Thursday, April 26, 2007

Putin accuses foreigners of meddling in Russia's affairs

The Associated Press Thursday, April 26, 2007

MOSCOW: President Vladimir Putin, combative and unrepentant in the face of criticism of his heavy-handed rule, charged Thursday that foreigners seeking to thwart Russia's resurgence were increasingly interfering in its affairs. He also declared in his State of the Nation address that he would not seek a third term, but refused to name his preferred successor and said nothing to quell speculation that he would seek to remain in power behind the scenes. Putin's second term, his last under the Constitution, ends in 2008. Last month, the head of the upper house of Parliament proposed amending the Constitution to let him stay in office.
But Putin has consistently dismissed that idea, and his statement in the speech underlined the point clearly. "The next State of the Nation address will be given by another head of state," he said. He then acknowledged that many had expected this speech to be his opportunity to openly state whom he wanted to succeed him, but instead he drew a laugh by saying that "it is premature for me to declare a political will."

Russia is entering a high-stakes political season, with parliamentary elections in December followed by presidential elections in March. Russian officials in recent months have complained that Western countries are trying to meddle in the political process by financing domestic organizations, and Putin echoed those charges. "There is a growth in the flow of money from abroad for direct interference in our internal affairs," Putin said in his address, delivered to the Federation Council, the upper house of Parliament. "There are those who, skillfully using pseudo-democratic rhetoric, would like to return to the recent past - some to loot the country's national riches, to rob the people and the state; others to strip us of economic and political independence."

Putin did not cite specific countries as sources of money. The Foreign Ministry complained extensively this month about U.S. financing of organizations whose stated goal is to promote democracy in Russia. Russian officials contend that the true aim of such financing is to provoke mass opposition protests like those that helped propel pro-Western leaders into power in neighboring Georgia and Ukraine in recent years. The Russian police harshly cracked down on a series of opposition protest marches this year, beating some demonstrators and detaining hundreds.

Opposition forces charge that Putin is strangling democracy through an array of measures to centralize power and increase the influence of large political parties.
In the parliamentary elections in December, seats will be distributed entirely on a party-list basis, eliminating the opportunity for small parties to win seats through strong local support in particular districts. Critics say the change is among the measures intended to smother opposition. But Putin said it was part of "a revolutionary step modernizing the elections system" that would "help the opposition widen its representation."The death Monday of Putin's predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, drew new attention to complaints that Putin is heading the country away from democracy. Yeltsin, as Russia's first post-Soviet leader, instituted changes that encouraged pluralism and nudged the country toward democracy.

Putin also praised the development of Russia's economy, which has soared during his presidency, driven largely by high worldwide oil prices. Brusquely dismissing protests by Russian officials, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Thursday that a missile-defense system the United States hopes to install in Poland and the Czech Republic would pose no danger to the security of Russia, The New York Times reported from Oslo. "The idea that somehow 10 interceptors and a few radars in Eastern Europe are going to threaten the Soviet strategic deterrent is purely ludicrous, and everybody knows it," Rice said before a meeting of NATO foreign ministers to focus on the dispute.

Still, Rice said the United States would continue discussing the system with Russian officials, in an effort to "demystify" it.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

50% Good News Is the Bad News in Russian Radio


MOSCOW, April 21 — At their first meeting with journalists since taking over Russia’s largest independent radio news network, the managers had startling news of their own: from now on, they said, at least 50 percent of the reports about Russia must be “positive.” In addition, opposition leaders could not be mentioned on the air and the United States was to be portrayed as an enemy, journalists employed by the network, Russian News Service, say they were told by the new managers, who are allies of the Kremlin. How would they know what constituted positive news?

“When we talk of death, violence or poverty, for example, this is not positive,” said one editor at the station who did not want to be identified for fear of retribution. “If the stock market is up, that is positive. The weather can also be positive.” In a darkening media landscape, radio news had been a rare bright spot. Now, the implementation of the “50 percent positive” rule at the Russian News Service leaves an increasingly small number of news outlets that are not managed by the Kremlin, directly or through the state national gas company, Gazprom, a major owner of media assets. The three national television networks are already state controlled, though small-circulation newspapers generally remain independent.

This month alone, a bank loyal to President Vladimir V. Putin tightened its control of an independent television station, Parliament passed a measure banning “extremism” in politics and prosecutors have gone after individuals who post critical comments on Web chat rooms.
Parliament is also considering extending state control to Internet sites that report news, reflecting the growing importance of Web news as the country becomes more affluent and growing numbers of middle-class Russians acquire computers.

On Tuesday, the police raided the Educated Media Foundation, a nongovernmental group sponsored by United States and European donors that helps foster an independent news media. The police carried away documents and computers that were used as servers for the Web sites of similar groups. That brought down a Web site run by the Glasnost Defense Foundation, a media rights group, which published bulletins on violations of press freedoms.

“Russia is dropping off the list of countries that respect press freedoms,” said Boris Timoshenko, a spokesman for the foundation. “We have propaganda, not information.” With this new campaign, seemingly aimed at tying up the loose ends before a parliamentary election in the fall that is being carefully stage-managed by the Kremlin, censorship rules in Russia have reached their most restrictive since the breakup of the Soviet Union, media watchdog groups say.
“This is not the U.S.S.R., when every print or broadcasting outlet was preliminarily censored,” Masha Lipman, a researcher at the Carnegie Moscow Center, said in a telephone interview.
Instead, the tactic has been to impose state ownership on media companies and replace editors with those who are supporters of Mr. Putin — or offer a generally more upbeat report on developments in Russia these days.

The new censorship rules are often passed in vaguely worded measures and decrees that are ostensibly intended to protect the public. Late last year, for example, the prosecutor general and the interior minister appeared before Parliament to ask deputies to draft legislation banning the distribution on the Web of “extremist” content — a catch phrase, critics say, for information about opponents of Mr. Putin.

On Friday, the Federal Security Service, a successor agency to the K.G.B., questioned Garry Kasparov, the former chess champion and opposition politician, for four hours regarding an interview he had given on the Echo of Moscow radio station. Prosecutors have accused Mr. Kasparov of expressing extremist views. Parliament on Wednesday passed a law allowing for prison sentences of as long as three years for “vandalism” motivated by politics or ideology. Once again, vandalism is interpreted broadly, human rights groups say, including acts of civil disobedience. In a test case, Moscow prosecutors are pursuing a criminal case against a political advocate accused of posting critical remarks about a member of Parliament on a Web site, the newspaper Kommersant reported Friday.

State television news, meanwhile, typically offers only bland fare of official meetings. Last weekend, the state channels mostly ignored the violent dispersal of opposition protests in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Rossiya TV, for example, led its newscast last Saturday with Mr. Putin attending a martial arts competition, with the Belgian actor Jean-Claude Van Damme as his guest. On the streets of the capital that day, 54 people were beaten badly enough by the police that they sought medical care, Human Rights Watch said. Rossiya and Channel One are owned by the state, while NTV was taken from a Kremlin critic in 2001 and now belongs to Gazprom. Last week, a St. Petersburg bank with ties to Mr. Putin increased its ownership stake in REN-TV, a channel that sometimes broadcasts critical reports, raising questions about that outlet’s continued independence.

The Russian News Service is owned by businesses loyal to the Kremlin, including Lukoil, though its exact ownership structure is not public. The owners had not meddled in editorial matters before, said Mikhail G. Baklanov, the former news editor, in a telephone interview. The service provides news updates for a network of music-formatted radio stations, called Russian Radio, with seven million listeners, according to TNS Gallup, a ratings company. Two weeks ago, the shareholders asked for the resignation of Mr. Baklanov. They appointed two new managers, Aleksandr Y. Shkolnik, director of children’s programming on state-owned Channel One, and Svevolod V. Neroznak, an announcer on Channel One. Both retained their positions at state television.

Mr. Shkolnik articulated the rule that 50 percent of the news must be positive, regardless of what cataclysm might befall Russia on any given day, according to the editor who was present at the April 10 meeting. When in doubt about the positive or negative quality of a development, the editor said, “we should ask the new leadership.” “We are having trouble with the positive part, believe me,” the editor said. Mr. Shkolnik did not respond to a request for an interview. In an interview with Kommersant, he denied an on-air ban of opposition figures. He said Mr. Kasparov might be interviewed, but only if he agreed to refrain from extremist statements.
The editor at the news service said that the change had been explained as an effort to attract a larger, younger audience, but that many editorial employees had interpreted it as a tightening of political control ahead of the elections.

The station’s news report on Thursday noted the 75th anniversary of the opening of the Moscow metro. It closed with an upbeat item on how Russian trains are introducing a six-person sleeping compartment, instead of the usual four. Already, listeners are grumbling about the “positive news” policy. “I want fresh morning broadcasts and not to fall asleep,” one listener, who signed a posting on the station’s Web site as Sergei from Vladivostok, complained. “Maybe you’ve tortured RNS’s audience enough? There are just a few of us left. Down with the boring nonintellectual broadcasts!”

The change leaves Echo of Moscow, an irreverent and edgy news station that often provides a forum for opposition voices, as the only independent radio news outlet in Russia with a national reach. And what does Aleksei Venediktov, the editor in chief of Echo of Moscow, think of the latest news from Russia? “For Echo of Moscow, this is positive news,” Mr. Venediktov said. “We are a monopoly now. From the point of view of the country, it is negative news.”

Friday, April 20, 2007

Reporter's Notebook: A New Kremlin Curtain Being Drawn

By Dana Lewis MOSCOW —

I'm shaking my head at the 20-year-old DHL representative in Moscow. Why, I ask, is she opening an envelope full of office expenses that I am trying to send to New York? Not only is she opening every envelope, but she asks me in an accusatory tone "What's this?"

"This" is a taxi receipt from my recent trip to London for FOX. So now I also want to ask: "What's this?"

After nine years of being posted in Moscow as a correspondent, it's the first time I have had envelopes, which are small and obviously contain only documents, scrutinized. She replies that there are new orders from the FSB (Russian Security Service). "We need to check everything entering or leaving the country."

There seems to be a new paranoia creeping over Russia. Another example: My FOX laptop computer has a hard-drive problem. I try to ship it to New York for maintenance and am told by the courier company that it can't be cleared. "Sorry, the FSB security services need to know there are no secrets on the hard drive."

In an election year in Moscow, it would appear anyone is a spy and everyone needs to be watched, says a U.S. Embassy spokesman. Take for instance the demonstrations held this past weekend by opposition candidates in Moscow and St. Petersburg that drew a couple of thousand people. Hardly a threat to the Kremlin, and yet security forces descended literally on their heads, attacking people with truncheons and either hospitalizing or arresting dozens.

Strolling along the Moscow riverbank in front of the White House, (his old office), former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov appears to be shaken. Kasyanov is also an opposition candidate and narrowly escaped arrest at the weekend demonstrations when several of his bodyguards pushed back the police and were arrested themselves.

"The message is clear," he tells me. "No boundaries, no barriers, no morality. The State is prepared to do everything, anything" to suppress individuals who challenge President Putin's authority.

These are frightening times in Russia. Instead of moving toward democracy and opening up to Europe, some kind of curtain is being drawn — on individual freedoms, on political plurality. A new Iron Curtain? Let's hope not.

"Most Russians travel Europe and read the Internet and know what's happening in the world and want to be part of the world," Kasyanov notes. "We can't turn back the clock now." Those drawing the curtain are largely made up of a former KGB fraternity that includes former KGB Colonel Vladimir Putin. Perhaps they are doing it because they think it's in the state's interest. But more likely, insiders say, they're doing it to protect their base of power from challengers at any cost.

What they need to understand is that a challenge to the way they see Russia doesn't make the challenger an enemy of the state. We all come from modern societies that believe debate and freedom of expression make the state better.

And honestly, about those expenses. Nothing to worry about, unless Moscow taxis start hearing how much London cabbies are getting away with charging their customers.

That would be a shame in Putin's Russia.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Russia Toughens Penalties for Extremism

By VLADIMIR ISACHENKOV, Associated Press Writer

Russian lawmakers on Wednesday endorsed new restrictions on political extremism that will toughen punishments and could make it easier for the Kremlin to apply the rules to its opponents. As parliament's lower house voted, a court considered a request from authorities to label an increasingly vocal opposition group as extremist. The moves follow police crackdowns on opposition demonstrations in Moscow and St. Petersburg and signaled President Vladimir Putin's determination to control dissent in the run-up to parliamentary elections in December and a presidential ballot next March.

The State Duma voted unanimously to allow up to three years' imprisonment for vandalism motivated by politics or ideology. The loose wording of the measure could allow authorities to punish any participants in an opposition protest if violence erupted. Meanwhile, Moscow City Court started considering the chief prosecutor's request to declare the already-banned National Bolshevik Party an extremist organization — a move that would allow officials to increase punishment for its members and could discourage other Kremlin foes from joining it in protests.
The National Bolshevik Party, led by irreverent ultranationalist novelist Eduard Limonov, has played a key role in organizing "Dissenters' Marches," the latest of which were held in Moscow and St. Petersburg over the weekend.

Club-wielding police beat many participants and detained hundreds, drawing wide criticism from human rights groups and some Western governments and reinforcing opposition contentions that Putin's government is strangling democracy ahead of the elections. "Our No. 1 goal is to end trampling on constitutional rights and create institutions that would allow public control over government," said Mikhail Kasyanov, Putin's former prime minister and now a Kremlin critic who took part in Saturday's protest in Moscow. Kasyanov reaffirmed his intention to run for president next March while speaking to reporters Wednesday. Russia's fragmented opposition groups are yet to decide on whether to nominate a single opposition candidate.
Garry Kasparov, one of the organizers of the Other Russia coalition of liberal and leftist forces, to which Kasyanov's party belongs, expressed hope that the opposition could agree on fielding single candidate in the fall.

Kasparov, a former chess world champion who has become a fierce Kremlin critic, hinted that he was unlikely to seek that role. "I believe today this wouldn't help the coalition," he said on Ekho Moskvy radio, adding that he needed to concentrate on coordinating opposition efforts.
A group of opposition politicians and liberal economic experts on Wednesday presented a social program for a future opposition presidential candidate. "It's an attempt to create a basis for a neo-liberal social course," said Irina Khakamada, a Kasyanov ally. The program criticized the Kremlin for failing to turn the nation's soaring oil revenues toward improving health care, social insurance and education. "The state has received huge oil proceeds, but nothing has changed in the social sphere," Khakamada said.

As with most actions by the opposition, the presentation was ignored by state-controlled nationwide television stations that focus on lavish coverage of Kremlin activities.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Russian TV Sanitizes Protest Footage

By ALEX NICHOLSON, Associated Press Writer

Police beat protesters and arrested hundreds in anti-government demonstrations in Moscow over the weekend, but the version on TV made for dull viewing: police rounding up marchers, and the detained filing calmly into trucks. Meanwhile, networks lavished attention on a pro-Kremlin event featuring throngs of youths in crisp white T-shirts and waving Russian flags. Rossiya TV opened its nightly news with President Vladimir Putin attending a martial arts competition, and when it later showed something of the violence, it insinuated that the protesters were fomenting revolution, backed by the West.

As Russia heads into a parliamentary election in December and presidential elections next March, government influence over the news media appears to be at its strongest since the Soviet era ended. During the coming campaigns, "the distributors of political media are either to be controlled by the state directly, or agents very close to the state," said Masha Lipman of the Carnegie Moscow Center. The state controls all three major nationwide TV networks. It owns Rossiya and Channel One, while NTV belongs to the national gas monopoly Gazprom, which wrested control of the network from a Kremlin critic in 2000.

Gazprom, majority state-owned, has media assets ranging from the iconic Izvestia broadsheet, where it acquired control in 2005, to the liberal Ekho Moskvy radio station — one of the last major broadcast outlets open to Kremlin critics. A Russian billionaire who serves as president of a Gazprom subsidiary bought a stake in a respected business daily, Kommersant, last year.
"There are still outlets who pursue a very independent line," Lipman said. "But they are at the Kremlin's mercy and they know it. With loyal owners the Kremlin can count on tempering the editorial line when necessary."

Also, such media outlets don't reach a mass audience, but allow the Kremlin to challenge the claim that Russia's media aren't free. REN TV, a national channel that is usually entertainment-oriented, provided the most objective coverage, including footage of protesters being beaten. Lipman said she wondered whether it would stay independent, in light of a report Friday that a St. Petersburg bank with ties to Putin had raised its stake in the network to 70 percent.
After almost a decade of growth, Russia has the beginnings of a broad consumer economy. But Russians still see plenty to demonstrate about. Surveys show that corruption is undiminished, pensioners complain of spiraling costs, and the average wage is just above $400 a month in a country with 53 billionaires — third after the U.S. and Germany, according to Forbes Magazine.
Still, analysts say the media clampdown decreases the chance the protests will gain momentum.
"There is little risk of contagion ... since the Kremlin continues to filter the domestic television news," Rory MacFarquhar of Goldman Sachs said in an e-mail to investors Monday.

Viewers of NTV's main newscast Saturday night might have thought the demonstrators were a few bad apples trying to spoil exhilarating pro-government marches in the early spring sunshine. It segued from a youth movement rally of 10,000 people at Moscow State University to glum, dispirited protesters. No beatings were shown, and police were seen gently escorting protesters onto trucks. Witnesses at the scene, meanwhile, saw young people grabbed with no apparent provocation and manhandled into vehicles.

NTV and Rossiya both seemed to play on Russians' instinctive suspicion of outsiders.
NTV showed Garry Kasparov, the chess champion who has become an opposition leader, shouting from inside a police bus, but the voiceover said "he made comments in English to foreign journalists." Rossiya framed its report on the protests in the context of calls for a revolution in Russia by the self-exiled tycoon Boris Berezovsky, and of a U.S. State Department report on democracy and human rights that criticized Russia.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Political activists, police spar in Moscow

Anti-Kremlin protesters march despite authorities' efforts to prevent them. Hundreds are detained, including organizer Garry Kasparov

By David HolleyTimes Staff

For beleaguered but feisty anti-Kremlin activists of various political stripes, today was a day of drama and high tension, as young radicals and fed-up pensioners alike used a protest march and rally to taunt authorities.The demonstrators succeeded in provoking the government to bare its teeth, with police arresting hundreds and trying to intimidate journalists. The day was not without humor, however. After police detained one of the protest organizers, Garry Kasparov, a former world chess champion turned democratic activist, a rally speaker declared wryly that Kasparov was "playing chess" with the authorities. Kasparov and his disparate allies, including a former prime minister and a writer who heads a radical youth group, share the goal of keeping protest alive in a country where Russian President Vladimir V. Putin's government asserts ever-greater centralized control.Putin enjoys more than 70% support ratings, and many critics question why, given that popularity, his government appears intent on stifling even weak opposition. A maximum of 3,000 people made any attempt to protest in Moscow today, while authorities called out 9,000 officers to keep control.

Some opposition activists argue that the response is proof that Putin's circle is neither so powerful nor monolithic as it seems.In recent months, Kasparov and his associates, along with London-based tycoon Boris Berezovsky, a onetime political insider turned fierce Putin critic, have outlined similar visions of how greater democracy might come to Russia. Under their scenario, street protests keep the spark of dissent alive, and at some point the seemingly solid Kremlin power structure splits, and one faction goes over to the opposition. That is when true political competition and greater hopes for real democracy could take hold, they say.Although the foreign-based and Moscow-based critics appear to be working in parallel, Kasparov's group has distanced itself from Berezovsky, who has implied that he is giving financial support to secret opponents of Putin within the Kremlin inner circle.Kasparov's group, Other Russia, originally announced plans to hold a "Dissenters' March" and rally today centered on Pushkin Square, the Russian capital's premier spot for such events. But they were denied permission after a pro-Kremlin youth group was given a rally permit for the same time and place.City authorities offered Other Russia use of a park in the Chistye Prudy area for their rally but said no march would be allowed because of the disruption it would cause.Other Russia accepted the approved rally site but told supporters to gather informally near Pushkin Square and then walk the roughly one-mile distance to Chistye Prudy.The pro-Kremlin youth group, which had said openly that it obtained the permit in order to deny Pushkin Square to Other Russia, did not hold any event there, and by late morning the square was simply cordoned off by police.Thus was the chessboard set. Kasparov and some other activists were detained near Pushkin Square almost upon their arrival and were placed on a police bus. As he was being driven off, Kasparov managed to shout out an open window, "This regime is criminal. This is a police state. They arrest people everywhere."

His lawyer later said Kasparov had been charged with "shouting anti-government slogans in the presence of a large group of people," the Russian news agency Interfax reported.He was released late in the evening after being fined $39 for violation of public order. Around the same time that Kasparov was arrested, other protesters began approaching the police who had cordoned off Pushkin Square."Why are you not allowing people to get together and hold rallies as the constitution provides?" one man, who later identified himself as Yevgeny Shimenkov, 67, said to an officer."The constitution is for you. For us, there are orders of our commander," the policeman replied."You must know your orders are criminal. Your commander is a criminal and you are his accomplices," Shimenkov said."Get out of here, old man, before I arrest you," the policeman retorted.After about 30 minutes, police began to press protesters farther away from the square; and suddenly many people who had gathered in the area, some appearing to be simply bystanders, began walking toward the park at Chistye Prudy.

Soon there was a column of nearly 1,000 people snaking along the sidewalk and spilling into the street, in effect conducting the unauthorized Dissenters' March.Some youthful members of the National Bolshevik Party, a banned radical youth group that specializes in theatrical anti-Kremlin protests, unfurled their hammer-and-sickle flag and lighted flares. The group is headed by Eduard Limonov, a writer criticized by some for having a nondemocratic ideology. Kasparov and former Prime Minister Mikhail M. Kasyanov have claimed their alliance with him is justified by a need to unite all anti-Kremlin forces to keep hope for democracy alive.

When the crowd had walked about half a mile, hundreds of riot police moved in, particularly going after young people and those with flags or banners, grabbing them roughly and putting them on police buses. People with cameras were also targets, although journalists who could produce accreditation cards were usually released on the spot. Some middle-aged and elderly protesters also were detained.Reuters news agency reported that four of its journalists — two photographers and two camera crew — were detained as they covered the protest. They were later released without being charged, it said.

Police said they detained about 250 demonstrators, the Russian news agency RIA Novosti reported.About 1,000 protesters eventually gathered at the approved site to hear speeches, including one by Kasyanov, who served during Putin's first presidential term but joined the opposition after being dismissed from office three years ago."There are no free elections. There is no respect for people," said Kasyanov, a potential opposition presidential candidate in balloting next year, when the constitution requires that Putin step down."The authorities are afraid of free people. They're not afraid of slaves and obedient people. But they're afraid of you."

Friday, April 13, 2007

Chess star squares up to Putin

By James Rodgers BBC News, Moscow

Former world chess champion Garry Kasparov sees his campaign to change Russia as a mission to safeguard constitutional rights. "It's a very important battle," he told the BBC, at the end of a news conference which he and his political allies had called to outline their plans for a protest on Saturday. He has assembled a bewilderingly broad coalition. It includes former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov and the extremist National Bolshevik Party. The NBP has become known for audacious stunts aimed at embarrassing the establishment. Nevertheless, their flag borrows heavily from Nazi imagery - a hammer and sickle replaces the swastika. They hardly seem likely partners for Western-style democrats. I put it to Garry Kasparov that his coalition, called

"Another Russia", simply lacks popular support.

"At a time when the government controls mass media, and the election process is turned into a mockery, I think to talk about public support is probably useless," he insisted.

Street politics

For now, the campaign ground is the streets. The numbers are small. A similar rally in Moscow in December drew only 3-4,000 people. The marchers were outnumbered by helmeted and heavily booted riot police. Moscow's political establishment is dismissive. "It's a coalition of the losers," Vyacheslav Nikonov, an analyst with close ties to the Kremlin, told me. He argues that Another Russia will never progress from street protest to parliament - the Duma. "Their overall electoral strength is about half a per cent. Russia has a proportional system of elections, and in order to get into the State Duma, they need to get more than seven per cent. There is no way they can get close to that."

One of the frequent complaints made by Another Russia is that they are denied access to the media. Television is by far the most influential news medium in the world's biggest country. All the main channels are controlled by the state, or businesses close to the administration.
A quick glance at Another Russia's own newspaper shows how wide they are casting their net. They call on liberals, communists, nationalists, and people who are not interested in politics, to join them. The next column is headed "Where's the revolution?"

New affluence

The fact is that many Russians have had enough of upheaval and change. For them, the revolution already has come. Its latest phase - in a Russia rolling in mineral wealth - has made them richer. They are happy. You do not get the sense that there is a massive yearning for more radical reforms. But not everyone is a winner. With elections ahead, the authorities seem to want no element of risk. The massive police presence at previous marches bears witness to that. There are also many stories of activists from other regions of Russia being prevented from travelling to Moscow. Before the December demonstration, the offices of Mr Kasparov's organisation were raided.

Masha Lipman of the Moscow Carnegie Centre senses that the Kremlin is nervous.
"Political street activism is in theory unpredictable," she notes. "Nobody knows when it might evolve into something bigger. After all, what happened in Ukraine during the Orange Revolution was totally unexpected. The Kremlin today wants double, and triple, and quadruple protection. They don't want to take chances." Mr Kasparov accepts that this is one game he does not control. "If you look at this as a chess game, I'm not the player, I'm the piece: a very important piece, maybe one of the most important pieces, but still one of many. And we have to win the game." His fellow pieces have come from both flanks of Russian politics. That could frustrate strategy. For now, the former champion's latest gambit does not look strong enough to force the Kremlin onto the defensive - but they are keeping a close eye on his moves.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

'I am plotting a new Russian revolution'

London exile Berezovsky says force necessary to bring down President Putin in Moscow

Friday April 13, 2007

The Russian tycoon Boris Berezovsky has told the Guardian he is plotting the violent overthrow of President Putin from his base in Britain after forging close contacts with members of Russia's ruling elite.

In comments which appear calculated to enrage the Kremlin, and which will further inflame relations between London and Moscow, the multimillionaire claimed he was already bankrolling people close to the president who are conspiring to mount a palace coup. "We need to use force to change this regime," he said. "It isn't possible to change this regime through democratic means. There can be no change without force, pressure." Asked if he was effectively fomenting a revolution, he said: "You are absolutely correct."

Although Mr Berezovsky, with an estimated fortune of £850m, may have the means to finance such a plot, and although he enjoyed enormous political influence in Russia before being forced into exile, he said he could not provide details to back up his claims because the information was too sensitive. Last night the Kremlin denounced Mr Berezovsky's comments as a criminal offence which it believed should undermine his refugee status in the UK.

Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin's chief spokesman, said: "In accordance with our legislation [his remarks are] being treated as a crime. It will cause some questions from the British authorities to Mr Berezovsky. We want to believe that official London will never grant asylum to someone who wants to use force to change the regime in Russia." It will not be the first time the British government has faced accusations from the Kremlin that it is providing a safe haven for Mr Berezovsky. When he told a Moscow radio station last year that he wanted to see Mr Putin overthrown by force, Jack Straw, then foreign secretary, told the Commons that "advocating the violent overthrow of a sovereign state is unacceptable" and warned the tycoon he could be stripped of his refugee status.
Russian authorities subsequently sent an extradition request to London. That failed, however, when a district judge ruled Mr Berezovsky could not be extradited as long as he has asylum status.

In an interview with the Guardian, however, Mr Berezovsky goes much further than before, claiming to be in close contact with members of Russia's political elite who, he says, share his view that Mr Putin is damaging Russia by rolling back democratic reforms, smothering opposition, centralising power and flouting the country's constitution. "There is no chance of regime change through democratic elections," he says. "If one part of the political elite disagrees with another part of the political elite - that is the only way in Russia to change the regime. I try to move that."

While declining to describe these contacts - and alleging that they would be murdered if they were identified - he maintained that he was offering his "experience and ideology" to members of the country's political elite, as well as "my understanding of how it could be done". He added: "There are also practical steps which I am doing now, and mostly it is financial."
Mr Berezovsky said he was unconcerned by any threat to strip him of his refugee status. "Straw wasn't in a position to take that decision. A judge in court said it wasn't in the jurisdiction of Straw." He added that there was even less chance of such a decision being taken following the polonium-210 poisoning last November of his former employee, Alexander Litvinenko. "Today the reality is different because of the Litvinenko case." Mr Berezovsky, 61, a former mathematician, turned to business during the Yeltsin years and made his fortune by capturing state assets at knockdown prices during Russia's rush towards privatisation.

Although he played a key role in ensuring Mr Putin's victory in the 2000 presidential elections, the two men fell out as the newly elected leader successfully wrested control of Russia back from the so-called oligarchy, the small group of tycoons who had come to dominate the country's economy. A few months after the election Mr Berezovsky fled Russia, and applied successfully for asylum in the UK after Mr Litvinenko, an officer with the KGB's successor, the FSB, came forward to say he had been ordered to murder the tycoon.

Mr Berezovsky changed his name to Platon Elenin, Platon being the name of a character in a Russian film based loosely upon his life. He was subsequently given a British passport in this name. As well as claiming to be financing and encouraging coup plotters in Moscow, Mr Berezovsky said he had dedicated much of the last six years to "trying to destroy the positive image of Putin" that many in the west held, portraying him whenever possible as a dangerously anti-democratic figure. He said he had also opposed the Russian president through Kommersant, the influential Russian newspaper which he controlled until last year.

Last month Mr Berezovsky was questioned by two detectives from the Russian prosecutor general's office who were in London to investigate the death of Mr Litvinenko. He has denied claims that he refused to answer many of their questions.

Last night the Kremlin said Russian authorities might want to question him again in the light of his interview with the Guardian. "I now believe our prosecutor general's office has got lots of questions for Mr Berezovsky," said Mr Peskov. He added: "His words are very interesting. This is a very sensitive issue."

The Foreign Office said it had nothing to add to Mr Straw's comments of last year.

Back to the Future with Putin

The first of three reports looking at the changing political map of Russia and how it is using its growing financial muscle both at home and abroad.

Today: the president's return to the era of authoritarianism

After four years as a member of St Petersburg's legislative assembly, Sergei Gulyaev is packing up. Boxes, files and a 2007 calendar showing him in a moody leather jacket - all were being carted out of his office. Last month Mr Gulyaev failed to win re-election to the city's assembly. The vote, in 14 regions across Russia, was a rehearsal for December's parliamentary elections - and for next year's all-important presidential poll.

But the end of Mr Gulyaev's political career had little to do with the voters. Last December he and two colleagues voted against a decision by Vladimir Putin to reappoint a staunch loyalist as St Petersburg's governor. Forty-seven other deputies voted in favour. The Kremlin's revenge was swift. Before the election, the city's electoral commission kicked Mr Gulyaev and his liberal Yabloko party off the ballot paper. Despite all evidence to the contrary, it claimed 34 signatures on an election petition had been forged.

Liberal voters in St Petersburg were left with nobody to vote for. To no one's great surprise, Russia's two pro-Kremlin parties came first and second, leaving the new assembly without dissenting voices. "The decision to stop us standing was revenge for our position," Mr Gulyaev told the Guardian. Peering from his office window on to one of St Petersburg's most beautiful squares, he added: "There is no democracy in Russia. There is de jure democracy. But in reality it doesn't exist."

Seven years after ex-KGB agent Vladimir Putin took over as president from an enfeebled Boris Yeltsin, Russia has gone back, critics say, to the classic authoritarian model of the state that flourished under the tsarists and the communists.

The accidental anarchy of the Yeltsin era - when TV stations were free to portray the country's leader as an occasional drunk - has disappeared. Instead, Mr Putin has clinically restored the old system of Russian authoritarianism. In this new era, critics of the president mysteriously fail to appear on television; courts eagerly anticipate the Kremlin's wishes; the killers of troublesome journalists are rarely, if ever, caught.

Russia's tiny opposition compares Putin's Russia to Leonid Brezhnev's Soviet Union in the mid-1970s, another golden economic period characterised by high oil prices and a strongly "personalist" regime. "Of course we can always find some differences with Soviet times, the Brezhnev time, or the tsarist times. But on the whole what has happened in Russia is a classic restoration of authoritarianism," Vladimir Ryzhkov, one of handful of independent MPs left in Russia's duma, or parliament, said.

Speaking in a cafe near the duma's modern offices, he added: "It's a restoration in several aspects. It's a restoration of the traditional Russian model of the state, society and political system, and of rhetoric in Russian-western relations." Like Sergei Gulyaev, Mr Ryzhkov's political career is almost over. Two weeks ago Russia's supreme court liquidated his Republican party on the grounds that it had too few members. The party had violated electoral law, the commission said.

The ruling follows numerous changes by the Kremlin to Russia's electoral system. Previously, Mr Putin abolished elections for provincial governors - he now appoints them. He also imposed Moscow's control over local budgets. Under the latest rules of the game, political parties must have 50,000 members and be represented in half of Russia's provinces.

Additionally, Russia's old mixed constituency and list system has been replaced by a list-only system, making it impossible for popular independent local candidates to stand again as MPs. The hurdle for parties to win seats in the duma has gone up from 5 to 7% of the overall national vote. With fewer Russians voting, the minimum 25% turnout rule has disappeared. Moreover, the Kremlin has invented a social democrat-style "opposition" party called A Just Russia, which competes for votes against Mr Putin's ruling United Russia party. But like United Russia, A Just Russia patriotically supports the president, while maintaining the illusion of democratic rivalry. It also takes away votes from the communists and nationalists.

Kremlin political theorists describe this form of virtual politics as "managed democracy". Mr Ryzhkov, meanwhile, says he lugged five boxes into court proving his liberal party had 58,000 members. The court ignored this evidence, he says. The sum effect of these changes will be to kill off Russia's few genuinely independent political actors, critics suggest. Even before anyone has gone to the polls the shape of the next duma is widely known. It will be made up of four parties: United Russia, A Just Russia, the ultra-nationalists and the communists. "Either you are part of the game, or part of the pseudo-opposition, where you co-operate with the Kremlin guys and never touch Putin. Or you can't participate in politics," Mr Ryzhkov says. His assessment of Putin's Russia is bleak. "Almost all the results of perestroika and democratisation have been killed," he says.

But there are growing signs that the Kremlin's attempts to micro-manage the elections and ensure the smooth transition of power from Mr Putin to an as yet unknown successor picked by the Kremlin are not going quite as well as they might. The trouble started in St Petersburg, Mr Putin's backyard and where he grew up. Last month Mr Gulyaev led 5,000 demonstrators through Nevsky Prospekt, St Petersburg's central boulevard. The avenue finishes at the Neva river and the Hermitage museum, the tsar's former palace and the scene of an uprising by another angry group, the Bolsheviks, in 1917.

The protesters included representatives from all Russia's main opposition parties, Yabloka, Garry Kasparov's United Civil Front, the National Bolsheviks, and the Popular Democratic Union. But they also included hundreds of locals, fed up with rising prices, corruption and the lack of real electoral choice. Demonstrators were also unhappy about plans to construct a giant tower for the state-owned energy firm Gazprom in St Petersburg. It was the largest anti-Putin demonstration ever. The demonstrators blocked traffic for two hours and police arrested 113 people. The size of the demonstration appears to have surprised and rattled the Kremlin. Last month authorities in Nizhny Novgorod crushed a similar demonstration, detaining dozens of activists before they had even had a chance to assemble in the city's Gorky Square.

Next week further anti-Kremlin demonstrations are planned in Moscow and St Petersburg. This month opposition leaders will also meet to agree a unified anti-Kremlin candidate to stand in the presidential election in March 2008. Russia's state-run television channels have reported none of this. Since 2001, the Kremlin has enjoyed a monopoly on state-run television, the main source of information about society for 85% of Russians. The situation in the print media is mixed. While most publications take a pro-Kremlin line, Russia has four relatively independent newspapers, including Kommersant and the respected business daily Vedomosti. There is also a liberal radio station Echo Moscow. Collectively, however, these reach only a tiny audience.

The government, meanwhile, dismisses western accusations that Russia is backsliding on democracy as a "misperception". Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin's chief press spokesman told the Guardian: "We are convinced this is wrong. Russia has come a tremendous way in 15 years from a one-party totalitarian regime to a multi-party democracy with free elections, and a free press."

He dismissed the idea that Yabloko's failure to take part in the elections in St Petersburg was due to sinister government forces. "It wasn't a plot by the Kremlin. There are laws in this country. You have to perform certain formalities to participate in elections. They failed to do that." The authorities had taken a tough line on recent pro-democracy marches because of the "threat of extremism," he added.

Most political observers believe the Kremlin regime is impregnable, especially when world gas and oil prices remain high. They also point out that Mr Putin enjoys broad support. "One fact about the contemporary Russian situation is that the majority or a plurality of the population supports the current president. The majority isn't very much. But 55-57-58% express their trust in Putin personally," says Dr Grigorii Golosov, Russia's leading election expert, and a professor of politics at St Petersburg's European University. "But judging from recent elections only 31% of the population is prepared to vote for United Russia. Plurality support is definitely there."

Nobody really believes that St Petersburg, the scene of uprisings in 1905 and 1917, is on the brink of another one. "We don't want a revolution," Sergei Gulyaev says. "We merely want free political debate in the media and the guarantee of participation in the elections. These are fundamental things."

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

U.S. report on democracy, human rights in Russia politicized-FM

MOSCOW, April 11 (RIA Novosti) - A U.S. State Department report on democratic processes and human rights protection in the world contains an arbitrary and politicized provision regarding Russia, the Russian Foreign Ministry said Wednesday.
The report "Supporting Human Rights and Democracy: The U.S. Record 2006", published last Thursday by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, blasted democratic processes in Russia and the current situation with non-governmental organizations and human rights protection in Russia.

"The report is obviously politicized in its nature and fails to reflect the real state of affairs," the ministry said in a statement adding that the U.S. State Department published similar reports before the 'color revolutions' in former Soviet republics. The U.S. report said in particular, "Continuing centralization of power in the executive branch, a compliant State Duma, political pressure on the judiciary, corruption and selectivity in enforcement of the law, continuing media restrictions and self-censorship, and government pressure on opposition political parties eroded the public accountability of government leaders."

The Russian government has faced criticism from Western leaders for restrictions imposed on rights groups and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) operating in the country, and the issue is often cited as an example of Russia's alleged backsliding on democracy. "A whole range of simple logical tricks was used in the document regarding Russia... in order to convince American taxpayers and public opinion that Russia was in urgent need of democratization," the Russian ministry said.

The report also said in particular that if it was not for the United States and its embassy in Russia, which supported various NGOs and democratic initiatives, the political and social situation would have deteriorated much further in the country. "With U.S. support, NGOs continued to monitor the work of deputies in regional legislatures, encouraging interaction between constituents and their elected officials and promoting good governance. Sixteen U.S.-supported coalitions of business associations united more than 170 associations nationwide; these groups won at least 30 legislative changes in various regions of the country. The ambassador met with the head of the Central Election Commission and with political party leaders, including opposition leaders, throughout the year to emphasize the need for transparent and fair elections," the report said.

In light of this statement from the report, Konstantin Kosachev, the head of the International Affairs Committee in the lower house of the Russian parliament, said Monday that the report was an unwarranted interference in Russia's internal affairs adding that "It contains a direct indication that the United States intends to finance projects within the framework of the forthcoming State Duma and presidential election campaigns." Commenting on the report further, the Russian Foreign Ministry said that Russia is open to detailed and constructive dialogue with all countries, including the United States. But Russia believes it unacceptable to use monitoring of democratic ideas and human rights as a cover for interference in other countries' internal affairs, including through U.S. diplomatic representations abroad, the ministry added.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

U.S. plans to interfere in Russia's elections unacceptable - Kosachyov

MOSCOW. April 10 (Interfax) - U.S. plans to get involved in Russia's election process is an explicit instance of interference in Russia's internal affairs, State Duma International Affairs Committee chairman Konstantin Kosachyov said.

"I am amazed by the U.S. State Department's report. The masks are off. The report directly indicates that the U.S. will fund projects under the upcoming parliamentary and presidential election campaigns in Russia," Kosachyov said, commenting on the U.S. State Department's 2006 annual report on human rights and democracy.

"This is an instance of direct interference in a country's internal political life and sovereign affairs, which we cannot accept in any flavor or under any circumstances," Kosachyov said.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Russia Pushes for Agreement over Gas Cartel along OPEC Lines

Top officials in Europe and America are watching nervously to see whether Russia succeeds in forging an Opec-style "gas cartel" at gathering of the world's leading gas exporters in Qatar today.

Algeria, Iran and Venezuela all appear to back Putin's bid for a 'gas cartel' The once-sleepy Gas Exporting Countries Forum has become the stage for a dramatic bid by Russian President Vladimir Putin to dominate the global energy agenda. The EU energy commissioner, Andris Piebalgs, warned that Europe will retaliate against any attempt to rig the market or hold European consumers to ransom." Gas could be replaced. If gas is not traded in open markets, I would advise all member states and I will do everything I can to make more investment in nuclear power," he said.

In Washington, the top Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, described the proposed cartel as a "global extortion racket".

Qatar's foreign minister, Mohammed al-Roumaihi, left no doubt that the proposal was a Kremlin scheme. " The idea of a gas Opec is above all political. It was suggested by President Putin, whose country has specific strategic objectives," he said. Russia's energy minister, Victor Khristenko, insisted the world had nothing to fear from moves to streamline rules in the gas market.

"I know this is causing a lot of tension, sometimes exaggerated, sometimes wild. Are we going to sign up to a gas price policy? Of course not," he said. Leonid Grigoriev, president of Russia's Energy Institute, said Mr Putin was stoking fears as part of bargaining strategy in gas export deals. "

These references to a cartel are made deliberately. They are expected to frighten the West, and they do," he said.

It is unclear how a gas cartel would function given that most contracts are taken out on very long delivery schedules of 15 years or more, unlike the liquid spot market for crude.
Algeria, Iran and Venezuela all appear to back Mr Putin's ideas for a "gas Opec", but the scheme would lack bite without the full support of pro-Western Qatar.