Friday, April 28, 2006

Poles Take Russia to Court Over Katyn

Families of the 1940 Katyn massacre victims have brought charges against Russia to the European Court of Human Rights, due to Moscow's denial to further investigate the soviet executions of some 22,000 Polish officers during WWII. Their demand is full Russian disclosure of the truth about the massacre. Katyn to this day remains a sore in Polish-Russian relations, and the subject of recurrent quarrels between Warzaw and Moscow. Now Katyn once more brings the two countries at loggerheads.

Earlier this Spring, Russian president Putin condemned the soviet invasions of Hungary in 1956 and Czeckoslovakia in 1968, during official visits to Budapest and Prague. This display of statesmanship raised Polish expectations that Putin would be the man to eventually rid Russia of this sour grape in relations to Poland, by disclosure of all facts on Katyn. Instead, the Poles were once more let down, which now has made them bring matters to a head.

Moscow assumed responsibility for the Katyn massacre already in 1990, and initiated an investigation into the matter, which was concluded at the end of 2004. As documentation was to be handed over to Polish authorities earlier this year, it turned out that only half the papers would be available to the Poles. The rest was Russian "state secrets" - effectively classifying all records on the people that carried out the massacre. As a consequence, any chances for Poles to obtain justice in the case were eradicated.

As opportunities for legal redress by the Russian judicial system then were further explored, this was rebuffed by the Russian Chief Military Prosecutor. He claimed the case had been closed as there was no evidence of genocide in the Katyn killings, why the normal statute of limitation for murder had precluded any further investigation on the responsible for the killings. This really made things heat up.

On March 6, Polish presidential spokesman, Maciej Lopinski, characterised the Russian statement as "shocking" while it failed to recognise Katyn as genocide - devaluing the massacre to simple homicide. For Poles, this was tantamount to a renewed Russian denial that those killed in Katyn were victims of Stalinist repression. The presidential spokesman concluded by stating that: "Truth on Katyn is paramount to our relations."

The affair produced a public and political outcry in Poland. As the Polish parliament - the Sejm - commemorated the 65th anniversary of Katyn on 23 March, it passed a resolution demanding "that Russia recognize the 1940 Katyn massacre and publish the names of its surviving perpetrators." It further said that "only a full disclosure of the truth and a condemnation of the war criminals can lead to improved relations between Poland and Russia."

As little was heard from Moscow in response to this, 70 relatives of Katyn victims on Monday 24 April filed a law suit against the Russian state to the European Court of Human Rights. Even though the suit is obviously motivated by current circumstances, the plaintiffs are completely right in bringing the case to Strasbourg, as they now lack other means of legal redress. When the case eventually will be tried a few years from now, it will stir up even more commotion in relations between Warzaw and Moscow. In the meantime, little can be done to improve the situation, as Katyn once more has resurfaced as an outstanding issue.

As for Russia, this is yet another display of bad political judgement. Putin had an opportunity of the decade to demonstrate himself to the world as a true statesman by getting both the soviet invasions of Hungary and Czeckoslovakia, and the Katyn massacre off the agenda for all future. By failing to do the last, the impetus of the former was lost. Putin thus spoiled his chances of gaining a foreign policy triumph that would substantially have improved his tarnished image and authoritarian trackrecord in the eyes of the European public.

In effect, the political value of Russia's condemnation of Hungary '56 and Czeckoslovakia '68 was nullified by overlooking Poland and Katyn. So little was demanded - so much could have been gained. Putin did not seize this opportunity, but let it slip through his fingers. One almost feels sorry for him for this enormous blunder. Was it really so hard to understand, that getting a clean slate in relations to Central Europe demanded 3 out of 3, and that 2 out of 3 would only add up to failure? If not being able to clear up the Katyn mess, Putin obviously should have waited with Budapest and Prague, until the time was ripe also to settle affairs with Warzaw. This was not the case, and one cannot help wondering why. For Putin, it could have become a historical moment of great symbolic significance - something people would have remembered him for. And still, Putin lost his chance. Why choose defeat when triumph is at hand?

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Belarus - Opposition Leader Jailed

After a press conference in Minsk this morning, Belarus opposition leader and former presidential candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich was arrested by Belarus police. The arrest was due to an "illegal" demonstration in Minsk on Wednesday to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl accident.

According to Interfax, "The Pervomaisky district court in Minsk has sentenced former opposition candidate for the Belarussian presidency Alexander Milinkevich to 15 days of administrative arrest for unsanctioned actions during the Chernobyl Shlyakh procession in Minsk on March 26. Milinkevich is to appeal the judgment."

Milinkevich claims that permission for the demonstration had been granted by authorities. He has also been known for trying to restrain his followers on such occasions, in order not to provoke violent action from the police. Wednesday's demonstration thus seems only a pretext for the authorities to put Milinkevich in jail.

Even though the Chernobyl anniversary all the more has turned into an opposition rally during recent years, it is remarkable that Belarus authorities chooses this opportunity to clamp down on Milinkevich. Perhaps, it testifies to the desperation of the Lukashenka government, which was gravely shocked by the extent of public protests after massive fraud in the recent presidential elections.

Chernobyl is a hotter issue in Belarus than might be expected 20 years after the accident. The people of Belarus have never really learnt the full extent of the accident and the government has put a lid on information on its consequences for the country. Basic information on radiation levels is therefore not available and no real official assessments of the health and environmental effects have become public.

This year, such worries have taken a new turn as Lukashenka wants to repopulate those areas of Belarus that in 1986 were evacuated due to high levels of nuclear radiation. The decision to repopulate worries many people, as nobody really knows how contaminated these vast areas still are. To make people move back thus seems as yet another irresponsible and cynical action by Lukashenka. As long as people are barred from knowledge and information, it is like asking "-Would you like to move to Chernobyl?".

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The Chernobyl Myth

Exactly 20 years ago to the minute, reactor 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear plant 100 kilometres north of Kiev exploded in a nuclear meltdown that ever since has remained a symbol of the dangers of nuclear energy and the hypocrisy of the soviet system. Today, the consequences of Chernobyl stand out as the apocalyptic disaster it was in terms of the thousands of victims that it hit and the grave effects on the environment it had. Morever, it has become a symbol in the hands of different actors, which for various reasons use Chernobyl as a myth in their own interest or for higher purposes.

The facts
On the evening of 25 April 1986, tests on Chernobyl reactor number 4 were initiated. While doing so, numerous safety procedures were disregarded. This eventually created a chain reaction that by 1:23 AM in the morning of 26 April, made the reactor go out of control. This caused an explosion blowing off the heavy steel and concrete lid of the reactor that led to high radiation levels in the vicinity of Chernobyl. The immediate death toll from the expolosion numbered 30 people. In the days after the nuclear meltdown, evacuation of some 135,000 people in the surrounding 30-kilometre radius were evacutated. During this time, an enormous radioactive cloud spread across Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, and large tracts of Europe. Large quantities of strontium, cesium, and plutionum were spread as radioactive downfall affecting millions of people. The explosion released 30-40 times the radioactivity of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. To deal with the accident, thousands of workers and military conscripts were brought or forced to the area around the reactor to cover it with debree, concrete or whatever was at hand, in order to limit further radioactive emission.

In November 1986, an enormous concrete construction was molded - the Sarcophagus - over the wrecked reactor number 4. Some 350,000 tonnes of concrete were used to form a construction intended to last for 30 years. Today, the sarcophagus is gradually falling apart with great cracks in its construction. In December 2000, reactor 3 was definitely closed down, whereas the two other remaining reactors had been put out of use earlier. Some 300,000 people have left the most contaminated areas in Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus. At least 200 villages have been permanently evacuated due to high levels of nuclear radiation. The level of thyroid cancer has increased dramatically among those affected by the accident, among which have been some 2,000 children.

In 1970, the town of Pripyat was founded to house the hordes of specialits and their families coming to work on the reactor from all over the Soviet Union. With a population of 47,000 with an average age of 26, this was the town most immediately affected by the accident. Today, Pripyat is an abandoned town. This is but a telling example of how entire communities of people - municipal and rural - were disbanded forever to meet with uncertain futures. What today is called "the zone" remains an enormous unpopulated area - with a few exceptions - that for long will remain uninhabited. These are but some simple and concrete facts about the Chernobyl accident and its effects.

The aftermath
The first news of the accident actually reached a western audience. High radioactive levels were registered at Swedish and Finnish nuclear plants already on 28 April. It quickly became apparent that the radioactivity emanated from somewhere within the Soviet Union. Western media immediately picked up the story and in the following days the Soviet government came under great pressure to reveal what had happened.

The first news to a soviet audience came by way of a short TASS-telegramme on 1 May, declaring that there had been an accident with the Chernobyl reactor. One may assume that the date was chosen to drown the message in the 1 May celebrations. It was not until 14 May that Gorbachev informed the public by way of a television statement:

"Good evening, comrades. All of you know that there has been an incredible misfortune --- the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear plant. It has painfully affected the Soviet people, and shocked the international community. For the first time, we confront the real force of nuclear energy, out of control."

The versions
In a recent report on the Chernobyl consequences, Greenpeace claims that the death toll due to the accident has been grossly underestimated, BBC reports. These claims have been forwarded in response to an October 2005 UN report by the World Health Organization (WHO). Whereas the WHO indicates between 4,000 and 9,000 deaths from cancer due to Chernobyl, Greenpeace estimates that the actual number of such deaths will be 93,000. It is obvious that there are different versions. Why?

The myth
There are many myths associated with Chernobyl, as seems to be the case with most major events of historical significance. One of the most widespread is, of course, due to a biblical reference, according to which Chernobyl was to herald the second coming or whatever biblical believers may conjure. Chornobyl is, apparently, wormwood in Ukrainian, why one might suppose this should be taken as an omen of the end of the world. Thus the book of revelations 8:10-11 says:

"And there fell a great star from heaven, burning as it were a lamp, and it fell upon the third part of the rivers, and upon the fountains of waters. And the name of the star is called Wormwood: and the third part of the waters became wormwood; and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter."

This is, of course, the extreme version, but it serves the purpose of pointing out how a tragedy such as Chernobyl is used by various actors. Suffice it to say, this example is perhaps sufficient to point to the plethora of causes for which Chernobyl has been used.

The most recent example is actually Mikhail Gorbachev, who in 1986 had just become the new, young and energetic leader of the Soviet Union. In an editorial in Daily Star last week, Gorbachev rationalises the demise of the Soviet Union by pointing to the accident: "Chernobyl's meltdown accelerated that of the Soviet Union." Here, one must pause to consider facts and then the causality. Already in 1979, the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party received a report pointing to dangerous deficiencies in the Chernobyl nuclear plant. This might have passed as just another of a flood of reports, were it not for the fact that it was signed by Yuri Andropov, who was to become soviet leader just a few years later. It is a well-known fact that Gorbachev was one of Andropov's protegees. So, people at the very top of soviet leadership were wholly aware of the state of Chernobyl already seven years before the accident. Any argument that soviet leaders did not know, must therefore be discarded. One option might, however, be that Chernobyl was just another of a multitude of such high-level risks that the soviet leaders had to deal with on a daily basis as a fact of political life. This is though not a necessary precondition to deem Chernobyl a major cause of the demise of soviethood. Even former imperial leaders must follow the simple rules of causality: "post hunc, ergo propter hunc."

What Chernobyl became, was the symbol of the state and failure of the soviet system. As such it was an expression that there was something very rotten in the union, and thus served as a contributing factor to soviet demise. The point is, however, that this factor or symbol might have been next to anything properly describing soviet societal crisis. Chernobyl was normality - not anomaly. It was an exponent of the blatant disregard for human life endemic in the soviet system.

What about today then? Is Chernobyl a thing of the past that people simply refer to as an example of recklessness of tantamount proportions? Yes, in some ways it is. Most of the people that use the Chernobyl metaphor probably never have set foot in Eastern Europe, let alone Ukraine or "the zone". Instead, they use it to portray something vaguely ominous to whatever purpose they see fit - for better or for worse. In this way, Chernobyl has become a mighty myth of our age, and who owns a myth may get his message through much more efficiently than millions of dollars. Chernobyl is indeed a mighty metaphor. Reading about Chernobyl one should therefore always ask, who benefits from it: cui bono?

However, this is not the core of the issue. It but serves to illustrate how Chernobyl is used as a utilitarian tool in the hands of whoever may apply it. To the contrary, Chernobyl is intrinsically an ethical and not a utilitarian issue. Why was this allowed to happen? On what values did a society capable of such disregard for human value rest?

Furthermore, Chernobyl is a matter of the value of the individual, in a similar way as the Holocaust. It is not a matter of numbers, even though they have their importance. The heart of the matter is that Chernobyl symbolises the contempt for human dignity and the value of the indvidual that forms the basis of totalitarianism. Therefore, today try to make out a single face among the victims to represent for you this great disaster to mankind. Then, one can start to fathom what Chernobyl really means.

Russia Lifts Ban on NGO to Ban Another NGO

Hardly had protests peaked last week on the law suit brought against the well-known Soldiers' Mothers NGO, before the Federal Registration Office of Russian Ministry of Justice withdrew the suit. As unclarities on the matter still exist, one should however not preclude the possibility that Russia eventually will continue its plans to close down the organisation. At the same time, the matter brought against the Soldiers' Mothers also serves to hide a similar closure of another less well-known but still important NGO - that of Khodorkovsky-founded Open Russia Foundation, reports.

Thus, Open Russia's website on April 12 stated that "Moscow City Court [the infamous Basmanny court] has today rejected an appeal by Open Russia interregional NGO against a Basmanny Court ungrounded and illegal injunction to freeze Open Russia's accounts." It is interesting to see how the same - politically directed - court that brought the case against Mikhail Khodorkovsky now continues to clamp down on his efforts for democracy and transparency in Russian society. It is also apparent that as one of Russia's most well-known NGO's is closed down, the other - the Soldiers' Mothers - is dismissed with a warning, thus drawing away attention from the "lesser evil."

This appears to be the real value of president Putin's ambitions to create civil society in Russia. As long as NGO's do not criticise the state or vital interests, they may be accepted. But if they do what NGO's should do - criticise evils of society to create change - they will be closed down.

Finally, one wonders if these manouvres are just tests by Russian authorities to see how far they can go in repressing civil society without too great domestic and international protests. Perhaps, in the long run, the international community will grow tired of and accustomed to Russian repression of civil society, and stop voicing its concerns. Using a Japanese proverb, the principle of Putin's policy seems to be that: "The nail that sticks out must be hit down."

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Russia: Deepening Aids Epidemic

On Friday, BBC reported on Russia's deepening Aids/HIV epidemic. According to the head of the country's anti-Aids programme, "a new wave of sexually-transmitted infections was adding to earlier drug-abuse cases." Only last year, over 30,000 new infections were registered in Russia. This only adds to the tendence of Aids as an increasingly alarming problem to society.

What is worse, is that neither the government nor other parts of society seem to take the problem seriously. Already today, Russian hospitals and healthcare stand helpless in the treatment of HIV/Aids-victims. Resources are simply too scarce, and the development threatens to consume an increasing portion of the national health budget in the future if drastic measures to halt the epidemic are not taken. Already today, there are some 350,000 registered HIV-positive in the country. These figures are, however, grossly underestimated, and some experts claim that there may be over a million HIV-infected in Russia alone.

Despite that these alarming facts for long have been well-known to Russian leaders and doctors, little has been done to halt what must now properly be labelled an epidemic. Instead, politicians seem to turn a blind eye to the problem, blaming the west for exaggerating the problem and by so doing corrupting Russian youth. Earlier this week, the Moscow city duma called on president Putin to ban foreign anti-Aids campaigners from the country.

According to the BBC, the Orthodox Church also claimed that activities of western organisation aimed at "promoting the commercial interests of Western contraceptive manufacturers." Patriarch Alexei even said that they were "sexually and morally corrupting Russian children with beliefs and stereotypes alien to Russian culture and tradition."

What is there else to say than that Russia seems intent not to see to the interests of its own citizens and do something to save the Russian youth before it is too late. In the meantime, an increasing number of Russians get infected with this plague of our times.

Russia Uses Energy to Bully its Neighbours

An editorial in Sunday's Washington Post - "Imperialist Gas" - claims that 'Russia doesn't want to "politicize" energy sales. It just wants to use them to bully its neighbors.' Expectations that Russia would restrain itself in its imperial ambitions during the country's 2006 G8 presidency thus seem to have been falsified. Instead, Moscow continues its increasingly aggressive energy policy towards not only its "near abroad" but also European and global markets.

According to the editorial, Alexei Miller, Gazprom chairman, last week threatened EU governments that 'his company will sell its products in other markets unless they give way to its "international ambitions".' The background was reactions against Gazprom plans to buy Britain's largest gas company. Thus, Miller denounced 'supposed Western attempts to "politicize questions of gas supply"' despite the fact that it is now becoming increasingly apparent that Russia is using the "energy weapon" to 'restore Moscow's dominion over neighbours' such as, on the one hand, Russia-defiant Ukraine and Georgia, and on the other hand, Russia-friendly Armenia and Belarus, and in the process affecting energy supplies to EU-countries.

That Putin is serious in projecting Russia's new role as an "energy superpower" also on the European and global markets should now be considered a political fact, not least in view of the consequences of cuts in gas supplies to EU-members in connection to the New Year's Russian-Ukrainian gas crisis. This makes it necessary also to focus on the importance of Russian acquisitions of western energy companies, in addition to focussing on the supply-issue. Would Moscow's influence on the EU energy market involve both supplies and ownership, Europe may become reliant on Russian energy policies across the board, including control of both energy supplies and infrastructure.

This would pose no great problem to Europe, were it not for Moscow's declared amitions to use energy as a political instrument rather than in its more normal role as a profit generator. Nobody would begrudge Russia's gaining profits from a normal energy market, but when it comes to politics, the matter must be considered from a different perspective. Economics is economics - politics is politics. If the Kremlin wants to meddle the two, the West should show greater caution - as indeed with any country displaying similar ambitions.

Since the 1980's, Western governments have put great emphasis on the important principles of free market economy and its separation from interests of state. Today, this has become a key element in international trade and a basis for organisations and arrangements such as the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the Group of Eight (G8) industrialised nations. President Putin's action is therefore testimony to the extent of disregard that Moscow is prepared to show these principles in the safe assertion that Western governments will remain acquiescent to such measures in view of their increasing dependence on Russian energy. That Putin's policy, under normal circumstances, would complicate the Russian G8 presidency and mar Kremlin ambitions to gain membership of the WTO, seems like something Russian leaders turn a blind eye to.

Putin's blatant disregard of the principles of market economy and free trade is also a danger to Russia itself to the same extent as it thretens the stability of the international energy market. There may come a day when gas prices fall or resources falter, and then Putin's policies will be remembered by the West, and Russia possibly be served with the same treatment as the country is treating its neighbours with now. In today's world, a strategy of tit-for-tat is rendered obsolete, and only applied to those that provoke such reactions by their own behaviour. This could potentially be the fate of a Russia that once more may become consumed by crisis due to its own or international economic imbalances. The question is if anyone will care about the Russians then, possibly making them once more the victims of their own state's policies.

What is worst with Russia's current policy is that it testifies to a lingering misperception of the nature of power in our era. Putin is brought up in a tradition where power is an absolute projection of force - in whatever form. The truth of the matter is, however, that modern societies grow and thrive on the basis of relative power - by cooperating and sharing in order to gain the spoils of the greater overall profit this produces. As long as Russia's leaders do neither understand nor implement this logic, there will be room for both misperception and conflicts between Moscow and the West as each party will act according to different paradigms. If Russian behaviour does not change, the country in the end is likely to come out at the wrong end of the stick in its international relations.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Belarus: Exile Poll Exposes Election Hoax

An independent survey by the Vilnius-based institute NISEPI, exposes that Lukashenka's "victory" in the 19 March Belarus presidential elections may have been exaggerated by some 20%, RFE/RL reports on Friday.

According to the figures given by the Belarus Central Election Commission on March 20, some 83% of votes had been in favour of the incumbent president Lukashenka. Indeed, hardly had polling stations closed on Sunday 19 March before the Commission chairman proclaimed Lukashenka's victory. Few think that the real figures ever will be exposed and irregularities have probably already made all results indecipherable.

Therefore, as Vilnius-based Independent Institute of Socioeconomic and Political Studies (NISEPI) earlier this week publicized a survey among nearly 1,500 adult Belarusians from March 27 to April 6, an alternative perspective was given. According to these figures, Lukashenka would have received some 63.6% of votes among those involved in the survey. Thus, it seems that Lukashenka's victory of 83% was inflated by almost 20% of the electorate.

Also, the poll indicates that the opposition presidential candidate, Alyaksandr Milinkevich, may have been deprived of nearly a million votes, while he received nearly 21% of votes in the poll as compared to the 6% of the official results. As much as this would give the opposition much stronger public support than expected, NISEPI Director Aleh Manayeu is fast to point out that this should not be equated with a strong opposition movement. Votes are votes and the public display of it by political action is another thing.

NISEPI, which conducted the survey, was closed down by the Supreme Court of Belarus in April 2005, having made a survey that disqualified the results of the October 2004 constitutional referendum, suggesting that Lukashenka actually lost it. Since then, the institute has relocated to Lithuanian capital Vilnius, which today forms a centre of the emigré Belarus research community.

Aeroflot Renationalises Russian Airlines?

Russian Ministry of Transport on Friday aired its ambition to gather all state-owned stocks in Russia's various national and regional airline companies under the umbrella of Aeroflot, Reuters reports. Such measure would effectively mean renationalising the bulk of Russia's airlines, as the state still is the majority shareholder in Aeroflot.

The statement made the Aeroflot share soar upwards by 8% on the Moscow stock exchange during Friday's trade alone. If implementing these plans, Aeroflot would gain a majority control over the Russian airline market, which today is split up in a variety of national and regional airlines. Aeroflot would thus get next to a monopoly position on the Russian airline market, making all other companies in the trade dependent on its infrastructure and vulnerable to buyouts, boycots, illoyal competition, or whatever the reborn Aeroflot hegemon might come up with. The Russian state today owns stocks in 61 various airlines and is majority shareholder in an additional 57 regional airlines. By transferring all these shares to Aeroflot, state ownership of the company would also be strengthened to a staggering 75% of shares.

The plans of the Ministry of transport are in line with president Putin's overall strategy to control or renationalise vital resources, commodities and assets, reinstating the state as a key-player in the Russian economy. The control of infrastructure such as airlines, pipelines, or natural monopolies, has been a long-held ambition of Putin for the enrichment and power of the state and its controllers - Russia's new Putinist élite.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Ukraine After the Parliamentary Elections

Today, Hryhoriy Nemyria, director of the Centre for European and International Studies and newly elected member of the Ukrainian parliament (BYuT), lectured on developments after the country's recent parliamentary elections at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs. Nemyria, who is more of a researcher than a politician, is participating in a security policy research project organised by the Swedish Defence Research Agency and financed by the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs.

In his lecture, Nemyria - among other things - pointed to three factors that I found of particular interest:
  • the 3% threshold to parliament;
  • that only 5 parties, out of a total of 45 running, actually entered parliament;
  • Only 67% of the electorate voted as compared to 76% in the last elections.

I have previously pointed to the fact that more than 20% of votes in the election will not result in any parliamentary representation due to the 3% threshold and the many parties running for parliament. I had, however, until now not taken the voter turnout into account. All in all, this would mean that less than half the Ukrainian electorate will be represented in parliament. This is perhaps not unique to Eastern Europe, but taking the recent orange revolution and its subsequent urge for reform into account, this may be more serious than might be expected.

Asking Dr. Nemyria to what extent this might pose a problem of democratic legitimacy to the parliament and a new government, he admitted that this was problematic. In the long run, it may either result in political lethargy or in pushing people to the extremes in terms of political choice. Expectations for a "third force" or some new political movement may easily rise. However, Nemyria continued, the matter should also be perceived from a vertical perspective, viz. in terms of what politicians may deliver to the people. This is the more serious problem, as links between politicians and people are weak - both top-down and bottom-up. Furthermore, one may ask whether people experience that what they get is a result of government policy or a consequence of connections with or bribes to officials or politicians on various levels of society. So far, most people have got little out of government policy.

The conclusion one might draw from Nemyria's reasoning might thus be that, as long as people do not see the causal link between what the government does and what they actually get, the problem of legitimacy is much greater on the vertical level than concerning how large a percentage of the electorate is represented in parliament. The combination of the two factors should, in my view, form a political nightmare if Ukraine - under these terms - is to continue its path towards reforms and change. Keeping to status quo needs little legitimacy. Changing a country needs a strong mandate. It would seem that whatever government Ukraine will get in the next years, it will have a weak mandate and no real way of showing the casual link between its policy implementation and the actual results - in terms of better conditions for the people. As long as this is the case, progress may be claimed by next to everyone, and failure will be blamed on the government. One can hardly envy the cabinet that will run Ukraine in the coming years.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Russia: NGO Crackdown on Soldiers' Mothers

On Monday, Russia's new and immensely infamous NGO-legislation, curtailing civic activities, entered into force. On Wednesday, one of Russia's most prominent NGO's, Union of the Committees of Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia, received a court order to dissolve the organisation, Swedish Radio reports. This immediate measure by Russian authorities signals that Putin is intent on continuing his policy to eradicate any dissenting political forces and curtailing the freedom of organisation in Russia.

The court order was issued by the Basmanny Court on request of the Federal Registration Office of the Russian Ministry of Justice, Soldiers' Mothers head, Valentina Melnikova, explained. The Basmanny Court has earned a reputation for being used as a legal proxy by the Kremlin to make the life of rival political forces hard. The court has gone to such lengths at servicing its political masters that Russians today use the expression "Basmanny justice" instead of miscarriage of justice. Its first great appearance on the legalo-political stage was the elimination of Mikhail Khodorkovsky as a potential political rival to Putin in the so called Yukos scandal a few years back.

The Soldiers' Mothers have earned domestic and international fame for its efforts to fight for the interests of Russian soldiers, who often live under unbearable conditions during military service. The organisation gained its great reputation as an outspoken and serious critic of human rights' abuses in the Russian army during the first war in Chechnya from 1994. They were thus one of the main levers that made the Russian public turn against the war. Since then, it has continued to clamp down on penalism and bad conditions for servicemen in the Russian army. Its Secretary General, the well-known human rigths' fighter Valentina Melnikova, will now contend the decision by an appeal to the Basmanny court.

That the Kremlin has chosen the Soldiers' Mothers as its first victim in its crackown on Russian NGO's, may signal the start of a campaign to crush any real political freedom and civil liberties in Russia. During recent years, the Russian government has created state-directed quasi-NGO's and political fora to channel public interest. It is obvious that these structures are regarded as the main fora for political dialogue by the Kremlin. Other forms of political and civic activities will be allowed to continue activities only as long as they do not threaten the interests of the Kremlin, and then under strict control and supervision.

The action also testifies to the mania of Russia's political élite to lose control and be overthrown by the people as happened in Ukraine's orange revolution. The paradox is that the more repressive and authoritarian Putin gets, the more likely it is that public dissent will blow up in his own face. By concentrating power to his own hands, there will in the end be nobody else to blame for political crises or failures, and then the people will inevitably turn against Putin. This is really to shoot oneself in the foot, but few in the Kremlin seem to realise this.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Russian Triumph in the New Great Game

Russia has gained a triumph in what has been referred to as the New Great Game in the great power struggle over energy resources in the Caucasus and Central Asia, Eurasianet reports. During his recent visit in Moscow, Kazakhstan's president Nazarbayev promised to increase oil exports via Russia, thus threatening future supplies to the western-sponsored BTC-pipeline.

In June 2005, the new oil pipeline Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan was officially opened. At the mind-boggling cost of $3.6 billion, the new pipeline was seen as the "deal of the century", providing a vital link between the Caspian Sea oil fields and the rest of the world by way of Georgia, Azerbaijan and Turkey. This was to become the "Silk Road of the 21st Century", according to Turkey's president Sezer. Above all, the BTC-pipeline allowed western oil companies to circumvent dependence on Russian pipelines to transport oil from the Caspian Sea basin. This was a great blow to Russian economic interests in the region and presented a geopolitical threat to Moscow's position in Southern Caucasus and Central Asia.

Why is this new deal with Kazakhstan president Nazarbayev such a triump for Moscow? By increasing oil exports to Russia, Kazakhstan diverts oil production that could potentially be transported through the BTC-pipeline.

The BTC-consortium has for long been trying to involve Kazakhstan in channeling the country's oil production by the BTC-pipeline. This has been BTC's calculation from the outset, and therefore Nazarbayev's decision now threatens the long-term economic viability of the BTC. Over the last years, critics have been questioning whether the BTC-project, based on inflated oil-prices, would be financially sustainable in the long run. It now remains to see, how this will effect the BTC.

From a wider perspective, Russia has gained an important success in the geopolitical and economic struggle over Central Asia. For western powers and economic interests in the region, the future prospects of influence and business has now turned somewhat more bleak than a year back, when the BTC held the promises to open up Central Asia's reources to the world. Whether Moscow will use its regained influence to make money or as a political lever on an oil-dependent West, will have great consequences for the future of Eurasia and, potentially, the world economy.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Russia: Defence Spending Up 50%

On April 5, Russian Defence Minister Sergey Ivanov declared that defence spending will increase by 50% in 2006, Interfax-AVN reports. The increase is dedicated to massive arms and hardware procurements, raising the qualitative standard of Russian forces.

The focus is to provide troops with full sets of equipment for multi-purpose action, Ivanov reportedly said to a Moscow military conference on Wednesday. Accordingly, these newly equipped units would be able to solve tasks set before them in a manner without precedence since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Consequently, Russia's armed forces seem to be in for a revival worthy of its material and spiritual heritage. One cannot but pause to wonder what equipment will be developed to face those challenges that lie ahead in defence of Mother Russia. Finally, which are the challenges - traditional or new?

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Russia Bans Georgian & Moldovan Wines

Russia has imposed a blockade on imports of wines from former soviet republics of Georgia and Moldova, New York Times reports in its Thursday issue. Russian authorities claim that the ban is due to high concentrations of heavy metals and pesticides in the wines, but there is little doubt that this blockade is politically motivated.

The story, brought to my attention by Caucasus analyst Svante Cornell, puts the finger on a number of delicate issues pertaining to Russia's policy towards its "near abroad".

Russia has had great difficulties to come to terms with its waning influence in its "soft underbelly". Setbacks have been many in the last few years, not least by the coloured revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine.

Georgia's government under Mikheil Saakashvili has pursued a much more independent policy than was the case in the 1990's, to Moscow's great annoyance. Demands for a withdrawal of Russian troops from Georgian territory, and some Georgian success in bringing Russia-supported secessionist regions back in line threaten to curve Russian influence in a region it traditionally sees as its "sphere of vital interests".

In Moldova, president Vladimir Voronin has also been negative to Russian influence and the stalemate Moscow has put on the matter of the secessionist Transnistria region. Due not least to Ukrainian and EU efforts over the past year, the smuggling that sustains Transnistria, has been put in relative cheque. The combination of a more critical Moldovan stance towards Russia with reduced possibilities of Transnistria sustaining itself by trafficking, has brought about today's hostile relationship between Moscow and Chisinau.

Consequently, nobody really believes in Moscow's explanation of unhealthy contents in Georgian and Moldovan wines as the real reason for Russia's wine ban. Instead, the ban obviously intends to put pressure on the two states' economies, which both rely heavily on wine production for export revenues.

Also, Russian measures put Moscow's will to integrate in the world economy as well as the country's dedication to free trade in question. This should be embarrasing to the "masters of the Kremlin" at a time when Russia holds the presidency of the G 8 - the prestigious group of industrialised nations to which Russia gained access just a few years back. Furthermore, if worse comes to worst, Russia's wine ban might impair the country's long-standing ambition to join the World Trade Organization.

Ukraine: Orange Government Coalition

Unity has been reached on an orange coalition government in Ukraine between president Viktor Yushchenko's Our Ukraine, the Timoshenko Bloc, and the Socialist Party, a spokesman of Our Ukraine stated to Reuters on Thursday.

As of now, the composition of the government is not ready, but it is likely to assume that Yulia Timoshenko and Socialist leader Oleksandr Moroz will occupy leading posts in the new government.

Thereby, the winner of the parliamentary elections, Party of Regions' Viktor Yanukovich is sidestepped once more. Yanukovich, whose party received some 32% of votes making it the biggest in parliament, was ousted as president after widespread election fraud in 2004. Since then, his popularity has, however, grown due to recurrent failures of the various governments evolving from the orange revolution.

The formation of an orange government coalition will mean a continued European orientation for Ukraine, although such a solution also presents some problems for Ukrainian politics. (See my previous post for analysis in depth). Talks will now be held between the three parties to agree on an action plan for coalition government, BBC reports.

It remains to be seen whether Yulia Timoshenko's chief demand, to become prime minister of the new cabinet, will be met. Last September, Timoshenko was sacked as prime minister by president Yushchenko due to a mutual fallout. Therefore, a return as head of government would be both a political and a personal triumph for Timoshenko. It might also further undermine Yushchenko's position, in addition to his party's setback in the recent parliamentary elections.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Belarus: April's Fool

Did you hear the rumour yesterday? It was claimed that Lukashenka's wife Galina Rodionovna, had sought political asylum at an EU embassy in the capital of a neighbouring country to Belarus. Rumours resulted in intense diplomatic activity to find out more about this delicate issue. Someone suddenly realised it was April 1 - the traditional day for deceptive jokes.

The art of playing April's fool is to make up a story that is credible enough as to be believed but too fantastic to be true, and then fool people into taking it for serious. This time, the joke was really as good as it gets.

Lukashenka's wife, Galina Rodionovna, has for long been out of public view in Belarus. She still lives in the rural town of Shklov, where Lukashenka once led a collective farm. Officially, she is regularly commuting to her husband in Minsk, but among others the BBC claims that the couple is separated. The picture above is, actually, the only one to be found of her on the Internet (Google & Yandex).

That the couple's awkward relationship is subject to public ridicule is also testified by another recent event. On March 8, three oppositionists were arrested in Minsk for distributing leaflets asking people to present Lukashenka's wife with an International Women's Day gift by not voting for her husband during the presidential election to enable him to return home to her, the International League for Human Rights reports.

All this would, in itself, perhaps not have been enough to fool anyone, if it were not for the fact that Lukashenko has not been seen in public for a few weeks. Speculations that he is ill have flourished. Too much makeup at his public appearances when he was last seen and irregular and contradictory decisions during his absence are but a few indications of that something more than usual is rotten in the state of Belarus, according to some observers. It is even claimed that Lukasehenka's son Viktor has stepped in for his father lately.

Consequently, western diplomats, following events in Belarus, were probably not hard to fool when rumours started to spread that Galina Rodionovna had applied for political asylum. One cannot help wondering, until the scam was uncovered, how many reports were drafted proclaiming Lukashenka's imminent fall, when even his family could not put up with him anymore.

Speaking about dictators, with 82.6% of votes in the recent presidential elections a classic joke on dictatorship elections is now applicable to Lukashenka. Accordingly, Lukashenka's associates inform him on the victorious election results by asking:
- Mr. President, you got 82,6% of the votes. What more can you wish for?
- The names and addresses of those who didn't vote for me.
Regretfully for the people of Belarus, this is not so far from reality as one would wish. In Minsk, nobody has probably dared making Lukashenka an April's fool.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

American New Rosneft CFO

Russian state oil company Rosneft is recruiting American Peter O'Brien as Chief Financial Officer, RIA Novosti reports. He is currently working with Eastern Europe for the American investment bank Morgan-Stanley, and has had close business contacts with Rosneft over the last years.

Rosneft got a bad reputation due to its role in the Yukos affairs a few years back and has since tried to improve its image. Among measures for greater transparency and market orientation, the company has announced plans to float share on both domestic and international markets. According to Russian Minister of Economic Development and Trade German Gref, this might happen no later than October. As of late, rumours of a merger with Siberian energy company Surgutneftegas have been fuelled also by Energy Minister Minister Viktor Khristenko. It remains to be seen how long O'Brien will hold out in his new position and whether mergers or more stocks to international investors will help Rosneft's reputation.