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Thursday, October 12, 2006

Dishonesty and Delusion in Russia's Neo-Soviet Regime

The Moscow Times contains two excellent exposé pieces on the increasingly bizarre, detached-from-reality quality that characterizes the government of Neo-Soviet Russia. First Georgy Bovt, editor of Profil magazine, and then the editors of the paper themselves, document the classically Soviet belief that the goverment can erect a country based on illusion and lies. It's really quite breathtaking how quickly this ideology has returned to full flower in Russia, so soon after it brought the nation to its knees.

Here's Bovt on the Georgia crisis:

Russia is in the grip of what you might call "Special Operation Georgia." It is not called this officially, although local authorities in one Siberian region did come up with this title, apparently undisturbed by the echoes of ethnic cleansing.

The operation is being conducted nationwide under purely legal pretexts. The Federal Migration Service, for example, provided a legal explanation for the ban on entry visas for Georgians, saying it had suddenly uncovered "numerous instances of fake invitations used by Georgians to enter Russia."

Just as suddenly, Russian Railways discovered that there were "no economic benefits from passenger service to Georgia." Postal services and money transfers to Georgia were banned, according to the agencies in question, because the money was being transferred mainly by Georgians living illegally in Russia.

The Transport Ministry said land, sea and other links with Georgia had been cut because Russia "has serious questions" in all these areas, "particularly about safety."

IT and Communications Minister Leonid Reiman said "there have been numerous instances on the Georgian side of breaches of bilateral and multilateral agreements." He added that he had "many questions about printed matter and parcels arriving from Georgia."

In Moscow, police seized the Georgian Embassy's guesthouse, when it was suddenly discovered that "over many years the house was being occupied illegally, that the property rights for the building were not registered and that it was not the property of Georgia or being rented by the country."

In the space of one day, all casinos in Moscow with "Georgian traces" -- that is, Georgian capital -- were closed. But not, the authorities said, because of their Georgian ownership. Instead, it was because of "numerous infringements" with regard to registration, licenses and unpaid taxes had been uncovered.

Even artist Zurab Tsereteli's academy was searched. The tax service came to investigate the publisher of works by Boris Akunin (who is also Georgian). Previously, imports of Georgian wine had been banned because, the authorities said, it was of bad quality. Ditto for Borjomi mineral water.

No one in Russia believed these explanations for one minute, and they quickly became the subject of cynical jokes and stories. Everyone knows that the Georgians are being "rubbed out" -- a term that continues to gain popularity in Russian politics -- because they are Georgians. But they are not being targeted because of their ethnic background. They are being targeted as revenge against the regime of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.

It seems to me that it would be much more honest to pass a law saying that Russia is at war -- a cold one to start with -- with Georgia, and then everything and everyone Georgian could be banned and subject to internment or deportation. But the current campaign looks more like the campaign against Yukos and its former CEO Mikhail Khodorokovsky. He was also "rubbed out," not because he harbored inconvenient political plans and feuded with influential Kremlin insiders, of course. The explanation was that he didn't pay his taxes. At one point, a rabbit-breeding firm under Yukos' control was even found in order to accuse Khodorkovsky of ill-treating the bunnies.

The humane treatment of animals was used as a weapon by Oleg Mitvol, deputy head of the Natural Resources Ministry's environmental inspectorate, in a dispute surrounding the Sakhalin-2 project. Instead of rabbits, this time it was gray whales and the Amur salmon, which are allegedly being poisoned by Western oil companies. If the companies agreed to split their share with Gazprom, it's unlikely Mitvol would continue to worry about the whales.

In the current non-war with Georgia, the authorities are using laws that are the essence and content of contractual rights and the market economy as a whole, thereby discrediting them in the eyes of society and undermining any remnants of faith in their legality. People are cynically being shown that the law means nothing and that it can be used arbitrarily, depending on how the person applying them likes the person against whom they are being applied. Society is being made to understand that doing business legally here is impossible because any business can be targeted, infringements found, and the owner subjected to repression 24 hours a day. All, of course, in accordance with the law."

This kind of application of the law is useful for street toughs. But when a state gets used to behaving in the same way, it becomes ripe for degradation and collapse.

And now the editorial on the Politkovskaya killing:

In his first public comments on the killing of Anna Politkovskaya, President Vladimir Putin played down the importance of the investigative journalist.

"She had minimal influence on political life in Russia," Putin told reporters on Tuesday following a meeting with Chancellor Angela Merkel in Dresden, Germany. "This murder does much more harm to Russia and Chechnya than any of her publications."

Putin had a point. Despite Politkovskaya's tireless exposes of brutalities committed by federal and local authorities in Chechnya and her efforts to help victims of these abuses through nongovernmental organizations, her influence on Russia's policies in the North Caucasus was limited.

But the question is: Is it normal that her investigative reports had no impact on the decision-making process in Russia? If this is normal, then whose fault is it that the mass media, which in Western countries play an instrumental role in providing public oversight of the authorities, are increasingly toothless and lack impact, even when a reporter has the courage to expose a problem?

Putin's decision to speak about Politkovskaya's killing first during a private telephone conversation with U.S. President George W. Bush on Monday and later at the news conference with Merkel suggests that he believes it is of concern to Western democracies and of little importance to the Russian public, which gets most of its news anyway from state-controlled television channels.

Despite Putin's condemnation of the killing and call for the perpetrators to be caught, the tone of his comments was chilling. He also suggested that unnamed fugitives from Russian justice had plotted the murder in an attempt "to create a wave of anti-Russian sentiment in Russia."

His remarks suggest that the bottom line for the Kremlin is that Politkovskaya was of marginal importance and that it views her slaying as a threat to its power from exiled conspirators.

More than anything, Putin's response might be an example of the paranoia that can be generated in the minds of leaders who through their own policies of control have little or no independent sources of information apart from their own security services.

Even if many Russians seem ambivalent toward basic democratic values such as free speech, and if Putin thinks little of his role as a guarantor of such liberties, as outlined in the Constitution, it should still be in the Kremlin's interest to ensure there is independent media in this country. Robust and independent media are a vital source of information that a leader needs and should use when making crucial decisions.

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