La Russophobe has moved!

You should be automatically redirected in 6 seconds. If not, visit
and update your bookmarks.

Take action now to save Darfur

Monday, June 30, 2008

June 30, 2008 -- Contents


(1) EDITORIAL: Russia Brings Up the Rear (Again)

(2) EDITORIAL: Sports as Microcosm of Putin's Failure

(3) No Liberalization from Medvedev

(4) How Putin Muzzled the Russian Press (Kasparov)

(5) Crime out of Control in Putin's Russia

NOTE: Russian supermodel suicide? More Russian intrigue?

EDITORIAL: Russia, Bringing up the Rear (Again)


Putin's Russia, Bringing up the Rear (Again)

Much attention has been paid of late to the so-called "BRIC" group of nations -- that being Brazil, Russia, India and China. Apparently, Russia entertained some sort of fanciful notion that at least in that company it might attain some type of leadership position. If we look at the economic performance of this group, however, then we see that, just as is the case with the G-8, Russia is woefully bringing up the rear, by far the least qualified member of the clan.

With just 143 million people, Russia lags in the basic criteria of population. Brazil has 188 million, India 1.1 billion and China 1.3 billion. All of the other three countries have vigorous, growing populations. Russia's population is dramatically shrinking, expected to halve by the middle of this century.

According to the 2008 World Wealth Report published by Merrill Lynch and Capgemini, India led the group in creation of millionaires in 2007 at the rate of 23% growth, with China in second place at 20% and Brazil in third at 19%. Russia brought up the rear at a lowly 14% growth. All of the other three showed an increase in the rate of millionaire production, but not Russia, whose rate fell from 16% the prior year. (America still dominates the ranks of the world's millionaires, with one out of every three found there.)

You might think the return of 19.2% on Russia's RTS stock market index was impressive -- until you looked at the return of the Indian Sensex towering above it at 47%, or Brazil's Bovespa index at 44%. Then you'd see Russia's performance as being rather puny indeed. And they all pale next to China's Shenzhen index, which returned 167%. Why would anyone in their right mind even consider investing money in the Russian market when Russia is ruled by an autocrat, a proud KGB spy who has infamously confiscated the resources of foreigners on a regular basis. With a democracy like India or Brazil beckoning, Russia can only be seen as sloppy seconds.

And of this group only Russia is a net exporter of oil. Only Russia relies on the price of crude oil on international markets to bolster its economic performance. The other three nations are all net importers, in other words burdened by that price as an inhibiting factor, yet they still dominate Russia in economic performance. Do you dare to imagine the situation that would prevail if oil prices were much lower?

Is there any group of nations you can collect where Russia isn't seen as a silly junior partner?

In a truly appalling statistic, Merrill Lynch reports that even though the rate of millionaire creation in Russia fell in 2007 compared to 2006 by nearly 13%, the market capitalization of Russia's millionaires increased by a whopping 38%. In other words, wealth continued to accumulate in the hands of a tiny group of oligarchs to an increasingly obscene extent -- Merrill Lynch reports that orders from yachts longer than 200 feet were larger from Russians than for any other nation in the world including the United States, which has by far the largest single concentration of such persons. So just as in Tsarist times, not only is Russia's national wealth being greedily hoarded by a tiny elite cadre, but they are every bit as blatantly shameless about conspicuously consuming that wealth. It's almost as if they feel they could lose it any second in some catastrophic event -- like, say, the collapse of the monarchy and the Soviet dictatorship all in the space of less than 100 years.

The Financial Times reports: "The EU is by far Russia's most important trading partner and also its biggest source of investment. Russia is the EU's third largest partner, after the US and China." In other words, Europe is much more important to Russia than Russia is to Europe, yet Russia demands to be treated as if that were not the case, and apparently seeks similar treatment within BRIC. It is behaving just like the old USSR used to do, demanding respect rather than earning it, and the result can be no better than the USSR experienced.

EDITORIAL: More Sports Humiliation for Putin's Russia


More Sports Humiliation for Putin's Russia

If anything more revolting happened last week than the sight of crazed Russian nationalists whooping it up on the streets of Moscow, and calling themselves "champions," because their national football squad had defeated tiny Netherlands using not a Russian but a Dutch coach, we must have missed it. Only in Russia does reaching the semi-finals of a regional sports tournament qualify as a champion's achievement.

The arrogance was flying fast and furious, as only Russians can manufacture it. Russian Midfielder Konstantin Zyryanov stated: "We have beaten two very strong teams, I think this improves our chances. I want to play Spain [in the semifinal]. We made lots of mistakes against Spain [in the group match] and now we have fixed them very quickly."

Be careful what you wish for, Konstantin.

Nobody even remotely familiar with the sorry legacy of sports in Putin's Russia could have been surprised when Russia was shut out in its next match against Spain, 3-0, and hence ejected from the tournament. Over the course of two matches against the Spaniards, Russia was outscored by a ghastly 7-1 and outclassed in every aspect of the game (this even though Spain's star player David Villa was out of the second match on an injury in the early going).

Except the Russians, of course, who sat there slack-jawed just long enough to realize it must have been a massive Russophobic conspiracy that did them in. Woe to any Spanish person that might be encountered on the streets of Moscow (not that there are any, of course, since Moscow is about as attractive to a Spaniard as Antarctica to a Nigerian).

It seems that Russia's "strategy" for victory -- bribing its players with unlimited access to costly whores -- worked out no better than bribing mothers to have babies has proven to. The team lost, and the population continues to shrink rapidly. So much for the "Russian solution" to everything -- corruption.

And that wasn't the end of Russia's humiliation, either. Both the top-ranked Russian male and female tennis players, as we reported yesterday, were blown off the court in easy straight sets at Wimbledon by opponents who were not ranked in the world's top 100. Neither managed to get as far as the third round.


Strange to say, though, we were rooting for Russian football against Spain. Had the Russians won, it would have been a beautiful argument that by allowing themselves to be led by foreign ideals Russians can achieve greatness. After all, such progress as Russia did make in the Euro tournament this year, getting a semi-final bid, was due in large part to the efforts of the team's non-Russian coach, who sought to make massive reforms in the shoddy program he inherited from the desperate Russians. Now, the Russians will probably say they would have won the whole thing if only they'd had a "real Russian" to lead them. Granted, we would have been forced to endure the cacophonous din of Russians bellowing that winning this tournament "proved" they now ruled the world no matter how man other spectacular failures they might have, but that would have been a small price to pay and actually somewhat amusing.

But in reality, the whole situation is simply a farce. Russia got to the quarter finals by beating Sweden and Greece, teams that had a grand total of one win between them in the tournament and which together don't have half Russia's population. It then got to the semi-finals by beating the country its own coach came from, presumably giving them quite a nice inside track, a country so small it can barely be seen on a map. When Russia was forced to contend with a big boy like Spain, it when down to spectacularly lame defeat not once but twice.

And this is the story of Vladmir Putin's Russia. It simply couldn't care less about reality or actual success, just as was the case in Soviet times. Instead, the denizens of Putin's Russia appear to prefer to live in a world of their own imagining, and to pass of any failure as owing to pure dumb luck. This is precisely the attitude that destroyed the USSR from within, and it will have no different result in Putin's Russia.

No Liberalisation from Medvedev

Paul Goble reports:

Dmitry Medvedev’s personnel changes at the Federal Security Service (FSB) and the Federal Narcotics Control Service (FSKN) do not point to any liberalization in the Kremlin’s approach, however much some in both Moscow and the West have invoked them as an indication that the new Russian president plans to change Putin’s policies in the security area. Instead, Anatoly Soldatov, a leading Moscow analyst, argues in an article published not in Russia but in Poland, Medvedev’s moves are a continuation of Vladimir Putin’s policies at the end of his presidency. And those policies, Soldatov says, are intended to expand the country’s security agencies beyond their traditional role as guardians of the state to become active supporters of Russian corporate interests, both public and private, not only within the Russian Federation but internationally as well.

When Medvedev recently fired FSB head Nikolai Patrushev and FSKN leader Viktor Cherkesov, however, “many [immediately] drew the conclusion that Medvedev was more liberally inclined than was Vladimir Putin,” the longtime specialist on intelligence services points out. But such judgments, he continues, are at a minimum “a great exaggeration.” At least since the fall of 2007, he argues, “the Kremlin really has revised the place and role of the force structures, but this does not have any relationship to the personality of Medvedev and his views about liberal values. Instead, it reflects a further “’corporatization’ of the Russian state. When Putin appointed Mikhail Fradkov head of the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), the then Russian president said that that service must “more actively stand up for the defense of the economic interests of our companies abroad.” Thus, Soldatov adds, “the president “directly required” a state agency to “act in the interests of Russian companies” rather than the state.

The recent scandal involving Russian purchases of secret helicopter technology in Germany, the Moscow analyst says, suggests that Putin’s directive was quickly implemented. And the more recent discovery of “spies” within TNK-BP as Moscow seeks to oust British interests there suggests that the FSB has been given the same charge. Thus, the longtime researcher on Russian security agencies suggests, “the general trend of converting [Moscow’s] special services into agents of Russian business” begun under Putin “has been followed” by Medvedev in the latter’s “choice of people to head the two main Russian special services – the SVR and the FSB.”

Like Fradkov whose career and even connections with the intelligence services were in the economic area – in the 1970s, Fradkov served in the Soviet embassy in India where he was involved in the sale of Soviet armaments to New Delhi –Aleksandr Bortnikov, Medvedev’s choice to head the FSB, is someone more concerned with economic issues than anything else. Bortnikov throughout his career at the FSB has focused on economic issues, rising to the position of head of its economic section prior to his appointment as director. In that capacity, he did not display the kind of naked ambition or interest in high Kremlin politics that have landed others at the FSB in trouble.

Soldatov concedes that “the actions of the Kremlin are not always logical, but in this case, we see an absolute consistency in the actions first of Putin and then of Medvedev,” a pattern that makes nonsense of claims that the new president has displayed his “liberalism” by such appointments. Instead, the editor of the portal suggests, what is on view both in Putin’s actions and those of Medvedev is the “’corporatization’ of the Russian state:” the transformation of the intelligence services into instruments for the promotion of the economic and hence political interests of the Russian state.

It is of course possible that Medvedev may prove to be in some way more liberal than his predecessor was, Soldatov clearly implies, but the current Russian president’s latest personnel moves in the intelligence area are not convincing evidence of that, however much some in Moscow and even more in the West want to believe.

How Putin Muzzled the Russian Press

Garry Kasparov writing in the Wall Street Journal:

"How come I am still alive? When I really think about it, it's a miracle." Several years back so spoke Anna Politkovskaya, the late Russian investigative journalist who for years fearlessly explored the depths of war-ravaged Chechnya.

She is now the subject of the documentary "Letter to Anna" by Swiss director Eric Bergkraut. The film premiered in the U.S. last night at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York. Politkovskaya reported conversations with families ripped apart by war. She was also the voice of Russian soldiers who were ashamed of the atrocities committed in their country's name. Her work made her the enemy of many powerful people, and on Oct. 7, 2006, the 48-year-old was gunned down in the foyer of her apartment building.

In May, Dmitry Medvedev took Vladimir Putin's chair, if not his power. At the World Russian Press Congress in Moscow on June 11, Mr. Medvedev pledged to "support media freedom." But the picture remains bleak.

Mr. Medvedev recently touted the need for a "Cyrillic Internet" and criticized the closing of Russian-language media enterprises in former Soviet states where local languages are reasserting themselves after Soviet-era restrictions. He also lauded the quality of Russian television, even as Kremlin paranoia about what appears on TV has reached new heights.

Vladimir Posner, president of the Russian Academy of Television, recently confessed that he submits a list of desired guests on his show to Channel One management, who then lets him know whom he can and cannot invite. Political analyst Mikhail Delyagin criticized Mr. Putin on the air and was digitally deleted from a talk show.

The Kremlin's subjugation of the Russian press has been, along with a rise in oil prices of over 700%, key to the perceived success of the Putin regime. Mr. Putin learned the importance of controlling the mass media early on. In 2000, faced with a public outcry over the botched rescue of the crew of the Kursk nuclear submarine that sank during a training exercise in the Barents Sea, he went after the press.

Media outlets have been taken over by forces friendly to Mr. Putin and his closest associates. This "soft censorship" is accompanied by the more conventional kind, such as lists of verboten topics for television, where a vast majority of Russians get their news.

It wasn't always this way. The corruption of the Boris Yeltsin era is burned into Russia's collective memory only because the press reported it at the time. In the 1990s, competing oligarchs waged war against one another in their media outlets. It was not a fight fought fairly or decently, but many facts came to light as thousands of honest journalists worked to bring the truth to the Russian public.

The elite circle of oligarchs surrounding Mr. Putin have much greater power and riches than did Yeltsin's entourage. They dominate the media, and thus very little is known about how they amassed their fortunes. In 2000, there were no Russians on the Forbes magazine list of the world's billionaires. By 2005 there were 36.

Today there are 87, more than Germany and Japan combined, in a country where 13% of our citizens live under the national poverty line of $150 a month. This massive concentration of wealth is mirrored in the Russian stock market. In 2007, the top 10 listed companies accounted for 68.5% of the primary Russian bourse. Gazprom alone represented over 27%.

The Western press has helped paint a rosy picture of the business environment in Russia. But consider the travails of British Petroleum. BP owns half of TNK-BP, with the other 50% owned by wealthy Russians. BP thought it was playing the game correctly by colluding with members of Mr. Putin's inner circle. Now a boardroom battle is pitting BP against its oligarch partners, who do not hesitate to bring state power to the fight.

Western fantasies about Russia's situation don't serve anyone in the long run, least of all the Russian people. The Politkovskaya documentary will hopefully help bring attention to the reality of censorship and corruption in Russia. At the film's appearance in Prague last March, former Czech President Václav Havel stated, "It would be good if many people could see this film. Especially politicians who kiss and embrace Russian politicians, almost dizzy with the smell of oil and gas."

Crime out of Control in Putin's Russia

Paul Goble reports:

Violent crime in Russia continues to rise 13 percent a year and now may even exceed the levels of the 1990s, a trend that is hitting that country’s mid-sized cities hard and one that calls into question Vladimir Putin’s largely successful effort to present himself at home and abroad as the man who brought law and order to the Russian Federation. That is the depressing conclusion of the cover story in the current issue of “Russian Newsweek,” a story that its analysts had to piece together given Moscow’s increasing unwillingness since 2002 to release accurate information about crime in general and by urban area in particular.

The magazine’s researchers focused on the 156 cities in Russia with populations of more than 100,000 each and identified the 50 “most dangerous” cities in that country in terms of the rate of crime per capita, places where in most cases few Westerners live but in which large numbers of Russian citizens are forced to try to survive. In per capita terms, the ten most dangerous cities in terms of crime were Surgut, Perm, Syktyvkar, Berezniki, Khabarovsk, Chita, Yakutsk, Irkutsk, and Abakan, all of which had crime rates exceeding 395 crimes annually per 10,000, a figure that means one in every 25 residents was touched by crime during the last 12 months. (Although the capitals, Moscow and St. Petersburg, have the largest number of crimes because of their size, the two rank relatively low in terms of the number of crimes per capita, with Moscow where there were 198 crimes per 10,000 residents last year only in 111th place among Russian cities and St. Petersburg where there were 176 crimes per 10,000 people 122nd.)

In addition to these global figures, the “Russian Newsweek” analysts after a multi-month investigation came up with rates per capita for the same set of cities concerning especially violent ones like murders, rapes and attempted rapes, and narcotics crimes. The leaders in the murder category for the period 2002-2006 were Kyzyl with 9.32 murders per 10,000 residents, Chita with 7.91, and Yakutsk with 7.31. The leaders in the rapes and attempted rapes category were Kyzyl with 5.55 per 10,000, Gorno-Altaysk with 2.51, and Chita with 2.02. The leaders in the narcotics category were Birobidzhan with 46.51 such crimes for every 10,000 residents, Surgut with 37.98 and Tyumen with 37.95. Other cities trailed far behind in terms of the rate of crime, including again Moscow and St. Petersburg and those places where foreigners are most likely to live.

As every student of crime knows, statistics about this aspect of human activity are notoriously unreliable. On the one hand, many crimes are never reported to the authorities either because the victims do not expect justice or because they do not want to have to deal with the authorities or to call attention to themselves But on the other, officials sometimes have an interest in boosting the number of crimes they have to deal with in order to justify higher budgets and sometimes have equal but opposite interest in suppressing the number of crimes reported in order to demonstrate their success in maintaining law and order.

Over the last 15 years, all these factors have played a role in Russia, the Moscow weekly points out. In 2001, for example, the interior minister demanded that militiamen who refused to register crimes be fired. As a result the number of crimes in Russia jumped from five million in that year to 13 million the next, a figure that many experts say still understated crime there.
But during the later Putin years, the Kremlin sought to present itself as a victor in the fight against crime, and the authorities suppressed information and probably understated the number of crimes they did report lest people discover that “the wild 1990s” had been succeeded by the equally “wild 2000s."

In the opinion of Moscow criminologist Boris Kalachev, the reason for Russia’s high rates of crime is the ratio between rich and poor. When the number of poor is more than four times the number of rich people, he argues, crime goes up. In most of Western Europe, this ratio is five to one. In Italy and Spain, it is seven to one, and there the crime situation is worse. But in Russia, he notes, this critical ratio is far higher. In the mid-1990s, it may have been as high as 100 to one and even if one accepts the official figure of 12 to one which most experts think is far too low, the ratio now is 12 poor people to every rich one, a pattern that generates crime, according to Kalachev. Reducing this ratio should be a major state goal, he says, but doing so won’t be easy, given the high level of inflation the country is experiencing. At present, he says, there is a curious coincidence that may say far more about the future than anyone cares to think: Both crime and inflation are rising at almost exactly the same rate – 13 percent.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

June 29, 2008 -- Contents


(1) The Sunday Photos

(2) The Sunday Illiteracy

(3) The Sunday Imperialism

(4) The Sunday Sob Stories

(5) The Sunday Funnies

The Sunday Photos: Ponomaryov on the Front Lines

Lev Ponomaryov on the job, standing up for human rights in Russia and confronting the malignant forces of the Kremlin that oppose him.

The Sunday Illiteracy

Paul Goble reports:

Russians now spend an average of nine minutes a day reading newspapers, a figure that puts them among the lowest in the world and one that suggests they read only headlines and titles, the head of the World Newspaper Association told a Moscow conference earlier this week. Speaking to the annual forum of Russian publishers recently, Timothy Bolding, the general director of that association, said that only ten percent of Russians now read newspapers at all, far lower than in countries like Sweden where as many as 90 percent of the population reads the print media.

A major reason for this low readership, he continued, is that Russians do not trust what they see in the printed media: “Only six percent of Russians trust newspapers, while 70 percent of the population in Russia trusts Putin.” As a result, the number of papers and their print runs continue to decline, unlike in other countries with a similar level of economic development. The total number of copies of newspapers printed in the Russian Federation fell from 8.05 billion in 2006 to 7.8 billion last year, according to the Russian government’s own Federal Agency for the Press and Mass Communications, an institution whose analysts blame the decline on the rise of the Internet and increasing problems with distribution.

Bolding, however, suggested that the problems were broader and deeper. These declines he said “perhaps are connected with the low journalistic quality of [Russian] publications.” Many papers are boring as well, in large measure because the local governments that own and subsidize them do no permit the kind of hard-hitting reporting which could attract more readers.

Not surprisingly, Russian media officials did not take Bolding’s comments lying down. Mikhail Seslavinsky who heads the government’s agency for the press said he was not unhappy about the notion that Turks now spend more time reading newspapers than do residents of the Russian Federation. Indeed, he suggested, the difference speaks in Russia’s favor. “When Nadezhda Krupskaya [the wife of Vladimir Lenin] began the [Soviet] struggle against illiteracy,” he pointed out, “she also said that Soviet citizens read newspapers much more slowly than did the Turks.” Now, the data suggest, he continued, that “Russians read newspapers and journals much more rapidly than the Turks do.”

And as to Bolding’s statement that Russians read newspapers much less than Swedes do, Seslavinsky continued, that is easily explained: Swedish audiences have free access to only four or five television channels, while Russians have such access to 15 to 20, a difference that helps explain why the latter watch more television than the former. But neither Seslavinsky nor any of the other Russian participants challenged Bolding’s fundamental observation that when it comes to newspapers, Russians today are reading far fewer and with far less care than in the past, a development that as he suggested reflects both global trends and specific developments in the Russian marketplace.

The Sunday Conquest

The Associated Press reports:

A senior Russian general says Russia will conduct military exercises in the Arctic to uphold the country's claim to the region's vast natural resources.

Gen. Vladimir Shamanov, in charge of military training at Russia's Defense Ministry, also said planning for the exercises began after several nations disputed Russia's Arctic claims. "Modern wars are won or lost long before they start," Shamanov told the military daily Krasnaya Zvezda in an interview published Tuesday. He noted that 5,000 U.S. troops were involved in the Northern Edge military exercise in Alaska last month.

Canada and Denmark have also been involved in the race to claim the area's extensive oil and other resources. Russia last August sent two mini-submarines to plant a Russian flag on the seabed under the North Pole, staking its claim on an underwater mountain range that is believed to contain huge oil and gas reserves. A U.S. study suggests the area may contain as much as 25 percent of the world's undiscovered oil and gas.

After the Russian expedition, Canada vowed to increase its icebreaker fleet and build two new military facilities in the Arctic. The U.S. government also sent an icebreaker for a research expedition. Russian officials say preliminary results on soil core samples gathered by the expedition show that the 1,240-mile Lomonosov Ridge under the Arctic is part of Russia's shelf. More geological tests are planned.

Denmark has also sent scientists to seek evidence that the underwater ridge is attached to its territory of Greenland. The dispute over who controls what in the Arctic has become more heated with growing evidence that global warming is shrinking polar ice, opening up new shipping lanes and resource development possibilities.

Yet in May, representatives from Denmark, Norway, Russia, Canada and the United States met in Ilulissat, 155 miles north of the Arctic Circle, to reaffirm their commitment to international Arctic treaties. Under the 1982 U.N. 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 for the United States.

President Bush has been pushing the Senate to ratify the treaty.

The Sunday Sob Stories

Russia's top-ranked player Maria Sharapova was blown off the court in easy straight sets in her second match at The Championships in Wimbledon last week by a player who had never before won a match at the tournament, was unseeded and not ranked in the world's top 150 players. The loss came just hours after Sharapova learned that Russia had refused her request to carry the national flag at the Beijing Olympiad opening ceremonies. The request was certainly an odd one coming from a person who lives in America and never spends any time in her so-called "homeland."

Sharapova at least did better than Russia's top-ranked male player, the infamous Nikolai Davydenko (embroiled in a match-fixing scandal), who also crashed and burned spectacularly at Wimbledon. He lost his opening match in easy straight sets to an unseeded German not ranked in the world's top 100.

And to round things out nicely, Russia's national football team (albeit coached by a Dutchman) lost its second match of the Euro tournament to Spain even worse than it had the first encounter, which was a massacre. This time Russia didn't manage to score a single goal and was eliminated from the tournament after much posing and strutting by the Russian nationalist crowd. Hard to imagine how the Russian side could have surrendered so meekly not once but twice . . . after all, they'd been bribed with whores and everything. What more motivation could they possibly have required?

The Sunday Funnies

points out the physical similarities between Barack Obama and Cheburashka, the Russian Mickey Mouse, by having Chebby's little pal ask him, upon noticing a campaign poster, why he's never tried to trace his family tree.

Interesting to know if any readers think there is any racism inherent in this cartoon.

Friday, June 27, 2008

June 27, 2008 -- Contents


(1) EDITORIAL: The Disappointing Moscow Times

(2) The Eye of Putin Turns East

(3) The Russian Church: Ardent Foe of Human Rights

(4) Global Warming Melts Russia

(5) Russia is Persecuting Ingushetia

EDITORIAL: The Disappointing Moscow Times


The Disappointing Moscow Times

If we do say so ourselves, sometimes the prescience of our founder and publisher Kim Zigfeld unnerves even those of us who work on this very blog. No sooner had Kim (who had nothing to do with this editorial) posted on Pajamas Media about the disappointing slide in the quality of the Moscow Times of late than the paper chose to publish an op-ed column by that slithering rodent of Russophilia, and Kremlin henchman, Peter Lavelle, whom we have routinely exposed and ridiculed here on this blog (put his name into our search engine if you want to read our coverage).

It's difficult to know where to begin in pointing out the utter failure of the Moscow Times editorial staff in regard to this piece of trash or to find words to express how disappointing that failure is to us. Yet, for the second time this month, we are compelled to try.

Let's start with how Lavelle is identified: "Peter Lavelle is anchor of 'In Context' on Russia Today, and Olga Tarbeeva is the program's executive producer. The opinions expressed in this comment are their own." Apparently, the article was co-written by Tarbeeva, yet she doesn't appear in the byline. Lapse number one. Though the article appears in the op-ed listing on the main page of the paper's website, nothing on the web page that contains the article identifies it as opinion. Lapse number two. And finally, nothing in the identification tells the reader that Russia Today is owned by the Russian government, making Lavelle an employee and lackey of the Putin dictatorship. That's an outrage and a betrayal of the basic responsibilities of the Moscow Times editors as journalists. We condemn it.

Now, let's move on to the title: "Chechnya's Revival." Lavelle has been taken on a junket tour of Potemkin Chechnya by the Kremlin, shown a series of lies to tell about the place, and now he's doing so. That's fine for Russia Today, that's its purpose. But until now, we thought the Moscow Times had a higher one, to tell people the actual truth about Russia. Perhaps we were mistaken. Lavelle chooses not to tell MT readers (and the paper's editors allow him to do so), for instance, that on May 5, 2008, Freedom House released a report called Worst of the Worst: The World’s Most Repressive Societies 2008. The report lists the 20 nations and territories on the globe which are the very most pathologically backward in terms of civil society, and Chechnya is among them (see page 107-112 of the PDF document). The report states that "women face increased discrimination" and "widespread corruption and economic devastation caused by the war severely limit equality of opportunity." It concludes that "the rule of law is extremely weak" and that Chechen courts are wholly useless as a mechanism of justice, and notes that the people of the country are consistently forced to turn to the European Court of Human Rights for relief, a forum where the Kremlin has lost many cases of late, including those alleging state-sponsored murder. It states that Russian military forces "impose severe restrictions on journalists' access to the widening Caucus conflict area" meaning that the war is spreading outside Chechnya's borders and the Kremlin is covering it up.

If we turn to the actual text of Lavelle's shameless propaganda screed (remember, he's a paid agent of the Kremlin -- we have to remind you, because MT sure won't), it's hard to get all the way through without losing our lunch. Nothing but repugnant, brazen lies from beginning to end.

While reading his garbage, it's necessary to ask yourself a question: If things were going really badly in Chechnya, and it was all Putin's fault, would Russia Today tell you that? Would Mr. Lavelle? Would Russia Today keep him on the payroll if he did? If you answer in the negative, then you simply can't take a word this man says seriously.

Lavelle states:

We have just returned from a week's stay in Chechnya. Many fellow journalists told us beforehand: "Don't go there. It isn't safe." We decided otherwise. What spiked our interest was the first annual Chechen international film festival, interestingly called Noah's Ark. How could a place like Chechnya host such a thing? Isn't Chechnya a war-torn and miserable destination?
He spends a week in Chechnya at a film festival and he thinks that's a basis for commenting on political and economic progress. No data. No studies. Just his anecdotal observations at a film festival. No declaration of his conflict of interest as a Kremlin employee, of course. Sound like propaganda? There's much more in store for you.

He continues: "Chechnya's capital, Grozny, is almost completely rebuilt. It is becoming prosperous." Where's the data on buildings destroyed and rebuilt to back that up? Could it be he doesn't have any? Where's the data on personal incomes before and after the war?

He freely admits: "During our stay, we were shown what the authorities there wanted us to see." This is classic Soviet style propaganda. Admit what your target thinks you will try to hide, confuse him. But this isn't the Soviet era, and it's just lame and pathetic. Do they really still think they can fool people with this nonsense? Then he spins it: "Who would have thought that Chechnya is learning a lot about the importance of good PR?" So it turns out that being lied to by propagandists actually shows how sophisticated and civilized they are becoming. Isn't that amazing!

He continues: "Business has already noted the positive changes in Chechnya. Chinese, Turkish and some European businesses are eyeing Chechnya as an investment opportunity in the energy and manufacturing sectors. The influx of meaningful foreign investment in this North Caucasus republic will be the real litmus test of progress." Notice how he doesn't name one single such investor?

Then he piles on the manure in a manner that would make any Soviet propagandist proud for the big finish" "Meanwhile, security is very tight in Chechnya. The vast majority of the people there only wish to see the current drive for normality to continue. Chechnya is simply an ark looking to dock in a safe port. The current trend gives reason for optimism."

Vast majority of the people? Really, do tell. Are they conducting effective public opinion surveys in a region that "voted" 99% for Vladimir Putin? Or is it that Lavelle actually interviewed the vast majority of the country during his weeklong stay? Notice how he didn't quote a single such person, or describe anything that happened during the "film festival"? We're just supposed to trust him, and imagine it. That's more propaganda 101.

Chechnya is an ark. It's biblical! And Putin is God. Isn't it all really very nice and simple?

In short it's almost as if, just as Kim indicated in her PM column, the Moscow Times has decided to try to confirm it is trying to buy off the Kremlin from moving against it as it recently did against The eXile by publishing a spate of Kremlin propaganda -- in other words, it seems the paper is engaged in appeasement, just as Kim feared.

By no means has the paper lost all its value as a source of information about Russia. In our last issue, all three of the news items we reported were taken from the MT, and our editorial was also based on its coverage. But as Kim also noted, a recent redesign of the paper's website appears to have been undertaken for the purpose of burying this kind of coverage in way that will make it least likely to catch the Kremlin's attention. The tone of the editorial material the paper is now publishing is markedly different, openly receptive to Kremlin propaganda, and unwilling to give voice to the most aggressive and direct critics of the Putin administration including most especially those engaged in active opposition, like Garry Kasparov and Oleg Kozlovsky.

Nothing would please us more than to be proven wrong, that all this is just a temporary accident soon to be offset by a new round of truth telling about the Kremlin. But the demise of The eXile shows that the threat to the Moscow Times is absolutely real, and its understandable that the paper's investors want to preserve their investment and the jobs of the brave people who work for the paper.

But just because it's understandable doesn't mean we have to accept it, and we don't. We urge the paper to reconsider its position before its final chapter is written. Going down in a blaze of glory is vastly preferable to selling out.

The Eye of Putin Turns East

Writing in the Wall Street Journal Asia Michael Auslin, a resident scholar in Asian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, urges us to watch out for neo-Soviet imperialism in Mongolia:

While Washington continues to fixate on Iraq, a resurgent Russia is steadily expanding its influence in Eurasia. If the next U.S. president ignores Moscow's inroads, democratic development in Asia will come under threat, and the United States may soon be faced with a strategic challenge in one of the world's most resource-rich regions.

The Kremlin's main target of late is Mongolia, one of Asia's most vibrant democracies. Since first holding elections in 1990, Mongolia has developed a stable electoral system with more than 15 political parties and seen two peaceful handovers of power. Mongolians will vote on June 29 to elect a new parliament. Polls suggest the ruling ex-Communist Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party, which regained power in 2000, could lose power to the opposition Democratic Party.

Regardless of the election outcome, Mongolia's relationship with Moscow will take center stage. State-owned oil company Rosneft supplies more than 90 percent of Mongolia's oil. Over the past three months, it has increased prices twice -- by an average of 20 percent each time. This comes on top of surging prices that, since 2006, have pushed inflation in Mongolia to over 15 percent annually. Rosneft recently told Mongolian officials that it would lower oil prices if given the rights to run oil production in the country. Moscow also wants to build 100 gas stations throughout the country, which would solidify its overwhelming presence there and reduce consumers' energy choices even further.

Similar tactics are afoot in other sectors of Mongolia's economy. Russian enterprises already own 49 percent of Mongolia's national railway and its largest copper and gold mining companies. An industrial group founded by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin wants to consolidate the Russian-controlled shares of all three companies, effectively giving Putin's cronies a near-stranglehold on key players in the Mongolian economy. Officially, Mongolian officials express confidence in the benefits of deeper economic relations with the Kremlin. Privately, they admit to feeling pressured into opening up their markets to Moscow and wish more Western companies would invest.

Despite these misgivings, Mongolian President Nambaryn Enkhbayar visited Moscow last month and agreed to discuss further joint uranium production and nuclear cooperation. President Dmitry Medvedev stated that bilateral trade will soon exceed $1 billion, cementing Russia's position as Mongolia's largest trading partner after China. If these trends continue, Mongolia may become an economic satellite of Putin's newly expansive Russia.

The stakes are high for fledgling Asian states, especially democracies, which must balance satisfying Russian demands with proving to their own people that they can protect their independence. If Russia succeeds in blackmailing Mongolia into economic subservience, then it can try to extend this tactic to Central Asian nations.

Imagine the precedent that would set. China could also decide that painstaking negotiations and diplomacy are a waste of time when it can bring its export and import power to bear. Democratic Japan and South Korea could feel greater pressure to join exclusive trading blocs led by authoritarian regimes. Finally, Mongolia and other states might be asked to make strategic concessions to Russian security forces to "protect" Moscow's investments. In this way, Russia could gain new opportunities to expand its military footprint beyond its own borders.

What can Washington do? First, it must encourage greater U.S. trade with Mongolia. Total trade stood at about $120 million in 2007. The United States should push beyond the 2004 Trade and Investment Framework Agreement and start negotiations for a full free trade agreement. In addition, the U.S. government-funded Millennium Challenge Corporation should increase its outlay for infrastructure projects in Mongolia far beyond the current total level of $285 million. Mongolians can also help themselves in this regard. Lingering governance problems partly account for slack Western investment.

Second, the United States should marshal global opinion against the Kremlin's strong-arm tactics and condemn exclusive economic arrangements. Developing states must be assured that no economic leverage will be used against them to secure unfair advantages. So far, the United States and other democracies in Asia have stood silently by as Russia has stepped up its bullying of Mongolia.

Third, Washington can push forward with the Asia-Pacific Democracy Partnership project, proposed by President George W. Bush at the 2007 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting, and unite Asia's free nations to support democratic values and assist states building liberal systems. Mongolia should feel that the United States is committed to linking up democratic nations in the region and addressing common concerns, be they economic or strategic in nature.

Finally, the United States and Mongolia can deepen their impressive security cooperation, which includes joint training and peacekeeping exercises. Even without a formal security relationship with the United States, Mongolia has built a training center for peacekeeping operations and dispatched nearly 200 troops to Iraq. For a young democracy, Mongolia has shown a welcome willingness to look beyond its borders and play a constructive role in the world. When Bush visited Mongolia in November 2005, he called Mongolia a "brother in the cause of freedom." Now is the time for the United States to help protect that freedom from economic and political threats alike.

The Russian Orthodox Church: Ardent Foe of Human Rights

Kommersant reports:

The Russian Orthodox Church Bishops’ Council will begin tomorrow. A document will be issued by the council that will define the church’s stance on human rights, calling for resistance to the emerging system of liberal values that contains “lies, untruth and insults to religious and national values.” Opponents see a possibility that the document is being prepared as a political order, to displace secular human rights organization, and the political opposition with them.

The ruling hierarchs of the Russian Orthodox Church meet in Moscow once every four years to determine the further course of the church. Deputy chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate’s department of external relations Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin said that a document was being prepared “on human rights, on the problem of freedom and dignity. We will try to answer the question of whether those who say that man is good from the start are right, and if he is completely emancipated, society itself will come to a normal life by itself.”

In 2006, at the World Council of the Russian People, the Russian Orthodox Church suggested that the concept of human right accepted in secular society should be reexamined. “In the complex of rights and freedoms of man ideas are gradually being integrated that not only contradict Christianity, but traditional moral understandings about man in general,” chairman of the world council, Metropolitan of Smolensk and Kaliningrad Kirill said at that time. A year later, Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Alexiy II echoed those thoughts in a speech before the Parliament of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg.

“This is the first document in history that officially applies Orthodox dogma to one of the most pressing socio-political problems in modern society – human right,” Orthodox political scientist Alexander Dugan, one of the drafters of the current document told Kommersant. He said that it would be “a powerful philosophical institution designed to influence the legal model of the Russian state.”

“We are convinced that the time has come to reexamine the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We are against those human rights that lead to the corruption of society and contradict moral bases,” said Konstantin Bendas, business manager of the Russian Union of Christian Evangelicals. Zinovy Kogan, chairman of the Congress of Jewish Religious Organizations and Associations of Russia said, “Unfortunately, the liberal approach to human rights protects sin that contradicts human nature and God’s law. The effort of the Russian Orthodox Church to change the situation is absolutely right; we support it.”

“The church in encroaching out of its area, because only the state can limit human rights, and not a church institution,” countered Lev Levinson of the Institute for Human Rights. “It is completely possible that this is a political order.”

“Secular human rights organizations have discredited themselves so much with their double standards that it is time to displace them,” said Dugan.

Global Warming Melts Russia

You might think that, being frozen, a nice warm-up due to global warming would be good for Russia, in contrast to many nations. But the Middle East Times begs to disagree:

Global warming could deal destructive blows to Russia's defense infrastructure over the next 22 years, a top official said in Moscow last week.

Defense infrastructure, including key airfields, oil storage facilities and strategic oil reservoirs, could all be destroyed if the hard permafrost covering the ground year-round across Russia's far north melts by 2030, Russia's First Deputy Emergencies Minister Ruslan Tsalikov told the Federation Council, the upper chamber of the Russian parliament, Thursday.

Tsalikov described as a catastrophe the damage that would result from widespread permafrost melting, the RIA Novosti news agency reported.

Russia's widespread coniferous forests also could be inundated by flooding and unprecedented warmer weather triggered by climate change, Tsalikov said.

"If the annual temperature rises by one or two degrees ... the permafrost could decrease 50 percent," Tsalikov said. The "risk of flooding would also double," he said, according to the RIA Novosti report.

Global warming could also cost Russia its huge supplies of methane gas trapped beneath the permafrost, believed to be almost one third of the entire world's reserves, RIA Novosti said.

The news agency said West Siberia's permafrost was currently disappearing at the rate of 4 centimeters per year. That would cause the permafrost's southern boundaries to retreat by an average of nearly 50 miles across northern Russia over the next 20 years, the report said.

Across the Arctic, levels of sea ice have shrunk by nearly 50 percent from 7.2 million square kilometers in 1979 to 4.3 million square kilometers in 2007, RIA Novosti said.

Tsalikov's warnings mark a significant reversal from previous Russian complacency on the global warming issue. Russian scientists and top officials have readily acknowledged the reality of global warming for years, but they often described it as a welcome process because it freed up for human exploitation and habitation enormous areas of land and Arctic Ocean floor resources that previously have been inaccessible.

Russia also announced it is revising its strategy to concentrate more military resources in the far north to establish and enforce its claims to the vast reserves of oil, gas and other natural resources that it expects will be discovered in the Arctic.

However, Tsalikov's comments reveal that Russian officials now recognize the process will not be cost-free and likely will involve catastrophic damage to existing military assets and infrastructure on an enormous scale.

Russia is Persecuting Ingushetia

The International Herald Tribune reports:

Though violence in Chechnya has decreased markedly in recent years, fighting between Muslim insurgents and Russian troops threatens to engulf a neighboring region, a human rights group said in a report released on Wednesday.

The group, Human Rights Watch, asserted that a recent spike in insurgent attacks in the region, Ingushetia, has provoked a spate of kidnappings, torture and arbitrary killings of innocent civilians by law enforcement reminiscent of earlier rights abuses in Chechnya.

Government officials from the region have disputed the report's findings.

Ingushetia, a tiny Muslim republic on Chechnya's western border, has long been considered a relatively peaceful enclave in the North Caucasus, a mountainous region in Russia's south. Recently, however, it has become a haven for rebels fleeing a brutal counter-insurgency in Chechnya.

The aggressive anti-insurgent policies of Chechnya's president, Ramzan A. Kadyrov, have brought a modicum of stability to the republic after two wars and nearly half a decade of internecine fighting, though at the cost of hundreds if not thousands of civilian casualties.

Ingushetia could suffer a similar, if less brutal, fate, according to the 105-page report that is based on interviews conducted over the last year with local officials and victims of violence.

The region's government recorded 86 attacks on law enforcement in 2007 and another 28 attacks in the first three months of 2008. A total of 65 servicemen were killed in the republic in 2007.

In response, the Russian Interior Ministry has stationed thousands of federal troops in the republic, who, along with their local colleagues, often fail to discriminate between legitimate insurgent targets and civilians when conducting operations, Human Rights Watch says.

"Certainly you cannot fully compare Ingushetia and Chechnya," Tanya Lokshina, the researcher for Human Rights Watch who wrote the report, said in at a press conference.

"At the same time," she said, "the kind of abuses that we now see in Ingushetia are the abuses that used to characterize Chechnya: extrajudicial executions, torture, forced disappearances, abduction-style detentions."

The human rights group Memorial recorded 29 cases in 2007 in which police detained civilians without providing grounds for doing so. One of those detained has been confirmed dead and three are still missing.

The organization also documented 40 extrajudicial killings by government forces last year. The report by Human Rights Watch describes several of these in graphic detail, including the killing of Rakhim Amriev, a six-year-old boy shot when security forces raided his family's house on November 9, 2007 in search of a relative.

According to testimony from the boy's family and other witnesses, three servicemen, backed by about 100 soldiers and security officials, burst into the family's home in the village of Chemulga with barely a warning and opened fire. Rakhim Amriev was killed immediately, shot in the head. His mother, Raisa, was shot in the arm.

The incident provoked a nationwide outcry, prompting the government to launch an investigation, something it rarely does in such instances. After more than seven months, however, no suspect has been identified.

Officials in Ingushetia, including the Kremlin-backed president, Murat M. Zyazikov, a former general with the Federal Security Service, have regularly denied reports of human rights abuses, calling the situation in the republic stable.

Kerim-Sultan A. Kokurkhaev, Ingushetia's government-appointed human rights ombudsman, said at the press conference on Wednesday that the situation in Ingushetia was "no worse than in any other territory" in Russia. He called the work of Human Rights Watch and other rights groups "fascist," adding that the Human Rights Watch report was "meant to destabilize the situation."

The official acknowledged that people had been kidnapped by federal troops and that in the fight against terrorism there had been human rights violations, but he praised the government for a slight decrease recently in violent crimes.

Though many in Ingushetia once backed the government's strong-armed tactics, such support seems to have ebbed in recent months. Violence against civilians has sparked raucous street protests that have rankled the authorities. Some of the more vocal critics have become the victims of reprisals, as the government has moved to restrict public demonstrations and quash them when they arise.

Ingushetia has also become dangerous for journalists critical of the government's counter-insurgency tactics. In November last year, unknown men kidnapped and beat three journalists and a human rights worker planning to cover an anti-government protest. They were later released, but warned to leave Ingushetia.

The actions of the government in Ingushetia threaten to further destabilize the republic and the surrounding region, Mr. Lokshina said.

"If the government does not change its policies," she said, "then the tensions in the republic will grow."

Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Sunday Film Section: Kremlin Studios Opens its Doors

The International Herald Tribune reports:

When Vladimir Putin visited the set of the latest movie by Oscar-winning filmmaker Nikita Mikhalkov, he sat in the director's chair while actors playing Soviet soldiers marched toward the front.

Putin didn't direct the action — he left that to his host. But the prime minister's presence at the $55 million "Burnt by the Sun 2," the most expensive film in Russia's post-Soviet history, was a potent symbol of his government's expanding role in the country's film industry.

Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin called cinema "the most important of all arts," and film was regarded by the Communist leadership as one of its most powerful propaganda weapons. Legendary directors such as Sergei Eisenstein, who made "The Battleship Potemkin," and Andrei Tarkovsky, whose brooding classics can still astonish, won acclaim even as they bent to the will of the totalitarian state.

Now the Russian government is trying to revive the Soviet film tradition, helping to produce movies and miniseries that push the Kremlin's political views, vilify its critics and glorify the military and intelligence services.

Artistically, the results have been decidedly mixed.

Outside of the work of Mikhalkov, whose international fame dates back to the 1960s and who won a best foreign film Oscar for 1994's "Burnt by the Sun," few government-sponsored films have won either critical acclaim or box-office success.

"History repeats itself with a farce, so this new propaganda seems ridiculous compared to textbook Soviet examples," said Yuri Valkov, a historian of Russian culture.

Throughout the 1990s, the Russian film industry was mostly limited to imitations of Hollywood blockbusters and attempts to preserve the old artistic traditions.

In the new millennium, Russian filmmakers have found themselves in a business-oriented environment of investments and profits. But the government has taken a greater role in film projects, and remains the country's largest film producer. Putin recently proposed a merger of three Soviet-era film studios into a mammoth, state-owned concern.

Some in the film industry — the largest in Europe alongside France — welcome the influence of authorities over what movies get made and the political lessons they teach.

"Law enforcement agencies are part of our state, and the government has the right to propagate whatever it considers necessary," said producer Leonid Vereshchagin of 3T, Mikhalkov's own production company, which has released several highly patriotic films.

But critics say government influence has stifled most critical and creative artists. Russian documentary filmmakers, for example, could probably never produce documentaries directly critical of the government, said Vyacheslav Shmyrov, chief editor of the Kinoprotsess magazine.

"A Michael Moore is impossible in Russia," he said, referring to the American filmmaker whose documentary "Fahrenheit 9/11" was a scathing critique of the Bush administration.

This year's most controversial Russian documentary, "The Destruction of the Empire: a Byzantine Lesson," was written by an Orthodox monk who argued that Western ideas and institutions would ruin Russia as they did Byzantium centuries earlier.

Unlike in the Soviet era, there is no centrally directed state effort to use cinema for indoctrination. Instead, artists know that they can win state support for film projects that promote the views of those in power.

"There are attempts of artists, producers and film directors to profit from patriotic themes and get government funding for their projects," said political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky.

Films critical of the government or at odds with the Kremlin's view of Russian history can face problems getting made, or gaining recognition after their release. The macabre 2007 film "Cargo 200," with its Orwellian vision of Soviet society, provoked a scandal at last year's Kinotavr film festival and was rated X for limited distribution.

The result is films like this year's "Alexander: The Battle on the Neva," which celebrates a 13th century prince who repels a Swedish invasion on his city, puts down a riot of Western-leaning nobles and vows fealty to the Mongol empire.

The message could not be more clear: Russia needs a strong leader to defend it from a hostile West. The film was advertised as a prequel to Eisenstein's 1938 epic, "Alexander Nevsky," which was personally commissioned by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin to stir anti-German sentiment on the eve of World War II.

Russian intelligence, police and military agencies have underwritten at least a dozen television series or films in recent years, spending tens of millions of dollars to polish their images.

Last year, the Fund to Support Patriotic Films — a nonprofit backed by the FSB, the main successor agency to the KGB — produced "The Apocalypse Code," a $15 million James Bond knockoff.

In the film, a seductively dressed female FSB spy blasts bad guys, outwits her rivals and saves the world from nuclear annihilation. The film flopped with critics and filmgoers. "The Code is a raving of a drunken horse," said critic Victor Matezen.

But failure didn't discourage the film's backers. Olesya Bykova, executive director of the Fund, said it plans a feature film, television series and interactive online projects targeted at a younger audience.

State-financed films have featured Kremlin foes, thinly disguised as fictional characters, as the bad guys. A character apparently modeled on the billionaire Boris Berezovsky plots terrorist attacks in the 2004 film "Personal Number." Berezovsky fled to London in 2001 after a falling out with Putin.

"The Apocalypse Code" and "Personal Number" were among the winners of the revived Soviet-era award for best works of art that "form a positive image of FSB officers."

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

June 25, 2008 -- Contents


(1) EDITORIAL: The Mother of All Rogue Regimes

(2) Russia Leads the Way on Dictatorship

(3) Inflation Ravages Putin's Russia

(4) Annals of Russian Corruption

EDITORIAL: Russia, the Mother of All Rogue Regimes


The Mother of all Rogue Regimes

This scowling countenance, which gives every impression of being that of a maniac, is that of Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, a member of the dictator Vladimir Putin’s closest inner circle. If his face makes you nervous, you’d better turn away now, because his face is nothing compared to his words, uttered at the 12th St. Petersburg International Economic Forum on June 8th and reported by the Other Russia opposition coalition:

Our business participates in the transportation support of wars led by other nations. We earn income from wars, however cynical that may sound. The government, at any rate, does not impede our business of carrying out military transports on behalf of other nations. We will continue to do this.

Ivanov dreams big dreams. He’s in the process of creating an umbrella organization called Rostekhnologia whose purpose will be to deliver Russian armaments into world conflicts faster and better than ever before. And Other Russia concludes that the organization may be doing double duty as a means of further consolidating Putin’s totalitarian grip on the nation:

As many as 600 companies may become a part of Rostekhnologia, which has raised the ire of the Federal Anti-Monopoly Service (FAS) and the Finance Ministry. FAS has raised questions about transferring shares of privately-owned companies, such as vehicle manufacturers Kamaz and UAZ, to a state corporation. The Finance Ministry, for its part, has protested the inclusion of enterprises not directly involved in the military-industrial complex into Rostekhnologia.

This isn’t to say, of course, that Russia is content to allow its weapons to be used by others to promote global mayhem. As we've previously reported, Russia is among the ten least peaceful nations on the planet as rated by an independent peace organization. After an investigation, the United Nations recently concluded that a Russian fighter shot down a Georgian surveillance aircraft in Georgian airspace, without question an act of war. Russia is engaged in an ongoing effort to split off a western region of Georgia and annex it to Russia, undoubtedly part of an overall scheme to destabilize Georgia, keep it out of NATO and ultimately annex the whole country to Russia just as was the case in the times of the USSR.

Russia is the mother of all rogue regimes. Run by a proud KGB spy who has been clothed in the legitimacy of “elections,” it is armed to the teeth with ICBM’s and full of just as much hatred for Western values like democracy as Iran or North Korea ever were. It’s also prepared to weaponize its energy assets, and just as in Soviet times it couldn’t care less about diverting vital resources from a sick and diminishing population to foment geopolitical confrontation. Whether it knows it or not, the world’s democracies are in another cold war with another evil empire. If you listen to Vladimir Putin’s propaganda, then you believe that Russia is flush with wealth — and that means these arms sales are entirely gratuitous and unnecessary except as a political weapon.

Russia Leads the Way on Dictatorship

The Moscow Times reports:

Propelled by a surge of oil and natural gas wealth, Russia has become the leading anti-democratic force in its region, the U.S.-based democracy watchdog Freedom House said in a report released Monday. Nearly two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the vision of a wider Europe "whole and free" remains unrealized, Freedom House also said in the report. "Over time, we have seen rising oil prices correlate clearly with sharply falling democracy performance, especially in Russia, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan," the group's director of studies, Christopher Walker, said in an interview. "The resource curse is taking root."

As energy prices increased over the past decade, the three former Soviet states based their growth on natural energy resources, the report said. The period was marked by "a concurrent and striking decline in the openness and independence of institutions," the report said. By last year, it became clear that Vladimir Putin's era had ushered in a new elite that grabbed power, Freedom House said.

Experimenting in "authoritarian capitalism," an "Iron Triangle" of state power, industry chiefs and security services is leading a decline in the electoral process and increased control over political opponents and news media, the report said. "Independent voices of consequence have been muzzled and are unable to challenge or moderate the leadership's whims and excesses," according to the report. Courts, the backbone of the legal system, are targeted by dominant power-holders to make sure they cannot provide unbiased and independent justice, Walker said. As for the media, Walker said, influential power-holders "want to make sure their enormous assets and use of them are not scrutinized and not taken away, and that contributes to repression."

The growing authoritarianism is also shaping foreign policy, producing "a more assertive and often belligerent posture by Russia toward its neighbors," the report said. For instance, it said, Russia keeps trying to undercut reform in neighboring Georgia and is applying pressure on Estonia. While yielding the post of president to Dmitry Medvedev, Putin holds the post of prime minister and has assumed leadership of the country's dominant political party. The report said it is not clear how the still-evolving authoritarianism will fare without him directly at the helm.

When he took the oath of office in May, Medvedev pledged "to protect the rights and liberties of every citizen." He also declared that "human rights and freedoms … are deemed of the highest value for our society and they determine the meaning and content of all state activity."

Freedom House has also published a report recently called Worst of the Worst: The World’s Most Repressive Societies 2008. Not surprisingly, Russia appears on their list of 20 nations and territories in that category.

Inflation Ravages Putin's Russia

The Moscow Times reports:

Food prices have risen 11.6 percent in the country since the start of the year, compared with 3.1 percent in Europe, the State Statistics Service said Thursday.

The news comes as a worrying sign that inflation may continue to hit people's grocery bills, with a basket of food jumping by 2.3 percent in May alone, compared with 0.6 percent in the European Union, the service said.

The government has been struggling to keep inflation within the current forecast of 10.5 percent for 2008, a target analysts have called out of reach. Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin said Wednesday that it was still possible for the Central Bank to hold inflation to 10.5 percent, although it would require slowing down the "overheated" economy.

Russia is seeing food prices rise faster than in Europe because a higher percentage of its food is imported, analysts said. The country "imports meat, milk, sunflower seed oil and butter -- almost everything," said Julia Tseplyayeva, an economist at Merrill Lynch.

And even with global food prices rising, the country's consumer price index has risen more rapidly than in most of Europe because Russian consumers spend more of their income on groceries.

"In Russia, 39 percent of the consumer basket is accounted for by food, 36 percent without alcohol," she said.

In Europe, she said, 15 to 25 percent of the basket is food. "The result is ... a huge spike in inflation."

Vegetables have hit the country's pocketbooks hardest, with prices rising 51.4 percent since December, compared with 5.1 percent in the EU. Baked goods and cereals saw the next-biggest hike over the period, rising 15.2 percent, compared with 3.8 percent in Europe.

Anna Kareva, director of investor relations at X5 Retail Group, which owns the Perekryostok and Pyatyorochka grocery store chains, said prices would keep rising "more than the government thinks."

The trend this year has changed, she said, adding that last year inflation was driven in part by wage increases. Earlier this month, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said the government would seek to boost wages and social benefits as a cushion against rising prices.

"People were upgrading their basket, they were buying more expensive stuff and this trend continued into the first quarter of this year," Kareva said.

"Now that trend is changing. ... We don't know yet whether it was a problem, but we probably will in the second quarter," she said.

Annals of Russian Corruption

The Moscow Times reports:

The Moscow police officers checked Viktor's office and declared that he was in big trouble.

The Windows software installed on his computers was not licensed, and the officers said they would be forced to open a criminal case unless Viktor showed his "generosity."

Viktor slapped $6,000 into the hand of one of the officers, and the pirated software was forgotten.

Across the city, Igor is proud of his brand-new Ford Focus, but he parked it several hundred meters away from the institute where he studies medicine. If his professors were to see it, he would be charged more money to pass his exams.

In a small shop on Prospekt Mira, Yekaterina regularly pays tax officials to turn a blind eye to irregularities in her accounting records and fire inspectors to ignore fire safety violations.

"This is the way we live. We pay, pay and pay," Yekaterina said with a sigh.

People living in Russia pay $319 billion a year in bribes, according to Indem, a Moscow-based research center that tracks corruption. That amounts to about $2,250 for each of the country's 142 million citizens.

The cost of corruption is keenly felt across all segments of the economy, pushing up prices for food, housing, services, health care and education. A few people have taken a stand against bribes, opting instead to take the longer and sometimes more costly route of doing everything above board. But many people prefer the status quo, saying they fear a government-led reform effort would end up forcing them to pay more than they do now.

President Dmitry Medvedev has declared war on corruption, and he is expected to outline a national anti-corruption plan in the upcoming days. The plan, prepared by the Anti-Corruption Council, a body that Medvedev founded and chairs, is to seek amendments to laws that breed corruption, offer protection to businesses from corrupt bureaucrats, and make judges independent.

Corruption, however, is deeply engrained into everyday life. Everyone pays bribes, according to a study carried out last year by Transparency International, a corruption watchdog. The study ranked Russia on par with Gambia, Togo and Indonesia in terms of corruption, ranking it in 143th place out of 180 countries surveyed.

As the cost of living rises, so has the cost of the average bribe, increasing from $10,000 in 2001 to $130,000 in 2005, according to Indem. The largest chunk of bribes go to law enforcement agencies and education institutions, it said.

It is little wonder then that Russians overwhelmingly believe that bureaucrats became less efficient and more corrupt under President Vladimir Putin, as documented in a study by the Institute of Sociology of the Russian Academy of Sciences in late 2005.

Indeed, corruption has become more "impudent and open," compared with President Boris Yeltsin's time in office, said Georgy Satarov, the head of Indem.

"Bureaucrats who took bribes used to try to hide them, but now they are not even afraid of showing off their wealth," Satarov said.

Fighting With Legislation

As a first step, Medvedev has ordered new legislation to prevent state inspectors from entering the premises of small businesses without the permission of prosecutors.

"Arbitrary inspections by officials -- from firemen to the police -- are often an excuse to extort bribes from small firms and must halt," he told a State Council meeting in Tobolsk in late March.

Under Medvedev's direction, the Duma Commission to Fight Corruption has drafted a bill to fight corruption that would deprive officials of opportunities to use their positions for personal profit and set strict standards for government employees. The bill requires officials and members of their families to declare their property and forbids former officials from working for companies that they previously regulated.

The rules were taken from a United Nations convention against corruption and a Council of Europe convention on criminal responsibilities that the Duma ratified two years ago and needs to implement, said Mikhail Grishankov, one of the authors of the bill and the head of the Duma Commission to Fight Corruption.

"We didn't try to create something completely new," Grishankov said in an interview. "Instead, we looked at international experience in this field."

Grishankov said the anti-corruption bill contained provisions that have been tested in Western countries and worked well.

"We don't have any illusions that by applying European measures we will get immediate results. But there are rules that have been applied in other countries and work," he said.

Medvedev will present the bill to the entire Duma for a vote in the fall, and the bill will be passed by year's end, Grishankov said.

Other anti-corruption legislation is also in the works. The Investigative Committee, linked to the Prosecutor General's Office, has floated a bill that would eliminate a legal loophole that allows government officials to accept gifts worth less than 11,500 rubles.

Putin's campaign against corruption largely consisted of raising bureaucrats' miserly salaries to make bribes less attractive and the occasional high-profile arrest of corrupt officials in sting operations.

At his last annual Kremlin news conference in February, Putin admitted that the campaign had failed and said he could not think of a more difficult problem to solve. "Fighting corruption takes time, and there is no miracle anti-corruption pill that the state can swallow and cure its corruption woes overnight," he said.

He accused big businesses of facilitating corruption by placing their people in the government. "Few of these people actually received a salary in these posts. It was not the money that interested them," he said.

Putin has dismissed the idea of replicating attempts by Georgia to get rid of corruption as unpractical and unrealistic. Georgia fired its entire traffic police force and replaced the officers with new recruits.

'Don't Touch Anything'

Told about the pending legislation, Viktor, the businessman with pirated software, unleashed a torrent of profanity.

"Don't touch anything! Let things stay the way they are," he said, shouting. Viktor, like many small entrepreneurs interviewed for this report, spoke on condition of anonymity, citing fears of reprisals from the authorities.

Viktor said he spends about $1,000 a month on bribes to police officers and bureaucrats. The money pays for permits and prevents inspectors from revoking his license for perceived infractions. He said the bribes were like an extra tax, which, although high, is manageable. He said he "strongly" opposes Medvedev fighting the problem.

"I don't like paying bribes, and I would rather work according to clear and transparent rules," Viktor said. "But I live in Russia, and experience tells me that every time authorities decide to tackle a problem, things only get worse."

Yekaterina, who pays $800 to tax and fire inspectors every month, said she feared a government crackdown would only lead to higher bribes. "It would become riskier for bureaucrats to take the money, so they would ask for more," she said.

"It is better to leave things the way they are," she added. "It is not an easy situation, but now we can survive. If they touch anything, it would be the end for small businesses."

Viktor and Yekaterina explained that they have good relations with "their" officials, and a change would mean building new relations with new people who might want more money.

"It took me so long to establish my contacts, and I don't want to lose them," Viktor said. "The old ones already have cars and apartments."

But Igor, the student with the new car, said he supported any government initiative to stop bribery at schools. At his institute, he said, only students from poor families pass exams for free, but professors ask for money from students from middle-class or rich families.

"I like studying, but I sometimes lose motivation because I know that I can pay and the exam is done," Igor said. "Who studies under such circumstances? People get degrees without even opening a book."

Satarov said "everyday corruption" is the worst kind, when students pay professors for a degree and people pay doctors for treatment.

Already in 2001, he said, 2 million adults reported that they did not seek treatment when they were ill because they could not afford to pay for nominally free public health care services.

"This kind of corruption will bring unimaginable danger in our society," Satarov said. "People will be unhealthy, and soon we will have lawyers, constructors and doctors who have all purchased their degrees."

One Man's Fight

Ilya Khandrikov, a businessman who owns a clothing factory with 110 workers, started his own fight against corruption in 2006 after growing weary of being harassed by policemen and fire and tax inspectors. He stopped paying bribes.

When officials stop by his office looking for a handout, he refuses. When he needs to get a new permit, he hires a firm that takes care of the bureaucratic hurdles for him.

"It is a big challenge," he said. "Some people say, 'You'd better pay,' but I'm a fighter by nature."

Khandrikov said it was difficult to compete with rival businesses that prefer the easier way of paying bribes, but he believes that someone has to oppose the system before things will start to change.

"It takes more time and money to solve the problems the way I do, but still I decided to stop giving money to anyone anymore," he said. "It is more expensive, but it is worth it."

Khandrikov believes that corruption would end if all businesses followed his example.

A few other businesses are also openly refusing to pay bribes, including Ernst & Young, the auditing firm, which encourages clients to follow its lead. "If a company wishes to get recognition from its Western partners, it should have a zero-tolerance policy toward any corruption payments," Ivan Ryutov, head of fraud investigation and disputes services at Ernst & Young, said in an e-mail. "That is why we always recommend that our clients think about their image and reputation rather than entering into dubious corruption schemes."

Grishankov, the Duma deputy, said businesspeople are one of the main problems in fighting corruption. "When businessmen understand that the rules are changing and they need to follow the law like everyone else, things will gradually start to improve," he said.

Solution Is Democracy

Is there a way out of corruption? Satarov said the solution is simple: allow nongovernmental organizations and the media to provide external control over bureaucracy.

"The bureaucracy is now independent and without any controls. It does whatever it wants," Satarov said. "When bureaucracy is without any controls, it works for itself, and then you have corruption."

To fight corruption, Satarov said, Russia needs free NGOs and free media, as well as a developed civil society, political competition and a clear division of powers in the government.

"In one word: democracy," he said. "Without these conditions, any fight against corruption is useless. You will only get short-time results."

Punitive measures are unlikely to work in a big country like Russia. "In some small countries like Singapore, it is possible to fight corruption with strong punitive measures, but not in Russia," Satarov said.

Yelena Panfilova, head of the Russia office of Transparency International, said the authorities needed to work to change people's mentality so that they understood that life without corruption would be better for everyone. Putin often launched anti-corruption campaigns around election seasons, and people tend to associate them with election-time politicking.

"The political leadership should make it absolutely clear that this time they are fighting corruption seriously, that they are not going to stop when the elections are over," Panfilova said.

In educating the public about corruption, the government must make people realize the price they pay everyday because of corruption, she said.

"When people see that Coca-Cola is 5 rubles more expensive, they blame greedy businessmen," she said. "But they don't see that the reason for the price increase is not economic but corruption."

People also do not associate the danger in the streets with corruption, said Kirill Kabanov, director of the National Anti-Corruption Committee, an advocacy group. "Patrol officers in our country are on the street to make money, not to protect citizens," he said.

At least one Moscow police officer is not worried that Medvedev's drive against corruption will change the way he works.

A police officer, who works for the Moscow force's anti-organized crime division, is more skeptical about the fight against corruption the government wants to start.

"It is just a publicity stunt to promote the new president and to show people that he wants to find a solution to this problem," said the officer.

He said bureaucrats were so used to taking money that they would continue the practice even if their salaries were raised by 10 times.

"The only thing to fight this problem is to replace everyone from the top to the bottom with new people," he said.