Sunday, October 22, 2006

Making Frontpage News in Norway

A story partly based on a recent piece on Borat and Kazakhstan published on this weblog, today made the frontpage of the Norwegian daily Aftenposten - Norway's second largest newspaper with a circulation of about 300,000 copies.

The real argument of the Aftenposten story is that the comedian Sacha Baron Cohen has to periodically invent new role characters. Once roles such as Ali G or now Borat become publicly known, Cohen can no longer use them, as people know that their legs are being pulled. The absurd and very politically incorrect ideas that he expresses, provoke either support or confusion, but very seldom dissent. Politicians, businessmen or ordinary people are thus made out as fools or spineless.

As for the Aftenposten story, it ends with the argument on this blog, that Borat may actually be doing Kazakhstan a favour, by belittlement of problems with the oppressive and corrupt Nazarbayev regime. Can really a country with people as funny as Borat be all that bad when even the most despicable dictator appears to be a mere clown? Well, only the western public can judge, as "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan" is not likely to hit the cinemas of Astana and Almaty.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Five CIS Cities in Top Ten Polluted Places

Five out of the ten most polluted places in the world this year are to be found in the Former Soviet Union, according to a list published by the Blacksmith Institute. No, it's no beauty paget, even if the list is an annually recurrent event, shedding light upon some of the greatest man-made environmental disasters in history.

According to the UN, 20% of premature deaths in the world may be ascribed to environmental factors. "There are some towns where life expectancy approaches medieval rates, where birth defects are the norm not the exception. In other places children's asthma rates are measured above 90%, or mental retardation is endemic. In these places, life expectancy may be half that of the richest nations", the report states.

In Russian Dzerzhinsk, average life expectancy among men is 42 years and among women 47 years. This was one of the places where the USSR produced its chemical weapons during the Cold War. Norilsk houses the world's largest nickel producer, and life expectancy for factory workers is 10 years below the Russian average. In Rudnaya Pristan and Dalnegorsk, lead poisoning is endemic due to emissions from local lead mines. Levels of lead in children's blood are between 8 and 20 times higher than maximum allowable rates in the US.

Mailuu-Suu in Kyrgyzstan presents some of the highest figures of nuclear radiation in the world, due to the waste from soviet time uranium mining. The situation may also worsen as earthquakes threaten to negatively affect containment of radioactive waste in this area of high seismic activity. The situation sets the security of large tracts of Central Asia in peril, while the Mailuu-Suu river might carry great quantities of highly radioactive sediments to the Ferghana valley - the region's most densely populated area.

The most well-known place on the list is probably Chernobyl in Ukraine. Even 20 years after the accident, radioactivy is on such high levels to remain life hazardous during lengthy exposure. The 19 mile exclusion zone remains uninhabitable, and the number of thyroid cancer cases among people in exposed areas is on highly elevated. Even if efforts are made to improve the environmental situation, there are fears of a new disaster if the sarcophagus - the concrete inclosure of the reactor - collapses, or if nuclear waste leaks into the groundwater.

That the effects of soviet reign laid waste to large tracts of the Eurasian continent should be commonplace knowledge nowadays. There should thus be no wonder that five out of the ten most polluted places in the world are located in the former USSR. Still, have current rulers of these states learnt from historical mistakes? No, in many cases not. Recently, ideas of turning the rivers of Siberia are again becoming fashionable in both Russia and Kazakhstan. The last time this was tried - during the 1960s "Virgin Lands" project - it led to an environmental disaster of epic proportions. It seems that even the most obvious is beyond reach for these people to fathom. Perhaps, the truth of the matter is that too many political leaders in these countries simply do not care, come what come may.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Georgia's Always On My Mind

Is the current xenophobic campaign against Georgians in Russia run by Putin and the Kremlin? Much indicates that this is actually the case. Since Moscow launched its sanctionist policy towards Georgia earlier this year, living conditions have become next to unbearable for many Georgians living in Russia, making them the new "Jews" of Russia.

Police harassment and controls of Georgians have become commonplace during the last month. Even people with work and residence permits, who have lived for decades in Russia, are now experiencing the repercussions of the current Russian-Georgian crisis. A growing number of Georgians are also forcibly expelled from Russia. Popular sentiments about Georgia unavoidably also reflect upon its nationals living in Russia. So, how does Kremlin's attitude influence the Russian people?

Putin and several leading politicians consistently treat Georgia with great rancour. Recently, Defence and Deputy Prime Minister Sergey Ivanov said: "banditry in Georgia has taken on a nationwide scale." Following up on this statement, the state run All Russian Center for Public Opinion Studies asked Russians whether they agreed with Ivanov.

The result was a devastating 61% positive replies - that "Georgia is a bandit state." Only 29% disagreed. In Moscow and St. Petersburg, attitudes against Georgians were even worse with 78% agreeing with Ivanov. In the rest of Russia, results spanned from 55-61% among respondents. Also, 40% advocated "an economic blockade against Georgia and taking other tough measures in response to the Georgian authorities' unfriendly policy toward Russia." Additionally, 37% backed expulsion of Georgians without residence permit from Russia, 20% advocated a break in transports and postal services, and 20% thought that Russia should severe diplomatic relations with Tbilisi. In contrast, only 30% wanted to normalise bilateral relations and de-escalate the belligerent emotions now running high. A minuscule 5% held that no measures at all should be taken against Georgia.

There are, regrettably, no prior figures to compare with, but popular sentiments against Georgians have never seemed very negative in the past. However, over the last half year, Georgia and Georgians have suddenly become the pariah of Russia, almost on the level of Chechens when hearing Putin and other politicians talking on the subject. That an opinion poll thus takes a statement of a vice Premier as its starting-point is probably no coincidence. The Kremlin both wants to demonstrate that it leads the way and that it has the support of the people in this policy. Admittedly, the particular poll is on Georgia and not Georgians. However, it is quite evident, that these negative attitudes are reflected also on Georgian nationals - assumably to almost the same negative levels - when leading politicians practically portray Russia and Georgia on the verge of war.

The development of Moscow's policy towards the "near abroad" over the last 2-3 years - since the coloured revolutions - contrasts to Russia's prior policy. Previous policy was based on the understanding that the costs for an active policy in post-soviet space were too great in comparison to what could be achieved in other areas. It was a policy of droit de regard and not a droit de suite for an empire creating states by oppression. As Russia is again claiming real influence over post-soviet space, one must ask if we are heading back in the USSR. Surprisingly, it is not difficult to imagine Putin telling the 'ignorant peoples' now back in the fold: "Hey, You don't know how lucky you are, boy."

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Censorship or Moderation?

Over the past few months, Blogger's comment moderation has not worked properly with this blog. Thus, e-mail notification has temporarily been down, why a lot of comments have remained unpublished due to ignorance of their mere existence.

As this backlog now has been detected, all comments that are not abusive or off topic have been published. Thus, apologies are in order. However, I reserve the right to moderate comments also in the future, in order to safeguard the quality of contents and to prevent trolls. Censorship or moderation? Well, whichever one it is - that is up to the readers to decide.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Один день Владимира Владимировича

On this particular morning, October 7, Vladimir Vladimirovich woke at nine in his native city of St. Petersburg. He had had a good night's sleep, and felt relieved not to hear the bells of the Spassky tower, as he had become used to during his six years in the Kremlin. Today was his 54th birthday, and he had decided not to let the soft sound of his Swiss alarm clock wake him to the daily chores as president of Russia. All in all, it was a lovely day and he looked forward to dinner in the evening with a small set of his old friends from the Petersburg days. For once, the day was to be spent in leisure.

For long, he had been sick with the never-ending monotony of ruling his country. Most of all, he would like to be left alone, and during the past few years he had actually succeeded in getting more free-time. Still, there were papers to be signed, people to meet, and decisions to be made. Somehow, he never seemed to rid himself of the constant responsibilities that his associates burdened him with. Not on this day, though. Today, at least, he was not to be disturbed by such petty details. After all, it was his birthday.

Today, he was to be among friends, celebrating him on his achievements of the year passed. Friends? Well, that was perhaps bringing it too far. Vladimir Vladimirovich did not believe in friendship. Connections, contacts, and acquaintances - that was another thing. They were conditions for survival - a lesson he had been taught from early childhood. His experience was that friendship and betrayal go in pairs, so he understood that "friends" were simply people he could feel comfortable and at ease with. However, he would never allow anyone to deceive or betray him. If so, he would not blink for a second before putting down anyone posing a threat to him - friend of foe alike. This was simply the nature of things in the country where he had been brought up, Vladimir Vladimirovich thought.

Well, such problems were at least none of his concern today. He was determined to celebrate his birthday in relative peace and quiet. Sure, there were to be some official celebrations. This was good and proper. However, some were excessive and Vladimir Vladimirovich silently jeered at upcoming Chechen celebrations. Some 60,000 people had been ordered to the Akhmat Kadyrov Square in central Grozny to sing the Russian national anthem in his honour. This was really bringing matters too far, but Vladimir Vladimirovich also saw it as an act of desperation from Chechen Premier Ramzan Kadyrov.

Kadyrov knew how much the Kremlin despised him, and this was obviously his desperate way of paying his respects to power in Moscow - the same power that could bring him down if he would go too far in his more commercial activities. Kadyrov had just turned 30, and thus was now eligible for the Chechen presidency. That he had received a brand new Ferrari for his birthday said it all. Just imagine going about in a Ferrari in the ruins and rubble of Grozny. It was only a question of time now how long president Alkhanov would still serve as a front for Kadyrov's power. Still, it was quite a convenient arrangement, letting the Chechen war lord run his murky operations in exchange for relative stability in the renegade republic. It all resembled franchising, Vladimir Vladimirovich thought to himself. Kadyrov and his stooges got to use the "Russia brand" in exchange for calm in Russia's soft under-belly.

However, Vladimir Vladimirovich actively distrusted the Kadyrov family. Already the father had meant trouble to Moscow, and some people in the Kremlin had even talked about having him shot. However, this never proved necessary as the Chechens themselves solved this problem by blowing him to pieces. Vladmir Vladimirovich expected that also the son would eventually meet with a similar fate, so he had been opposed to getting rid of the mafioso-like son. Things would settle for the best in the end, and in the meantime those terrorist Chechens might as well be ruled by a pathologically insane mafioso. It only served them right, Vladimir Vladimirovich thought.

But why think of such dull things on one's birthday? After all, it had been a rather good week. At last, he had got the excuse he needed to really pull the thumbscrews on those difficult Georgians, and he knew that his people was behind him in throwing those abominable Caucasians out of mother Russia. Propaganda was really a marvellous thing. It is true, some protested against it. The ban on Georgian wines and mineral waters earlier in the year had not gone unnoticed, but now next to nobody reacted. Well, some of those half-crazed old soviet dissidents and intellectuals had called for demonstrations in support of Georgia and some writers had composed a rather hilarious protest letter that Vladmir Vladimirovich well knew would pass unnoticed. Who cared about those old people nowadays? Old-age pensioners in their seventies and eighties thinking that they made a difference. It was simply pathetic and of no greater consequence to power. By the way, who read those small newspapers that were still independent? He knew that 85% of the people had television as their main source of information on what was going on in the country, and as for the TV-stations, he controlled every last one of them.

Vladimir Vladimirovich spent the day doing as little as possible. How nice it was to be relieved of one's responsibilities, he thought. Then, as he turned on the four o'clock news, the breaking story was that a journalist had been killed in Moscow. Well, who was she anyway, this Anna Politkovskaya? A journalist of Novaya Gazeta - a paper with a circulation of little over 100,000 copies, sparsely distributed outside of Moscow. Still, she had been a nuisance to him abroad for the duration of his presidency, in fact ever since he initiated the second Chechen war in 1999. Who was she to meddle into the affairs of state? And besides, she was not even Russian. Typically, her parents had been Ukrainian, and as events had again demonstrated but a couple of years back, Ukrainians were not to be trusted. Anyway, the only thing this journalist had accomplished was to tarnish the image of Russia in the West - something the Kremlin had spent millions of dollars to improve just this year alone.

He realised that his long-coveted trip to Germany might be shadowed by this event, but still he was looking forward to visiting Dresden, where he had spent so many happy days of his youth. He knew that he would probably have to comment the murder somehow, but it was best to keep it to a minimum, not to be dragged into some discussion he could not control. As for the Russian public, he could simply keep quiet and let the whole affair pass by as unnoticed as possible. Something else would soon pop up, drawing the attention of domestic and international media away from the Politkovskaya murder. With a little luck, the murder might be pinned on that Kadyrov character, making him a little less cocky in relation to the Kremlin. It was best that such people never felt safe from Moscow's power to punish, Vladimir Vladimirovich thought.

His thoughts were interrupted by a soft knock on the door: Time for dinner. As he had suspected, the evening did not present any great surprises. Towards the early hours of the night, Vladimir Vladimirovich returned to his room in high spirits. A bit drowsy, he decided to go to bed. After all, it was a day tomorrow too. Putin fell asleep contentedly. How succesful a day had it not been. He really had not had to do anything. His birthday celebrations had been fine. Another annoying journalist was no more. Georgians were thrown out of the motherland. And best of all, that despicable Kadyrov character had been twice humiliated - by his pathetic show of faith to Putin and by having the journalist murder pinned on him. Next week, Putin was going to Germany. That would serve as a welcome pause from monotony. Another day had passed by, shadowed by nothing, an almost happy day. Three thousand four hundred and seventy two such days, from morning till evening. Those two extra days were on account of leap years... It had just been yet one day in the life of Vladimir Vladimirovich.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

A Dagmar Cross to Carry?

Two weeks ago, Russian empress Dagmar was reburied in the St. Petersburg Peter and Paul's Cathedral, in accordance to her wishes. She was mother of the last Russian emperor, Nicholas II, and married to his father, Alexander III. However, the funeral service, attended by high dignitaries, did not pass without some turbulence. The crowd around the coffin was so great, that a young Danish diplomat actually fell into the grave with a big crash.

Empress Dagmar, or Maria Fyodorovna as was her Russian name, sought refuge in her native country of Denmark after the 1917 Russian revolution. She lived there for the remainder of her life, never accepting the death of her son, Tsar Nicholas II, and his family. As she now was reburied beside her husband and son, her remains were followed to the final resting-place by representatives of the Royal houses of Denmark and the UK.

The accident at her grave may well provoke some smiles, but going out with a bang is rather in line with the vivacious ways of the late Tsar family. Named after the 13th century Queen Dagmar of Denmark, she - as Maria Fyodorovna of Russia - tried to live up to the philantropic ideals of her medieval namesake. To this day, many Danes carry a Dagmar Cross round their necks in commemoration of their benign queen of the middle ages.

As for the Danish diplomat who, by an annoying hitch, ended up in the imperial grave, he survived the accident physically - if not mentally - unscathed. The poor man will probably have this Dagmar cross to carry for the remainder of his diplomatic career. Still, the Danish sense of humour and good-naturedness may well prove a consolation to him in the long run. Dagmar herself, would probably have burst out into laughter if she had known, thinking the pitfall at her grave a nice note to sign off with.

Politkovskaya Podcast

On Tuesday evening, Open Source radio broadcasted a show on "The death of Anna Politkovskaya", with myself, Masha Gessen - Deupty Editor of Bolshoy Gorod, Raffi Aftandelian - maaskva: nashimi glazami, and Edward Lucas, The Economist Central and East European Correspondent. The programme in full will, in due course, be available for download at OpenSource, but in the meanwhile, it will have to suffice with their presentation of the show:

What did she know about Putin’s Russia that we don’t? Politkovskaya was murdered in Moscow this week, shot on the street. A journalist, she spent the last seven years as a columnist for Novaya Gazeta, covering Chechnya and the oligarchs and the list of official sins that continues to grow in Putin’s Russia. She titled collections of her columns Putin’s Russia, A Dirty War and A Small Corner of Hell; it’s not hard to figure out why she made a lot of people uncomfortable.

She had a lot of enemies, they all had motives, and the threat isn’t limited to her. Russian journalist Masha Gessen revealed on the phone this afternoon that, given the choice between a lighthearted piece for a Russian paper on the economy or a more sober look at Putin for an American paper, she’d take the economy. Safer that way.

Several guests we spoke to this afternoon described Politkovskaya as “passionate”; she opened her 2004 book
Putin’s Russia with the words “These are my emotional reactions, jotted down in the margins of life as it is lived in Russia today.” She established her own credibility; she was asked to help negotiate the hostage crisis in Beslan and then — she believed — poisoned on the plane on the way down. After the crisis, when it became illegal to sell a newspaper within a hundred meters of a subway entrance or bus stop, she was one of the few fearless journalists left; The Economist described her in an obit on Sunday as brave beyond belief.

And now she’s gone. What does this say about Putin’s Russia? Was an oligarch — or a Chechen, or police sergeant exposed for corruption — angry at what she’d done to his image, or did the Kremlin send a signal? And as we focus our attention on the Middle East, Russia threatens European natural gas supplies and rounds up Georgians as “criminals” for export back to Georgia. Are we completely missing a serious and not-so-new problem?

What is interesting with a discussion like this, is how various perspectives meet: a Russian and a western journalist, an Armenian American in Moscow and a Swedish expert on Russia. The greatest fear participating in a broadcast is not to get one's message through. This time the message is urgent: The significance of Anna Politkovskaya and how her murder reflects current Russia.

In these days, the negative attitudes towards Russia dominate. At the same time, Politkovskaya's murder may prove a turning-point for Russia. Although, there were only familiar faces - old soviet dissidents in their seventies - at her funeral yesterday, her death may actually rejuvenate the civil rights movement in Russia.

In 1966, the trial against Danilov and Sinyavsky set off a spark that ignited the soviet dissident movement of the 1970s - Andrei Sakharov, Yelena Bonner and others. Nobody could then fully grasp the significance of a few "lost souls" in the quagmire of Brezhnevite soviet society. Still, the perseverance of the dissidents inspired others and eventually led to the era of glasnost and perestroika of the 1980s.

Today, the murder of Anna Politkovskaya may inspire a young generation of "new Russians" to gradually look beyond self-interest when confronted by mounting oppression. Regrettably, oppression is the situation for Russian media today, and journalists fear for their lifes and far too many try to avoid sensitive subjects, while they otherwise risk the necks of themselves and their families. Still, perhaps it has to become worse before it becomes better.

Perhaps, Anna Politkovskaya's death will become the start of something new in Russia. That would be a testimony worthy of her bravery and moral standing as an independent journalist and a whistleblower on all the injustices prevailing in Russia of today. Anna Politkovskaya was an inspiration when she lived. Now her legacy may become an even greater inspiration for future Russia. Her mission was to fight injustices. Her vision was a better Russia - a Russia which the people deserves but must fight hard to attain. Her final sacrifice must not be in vain!

Comment: The show in full may be listened to at Open Source Radio.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Anna Politkovskaya In Memoriam

Чудовищное убийство Анны Политковской – это трагедия не только для России, но и для многих друзей России, борцов за права человека, а также для зарубежных коллег-журналистов. Анна часто приезжала к нам в Швецию. За три недели до этого трагического события она приняла участие в семинаре, состоявшемся неподалеку от Стокгольма, и мы с нетерпением ожидали ее следующего визита. Несмотря на мировую известность, она была непритязательным человеком, внимательным и терпеливым слушателем, хотя наши вопросы часто были наивны.

Анна рассказала нам, что она предупредила своих детей о том, что ее могут убить. Она просила нас защитить ее. Мы, слушатели Анны, вдохновляли ее продолжать свою бесстрашную деятельность. Мы тоже виновны в том, что не уберегли ее. Наш моральный долг перед Анной - сделать все зависящее от нас, чтобы ее отвага и самопожертвование не пропали даром…

Мы выражаем глубокое соболезнование семье, друзьям и коллегам Анны. Светлая память о ней навсегда останется в наших сердцах.

От имени Шведского общества по изучению России, Центральной и Восточной Европы и Центральной Азии
(политологи, социологи, экономисты, географы, историки, филологи, переводчики, дипломаты, журналисты, преподаватели и многие другие)

Кристина Абиала, Хелен Карлбак, Анника Элияссон, Торгны Хиннему, Марианна Хультберг, Андреас Юханссон, Анна Йонссон, Вильгельм Коннандер, Мю Лилья, Джонни Родин, Карин Сарсенов, Ивонна Собис, Петер Сталенхейм, Якуб Свисицки
The heinous deed against Anna Politkovskaya is a tragedy not only for Russia but for many friends of Russia, defenders of human rights and journalist colleagues abroad. Anna was a frequent visitor to Sweden. She participated in a seminar outside Stockholm three weeks before the tragic event and we were already waiting for her next visit. Although a public person she was always modest, a good listener though our questions were sometimes naive.

Many of us heard her say that she had told her children she might be murdered some day. This was an appeal to us to give her shelter by keeping watch over her. By becoming her audience we encouraged her to continue her work bravely. Thus we are also guilty through our inability to protect her. We owe her our gratitude but also not to let her deed be in vain.

We wish to express our sincere condolences to Anna's family, friends and colleagues. Her memory will live on through those lives that she has touched.

On behalf of The Swedish Society for the study of Russia, Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia
(political scientists, sociologists, economists, geographers, historians, philologists, translators, diplomats, journalists, teachers and many others)

Kristina Abiala, Helene Carlbäck, Annika Eliasson, Torgny Hinnemo, Marianne Hultberg, Andreas Johansson, Anna Jonsson, Vilhelm Konnander, My Lilja, Johnny Rodin, Karin Sarsenov, Iwona Sobis, Petter Stålenheim, Jakub Swiecicki

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Death & the Kremlin

Anna Politkovskaya is dead. Murdered by the same cruelty and brutality that she herself dedicated her life to fight. For a moment the world has come to a standstill. Political leaders and common people alike react with sorrow and abhorrence as a mighty voice of freedom and tolerance is silenced. As darkness falls over Moscow, Russia is engulfed by dumb gloom as the walls of the Kremlin stay silent, when even the stones should scream out: "Так нельзя жить!" - We cannot live like this!

The fact remains: When Russia's "first journalist" is silenced, Russia's "first person" stays silent. No word from Putin, no word from the Kremlin when the freedom of the press is trampled on by brutal suppression. The tacit message thus sent, resounds with piercing echo: Freedom of speech has no place in Putin's Russia. "Qui tacet, consentit" - silence implies consent - is regrettably the conclusion drawn from Kremlin reticence, thereby making power implicitly complicit to a crime against the inalienable rights of the Russian people. That the Kremlin most probably bears no direct guilt in Politkovskaya's assasination, is thus obscured by its unwillingness to react with vehemence and call out for the guilty to be brought to justice.

The silence of the Kremlin is no surprise. The Russian administration has actively ignored Politkovskaya and the charges she has brought against the Putinist poles of power. She published three international bestsellers on the war in Chechnya and the state of Russia. None was ever published in Russia. Dead or alive, Putin shuns Politkovskaya like the plague.

During the last year, the Kremlin has poured millions of dollar on PR consultants to improve the international image of the country. How the world looks on Russia, is partly the way Russia looks at itself. Putin and his political technologists know this, and still they do not react, when the world must think fundamental freedoms has no place in Russia. All prejudice is thus confirmed and Russia risks returning to the dark ages of dehumanising authoritarian power.

Still, it would be so easy to go the other way, to acknowledge one's greatest critic, to speak out loud for liberty and dignity. Regardless of the sincerity of such an act, Putin would stand out as a statesman, truly concerned with the destiny of free speech in his country. That he does not, may have a simple logic: For Putin, Politkovskaya was a traitor who betrayed her country on Russia's road to resurrection as a great power among nations. She was the one who told the truth about an unpleasant reality that the Kremlin would rather ignore. She showed the Russians the vanity of "greatness" and the price the people had to pay to suffer and sacrifice for the sake of their leaders deluded ambitions. In her last book, Politkovskaya is asked: "things surely cannot be that bad"? Now, turning the last page of Anna Politkovskaya's life, one can only agree with her reply: "It is much worse."

Anna Politkovskaya lived in the present and jotted down her emotional reactions "in the margins of life as it is lived in Russia today." What she saw was not pleasant, but someone had to say out loud what many knew and thought. This proved her destiny in life and tragically destined her to the fatal fate she suffered. Her clear and frank voice may have gone silent, but the values she fought for are revived by her final sacrifice.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Anna Politkovskaya Murdered

According to Russian TV-news Vesti24, the famous Russian journalist and author, Anna Politkovskaya was shot down half an hour ago in her home in Moscow by a lone assailant. Politkovskaya was hit by four shots in the elevator of her Moscow apartment building and evidently died at once. The murderer has so far not been arrested.

Anna Politkovskaya was Russia's internationally most well-known journalist and was revered for her great courage in crititically reporting on developments in Russia. Her books on Russia's war in Chechnya were spread in various translations throughout the globe, but never published in Russia. Her last book, "Putin's Russia", attacks the societal climate that the Putin era has brought to the Russian people. Working as a journalist for the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, Politkovskya stood on the forefront of regime critique. For years, Politkovskaya has had death-threats hanging over her head. Tragically, her brave posture and deeds have now resulted in her own death. Inevitably, she will stand out as a beacon of light in the history of journalism.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Kazakh Crimes or Borat's Chimes?

As Kazakhstan's president Nursultan Nazarbayev visited Washington last week, his meetings with top US officials - including president Bush - was overshadowed by the launch of British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen's upcoming movie: "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan."

The British comedian - depicting the fictional Kazakh journalist Borat - has long been a nail in the eye for Kazakhstan's efforts to create a positive international image for the country. Cohen's character instead produces an image of a backward country on the verge of civilisation run by a comic dictator. Over the past years, Kazakh authorities have gone to great lengths to counter the "Borat image" of the country, and its foreign minister has even threatened to sue Cohen in Britain for smearing Kazakhstan. Also, Borat's official website in Kazakhstan has been closed down by authorities, provoking widespread protests internationally, from among others Reporters Without Borders. The issue has grown to such proportions that Kazakhstan chose to publish a four page ad in both The New York Times and Washington Post for Nazarbayev's visit in the US. The only problem was that the ads only served to emphasise the comic image of Kazakhstan by attributing the country's successes to Nazarbayev himself.

Still, the question is if Borat's image of Kazakhstan is the one that an initiated Western audience would like to get across to the general public. It would seem that greater issues are at stake such as human rights and democracy. Several critical voices were raised before Nazarbayev's visit to the US, but they were later largely overshadowed by on the one hand the message the Bush administration wanted to send and on the other by Sascha "Borat" Cohen's media coup. Critical issues were thus largely left out.

One leading analyst, S. Frederick Starr of Johns Hopkins, though succeded in getting access to the media by a column in the Washington Post. The only problem was that Starr joined the crowd of those paying tribute to Kazakhstan's progress in recent years, thus furhter defusing a potentially embarassing situation for the White House wanting to avoid questions on the human rights and democracy situation. It is true that Starr was right in pointing to improvements on many levels, in contrast to a generally dark depiction in the West of post-soviet republics. However, this does not warrant leaving the difficult issues out. Also, Starr's article in the post stands in contrast to the negative story the Post published but little over a month ago.

Kazakhstan is, essentially, a country run as a corrupt company by one family, namely that of president Nazarbayev himself. In June, Nazarbayev's son-in-law became chief of the country's gas and oil company, whereas the presidential daughter is a key stake-holder in one of Kazakstan's largest banks. Another daughter is party leader and MP, with a husband serving as deputy foreign minister. It is in this autocratic climate that little room is left for democracy and human rights, and magnanimous ideas - such as turning the flow of Siberian rivers - are increasingly coming into vogue. This is perhaps no wonder as Nursultan Nazarbayev received 91% of votes in the rigged December 2005 presidential elections.

Human Rights Watch has repeatedly criticised Kazakhstan for severe human rights violations, lack of democracy and persecution of political opposition groups and independent media. Furthermore, authorities keep a close check on all NGOs and registration is mandatory. The freedom of organisation is thus legally circumscribed. Moreover, Kazakshtan was rated one of the most corrupt countries in the world by Transparency International in its 2004 report. It is with such a country that the US has so cordial relations.

Then, what is the White House position on these issues? Meeting Nazarbayev last Friday, president Bush praised Kazakhstan for its "commitment to institutions that will enable liberty to flourish." Also, during his visit to Astana in May, vice-president Dick Cheney declared the country a "key strategic partner of the United States” in its war on terror. Besides the war on terror, oil is the main reason for the Bush administration's cordial relations with Kazakhstan. The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline (BTC) is a key strategic asset for the West in the future access to oil from Central Asia and the Caucasus, and the BTC is dependent on the inflow of Kazakh oil for long-term profitability.

Therefore, a new Great Game between Russia and the West over the energy resources of Central Asia is played by mighty international commercial interests, in which US companies have a high stake. Earlier this year, Russia won a small victory in this new Great Game over Central Asian resources by being promised increased oil exports by Nazarbayev. This poses a threat to the BTC pipeline, as the very same oil that was intended to flow westwards now instead may go to Russia. With increasingly scarce international oil reserves in the future, now is the time of determination of who will control what resources are left. Here, Kazakhstan plays a key role in Central Asia in view of political stability combined with relative accessability to resources. Consequently, it is very important for the Bush administration to get relations between the US and Kazakhstan back on track.

Then, does Kazakhstan matter? Is it not yet another far away country of which we know nothing? For now, the paradox remains that Kazakhstan matters greatly to the US provided that it stays such a far away country, which the US public cares little about in terms of the basic values forming the basis of American society. In the long run though, the question is if it is in the best interest of the US to end up on the side of the rats of international politics in contrast to supporting the people in its strive for democracy and human rights? As the story goes, "Qui vivra verra" - Who lives shall see. In the meantime, the comedian Sascha "Borat" Cohen may paradoxically be doing Nazarbayev a favour by distracting the American public from the real issues at stake. Following Borat's chimes hides Kazakh crimes.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

EU Discord on Armenian Genocide

Turkey will not have to recognize the Armenian genocide to become an EU member, EU Commissioner for Enlargement, Olli Rehn, said on Tuesday thus contradicting French president Jacques Chirac, who only this weekend set recognition as a sine qua non for Turkish accession.

Celebrating the first anniversary of Turkish membership talks with the EU, Olli Rehn is on a visit to Ankara trying to encourage further progress in Turkish pre-accession preparations. The visit comes only days after French President's, Jacques Chirac, visit to Armenia, where he again stressed that Turkey's recognition of guilt for the Armenian genocide was a condition for EU membership. France remains hesitant to Turkish accession and also faces an influential Armenian diaspora at home. Many influential public figures in France are of Armenian descent and Chirac for example was accompanied by Varenagh Aznavourian - more commonly known as Charles Aznavour - France's most famous singer - on his visit to Yerevan.

For Turkey, admitting the Armenian genocide is a difficult process involving a reevaluation of the country's own history and its transformation from the multiethnic Ottoman empire to Turkey as a nation state. Ankara claims that 300,000 Armenians were killed as part of civil war during the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, concurrently stating that at least as many Turks were killed in the same conflict, occuring prior to Turkish statehood. Armenians, to the contrary, point to a death toll of 1.5 million people slain by the Turks during 1915-17, and argue that Turkey sooner or later must assume responsibility for its crimes against the Armenian people.

Although the Armenian issue has presented a regional and international deadlock for decades, some progress has been made as of late, even though there still is a long way to go before the issue is resolved. Recently, Turkey has proposed a joint Turkish-Armenian historical commission to investigate "atrocities against Armenians." So far, Olli Rehn has been the only EU-representative to support the proposal, but more may follow. Defusing the Armenian issue is, however, not in France's best interest due to its negative stance on Turkish EU-accession and large Armenian minority.

That some half-wit EU Commissioner should spoil the glorius aftermath of Chirac's grand visit to Armenia, supporting France's illusory self-image as a great power is also simply too much of an insult for the palais de l'Elysée to be accepted. Therefore, Commissioner Rehn is in for a scolding by France - concurrently also weakening positions of Turkish membership proponents. What Armenia stands to gain from this remains unclear.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Death of a Russian Hero?

Yesterday, deputy head of the Russian Central Bank, Andrei Kozlov, died from gunhot wounds protracted when shot down by armed assailants in central Moscow Wednesday evening. Kozlov is the highest ranking official murdered during president Putin's reign and his assassination now sparks indignation and raises doubts about Russia's fight against organised crime.

Kozlov was responsible for cleaning up the Russian banking sector and closed down several banks involved in money laundering schemes and violations of Central Bank regulations. In 2004, Kozlov closed down Sodbiznesbank and this year Neftyanoi bank in high-profile cases against organised crime in Russia. In 2006, the Central Bank has stepped up efforts in the fight against the financial activities of the Russian mafia and banking licenses have been revoked almost on a weekly basis. Therefore, Kozlov was an obvious target for retaliation from criminal elements. That Kozlov refused having bodyguards regretfully facilitated his murder.

Kozlov's death is a tragic blow against Russia's efforts to clean up criminality within the financial sector. The importance of his work cannot be overestimated, while it targeted the core interests of Russian organised crime, restoring a sound Russian economy by legal means. Such efforts by grey bureaucrats are exactly what hit hardest at the mafia as has been demonstrated by both US and Italian efforts to fight organised crime. However dull Kozlov's work might have appeared, his efforts were of great importance in restoring the legality and transparency so much needed in contemporary Russia. His eulogy might therefore read "death of a Russian hero."

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Ukrainian Lighthouses & Landmarks

Little more than a month after becoming Ukrainian Prime Minister, Viktor Yanukovich, seems poised to break his pledge to president Viktor Yushchenko of Ukraine's continued western integration. Visiting Brussels on Thursday, Yanukovich put a moratorium on Ukraine's plans to join Nato, saying that: "Because of the political situation in Ukraine, we will now have to take a pause," according to International Herald Tribune.

However, what should be clear by now is that NATO and EU accession has become a parallel process in the integration of former Eastern bloc countries. Therefore, Yanukovich "pause" effectively means a halt - or at least a severe delay - for Ukraine's western integration.

That NATO and the EU are different organisations and deal with different issues should not disguise the fact that a majority of EU-members are also members of NATO. Combined with the backlash of the Orange revolution, Yanukovich statement is likely to further put off western leaders from any real association with Ukraine. Trust in Ukraine is at a low and the only real motivation for western efforts is to keep the country out of Moscow's orbit.

Still, Yanukovich's decision on NATO is logical. Popular support for NATO-membership has never reached any substantial levels, so his excuse to "play it safe" rather than to rush into something that Ukrainians will not accept is natural. This has tacitly been accepted by NATO-officials as a statement of facts rather than intent. At the same time, questions are raised what role Russia might have had in the decision. Yanukovich has previously declared that he would like Ukraine to be a "reliable bridge" between Europe and Russia, and NATO-membership seems incompatible with such a role. Russia has adamanttly opposed Ukrainian rapprochement to the Atlantic alliance.

Relations with Russia continue to be strained. Only yesterday, a Ukrainian court ordered that authorities should take control over 22 lighthouses in the Crimea that have been leased to Russia's Black Sea Fleet, BBC reports. As late as in June, Russia and Ukraine failed to reach agreement on settling the Kerch strait border dispute, which has been going on since 2003, according to RIA Novosti.

Ukraine's relations with Russia on the one hand and the West on the other have often been simplistically depicted as balancing between East and West. A similar balance accordingly applies to Ukraine's domestic scene - between Russian and Ukrainian speakers. As anyone who has dealt with Ukraine knows, realities are much more complex.

Still, the image of a Ukraine split between East and West lingers on in the minds of international leaders and is also exploited by a variety of actors. At a time when there are great doubts in the West as for Ukraine's willingness and ability to integrate, there is little room for a more straightforward public policy.

Yanukovich might have pursued a declaratory policy on NATO and EU membership at the same time as deepening relations with Russia. As long as no real steps towards NATO-integration were to be taken, such a situation might have been acceptable both to Russia and the West. That would have kept doors open for Kiev - both towards Brussels and Moscow.

Now, Yanukovich is closing the NATO-door and thereby - in a longer perspective - also the EU-door. This might however not open the door to Russia any wider, simply because the Kremlin has never accepted its loss of influence over Ukraine. A loss that one has not accepted is not regarded a real victory once it is regained.

Public postponement of NATO-integration is thus simply not a good idea at a time like this, when Ukraine needs the best of both worlds. The paradox is that what would probably serve Kiev's interests best at this point would be to say one thing and do the other, that is pledge western integration and cooperate more closely with Russia. In that way, Ukraine might have maintained safeguarded by the West at the same time as it could have remained part of the East. Now instead, Yanukovich has set a landmark in Ukraine's modern political history by giving away an important foreign policy instrument for no obvious reason. Cui bono? What does Ukraine or Yanukovich stand to gain from self-imposed alienation when one needs all the help one can get?

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Putin's Presidential Pseudo-News

Putin will not run for a third presidential term in 2008. This is a message that he has been repeating every other month over the past years. Still, it was one of the top stories of international media today. Why is it that this is considered so important news as to reach the headlines of respected news sources throughout the globe next to every time that Putin says he will step down from power in 2008? The answer might be that this is the effect of a well-orchestrated media-coup by Putin's political spin-doctors - the political technologists.

News should always be considered critically by those who receive it. What essentially constitutes news should also be filtered by those whose profession it is - journalists and editors. As the mere term indicates, news should also present something new to its audience. How is it then that something which is news to nobody is repeatedly treated as such?

Should not any journalist in his sound mind defer from reporting what everyone already knows: That Putin does not want to remain Russia's president after 2008. On the contrary, if Putin would declare that he will run for a third presidential term and thus change the constitution, then it would be news of great significance. Until then, this is not the case.

Putin's repeated denial of furher presidential ambitions is perhaps - paradoxically - the main reason why journalists are so susceptible to this message. A climate has been created in which Putin's statement of facts becomes a crescendo of denials in anticipation of the orgiastic eruption when he finally comes out of the closet: "Yes, I will run for a third term! Yes, I will change the constitution! Yes, I cannot live without power! Yes, I am dizzy with success!" Putin's "No" becomes a resounding "Yes!!!" in the ears of media and the public.

That journalists and political analysts alike miss to comprehend Putin's "No" is partly explained by all the rumours that have reverberated throughout Moscow over the years. The question whether Putin will stay in power after 2008 has been a recurrent theme in all political discussions. Still, the answer has been the same all along, namely that the president respects the constitution and thus has no ambtion to change the fact that his tenure of power will end once his term runs out. So, rumours to the opposite must originate from somewhere else. One source might be the president himself by proxy of his "political technologists."

Why might this be the case? Putin has set before himself three tasks: to create and maintain political stability, produce economic growth, and gain control over strategic resources. Here, political stability is perceived a prerequisite for the latter two. In the political area, it is in the best interest of power that a climate of uncertainty prevails on whether Putin will continue in power. As long as this is the case, potential contenders will keep a low profile and nobody of significance will challenge Putin as long as he retains apparent popular support. Thus, Putin avoids running the risk of becoming a lame duck, and his political succession may be handled in an orderly manner by the Kremlin entourage that forms his basis of power. A measure of uncertainty for the public thus becomes an instrument of certainty for power, and thus the political tools for developing economic growth and gaining control over strategic resources is maintained.

Personally, it actually appears that Putin is weary with power and the constant obligations it involves. Associates at times describe him as disinterested with the chores of his office, allocating an increasing amount of time to activities normally not associated with the exercise of power. Also, Putin does not seem to be the sort of politician that thrives on power - to the opposite of what is often claimed in view of his extremely power-oriented policies.

Here also his KGB-background is regarded a reason why Putin would cling on to power, because KGB by essence epitomises power. To assume so may however be to miscomprehend the Chekist culture from which Putin originates. Chekist power tradition sets the system before the individual, and if Putin is true to these ideals he will also be loyal to the constitution as long as power to the system is ensured. His lack of ethics might also be construed in a Chekist context and not as evidence of self-perpetuating personalised authoritarian power.

Finally, why would Putin want to risk another period in office? His presidency has been more successful than what he himself might have imagined. Putin has restored the Russian state as an important actor both domestically and internationally. The country's economy thrives on the enormous incomes from oil, and a measure of stability has been restored to society. Why should Putin risk jeopardising an apparently favourable judgement as the great restorer of the Russian nation that the Russian people and history might pass on him, when the future is uncertain?

So, the question should perhaps be rephrased: "Why should Putin not step down from power in 2008?" So far, few substantial reasons have been presented why he should stay in power, so the assumption must naturally be that he will leave office.

Still, international media continues to report that Putin will leave power in 2008, in the anticipation that somewhere along the line he will change his mind. This does not only mean that the press runs the risk of a gigantic anticlimax once Putin actually leaves office. It above all serves the interests of Kremlin's perpetuation of authoritarian power while preventing democratic debate on the future of Russia. Wherever you turn, it seems that laughs will be on Putin in 2008, if he continues to pull off this game of ambiguities.

Comment: The full text of Putin's appearance is available at Financial Times.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Kazakhstan: Diverted Mind Diverts Rivers?

Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev is considering reviving old plans of diverting Siberian rivers to the Central Asian region, according to Interfax. Thus, Kazakhstan would get a greater inflow of fresh water for agricultural production, as was the intent with similar projects historically.

During a meeting with his Uzbek colleague Islam Karimov in Astana the other week, Nazarbayev claimed that "diverting Siberian rivers will not have a negative impact on the environment" and that "populist statements that this is dangerous were wrong."

Plans for diverting the flow of Siberian rivers have been long-lived. In the 1960s, there were even plans to do so by using atomic bombs. River diversion has however shown catastrophic consequences when employed. A Soviet decision to divert river water to cotton farming hastened the dispersion of the Aral Sea, causing social, economic and environmental disaster.

During Perestroika, Mikhail Gorbachev permanently put a stop to similar plans. However, the megalomanic idea of turning rivers have remained popular among some people. As late as in 2004, Russia appeared to be reviving its old river diversion plans, but thankfully enthusiasm seems to have petered out. Let us hope that this will also be the case with Nazarbayev's folly.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Russia Between Oligarchs & Tycoons

Who were the oligarchs? The question may seem premature, while Russia's economic élite still exerts disproportionate influence over Russian society. Moscow actually has more dollar billionaires than New York. However, a drastic change has occurred during the Putin presidency. Whereas Boris Yeltsin's second presidential term was dominated by the oligarchs, Putin has largely succeeded in breaking away from their influence. Thus, the heydays of Russian business oligarchy seem to have passed, turning oligarchs into mere tycoons.

As Vladimir Putin seized power in Russia in 1999-2000, it was much thanks to the support of a few influential Russian businessmen. Their relations to the Kremlin, and above all president Yeltsin, were so close that Russians referred to them as the "family" - signifying a merger between the Yeltsin clan and the major Russian business tycoons of the 1990s. At the time, the tycoons wielded such influence and power over Russia that the country stood on the verge of oligarchy.

In contrast to Yeltsin, Putin at an early stage signalled that things were about to change. Such signals were initially incomprehensible for most oligarchs, as they were used to easy access to the president. However, access was soon denied with Putin in power - much to the fault of the oligarchs themselves. People like Berezovsky and Gusinsky had major fallouts with Putin already in early 1999, much because they treated him as a puppet on a chain. Hopes that they could control the new and inexperienced president were soon lost.

Instead, Putin formalised relations with major business by channeling contacts through the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs and by regular and more official meetings with leading businessmen. The message that gradually evolved during Putin's first presidency was becoming increasingly clear: Hands off politics! As long as business did not meddle into politics, the oligarchs were to be left alone in generating profits. However, if business ventured into threatening state interests, there would be hell to pay. So, who were the winners and losers of this transition?

The losers
The first victim of Putin's new policy was Russia's "capo di tutti capi" - Boris Berezovsky. His influence over Russia was so great by the end of the 1990s, that he was often called the "Grey Cardinal" of the Kremlin. With six major bank owners, Berezovsky in 1996 formed the "Big Seven" who were instrumental for the reelection of Boris Yeltsin. Seeing himself as a "kingmaker" Berezovsky was rewarded by Yeltsin in becoming first deputy secretary of the National Security Council, then secretary of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Winning a parliamentary seat in 1999, Berezovsky's luck started to turn. Having first brought Putin to power and then severely aggravated him, the methods of Berezovsky's business conquests - Aeroflot, Sibneft, aluminium industry, the ORT TV-channel etc - were turned against him. Only six months after the 1999 parliamentary elections, Berezovsky was forced to go into exile, on charges of fraud, money laundering and other financial crimes. After several demands for his extradition to Russia, Berezovsky was finally given political asylum in Great Britain.

Putin's second victim was media tycoon Vladimir Gusinsky - Russia's equivalent to Rupert Murdoch. Through his holding company Media Most, Gusinsky had great influence over Russian media, not least through the TV-channel NTV and the newspaper Segodnya. NTV and Segodnya were long regarded the nucleus of new independent media in Russia, even though it is obvious that Gusinsky at times used his media power for political purposes. The most flagrant example was the massive endorsement for Yeltin's reelection campaign in 1996. However, with Putin in power, Gusinsky's overinflated ego, a flamboyant lifestyle, and a propensity for unsound investment were factors that soon put him at loggerheads with the new master of the Kremlin. This all led to his eventual downfall. After a series of police raids and legal actions against himself and his companies, Gusinsky went into exile in Israel in 2001. In his absence, Gazprom and other companies seized the remainder of his business empire, and it its unlikely that the media tycoon will return to Russia, not least because legal authorities have long sought his extradition on fraud and embezzlement charges from several European countries.

The case that has perhaps been given most attention internationally is that of Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Regarded as a banking genius, Khodorkovsky in 2003 was Russia's wealthiest man. Back in 1990, he formed the Menatep bank, which provided credit to state enterprises, and participated in dealing with privatisation vouchers, thus gaining control of several large companies. He entered into chemical and textile industries, construction, mining and oil enterprises. In 1995, Khodorkovsky gained a controlling share of the oil giant Yukos, which soon became the jewel in the crown of his business empire. In the early 1990s, Khodorkovsky was known for his murky business deals in the privatisation of Russian economy. However, at the turn of the millenium he had transformed his public image to that of a protagonist of economic transparency, publicly crusading for stockholder and investor rights. Thus, Yukos was the first major Russian company to publish reliable quarterly reports. Still, economic influence was not enough for Khodorkovsky. He wanted political power as well. In supporting parties opposing Putin and the Kremlin, Khodorkovsky soon became the target of Kremlin's anti-oligarch crackdown. He not only posed a political threat. He also planned the construction of several strategic pipelines, which - if realised - would have given him a disproportionate influence over Russian business making him independent of political pressure. In addition to a political threat, Khodorkovsky thus also posed an economic threat to major interest groups within business and politics. It should therefore have come as little of a surprise when Khodorkovsky was arrested in October 2003. After a lengthy trial, displaying the Russian legal system as a travesty of justice, Khodorkovsky was sentenced to nine years imprisonment and his financial assets were gradually dismembered by his enemies within state and private business. At the time of his arrest, he was considered the most powerful of the Russian oligarchs. Now he has been passed to the sidelines serving his sentence in a Siberian prison camp.

The winners
Among the winners of Russia's business oligarchs, Roman Abramovich must be counted as the one who got away scots free. A disciple of Boris Berezovsky, Abramovich benefitted from his patronage in making his way to the top of Russian business. As the Kremlin moved in on Berezovsky in 1999, Abramovich took over Sibneft - one of Russia's largest oil companies - from his patron along with Russia's largest television network. He then went on to expand his nascent business empire by going into aluminium production by forming Russian Aluminium - the world's second largest aluminium producer. He also went into politics, representing the impoverished Chukotka region of the Russian far east, first as Duma deputy and then as governor, making development of the region his pet project. In 2005, Abramovich sold off 72% of his shares in Sibneft to Gazprom - the Russian state energy company. He has also apparently been able to remain good relations with the Kremlin - both the Yeltsin and Putin administrations. Abramovich has, however, increasingly transferred his assets abroad, buying and investing in western business, most notably the purchase of the English soccer team Chelsea. Today, he spends most of his time in Britain, only occasionally visiting Chukotka, where he remains governor. In March this year, Abramovich was listed by Forbes Magazine as Russia's richest man and the 11th richest in the world.

Vladimir Potanin is the golden boy of the post-soviet establishment. The son of a Ministry of Foreign Trade official, Potanin attended the prestigious Foreign Ministry institute, the MGIMO, before going into business. He started out with trading in nonferrous metals with his Interros company in 1991, to be followed by two banks - Oneximbank and MFK. Being an architect of the loans for shares program, he benefitted greatly from being able to buy Russian companies much beneath market value. In 1996, Potanin was one the "Big Seven" who assured Yeltsin's reelection. As a token of appreciation, he was then appointed first deputy prime minister by Yeltsin. The August 1998 economic crisis took a heavy toll on Potanin's business empire, but he succeeded in securing crucial assets. His financial conglomerate holds major assets in Russian business such as Norilsk Nickel - the world's largest platinum and paladium producer - as well as media holdings such as Izvestiya and Komsomolskaya Pravda.

As many other successful Russian businessmen, Mikhail Fridman has kept a low profile throughout his career. Starting out with a plethora of various businesses in the late 1980s, he subsequently managed to finance the establishment of AlfaBank - now one of Russia's biggest banks. He then went into the lucrative oil business and acquired Tyumen Oil. Cooperating with British Petroleum, Tyumen Oil was transformed into TNK-BP, today the world's tenth largest private oil and gas company. Also Fridman belonged to the "Big Seven" endorsing Yeltsin in 1996. The pinnacle of his business empire is the AlfaGroup holding company.

Oleg Deripaska is one of Russia's youngest billionaires (only Abramovich is younger). As so many others, he started out with trading in metals. Together with Abramovich, he formed the Russian Aluminium (RusAl) - the world's second largest aluminium producer - in 2000, and now owns 75% of company shares. He has also major interests in power and car industries and he also owns Russia's largest insurance company. Although Deripaska has been careful to keep off the political arena, he is considered one of president Putin's major business allies. Along with his business partner - Abramovich - Deripaska is by some currently considered Russia's richest man.

Born in Baku, Vagit Alekperov was fostered into the oil business, landing his first job in the sector at 18 years' age. By his growing expertise, Alekperov in 1991 became first deputy minister of fuel and energy and then acting minister. His main political accomplishment was bringing Russia's three biggest oil companies together to form LukOil. Not surprisingly, Deripaska then became president of Lukoil, a position he has retained ever since. Today, Lukoil is one of the world's mightiest oil companies with energy reserves only equalled by Exxon. He is considered Russia's tenth richest and the 38th worldwide.

From managed democracy to managed oligarchy?
Russia during the 1990s has often been compared to the United States during the early 20th century, when Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan and other business tycoons succeeded in forming next to total monopolies in various areas of business. Thus, the Wild West of this era should be equalled to the Wild East of Russia during its first post-soviet decade. Those who seek similarities may today also compare US President Woodrow Wilson's measures to bring down Standard Oil and other monopolistic companies. Thus, today Putin would allegedly be trying to regulate the market after the necessary turmoil of the liberalisation of the 1990s. The Russian state would consequently be trying to regain its position as a macroecnomic arbitrator in order to regulate the market and set the rules of the game.

However, this argument falls flat as the Putin administration displays such a blatant disregard of basic property rights - the very nucleus of a working market economy. That the oligarchs may have done the same in the early 1990s is no excuse for a state to follow such conduct. Moreover, one may argue that one oligarchy today is replaced by another, while the spoils of state action against the oligarchs partly end up in the hands of Putin's entourage, thus effectively redistributing assets from private to private hands instead of to government control. Consequently, Putin's people enrich themselves by forcing parts of Russian business into their own hands. Of course, such behaviour is but a parallel to Putin's political agenda, gaining control over all relevant areas of society. Seeing similarities between Russia of the 1990s and the US of the 1910s becomes laughable if turning to president Wilson's credo of "making the world safe for democracy." It is quite apparent that Putin neither makes Russia safe for democracy nor makes Russia safe for market economy.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Russian Cathedral in Flames

Yesterday, the St. Petersburg Troitsky (Trinity) Cathedral was rampaged by a violent fire, destroying its main dome and severely damaging the entire church. Apparently, the blaze started in renovation scaffolding encircling the dome, and firefighters were helpless in their attempts to fight the raging fire due to lack of proper equipment. At least, the bulk of invaluable religious icons and artefacts was saved.

St. Petersburg has now been robbed of the landmark of the Troitsky Cathedral's blue dome. Overlooking one of St. Petersburg's central canals, the Troitsky Cathedral, since its constuction in 1835, was the church of the famous imperial Izmailovsky regiment. The church was renowned for its fine collection of icons, but after the revolution most of its treasures disappeared through looting, until Troitsky was finally closed in 1938.

For long the Cathedral was threatened by demolition by soviet authorities, but in the end it came to use as a warehouse. It was not until 1990 that Troitsky Cathedral was returned to the Russian Orthodox Church. Since then renovation has slowly been underway, which so tragically has now resulted in its partial destruction.

St. Petersburg authorities have already promised that Troitsky Cathedral will be reconstructed within 18 months. Official proclamations that Troitsky will be rebuilt in record time now provoke fears that such haste will put its important cultural and historical values in peril. Therefore, this is perhaps an opportunity for president Putin to show his true devotion to his native city of St. Petersburg by guaranting that Troitsky will really retain its role as a carrier of Russia's national heritage.

Ukraine: Lazarenko Gets 9 Years Jail

Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Pavel Lazarenko was sentenced to nine years' imprisonment by a Federal Court in San Fransisco on Friday, Washington Post reports. Lazarenko was found guilty of corruption, money laundering, fraud and extortion, and also received a $10 million fine in addition to the jail sentence.

Pavel Lazarenko was Prime Minister of Ukraine from 1996 to 1997 and became infamous for using his office to serve his own economic interests. The bulk of his multimillion corruption proceeds ended up in Swiss, US and offshore bank accounts. The victim of Lazarenko's crimes was the Ukrainian people, who at the time struggled for daily survival after the post-soviet economic collapse.

Lazarenko was appointed Prime Minister of Ukraine in May 1996, although his appointment was never considered by the Ukrainian parliament - the Verkhovna Rada. Controlling decisions on many lucrative business projects, Lazarenko is said to have demanded 50% of profits from businesses favoured by him. Lazarenko at the time had close political and economic ties with current Ukrainian politicians of prominence such as Yulia Timoshenko and Socialist leader Oleksandr Moroz.

In 1999, Lazarenko fled the Ukraine, awaiting a parliamentary decision to waive his parliamentary immunity. Within days of his escape, he was arrested in the United States and spent four years in custody pending trial, until his release on a $68 million bail in 2003. A year later he was found guilty on 29 out of 53 charges concerning money laundering, fraud and extortion, but the judge eventually dropped a majority of them, reducing the list to 14 offences. Despite being released on bail, Lazarenko was subject to house arrest until his final verdict on Friday. The former Ukrainian PM has already declared that he intends to appeal the verdict.

Throughout the trial, Lazarenko's defence has maintained his innocence and challenged US legal authority to alleged crimes not committed in the United States. Lazarenko has argued that his business transactions were normal to the prevailing conditions in the Ukraine in the 1990s. He thus claims that it was generally accepted for a Ukrainian politician to earn millions on the side in these years, and that such business formed a natural part of the transformation from soviet command economy to a liberal market economy.

In 2000, Ukraine sought Lazarenko's extradition. The charges brought against him by the Ukrainain Prosecutor General included, beside economic crimes, the instigation of two murders and several assassination attempts on high-ranking officials. The US, however, denied extradition on the grounds that Lazarenko was tried for crimes in the United States.

US federal prosecutors are far from satisfied with Friday's verdict. They had initially sought an 18 year prison term and confiscation of and fines to a total of $66 million. US authorities have claimed that Lazarenko transferred $118 million to US banks alone. Still, the sentence constitutes a milestone in the US battle against international crime. Lazarenko becomes the first former state leader to receive a US prison sentence after Manuel Noriega of Panama. Also, the Ukrainian people may give up a sigh of relief that at least one of their corrupt leaders now is punished for his crimes although by the United States and not by Ukraine itself.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Come Rob a Botanical Garden!

"Shut up! It's a hold-up, not a Botany lesson. Now, no false moves please. I want you to hand over all the lupins you've got." Thus said the highway-robber Dennis Moore in the absurd Monty Python sketch by the same name. Taking from the rich - giving to the poor, Moore contributes to socioeconomic redistribution by robbing lupins (la. Lupinus polyphyllus). The mere thought of robbing flowers is a masterpiece of absurdity, but what few know is that reality presents an even more absurd historical parallel.

In the 1930s, the racist Nazi ideology transformed all walks of German life - and so also biology. When historians today speak about racial biology, they usually refer to the absurd idea of purifying human races, motivated by a belief in the superiority of their own race, as for example the Aryan race in Nazi Germany in the 1930s and 1940s. What we today often fail to realise is though the full meaning of racial biology in Nazi totalitarianism. As the word indicates, totalitarianism signifies the full ideological control of a society in all respects. Therefore, even flowers and plants fell victim to Nazi ambitions of racial and genetic purification.

The idea was to genetically develop grain, vegetables and fruit, so that they would yield increasingly larger crops to feed a growing population in the ever-expanding Lebensraum of the German people. Consequently, as the Nazi army prepared to conquer the East - the Soviet Union - an expert team of racial biologists was assembled to form the "botanisches Sammelkommando der Waffen-SS" - the SS-Commando for botanical collection. Its task - to rob botanical gardens!

With botanist Nikolai Vavilov, Soviet botany became world leading in the field from the 1920s up till just before the Second World War. Vavilov organised botanical expedtions that were sent all over the world to collect samples, the results of which laid the foundation for his various botanical theories. Extensive research was done at the genetic institute in Leningrad that today carries his name. Botanical plant stations were built up throughout the Soviet Union to test and develop genetically modified plants. In 1940, the Vavilov institute held the world's largest botanical collections - seeds of plants, flowers, fruit etc. However, everything was not as bright as it seemed. Enter villain!

Trofim Lysenko was the Soviet biologist of the times who came to say what power and ideology wanted most - a theory on the inheritance of acquired qualities. In its most absurd versions, knowledge and skills were passed on to new generations, which fitted the image of building a new Soviet Man - Homo Sovieticus. Coming from poor circumstances, Lysenko was just the "barefoot scientist" that the Communists needed to clamp down on and discredit "bourgeois science." Being a biologist, the obvious first target was genetics. Consequently, Lysenko started a campaign to eradicate genetical science in the Soviet Union, leading to a policy of political extermination of scientific opponents. Thus, in 1940, Nikolai Vavilov - as the most prominent geneticist of his time - was imprisoned for "bourgeois pseudoscience" and eventually died of malnutrition in jail in 1943.

Then, what about the SS-Commando for botanical collection? During Operation Barbarossa, the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, the SS-Commando was deployed to collect as much as possible of the plant samples from plant stations of the Vavilov institute throughout the USSR. Its mission resulted in the greatest theft in history of the genetic inheritance from a single nation. Samples were collected and brought back to the Third Reich for cultivation. Led by German botanist Heinz Brücher, who had long experience from expeditions to China and Central Asia, the Commando succeeded in gathering samples from most Vavilov plant stations in the USSR, though never being able to conquer the Vavilov institute itself in besieged Leningrad.

After the war, Brücher escaped to Latin America, where he continued his research. As the Cold War began, focus turned away from Nazi crimes and Brücher could gradually regain his position as a revered scholar. In secrecy, he returned to Europe to collect the samples he had robbed from the Soviet Union and recultivated in Austria. In 1972, Brücher even became an expert on agriculture and biology for UNESCO. Rumour even has it that he visited the USSR and that the KGB then extorted him into handing over some of his research results along with plant samples he had once robbed the Soviet Union of.

As in many other cases with Nazi crimes, apologists have tried to belittle also this massive theft of genetic resources. Thus, Brücher is said to have saved the Soviet genetic heritage from certain destruction, as Lysenko's policy eventually would have been sure to eradicate the majority of genetic collections in the USSR regardless of the war. However, such speculations do not change the question of guilt. Brücher therefore goes down in history as the greatest genetical robber yet.

Perhaps as a sign of remorse, he used the last years of his life to develop the virus estalla - a virus that was intended to hit the coca plant, and thus cocaine production in Latin America. In 1991, Brücher was brutally murdered in his home in Argentina. There have been speculations that the murder was ordered by Colombian drug barons, fearing that his research results would threaten cocaine production.

Although the image of robbers carrying off entire botanical gardens, seems ludicruous at first thought, the Brücher SS-Commando was the first recorded case of "biopiracy" in history, and to this day also remains the largest.

In 1993, the United Nations adopted the Convention of Biological Diversity for the protection of the genetic heritage of all nations. To this day, however, drug and agricultural companies explore nature to find plants, which they can put to commercial use, developing new drugs or crops. Of course, the biggest unexploited genetic depositories are in developing countries, which themselves are candidly bereft of their resources. Some things never seem to change.

Perhaps, the Monty Python hero of Dennis Moore has greater relevance today than ever - "taking from the rich - giving to the poor" - the genetic heritage that history and present has taken from the poor and helpless. This is equally true for the peoples of the Soviet Union in history as it is for the peoples of developing countries today. So, hand over the lupins!
Reading recommendations:
"Potatisens genetiske revolutionär" Svenska Dagbladet, 1 December 2008.
"Sovjetisk frösamling hett krigsbyte", Svenska Dagbladet, 2 December 2008.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Lukashenko No Rocket Scientist

Yesterday, a Russian space rocket carrying 18 satellites crashed shortly after takeoff from Baikonur spacebase in Kazakhstan, as reported by international media. The accident presents a serious setback for Belarus new and proud space-programme. The rocket was carrying Belka - Belarus' first to be human-made object in space. As it now appears, this dream was never realised.

Since Kazakhstan became independent in 1991, Russia has kept on to its spacebase in Baikonur by a bilateral lease agreement, which runs until 2050. Baikonur has since been used as a launching-pad for numerous satellites, mainly for commercial purposes. One pleasant twist to activities at the spacebase is that Russia uses converted intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) for these peaceful purposes, thus literally turning swords into ploughshares. Working on a commercial basis, Baikonur has also allowed other countries to enter the space age, as should have become the case also for Belarus on Wednesday.

Thus, it was with great pride that Belarus president Alyaksandr Lukashenka yesterday stood watching how the country's first satellite took off from Baikonur space-centre in Kazakhstan. As the rocket rose to the skies, it was to become a short-lived joy for Lukashenka. But 86 seconds after take-off, the rocket started twirling to the ground to eventually explode in a burst of fire. Regretfully, no media reported Lukashenka's reaction to the crash. Let us however assume that it would not have been his one and a half minute of glory.

Of course, had Lukashenka himself been a rocket-scientist, the accident would never have happened. One cannot but pause to wonder, why this very gifted man does not master also rocket science, but perhaps not even Lukashenka can be omnipotent. Therefore, someone else has to take the blame for failure. Yesterday, Belarus opposition leader Milinkevich was arrested by police. It will be interesting to see whether he will be charged for sabotaging Belarus glorious space programme. After all, the motto of the regime is: "Together towards a strong and prosperous Belarus!" Then some insignificant little opposition leader should not be allowed to sabotage Belarus' glorious and bright future under the wise leadership of president Lukashenka. Or should he?