Sunday, November 08, 2009

Time to rid the blinders about NordStream

The Swedish government's decision to accept the disputed gas pipeline NordStream has caused debate. Is the Russian-German gas pipeline a security policy threat to vital Swedish interests? Or is it a project that safeguards stability and development in Russia? In a recent interview by Andreas Henriksson from political web journal, I try to put some of these questions into perspective.

Vilhelm Konnander participated as one of the lecturers at the Fokus magazine conference "When technology changes politics" a few weeks ago, where he spoke at the Global outlook seminar. He is also one of the authors of the international blog gateway Global Voices, and has both professionally and privately followed developments in Russia for a long period of time. asked him to give his views on the gas pipeline, and also account for the role that Russian gas and oil giant Gazprom plays in current Russia.

Q: How do you think that the Russian political leadership looks at the gas pipeline? Is it an important project for them from a strategic and geopolitical perspective, or is it a more downright economic project that carries its own merits and might have fallen had Swedish resistance been to great?

A: It is time to rid ourselves of blinders concerning the Nordstream issue. For Russia, NordStream and energy exports is a classical question of domestic foreign policy. It is about fattening a system that rests on a far-reaching political and economic symbiosis between competing political and economic élites, which seek to monopolize political and economic power. And the loyalty of élites is dependent on the incomes from oil, gas, and other raw materials, and how these profits are divided.

Extenstive regulations, taxation, and charges on the domestic market, has put the Russian energy industry in a position where the largest profits are made on foreign markets. For example, the internal Russian price on gas has, at times, been as low as a mere 3 percent of the export price. In the course of time, Gazprom's export incomes have varied between 50 and 70 percent of the business conglomerate's total revenues, despite the fact that substantially lower gas volumes have been delivered to Europe than to the domestic market. The Russian élites have thus enveloped itself into a so great dependency to divide the spoils of energy export revenues that it has become an integrated part of the country's informal system of government.

Q: And what would be the consequences of that?

Today, Russia's political stability is dependent on stable energy export revenues. In the event that this money flow is stopped - especially in times of economic crisis - it may subvert or threaten the political stability of the country.

The link between falling energy prices and Russian systemic collapse is obvious, regardless of whether one speaks of the fall of the Soviet Union or the financial crisis in the wake of which Putin came to power. Therefore, the effects of the international financial crisis is now all becoming resemblant of a fight for life or death to get hold of a piece of an ever diminishing cake. The consequences of Russian domestic political instability are still unclear, but increasing Russian desperation might cause greater uncertainties in the foreign and security policy area - in contrast to the clarity and predictability of recent years.

Q: What then might we expect from or great Eastern neighbour in the future?

A: In this perspectve, NordStream is, of course, important, but a basic mistake from the Swedish horizon is to constantly depart from very obscure geopolitical perspecitve, at the same time as the fundamental Russian domestic motives behind the project either are put in the background or regarded as purely economic.

In the interplay between politics and business, NordStream and similar projects are strategically vital for Russia, and here the domestic driving forces marginalise any potential foreign policy considerations - especially concerning a country like Sweden, which is hardly visible on the Russian political map. Continued Swedish resistance to NordStream would therefore be regarded as a ridiculous source of irritation from a Lilliputian country in the European periphery.

Q: In Sweden, NordStream has been thoroughly discussed, mostly from a critical perspective, by representatives of both the political blocs. Do you think that the NordStream management - and consequently the heavy political actors behind i in Russia and Germany - have paid any attention to Swedish critique, or would they have built the pipeline no matter what the Swedish government would have thought and said?

A: That Russia and Germany would have shown any greater consideration of Swedish critique is not very probable. Some considerations may well be made as for the stretch and makeup of the gas pipeline, and Sweden may surely also grumble and protract the issue if desired, but eventually both Moscow and Berlin counts on the Swedish government coming around. It is one thing if Sweden throws gravel into the Russian machinery, but to oppose both Russia and - above all - Germany will prove difficult in the long run.

Q: How important is NordStream, in your opinion, to Germany?

A: All since Willy Brandt's Ostpolitik was launched in the 1970s, Berlin and Moscow have enveloped into a mutual dependency according to the formula "change by rapproachment," where gas deliveries to Germany has become the basic ingredient in the political concepts of both continental powers.
Even if Angela Merkel's (the German Chancellor) enthusiasm towards the project is more controlled than her predecessor's , Gerhard Schröder, who by the way is on Gazprom's payroll, the realization of the gas pipeline is central to future German-Russian cooperation. That Germany, in current times of economic crisis, would terminate a project, which ensures long-term, secure, and cheap gas deliveries, would be very surprising - both from a political and a financial perspective.

Q: How politically directed is the Russian gas and oil giant Gazprom?

A: The question should perhaps rather be how economically directed the Kremlin is by Gazprom. That both Russia's president, Dmitry Medvedev, and on of the country's previous Prime Ministers, Victor Chernomyrdin, have been chairmen of Gazprom should be a clear indicator. Despite privatization attempts during the 1990s, Gazprom has remained a state gas monopoly with great influence on political power. With increasing political control over so called strategic resources, Gazprom has served as a tool for quasi nationalizations of remaining private gas and oil companies, why its position has been all the more strengthened. The question about Gazprom and the Kremlin is like tha classical question about the hen and the egg: Which one came first?

Q: To what extent would you say that Russia is using its great oil and gas resources as an instrument of foreign policy power?

A: Rhetorics about Russa as an energy superpower have, in recent years, almost become a mantra for Russian leaders, as a way of strengthening national self-images and confidence. However, judging from results, it is hard to show that Moscow is using energy as a direct foreign policy tool. Seen frlom an economic and domestic political viewpoint, the energy issue is, however, currently part and parcel of almost all Russia's conflicts with its neighbours in recent years - Estonia, Ukraine, Lithuania, and Georgia.

What is interesting is, however, to look at how Moscow indirectly uses energy as a means of strategic manipulation. With the help of energy, foreign policy advantages and concessions are simply achieved in other areas than exactly the one that each conflict focuses on. Energy is used indirectly rather than directly as a foreign policy tool, where domestic politico-economic considerations often determine foreign policy action.

Q: What do you think about the Swedish debate about NordStream? Is it substantially mostly correct or is it mared by antiquated Swedish fears of the Russians?

A: When Nordstream is addressed in Swedish debate, it is not hard to make up an image of a security policys establishment, where old realist political views are mutually confirmed and reinforced - no matter whether it is about security policy reservations or pretexts for the very same kind of perspectives. The interesting thing is not what is actually said, but what is not said.
Fundamentally, Sweden is faced by a catch 22 concerning the gas pipeline. Should one seek to undermine Russia's political stability by torpedoing the NordStream project, with increased Russian security policy unpredictability as a consequence, or should one indirectly contribute to support the continuation of a corrupt and authoritarian regime, of which one at least knows what to expect? That is a question that gets little or no attention.

Q: As you see it, is there something we in Sweden have misconstrued in the security policy and geopolitical judgement of NordStream?

A: We, basically, pose the wrong questions about NordStream, and consequently get all the wrong answers. As long as the Swedish political and security policy establishment is dedicated to self-binding about the question of our relations to Russia - regardless of whether it concerns NordStream or general approaches - we risk ending up with the wrong conclusions. As 20 years have passed since the fall of the Berlin wall, it is possible that we as little now as then might predict fundamental changes in Russia. Still, the invasion threat from the East returns in various forms. From military threat to criminality, from criminality to refugee invasion, from refugee invastion to epidemics, from epidemics to energy. The list is long, but what has become reality?

Translation published by permission of Andreas Henriksson,

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Building Babylon

The simplest things in life pass with so little notice that they have to jump up and bite you in order to be understood. Evidently, so is also the case with social media and the political particularities and mechanisms of about any country. As once the tower of Babel was wrought by confusion of language, social media risk becoming a mere edifice of a failed attempt to combine politics and technology.

Addressing a Fokus magazine conference on "How technology changes politics" last week, I was struck by a feeling that I spoke a different language than most other participants. This was peculiar to me, as I am well-versed in Swedish political and media culture, and knew many of the other participants. At first, I could not get a grip on why such was the case, before realizing that the combination of politics and social media was at the core of the problem. I simply did not relate to the use of social media in politics in the same way as most other participants did.

Why was it so? The simplest explanation is that dealing with social media on an international level - mainly with Central and Eastern Europe - the way political topics and issues are addressed there has little similarity with how things are dealt with in a Swedish context. The social media culture is totally different, as well as the mechanics of political and social media interaction. Despite knowing the language and context of Swedish politics, I had no way of understanding the mechanisms of how social media are used in a Swedish context. Giving a global outlook, I got the impression that portraying realities of politics-social media interaction internationally - in striking accordance with the political landscape in countries concerned - was received almost as cynical by parts of the audience. But hey, this is normal. If the security services in e.g. Uzbekistan boil political dissidents alive, then it is destined to leave an imprint on politics and the social media landscape in that country. This is not acting the devil's advocate. It is addressing the issues at hand without either malice or idealism.

A paradox is perhaps that I felt I had a lot more in common in terms of social media with the conference keynote speaker, Alan Rosenblatt of the Center for American Progress, than I had with my fellow countrymen, of whom I had known several for decades. A relevant question is, of course, if lessons learnt from a US context are applicable to that of another country or culture. This is usually not a problem, but the mere dynamics of social media and consequent development causes difficulties when regarding both politics and social media, because they evolve interactively and must therefore by nature be different to each particular context. Or else they would be to no use. Besides the cultural caveat, disabling copycat application of social media in political campaigning, there is also the issue of repetition. Techniques are largely applicable only to limited scopes and spans of political action, as social media as a means of communication is dynamic and sui generis.

For me, web activism and the use of social media is still a matter of simple political logics. You have a political content and then you use social media as an instrument for interaction and exchange of ideas with an open mind and willingness to argue your case. What struck me as odd was however that despite knowing the particular "language" or context, the social media culture was so different from the one I am used to relating to, that I had difficulties understanding how Swedish political activists could have any use of them in campaigning or communication. Still, that is hardly for me to say, as my main point is a lack of understanding, of course, provided I do not do that too well, which I lay no claim to.

One great exception to the lack of lingua franca was the enfant terrible of the show, Pirate Party leader Rickard Falkvinge. Using social media in political communication seemed as natural to him as it is to me. So, are Swedish politicians losing out on something important here? Possibly, but not necessarily. It all depends on what kind of political and party culture that exists. If you have an open mind and are ready for equally open-ended communication, then social media might become an invaluable instrument of mutual communication between people and candidates during political campaigning. If so is not the case, it may well be both money down the drain, and serve as a political liability, as not knowing how to use social media may well expose greater flaws of your policy.

All in all, it was a very worthwhile experience to attend the Fokus seminar, as it raised my awareness to matters that should really be self-evident, but I have previously not been wholly aware of. I also got an oppportunity for self-reflection and a portion of humility, which will be very useful when reflected against a more international social media context. Last but not least, it was great meeting so many bright and initiated people, who did not think of matters the way I did, thus providing an element of intellectual enrichment. However, judging from my impressions of the seminar, the one advice I might venture to give Swedish politicians as for social media is to either go full in if you have a massive message to convey, or else keep it on a low or moderate scale in proportion to what party culture, modus operandi, and campaign programme may allow. Or else you may be in for a lot of unwarranted trouble. After all, building a Babylonic tower needs finding a language in common even if you speak in different tongues. That is perhaps the greatest challenge for political establishment to overcome.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Baku Blues

"Shut up! Parliament is not for debate!" Make no mistake: These are the words of authoritarian statehood, words of utter arrogance to an open society of freedom and democracy. These are no heady opinions fired off in the heat of debate. They are the words of a speaker of parliament - the key guardian to freedom of speech in any nation that lays claim to democracy. The country is Azerbaijan, the situation a travesty of all values dear to the Western world.

Some 100 days have passed since Adnan Hajizade and Emin Milli were arrested by police in an apparent case of regime provocation. Their true crime was exercising their constitutional right to freedom of expression and conscience, with social media and the web as their venue. Freedom for freedom - its exercise in exchange for its loss - was the price the two young bloggers and student activists had to pay for something taken for granted as norms of civilized society. Despite fraudulent and fabricated criminal allegations, their true "crime" was making fun of realities known to all but raised by few. Did they speak the unspeakable, call for chaos and upheaval? No, Hajizade and Milli simply posted a parody of politics on the web, coming too close to realities of government in current Azerbaijan: A video of a mock press conference with a donkey commenting on the country's repressive NGO-legislation.

However, comedy turned tragedy, as government decided to set an example to deter others from even the most harmless forms of regime critique. With a unique display of foolhardedness, the Azeri police and legislature staged a travesty of justice, by prosecuting Hajizade and Milli for a crime they had been victims of, adding allegation to allegation, charge to charge. In the dark gulfs of government conscience, fears inspired by the role of social media during the green revolution in nearby Iran, may have been one reason why Azeri officials all of a sudden reacted so sternly against the bloggers. Any more concrete reasons are obscure, but for the normal workings of an authoritarian system.

In its 2009 "Freedom in the World" report, Freedom House ranks Azerbaijan as "not free" and provides the following analysis on the development up till 2008:

Azerbaijan received a downward trend arrow due to the increasing monopolization of power by President Ilham Aliyev and the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party, as reflected in a flawed presidential election in October and measures to eliminate presidential term limits. [---] President Ilham Aliyev and the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party further marginalized the political opposition and other institutions of democratic accountability in 2008. The government’s fierce suppression of media freedom was integral to Aliyev’s victory in a controlled presidential election in October. In December, the parliament approved a constitutional change that would eliminate presidential term limits, clearing the way for a referendum on the issue. Meanwhile, the country’s energy wealth continued to swell state coffers, stunting other sectors of the economy and permitting the government to postpone meaningful institutional reforms.
In its 2008 "Press Freedom Barometer" Reporters Without Borders ranks Azerbaijan as number 150 out of 173 countries worldwide, and points to the "difficult situation" of media in the country:
Ilham Aliyev’s relations with the very few independent media in Azerbaijan are tinged with authoritarianism and terror. Journalists who dare to speak out about the evils of the regime including corruption and high unemployment expose themselves to real danger. [---] And exposing crime in the country can be as dangerous as exposing corruption. [---] Several journalists are currently in prison in the country. [---] This hounding of the press also extends beyond the country’s borders as far as foreign media. [---] The BBC, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Voice of America can no longer be picked up [in] Azerbaijan. There is a lack of pluralism in the country’s media landscape. Energy policy has taken precedence over democratisation as Aliyev prefers to boast of his country’s oil and gas riches. Moreover the president secured the constitutional right in a March 2009 referendum to unlimited runs at the presidency.
One may easily conjure up predisposed images of Oriental despotism - of "East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet", but reality is starker than cultural prejudice. A country couched at the shores of the Caspian, Azerbaijan with its cosmopolitan metropolis Baku, has always been at the crossroads of cultures, trade and human encounters - whether conflict or cooperation. After soviet demise, Baku has looked westward, profited from its oil resources, and been embraced by the West, if for no other reasons than its still large energy reserves. Western sponsorship is however not unconditional. Despite projects such as the BTC oil pipeline and plans for the Nabucco gas pipeline, there is a limit to European and US indulgence with human rights' violations, which no dependency on oil may compensate for. Patience and tolerance is one thing, but even the greatest realist would realize that this kind of negative domestic developments eventually may amplify tendencies towards the entire region turning completely into a geopolitical and geoeconomic hotchpotch. That even the usually so market-conscious BP has reacted against the jailing of Hajizade and Milli shows that there is no turning a blind eye to Azeri human rights' violations anymore, especially if put in a larger context.

As the sun sets over the capital on the Caspian, the dusk of democratic disability descends on the people of Azerbaijan. Adnan Hajizade and Emin Milli have now been jailed for a hundred days. It is a hundred days too many. Enough is enough. Free Adnan and Emin!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Direct democracy or digital mob?

A spectre is haunting Eurasia - the spectre of activism. As cyberage sets in, the mentality of old Eurasia grapples to grasp the power of the people when politics enters a new age and arena. Is this truly the case or are we but suffering from the same delusions as we tend to when lured by novelties, choosing the complex over simplicity, iPhone and 3G over pencil and paper?

Paraphrasing the 1848 Communist Manifesto may seem out of place addressing the dramatic changes that our Eurasian continent has undergone over the last decades. In essence though, it illustrates the difficulties of the old political and economic establishment to come to terms with new rules of the game, where citizens enjoy and use ever expanding tools of empowerment, where the Great Communicator is not necessarily the President, but the People. It is a transformation from "we are the people" to "who are the people?".

What this people is, still remains to be determined. Is it a demos - people - without krateion - rule? An unruly crowd with its own heterogeneous interests that only seldom forms into a concrete political agenda, but still looms large influencing and potentially discapacitating policy goals and implementation of elected officials? Is it an anonymous and shrouded rule that manages both people and politicians with no saying who is in charge?

198 methods of nonviolent action is a "dummies' guide to revolution," applied to all popular uprisings forming a tattered trace of coloured revolutions in Eastern Europe over the last decade: Slovakia, Croatia, Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine... Today, such approaches for achieving peaceful change are so integrated in our mindset of popular action, that we seldom stop to reflect upon if they are righteous or represent the will of the people. Furthermore, the very same mechanisms have found their way into Internet activism, as Gandhi goes web 2.0, as the Mandelas and Sakharovs of our age increasingly turn up from out of cyberspace.

We take these thruths to be self-evident and hail the principles and mechanisms of coloured revolution as singularly in the service of democracy. However, if we think revolution, we must also think reaction. Confronted by external change, Russia by no means was or could be ignorant of this, as stability was the name of the game both to preserve power and protect people from a return to the upheavals and chaos of the 1990s. Nashi became the recipe for reaction, to support and not subvert an authoritarian regime. As also Gargantua went web 2.0, we witnessed cyberwars waged against Estonia in 2007 and Georgia in 2008. This Russian experiment has now come to an end, and Nashi put in mothballs, as Kremlin seeks new venues of state-directed instead of state-inspired web activism.

Why? What have the Russians realized that the west fails to understand? The answer may be the difficulty of controlling the digital mob. As each and everyone can turn a cyberwarrior or warmonger on one's own, such spontaneity is destined to conflict with the interests of authoritarian government. Directing the webcrowds in the spirit of Gustave Le Bon has proven an overwhelming task in the 21st century, as rulers realize the risk of spiralling into new nights of broken glass. Whereas methods may work in concrete operative and tactical contexts - by blogs, twitter, and other social media - it has proven much more complex and difficult to achieve any strategic and tenuous goals.

The Georgian example also illustrates a paradox if regarded from the perspective of information operations, viz. info warfare. Whereas aerial superiority is deemed the key to victory in modern warfare, the winner may quickly turn loser in the information battlefield. The cyberattacks on Georgia in 2008 gave Russia near total dominance in the information field. However, it also raised the temperature of the Russian information flow for it to boil over into increasingly unreasonable and uncorroborated accusations of Georgian war crimes and even genocide on South Ossetians. In one blow, Russia lost its credibility. At the same time, it gave the Georgian government an information monopoly to send its message, its truth, and its propaganda, as most alternative information sources had been taken out. The exception was bloggers, acting eyewitnesses directly from the hotbeds of battle.

So, have all the powers of old media and politics entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre? Realising its potential, will social media be seen as a friend or foe by forces of traditional society? What it takes to turn the tide and surf the waves of Internet activism is a combination of factors: Understanding of areas, countries, or regions of concern with comprehension of mechanisms such as Gandhi goes web 2.0 and the digital mob. A growing but still too small number of journalists and politicians are getting the message and have started developing such competence, but in the heat of battle, during drastic developments, the question is if this competence may be applied to account for what goes on in the online political arena - with direct or indirect influence on the flow of events - and act or report accordingly.

As trivial a statement as it may seem, the Internet is what you make of it. Friend or foe dichotomies lead nowhere, and seeing Internet as a threat by repetitious rantings about cybercrime and pornography degrade the very thought of human interaction - whether on the web or in real life. Statements saying cybercrime exceeds international drugs' trade, or that a majority of Internet usage relates to pornography (in reality 10-25%), just bring out hysteria about something that for most people has no connection whatsoever to either crime or sex, but for whom interaction by social media has become a part of everyday life, including the potential to actively influence one's life and society by the use of the web.

For people, raising their voices and exerting influence, is not essentially a matter of being online or not. It is true, that social media facilitate social and political interaction, when applied to that purpose. Still, it is the same logics and tactics that are seen IRL political and societal interaction. Age-old methods of political action - whether Gandhi's application of ahimsa to non-violent change or Hitlerite seduction of the crowd inspired by Le Bon - are as integrated into web activism as they are into general political action. The choice - as always with phenomena rightly or wrongly deemed as new - stands between embracing or vilifying web activism. Is standing apart, studiously neutral, the road ahead when cyberspace - for good or evil - becomes but another arena for government of the people, by the people, for the people? Is it a choice between greater direct democracy or the digital mob, or will we simply have to live with both?

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Medvedev Murder Mystery

For Global Voices Online: Anna Politkovskaya... The mere name evokes images of Moscow's worst public relations nightmare in years - an ongoing ordeal for Russia's international reputation in the realm of rule of law. Still, the murderers have not been brought to justice, and Politkovskaya turned into a martyr for world voices critical of Russia - for them epitomising everything that is wrong and wretched with the country. So, should President Medvedev's quick reaction to this week's murder of Human Rights' acitivists Natalya Estemirova merely be regarded as lessons learnt from the Politkovskaya assassination? The answer might be more complicated, as voices from the Russian blogosphere have their say.

As news broke of Wednesday's murder of Russian Human Rights's activist Natalya Estemirova, it did not take long for President Dmitry Medvedev to offer his condolences to her family and appoint a committee to investigate a crime widely covered by international media. But was this merely a reaction to avoid repetition of the Politkovskaya PR-fiasco? In the domestic media arena, there was no comparison in coverage, provoking anger, resignation, and accusations of hypocrisy among Russia's liberal bloggers. However, looking at the wider picture, others see the Estemirova case as yet another herald of troubles ahead for the Putin-Medvedev tandemocracy, and believe that Medvedev reacted to the murder out of honest concern and worry.


The first, and obvious, question for all touched by the murder of one of Russia's foremost human rights' defenders is: Who could commit such a heineous act?

Fingers have been pointed at both Putin and Kadyrov, resulting in the Chechen President threatening to sue Estemirova's organization, Memorial, for libel. Still, the question remains, who were the murderers, and who stood behind them?

LJ user Andrei Naliotov is wondrous about [RUS] the character of the murderer, as opposed to that of Estemirova:

I cannot understand what kind of person one has to be, to shoot at a doctor, hurrying to save the sick or the wounded, at a priest praying to save souls, at a human rights defender, pulling people out of misery? I knew Natalya Estemirova. When I first spoke to her, I was surprised by her courage: To challenge power in today's totalitarian Chechnya, doing so living in Grozny - takes the highest of courage. But to stand on the side of truth and save people was superior to all for her. "No village without one righteous." Natalya was the righteous of Chechnya. Let her memory live eternally.

Whereas Medvedev's statement on the murder, may have averted international repercussions, reactions in Russian media were sparse, and LJ user tupikin accounts for [RUS] his own feelings and others' neglect to cover the issue:
Almost the entire day was spent in a realm of black colour. At first, the press conference about yesterday's kidnapping and murder of Grozny Human Rights defender Natalya Estemirova (judging from comments on my post - a single one - one might think that it is only of interest for anti-Kremlin websites, whereas none of my best friends showed any interest whatsoever). Tell me, honestly, do you think that Human Rights' defenders are crazy? Or rather, predestined to die? OK, the press conference gathered 60 journalists, including ten TV-cameras. When Ludmila Alexeyeva, chairman of the Moscow Helsinki group, asked national [i.e. Russian] journalists to raise their hands, it turned out to be no more than 15 people. The news, which has circled world media, is received, here in our country, with amazing stoicism, as if that simply is the way it has to be. Really, not 60, but 160 journalists should have come... Well, that is not some other country, but it is all ours. [---] and then Ludmila Alexeyeva added that two people were guilty - Ramzan Kadyrov and Vladimir Putin. [---] I don't know whether the tacit readers of my LiveJournal understand, that this is a sensation of all-Russian proportions [---] that two of the most high-ranking state officials in Russia were named as accomplices to a political murder in front of TV-cameras and tens of journalists. The ground did not shake, only silence followed. As I wrote these words on the keyboard of my old notebook, it was as if the finger-touches forming letters were like the strikes from the Tsar Bell...


Turning to the political ramifications of the murder, there are bloggers who underline how problematic and untimely the Estemirova case is for Medvedev, possibly adding to an alleged domestic political campaign to undermine the president's power and legitimacy. Consequently, LJ user anaitiss writes [RUS]:

It is the second political murder during Medvedev's presidential term. What's more, straight after Obama's visit. Moreover, just as the provocation with "the drunk Medvedev" at the G8 [summit] failed. And then, if we are to be honest, in a region where the guilty are nowhere to be found, even if we all know who everyone is thinking of. And also, exactly when America, personified by Obama, has deserted the local revolutionaries (they even write about this themselves). And boy, how they were abandoned! And this, having formed the joint McFaul-Surkov commission [US-Russian working group on human rights]. They simply have to portray Medvedev as "a bloody tyrant, trampling justice", they really have to. To make matters such, that any dialogue between ourselves and the West becomes impossible. "The second Politkovskaya" is an ideal scenario, one must admit that much. And moreover, in the Caucasus.

Human Rights and the disrespect for law is a matter of great concern for the Russian president - a lawyer by profession. With little over a year in office, turning the tide on rule of law seems a precondition for Medvedev to efficiently exercise power at a time when Russia experiences an economic downturn not seen since the 1998 financial crisis. Although trusitic, it suffices to point out that Putin back in 2001 - a year and a half into his first presidential term - was not the uncontested source of power and authority that marked the last years of his reign. So, that could barely be expected from Medvedev. At a recent discussion on the rule of law and Human Rights, published on his blog [RUS], Medvedev characterised the problem of Russian lawlessness accordingly:

MEDVEDEV: You were speaking about massive lawlessness. As a matter of fact, we live in a country with a very complicated relationship to law [---] and a very relaxed and tolerant [attitude] to lawlessness. But it is not a secret that one has to be able to fight for justice. We have no culture of fighting for justice, we simply don't. [---] How do we handle this? At first, we turn to some bureaucrat - once, twice, and still no result whatsoever. Then we turn to the media, as an alternative source of power, but if there is no result, to whom do we write letters?
REPLY: To you.
MEDVEDEV: To me. That is totally correct. So that is the hierarchy for defending human rights.
REPLY: Then one turns to Strasbourg [the European Court of Human Rights].

The last remark is illustrative of Medvedev's dilemma, when confronted with Estemirova's murder, and the general lawlessness of current Russia. In matters of human rights and the rule of law, the President of the Russian Federation appears not to be the supreme authority and guarantor of the constitution. It is to Strasbourg the Russian citizens turn as a last resort when their own judicial system fails to deliver on their constitutional rights.

Consequently, reinstating law and order stands out as a crucial credibility issue for Medvedev, and moreover as a make or break for his own capacity to exercise the power invested in him. Judging from Medvedev's views, and those of some bloggers, the law is also one of the major problems of today's Russia, as it touches the very fine line of political statecraft - the balance-act between continuity and change, stability and progress. Whereas the murder may not be a mystery to most, for Medvedev it is a mystery how to solve it, as part and parcel of general Russian disrespect for law.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Politkovskaya Laureate Murdered

For Global Voices Online: Just another death, just another obituary. That seems to be the general sentiment as news of today's murder of Russian Human Rights activist, Natalya Estemirova, broke. However, there are still people out there, in the Russian blogosphere, who challenge disillusion as yet another voice of conscience and tolerance is silenced by violent death.

This morning, prominent Russian Human Rights activist Natalya Estemirova was abducted from her home in Ingushetia by armed men. She was later found dead, a bullet through her heart. As mainstream media reports just another death of an activist - even when it comes to the assassination of one of the country's leading Human Rights' adovcates - some bloggers react with abhorrence.

Then, who was Natalya Estemirova? LJ user xanzhar gives [RUS] a short account of the public figure:

Natalya Estemirova was one of [Russian Human Rights Organization] Memorial's leading representative in the Caucasus. Authorities in the Republic of Chechnya never expressed any discontent with her work. Estemirova's Human Rights advocacy earnt her many international awards. She was the first recipient of the Anna Politkovskaya Award (2007), and winner of the Swedish [---] Right Livelihood Award (2004). In 2005, the European Parliament gave her the Robert Schumann medal.
LJ user nansysnspb expresses [RUS] her feelings about the murder:

So close, and so terrible... [---] I know people who were friends with Natalya Estemirova... So, they take her life. It's like in a Strugatsky [fantasy novel]... What's next then? Lighting candles... Cursing the murderers, and writing letters to the prosecutor's office with appeals for investigation to rightfully convict these murderers - murderers who probably carry epaulettes and hold positions of corresponding responsibility in the security structures.
LJ user for efel continues [RUS] along the same line:

Surely, [the murder] is connected to [Chechen president] Kadyrov. It's simply not known in what way. To please or to spite him, as with the murder of Politkovskaya. It's connected (as I see it) to the official removal of the borders between Chechnya and Ingushetia for his sonderkomand [special units]... [---] Natasha [Estemirova] was a more precious person than even Anna Politkovskaya - it's a fact. Generally, one could raise a memorial to every single Human Rights activist working in the Caucasus. I only hope murderers don't take it the wrong way: I mean a monument for the living!
Another death - another obituary. Does it make a difference? That is a question for each and everyone to ponder. Still, judging from blogger reactions, Natalya Estemirova surely made a significant difference for many people exposed to the indiscriminate violence and terror of everyday life in Russia's conflict-ridden Republic of Chechnya.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Support Jailed Bloggers Hajizade & Milli

Azerbaijan rates 150 out of 173 countries on Reporters Without Borders' 2008 Press Freedom Index. Last Friday's jailing of Azeri bloggers and youth activists Hajizade and Milli therefore gives cause for great concern and worry about developments for freedom of speech and media in Azerbaijan, and in the continuation, the country's relations with the EU and the West.
I thus encourage you to sign the petition for Hajizade's and Milli's swift release, in accordance with the text below. For updates on the case, please visit the Free Adnan Hajizade & Emin Milli website.

We, the undersigned, condemn violent physical attack against Adnan Hajizada and Emin Milli and express our grave concern at their subsequent detention and trial by the authorities.

Adnan Hajizada and Emin Milli are prominent representatives of socially active Azerbaijani youth calling for the establishment of civil society based on principles of modernity, respect for individual rights and freedoms, non-violence and tolerance. Their non-partisan activities, as leaders of progressive youth networks, contributes significantly to building human capital, promoting knowledge and education, and strengthening social texture in Azerbaijan.

Their detention and trial is a gross violation of their basic human rights, as well as the legal protections guaranteed to the citizens by the constitution and laws of Azerbaijan Republic. It undermines democracy building in Azerbaijan, amplifies international concerns about individual rights and freedoms in Azerbaijan, and weakens the country's position in international arena.

Emin Milli and Adnan Hajizada were subjected to a violent and unprovoked by two individuals dressed in civilian clothes while dining with their friends during the afternoon of July 8, 2009 in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. Immediately after being attacked and severely beaten, Emin and Adnan went to a police station to file a report.

After holding Adnan and Emin for several hours, police decided to detain them for 48 hours for further trial. Although they were the vicitms who came to the police station to file a report, charges were pressed against Adnan and Emin based on clause 221 (Hooliganism) of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Azerbaijan, while the people who assaulted Emin and Adnan were set free.

We are deeply concerned about the following:

1. despite being the victims who were attacked and beaten, Emin Milli and Adnan Hajizada were treated as suspects and detained for 48 hours, while those who attacked them were set free;

2. despite persistent demands, Emin and Adnan were not allowed to meet with a lawyer until after being detained for more than 10 hours;

We demand the immediate release of Adnan Hajizada and Emin Milli.

We call on the government of Azerbaijan to investigate the violation of their legal rights.

We also call on the authorities to ensure that their attackers are held responsible for their actions and face fair and open trial.

Sign the petition!

Monday, July 13, 2009

Azeri bloggers & youth activists jailed

On Friday, July 10, the two Azeri bloggers and youth activists, Adnan Hajizade and Emin Milli, were put in two months' pre-trial jail custody awaiting trial for charges of so called hooliganism.

The two bloggers were unprovokedly assaulted and beaten, according to unanimous witness accounts, by two men during a restaurant visit in Baku Thursday night. They were then arrested by police and themselves charged of crime, while initially being denied legal representation, in breach of the European HR Convention. As German government Human Rights' Ombudsman, Günter Nooke, commented the case visiting Baku: "Here vistims are made into perpetrators. It is a typical sign of dictatorship in action."

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) have drawn attention to the case, and demanded the release of Hajizade and Milli. RSF ranks Azerbaijan no. 153 out of 170 on its Press Freedom Index.

I recently visited Azerbaijan, and then met with bloggers and activists from OL! - the organization Hajizade and Milli belong to - and got an opportunity to discuss the situation surrounding freedom of speech and media freedom in the country. My impression was that bloggers and youth activists are increasingly subjected to various repressive measures, as e.g. mass arrests a memorial manifestation for the 13 students murdered at the Baku State Oil Academy this spring. Impressions from evolving events in nearby Iran were apparent and similarities between Iranian and Azeri activists' use of IT-based social media (blogs, Twitter, Facebook) were striking. This may possibly also explain Azeri authorities' actions against the two bloggers.

As mentioned, the two bloggers were active within OL! OL! Azərbaycan Gənclər Hərəkatı - OL! Azerbaijan Youth Movement - is an opposition youth organization, advocating modernity, non-violence, and tolerance. Support for extended freedom of speech is a recurrent theme in the organization's activities. OL! gathers mainly students and intellectuals, with extensive use of new media and so called flash mobs - public and peaceful gatherings with unexpected and intriguing contents (a new type of demonstration).

Further information about the two jailed bloggers, Hajizade and Milli, may be found at OL! Bloqu, and an assortment of news articles are also available beneath.

11 July 2009:
- Reporters Without Borders, "Two bloggers held on hooliganism charges"
- Le Monde, "Reporters sans frontiéres dénonce la détention de 2 blogueurs"
- RFE/RL, "Azerbaijani Activists Denied Release Before Trial"
- Le Figaro, "Azerbaïdjan: 2 blogueurs arrêtés"
- Der Standard, "Hier werden Opfer zu Tätern gemacht"
-, "RSF denuncia detenciones de blogueros e internautas en China y Azerbaiyán"

12 July 2009:
- Reuters, "Azeri blogger detained, oil major presses case"
- The Times, "Repression in Azerbaijan"
- The New York Times, "Azeri Blogger Detained, Oil Major Presses Case"
13 July 2009:
- Article 19: Global Campaign for Free Expression, "Azerbaijan: ARTICLE 19 Deplores Harassment of Internet Journalists"

Azeriska bloggare och ungdomsaktivister fängslas

I fredags den 10 juli sattes de båda azeriska bloggarna och ungdomsaktivisterna, Adnan Hajizade och Emin Milli, i två månaders förhörshäkte i avvaktan på rättegång om anklagelser för så kallad huliganism.

De båda bloggarna angreps och misshandlades, enligt samstämmiga vittnesuppgifter, oprovocerat av två män vid ett restaurangbesök i Baku på torsdagskvällen. De greps därefter av polis och ställdes själva inför brottsanklagelser samt förvägrades inledningsvis, i brott mot Europakonventionen, kontakt med advokat. Som tyska regeringens MR-ombudsman, Günter Nooke, kommenterade fallet på plats i Baku: "Här blir offer till gärningsmän. Det är ett typiskt tecken på en diktatur under utövning".

Reportrar utan Gränser (RSF) har uppmärksammat fallet och krävt att Hajizade och Milli släpps. RSF rankar Azerbajdzjan till plats 150 av 173 i sitt pressfrihetsindex.

Jag besökte nyligen Azerbajdzjan och träffade då bloggare och aktivister från OL! - den organisation Hajizade och Milli tillhör - varvid jag fick tillfälle att närmare diskutera situationen kring yttrande- och mediefrihet i landet. Mitt intryck var att bloggare och ungdomsaktivister blev alltmer utsatta för skilda repressiva åtgärder, som exempelvis omfattande arresteringar i samband med en manifestation till minne av mordet på 13 studenter vid den statliga oljeakademin tidigare i våras. Intrycken av händelseutvecklingen i närliggande Iran var påtagliga och likheterna mellan de iranska och azeriska aktivisternas användning av IT-baserade sociala medier (bloggar, Twitter, Facebook, etc.) var slående. Möjligen kan detta även förklara azeriska myndigheters agerande mot de båda nu fängslade bloggarna.

Som nämnts var de båda bloggarna aktiva inom OL! OL! Azərbaycan Gənclər Hərəkatı - OL! Azerbajdzjans sociala ungdomsrörelse - är en oppositionell ungdomsorganisation, som förespråkar modernitet, icke-våld och tolerans. Stöd för ökad yttrandefrihet i Azerbajdzjan är ett återkommande tema i organisationens verksamhet. OL! samlar framförallt studenter och intellektuella samt utnyttjar i stor utsträckning nya medier samt "flash mobs" - offentliga och fredliga sammankomster med oväntat och intresseväckande innehåll (den nya tidens demonstration).

Närmare information om de båda fängslade bloggarna, Hajizade och Milli, återfinns på OL! Bloqu och ett urval internationella pressreaktioner nedan.

11 juli 2009:
- Reporters without borders, "Two bloggers held on hooliganism charges"
- Le Monde, "Reporters sans frontières dénonce la détention de 2 blogueurs"
- RFE/RL, "Azerbaijani Activists Denied Release Before Trial"
- Le Figaro, "Azerbaïdjan: 2 blogueurs arrêtés"
- Der Standard, "Hier werden Opfer zu Tätern gemacht"
-, "RSF denuncia detenciones de blogueros e internautas en China y Azerbaiyán"

12 juli 2009:
- Reuters, "Bloggers detained, oil major presses case"
- The Times, "Repression in Azerbaijan"
- New York Times, "Azeri Blogger Detained, Oil Major Presses Case"
13 juli 2009:
- Article 19: Global Campaign for Free Expression, "Azerbaijan: ARTICLE 19 Deplores Harassment of Internet Journalists"

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Rewinding the Russia Reset

For Global Voices Online: Two new presidents, two great powers, and three world leaders. That was the stage set as US President Obama earlier this week travelled to Moscow to meet Russia's President Medvedev and Premier Putin. With shared and conflicting legacies of idealism versus realism, the meeting held the promise of a new start in the two countries' relations. Still, as we rewind the "reset summary" for US-Russian relations, this was not exactly the outcome of the visit, at least when seen through the eyes of the Russian blogosphere.

Peace and sovereignty, democracy and human rights. Those were some of the issues at stake as US and Russian presidents Obama and Medvedev sat down in Moscow earlier this week to address the agenda of a troubled world, against the backdrop of global recession and climate change.

Even though expectations for a breakthrough in US-Russian relations had been downplayed ahead of Obama's meetings with President Medvedev - and Premier Putin - one would imagine that the very real issues at hand - nuclear disarmament, Afghanistan, Iran, sovereignty, democracy etc. - were to be widely debated in the blogosphere. Instead, reactions to the 6-8 July Moscow summit from the Russian and international blogospheres form a climate of anticlimax.


Barack Obama: Speech at the New Economic School - by Drugoi

Starting off from the Moscow horizon, the overall impression is exactly that Obama's visit was rendered a lukewarm reception by the Russian blogosphere, on either side of the political spectrum. As LJ user taranoff points out [RUS], in general, most people took little notice of the visit:

[...] If someone like Putin arrives in some town, then this town is sure to be scrubbed clean, shaped up, painted and polished. [---] And still, as Obama yesterday arrived in Moscow, it was as if - holey-moley - nothing could be noticed. [...]

LJ user lamerkhav continues [RUS] along the same line:

[...] It is still not long ago that America was dearly loved in Russia. Behaviour towards the USA was like that of a young girl to her idol. The "cool States" was the ideal. Now times have changed. The attitude I've come across in media and blogs reminds me of a sour, lonely and old suitor, abandoned by everyone. I won't try to gather why it's like that. Apparently, not out of unanswered love, but generally because mentality is like that. [...]

Characterizing the essence of the summit, LJ user Nevzlin addresses [RUS] renewed Cold War sentiments - disarmament and Human Rights - and perceives differences in Obama's attitude towards Medvedev and Putin:

[...] Generally, it was like colder times at the conference table - the fate of political prisoners and arms control. [---] From the outset, Obama typically split up Medvedev and Putin: Some praise and some critique. He said that Medvedev pulls ahead and Putin holds back. [...]

LJ user Yakushev continues with [RUS] the domestic political ramifications of the summit, speculating on a US-inspired Medvedev-Putin division into liberal and conservative camps:

[...] What was the essence of Obama's visit to Moscow? I imagine it as if Obama signalled to the liberal part of the Russian élite to go on the offensive. As it appears, Obama came to engage himself into Russian domestic politics. Already before the American president's visit, he made it clear who the USA supports in Russia, having promised Putin not to disturb his and Medvedev's progress. As no official reply was given to this ordinary American insolence, one can conclude that the Kremlin agrees with Obama. [...]

Not even when it comes to President Obama's meeting with Russian opposition representatives, it seems to please Russian bloggers. Thus, LJ user v milov - an opposition supporter - writes [RUS]:
[...] Obama's meeting with the opposition turned into true comedy. It's great that Nemtsov and Kasparov were invited from our side - but that's also all the good news there were. Further on the list were Mitrokhin, Gozman and Zyuganov. The State Department stands with one foot in the past. :) But seriously, a meeting with such a gathering is a flat puncture for those on the American side who prepared the visit. In such meetings, the real opposition must take part and not hopeless figures from the past. [...]
Turning to the very real issues agreed upon by Medvedev and Obama within the sphere of security policy - as e.g. nuclear arms' reduction and Afghanistan - LJ user malkolms writes [RUS]:

[...] How is it possible to sign anything with the USA (especially concerning such important issues as the START-agreement) when the USA demonstratively [XXX] Russia in the [XXX]. In my view, it is simply degrading to start any dialogue with the USA without lifting the Jackson-Vanik amendment. And especially if signing such documents is unfavourable to Russia. The USA once again "sinks" us as was always the case during Yeltsin and Clinton. [...]

What about the Russian reset then? LJ user optimist presents his views on the credibility of Washington's policy towards Moscow:

[...] In my view, the word reset doesn't mean anything in real political terms. It is a word of deception, the usual soap bubble [---]. It appears on all our screens and means nothing new, but a return to the past, to business as usual. And previously, our relations with the Americans were either one of confrontation or domination - on their part, by the way. So, what will we be returning to after a "reset"? [---] Aren't they just fooling us as usual... [...]

What stands out, from these and similar comments, is how little significance is given to the outcome of the US-Russian summit. It is like simply going through the motions, whereas the real issues at hand seem to be of little consequence. So, judging from Russian blogger reactions, the Moscow 2009 Obama-Medvedev summit could hardly be seen as a reset in US-Russian relations. The question is: Was it even rapproachement?


Pictures, if not otherwise indicated, from

Monday, July 06, 2009

Swedish sub hits Russian ground

Amid heated Swedish debate on the existence of a Russian Cold War sub threat, a Swedish sub this morning hit Russian ground. Information about the incidence is still scarce, but according to unnamed sources, the grounding may have been caused by a combination of overweight and shallowness. Witnesses also report rumbling from the sub's hull, indicating lack of fuel.

As of this time, no official comments have been made from either Sweden or Russia, but initiated sources within Swedish intelligence indicate that the sub for long has been transferred from military to civilian purposes, with a "healthy distance from the defence sphere."

The incident comes at an awkward moment for the two countries, coinciding with both US President Obama's visit to Moscow, and Sweden's assumption of the EU Presidency last week. Speculations thus run rampant that the grounding until now has been deliberately submerged for political reasons.

Swedish submarine scare
News about the sub may prove very inconvenient for Swedish Foreign Minister, Carl Bildt, who is currently facing allegations for misleading public and media on the Russian sub threat during the 1980s, following the 1981 grounding of Soviet submarine U-137 in the Swedish archipelago. An editorial in today's Dagens Nyheter, Sweden's leading newspaper, thus claims that Bildt's "career was largely founded on alleged soviet submarines - frequently improbable, sometimes minks." As the Swedish EU Presidency might further propel Bildt's international career, such ambitions could now be thwarted by an embarrassing incident of this kind.

Political parallels
Also, comparisons are made to the confidence crisis facing the Swedish political establishment after the 1979 Harrisburg nuclear accident. As news of the Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown broke, leading Swedish politicians had for years been saying that the risks of nuclear power were inprobable on the verge of incredibility. The political consequences of this grave misjudgement led to a disastrous "maybe" decision in the 1980 Swedish referendum on the future of Swedish nuclear power, forming an anticlimax on nuclear termination that has since marred the country's energy policy.

In what now seems as a surfacing Swedish-Russian sub crisis, any Swedish claims that the sub ran aground due to faulty navigation may be retorted by Russia as "improbable" - echoing both Bildt's statements during the 1980s Swedish submarine scare, and reminiscences of recurrent ministerial misjudgements, gradually eroding the legitimacy of the Swedish political system.

Things are not always what they seem...
The above only serves to prove that, in the interplay between politics and media, things are not always what they seem. Regreattably, this is also the case with the news about the Swedish sub, which would have made a true scoop had it been true. Instead, the sub in question is no other than yours truly, who over the next two weeks will be SUB-stituting as Central and Eastern Europe Editor of Global Voices - a Harvard-based project that provides alternative reporting on world affairs to that of mainstream international news media.

Alternative reporting does not mean misleading reporting, as the above paragraphs may indicate. To the contrary, following the blogosphere and other Internet resources may, in my own view, at times present a more accurate and up-to-date picture, not least of evolving events, than presented by most other media. It gives the capacity to look beyond press conferences and newsdesks, which at times tend to present nicely wrapped-up truths about events often too obscure and complex for most to comprehend.

Giving precedence to first-hand accounts and on-the-field reporting, with all the ambiguities that may involve, can thus at times be preferrable to stories about "quarrels in far away countries between people of whom we know nothing." Yesterday it might have been Czechoslovakia and Germany, today it might be Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, forming a loosely concocted perceptive pattern of numerous and frequently disparate stories, to form the truth of the matter as we see it.

For truly, if you put your hand on your heart, how much does the faked story about a Swedish sub hitting Russian ground differ from far too much media coverage on events evolving on the margins of the world as we know it. So, it may not always be advisable to follow the calls: "As reports pour in, stay tuned as the story develops..."

Monday, May 18, 2009

Blogging for a Cause

Do you want to support a cause and make money for it doing so? Then it might be a good idea to sign up for Zemanta's Blogging for a Cause campaign. The cause that gets the greatest support by bloggers will earn USD3000.
My obvious choice for a cause to support is Global Voices Advocacy - a project that seeks to build a global anti-censorship network of bloggers and online activists throughout the developing world that is dedicated to protecting freedom of expression and free access to information online.
This blog post is part of Zemanta's "Blogging for a Cause" campaign to raise awareness and funds for worthy causes that bloggers care about.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Belarus - European watershed?

If society bans murder, how can society itself commit murder? By which morality does a state justify and perform murder of its own citizens? Is the state somehow part of a higher ethical stratum, where it deems itself the right to take life for life, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth? No, this is contrary to the basics of European norms and values - to what we are as a civilised society. Still, to this very day, one single country in Europe actively exercises - what it believes to be - its right to deprive humans of their lives, namely Belarus.

A few days ago, Amnesty International published its annual report on the death penalty and executions in the world, stating that "Belarus is the last country in Europe and in the former Soviet Union that still carries out executions." At the same time, the European Union is easing the pressure on the authoritarian Lukashenko regime in Belarus, in an attempt at extracting relations with Minsk from the dead end of sanctions' and isolationary policies. The EU has thus e.g. lifted the ban on international travel for the regime's leadership.

As much as such EU-ouvertures may be wise - realising the failure of isolationism - a change of policy towards Belarus demands careful reassessment and consideration of what is to be achieved and to what price. It is not enough to say that policy must change for the sake of change, if such change cannot create true change. Above all, however, we as Europeans, whether of Western or Eastern origin, must take a stand on which fundamental norms and values are inalienable, and which we are prepared to compromise with. This is to pose a few fundamental questions.

What is it to be European today? Arguably, the key common denominator for European statehood today is the abolition of the death penalty. It is a moral basis of the post Cold War European order, the logical consequence of the Helsinki process, the Council of Europe (CoE) and European overall integration.

This was clearly understood already by Gorbachev in the late 1980s, and was part of his common European home. Realising that the death penalty was incompatible with being a member of the European family, also Yeltsin's Russia took steps towards abolishing capital punishment, despite widespread public resistance. As part of its CoE accession process, Moscow accepted the proviso of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR prot. no. 6) to abolish the death penalty, and implemented a moratorium on executions, which has been upheld to this very day. In the 1993 Russian constitution, the intention to abolish the death penalty was clearly stated (art. 20). Although Russia has not yet abolished the death penalty, the normative value of not carrying out executions has so far been powerful enough for the country not to reconsider this position.

The founding fathers of American democracy held the right to life and the pursuit of happiness to be inalienable out of religious and ideological conviction. To the perspectives of rationality and enlightenment they added the intrinsicality of fundamental rights and freedoms, thus reaffirming the achievements of the French revolution. The US bill of rights prohibits government from depriving any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law. Some three scores hundred years later, Europe - in contrast to America - has reached as far as realising the right to life for its citizens to its full measure, without the restriction of legally sanctioned capital punishment. It is a powerful statement that the state is not more than its citizens - a government of the people, by the people, for the people. Why is it so?

As life, death is also a constant companion to human existence. Throughout human history, society has condoned itself to killing its own citizens for the sake of social order and cohesion, as punishment for crimes spanning from murder to petty theft, despite such basic norms and mottos as "thou shalt not kill." Respect for human life has varied, but still gradually progressed towards realising a ban on state executions. The utilitarian approach - societal homicide out of convenience - has given way to the fundamental right of human life. Such progress has demanded courage and conviction of our political leaders in their belief in the sanctity of life, also when it comes to the rights of the individual in relation to society and state.

As the European Union is now engaging in dialogue with the Lukashenko regime in Minsk, leadership is needed also in this respect. That four executions were carried through in Belarus only in 2008, should serve as a memento to European leaders as for which kind of regime they are dealing with, namely the only remaining European state that sees it fit to take the lifes of its own citizens, for whatever reasons there may be. Not having this constantly in mind is to tread a slippery slope in relation to the fundamental norms and values that make up the Europe that we have come to know and cherish.

A few years back, the opposition in Belarus carried placards with the motto "Kill your inner Lukashenko!" As much as killing seems inappropriate to the arguments held forth here - a call for caution when dealing with the last European state implementing the death penalty - it has a lot to say about the mental and intellectual process within each and everyone of us in reaching the conviction that capital punishment is contrary to our most basic values. The soviet liberal and founder of Memorial, Aleksandr Yakovlev, often used to say of Stalinist crimes that "the guilty are in hell, and among ourselves. --- Evil will not pass away before we acknowledge that we are sick ourselves." Thus, killing one's inner Lukashenko refers as much to acknowledging that one - as an individual - is part of the overall societal malaise of an authoritarian regime. A true change for the better can only come about as a result of individual and societal mental progress. This is as true when it comes to abolition of the death penalty, as to human rights and democratisation.

As leaders of the European Union now set forth to talk to the tyrant, their recipe should be a mixture of courage and humility in the realisation that they also carry the seeds of good and evil within themselves. Still, goodness and grace stand victorious in the guise of the common European identity, epitomised by the norms and values of fundamental rights and freedoms, and must also be the very basis of any current or future dialogue with the Lukashenko regime in Belarus. Any other way would be a betrayal to what we as Europeans are and what we stand for. We simply cannot embrace societies that condone murder of their own citizens as members of our European family, no matter how convenient this might seem. In Belarus, attaining fundamental rights and freedoms means fundamental change. If Europe and its leaders do not realise this, Belarus might prove a watershed also for Europe in the constant choice between good and evil.