Saturday, February 13, 2010

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Russia: A totalitarian regime in thrall to a Tsar who's creating the new Facist empire


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Vladimir Putin to be chairman of ruling party

By Will Stewart in Moscow

Vladimir Putin tightened his grip on power in Russia yesterday by agreeing to become chairman of the ruling United Moscow party when he steps down as president next month and becomes prime minister.

Vladimir Putin 'to wed Olympic gymnast half his age'

Mr Putin will assume the party chairmanship on the day of Mr Medvedev's scheduled inauguration

In a move that will strengthen his long-term hold over Russia, possibly at the expense of his hand-picked successor Dmitry Medvedev, Mr Putin accepted an offer to become Chairman of the pro-Kremlin party at a congress in Moscow.

As prime minister Mr Putin will control the day-to-day functioning of Russia's government. The additional job will give him sweeping powers over the Duma, Russia's lower house, where United Russia has 315 out of 450 seats, as well as over regional legislatures, also dominated by the party.

Accepting the position, Mr Putin said he was "ready to take added responsibility and head United Russia".

He added: "I promise that I will do everything to strengthen the party's influence and authority, to use its capabilities in the interests of the country's development."

advertisementHis remarks drew a standing ovation from the hundreds of delegates and guests in the packed hall.

Mr Putin has previously declined offers to become the party head. But by becoming party chairman, analysts believe he has put himself in an unassailable position.

Previous presidents - including himself - fired prime ministers almost at will. Now, as party chairman as well, it is unlikely Mr Medvedev would be able to do this to him.

Mr Putin hands over to his hand-picked successor on May 7, and the next day he is expected to become prime minister. But rumours abound that he will seek yet another presidential term in 2012, or perhaps even earlier.

His hold on the majority party in parliament might mean he could, if he chose, force an end to a Medvedev presidency.

Mr Putin will assume the party chairmanship after he leaves office on the day of Mr Medvedev's scheduled inauguration.

He is expected to hold the post for a four-year term, giving him control over the Duma until the next scheduled parliamentary elections in 2011.

Mr Putin, who led the United Russia ticket in the Dec 2 elections but is not a party member, told the congress that he would juggle his party responsibilities with his job as prime minister.

He asked party leader Boris Gryzlov to continue coordinating United Russia's current activities, a move expected to free Mr Putin from the day-to-day duties of running a political party.

His decision to chair the party without joining it will allow him to remain "a sort of supraparty leader," said Sergei Markov, a Kremlin-connected political analyst and Duma deputy with United Russia.

Mr Putin himself has criticised United Russia but has said it is the best party the country has to offer. On Tuesday, he repeated his call for the party to become more open to discussion and establish a more constructive dialogue with society.

He said: "It should be 'de-bureaucratised' and cleansed of strange people pursuing only selfish goals."

United Russia dismisses comparisons with the Soviet-era Communist Party, despite similarities in rituals and routine.

During the two-day congress, party delegates rubber-stamped every proposal submitted by the party leadership. Not a single delegate voted against the proposals or abstained.

The party's key backers are those holding positions of power in most Russian regions.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

A Weekend in Sochi

SOCHI, Russia (AP) - President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin failed to resolve their differences over a U.S. missile defense system at a farewell meeting on Sunday, with Bush saying the system is not aimed at Russia but at regimes that "could try to hold us hostage."

Bush also met Putin's hand-picked successor and pronounced him "a straightforward fellow."

He did not give President-elect Dmitry Medvedev the kind of unvarnished embrace he gave Putin seven years ago, but told reporters after meeting Medvedev: "You can write down, I was impressed and look forward to working with him."

At a joint news conference at Putin's Black sea vacation home, Putin was asked whether he or his protege would be in charge of Russia's foreign policy in early May - when Putin steps down as president and becomes prime minister

Putin said Medvedev would, and that he would represent Russia at the Group of Eight meeting of industrial democracies in July in Tokyo. "Mr. Medvedev has been one of the co-authors of Russia's foreign policy," Putin said. "He's completely on top of things."

At their final meeting as presidents of their respective countries, Bush and Putin complimented each other lavishly, but acknowledged they remained at odds on some major issues, principally missile defense and NATO's eastward expansion.

Putin called the U.S. missile plan - which envisions basing tracking radar sites in the Czech Republic and interceptors in Poland - the most contentious of U.S.-Russian differences and the one the hardest to reconcile. "Our fundamental attitude toward the American plan has not changed," he said.

But, he said, "the best thing is to work jointly" on such a system. "We've got a lot of way to go," Bush acknowledged.

He said he viewed the U.S. plan - as "defense, not offense. And, obviously, we've got a lot of work to convince the experts this defense system is not aimed at Russia."

Bush also said that the system is designed to deal with "regimes that could try to hold us hostage" in a clear reference to Iran. "The system is not designed to deal with Russia's capacity to launch multiple rockets," he said.

The president blamed lingering Cold War thinking by some in both Russia and the United States for making it harder to reach agreement on missile defense. "We spent a lot of time in our relationship trying to get rid of the Cold War," he said. "It's over. It ended."

Both said they agreed to cooperate with one another in continuing to talk about the missile defense system.

National security adviser Stephen Hadley, talking to reporters aboard Air Force One en route back to Washington, was asked if a deal can be struck before Bush leaves office. "I don't think that matters," he replied. "They can leave that to their prospective successors."

Commenting on whether the dispute over expansion of NATO had soured the atmosphere for the Bush-Putin talks, Hadley said, "It didn't in any way poison the Sochi meeting."

During the news conference, Bush bristled at a journalist's question that suggested the two leaders were merely "kicking the can down the road" on the vexing missile defense issue.

"You can cynically say that it is kicking the can down the road," Bush said. "I don't appreciate that, because this is an important part of my belief that it is necessary to protect ourselves."

In a joint declaration, Bush and Putin said: "The Russian side has made clear that it does not agree with the decision to establish sites in Poland and the Czech Republic and reiterated its proposed alternative. Yet, it appreciates the measures that the U.S. has proposed and declared that if agreed and implemented such measures will be important and useful in assuaging Russian concerns."

However, the two sides did agree to "develop a legally-binding arrangement following expiration" in December 2009 of the strategic arms limitation treaty (START). Their joint declaration noted the "substantial reductions already carried out" under that pact, which they said was an important step in reducing the number of deployed nuclear warheads.

On NATO, Russia remains adamantly opposed to the eastward expansion of the alliance into its backyard that Bush has actively championed over Putin's vocal objections.

The Sochi meeting came just days after NATO leaders agreed at a summit in Romania to invite Albania and Croatia to join the alliance. However, the alliance rebuffed U.S. attempts to begin the process of inviting Ukraine and Georgia, both former Soviet republics, to join, although their eventual admission seems likely.

The two leaders agreed to a "strategic framework" to guide future U.S. -Russian relations.

It was seven years ago in June that Bush famously declared he had looked into Putin's eyes at their first face-to-face meeting and "was able to get a sense of his soul" and found him to be honest, straightforward and trustworthy.

Relations grew stronger when Putin stood with the United States after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. But the era of cooperation quickly began to unravel as Russia opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and as the Russian leader consolidated his power and took steps to roll back democratic advances.

Asked about those earlier comments about Putin's "soul," Bush said Sunday that his first impression was that he believed Putin would be "the kind of person who would tell me what's on his mind" and that he turned out to be so.

As to the incoming president, Bush said, "I just met the man for 20 minutes."

Still, Bush said, "He seemed like a very straightforward fellow. My first impressions are very favorable."

Bush met with Medvedev shortly before his news conference with Putin and received a pledge from the incoming president to work to strengthen relations between the two countries.

Medvedev told Bush that he hopes to follow in Putin's footsteps in advancing U.S.-Russian relations.

Over the last eight years, Bush and Putin "did a lot to advance U.S.-Russian relations" and that relationship was "a key factor in international security," Medvedev. "I would like to do my part to keep up that work," he added.

Bush told Medvedev, "I'm looking forward to getting to know you so we'll be able to work through common problems and find common opportunities."

Hadley, when asked whether he thought Putin actually was going to cede authority on Russian foreign policy to Medvedev, said, "My guess is that these two men who have worked very closely together for n ow almost two decades will have a very collaborative relationship. That seems to be a good thing, not a bad thing."

Bush and Putin met with news reporters after talks at Putin's vacation house.

Putin greeted Bush at the door of the guesthouse there and escorted him downstairs to a wood-paneled room with tall windows facing the sea. They sat alongside each other in chairs before a fireplace with unlit logs. A crush of cameramen, photographers and reporters crowded the room.

The Russian president said they had started discussing security issues and bilateral matters over dinner on Saturday and would continue their talks today "in a common working manner." Putin put in another plug for the Winter Olympic games that Sochi will host in 2014.

Their introductory remarks were mostly light-hearted. Bush joked about asked to join in a traditional folk dance during the dinner entertainment the previous evening. "I'm only happy that my press corps didn't see me try to dance the dance I was asked to do."

"We have been able to see you're a brilliant dancer," Putin replied good naturedly.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

A 'Bout' of Russian terror

The Washington Times – Ed Royce

April 1, 2008

Maybe Viktor Bout got complacent. Accustomed to profiting in the world's roughest places while brazenly defying law enforcement, this notorious gun runner fell three weeks ago, arrested by Thai authorities in a Drug Enforcement Agency sting in Bangkok. An arms smuggling conviction would put this very dangerous man out of business. He is a survivor, though, and we should not breathe easy until an extradited and shackled Mr. Bout hits United States soil.

A former Soviet pilot dubbed the "Merchant of Death," Mr. Bout has fueled many brutal civil wars, mainly with former East Bloc state arsenals. In the 1990s, he dealt weapons to the several sides fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo and rebels in Angola, breaking international arms embargoes. Some have linked him to the Rwandan genocide. One good customer was the former Liberian president, Charles Taylor, who relied on Mr. Bout to arm his reign of terror in West Africa, which landed Taylor in The Hague to face war crimes charges.

This man has plagued four continents. He simultaneously armed the Taliban and the Northern Alliance; he had dealings with Hezbollah and the FARC in Colombia. Indeed, Mr. Bout thought he was negotiating a deal to provide the FARC with millions of dollars in arms when he was arrested. The deal included 100 advanced Russian-made shoulder-fired missiles, capable of downing an aircraft. Federal prosecutors in New York are seeking his extradition to stand trial for providing material support to this Colombian terrorist organization.

Viktor Bout is the model. Unfortunately there exists a class of rogues: gray-area figures who help destroy states and the rule of law while avoiding scrutiny. He and other smugglers are not small-timers. Mr. Bout has amassed a logistical capability that rivals many NATO countries, operating dozens of planes. Today the paramount concern is that his type of global delivery system might transport a nuclear weapon. Their credo is anything for money. The arrest of this man, the best known of the lot, hopefully signals a new alertness to the dangers poised by these networks.

The United States and others have spent much to build stability in Africa. We have been successful in Sierra Leone and Liberia. Millions of lives have been saved by ending these brutal conflicts. But stability is very fragile; all it takes is a few dozen rebels armed by the likes of Viktor Bout to enflame a rebuilding country. Taking on the Bouts of the world would better protect these investments.

Extradition experts give Mr. Bout only a fifty percent chance of facing justice in the United states, though. Thai police have said Mr. Bout's extradition would have to wait until he was tried in Thailand. Meanwhile, the Russian government reportedly is pressuring Thai authorities to set him free. For years, he has operated out of Moscow, in the open, despite an Interpol arrest warrant. He has ties to Russian intelligence. Beware of Russian promises to "try" Mr. Bout at home.

The diplomatic instinct in the State Department may be to play nice with Russia, especially since the Bush administration seeks a long-term agreement on U.S.-Russian relations. Recommendations to press Moscow on Mr. Bout years ago reportedly were set aside to win its cooperation in the war on terrorism. But this man is a terrorist. And there is nothing to be gained from acquiescing to yet another Russian effort at undermining the rule of law. We should be doing all we can to counter any Russian pressure on Bangkok. The arrest of Viktor Bout may signal an intolerance of an intolerable type of character. With a deadly past and dangerous future, he must face justice. Thai authorities should be commended for their cooperation, but only when Mr. Bout is securely on his way to our shores, which given likely Russian machinations, can't happen fast enough.

Representative Ed Royce. California Republican, is ranking member of the Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade Subcommittee.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Head of Russian Armed Forces To Quit: Reports


MOSCOW - The Russian armed forces chief of staff is close to stepping down after falling out with the defense minister, media reports in Moscow said March 25.

Gen. Yury Baluyevsky has already tendered his resignation to President Vladimir Putin, the English language daily Moscow Times said, citing an unnamed ministry source. The source said Baluyevsky had previously asked to be relieved of his post at least once, but had been refused.

Baluyevsky has been angered by a series of reforms pushed by Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, according to Russian media. Serdyukov was appointed last year.

"In the near future, the defense ministry's chief of staff, Yury Baluyevsky, will probably leave," news site reported March 25.

A former furniture dealer, Serdyukov is the second civilian to head Russia's armed forces.

He has ruffled feathers in the ministry with plans to sell off assets, move the navy headquarters from Moscow to Saint Petersburg and with calls for job cuts in the ministry.

The row comes at a sensitive period in Russian politics. Putin is preparing to hand over to his successor Dmitry Medvedev in May, and Moscow is in a stand-off with Western countries over NATO expansion and U.S. plans for a European missile defense shield.