdown during a diplomatic spat last year and campaigns to restrict foreigners from working in markets.

"For the first time we've seen an officially sanctioned discriminatory campaign, which we witnessed against Georgians last autumn," said Kozhevnikova.

The report said: "Television and part of the print media immediately began to participate in what in essence was racist propaganda. "One can talk about an attempt by the authorities to seize the 'nationalist initiative' not only in the form of slogans but their methods of work." Foreign governments have voiced growing concern at a rising tide of racist attacks in Russia, many of the attacks being on foreigners, typically students in Moscow, Saint Petersburg and elsewhere

Oborona Website Back in Action

LR is pleased to report that Oborona's website is back up in operation now (Russian language only for now, but we are working on trying to get them to translate). Click the logo above to visit their site, click the text link to read our prior report on Oborona).

Annals of Cold War II: Europe Seeking to Kick the Russia Habit

Radio Free Europe reports on Europe's efforts to kick its Russian energy habit:

Three meetings. Three cities. One goal: making Europe less dependent on Russian energy.

On March 22, Azerbaijan's foreign minister was in Washington, Georgia's prime minister was in Turkmenistan's capital Ashgabat, and a major energy conference opened in the Georgian capital Tbilisi. Topping the agenda in all three cities were plans to develop alternative oil and gas transport routes that circumvent Russia and loosen Moscow's stranglehold on Europe's energy supplies. This diplomatic flurry came just one week after Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a deal with Greece and Bulgaria to build a pipeline to transport Russian oil from the Black Sea to the Aegean en route to European markets.

Federico Bordonaro, a Rome-based energy analyst, says today's scramble for control of energy transit routes is beginning to resemble the Cold War struggle between Russia and the West.

"What we were used to during the Cold War years was a kind of security dilemma," Bordonaro said. "Powers needed to choose between alliances and between different security strategies. Something very similar is apparently going on in the field of energy security."

Leading The Charge

In the middle of the scramble are Azerbaijan and Georgia, both of whom are trying to break free from Russia's sphere of influence and move closer to Washington and Brussels. "The small countries, like Georgia for example, that are very, very important because of their function as energy corridors -- they are especially sensitive to the influence of big powers," Bordonaro said.

In Washington, Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice signed an agreement to cooperate closely on energy issues. Azerbaijan is emerging as a major natural gas producer. Mammadyarov was seeking Washington's political support to build a new generation of gas pipelines to export Azerbaijani natural gas -- via Georgia and Turkey -- to Europe. U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Matthew Bryza said the agreement would support Europe's stated aim of diversifying its energy imports -- and help Azerbaijan emerge as a viable alternative to Russia's natural gas giant, Gazprom. "This high-level dialogue will aim to deepen and broaden already strong cooperation among governments and companies to expand oil and gas production in Azerbaijan for export to global markets," Bryza said.

Particular focus, he said, will be put on the realization of the Turkey-Greece-Italy gas pipeline, and potentially the Nabucco and other pipelines that can delivery Azerbaijani gas to Europe and help diversify its natural gas supplies.

Thinking Ahead

Meanwhile, in Tbilisi, Georgia was hosting an energy conference aiming to achieve the exact same goal. Officials and industry leaders from Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkey, and the United States attended. Alexandre Khetaguri, the head of the Georgian International Oil and Gas Corporation, told RFE/RL's Georgian Service that presentations focused on projects that could prove "potentially interesting in the future." These projects, he said, included Nabucco as well as the construction of a trans-Caspian pipeline, which will ensure transportation of gas from Central Asian countries to Europe.

Another project discussed in Tbilisi was the proposed Georgia-Ukraine-European Union Gas Pipeline -- or GUEU -- which would transport Azerbaijani gas to the EU via Georgia and Ukraine. "This is a very strategic project for the whole area, starting from Azerbaijan and Georgia," said Roberto Pirani, the chairman and technical director of GUEU. "And from the European point of view, it's a diversification of supply into Eastern Europe. We're talking about Ukraine, Poland and Lithuania, which are totally dependent on supplies from Gazprom. So this project will provide an alternative, more than an alternative -- a complimentary route of gas, a supply of gas -- to Gazprom."

Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli, meanwhile, traveled to Turkmenistan on March 22 to discuss gas imports. According to media reports, Noghaideli was seeking to persuade Turkmen officials to export natural gas to Europe via the South Caucasus. Turkmenistan currently exports most of its natural gas via Russia. Bordonaro, the Rome-based energy analyst, says the struggle for control of Turkmenistan's gas will likely heat up in the coming months.

"One of the major stakes in the next month will be Turkmenistan," he said. "Because if a group of powers will be able to diversify the direction of Turkmen gas reserves and to avoid Russia's control of virtually all of these reserves, this will be an important point for these other powers, and for Georgia and Azerbaijan as well."

Divided On Diversification

Bordonaro said not all EU countries fully back efforts to diversify Europe's energy supplies away from Russia. Most former communist countries like Poland and Lithuania are pushing Brussels to circumvent Russia. But Germany and France still lean toward making bilateral agreements with Moscow. "Europe is proving unable to forge a really unitary energy security strategy and this will also cause trans-Atlantic relations to suffer," Bordonaro said.

Earlier this month, Hungary decided to back expansion of Russia's Blue Stream pipeline. Gazprom plans to extend the pipeline under the Black Sea to Hungary. According to the plan, Hungary would then serve as a hub to transport Russian gas to Europe. Some analysts say Hungary's move could undermine the EU-backed Nabucco pipeline proposal and other projects that were the subject of so much talk in Washington, Tbilisi and Ashgabat this week.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

March 27, 2007 -- Contents

TUESDAY MARCH 27 CONTENTS

(1) Georgia Sues Russia in the EHCR

(2) The Horror of Investing in Russia

(3) Annals of Kremlin Electoral Hypocrisy

(4) The Horror of "Life" in Russia

(5) What's up with Iran and Russia

Georgia Sues Russia in ECHR for Human Rights Violations

Reuters reports:

Hundreds of Georgians have been forcibly deported from Russia after Moscow's chilly ties with the Caucasus nation plunged to an all-time low following a spy scandal last autumn. Georgian officials say about 2,000 Georgians living in Russia and deemed illegal immigrants have been sent home in high-profile deportations. They say seven of the deported, who suffered from serious diseases, died on their way home.Georgia filed a suit against Russia to the European Court of Human Rights on Monday, citing deportations of its citizens from the neighbouring nation, Georgia's Justice Ministry said. "The law suit is based on hundreds of cases of flagrant abuses of the human rights of Georgian citizens and ethnic Georgians by the Russian Federation during their deportations," the Justice Ministry said in a statement. Georgian officials could not be reached for comment on what kind of ruling they expected the Strasbourg-based top human rights court to take against Russia. Russia's Interfax news agency quoted Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin as saying: "Such actions (by Tbilisi) are unlikely to help normalise the relations between Russia and Georgia, for which we aspire in our Georgian policies." Russia, enraged by Tbilisi's brief detention of four of its army officers on spying charges last October, cut rail, air and postal links with Georgia. Earlier last year Moscow banned imports of Georgian wines and mineral water. Many Georgians were deported in cargo planes. The United States and European Union have urged Russia to end its sanctions against Georgia which Tbilisi says are punishment for its willingness to forge close ties with the West.

The Horrors of Investing in Russia

Guru Focus warns the world off the Russian markets:

RUSSIA? THINK AGAIN!

As you look at the high-flying Russian stock market, you may feel like you want some of it. But before you dive into Russia consider this: as it is, Russia is a dysfunctional play on high oil prices as well as commodities. It is no less bureaucratic than it was some fifteen years ago. When you buy a Russian company, with the exception of Gazprom (OGZPY), you run the risk that the Russian government will decide it “wants it,” the same way it “wanted” the Yukos and Sakhalin project from Shell (RDA).

Gazprom is a unique case since it seems the whole country’s foreign policy is written in the Gazprom HQ for the benefit of Gazprom and Gazprom alone. When one of the former republics has a dispute with the company about its pipelines or prices, the Russian foreign ministry gets involved. I guess the fact that Gazprom is owned in part by Russian government and remains one of the largest sources of tax revenue in the country certainly makes it Mother-Russia’s business.

Gazprom’s play is limited to several factors: it’s a cheap stock (if you trust the reserve numbers); it has been raising natural gas prices in former Soviet republics to market rates; in some cases it is receiving shares of local gas distribution companies in lieu of payment. But in the long-run, I wouldn’t bet on higher production from Gazprom because its capital expenditures are allocated from the Kremlin, whose objectives are more short-term oriented.

Current Russian prosperity is completely driven by high commodity prices. Take the $60 oil away and what you get is a very backwards economy, poor infrastructure (especially outside Moscow and St. Petersburg - two cities that are swimming in oil money), very high pension liabilities that the country accrued to its seniors during the Soviet days, corrupt local governments and a fairly unstable political system.

If you are interested in playing on high commodity prices you might consider (non-Russian) oil services stocks (e.g. GSF, HAL, SLB, BJS etc.) - it’s the same reward or better and lower risk.

Annals of Kremlin Electoral Hypocrisy

The Moscow Times reports that although the opposition party to Putin was banned from marching in Nizhny Novgorod and arrested when tried, the pro-Kremlin youth cult "Nashi" (us Slavic Russians) was free to do as they liked in Moscow. In fact, the police guarded and protected them, whereas in Nizhny they attacked the opposition.

Some 15,000 young people rallied throughout the city center Sunday for an event organized by the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi to celebrate the seventh anniversary of President Vladimir Putin's election. Participants, dressed in identical red hats and white T-shirts, handed out glossy pocket brochures titled "The President's Messenger" on Pushkin Square, Triumfalnaya Ploshchad and Prospekt Akademika Sakharova, near Leningradsky Station, among other locations. The brochure bears an image of a cell phone with the state coat of arms, the two-headed eagle. The same image was also on the hats and T-shirts.

The 30-page booklet warns of the dangers facing the country if the people are not vigilant and cautions that Russia could lose its independence. It is illustrated with photos of Hitler; Andrei Vlasov, a World War II general who fought on the German side after being captured; Eduard Limonov, leader of the unregistered National Bolshevik Party; former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov; and U.S. President George W. Bush.

As part of the cell phone motif, Nashi organizers urged Moscow residents to send instant text messages to Putin at a special number. Those gathered at Pushkin Square were able to read some of the messages as they were flashed across a giant screen. Nashi leader Vasily Yakimenko said that a collection of the messages would be published later, Interfax reported. The Interior Ministry had 5,000 police mobilized to provide security for the event, with 2,500 located in the city center, Interfax said.

Meanwhile, Kasparaov's "Other Russia" wasn't the only party to come under attack recently. The Moscow Times also reports that Vladimir Ryzhkov's "Republican Party" has been banned by the Kremlin entirely:

The Supreme Court on Friday ordered that Vladimir Ryzhkov's Republican Party be disbanded for failing to adhere to a law that requires parties to have at least 50,000 members and 45 regional offices.

Ryzhkov (pictured above, right), an independent deputy in the State Duma, accused the court of blindly listening to the Federal Registration Service's arguments and promised to appeal to the presidium of the Supreme Court and the European Court of Human Rights.

"The court decided to believe the Federal Registration Service rather than properly explore the presented evidence," Ryzhkov told reporters after the verdict.

Ryzhkov and his lawyers presented five cartloads of documents Thursday, the first day of the two-day hearing, in an effort to convince Judge Yury Tolcheyev that the party complied with the 2004 law on parties.

Lawyers for the Federal Registration Service, however, said Thursday that a check of the party had found that it had only 39,500 members and 33 branches with the required 500 or more members, Kommersant reported.

The registration service's representative in the court, Galina Fokina, expressed satisfaction with Friday's ruling.

But the leaders of fellow opposition parties spoke out in support of the Republican Party, which was founded in 1990 and recently absorbed the political wing of the Union of Soldiers' Mothers Committees.


"I regret this decision," senior Yabloko official Sergei Ivanenko said, Interfax reported. "One of Russia's oldest democratic parties has fallen victim to the draconian law."

Ivanenko said Yabloko would encourage the party's members to join its ranks if the presidium of the Supreme Court rejects Ryzhkov's appeal.

Nikita Belykh, head of the Union of the Right Forces, or SPS, called the ruling "an example of the selective application of law."

Belykh said federal checks on several other parties had improperly found them in compliance with the law. He did not identify the parties. SPS has cooperated with the party in the past, allowing its members to run on the SPS party list in recent legislative elections in Perm.

The registration service has found 16 parties in noncompliance with the 2004 law, according to its web site. Prior to the Friday verdict, the Federal Registration Service had won lawsuits to liquidate five of the parties, including the Eurasian Union and the People's Republican Party.

The Horror of "Life" in Russia

The New York Times' Russia correspondent Steven Lee Myers reports on the fundmental horror of so-called "life" in Russia:

THERE was something sadly predictable about the reaction to Russia’s latest convulsion of disasters: a plane crash, a mine blast and a nursing home fire. In the span of four days, 180 Russians died and the country, more or less, shrugged.

“They thought about this between the borscht and the cutlet,” Matvei Ganapolsky, a radio host, said on Ekho Moskvy, comparing Russia’s collective reaction to tragedy, unfavorably, to that of other countries. Outrage or grief or sympathy lasts about as long as a pause between the courses.

It would be wrong to stereotype, to say that Russians are fatalistic or heartless. They are, however, not only resigned to tragedy but inured to it in a way that to many raises alarms about the country’s future. They’re not just helpless in the face of disaster; they could be called complicit, ever beckoning the next one by their actions or lack of.

Disasters, natural and man-made, occur everywhere, but unnatural death occurs in Russia with unnatural frequency and in unnatural quantity.

In a report in 2005 called “Dying Too Young,” the World Bank warned that accidents, which affect men of working age most, were contributing to Russia’s decline in population. The country is now a world leader in industrial accidents, like the explosion at a Siberian mine on Monday that killed 110, in traffic accidents, in fires, in murders and in suicides.

Russians grieve, but they do so privately. They rarely demand public action — through the media, elected representatives or, in the extreme, street protests. A result is a lack of accountability, even impunity, that lets corruption fester, otherwise solvable problems mount and disasters repeat.

A fire early Tuesday engulfed a government home for the elderly and disabled in a small town on the Azov Sea, killing 63 at last count. It quickly became apparent that the building had been declared unsafe, inadequately equipped to suppress fire and built with toxic materials that almost certainly increased the death toll. And yet somehow it remained open. A night guard, officials said, made things worse by ignoring two alarms before calling the fire department, which was more than 30 miles away, anyway.

If it seemed shockingly familiar, that’s because it was. A fire in December killed 46 at a drug-treatment hospital in Moscow. The doors and windows were locked. Inspectors had spotted violations that were apparently never fixed. A day later 10 patients died in a fire at a home for the mentally ill in Siberia.

Igor L. Trunov, a prominent lawyer in Moscow, argued that a lack of legal — or political — accountability allowed private companies and public agencies to flout rules and regulations and escape punishment for wrongdoing. He cited the airline industry, saying that aging equipment, shoddy maintenance and poor training contributed to a rash of crashes.

The latest came on March 17 when a Soviet-era airliner missed a runway in Samara and flipped, killing 7 of 57 people aboard in an accident preliminarily attributed to mechanical problems and pilot error.

That crash followed two major disasters last year — a crash landing in Irkutsk, in Sibera, which killed 125, and a flight to St. Petersburg that crashed in a storm over eastern Ukraine, killing 170 — that cast doubt not only on the safety of the fleets, but also on the state’s enforcement policies.

Mr. Trunov’s answer is still a novelty here: the lawsuit.

He has campaigned to win more compensation for victims of some prominent tragedies: an avalanche in the Northern Caucasus in 2002 (125 dead); the botched rescue of hostages in a Moscow theater in 2002 (128); the collapse of a water park in Moscow in 2004 (28); and both of last year’s air disasters (295). He has so far lost them all.

Russia, he said, suffers from a mentality in which human life is not valued. In a recent article he computed the value of a person based on various countries’ laws for compensating injuries or death. Life in Russia is, in fact, cheap. According to his calculation a Russian is worth $118,000; an American, $3.2 million.

While an avalanche may seem like an unavoidable act of God, Mr. Trunov pointed out that there had been four previous ones in the same gorge. And each time the authorities have rebuilt the village that was destroyed. “The fact that the authorities do nothing about it is, I think, criminal negligence,” he said.

President Vladimir V. Putin has carefully cultivated an image as a capable, competent manager. He has hectored officials about each new tragedy, but neither he nor they seem inclined, or able, to resolve the root causes.

A promised investigation into the terrorist siege at Middle School No. 1 in Beslan, which resulted in the deaths of 334, was so intent to lay the entire blame with the terrorists that it lied about aspects of the rescuers’ actions (like tanks firing into the school). There was no effort to explore — and learn from — the mistakes or misconduct of any officials.

It has become a sorry routine: the promise of action and the failure to deliver. After the disaster at the indoor water park, the emergencies minister, Sergei K. Shoigu, appeared before TV cameras and demanded an end to shoddy building and maintenance. No one has yet been held to account. In February 2006 the roof of a market built by the same architect collapsed; 56 died.

History might explain part of the country’s indifference. Russia has endured revolution and war on a scale that can be difficult to comprehend. A former commandant of the Army War College in the United States, Maj. Gen. Robert H. Scales, once recalled giving a Russian general a tour of Gettysburg. The Russian asked the American how many casualties the battle produced. Told that 51,000 soldiers were killed, wounded or missing, the Russian swept his hand dismissively. “Skirmish,” he said.

But Mr. Ganapolsky, the radio host, said history alone did not explain today’s Russia. Russians care, he said in an interview, but they stay home and express their anger or sorrow in private.

“Why do Italians come out into the streets?” he said. “Because they know they can change their government. Why don’t Russians come out in the street? Because they know they will meet the riot police.”

What's up with Iran and Russia?


AHMADINEJAD: Why haven't you delivered our Uranium?

PUTIN: You shouldn't have Ahmadinejadized.

Source: Ellustrator.

Has Russia thought better of providing nuclear power to Iran? Has Western pressure forced its hand? Is it all just a show to take the wind out of the West's sails? Did Russia dupe Iran, never intending to actually supply a working reactor? Or is Iran actually short of cash? Maybe it was the Iranians who duped the Russians, never intending them to get much influence in the Iranian energy sector, but rather only intending to use Russia to get it's foot in the door?

Publius Pundit is running two polls on these interesting questions where readers are invited to give their input. Stop by and do so if you have a chance, and feel free to leave your comments.

March 26, 2007 -- Contents

MONDAY MARCH 26 CONTENTS

(1) The Crackdown in Nizhny Novogorod

(2) Neo-Soviet Russia Seeks to Ban Reporting on Race Crimes


(3) How does Russia Despise Foreigners? Let LR count the ways!


(4) First Britain, now France

(5) A Russian Blogger on Russian Elections

(6) The Pathetic Propaganda from Russia Blog Continues Apace


Monday, March 26, 2007

The Crackdown in Nizhny Novogorod


Last week, LR reported that the cowardly Kremlin had once again banned the peaceful protest march of Garry Kasparov's "Other Russia" party, this time in Nizhny Novgorod (last time it was in Piter). The valiant party members marched anyway, and reader Penny, among many others, writes LR to point with horror at the weekend crackdown (pictured above). A reader reports that the police were much more aggressive this time in seeking to grab photographic devices and destroy records of their acts; yet, in the age of the Internet, some images will inevitably slip through their slimy fingers.

The AP reports:


Riot police wielding truncheons broke up an opposition rally in a central Russian city on Saturday, detaining dozens of activists and beating some of them in the third major crackdown on a demonstration in recent months.

The activists focused on local issues but also accused the Kremlin of stifling free speech, silencing dissent and depriving them of a free and fair political process ahead of December parliamentary elections and next year's presidential vote. Authorities had not given permission for the rally in a central square in Nizhny Novgorod, saying a demonstration could only take place far from the city center. Hundreds of riot police in full gear cordoned off the central square. Still, organizer Natalya Morar said, several hundred protesters managed to hold a short rally - dubbed the March of Those Who Disagree - near the central square until police dragged them into buses that took them to police stations.

An Associated Press photographer saw dozens of protesters taken into custody by police and some beaten with truncheons. The photographer was briefly detained by officers, who later released him, saying there had been a mistake.

President Vladimir Putin, who is constitutionally barred from running for a third consecutive term, has given strong hints that he would pick a favored successor. Opposition groups have accused the Kremlin of further consolidating control over the country's political life ahead of elections to make sure its opponents stand no chance of winning.

State-controlled television channels made no mention of the rally in their newscasts throughout the day.


Oksana Chelysheva, another organizer and rights activist, said her group had received complaints from hundreds of people heading to the rally who said they were blocked by police from entering the city center. Morar said hundreds of activists had been pulled off trains and buses and detained on their way to the rally. She said several dozen journalists, including foreign reporters, were also detained.

Among those arrested was Marina Litvinovich, an aide to liberal opposition figure Garry Kasparov, a former world chess champion turned fierce critic of Putin. Litvinovich told The Associated Press that she was detained, to prevent her from protesting, as she was driving into the city, on the grounds that her personal car was on a list of stolen vehicles. She was released several hours later, only to be arrested a second time for the same purported reason. Morar said two other organizers detained ahead of the rally were in custody on suspicion of terrorist activity. She said they have been accused of distributing pamphlets with instructions on how to become a terrorist.

Regional police spokesman Alexander Gorbatov said that only about 30 people had been detained for holding an unauthorized protest. It was unclear what would happen to the protesters who were detained. Under Russian law, police can hold suspects for up to 3 days, after which they must either be released or a court must sanction their arrest for a longer period of time, pending investigation.

The local news agency, Nizhny Novgorod, cited deputy governor Sergei Potapov as saying protesters were receiving funding from the United States and several European countries. "They are looking for pretexts for discontent for money," Potapov was quoted as saying. Organizers denied the allegations. "The authorities are afraid of people, they feel highly insecure," Chelysheva said. "They fear that people will express their discontent" during elections.

The rally in Nizhny Novgorod, about 250 miles east of Moscow, was the third such protest in recent months. While the first was allowed to take place in Moscow in December, police detained dozens of participants before and during the rally, according to organizers. Protesters then gathered for a second March of Those Who Disagree earlier this month in Russia's second-largest city, St. Petersburg, but the rally was violently broken up by police.

Since taking office in 2000, Putin has made steps to centralize power and eliminate democratic checks and balances. He has created an obedient parliament, abolished direct gubernatorial elections, tightened restrictions on rights groups and presided over the reining-in of non-state television channel.

The Sunday Times adds more detail:


DOZENS of opponents of Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, were arrested yesterday as they tried to stage an antiKremlin demonstration that was broken up by riot police wielding batons. Clashes broke out as hundreds of policemen prevented the protesters, who accuse Putin of rolling back democracy and returning to Soviet-style authoritarianism, from gathering in Nizhni Novgorod, Russia’s third-largest city.

Many of those detained were taken off trains as they travelled to the city and even journalists covering the demonstration were arrested. According to unconfirmed reports, two of the protest organisers were accused of distributing a terrorism manual that their colleagues said did not even exist. If so, the two could be tried on terrorism charges and face a lengthy jail sentence. “It’s shocking that the authorities would go to such lengths and expense to stop people from voicing their opinions,” said Denis Bilunov, one of the protesters and a close aide of Garry Kasparov, the former chess champion who has become one of Putin’s fiercest critics.

“As far as I know, all the organisers have been arrested. The Kremlin calls this a democracy.”


Yesterday’s crackdown, in which several protesters were said to have been beaten by police, is part of a Kremlin campaign to crush opposition to Putin’s rule and to ensure that the candidate he chooses as his successor wins next year’s presidential election. The Russian constitution bars him from serving more than two terms. During Putin’s seven years in power, the Kremlin has brought all national television channels and most newspapers under its control. Opposition figures have been jailed, driven into exile, threatened and in some cases — never proven to be linked to the Kremlin — gunned down. Genuine opposition in Russia’s next parliament will be further neutered after the supreme court announced last week that it had closed down the small Republican party for having too few members.

Censorship is so strict that TV journalists are provided with unofficial lists of politicians they are not allowed to mention in reports. “We have long been told that as far as we are concerned, those on the list don’t exist in Russia,” said a TV reporter.


News bulletins paint Putin and his policies in glowing terms — a practice reminiscent of Sovi-et-era propaganda. Parliament, a source of fierce opposition under Boris Yeltsin’s rule, is now a rubber-stamp assembly.


The two main parties that dominate both houses, United Russia and A Just Russia, are fervently pro-Kremlin and are headed by close allies of the president. In a move widely condemned as antidemocratic, Putin has abolished regional elections and now has the power to nominate and sack governors. Officially the president’s candidates need approval from local legislatures but the procedure is a formality. “The average voter is neither expected nor able to influence policy in the slightest,” wrote Vladimir Ryzhkov, an independent member of parliament whose Republican party was banned last week. “The voter’s only function is to confer a sort of legitimacy on the authorities by voting in rigged elections.”

The Kremlin denies it is back-tracking on democracy and says elections are free and fair. But it makes no secret of its wish to end the splintered party system that plagued Russia in the 1990s. Putin has recently taken further steps to ensure the outcomes of parliamentary elections in December and the presidential poll in March 2008 are the ones he wants. Small political parties seeking to stand find the barriers all but insurmountable. Even Yabloko, the country’s best known opposition party, was struck off the ballot in local elections in St Petersburg earlier this year. A protest vote is no longer possible since the Kremlin recently had the option of “against all” taken off ballots. Nor are demonstrations tolerated. Yesterday’s march was one of many banned or broken up by the authorities.

About 100 protesters were detained earlier this year when members of Other Russia, a coalition of small opposition groups led by Kasparov, demonstrated in St Petersburg. Kasparov told reporters last week he feared for his safety in Russia. He has moved his family to New York and employs bodyguards. He also tries to avoid flying on Aeroflot, the state airline. “There is a risk of becoming a victim and I have to reduce the chances,” said Kasparov. “But I take it as part of my moral duty that I am carrying on.”

Other opposition figures have given up. Last week Sergei Gla-zyev, a former presidential candidate, announced he was leaving politics as Putin now wielded more power than the tsars. “Policy in this country is determined by one man,” he said.