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Friday, November 30, 2007

November 30, 2007 -- Contents

FRIDAY NOVEMBER 30 CONTENTS

(1) Putin to Nation: Vote for Me, or Else!

(2) Tory, Tory, Tory! BritCons Call for Protection of Balkans

(3) Putin puts the Boot in

(4) Putin HEARTS Stalin

(5) Brilliant Piontkovsky Slams Putin's Willing Serfs



NOTE: The New Statesman has just published a massive, sensational special feature on Russia featuring the following:

NOTE: On November 22nd, we published a translation of a letter from the Russian web indicating United Russia was attempting to extort campaign contributions by threatening Kremlin retaliation. Today, more than a week later, the MSM reports it as news (the Independent) -- without naming the "blogs" that were their source.

Putin to Nation: Vote for Me Or Else!




















AFP reports:


President Vladimir Putin on Thursday warned Russians to vote for him in parliamentary elections this weekend or face the country's "disintegration". He also appearing to confirm he would step down next year, in a televised address to the nation ahead of the elections on Sunday.

Urging voters to back his United Russia party, Putin warned that the liberal opposition which governed Russia after the 1991 Soviet collapse wanted to "return to a time of humiliation, dependency and disintegration."

"We should not allow back into power the people who... want to change and muddle Russia's development plans," he said.

Putin, 55, warned against the "dangerous illusion" of believing his legacy was safe. United Russia is forecast to win easily two thirds of seats in the State Duma. The tiny liberal parties are not expected to win a single seat and complain they are victims of heavy handed Kremlin tactics.

Analyst Nikolai Petrov, at the Moscow Carnegie Centre, said Putin's speech was meant to "point out enemies and raise fear."

Although as president he cannot actually take a Duma seat, Putin heads the electoral list of United Russia, which is presenting the parliamentary election as a referendum on the ex-KGB officer's highly popular rule. The television address had been closely watched for any sign of Putin's plans after he completes his second term next year and is required to step down. The only hint he gave was to say that "the result of the parliamentary elections will, without a doubt, set the tone for the elections for a new president." That appeared to confirm that Putin will not seek to override a constitutional ban on seeking a third consecutive term in a March 2 presidential vote. However, Putin has repeatedly said he intends to retain a major role, prompting speculation that he might hang on to power, or at least retain influence through a handpicked successor.

Putin is sure to win on Sunday, but needs a large turnout if he is to claim a popular mandate for retaining power in some way, Petrov said. "Since Putin has said he'll build his future on the basis of this vote, and turned the vote into a referendum on himself, then he needs a vote of confidence," Petrov said. Controversy over the fairness of Sunday's polls was growing amid what Kremlin opponents describe as a crackdown aimed at fixing the election results.

Garry Kasparov, the chess legend turned bitter Putin opponent, was to be released after being jailed for five days for public disorder during a banned protest march in Moscow on Saturday.

President George W. Bush said he was "deeply concerned" at the breakup of the rallies in Moscow and elsewhere in the country over the weekend. EU countries and Amnesty International also criticised the Kremlin.

Nikita Belykh, leader of the liberal SPS party, wrote to supporters in a Internet message that "dictatorship threatens the country," Echo of Moscow radio station reported. Belykh said some 25 million copies of campaign materials had been confiscated by police around the country. Another SPS leader, Boris Nemtsov, who has declared a bid in next year's presidential election, has come under stinging personal attacks in Kremlin-friendly media. "As soon as we declared that we were going into hardline opposition, the ruling party and Putin personally has declared war against us," Belykh said.

In an address to foreign ambassadors in the Kremlin on Wednesday, Putin pledged to uphold democratic standards on Sunday, the fifth parliamentary vote since the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union. "We know the value of real democracy and are interested in holding elections that are honest, of the utmost transparency and open, without flaws or shortcomings," he said. However, Putin also warned the world to keep out of Russia's business. "I need to repeat -- we will not allow this process to be corrected from the outside," Putin said.

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) earlier this month called off its election monitoring mission for the Russian elections, citing a lack of cooperation from Moscow, something that Russia denies.

Tory, Tory, Tory! British Conservatives Warn of Russian Balkan Invasion

The Telegraph reports:

Western forces, which could include British troops, must be sent into the Balkans to prevent Russia sparking a new European war, according to David Cameron [pictured]. Speaking in Washington, the Conservative leader will issue a stark warning that Russia's increasingly assertive foreign policy is jeopardising Britain's national security. Mr Cameron fears a diplomatic and military crisis could arise over Kosovo, the province of Serbia which has effectively been a United Nations protectorate since Nato invaded to stop ethnic cleansing by Serb forces in 1999. The ethnic Albanian government of Kosovo is threatening to declare independence from Serbia on Dec 10. Moscow is backing Serbian attempts to block the declaration, while the United States and the European Union are in favour.

"Let me make it clear: there could be a new crisis in the Balkans by Christmas," Mr Cameron will say in a speech to the Brookings Institution, a Washington think-tank. "That is a direct threat to our national security, and we must therefore take decisive action now to prevent it. We need to reinforce the military presence in the region now, by drawing on some of Nato's dedicated operational reserve, to prevent trouble later."

Nato members take it in turns to provide a reserve force to back up the alliance's K-For peacekeeping force in Kosovo. The reserve is currently led by a battalion of Italian troops with a German battalion next in line to deploy. But from Jan 1, Britain takes on responsibility for providing the "lead-ready" battalion for the reserve, putting British troops first in line to deploy.

Tory officials made clear last night that Mr Cameron was not calling for the deployment of extra British troops above and beyond those already committed to the Nato Reserve force. But they also said that the Tory leader had not made his call lightly, saying it was a measure of how seriously he takes the need to prevent more instability in the region. British diplomats privately share Mr Cameron's fears of a Balkan crisis, but ministers have stopped short of proposing a further military deployment, and the Tory leader's call could dramatically increase the diplomatic stakes over Kosovo. But he will insist that intervention is vital to British national interest because instability in the Balkans could bring a wave of immigrants to Bitain, and make the region a breeding ground for al-Qaeda. He will say: "Instability in the Balkans, with all the dangers that would bring, would be a threat to us all."

The last British troops in the Balkans, a 600-strong force of Welsh Guards, left Bosnia in March. Since 2003, a handful of British military officers and police personnel have been in Kosovo training and advising local security forces. Mr Cameron will make his speech as part of a visit to meet President George W Bush in an encounter designed to rehabilitate the Conservatives after years of isolation in Washington. Mr Cameron's 45-minute private meeting with Mr Bush at the White House will heap more misery on Gordon Brown as he faces the mounting scandal over party funding and increasingly poor opinion polls.

Putin Puts the Boot In

For someone who claims to be wildly popular as a "national leader," Russian dictator Vladimir Putin's recent actions are inexplicable. They're the actions of a weak, cowardly tinpot who fears he can be ousted at any second. And they're not enough to satisfy him. At the eleventh hour before the elections, the Moscow Times tells us that he's embarked on a second round of crackdowns on foreign elections observers, wiping out the token presence he previously allowed, and he's arranged for Nashi -- that's right, his own Hitler youth cult -- to conduct the exit polling at the ballot stations. Now that is what you call leaving nothing to chance!

First, the observer crackdown:

The country's only group of independent election observers has been forced to reduce its activities ahead of weekend elections after coming under intense pressure from the authorities. Golos, a nongovernmental organization that receives EU and U.S. funding, has had to suspend its activities in the Samara region amid a criminal investigation that it says is politically motivated. The head of Golos' two offices in the region, Lyudmila Kuzmina, has been charged with installing unlicensed software on the group's computers. The investigation means that Golos, which has branches in 40 regions, from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok, will not be able to monitor the vote in Samara, Kuzmina said. More important, she said, it signals that the Kremlin is doing its best to squash criticism of the State Duma elections Sunday. "The goal of the authorities is to conduct the elections so quietly that you can't hear a mosquito," Kuzmina said by telephone from Samara. "We remain the only troublesome mosquito buzzing in the silence."

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said he had never heard of Golos, so it was difficult to comment on the case. Peskov said, however, that Kuzmina's accusations "don't correspond with reality. The Kremlin's task is to conduct the elections legally and with maximum transparency," he said by telephone. But Peskov told foreign reporters at a meeting Tuesday night that President Vladimir Putin was referring to some foreign-funded NGOs involved in political activities when he spoke of greedy "jackals" taking orders from foreign patrons during a speech last week. Peskov refused to identify any of the NGOs, saying it was a job for law enforcement officials.

Samara police are helping the local branch of the Federal Registration Service investigate whether Golos' offices failed to follow their charter and improperly spent money on communications equipment. Kuzmina herself has been barred from leaving Samara while she awaits trial on the software charges. Other organizations critical of the Kremlin have also faced charges of using unlicensed software this year, including a Chechen NGO and a regional office of Novaya Gazeta. The use of unlicensed software is widespread but rarely prosecuted. Vadim Malikov, the acting head of the registration service's Samara branch, did not specify Golos' purported violations in a written response to questions. He said only that Golos had committed "repeated legal violations" and "charter violations ... detected during planned inspections."

Police carried out the first inspection May 10, hours after Kuzmina criticized Samara authorities on Ekho Moskvy radio for detaining opposition activists who were distributing leaflets about a Dissenters' March. Police seized all the office computers. Kuzmina said the police had told her that "investigative information" had meant that it was necessary "to check the economic activities" of the NGO. The next day, on May 11, police sealed the office for a week and on May 18 closed it for three months for what they described as fire-safety violations. Later that month, a burst pipe flooded the office, destroying stacks of paperwork.

Golos activists continued working from home until the office reopened Sept. 10. But they have suspended all activities since Sept. 19, when the police began a new, monthlong check. In the meantime, the Federal Registration Service suspended the activities of Golos' other office for six months and asked a regional court to close it. Police charged Kuzmina in late October, but the case has yet to be sent to court. "Out of this fact, I draw the conclusion that the main aim is to put pressure on me," Kuzmina said. Kuzmina has been involved in public activities since the early 1990s and helped set up Samara branches for Yabloko, the Union of Right Forces and the Democratic Party.

Nationwide, Golos has been monitoring the media and interviewing party members, NGO activists and ordinary people about the Duma elections since July. It has examined, among other things, whether parties are being granted fair access to state media and public awareness about the elections. In late October, Golos issued a report of campaign violations by various parties. The group, which disclosed the findings at a news conference with Transparency International and the Information Policy Fund, also said politicians and parties were using their official positions or ties to government institutions to influence the outcome of the elections more than they had done before the 2003 Duma vote.

Golos plans to open a media center at the Independent Press Center in Moscow to collect and distribute information about voting violations Sunday. It will release additional information during the week after the vote. Besides Golos activists, Russians expected to observe the elections belong to political parties and Nashi, the pro-Kremlin youth group. Golos was founded in 2000 as an association of NGOs dedicated to protecting voters' rights and developing civil society. It has received foreign funding since the beginning, Golos executive director Lilia Shibanova said at a news conference last month.

For the past three years, Golos has been operating on a $2.3 million grant from the European Commission, the executive branch of the European Union, and USAID, a U.S. government agency, Shibanova said. Its previous backers have included two U.S.-based organizations, the National Endowment for Democracy, a private, nonprofit organization aimed at strengthening democratic institutions around the world, and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, a private foundation, a Golos spokeswoman said. Golos' founders include the Moscow Helsinki Group, led by human rights pioneer Lyudmila Alexeyeva; the Center for Russian Environmental Policy, a regional NGO; the Women's Information Net, an independent nonprofit organization; and the Youth Union of Lawyers, a national NGO. Golos is a member of the Public Chamber's coordinating council and the European Net of Elections Monitoring Organizations. Kuzmina, who denied wrongdoing, expressed hope that Golos would overcome its difficulties in Samara. "I will fight to the end," she said. "We mustn't allow them to shut us down, because once we allow that ..." her voice trailed off into silence.

Then, the Nashi outrage:

Up to 20,000 activists from Nashi Vybory, a spinoff from the pro-Kremlin youth movement Nashi, will conduct exit polls nationwide during Sunday's State Duma vote. "Dec. 2 is a test both for us and for the youth of Russia," Olesya Pelageina, the group's spokeswoman, said Wednesday, explaining that Nashi Vybory had been out trying to encourage young people to vote since June. Two other bodies will be polling voters Sunday: the state-run All-Russia Center for Public Opinion Monitoring, or VTsIOM, and the Public Opinion Foundation, or FOM, which also has strong ties to the state. Nashi Vybory, or "Our Elections," cooperates with one party -- United Russia -- and supports the course of President Vladimir Putin, yet remains completely independent, Pelageina said. It is an independent entity from Nashi, she said. Because Nashi is a volunteer movement, carrying out the polling will not require any funding, Pelageina said. She added that local authorities were providing rooms in municipal buildings as operational centers for the polling activities free of charge.

As for the training and know-how to sample the voting accurately, experienced public opinion analysts will be on hand to check the results of the exit polls, Pelageina said. Three activists will be on hand for Sunday's vote at each of more than 1,200 polling stations in 53 regions. The rest will provide "operational support" at regional headquarters, she said. VTsIOM, which is working for Channel One television and has the largest financial and organizational resources of the three pollsters, will send two or three interviewers to each of 1,200 polling stations in 57 regions, according to information on its web site. It hopes to have managed to talk to 120,000 voters after they have cast their ballots by Sunday evening and will hand preliminary results to the television channel, which will announce them after 9 p.m. FOM, classified as a noncommercial organization, will poll around 80,000 voters, said Veronika Perevezentseva, its spokeswoman.

The independent Levada Center, as usual, will not be at the polls because it does not have the "huge resources" required, said Oleg Savelev, its spokesman. "Its too complex and expensive a process," Savelev said. "It requires expenditures somewhere in the millions of dollars, not rubles." Asked about Nashi Vybory's plans, he labeled the exercise "a big show."

Putin HEARTS Stalin

Bloomberg reports:

Josef Stalin may have been cruel, but he was first and foremost a great leader.

That rewriting of the history of the ruthless Soviet dictator who killed millions of real and imagined enemies comes from a new manual for Russia's high-school teachers endorsed by President Vladimir Putin. The book exemplifies Russia's growing nostalgia for its bygone superpower days -- a sentiment Putin stokes at every turn in his quest for political hegemony.

Russia feels that it was ``humiliated during the 1990s, when it lost its international weight,'' said Fyodor Lukyanov, who edits a quarterly journal for the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy in Moscow. ``Our leaders now believe it is necessary to consolidate the nation.''

Putin, 55, may achieve that goal on Dec. 2, when parliamentary elections will likely make his United Russia party almost as powerful as the Communists were in the USSR. Much of his overwhelming popularity stems from his ability to reinvigorate Russia's patriotic pride. He has gained support by confronting the West with Cold War zeal and has paid little price for clamping down on dissent with similar intensity.

Putin, who was a career officer in the KGB, calls the Soviet Union's collapse ``the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century.'' After members of an Arctic expedition laid Russia's claim to the region's oil and gas last August, he gave them a hero's welcome at his residence outside Moscow, reminiscent of the triumphant homecoming Stalin hosted in 1938 for the Soviet Union's first North Pole explorer.

15 Million Victims

Stalin ruled as head of the USSR's Communist Party from 1922 until he died in 1953. His security forces routinely imprisoned or executed people suspected of disloyalty. During the Great Terror of 1937-38, when the purges peaked, about 1.5 million people were arrested and 700,000 shot, according to Memorial, a Russian human-rights group. In all, at least 15 million people died in labor camps or were killed, Memorial says.

Millions more perished from famine after widespread state confiscation of farm land, or collectivization. Tens of thousands of others died of hunger or exposure when Stalin deported entire ethnic groups to Central Asia, including Chechens and Crimean Tatars accused of collaborating with invading Germans in World War II.

No Enumeration

The new teachers' manual -- ``A Modern History of Russia 1945-2006,'' -- refers to the purges without enumerating the victims, specifically mentioning only 2,000 killed in the late 1940s.

While it calls Stalin's rule ``cruel'' and says he engaged in ``political repression,'' it also declares him the USSR's ``most successful leader'' because his tactics transformed the country into an industrialized counterweight to America's military and economic might.

``The result of Stalin's purges was a new class of managers capable of solving the task of modernization at a time of a shortage of resources, loyal to the executive power and faultless from the point of view of discipline,'' the manual says.

Many Russians already view Stalin favorably. In a May poll by the independent Levada Center in Moscow, 54 percent said Stalin -- who defended the nation from Hitler's armies and ultimately led it to victory in World War II -- did ``more right than wrong.'' Half deemed him a ``wise leader.''

At a meeting with teachers at his residence in June, Putin said the new manual will help instill young people with ``a sense of pride'' in Russia. He argued that Stalin's purges pale in comparison to America's atomic bombing of Japan. ``We shouldn't allow anyone to impose a feeling of guilt on us,'' he told the teachers.

`All That Is Best'

Putin elaborated at a memorial for Stalin's victims on Oct. 30, at a firing range near Moscow where 20,000 people were executed during the Great Terror: While Russians should ``keep alive the memory of tragedies of the past, we should focus on all that is best in the country.''

Mikhail Gorbachev, 76, the Soviet Union's last leader, criticized attempts to portray Stalin's era as a ``a golden age'' and urged Russians not to forget the ``terrible lessons of history'' at a 70th anniversary conference on the Great Terror in September.

The new manual is less kind to another Russian leader -- Boris Yeltsin, the country's first post-Soviet leader and Putin's predecessor. It says his weak policies allowed the West to expand the North Atlantic Treaty Organization into former Soviet satellite states in eastern Europe.

A Children's History

The manual was written by Alexander Fillipov, the deputy director of the National Center for Foreign Policy, a research group that does consulting work for Putin's government. Fillipov also is writing a children's history book that, starting in September, state schools will use to replace older texts that remember Stalin less fondly. One currently in use chronicles the Great Terror, estimating that 2 million perished in 1935-39.

Fillipov, who declined to be interviewed, told the government newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta that his manual is needed to counter foreign ``propaganda.'' Similarly, Putin says some Russian history books are biased because their authors received Western grants.

Arseny Roginsky, Memorial's chairman, is troubled by Stalin's new cachet among influential Russians. ``They want schoolchildren to be proud of their Soviet past and to forget that these victories were achieved at the expense of people's blood,'' he said. Roginsky's father died in 1951 while imprisoned by Stalin's forces.

Piontovsky Slams Putin's "Willing Serfs"

Writing for Transitions Online, Andrei Piontkovksy, a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C., tells it like it is: "The road we are following is the Third Road to Serfdom, and there shall be no fourth, because this is a system that will bring Russia to ruin." His word for Putin: "Mutant."

If reform comes to Russia, it’s not likely to come from the propertied class, which has signed on to a particularly deformed social contract.

Liberal defenders and apologists of Vladimir Putin’s regime, from Carnegie analyst Dmitry Trenin in Russia to George W. Bush in the United States (who recently ascribed to the Russian people “a kind of basic Russian DNA, which is a centralized authority”), trot out a pet argument that migrates from one publication to another.

What is most important for Russia right now is not abstract “democracy” but the development of capitalism, they say. A growing middle class of property owners with a vested interest in security for their property will ultimately demand the establishment of liberal institutions. There is nothing fundamentally new or specific about this, the argument goes. Any freedom, as the history of the world testifies, begins with freedom for the barons and gradually extends down, to finally include the ordinary Joe in the street. So a middle class of property owners in Russia will come with time, we are to believe, to recognize its rights and introduce liberal institutions in Russia. This extremely popular theory ignores the actual nature of Russian capitalism. The right to property in Russia is entirely conditional on the property owner’s loyalty to the Russian government.

The system is tending to evolve, not in the direction of freedom and a post-industrial society, but rather back toward feudalism, when the sovereign distributed privileges and lands to his vassals and could take them away at any moment. The only difference is that, in today’s Russia, what Putin is distributing and taking away is not lands but gas and oil companies.

VICE, INSTITUTIONALIZED

Over the last 10 to 15 years, a mutant has evolved in Russia that is neither socialism nor capitalism but some hitherto-unknown creature. Its defining characteristics are a merging of money and power, the institutionalization of corruption, and domination of the economy by major corporations, chiefly trading in commodities, that flourish at the expense of the administrative resources they have privatized.

Eight years of Putin’s presidency have finally dispelled the illusion that this mutant would somehow wither away of its own accord, yielding to a dynamic, transparent market economy. All that was supposedly needed was for the Duma to adopt a number of liberal bills and for a number of wicked oligarchs to be replaced by good, bushy-bearded, Russian Orthodox oligarchs. It has not withered away and continues to obstruct the country’s modernization and its leap forward into the post-industrial age. This is gendarme-bureaucratic capitalism with the Father of the Nation at its head.

Putin did replace some of the Yeltsin generation of oligarchs by new, “patriotically oriented” scions of the intelligence services and, in a major way, by that great collective oligarch, the bureaucracy and its armed units, the security agencies. Putinism and the politico-economic model that it has engendered amaze us by their sheer esthetic and intellectual squalor, but we can live with that. The real problem is that they are totally inefficient and only exacerbate the innate vices of Russian capitalism, the criminal merging of wealth and government power and the institutionalization of corruption.

Such a model of a petro-state cannot deliver consistent economic growth, overcome the enormous gulf between rich and poor in society, or ensure a breakthrough to post-industrial society. This model of provincial capitalism dooms Russia to economic degradation, marginalization, and, in the final analysis, to implosion. It will not survive for decades, as the Stalin and Brezhnev models did, and indeed it may be that in this Putin backwater Russia is destined finally to run out of historical time.
Our remarkable compatriot, the westward-looking writer Peter Chaadaev, expressed the thought almost 200 years ago that Russia’s historical role seemed only to be to serve as a warning to other peoples of what they should not, under any circumstances, do themselves. We seem to have been providing this service, with masochistic zeal, for the past 200 years. Another great thinker, the Austrian economist Friedrich von Hayek, could never have imagined in 1944, when he wrote his famous ***The Road to Serfdom,*** that, in addition to the two roads to serfdom that he described, fascism and communism, there could be a third, along which people would be led under the banner of von Hayek himself.

In one of Vladimir Putin’s studies stands a small bust of von Hayek. This is not solely for the recruitment of foreign investors, who sometimes visit the office. Vladimir Vladimirovich sincerely seems to believe himself to be quite the liberal reformer, as his advisers keep assuring him he is.

But the result of his eight years in power is what the Soviet-KGB bureaucracy dreamed of when it invented perestroika in the mid-1980s. Twenty years down the line, what has been achieved? A total monopoly of political power, just as before; enormous personal fortunes, which were off limits to it before; and a completely different lifestyle (some of them bask in Courchevel, some in Sardinia). Lastly, and most agreeably of all, they are no longer burdened with any kind of social responsibility. They no longer need to parrot that “the goal of our life is the happiness of ordinary people,” a piece of hypocrisy they found nauseating even then.

WRONG MODELS

The Putin Project is also the long-standing aspiration of "liberal" economists to find a Russian Pinochet who will introduce liberal reforms with an iron fist. Their faith in the Pinochet approach was constantly strengthened by the example of a whole succession of countries where it was supposedly implemented successfully: Chile, and certain of the states of East and Southeast Asia.

But what these countries were implementing by authoritarian methods was the transition from an agrarian to an industrial society, a task very effectively accomplished by Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin 60 or 70 years ago and, also not in the most humane manner, in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The problem Russia faces today, of breaking through to a post-industrial society, simply cannot be resolved by these methods. This became evident from the experience of the very Asian tigers and dragons that our authoritarian liberals refer us to. In South Korea the model had run out of steam by the late 1990; it is wholly unsuited to the post-industrial development of a society.

We face an additional very serious drawback: we are rich in raw materials and energy resources. This combination of authoritarian bureaucratic power with an abundance of resources is disastrous for Russia’s development, because it deprives the bureaucracy of any feedback from reality. This results in its complete corruption and decay, which is something we can see happening day by day.

Russia’s golden million live as no Russian elite has ever lived before. More than that, in terms of conspicuous consumption they far exceed the golden million of any developed state. The Russian golden million are true supporters of the Putin regime that requires, in return for making a fairy tale come true, only the purely nominal membership fee of total political loyalty. In this milieu, no new perestroika is ever going to happen; or if it does, then, as in the case of the USSR, only when it is far too late.

The road we are following is the Third Road to Serfdom, and there shall be no fourth, because this is a system that will bring Russia to ruin. Unless, of course, we find the courage within ourselves to turn off this road, in which case the entire Putin period will lodge in our historical memory as a final inoculation against the philosophy of serfdom.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

November 29, 2007 -- Contents

THURSDAY NOVEMBER 29 CONTENTS

(1) Aslund Brutally Slams Putin in Moscow Times

(2) Two Russias, Now and Forever

(3) Shattering the "Powerful Russia" Illusion

(4) Annals of Putin's Plan

(5) Gaidar's New Book


NOTE: Check out our latest installment on Publius Pundit where we lay out the upcoming Duma election in a nutshell, and feel free to leave your comments as to whether we can expect Russians to do the right thing, or anything vaguely like it, in what may be their very last chance to do so.

NOTE: Estonian House announces the screening of a new film called "The Singing Revolution". Thursday December 13th at 6:30 pm, 243 East 34th Street, New York City. Wine and cheese included! Be there or be a totalitarian!


Aslund Brutally Slams Putin in Moscow Times

Writing in the Moscow Times Anders Aslund, a senior fellow of the Peterson Institute for International Economics and author of the recently published book "Russia's Capitalist Revolution: Why Market Reform Succeeded and Democracy Failed," mercilessly exposes the hollow illusion known as Vladimir Putin.

Reacting to the story, Reader "Ron Raygun" writes the following:

This is the first time I have seen a hard figure attached to Putin's wealth. If the $41 billion amount, that Aslund cites (via Belkovsky) is even close to accurate then this is devastating to Putin's image. If I remember correctly, in another article that revealed some of his financial disclosures (a pro forma requirement of Russian electoral laws) he claimed just a modest 200k or so and some equally modest real estate holdings. What nonsense. To the average Russian, anyone who drives a Mercedes and owns an Italian suit -belongs in jail. If this $41 billion figure fillters its way down in any significant way to the Russian "street" -then watch out down below ---and above. Aslund is highly credible and the entire article is a brilliant summary of where things stand in Russia today.
Now, here's Aslund:

Most political leaders are mediocre, a few are heroes and some are just plain lucky.

In Russia, many see President Vladimir Putin as a hero -- an authoritarian reformer who has brought economic growth and stability to Russia. But let's scrutinize his record a little closer. Russia's outstanding achievement is that its gross domestic product has increased six fold from $200 billion in 1999 to $1.2 trillion this year, but this is primarily a result of the market reforms undertaken in the 1990s.

The real growth rate is not outstanding. The whole Eurasian region raging from China to the Baltics has been growing at rates from 7 percent to 11 percent annually since 2000, but Russia's growth rate has only been 6.7 percent. In spite of its abundance of oil and gas, it ranks 9th among the 15 former Soviet republics in growth for this period. The reason is that Russia is lagging behind in most reforms.

Financial stabilization remains incomplete. Last year, inflation stopped at 9 percent, but it is rising. Before the State Duma elections, the government has abandoned macroeconomic caution. Although inflation is rising, the government is sharply increasing public spending. At the same time, it has imposed informal price controls on gasoline and food, and this has caused some shortages. In this way, detrimental Soviet economic thinking has been revived.

What political stability is possible when nobody knows anything about Russia's political future after March 2008? In his speech on Nov. 21, Putin said, "In the next several months, a complete renewal of Russia's highest state power will take place," but he refuses to explain what he meant, thus leaving the country in complete uncertainty. He also has not explained what the well-advertised "Putin's Plan" is.

Putin has built a personal authoritarian system in which he makes all major decisions himself. This overcentralization of power leaves the decision makers poorly informed about everything they decide, and the government-controlled media has suffocated all policy debate. As a result, fear is rising with the steadily increasing repression.

As a consequence, central decisions are few and of poor quality. During his second term, Putin has undertaken virtually no economic reforms, and therefore has not contributed to economic growth. His entire endeavor has been to reinforce authoritarianism and to let his KGB friends from St. Petersburg indulge in lawless renationalization and larceny that has impeded investment and production, especially in energy.

Personal authoritarian systems are not very stable because they depend entirely upon one ruler. If he leaves office, such a system usually collapses. Since Putin has conscientiously undermined many state institutions, he has obviously intended to stay on all along.

This system has no other legitimacy than economic growth. Fortunately, Putin has not developed any ideology, even if he toys with Russian nationalism. Nor does he have any party. After all, United Russia is only a bunch of state bureaucrats. It is interesting that Putin's big Moscow speech on Nov. 21 managed to mobilize only 5,000 supporters. When the regime fails to deliver steady high economic growth, it is likely to be frail even while maintaining a policy of repression.

Everybody around Putin is completely corrupt, but many think that the president himself is honest. In February 2004, presidential candidate Ivan Rybkin named three men as Putin's bagmen, including Gennady Timchenko, the co-founder of the Gunvor oil-trading company. After Rybkin made this statement, he vanished from the political stage. In September, the Polish magazine Wprost wrote that Timchenko, a former KGB officer and member of Putin's dacha cooperative in St. Petersburg, has a net worth of $20 billion. Officially, Timchenko sells the oil of four Russian oil companies, but how are the prices determined to generate such profits?

In a sensational interview in Germany's Die Welt on Nov. 12, Stanislav Belkovsky, the well-connected insider who initiated the Kremlin campaign against Yukos in 2003, made specific claims about Putin's wealth. He alleged that Putin owned 37 percent of Surgutneftegaz (worth $18 billion), 4.5 percent of Gazprom ($13 billion) and half of Timchenko's company, Gunvor (possibly $10 billion). If this information is true, Putin's total personal fortune would amount to no less than $41 billion, placing him among the 10 richest in the world.

These shareholdings have been rumored for years, but now a prominent international newspaper has published such allegations made by a well-informed source. If these numbers contain any truth, Putin would be the most corrupt political leader in world history, easily surpassing Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines and Zaire's Mobutu.

Last year, a private arbitration tribunal in Zurich, Switzerland, ruled that Putin's close St. Petersburg friend from his days in foreign intelligence, IT and Telecommunications Minister Leonid Reiman, is the beneficiary of telecommunications assets presently valued at $6 billion. Putin's only reaction was to block this information in Russian media.

Both the World Bank and Transparency International assess that corruption in Russia has increased after 2004, while it has declined in most post-Soviet countries. Recently, a few senior officials have been arrested for organized crime, but this has nothing to do with the actual fight against corruption. The common view is that these arrests are only part of a turf war among Putin's KGB men from St. Petersburg.

Nor has Putin brought some law and order to Russia, according to an excellent analysis by Brian Taylor of Syracuse University. Despite sharply rising expenditures on law enforcement, the average annual murder rate under Putin has been higher than under Yeltsin. According to Taylor's report, no country outside of Iraq and Afghanistan has suffered so many terrorist attacks as Russia (even outside of Chechnya) after Sept. 11.

The final claim of Putin's supporters is that he is re-establishing Russia on the world stage and restoring its military, but even that is not true. Military reform has stopped, and hundreds of conscripts are driven to suicide every year because they are exploited as slave labor. Military procurements and wish lists focus on the priorities of the Cold War in the 1970s -- intercontinental ballistic missiles, nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers -- rather than new smart weapons for contemporary military needs.

My verdict is that Putin has had tremendous luck, which he has utilized to build up an anachronistic authoritarian reign. One could draw a historical parallel between Putin and Tsar Nicholas I, who ruled from 1825 to 1855 to the benefit of nobody except his own close circle. Abundant oil revenues have made it possible for Putin to avoid difficult reforms and to allow his inner circle to indulge in some of the worst corruption the world has ever seen.

Two Russias, Now and Forever: Tiny Joy, Giant Misery

Business Week reports that, now as always, there are two Russias. A tiny elite living high off the hog and a great unwashed population wallowing in misery and unwilling to do anything about it.

In the weeks before the State Duma elections on 2 December, Russia appears to have split in half. One Russia is stable: inflation is under control, people's incomes are up, and taxes are down. The government is getting to work on the crucial issues of Russian life, such as health, education, and poverty. But that country, portrayed by television stations friendly to the government from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok, is not the one where many Russians live.

Elena, a Muscovite who asked that her last name not be used, knows a different Russia. A former kindergarten instructor, she has been without a home of her own for 16 years. She begs during the day, giving her takings to a woman who provides her with a bed to sleep in. Elena is hunched over from the effects of osteoporosis and her eyesight is going. She said no one in contemporary Russian politics can help people like her. "Things are only going to get worse," she said. "Just look around -- the streets are crowded with homeless people, drug addicts, alcoholics. Prices keep going up. When they raise the pensions, it doesn't help us much. We still have to count every kopek." Elena's case is extreme, but while politicians busily try to convince people that life is getting better, many in Russia continue to live without the most basic necessities, such as food, shelter, health care, and heat.

The government estimates that as many as 5 million Russians are homeless. And according to the National Center for Living Standards, about 23 million people, or 16 percent of the population, live below the poverty line.

A recent independent poll showed that inflation and poverty were the problems most on people's minds in the run-up to the elections. That could be bad news for the poor because Russia's oil wealth and spiraling food prices have officials predicting that inflation will surge past the projection of 8 percent this year. Instead, inflation will likely climb to 10 percent, officials said recently. Faced with growing public anger, the government has been reluctant to further fuel inflation by pouring more money into health care and other social programs.

"The poor are not on the agenda in the upcoming elections to the State Duma. It's a remote issue. Today talk is all about raising the incomes of the economically active part of the country's population," said Mikhail Vinogradov, director of the Center for Current Politics in Russia, an independent think tank in Moscow.

Many of the country's poorest are elderly. In recent months the government has increased their basic pension to 1,260 rubles ($51) and plans another increase, to 1,560 rubles, in December. But that doesn't come close to the country's estimated minimum living wage of 4,414 rubles ($179) per month.

"I haven't been to a shop for years," Elena said. "My landlady said the prices are outrageous. Cheese went up to 500 rubles. Meat and milk, which I haven't eaten for months, are also expensive. We're going through hard times, but what else can we do? We have to live with God's help."

The government plans to cut the poverty rate to 10 percent by 2010, but in the meantime, many do not get their daily bread. Steep price increases in the fall surpassed even the most dire predictions. The cost of a market basket of groceries, used by economists to gauge inflation in food prices, rose by nearly 4 percent, to 1,824 rubles ($74). The price of dairy products has gone up by 9.6 percent, which the government attributes to a decision by the European Union, the world's largest producer of dairy products, to end export subsidies, which in turn spurred EU farmers to hike prices.

The Russian government has stepped in, forcing key market players to trim their margins on a few products, such as bread, sunflower-seed oil, eggs and yogurt.

A WORLD AWAY

Many of those who cannot afford the basics live in the country's rural areas.

In Lyubuchany, a village 45 kilometers north of Moscow, Larisa, who also asked to remain anonymous, said the concerns of people like her don't factor into the political debate, though she still plans to vote in the 2 December election.

"I don't think [voting] can change anything," Larisa said after picking up some groceries in a village shop. "The powerful minority who are ruling over the State Duma aren't interested in people's concerns and wishes. None of them has ever been ground down by poverty, and they judge how we live by those few meetings they arrange ahead of the elections."

Larisa, 67, said she spent 20 years working as a nurse but can barely get a proper health checkup now. Although health care in Russia is theoretically provided free by the state, the system is so underfunded that much care is available only to those who can afford to pay for it privately. Roughly 33 percent of the country's population could not afford necessary medical care in 2007, according to the government-controlled Center for the Study of Public Opinion.

Numbers like that might help explain why Russia ranks 127th on the World Health Organization's list of "healthiest nations." The country spends about 2.8 percent of its annual GDP on health care, less than the 5 or 6 percent recommended by the WHO. As a result, Russia continues to grapple with health issues that might seem more easily contained in such a wealthy country. The number of those with HIV has grown by 8 percent, to about 403,100, just since last year, according to the Federal HIV Center. And the spokeswoman for the Russian Oncology Center recently said that nearly one-third of children who die of cancer each year in Russia do so because of some type of privation.

During his tightly choreographed, public call-in session in October, President Vladimir Putin talked about creating state-of-the-art medical centers with new equipment and highly trained professionals across the country. The initiative, part of a project to improve the quality of Russia's medical care, would include regular evaluations of doctors. Absent from the discussion was any mention of funding these improvements.

COLD REALITY

Better health care is, of course, crucial, but it is only one part of a major social development project that the government will have to undertake if it is to lift the country's villages out of poverty that sometimes approaches medieval standards.

For instance, although Russia controls more than a quarter of the world's natural gas reserves, many people here still use firewood to heat their homes. "We spend up to 60 percent of our pensions to cover the cost of utilities, which often doesn't include gas," Larisa said, estimating she spends about 5,000 rubles ($203) each winter on firewood. She said more than half the villagers are not hooked up to gas mains, as getting a gas meter can cost as much as 70,000 rubles ($2,840). The average monthly wage in Russia was $372 in May 2006, according to the latest World Bank statistics.

"I think we've worked a lot for the government and we have the right to have these simple facilities free."

The government has launched a development program for the country's villages, expected to run until 2010. Officials say the program has already helped thousands of families, but Lyubuchany, once a major agricultural supplier for the capital, has seen few of these improvements.

"Those social programs they talk about on their censored TV channels haven't touched us yet. We used to have plastics factories here and a huge immunology institute, both of which are shut down. They've opened a Danone milk plant two kilometers away, and lots of people found jobs there. But most of the residents are still looking for opportunities in Moscow. Most young people are unemployed here. They drink, and only a few go to university in [the nearby cities of] Podolsk, Serpukhov, and Moscow," Larisa said.

The emptying-out of the country's rural areas has only gathered steam recently. In 2006, about 100,000 people left the villages and countryside, and so far in 2007, another 300,000 have gone, according to the State Statistics Service. The rural population is now about 38.4 million, or 27 percent of the country's total.

Meanwhile, the population of Moscow continues to grow, with more than 21,000 people drawn there by a booming economy so far this year. With its blockbuster real estate market and vast job opportunities, Moscow has been ranked the world's most expensive city by the Mercer HR Consulting Group. Unemployment there is at 0.26 percent, while it has hovered around 7 percent nationwide for much of this year.

Even though more than half of the respondents in a recent survey by the Public Opinion Foundation, a Kremlin-aligned polling agency, said they intend to vote in the upcoming Duma elections, a similar percentage said they doubt the election results would reflect the true will of the country's people. Judging by the current political and economic climate, they will almost certainly not reflect the concerns of people like Elena.

Shattering the Russian Illusion

Deutsche Welle shatters the illusion of Russian power that a certain malignant little troll is attempting to foist upon the world:

Sunday's parliamentary elections in Russia may well leave much to be desired in terms of democracy. But experts on the country say there's little need to fear the Kremlin's long-term plans.

The poll on Dec. 2 is being viewed as a referendum on President Vladimir Putin's popularity. With Putin's future plans unclear and the Kremlin recently striking an aggressive international posture, particularly toward the United States, many pundits have speculated that Russia might be bidding to re-establish itself as a global superpower. But Russia's military might today doesn't remotely compare to the power wielded by the Soviet Union. German experts on Russia said there's little reason to worry about a return to the Cold-War-era stand-off between Russia and the West.


"Superpower is the wrong word," said Hans-Henning Schröder, a professor of eastern European history and politics at the University of Bremen. "Big power would be more accurate. The US is in another dimension entirely, and that's clear to the Russian leadership under Putin as well. But Russia would like to reach the level of influence of, say, Germany or Great Britain." Christoph Zürcher, professor of political science at the Free University of Berlin, agreed that it did not make sense to put Russia and the US in the same league. "Russia is trying to show presence on the international stage, but it's hard to take the idea of bipolarity between Russia and the US very seriously," he said. "It would be nice if there were a multi-polar counterweight to American influence in the world. But that's not what Russia stands for right now. They're pursing national interests."


Energy plays limited role


Russia's vast natural resources, particularly natural gas and oil, will give the country increased leverage in coming years. But the experts don't think Europe is necessarily overly dependent on Russian energy. "The role of energy is foreign relations is over-dramatized," said Alexander Rahr, the director of the Russian-Eurasia Program at the German Council on Foreign Relations. "Germany only gets 30 percent of its natural gas from Russia; France only 10 percent. The lone nations who are truly dependent are Russia's direct neighbors." Schröder agreed that countries such as Georgia, the Baltic republics and Poland could feel pressure from Russia, which in turn could create a problem for the EU. But "Russia has roughly the same economic power as Italy so it's actually a fairly small country in this respect, and countries like Germany don't need to worry too much about possible developments," he added.


Lack of middle class is biggest problem


Russia is getting richer and currently boasts annual growth rates of up to 7 percent. But the experts disagreed as to how strong the Russian economy really is -- and how much it may need to diversify from energy production. "Russia can assume it won't be suffering any financial crises in the next 10 years, especially as the energy needs of countries like China are also sure to rise," Rahr said. "The biggest problem is the destruction of the middle-class -- that was a mistake that needs correcting."


Shakespearean drama?


There is complete consensus that Sunday's election is about Putin -- and whether he can retain significant power despite constitutional restrictions. But the experts stressed that that issue -- at least in the short term -- has more to do with Putin's relationship with Russia, and vice versa, and less with Putin or Russia's plans vis-a-vis the world. "Russia has become arrogant enough to flout international decorum, for instance, by refusing to allow international monitoring," Zürcher said. "That's not so terrible for the rest of the world. What's terrible is that Russia is on its way to becoming an unpleasant, semi-authoritarian system."


"The problem is that all the power is concentrated in the hands of the president, and when he gives up this power and passes it on to his successor, he's in effect at his successor's mercy," Schröder said. "What Putin is doing is trying to position himself so that he's unassailable."


"It's almost like a Shakespearean drama," Rahr said. "A historic figure who is still very popular has to go because of the constitution, but the system requires a strong leader at the top. That's also thrown the state into an internal dilemma."




Annals of Putin's Plan

Writing for Radio Free Europe, the brilliant Robert Coalson explains the possible details of Putin's plan to remain in power forever:

Reports that Vladimir Putin has prepared a statement to be broadcast to the nation on November 29 have fueled speculation that the message might contain an answer to the "2008 question" -- the president's resignation. Virtually no details about the Russian leader's prerecorded address have been released, but it is a safe bet that it will focus on the December 2 Duma elections and that he plans to do more than merely urge voters to come to the polls.

Telling is that news of Putin's television statement came as the Federation Council was in the midst of adopting a resolution setting the date of the next presidential election for March 2. That resolution was adopted on November 26, setting into motion a timetable for the presidential transition. By law, the resolution becomes official when it is published in the government newspaper "Rossiiskaya gazeta," which is obligated to do so within five days, or by December 1, but may do so earlier. After that follows a strict schedule of nominations, publications of candidate platforms, and campaigning.

The Federation Council was not obligated to adopt the measure this week; in fact, it convened in an extraordinary session to do so, indicating that the timing of the action to the Duma elections was part of the presidential administration's managed transition process. Federation Council Chairman Sergei Mironov speculated in the run-up to the November 26 session that Putin could run in the March election if he resigns as president before the council's resolution is officially published. Mironov cited Article 3, Section 5 of the election law, which states that a citizen who holds the office of president of the Russian Federation for a second consecutive term on the day of the official publication of the date of the election cannot be elected president. In other words, Mironov argues, if Putin is not holding the office of president of the Russian Federation on the day the council's resolution is published, he would be eligible to run for another term, which would be considered nonconsecutive.

Interim President

Speculation that Putin would resign and then run for another term as president, handing over the office temporarily to a trusted loyalist for the interim, has dominated the Russian political scene at least since the appointment of Viktor Zubkov as prime minister in September. Zubkov has been widely seen as the most likely "interim president." Such a scenario, it has been argued, would comply with Putin's oft-stated opposition to changing the constitution to allow him to remain in office, although whether it also meets with his asserted intention to obey both the letter and the spirit of the law is open to debate.

Aleksandr Shokhin, president of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, told the newsweekly "Itogi" this month that Putin could use such a loophole to remain in office "Nominating Vladimir Putin as a candidate for president in the 2008 election is perfectly possible," Shokhin said. "And you don't need to change the constitution. The first step is resigning as president because it is incompatible with the mandate of a Duma deputy, which he will get from the [Duma] elections. Unlike 1999, when [President Boris] Yeltsin resigned in favor of a 'successor,' here the resignation would occur in accordance with the law, which does not allow those two posts [president and Duma deputy] to be held by one person.

"The second step," Shokhin continued, "is that the party would nominate its new leader in the Duma, Vladimir Putin, as a candidate for president. This can be done because the next elections have already been scheduled --I emphasize -- they are scheduled elections, not connected with the early resignation of the president."

During the Federation Council session on November 26, Central Election Commission Chairman Vladimir Churov stated that, in his opinion, Putin would not be eligible to run in the March elections under any circumstances. "Under the law, a person holding this post, in the event of resignation, could not participate in this election," Churov said, although he did not cite the law that he had in mind. Mironov challenged Churov, pointing out as Shokhin did that the elections are already scheduled and would not be extraordinary elections triggered by the president's resignation. In response, Churov changed his reasoning, saying that Putin would not run because he has said publicly many times that he will not seek a third term.

Resign, Reapply

Resignation on November 29 could be the simplest solution to the so-called 2008 question. In his statement, Putin could reasonably note that opposition parties, especially the Union of Rightist Forces (SPS), have complained that he is using his office as president to influence the Duma elections unfairly. Recently, the Supreme Court rejected an SPS complaint urging the court to disqualify Putin from the Duma elections on precisely this ground. Putin would now be in a position to appear even more democratically minded than the high court, claiming to be stepping aside to avoid any conflict of interest and to devote himself to this historic step in Russia's democratic transition.

Such a speech would fit the Kremlin's pattern of taking self-serving steps -- from taking over NTV to nationalizing Yukos to eliminating the direct election of governors -- under the cover of some superficially legitimate pretext. Interestingly, "Kommersant" reported on November 26 that Putin recorded the statement that will be broadcast on November 29 at the Ostankino television broadcasting center instead of at the Kremlin, from where all of his previous television broadcasts have originated. This small gesture could also indicate that his resignation is in the air -- symbolically shedding the trappings of the Kremlin and becoming an ordinary citizen, merely a candidate for the Duma.

Gaidar on the Soviet Downfall

Brookings reviews Yegor Gaidar's latest book:

In today's Russia, nostalgia for the Soviet era is growing. Many Russians reflect wistfully on the passing of an era when the Soviet Union was a superpower, commanding international respect, and they blame its demise on external enemies and foolish changes in policy. In an address to the Russian Federal Assembly, President Vladimir Putin called the breakup of the Soviet Union the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century. In Collapse of an Empire: Lessons for Modern Russia, however, economic reformer and former prime minister Yegor Gaidar clearly illustrates why such notions are misguided, ill informed, and dangerous. As he explains in the introduction: "My goal is to show the reader that the Soviet political and economic system was unstable by its very nature. It was just a question of when and how it would collapse."

Although the Soviet Union never referred to itself as an empire, it fit Gaidar's definition: "a powerful multiethnic state formation in which the power (or at least the right to vote) is concentrated in the metropolis and its democratic institutions (if they exist), though the power and those institutions do not extend to the entire territory under its control." The U.S.S.R. sat on a shaky foundation of far-flung lands, conquered peoples, centralized authoritarian government, and a command economy overly reliant on natural resources. Gaidar explains why this once-powerful state was doomed to fail eventually, and why Russians should be looking forward rather than backward in building their nation. He worries that Russia is repeating some of its tragic mistakes, including uneven economic development that leaves the nation vulnerable to fluctuations in the energy market.

Gaidar uses the Soviet case as a device for understanding the life cycle of empires, which found themselves at the wrong end of history in the twentieth century. World War I spelled the end for the Hapsburgs, Ottomans, and Romanoffs, for example, and Europe's overseas empires began breaking apart after World War II. In the 1990s, the final remaining territorially integrated empire-the Soviet Union-fell. This is no mere coincidence: "The dissolution of empires in the twentieth century is a component of the process of global change that is called modern economic growth." To reproduce such a flawed model of governance would be a tragic mistake, yet many Russians still look backward through rose-colored glasses as their government centralizes power again. Such misplaced nostalgia defies reality while it imperils the future of Russia and its people.

In today's Russia, nostalgia for the Soviet era is growing. Many Russians reflect wistfully on the passing of an era when the Soviet Union was a superpower, commanding international respect, and they blame its demise on external enemies and foolish changes in policy. In 2005, in his annual address to the Russian Federal Assembly, President Vladimir Putin called the breakup of the Soviet Union the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century.

EVENT ANNOUNCEMENT: Meet Yegor Gaidar in Washington D.C.

On December 3, the Brookings Institution will launch the English-language edition of Collapse of an Empire: Lessons for Modern Russia (Brookings Institution Press, 2007). The author is Yegor Gaidar, former prime minister under Boris Yeltsin, who played a major role in Russia's economic transition out of communism, introducing a controversial program of “shock therapy” reforms after the breakup of the USSR. Gaidar will discuss why this once-powerful state was doomed to fail eventually, and why Russians should be looking forward rather than backward in building their nation. Brookings President Strobe Talbott will provide introductory remarks. Vice President and Director of Foreign Policy Carlos Pascual will moderate the discussion. After the program, the panelists will take audience questions.

Yegor Gaidar has held several government positions in Russia from 1991 to 1994, including acting prime minister of Russia, minister of economy and first deputy prime minister. Between 1993 and 2003, Gaidar was a founder and a co-chairman of the Russia's Choice and the Union of Rightist Forces Parties, and a deputy of the State Duma. He is currently director of the Institute for the Economy in Transition, a Moscow-based research organization.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

November 28, 2007 -- Contents

WEDNESDAY NOVEMBER 28 CONTENTS

(1) EDITORIAL: Reading Putin's "Mind"

(2) Putin's Elections Fraud: Brazen and Bold

(3) Putin's Russia Continues Brutalizing Families

(4) Ace Applebaum Rips Putin Another New One

(5) Russians Find Dictatorship and Murder Oh-So Fashionable!

(6) Pankin Exposes Himself

NOTE: Check out our latest installment on Publius Pundit, where we review the encouraging signs that Western leaders recognize the clear threat posed by Putin's most recent round of attacks on opposition leaders in Moscow, and feel free to leave your comments on the best way to turn these wonderful words into action.


EDITORIAL: Reading Putin's "Mind"

EDITORIAL

Reading Putin's "Mind"

Leonid Radzikhovsky of Ekho Moskvy Russian Radio, has an interesting column in yesterday's Moscow Times. Like many others in the media, he was musing over Dictator Putin's statement to his political party adherents that those who criticize his government are only those who "scrounge from foreign embassies like jackals."

Radzikhovsky, like all the others, wondered what could possibly possess Putin to be so "aggressive" given that his party is already guaranteed to dominate this weekend's elections to the Russian parliament. Indeed, some have speculated that between Putin's cult of personality and his brazen electoral fraud, no other party may win a single seat (owing to the necessity of getting at least 7% of the vote).

One explanation, of course, would be that Putin is simply a madman, just like Josef Stalin, and unable to do what is in his own best interests. That would explain, for example, why he would crack jokes about rape in front of an official diplomatic delegation, and continue a marked tradition of ruler insanity carried along, for example, by Nikita Khrushchev when he took of his shoe at the United Nations. Radzikhovsky states: "Putin has a deeply personal and sincere dislike for leaders of the Union of Right Forces, such as Boris Nemtsov." Shades of Stalin, to be sure.

But Radzikhovsky hints at another possibility. He notes that if any party is likely to transcend the 7% threshold, it's the Communists (a fact that utterly refutes Russia having made any real progress toward democracy or having ever actually lived under its basic principles). He writes:

In a formal sense the Communists are considered the opposition, but in reality they have a lot in common with Putin's politics: They curse the West and the chaos of the 1990s, and they are faithful patriots and Orthodox Christians. They also adore the KGB and Federal Security Service and fully subscribe to the superpower mentality and its corresponding illusion of grandeur. In this way, the Communists are considered to be a "friendly opposition" to the Kremlin. The Communists' most pointed criticism, however, is that the Kremlin doesn't fight strong enough against the "depraved and corrupt influence of the West" -- a phrase that became a standard, hackneyed component of Soviet propaganda.

So perhaps when Putin made his crazy-sounding statement, he was just trying to steal some votes from the Communists, perhaps help to drive them below the 7% threshold and assist his "party," United Russia, in taking every single one of the seats. After all, Radzikhovsky seems to have overlooked the one real difference that the Communists have with the regime, namely that they don't favor the extreme polarization of wealth that Putin's government has allowed to take place, and indeed benefited from. Prices are soaring, wiping out the meager gains in personal income achieved by the average Russian and generating considerable ill-will towards the wealthy, much the same situation as existed in Russia at the early part of the last century. Maybe Putin is actually scared of the Communists, and feels he needs to steal some of their thunder and siphon off some of their votes?

And a third reason is apparent, Radzikhovsky says: By demonizing the West, Putin gives himself cover for the allegations, which are sure to come, that he has rigged the weekend elections in favor of his own party.

It's all so wonderfully convenient, isn't it? In fact, these three theories are not mutually exclusive. Maybe Putin is a madman, and it just so happens that the policies of a madman are perfect for advancing and consolidating his dictatorship -- just as they were in the time of Stalin.

So Radzikhovsky ends on the obvious, ominous note: "But all of these explanations don't answer the main question: How far will this battle against jackals be taken in a country that hates its liberals as much as it hates the West?"

It's already been taken far enough to jail Mikhail Khodorkovsky, apparently for life. Kasparov and Nemtsov have been jailed, then released, in an obvious probing to see how much the Kremlin can get away with. In a malignant calculus, the Kremlin will balance the sternness of the Western reaction to those arrests against the completeness of its victory over the weekend, and that will determine how soon Kasparov and Nemtsov (and others) go back go jail, and for how long.

Indeed, if the Kremlin views the West's response as sufficiently weak, and the elections results as being sufficiently strong, jail might be dispensed with . . . and the Politkovskaya or Litvinenko solutions adopted instead.

In the end, it makes no difference which of these explanations is correct. All that matters is that, for whatever twisted reason, Russia's so-called "president" is baiting the NATO countries into a second cold war, where he will find himself hopelessly out-gunned, out-manned and out-monied.

Those factors didn't stop the USSR from driving itself into the ground, though -- so why should they stop Mr. Putin?






Putin's Elections Fraud: Bold and Brazen

Xinhuanet reports that it is quite possible that Dictator Vladimir Putin's "United Russia" sham party will grab every single seat in the next Russian parliament:

A survey conducted by the All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion says President Vladimir Putin's United Russia Party will win more than 55 percent of the vote in an upcoming parliamentary election. According to the survey conducted between November 17 and 18, more than 55 percent of those polled say they will vote for President Putin's party, almost 6 percent say they will vote for the Communist Party, almost 5 percent for Fair Russia, and almost 5 percent for the Liberal Democratic Party. Twelve parties are standing in the polls, but none of the other parties are predicted to get more than 3 percent in the election. That's below the 7 percent threshold needed to win seats in parliament's 450-member lower house.

And the Moscow Times reports that the Kremlin is prepared to go to any lengths in order to assure this result no matter what the Russian voters actually want:

Election officials have been ordered to make sure that United Russia collects double the number of votes it is expected to win in State Duma elections on Sunday -- even if they have to falsify the results, a senior election official said. The Central Elections Commission strongly denied the allegation. But accounts from other people familiar with the issue -- including opposition politicians and state-paid workers, who spoke of mounting pressure to round up votes for United Russia -- appeared to confirm the election official's remarks. The official, who heads a key regional election committee, said United Russia was gunning for double the number of votes that the latest opinion polls indicate it will win. "This is a quite a hard task," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. The official said the only way out would be fraud. The official spoke of being involved in ballot stuffing in previous Duma elections but said an alternative that is less likely to raise suspicions is to change a polling station's protocol -- the record of how many voters show up and how many votes go to each party. "During past Duma elections this was the most common way to falsify the results. We would do it in front of foreign observers because they didn't understand anything on what was going on," the official said.

A court order is required to examine protocols after an election, and the order is difficult to get, the official said. The Central Elections Commission strongly denied falsifications and said Sunday's elections would adhere strictly to the law. "No vote rigging will be allowed," commission spokeswoman Viktoria Galanina said. The Moscow Times cannot provide figures for United Russia's expected election results due to a ban on the publication of opinion polls, election forecasts and other research related to elections that went into force Monday. The election official said United Russia was seeking to top Putin's landslide victory in the 2004 presidential election. United Russia officials have portrayed Sunday's elections as a referendum on Putin and his policies. The official decided to speak to a reporter because of "disgust" about the process but said family and income worries prevented an immediate change of jobs. The official said United Russia was hoping to win big with a nationwide campaign under which bureaucrats, doctors, teachers and other state-paid workers are being told to find 10 people each to vote for the party. The official said the workers were being asked to follow a "1-for-10 formula." "This means that each one of us has to get 10 people to vote for United Russia, and we have to provide our superiors with a list of the names of these people," the official said. "Everyone in every region is involved in the process." The official said bureaucrats had been warned that their lists would be checked against the names of people who vote, and they could face sanctions such as blocked promotions for no-shows.

Spokespeople for the Oryol region, the Adygeya republic and the city of Moscow denied that their administrations had received instructions to collect votes for United Russia. "I have never heard about anything like that," said Yury Aidinov a spokesman for Moscow's City Hall. But Viktor Ilyukhin, a senior Communist official, said governors had been ordered to help United Russia double its forecast vote. He said he had learned about this from "our sources." United Russia denied orchestrating a campaign of loyalty. "These are just rumors our political enemies love to spread," said Oleg Kovalyov, a senior party official. At Oryol State University, professors have told students to vote for United Russia or face dismissal, said a journalism student, who requested anonymity to avoid the risk of being expelled. He said the students had also been told to vote at an on-campus polling station, which is to be supervised by a teacher. "Many students are afraid, especially those who live in the dorms, and they say they have to vote for United Russia," he said. He said rumors were swirling around the campus that cameras have been hidden in the polling station to see how students vote. University officials could not be reached for immediate comment, but the head of a local nongovernmental organization confirmed the account. Dmitry Krayukhin, who heads the Institute for Social Problems, said local teachers and doctors had been asked to sign a pledge to vote on Sunday and were told verbally to choose United Russia. "People have told us that they have been threatened with dismissal if they don't vote for United Russia," Krayukhin said.

A Moscow doctor said his clinic's director had told staff how they should vote and to find friends to vote for United Russia or state funding for the clinic would end. The doctor asked that he and his clinic not to be identified for fear of losing his job. A manager at a Moscow food importer said her boss, a United Russia member, had also told his staff how to vote and asked them to persuade at least 10 friends to vote for United Russia. "I'm going to vote because the boss can check, but I'm not casting a ballot for United Russia. I'm disgusted by this situation," the manager said. "The positive side is that I know what I'll do after New Year's. I'm going to look for another job."

Foreign election observers complained of unbalanced media coverage during the 2003 Duma elections but otherwise declared the contest largely fair. The Warsaw-based Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, which sent 450 observers in 2003, said it was "total nonsense" that falsifications might have occurred unnoticed. "Observers were there for one month and a half, and they were trained for a full day on Russian election law," said the office's spokeswoman, Urdur Gunnarsdottir. The agency, part of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, decided not to send a mission this year after persistent visa delays. The senior election official said no one was afraid of being caught manipulating the vote on Sunday. "A district commission was caught in Moscow [in 2003], but so what? Nothing happened to them," the official said. "The Communists sent a complaint to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg three years ago, and they are still waiting for an answer."

The Communists and Yabloko, the liberal opposition party, turned to the court after the Supreme Court rejected their appeal to invalidate the results of the 2003 elections, which they claimed had been distorted through vote rigging and biased media coverage. Sergei Mitrokhin, a senior Yabloko official, predicted that Sunday's elections "would be the dirtiest in Russian history." "It is impossible for United Russia to get what it wants without falsification," he said. Boris Nadezhdin, a senior official with the Union of Right Forces, another liberal opposition party, said his party planned to send observers to 50,000 polling stations. "We won't allow them to falsify the elections," he said. Ilyukhin, the Communist official, said his party only had enough manpower to cover polling stations in major cities.

A total of 96,000 polling stations will be open on election day.

The Financial Times says it's a "travesty" and that's actually putting it mildly:

There is no doubt about who is going to win the elections for the Russian state Duma next weekend. The party known as United Russia, whose list is topped by President Vladimir Putin, is heading for a landslide victory. The latest polls give the “party of power” between 62 and 67 per cent of the vote. Its nearest rival, the Communist party of Russia, is likely to get about 14 per cent. Only two other parties, the arch-nationalist Liberal Democrats and the centre-left Just Russia, loyal creatures of the Kremlin, stand any chance of securing the 7 per cent needed to enter parliament.

Given such a foregone conclusion, it is hard to understand why the Russian authorities are fighting such a foul election campaign. Yet in the system of “managed democracy” espoused by Mr Putin, nothing can be left to chance.

The president and his pals dominate the airwaves of all the national television channels. Their artificial parties are registered and their rallies officially protected. Opposition parties are allowed to take part in token TV debates in which the ruling party declines to participate. The tiny minority parties, which hold to values that would be recognised as genuinely democratic outside Russia, are harassed as if they were a threat to the state. Peaceful protesters, such as Garry Kasparov, the chess grand master, are jailed on flimsy charges.

The most professional team of election observers in Europe, from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, has pulled out of attempting to monitor the election campaign. The Russian government insisted its numbers be cut from 400 to 70, and then failed to deliver visas when they were promised.

On Monday Mr Putin blamed the US government for the decision to pull the observers out, in yet another example of how he has sought to demonise foreign influences in his campaign. Earlier he accused his opponents of “sponging off foreign embassies” to promote a “weak, sick state” and “a disoriented, divided society”.

It is hard to know whether such invective is a product of paranoia or mere cynicism. Mr Putin’s advisers seem to fear a popular uprising in Russia like the Orange revolution in neighbouring Ukraine. Yet there is little to suggest such a danger exists. Mr Putin is genuinely popular for bringing stability to Russia, even if his “managed democracy” is a travesty. Life has improved for most Russians, thanks to high energy prices. But the powers in the Kremlin do not trust democracy. They only understand how to fix the result, just as they used to do



Putin's Russia Continues to Barbarically Brutalize Families

The BBC reports that one Russian woman is brutally murdered by her husband every hour. Why does Russia hate families so much? How can such a barbaric nation deem itself cultured, or be seated at the G-8 table:

One Russian woman dies at the hands of her husband or partner every hour, according to the human rights group Amnesty International. Last year there were more than 15,000 criminal cases in Russia against men accused of violent crimes against their wives. Campaigners say this is the tip of the iceberg. Violence is considered "normal", so few women report it and even fewer cases make it to court.

A few years ago the pop star Valeria made headlines when she wrote a personal account of domestic violence and took part in an international campaign against it.The BBC's Russian service has been speaking to some women who have survived domestic violence. For their own security, their names have been changed and photographs taken in a way that does not identify them.

IRINA

"Irina", Russian domestic violence survivor
"I believed it was normal to be beaten up."

My husband would come home from work, often a little drunk. And he would hit me if something was wrong, like I forgot to take the garbage out or the soup for dinner was not warm enough.

First he would just give me a blow on the head, not too hard. But gradually he got into the habit of hitting me harder and harder.

Why didn't I leave? First of all, because my husband and all our friends and relatives kept telling me: how will you survive alone with three small children? You will never be able to remarry. And also because everyone around me told me that it was completely normal. And with time I started to believe that it was normal to be beaten up and humiliated.

I woke up in hospital with small tubes sticking out of my stomach and drips in my veins.

I was like a fish in a tank: all alone. You open your mouth, try to say something, but nobody hears you. Everyone was just waving me off: this is nothing, it's your family business.

The last time he beat me up I woke up in hospital, with small tubes sticking out of my stomach and drips in my veins. I was told that I was in hospital and I had just been operated on. My first thought was: but how did I end up here? Oh, but I ended up here because I was beaten up by my husband. And why did he beat me up? Oh, because I was foolish enough to let him do it.

I managed to recover after all this violence. But it's better not to let things come to this. We should stand up to them. If a man hits a woman once and she doesn't leave him straight away, he will feel encouraged to hit her again, as nobody punished him for hurting another person.

LYUDMILA

"Lyudmila", Russian domestic violence survivor
"They appealed to me as fellow police; they wouldn't get a bonus."

After my husband beat me up really badly, I was in hospital for about a month. And all this time the police officer, the investigator and my ex-husband kept telling me that I shouldn't start criminal proceedings and that I shouldn't tell anyone about what happened.

The police hoped that I would withdraw my report. When they found out that I worked for the police myself, they started appealing to me as a fellow police employee. They said it was a waste of time for them to investigate a domestic violence case, that they wouldn't get any bonuses for this.

It was pity of the kind which said 'poor little thing, she doesn't know how to handle men'.

Most people around me disapproved of me. They said this was a family matter and it shouldn't be made public. If I failed to find common ground with my husband, it was my problem. If he hit me, I was myself to blame. Had I found the right words, he would never have hit me, they said. Some felt pity for me, but it was pity of the kind which went "poor little thing, she just doesn't know how to handle men".

The legislation concerning domestic violence needs to change. The state should start supporting women in such situations. There are already crisis centres that support women, but they can do very little until the law changes.

MASHA

"Masha", Russian domestic violence survivor
Masha was raped like a "chunk of meat" in front of her children

It started out as a nice marriage. We had two children. Then my husband started to change, as he was getting more money and more power. And I was just a housewife, at home with the children and pots and pans.

We started to have scenes. Then he started hitting me. I kept it to myself, I didn't want to tell anyone. I tried to drown my grief in alcohol. Then he stopped seeing me as human.

Once he raped me in a perverted fashion in front of the children. He beat me first and then he raped the "hunk of meat" that he considered me to be.

I am happy with my life now but there are no guarantees I won't end up on the streets again.

After this I broke up with him and started binge-drinking. He set the police against me and eventually they came and took me away. When the police let me go I came back to a locked door of the flat I shared with my husband. I was without my things, without documents, without any money.

I was homeless on the streets of St Petersburg for several years. Eventually I got really ill and doctors referred me to a crisis centre for women. They helped me get new documents and find a job where I can live in a dormitory room.

I tried to get in touch with my children, I sent them presents and tried to inquire through friends, but at the moment they don't want to see me. I'm happy with my life now: just to have a roof over my head, even if it is only a small dormitory room. There are no guarantees, of course, that I won't end up on the streets again. And this is what frightens me. I don't think I will survive this a second time.