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Saturday, May 31, 2008

Annals of Russia's Population Crisis

Far more Russians are dying at a relatively young age than babies are being born to replace them. The result is a precipitous population decline that threatens Russia's economic well-being and perhaps even the ability to safeguard its huge territory. VOA Moscow Correspondent Peter Fedynsky examines some of the reasons and consequences of the Russian demographic crisis.

The population of Russia has been falling an average of 700,000 people each year since the collapse of the Soviet Union more than 16 years ago. Russian women can expect to live until 73, but the average life expectancy of men is 59, about a dozen years less than their counterparts in Western Europe.

Larissa Ilgova lost her husband to liver disease. She says many of her friends are dying young. "I have many friends and they're all dying at a young age - 47, 48, 50, 60," she says. "A lot."

Health experts say reasons for so many premature deaths in Russia include heart disease, poor diet, hard work, smoking, and above all, alcoholism.

But Russian demographer Igor Beloborodov says alcoholism is the symptom of a larger problem - a spiritual malaise among the general population.

Igor Beloborodov
Igor Beloborodov
He says this malaise does not afflict Russia's religious communities, noting their members live longer and have more children than average, though they are not necessarily wealthier.

"This is most evident among the devout Orthodox [Christian], members of Russia's largest religious faith," Beloborodov said. "There are also many children born to Muslims, and the same goes for Buddhists. People who have preserved a certain moral code and a positive attitude toward family values demonstrate different demographic and reproductive tendencies."

Beloborodov says 75 years of atheism and economic mismanagement by communists devastated not only Russia's spiritual and material foundations, but also the family structure. He says the communist system created what he calls "demographic time bombs" that continue to explode in Russia years after the Soviet collapse in 1991. These include the legalization of abortions, prohibition of private property and inheritance rights, and making a mother's service to communism more rewarding than caring for her children.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin recently called for measures to increase Russian life expectancy to 75 by the year 2020. But demographer Beloborodov questions whether the problem can be solved in a mere 12 years. "I think the approach to the problem - lowering the death rate but ignoring the birth rate - is wrong," he said. "It won't solve anything. It would only guarantee an older population. In other words, the rate of aging would accelerate, but the burden on the working-age population would increase. Even now, our pension system is in a state of crisis."

The demographer says more working-age Russians are needed not only to support retirees, but also to develop the economy and maintain a viable army.

Some analysts also fear the Chinese could fill a vacuum created by a particularly acute loss of people in Russia's Far East.

Vladimir Myasnikov, one of Russia's foremost China experts, disagrees. He says not many people are needed to hold the area. "East of the Urals, normal human living conditions exist only along a very thin strip running along the Chinese border. There is permafrost North of some local mountain ranges, where temperatures reach as low as 50 below zero centigrade. There are similar regions in Canada, which are virtually empty."

Russia has as many as 12 million immigrants, most of them illegal, to make up for Russia's ever-growing labor shortage. Some immigrants have been attacked and even killed by xenophobic Russians who resent the newcomers as intruders. Despite an slight increase in number of births last year, the United Nations predicts the country's population will continue to plummet from the current 141 million to less than 100 million by mid-century.

Russia's Deadly Roads

BusinessWeek magazine reports:

The statistics are terrifying: 10 times as many auto-related fatalities as in the U.S. Decrepit highways and drunk and careless drivers are blamed

On May 9, Russia celebrated the anniversary of its victory over Nazi Germany in World War II. The next day — the Saturday of a long holiday weekend — the toll of auto accidents reached 601. Three accidents alone claimed 18 lives.

Two days later a bus collided with a truck on the Moscow to St. Petersburg road, killing eight more people.

"The motorway linking Moscow and St. Petersburg is the road of death. It's scary to drive there with heavy trucks rushing along in the oncoming lane," said Aleksandr Latyshev, a journalist for the Izvestiya newspaper who often uses the road.

The highway between Russia's two largest cities is one lane in each direction. About 1,500 people die on it every year, most in head-on collisions. Vehicles also kill scores of pedestrians in towns along the highway.

"The speed limit in towns is 60 kilometers per hour. But no one goes the speed limit because when you're tired and the road is good, you want to get home as soon as possible," Latyshev said.

In this vast country, a deadly combination of careless driving, rampant corruption, aging cars, and bad roads adds up to a huge risk for those who get behind the wheel and for those who get in their way.

The statistics paint a grisly picture:

• About 33,300 people died nationwide in 233,800 accidents registered in 2007. That's almost as many auto-related fatalities as the entire European Union, which has about 3.5 times Russia's population and six times as many vehicles.

• In 2007, about 900 deaths per 1 million vehicles were reported in Russia, 10 times as many as in Germany and 5.5 times as many as in the United States.

• About 900 people die each year on the Moscow to Rostov-on-Don highway, a major route from central Russia to Black Sea resorts, and on the road linking Yekaterinburg and Chelyabinsk.

• Although more Russians die of respiratory and circulatory diseases each year, in the Federal Statistics Service's "accidents, poisonings, and injuries category" for 2006, only suicide claimed more lives than transport accidents.


Vladimir Kuzin, deputy chief of Russia's traffic police, blamed undisciplined drivers for most fatalities. "The primary cause of high mortality on the roads [is] drivers' lack of respect for the law, a nihilism about the rules of the road. Drivers don't maintain speed limits, don't yield to pedestrians on crosswalks, and don't wear their seat belts."

Drivers were responsible for 84 percent of fatal accidents last year, according to official statistics. This year, the government hiked fines for driving offenses. The penalty for running a red light, for instance, rose from 100 to 700 rubles (about $30), for not wearing a seatbelt from 50 to 500 rubles (about $20), for going more than 60 kph over the speed limit from 500 to 5,000 rubles (about $200) plus a license suspension for two to four months. The average monthly wage in Russia is about 13,500 rubles ($560).

Those caught driving under the influence face losing their license for two to three years.

Perhaps as a result, road accidents fell by 11 percent in the first three months of 2008 from the same period in 2007. Fatalities dropped by 10 percent and accidents involving drunk drivers plunged by 20 percent.

"Our penalties are still more lenient than in other countries, but the fine surge has had an effect," said Vladimir Shevchenko, spokesman for the traffic police.

Vladimir Fyodorov, traffic police chief from 1990 to 2003 and currently a member of the upper parliamentary chamber, notes a slight improvement in road safety. "In 1990, every fourth accident was linked to drunken drivers, whereas now it's only 9 percent. Although one in 10 vehicles being driven by a drunken driver is still a lot."

But critics say the higher fines have just pushed up bribes. Many drivers pulled over by traffic police offer bribes amounting to 50 percent of a possible fine. The Moscow-based Indem think tank estimates that the total amount of annual bribes increased between fivefold and tenfold from an estimated 500 million rubles before the new penalties took effect.

In an April poll conducted by the independent Levada Center, 57 percent of drivers said they had encountered traffic police who solicited bribes by threatening to fine them for fabricated offenses.

For its part, the Interior Ministry says it fights corruption, citing 7,000 instances of bribery uncovered and 5,300 police officers sacked in 2007.

Viktor Pokhmelkin, chairman of the Russian Movement of Vehicle Drivers, predicted the fine surge will have only a short-term effect as drivers become accustomed to them. As for the traffic police, he said, "Traffic police react to offenses rather than prevent them. They have no incentives to do the latter."

Pokhmelkin blamed old Russian-made vehicles for the high fatality rate.

"The Russian cars lack basic safety devices like air bags and anti-lock braking systems. Fewer people die in foreign-made vehicles," he said.

Russia has the oldest vehicle fleet in Europe. The average car is 14.3 years old compared with 8 years old in EU countries. Automobiles younger than 10 years account for only 19 percent of those on the road, according to the Avtostat analysis center. The 7.7 million rear-wheel-drive Ladas on Russian roads account for 26.5 percent of the total number of vehicles in the country.

Those rickety cars drive each day along clogged, ramshackle roads.

Poor roads caused nearly 44,000 accidents and 6,700 auto-related deaths last year. Russia, the world's biggest country, has only slightly more distance of paved roadways than Germany and less than one-eighth that of the United States.

And many of the country's highways, about one-third, according to the Transportation Ministry, need urgent repair.

Meanwhile, new road construction cannot hope to keep pace with increasing car ownership. The number of vehicles in Russia more than tripled between 1991 and 2007, while the length of roads grew by only about one-third. Aleksandr Mirashin, deputy minister of transportation, told the State Duma in March that the government plans to build 63,000 kilometers of roads before 2015, extending the road infrastructure by 9 percent. As many as 50,000 of the 120,000 Russian towns lack paved roads.

But new or improved highways bring with them a new set of problems.

"We repair roads, fill the potholes, but accidents rise. You won't drive fast on a bumpy road," Vladimir Fyodorov, the former traffic police chief, said.

The Russian authorities admit that they will not be able to reduce auto-related fatalities to levels registered in other European countries within the next few years. In 2005, then-President Vladimir Putin tasked the authorities with bringing down road deaths to 23,000 before 2012, three to five times the average European level. Nevertheless, it would be a significant improvement over the early 1990s, when 35,000 to 37,000 people were killed in motor-vehicle accidents every year, even in that era of fewer cars.


It is in the big cities, where traffic slows to 10 to 20 kph during rush hours, that congestion and bad habits create the highest risk.

"In major cities, especially in Moscow, traffic is a real pain in the neck," Viktor Kiryanov, chief of the traffic police, told reporters in March.

Pedestrians, moving off the sidewalk to get around cars parked there, are often hit.

"There are no conditions for pedestrians. They take to the road because they don't want to wipe vehicles with their trousers and skirts," Fyodorov said.

But at the same time, as in so much of Russian life, senior officials enjoy excellent road conditions. They may legally equip their cars with emergency lights so that other vehicles must yield to them. In 2006, the government limited the number of officials eligible to use the lights to 1,000. More than half of the permits went to the Federal Security Service, the Federal Guard Service, and the Interior Ministry. The Presidential Administration was given the right to use emergency lights on 60 vehicles and the government, 35.

Lower-ranking officials have special license plates that help them in traffic. Businesspeople who want to drive faster in congested traffic buy these plates illegally for $10,000 to $30,000.

A vehicle equipped with emergency lights or bearing a special license plate may defy the rules, such as using the oncoming lane to get around jams. Such cars are 12 times more likely to cause an accident than ordinary ones, according to police statistics.

Last fall, a vehicle escorting Supreme Court Chairman Vyacheslav Lebedev crossed into oncoming traffic and rammed into a Lada, killing its driver.

In February, a vehicle carrying the traffic police chief, using an oncoming lane to get around a Moscow traffic jam, hit a woman, who suffered a fractured leg and concussion. She was later found guilty of causing the accident by crossing the street in the wrong place and failing to yield to a police vehicle with flashing lights.

Friday, May 30, 2008

March 30, 2008 -- Contents


(1) EDITORIAL: The Wages of Slaves

(2) "Hypermortality" in Putin's Russia

(3) Russia Backs Down

(4) In Russia, Tsarist Fascism

(5) Annals of Neo-Soviet Propaganda

NOTE: Kim Zigfeld rips out the still-beating "heart" of a Russophile scumbag and stomps on it over at Instablogs.

EDITORIAL: The Wages of Slaves


The Wages of Slaves

At the current dollar-ruble exchange rate of 23.5:1, 7,000 rubles amounts to $297.87.

That's the average monthly wage of a petrochemical worker in Russia's Sverdlovsk region, just west of the Urals on the border of Siberia. The major metropolis of Yekaterinburg is located there.

For four 40-hour work weeks, that translates into a shocking average hourly wage of only $1.86. So much for the notion of economic recovery in Vladimir Putin's Russia. These are the real wages earned by the vast majority of real Russians across the country, offset by a tiny clan of super rich who exploit the unwashed masses as has always been the case in Russia.

But little enough, you might think, so that managers at such a plant would consider their workforce cheap at twice the price, and be rolling in profits. Yet if that were so, why would workers at the Lobinsky plant have declared a hunger strike in protest of wages that are four months overdue?

It's an important question, because that's just what they're doing. Other Russia reports:
18 employees of the factory have refused to eat since April 28th, in an attempt to convince management to dole out back pay to over 500 factory workers, according to the Agency of Political News. Of the 18 employees who started the hunger strike, six have been hospitalized, and four were forced to stop when the act exacerbated chronic illnesses they have. The plant’s management did not respond to the protest until the hunger strike was underway for 12 days. Workers received a “letter of guarantee” that they would be paid by June 10th. The striking employees, however, said they had never heard of the directors who signed the letter, and said the document held little authority. They then continued their protest. The Lobinsky protest is the third labor dispute in the the Sverdlovsk oblast in recent months, according to Itar-Tass (RUS). Thus, 107 miners working for Sevuralboksitrud (a part of the mammoth RUSAL aluminum company) went on strike from March 26th to April 4th, demanding a raise in wages. And from April 13th to 19th, 66 workers of the same mine announced a hunger strike with similar demands.
Speaking of hunger strikes, dissident opposition leader Oleg Kozlovsky has just finished one. According to his Washington Post column last week, Kozlovsky sees the Kremlin has having imposed "the stability of the Gulag" on Russia. His blog carries a photograph of Kozlovsky just after his release, showing the effects of his self-imposed malnutrition.

So, despite the absurd propaganda being churned out by the Kremlin, Russia is rather far from being a resurgent dynamo on its way to paradise. To the contrary, Russians are starving themselves in the vain hope of clemency from the malignant trolls who prowl the Kremlin's parapets, begging for legal and economic justice and laying their lives on the line to do it. Meanwhile, as has always been the case in Russia, a tiny clan of oligarchs hoards the nation's wealth for their own obscene and secret purposes.

RIA Novosti recently reported that "the minimum wage in the capital is to come to 10, 900 rubles by the end of 2010. Currently the minimum wage in the city is 6,800 rubles. After September 1, it will be 7,500 rubles. Additionally, pensions in the capital are to exceed the cost of living by the end of 2009, Igor Antonov, the chairman of the budget and finance committee of Moscow State Duma, said."

Moscow is the world's most expensive city, and its minimum wage is a shocking $290 per month or $1.80 per hour. If Moscowites are lucky, by 2010 that my rise to $465 per month or $2.90 per hour -- of course, with Russian prices rising at double-digit annual rates, that may well be worth much less then than $290 is worth today.

Russians are besieged from every side in Vladimir Putin's Russia. Below we report on a new term, "hypermortality," being coined to describe Russia's skyrocketing rate of population loss, something that is obviously connected to the ill-health that results from such an insanely low, slave-like wage scale.

And Russians have nobody to blame but themselves for this apocalypse. They themselves chose to be governed by a proud KGB spy, or did nothing to oppose his rise to power. Now, they will take the consequences.

"Hypermortality" in Putin's Russia

United Press International reports on more proof of the brilliant success story that is Vladmir Putin's Russia:

An alarming new word has been born. It is "hypermortality," which might be defined as an extraordinary tendency toward death. It jumps from the first page of the U.N. Development Program report entitled "Demographic Policy in Russia."

"The Russian phenomenon of hypermortality comes to be observed primarily in working-age populations," it says.

"Compared to the majority of countries that have similar levels of economic development, mortality in Russia is 3-5 times higher for men and twice as high for women."

What this means, the report says, is that the size of the working-age population "will fall by up to 1 million people annually already by 2020-25."

The effect of this will be to raise the dependency load (the number of young and old people dependent on those of working age) to 670 to 750 per thousand by 2020 and to 900 to 1,000 per thousand by 2025.

"This will inevitably influence economic growth rates," the report notes.

"At the moment, there are no grounds to believe that the crisis will be overcome and the size of the population will be stabilized," it adds.

The report, while commissioned and published by the U.N. agency, was entirely prepared and written by Russian experts led by Professor Valery Yelizarov, head of Moscow State University's Center for Population Studies. It was peer reviewed by Germany's Max Planck Institute.

In precise and formal scientific language, the report suggests that Russia is suffering the kind of hypermortality that is normally only associated with the effects of a major war.

In wars, young men die. That is also happening in Russia. The report says: "Without factoring the impact of AIDS, the number of males age 15-24 could decline by nearly half over the next 20 years."

But factor in the effect of AIDS and the picture is even more grim.

"Russia has experienced a dramatic spread of HIV in just over a decade. In 1997-2007, there was a 370-fold increase from less than 1,090 to 405,427 officially registered cases," the report says. It adds that this represents the minimum of those in contact with the HIV reporting system.

Russia's Federal AIDS Center estimates that up to 1.3 million Russians are living with HIV, and last year women of childbearing age accounted for 44 percent of known new infections.

What led to this dismal state of affairs? The report does not attribute blame, but it is specific about the timing of the demographic disaster that has overtaken Russia, associating it with the "reform period" that began in 1985 with the coming to power of Mikhail Gorbachev and the tumultuous "reform period" that followed, which included the fall of the Soviet Union.

"In the nearly two decades of the reform period, a segment of the population living on the verge of poverty expanded and multiplied, exhibiting habits and factors contributing to risk: alcoholism, smoking, improper nutrition, avoidance of healthcare, and psychological stress," it says, seeking to explain the "hypermortality" phenomenon.

This may be disputed. Western demographers like Murray Feshbach were writing of the demographic collapse in the mid-1980s and citing data from as early as the late 1960s. But there is no doubt that the disruptions of the Soviet Union's death throes exacted a fearsome toll. Even now, when Russia is becoming rich with its oil and gas wealth, the death toll continues to be unnecessarily high.

Many lives could be saved, the report says, by "providing economic and geographic access to healthcare services, most of all in medical and social prevention and primary treatment. In 2005, by primary prevention means only, about 150,000 deaths could have been avoided (about 105,000 men and 45,000 women) in the age of up to 65 years."

It is important to consider what this means for the future of the Russian economy. Ever since Goldman Sachs devised the concept of the BRIC nations, identifying Brazil, Russia, India and China as the key emerging markets, great hopes (and considerable investments) have been placed on them. But a very large question mark must be placed on the economic prospects of a country whose young male workforce looks set to fall by half.

Moreover, a large proportion of the Russian workforce may be too drunk to function. Almost one male death in three is alcohol-related.

"The increase of alcohol consumption from 10 to 15 liters and an almost simultaneous increase in mortality suggests the central role played by alcohol to mortality, in average up to 426,000 per year in 1980-2001. Alcohol-related deaths total 29.6 percent of total mortality for men and 17.0 percent for women," the report says.

Last year President Vladimir Putin launched a crash program to try to tackle Russia's hypermortality by increasing maternity leave to 18 months and cash benefits for mothers that would go as high as $9,000 for a second child. But noting that there is a current shortage of around 1 million day-care facilities in Russia, the report hints that the Putin plan lacks credibility.

"Quantitative indicators that describe set ambitious goals and tasks make one doubt if they are correct, agreed and realistic," the report concludes.

Russia backs down on Arctic Imperliasm

In yet another craven show of weakness, a pathetic back-down on the wild-eyed attempt to seize the Arctic. The Canadian Press reports that Russia has once again bitten off much more than it can chew:

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has downplayed his country's placing of the national flag under the ice at the North Pole, saying it was not meant to signal Russia's claim to the Arctic.

A Russian scientific expedition deposited a rustproof titanium version of country's flag on the seabed at the pole last year. The act heated up the controversy over an area that a U.S. study suggests may contain as much as 25 per cent of the world's undiscovered oil and gas.

"It should be seen basically the same way as the American flag was planted on the moon sometime ago," Lavrov said Tuesday.

In 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin erected a U.S. flag when they became the first men to land on the moon.

Lavrov, who was headed to a meeting in Greenland to discuss sovereignty in the Arctic, said the flag at North Pole was not a political event.

"You shouldn't be in this fascinating game of treating this particular, scientific, human achievement as anything else," he told reporters.

Interest in the region is intensifying because global warming is shrinking the polar ice, and that could someday open up resource development and new shipping lanes.

"There is no claim for any territory. There couldn't be because as I said there is a sea convention, there are mechanisms created to implement this conventions, including for the continental shelf," Lavrov said.

Under the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, Arctic nations have 10 years after ratification to prove their claims under the largely uncharted polar ice pack. All countries with claims to the Arctic have ratified the treaty, except the United States.

Canada has announced plans to build a new army training centre and a deep-water port in Arctic waters. Norway, the United States and Denmark also have claims in the vast region.

Denmark is gathering scientific evidence to show that the Lomonosov Ridge, a 2,000-kilometre underwater mountain range, is attached to Greenland, making it a geological extension of the sparsely populated giant island that is a semi-autonomous Danish territory.

A UN panel is supposed to decide the Arctic control by 2020.

Natural Resources Minister Gary Lunn is representing Canada at the meeting on the Arctic this week in Ilulissat, Greenland. Officials from Denmark, Norway, Russia and the United States will also be there.

Danish Foreign Minister Per Stig Moeller will co-host the conference with Greenland Premier Hans Enoksen.

Moeller reiterated that the aim of the meeting was to reaffirm the nations' commitments to international treaties governing the region.

In Russia, Tsarist Fascism

British TV host Jonathan Dimbelby, writing in the Daily Mail:

As ex-President Putin settles in to his new role as Prime Minister, he has every reason to congratulate himself.

After all, he has not only written the script for his constitutional coup d'etat, but staged the play and given himself the starring role as well.

Of course, he has given a walk-on role to Dmitry Medvedev, his personally anointed successor.

But the transfer of power from Putin to his Little Sir Echo, Medvedev, and the show of military strength with those soldiers and clapped-out missiles in Red Square on Victory Day which followed it last week, made it clear who is really in charge.

No decision of any significance for the Russian people or the rest of us will be made in the foreseeable future without the say - so of Medvedev's unsmiling master.

Just before he stood down as President, Putin declared: "I have worked like a galley slave throughout these eight years, morning til night, and I have given all I could to this work. I am happy with the results."

As he surveys the nation today he reminds me of that chilling poem by Ted Hughes, Hawk Roosting, in which the dreaded bird sits at the top of a tall tree musing: "Now I hold all Creation in my foot - I kill as I please because it is all mine - I am going to keep things like this."

In a way he is right to be so self-satisfied. He has told the Russian people that life is much better than it was before he took over - and, after a journey of some 10,000 miles across the largest country in the world for a new book and BBC TV series, I am in no doubt that the majority of his subjects believe him.

I travelled from cities to towns to villages by road, rail and boat and met a great diversity of people - from St Petersburg glitterati to impoverished potato-pickers, from a witch who charms the sprites of the forest to the mountain herdsmen who worship fire and water, from oilmen to woodcutters.

It was an exhilarating and revelatory experience in a land of extremes. But it was also deeply disturbing.

Despite the fact that Putin's Russia is increasingly autocratic and irredeemably corrupt, the man himself - their born-again Tsar - is overwhelmingly regarded as the answer to the nation's prayers.

Russia has a bloody and tormented history. Its centuries of suffering - its brutalities, its wars and revolutions, culminating in the collapse of communism and the anarchic buffoonery of the Yeltsin years - have taken a terrible psychological toll.

Cynicism and fatalism which eat away at the human psyche have wormed their way into the very DNA of the Russian soul.

In a nation that has not tasted and - with very few exceptions - does not expect or demand justice or freedom, all that matters is stability and security.

And, to a degree, Putin has delivered these twin blessings. But the price has been exorbitant and the Russians have been criminally short-changed.

Putin boasts that since he came into office investment in the Russian economy has increased sevenfold (reaching $82.3 billion in 2007) and that the country's GDP has risen by more than 70 per cent.

Over the same period, average real incomes have more than doubled. But they started from a very low base and they could have done far better.

Nor is this growth thanks either to the Kremlin's leadership or a surge of entrepreneurial energy.

On the contrary, it is almost solely down to Russia's vast reserves of oil and gas.

When Putin came to power, the world price of crude oil was $16 dollars a barrel; it has now soared to more than $120 dollars - and no one knows where or when this bonanza will end.

But this massive flow of funds into the nation's coffers has not been used "to share the proceeds of growth" with the people; to reduce the obscene gulf in income between the rich and poor.

It has not helped to resurrect a health service which is on its knees (and is ranked by the World Health Organisation as 130th out of the 190 countries of the UN), or to rebuild an education system which is so under-funded that the poor have to pay to get their children into a half-decent school or college.

It has not brought gas and running water to the villages where the peasants have been devastated by the collapse of the collectives, or even developed the infrastructure that a 21st century economy needs to compete with the rest of the world.

Russia may be a member of the G8 whose GDP (because of oil) should soon overtake the United Kingdom, but, in many ways, it is more like a Third World country.

Stricken with an epidemic of AIDS and alcoholism which both contribute to a male life expectancy of 58 years, the population is projected to shrink from 145 million to 120 million within a few decades.

So where has all the oil wealth gone? According to an Independent Experts Report, written by two former high-level Kremlin insiders who have had the courage to speak out, "a criminal system of government [has] taken shape under Putin" in which the Kremlin has been selling state assets cheaply to Putin's cronies and buying others assets back from them at an exorbitant price.

Among such dubious transactions the authors cite the purchase by the state-owned Gasprom (run until a few months ago by Dmitry Medvedev) of a 75 per cent share in an oil company called Sifnet (owned by Roman Abramovich, the oligarch who owns Chelsea Football Club).

In 1995 Abramovich, one of Putin's closest allies, paid a mere $100 million for Sifnet; ten years later, the government shelled out $13.7 billion for it - an astronomical sum and far above the going market rate.

Even more explosively, the authors claim the Kremlin has created a "friends-of-Putin" oil export monopoly, not to mention a secret "slush fund" to reward the faithful.

According to an analyst at Moscow's Carnegie Centre, which promotes greater collaboration between the U.S. and Russia, the report is "a bomb which, anywhere but in Russia, would cause the country to collapse".

In Britain such revelations would certainly have provoked mass outrage, urgent official inquiries and a major police investigation - if not the downfall of the government.

But because of Putin's totalitarian grasp on power (he has not only appointed his own Cabinet, which used to be the prerogative of the President, but will remain in charge of the nation's economy), there will be no inquiry.

You can forget any talk from the new President about "stamping out" corruption. This social and economic disease is insidious and rampant.

According to Transparency International - a global society which campaigns against corruption - Russia has become a world leader in the corruption stakes. Foreign analysts estimate that no less than $30 billion a year is spent to grease official palms to oil the wheels of trade and commerce.

But when you raise the subject, Russians shrug their shoulders: "What's the problem?" they retort.

"That's how the system works. It will never change."

And that is because everyone is at it. From corporations (including foreign investors who claim to have clean hands but cover their tracks by establishing local "shell" companies to pay the bribes) to the humblest individuals who buy their way out of a driving ban.

In a country where the "separation of powers" has become a bad joke, the law courts are no less corrupt.

Except perhaps for minor misdemeanours at local level, the judiciary is in thrall to the Kremlin and its satraps.

The threat of prosecution for tax fraud is the Kremlin's weapon of choice against anyone who dares to challenge its hegemony.

When Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once the richest man in Russia, used his oil wealth to promote human rights and democracy, Putin detected a threat to his throne.

The oligarch was duly arrested and convicted of fraud. He now languishes in a Siberian jail where he is in the third year of an eight-year prison sentence.

None of this is a matter of public debate in Russia where the media has been muzzled by the Kremlin, their freedom of expression stifled by the government.

Almost every national radio and television station is now controlled directly or indirectly by the state, and the same applies to every newspaper of any influence.

In the heady days immediately before and after the collapse of the Soviet empire, editors and reporters competed to challenge the mighty and to uncover scandal and corruption.

Now they cower from the wrath of the state and its agents in the police and the security services.

That diminishing number who have the courage to investigate or speak out against the abuses perpetrated by the rich and powerful very soon find themselves out of a job - or, in an alarming number of cases, on the receiving end of a deadly bullet.

Some 20 Russian journalists have been killed in suspicious circumstances since Putin came to office. No one has yet been convicted for any of these crimes.

Putin calls the system over which he presides "sovereign democracy". I think a better term is "cryptofascism" - though even the Kremlin's few critics in Russia recoil when I suggest this.

After all, their parents and grandparents helped save the world from Hitler - at a cost of 25 million Soviet lives. Nonetheless, the evidence is compelling.

The structure of the state - the alliance between the Kremlin, the oligarchs, and the security services - is awesomely powerful.

No less worryingly is popular distaste - often contempt - for democracy and indifference to human rights.

In the absence of any experience of accountability or transparency - the basic ingredients of an open society - even the most thoughtful Russians are prone to say: "Russia needs a strong man at the centre. Putin has made Russia great again. Now the world has to listen."

The new Prime Minister has brilliantly exploited the patriotism and latent xenophobia of the Russia people to unify them in the belief that they face a major threat from NATO and the United States.

This combination of national pride and insecurity has been fuelled by the America with its proposed deployment of missiles only a few hundred kilometres from the Russian border, allegedly to counter a nuclear threat from Iran.

No serious defence analyst believes this makes any strategic sense, while even impeccably pro-Western Russians recoil from this crass assertion of super-power hegemony by President Bush.

Similarly most Russians feel threatened - and humiliated - by the prospect that Ukraine and Georgia, once the most intimate allies of the Soviet Union, may soon be enfolded in the arms of NATO.

Georgia, which is struggling to contain a separatist movement that is openly supported by the Kremlin, has the potential to become a dangerous flashpoint in which the Western allies could only too easily become ensnared.

Does this mean - as some have argued - that we are about to face a new Cold War? I don't think so for a moment.

With communism consigned to "the dustbin of history", there is no ideological conflict of any significance. And there is now only one military superpower.

In comparison with America, Russia's armed forces are a joke. Only catastrophic stupidity on either side could lead to a nuclear confrontation.

But this does not mean that we can all breathe a sigh of relief and forget about the Bear.

An autocratic and resurgent Russia that feels bruised and threatened is an unstable beast.

The Kremlin's growing rapprochement with Beijing (the adversaries of a generation ago are now not only major trading partners, but conduct joint military exercises) shifts the balance of power in the world.

And as life on earth becomes less and less secure, with evermore people competing for a dwindling supply of vital resources, Russia, as an energy giant, is once again a big player on the world stage.

Make no mistake, we are in for a very bumpy ride

Annals of Neo-Soviet Propaganda: Here come the infiltrators

Radio Free Europe reports:

The first Russian think tank based in the United States has yet to officially open its doors. But it's already generating a lot of controversy.

Critics say the Russian Institute for Democracy and Cooperation (RIDC) is little more than a new propaganda tool for the Kremlin as it sharpens its attacks on the West. But the head of the institute's New York branch says he and his colleagues intend to study U.S. democracy -- not criticize it.

Andranik Migranyan bristles at the suggestion that the new think tank is seen as Kremlin tool meant to respond in kind to the harsh critiques often heard from Western NGOs like Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders.

The political scientist says scrutinizing U.S. conduct at Guantanamo Bay or the Bush administration's public-surveillance program are not on RIDC's agenda. Instead, the organization's main goal is to study the United States for potential solutions to common problems back in Russia.

"We have very serious problems today concerning these problems of immigration, integration, and adaptation," Migranyan said at a recent press conference in Washington. "Russia is becoming more multinational, multiethnic, multireligious, and we have serious problems in this area. This country [the United States] has a long-lasting history on all these issues. And we would like to know how these problems are discussed here, how they are solved here -- as well as institutional problems, and problems [with values]. What do those things mean?"

There's no disputing that during most of Russian President Vladimir Putin's eight-year rule, which ended earlier this month, U.S. rights groups like Human Rights Watch and Freedom House -- not to mention the U.S. State Department, in its annual human rights report -- have frequently criticized the Russian government for a variety of sins against democracy.

Such groups have noted a steep decline in Russia's civil liberties under Putin, pointing to the forced closure of independent media outlets, the jailing of political opposition figures, and tight state control of campaigns and elections.

Russia often seeks to discredit the findings of such Western rights groups. But with the formation of RIDC and other initiatives like Russia Today, a government-funded English-language news channel begun in 2005, the Kremlin appears to be moving from a defensive posture to an offensive one.

Yet Migranyan said the idea for the institute was not a tit-for-tat response to Western criticism, describing it instead as the brainchild of a number of Russian political thinkers who are interested in the concept of democracy and in making sure Russia's own thoughts on the subject are heard.

"In Russia, from [former] President Putin to President [Dmitry] Medvedev to the rest of academics to the mainstream, or at least majority, they accept the idea of liberal democracy," he said. "They value institutions and values, they understand that this gives efficiency to the economy, efficiency to political system[s]. But at the same time, the idea of sovereign democracy means that you can't just impose it."

Questions Remain

Migranyan, who has held several advisory posts with the State Duma and Federation Council, describes himself as an avid student -- if not a fan -- of American political affairs. Unabashedly in the Kremlin's camp, he is quick to criticize opposition leaders like Garry Kasparov and Duma Deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov.

The launch of RIDC was announced with fanfare at the start of 2008. Its operations, however, remain somewhat vague. The institute has yet to create a website, for example, and a Paris branch, reportedly already open, has shown little sign of life. Migranyan says he has already signed leases on office space for the New York office and is waiting for a U.S. bank to approve the institute's status as a nonprofit charity.

While he waits, he says he's holding meetings with potential U.S. partners -- think tanks like the Brookings Institution and the Heritage Institute; Russian studies centers like the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard; and academic institutions like the University of California at Berkeley.

Questions remain about RIDC's funding. Many observers have alleged that the group receives handsome support from the Kremlin. But Migranyan says that while the Kremlin approved the group's creation, financial support comes from "different business structures and donors who are interested in America" -- and not the government.

Still, a fellow speaker at Migranyan's press conference -- while not acknowledging Kremlin funding -- saw nothing wrong with accepting government support. Edward Lozansky, the president of the American University in Moscow, lashed out a questioner from the National Endowment for Democracy for what he characterized as a double standard on the question of government funds.

"The last time I [checked] the National Endowment for Democracy was funded by the U.S. government," Lozansky said. "I don't know, probably you get some private funds, too, but most of the money comes from the government. The same with the National Democratic Institute, the same with National Republican Institute."

Lozansky, who was stripped of his academic position in the 1970s for publicly criticizing Soviet policy, appeared convinced his country was on the right track -- and that naysayers should find another country to inspect.

"It may take Russia 50 or 100 years to achieve total democracy, but it will get there," he said. "Let them do their own thing."

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

May 28, 2008 -- Contents


(1) EDITORIAL: Russia, the Worst of All Possible Worlds

(2) Opposition Demands Release of Political Prisoners

(3) KBG Will Listen in on your Cell Phone Calls

(4) The National Assembly Declaration

(5) Annals of Litvinenko

NOTE: Russia "won" the Eurovision song contest over the weekend using a song written and produced by Americans and sung in American English. Not long ago Russia won a European basketball title with crucial American help as well. If Russia goes on "winning" like this, America will soon dominate Europe and Russia will become the 51st state! Writing on Robert Amsterdam's blog, Grigori Pasko states: A joke: "The Russians have a saying -- Какая держава - такие и победы. Which translates roughly as 'What kind of country you have tells you what kind of victories you can expect from it.' In the past, we felt proud because Gagarin had flown into outer space. Nowadays -- it’s because Dima Bilan has taken first place in Eurovision."

EDITORIAL: Russia -- The Worst of All Possible Worlds


Russia: The Worst of All Possible Worlds

The Moscow Times reports more shockingly bad news for Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

In the most recent Global Peace Survey, Russia ranked a jaw-dropping #131 out of 140 countries under survey. Russia has the fifth-highest murder rate on the planet and is involved in turbulent military conflicts all across its southern border. It’s keeping company with Nigeria, North Korea, Columbia and Lebanon, not the other members of the G-8 democracy club.

Russia is shown above in the map colored blood red, with a “very low” score for peace.

Russophile propagandists will point out that the United States didn’t do so well either, coming in at #97 on the list and ending up in the “low” category. But that’s far better than Russia, and the United States is one of the freest countries in the world. So it’s natural that it would have less peace and order than a nation that is ruled as a dictatorship – and yet, where Russia is concerned at least, it doesn’t.

In other words, Russia offers its citizens the worst of all possible worlds. It deprives its people of all the benefits of a free society, yet it doesn’t compensate them by giving them the “peace and order” benefits of an authoritarian society.

And the Russian government’s response was entirely predictable. Think they might be concerned that Russia is in crisis and want to take action? Think again. The Moscow Times quoted Ruslan Pukhov, director of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, a think tank that tracks security challenges and Russia's arms trade: “There exists a huge number of misconceptions about Russia and other countries, and they are reflected here. There is no doubt that this ranking reflects an Anglo-Saxon outlook on things.”

In other words, it’s not Russia that has the problem, it’s the “Anglo-Saxons.” Never mind that the United States didn’t make the top 75 countries on the list, Russians are instantly sure that the only possible explanation for such results is a massive anti-Russian conspiracy.

This is exactly the way the old USSR used to react to bad news. Kill the messenger. That attitude prevented the USSR from reforming, and led to its collapse. It’s quite comical, in fact, to watch the Russophile propagandists try to decide whether they should attack America for coming in low on the list (but, uh-oh, that means the list is reliable, and Russia’s score is even lower!) or attack the list itself (thus exculpating America’s poor result). Or, it would be funny if it weren’t so very tragic. This too smacks of the bad old days of the USSR.

Can we expect anything different than the USSR’s fate from Vladimir Putin’s Russia if it acts the same way?

What Passes for Heroism in Russia

Grigory Pasko, via Robert Amsterdam:

Если Вы хотите прочитать оригинал данной статьи на русском языке, нажмите сюда.

A joke: The Russians have a saying – Какая держава - такие и победы. Which translates roughly as “What kind of country you have tells you what kind of victories you can expect from it.” In the past, we felt proud because Gagarin had flown into outer space. Nowadays – it’s because Dima Bilan has taken first place in Eurovision

If a government official in Russia has done something shameful, has committed a crime related to his position, has manifested blatant incompetence, but at the same time has remained loyal and true to the ruling establishment, then you can be sure that they will not remove him and will not punish him. Furthermore, most likely he will be promoted or transferred to another cushy cash-generating job.

It is precisely to such a conclusion that one can come after analyzing certain personnel reshuffles in the Russian establishment of recent days.

And yet another important conclusion: Putin continues to run the country. And the personnel reshuffles also bear witness to precisely this.

Let’s talk about but a few of the personages on whose example these conclusions are clear and understandable.

The author and satirist Viktor Shenderovich gave a brilliant recounting of some of the reshuffles on the air on the radio station «Echo Moskvy» (the text of his broadcast can be found here).

Shenderovich, in particular, talks about how by an ukase of the new president of Russia, Dmitry Medvedev, the former representative of the president in the Volga Federal District, Alexander Konovalov was appointed to head the Ministry of Justice. The head of the Federal Security Service (FSB) became Patrushev’s former deputy, general Alexander Bortnikov. Shenderovich recalls that Konovalov first became famous already three years ago, when, as procurator of Bashkiria [also known as Bashkortostan—Trans.], he was in charge of the investigation into the mass beatings of citizens in tiny Blagoveshchensk.

“The local OMON shared its experience in Chechnya with the Bashkirs: a thousand people beaten, dozens raped – first-class ‘working with the population’…”, recounts the writer/satirist. “Human rights advocates demanded then the punishment of the guilty and the dismissal of the head of the Bashkirian MVD – they wanted, the bastards, to bleed the vertical [of power] dry! But procurator Konovalov, the Eye of Murtaz [that would be Murtaz Rakhimov, president of Bashkiria—G.P.], when faced with a choice between the law and his bosses, unerringly chose the latter, and rather than the top brass in the police being gotten rid of, participants in a protest rally were dispersed instead. And dozens of OMON Chikatilos [Chikatilo was a maniacal serial murderer—G.P.] remained “unestablished” by the procuracy’s investigation: the honest procurator Konovalov explained that the criminal-cops were wearing masks, and this, as I’m sure you understand, is an insurmountable obstacle for the investigation! For this legal exploit the Bashkirian procurator earned the post of Putin’s representative in the Volga District, from where he has now emerged into Medvedev’s minister of justice.”

In addition to the “Blagoveshchensk affair”, Konovalov, as Shenderovich is quick to recall, was also in charge of a case involving investigating the legality of the privatization of the Bashkirian fuel-and-energy complex, the greater part of the enterprises of which by ukase of president of Bashkiria Murtaz Rakhimov was transferred to structures controlled by his son, Ural Rakhimov. According to the assessment of the Accounting Chamber, this privatizational scheme became an unprecedented incident of the theft of assets under Federal ownership… Konovalov’s running of the investigation ended in a favorable cessation thereof. Favorable – for the Rakhimov family, and not at all for the Federal budget. (Well, you understand our priorities…). As is said in the official biography of the new minister of justice, Mr. Konovalov already in youth achieved serious successes in academic rowing… The ability to sweep things under oneself and in the proper direction, I am convinced, will turn out to be absolutely essential in the future as well.”

Alexander Konovalov, yesterday a member of a rowing crew, today a member of Medvedev’s crew

About the new head of the FSB Russians found out already before his appointment as the new head of this odious organization. Alexander Bortnikov acquired broad fame after the publication of two investigative articles in the magazine «The New Times». In the first case, what was being spoken of was the murder of Litvinenko, the organization of which, according to certain well-founded data, Bortnikov was personally in charge of; in the second case, the journalist Natalia Morari described the role of the FSB general in the work of the Kremlin’s “laundry”, engaged in diverting some serious money from controlled oil companies, through quiet offshores, to «Raiffeisen» bank… Subsequent events unfolded in such a manner that the true face of Mr. Bortnikov became clear to everybody once and for all. The journalist Morari was denied entry into Russia. The ominous shadow of Mr. Bortnikov clearly loomed behind this unlawful prohibition. But inasmuch as the courts of Russia are very independent …of the laws, Morari to this day remains without entry, while Bortnikov has gotten a promotion.

Alexander Bortnikov, yesterday a money-launderer, today Russia’s head spy

About the rather unique concept of honor and conscience among the chekists I can share my own experience. When it was established by a military court that a certain FSB investigator by the name of Yegorkin had falsified the materials of the criminal case unlawfully initiated in relation to me, what did they do with this miserable excuse for a chekist? Why, they promoted him of course. And not just him: various and sundry commendations and awards were also bestowed on other members of the investigative brigade.

We can recall other examples as well, when a personage who had brought scandal upon himself instead of getting a plank-bed in a jail was sent to a nice, warm, and high-ranking job promotion. And even in those extremely rare cases when an official was convicted by a court, a real term of serving punishment was replaced for him by a suspended sentence – that’s how it was with former minister of atomic energy Yevgeny Adamov, who had stolen from the state, in the opinion of the investigation, $40 million dollars.

In general, the courts in Russia continue to incessantly amaze the world and local public. Moreover, they do this in parallel with the solemnly-intellectual speeches of the new president about the need for an independent judiciary.

By a sentence of the Basmanny Court, the leader of the movement «Oborona», Oleg Kozlovsky, was arrested for thirteen days under the article «Failure to obey employees of the police». Kozlovsky was detained on the sixth of May, when he was heading to a «Dissenters’ March». Judging by the testimony in court, Kozlovsky had been detained by two different policemen in two different places at two different times. In so doing, Oleg supposedly offered resistance to both. In the mind of a normal person, this is called delirium. In the mind of the “independent” Russian court, which convicted Kozlovsky, and not those who had fabricated false testimony against him, this is – a normal state of affairs.

If things keep going this way (and they certainly will), then there’s no way Medvedev will ever be around long enough to see independent courts in Russia.

By the way, there was recently a scandalous incident in the court system as well.

On 8 May, the next day after Medvedev’s inauguration, a judge of the Central District Court of the city of Barnaul, Valentin Poluyanov, adopted a decision on the unlawfulness, invalidity of the elections of the mayor of this city. This is the first such case in the country. In Barnaul there are 510 thousand voters and a mere 249 voting stations. And so, at 83 of them, based on the complaint filed by participants in the elections, the judge organized a recount of the votes, and it became clear that there are more ballots there than voters who voted. The judge, using such terminology as “massive fraud”, adopted a decision on how the mayor had not been elected, elections had not taken place. And how did this all end? Exactly as such things are supposed to end in a totalitarian state. Poluyanov was forced into submitting his resignation. If a person, even a judge, doesn’t have administrative support, then he is helpless. His decision, by the way, was protested in the higher-standing court.

This judicial anti-hero Poluyanov, it goes without saying, is an exception in a judicial system that has long ago rotted to the core. And the premature end to his career is living proof of this.

Today’s Russian power has been surrounding itself for a long time already with controversial personalities. Moreover, not only at the level of the heads of the FSB and of justice, but of lower rank as well. For example, in the leadership of the subdivisions of the «United Russia» party. Recently, it became known that the pop star, lead singer of the group «Smash» Vlad Topalov in the last four years consumed hard drugs. The mass media remind that Topalov is a member of the public council of the «Young Guard» of «United Russia». That is, to speak in the language of the recent past and very near future, he was – a Komsomol ringleader.

Vlad Topalov, yesterday a role model for Russia’s youth, today a role model for drug traffickers

The Putinite-Medvedevite time chooses for itself as heroes people not from the world of scholars, thinkers, writers, inventors, instructors, but from the world of sport and pop-business. The latest hurrah of patriotic hysteria broke out in connection with the victory in the Eurovision competition of a second-rate Russian singer, Dima Bilan. Medvedev immediately congratulated the singer. They immediately bestowed upon him the title of People’s Artist of Russia. One of the streets of the town of Ust-Dzhegut in Karachayevo-Cherkessia, where the singer is from by birth, was immediately renamed after him.

Indeed, if there are no real achievements in the economy, science, production, the resolution of the social problems of the people, then even such achievements as the victory of a mediocre singer in a mediocre contest will be tossed into the propaganda machine.

The times are like that now – mediocre. Like the leaders of the country.

Opposition Demands Freedom for Political Prisoners

The Other Russia reports:

Some of Russia’s most prominent human rights activists have written an open letter urging President Dmitri Medvedev to free political prisoners. The letter was presented at a May 22nd press-conference in Moscow, and was hand delivered to the Executive Office of the president.

Attached to the letter is a paper providing more detail (RUS) on the names mentioned in the letter. The open letter is currently gathering signatures online (RUS).

A complete translation follows.

An open appeal of human rights activists to Dmitri Medvedev

Mr. President!

During the presidential election campaign you repeatedly stressed how important the principles of rule of law were for Russia. We could not help but take notice of your words, which also correspond to what we view as a priority.

In our earnest conviction, politically motivated criminal prosecutions and politically motivated court sentences are in violent contrast with the the principle of rule of law.

This is precisely why we are calling on you to pardon those people, who became, in our opinion, the victims of politically motivated persecution, and to do all that is in your power to ensure that they are granted liberty.

As a first step, we call on you to pardon the following citizens of the Russian Federation:

Danilov, Valentin Vladimirovich. CC RF [Criminal Code of the Russian Federation] Article 275, sentenced to 13 years standard confinement regime. [Wikipedia entry on Danilov’s case]

Sutyagin, Igor Vyacheslavovich, CC RF Article 275, sentenced to 15 years standard confinement regime. [Wikipedia entry on Sutyagin’s case]

Reshetin, Igor Andreevich , academic of the Space Technology Academy, general director of the TsNIIMash-Export closed joint-stock company (sentenced to 11.5 years maximum security regime), his deputy chief of security Alexander Rozhkin, chief economist Sergei Vizir, and Mikhail Ivanov, the head of one of the departments of the TsNIIMAsh Federal State Unitary Enterprise – sentenced from 5 to 11 years incarceration. [Read more about the TsNIIMash case and its victims from the Novaya Gazeta (ENG)]

Khodorkovsky, Mikhail Borisovich, sentenced to 8 years incarceration in standard confinement.

Lebedev, Platon Leonidovich, sentenced to 8 years incarceration in standard confinement.

Pichugin, Aleksei Vladimirovich, sentenced to life imprisonment.

Aleksanyan, Vasily Georgievich, Executive Vice-President of YUKOS with presidential powers. On 04.06.2006 Moscow’s Simonov district court discerned material evidence of an offense in Vasily Aleksanyan’s actions, and gave consent to the Prosecutor-General’s Office to start a criminal prosecution of the Executive Vice-President. Later that same day, Vasily Aleksanyan was detained, and the Russian Federation’s Prosecutor-General’s Office charged him on two articles of the Criminal Code: legalization [or] money laundering (part 4 article 174.1) and appropriation or embezzlement, that is, stealing another’s property (article 160). On 04.07.2006 the Basmanny regional court sanctioned the arrest of Vasily Aleksanyan. He is currently hospitalized under guard.

Bakhmina, Svetlana Petrovna, a deputy chief of the Yukos legal department, arrested 12.07.2004. Sentenced to 8 years standard confinement regime.

Murtazalieva, Zara, born 1983, insurance broker, 3rd year student of the Linguistics University of Pyatigorsk, a native of the Naursky region of the Chechen Republic, was arrested March 4th 2004 in Moscow. Convicted of intending to commit a terrorist act, and sentenced to 8.5 years. [Read More about Murtazalieva’s case from the Memorial Human Rights group]

Talkhigov, Zaurbek Yunusovich, born 1977, native of the village of Shali, in the Shali region of the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. Was sentenced to 8.5 years incarceration for attempting to aid in the release of hostages from the Theater Center at Dubrovka in October 2002. [Read more about Talkhigov’s case from the Caucasian Knot / Memorial]

By Russian law, the President of the RF may pardon a prisoner without requiring him to admit his own guilt.

We are familiar with the prosecuting circumstances of every one of the listed prisoners, and have solid grounds to assert that political considerations determined their prosecutions.

We have brought forth a far from complete list of Russian political prisoners, selecting those that have the longest [prison] terms and whose prosecution received the greatest public attention. It is clear that other prisoners, who we consider to be political, did not make the list. In particular – members of the Other Russia coalition (at the present moment – 14 people), a series of businessmen, and others.

We hope that the procedure of pardon extends to them as well.

Mr. President, by starting your presidential term with the pardoning of political prisoners, you will open a new page in Russian history, restoring the hope of an independent judiciary, which is so lacking in Russia.

L.M. Alekseeva, Moscow Helsinki Group
S.A. Gannushkina, “Civil Assistance” Committee
S.A. Kovalev, A. Sakharov Foundation
L.A. Ponomarev, “For Human Rights” Movement
Yu.A. Ryzhkov, academic of the Russian Academy of Sciences
Yu.B. Samodurov, A. Sakharov Museum and Civic Center
A.K. Simonov, Glasnost Defense Foundation
E.I. Cherniy, Public Committee for the Protection of Scientists
G.P. Yakunin, Public Committee for the Protection of Freedom of Conscience

Appeal supported by:
N.Yu. Belykh, chairman of the federal political advisory committee of the Union of Right Forces party
Vaclav Havel, former president of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic, recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize
Andre Glucksmann, philosopher
Rudolph Bindig, honorary member of the PACE, former deputy of the [German] Bundestag
Lord Frank Judd

Next for Russia's KGB: Legal Cell Phone Eavesdropping

Other Russia reports:

Draft legislation introduced into the Russian Parliament could give the country’s security services the right to listen in on mobile telephone calls. As the state-owned Rossiyskaya Gazeta reported on May 20th, the legislation would also allow security service, militsiya and customs agency officers to ask service providers to cut the line of communication if there is a danger to the life or health of a citizen. The line may also be disconnected in cases where the state, military, economic or ecological safety of the country is threatened.

Beyond that, agencies leading an investigation will have the right to ask mobile telephony providers for information on their users, including their IMEI numbers, an identity feature built into every mobile device.

The bill was introduced to Russia’s lower house, the State Duma, and would need to clear three readings before heading to the Federation Council, the upper house, and ultimately the president’s desk.

A similar bill was put forth in the legislature of the Russian Republic of Tatarstan. Authorities there said the draft law is “aimed at lowering the number of crimes connected with stolen instruments of cellular communication.”

At the present, mobile telephone providers have the option to refuse requests from the security services, and may decide whether to cooperate on a case by case basis. If the company denies a request, officials are forced to go through the judicial system and appeal before obtaining records or listening in on conversations.

The Russian Declaration of Independence

The Other Russia reports:

The National Assembly, a gathering of political forces put together by the Russian opposition, has released a draft declaration on the state of Russian politics (below). The Assembly will met in Moscow on May 17th and 18th, bringing together delegates from 85 organizations and 66 Russian regions. Political groups include the United Civil Front, the Union of Right Forces, Yabloko, and the Communist Party.

A list of the nearly 700 delegates is available here (RUS). The delegates were chosen at three separate conferences previously held in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Even before the conference started, reports were coming in that delegates were being pressured not to attend. In the southern city of Barnaul, a man claiming to be a major and calling from a number registered with the militsiya threatened Dmitri Kolesnikov and journalist Yevgenia Berseneva, and told them not to leave the city. Roman Mishurov, another delegate, was pulled off a train from Samara to Moscow and detained under an alleged suspicion that he was carrying counterfeit money. In another southern city, Orenburg, Konstantina Korsakova and Yevgenia Kasaurova reported being constantly followed and threatened over the phone.

UPDATE: The declaration has been adopted by delegates on May 17, 2008.

Political Declaration of the National Assembly of the Russian Federation

We, the deputies of the National Assembly, representing Russian civil society, and the widest spectrum of parties and movements of the non-parliamentary opposition,

on the basis of principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,

following the provisions of the Constitution of the Russian Federation,

acting for the sake of the interests of Russia’s people and their future,

do declare:

The ruling political regime in Russia is illegitimate. The political, administrative, [and] judicial authority of Russia has been usurped by the henchmen of oligarchic clans and members of a group of secret services, who have occupied key posts in the political machinery of the country. Major national resources have been put in the service of the regime – environmental, financial, informational. On a vast scale, the ruling regime appropriates government property, budgetary resources, national assets and property of the citizens.

The Constitution of the Russian Federation proclaims: “Man, his rights and freedoms are the supreme value. The recognition, observance and protection of the rights and freedoms of man and citizen shall be the obligation of the State,” [and] “the only source of power in the Russian Federation shall be its multinational people.” However, the ruling regime has deprived the Russian people of their fundamental civil and political rights – to personal immunity [(translation note: or protection against unreasonable search and seizure)], to freedom of conscience and free expression of one’s convictions, to freedom of movement and travel on the territory of one’s own country, to the freedom of peaceful assemblies and associations, to an independent and impartial judicial defense, to the right of participation in governing the country, to government by the people. Free political competition, the democratic electoral process, representative bodies, an independent judicial system, and independent mass media have been destroyed. The institutions of federalism and local self government have been diluted. The democratic procedures have been reduced to fiction.

The elections of deputies to the State Duma on December 2nd 2007 and of the president on March 2nd 2008 were neither free, nor competitive, nor fair. The citizens of Russia were subjected to unprecedented bribery, arm-twisting and intimidation. The results of the voting were widely and glaringly falsified. Unlawfully usurping the powers of government, the ruling regime accomplished a take-over of political authority that belongs to the Russian people. The organs of state power, formed as result of such a special operation, as well as any decisions adopted, and all appointments made by these bodies, contradict the Russian Constitution in the rudest way and are therefore unlawful.

Having destroyed the imperfect, but none the less functioning legal order in the country, the regime has made complete lawlessness the norm. A caste of corrupt bureaucrats has been created, [and is] protected by the full powers of the repressive state apparatus.

At the same time, the nation’s military system is crumbling, which leads to the degradation of Russia’s armed forces, the weakening of the country’s defense capabilities, and loss of its real sovereignty.

In the present-day world, the regime’s social and economic policies secure the role of a backwards raw-materials exporter for our country. The authority of favoritism is incapable of modernizing the economy, society, [or] the state. The monopoly of privileges, the plundering of public funds, national assets, [and] environmental resources has made members of the highest ranks of power billionaires, at the same time as uncontrollable inflation decimates the incomes and savings of millions of Russian citizens. The pension system is on the verge of bankruptcy. The collapse of the residential, social, and transport infrastructure forces a substantial part of our fellow citizens to struggle for survival. Citizens of Russia ended up deprived of the capability to receive necessary medical service and public education.

The result of policies of discrimination and segregation of citizens became the aggravation of social, multi-ethnic and interfaith conflicts. Many Russian citizens have turned into social outcasts in their own country over social, ethnic and interfaith reasons.

The ruling regime suppresses attempts by citizens to defend their rights and freedoms with the help of propaganda, bribery, arm-twisting, threats, crude police and judicial arbitrariness, violence, terror, [as well as] taking away freedom, property, health and life itself from Russian citizens.

We, the deputies of the National Assembly, call on the citizens of Russia to strive with us for:

  • The emancipation of all political prisoners.
  • The dissolution of all the illegitimately formed bodies of power, including the State Duma.
  • The implementation of universal free and competitive elections with the participation of all existing political parties and organizations.
  • The formation of bodies for representing the people and an Executive Branch [that are] responsible before the Russian people and that carry out the will of Russia’s subjects.
  • The equitable distribution of national wealth, produced by free people.
  • The transformation of Russia into a legal, democratic, secular federal republic.

Annals of Litvinenko: Nekrasov via Amsterdam

Robert Amsterdam translates an essay by Russian filmmaker Andrei Nekrasov, the director and producer of "Rebellion, The Litvinenko Case", a Cannes featured documentary which opened in London on May 23rd.

One year ago the Crown Prosecution Service named the suspect in the Alexander Litvinenko murder case. It was an important event for those involved and interested in the story; the indictment gave weight to the popular suspicion that the Russian state security apparatus was behind Litvinenko’s spectacular demise six months earlier. Important for me personally was also that on the day the former KGB officer Andrei Lugovoi became the official murder suspect, Cannes film festival made a surprise announcement that my documentary about Litvinenko was included in the main programme.

This coincidence had an exaggerated significance in the heat surrounding the Litvinenko affair in Russia. Some commentators declared that there is a cross border cross-cultural conspiracy, between the British political establishment and the French cultural one, against Russia trying to reassert itself as a world power. Some claimed that the “anti-Russian” film in Cannes is a sign of France’s new president harsher attitude to Russia; others said that “the piece of anti-Putin propaganda” was to be shown in Cannes on the instigation of the scheming exiled tycoon Berezovsky.

All that would have been just bygone oddities, if it were not for an important connected problem the Litvinenko case presents, in my view, today. In a way it has reached an impasse. Russia will not extradite Mr. Lugovoi, while the British establishment refuses to be drawn into any more speculation on who might have been behind Mr. Lugovoi who seems to have had neither a motive, nor a possibility to pull off such a sophisticated radioactive poisoning on his own. In the meantime the appetite for speculation in the media has proved strong enough. Two journalists, in America and Britain, recently claimed that Litvinenko was involved in the smuggling of radioactive materials. The claims were not based on any evidence and contained contradictions and inaccuracies. Edward Epstein, for example, suggested in New York Sun that polonium 210 which killed Litvinenko may have been acquired during his trips abroad which date back years, or from equally old “stockpiles”. It is known, however, that the isotope completely loses its radioactivity just after four months. Mary Dejevsky wrote in the Independent that, according to Mr. Lugovoi, no tea was served during his fatal meeting with Litvinenko at the Millennium hotel, even though in Lugovoi’s many interviews, including the one in my film, he admitted that Litvinenko had actually drunk tea at that meeting. The tea factor is important because in Litvinenko’s own accepted version the poison must have been put into a tea pot before he arrived at the meeting and was offered to drink from the tea pot already on the table.

There is no need to expatiate on the reasons why different versions of Litvinenko’s death are tainted by world politics. But it is useful to recap some revealing paradoxes. The Russian government categorically denies that its secret services could be involved in any way, and Mr. Lugovoi rejects British accusations with indignation. In his turn, Lugovoi accused the London based exile Berezovsky and even the British secret service of poisoning his former fellow KGB officer Litvinenko. That’s what came across internationally. Yet inside Russia the emphasis is on portrayal of Litvinenko as a traitor, an enemy, an ally of Islamist terrorists and the helper of the inveterate anti-Putin provocateur Berezovsky. In terms of today’s Russian ethics such accusations amount to a death sentence to be executed by a patriotic volunteer. That explains why Mr. Lugovoi, completely unknown before the Litvinenko affair, has thereafter made a meteoric political career.

The basic problem of Western attitudes towards Russia today is that since the fall of the Soviet Union, no code has evolved to interpret the resulting culture, which is no more acceptable in terms of democratic values than Soviet communism. Xenophobic and extreme imperialist language, for example, that would not be out of place in a Nazi rant, is a part of today’s Russian political and ideological mainstream, and is notably the trademark of the leader of the Ultra-Nationalist party (an ally of the ruling “United Russia”) which gave electoral shelter to Mr. Lugovoi. On the international stage the Russian leadership and its friends in the West, such as the former German Chancellor Schroeder, insist Russia is a democracy, yet inside Russia the cultural establishment promotes the idea that the Russians are fundamentally disappointed with the notion of democracy and support the now overt authoritarianism.

There are those among Russia watchers in the West, who take the view that while Russia is clearly not a democracy of the Western type it should be judged on its own terms and therefore considered making a clear progress since the era of the Soviets and that of Yeltsin. Yet in practice judging Russia “on its own terms”, means applying lowered criteria to the understanding of Russian life, and denying the majority of Russians the empathy of contemporary humanism. It is widely accepted that Russians are better off now, but as a Russian I can testify that the theoretical comparisons with the Soviet and Yeltsin times do absolutely nothing to alleviate the daily material and moral pains of ordinary Russians, which most people in the West would simply raise in arms against. In Moscow, which is possibly the most expensive city of the world, 20 percent of citizens live on less than 90 Pounds a month (the government’s “survival minimum”), and that is just the official statistic, and that’s just in Moscow. Other estimates paint a picture which is probably more accurate: half of the Russian population lives in what in the West would be called abject poverty. But what’s probably even worse is the sense of total arbitrariness of the power of the corrupt officialdom, which has gravely increased since Yeltsin years and which is a part and parcel of the destruction of the post-communist civil liberties, undertaken by Putin.

The definitions such as “democratic on its own terms” are a self-delusion which allows some Western observers relay uncritically what is by and large authoritarian propaganda. Characteristically Russian establishment today borrows catch phrases from the times of Stalin’ purges to describe today’s questionable optimism: “Life’s become better, life’s become merrier”. It has been the main task of Russian official ideologues, such as Vladislav Surkov, to create a notion of Russian own type of democracy (“sovereign democracy”), and the main practical trait of that project was the use of censorship to suppress any free discussion on the subject.

The notion of a special Russian democracy is based on the paradoxical acceptance that the majority of Russians don’t care about the rule of the majority. To take the Russian leadership’s word on that is not just gullible, it’s arrogant and undemocratic. The West has to use its historic experience and logic to deny “another democracy” a status of respectability. An authoritarian oligarchy has no right to speak on behalf of Russia as long as it keeps a paranoid grip on the nation’s media, culture and the interpretation of history. It is precisely for that reason that those who see the Litvinenko case in the context of a putative new cold war between equally guilty adversaries are wrong. To see how the lack of real democracy in Russia is responsible for mega-corruption and the break down of the rule of law leading to the epidemic of political murders and state robbery – does not mean being prejudiced against Russia. It means caring for the Russian people. That is the essence of the Litvinenko case.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

May 25, 2008 -- Contents


(1) The Sunday Photos

(2) The Sunday Film Review

(3) The Sunday Slam

(4) The Sunday Sacrilege

(5) The Sunday Funnies

NOTE: In observance of Memorial Day, this blog will not publish again until Wednesday, May 28th. We express our heartfelt thanks to all the men and women who have sacrificed their comfort and their lives striving for liberty in the world, and we hope we honor their memory by continuing their struggle in our own small way.

NOTE: Outrageous things are happening in Russia at such a breakneck pace that we have developed a publishing backlog of editorials commenting on them and, for the first time, we publish an editorial on Sunday in an effort to clear the decks. Even by our standards, the state of Russian current events in the wake of the "election" of Dmitri Medevev is an apocalypse.

The Sunday Photos

Russian opposition leader Oleg Kozlovsky, hours after being released from prison last week after serving a 13-day sentence on bogus charges designed to intimidate him and prevent him from taking part in the first meeting of Russia's new shadow parliament organization. His haggard appearance is due to a hunger strike undertaken to protest the illegal nature of his arrest.

Soon after his release, Oleg was surrounded by his comrades in arms at a local watering hole for his first decent meal in two weeks.