Friday, November 30, 2007

Kasparov: Russian Election a Farce

Kasparov: Russian Election a Farce

The Associated Press
Friday, November 30, 2007

MOSCOW -- The former world chess champion is awaiting his opponent's next move.

Garry Kasparov, released from jail after serving a five-day sentence for leading a protest against Vladimir Putin, acknowledged Friday he holds the weaker position in his confrontation with the Russian president.

But Kasparov predicted the upcoming election season, which begins with Sunday's parliamentary vote, will force the secretive Putin to reveal his strategy in the nail-biting political game gripping the country as Putin's time in the Kremlin runs out.

As the campaign for the March 2 presidential vote gathers pace, Kasparov said, the Kremlin's beleaguered, fractious opponents can regroup for a new push aimed at "dismantling Putin's regime."

He hopes their ranks will be strengthened following Sunday's vote, which will also push dissenting voices further to the margins.

With Putin leading the ticket of the main pro-Kremlin party, United Russia, government authorities have made an all-out effort to secure an overwhelming victory. Watchdog groups alleged this week that government officials across Russia have been using their powers to intimidate opposition campaign workers and candidates.

Putin has cast the election as a crucial vote for continuity _ and suggested that a convincing United Russia win would give him a popular mandate to retain influence after the presidential vote, in which he is barred from seeking a third term.

Kasparov labeled Sunday's vote a farce that will push the country toward dictatorship.

Maneuvering to maintain control, Putin has sprung a series of surprises on Russians, but kept them guessing about his specific plans. Unlike in chess, Kasparov said, "the only rule in our game with the Kremlin is that the Kremlin changes the rules whenever it sees fit."

"Materially, we are now the weaker side, we cannot dictate our game," the former world chess champion told a news conference. "And the rule I've learned all my life is that if your position is weaker, you must await the active moves of your opponent."

That will happen, he said, by the Dec. 23 deadline for nominating candidates for the presidential vote. Putin is expected to name a favored successor, who would almost certainly win; Kasparov said he did not rule out that Putin would seek to remain president.

"Now our opponent must make a move that will draw him into a game with rules ... and then we will be able to respond," he said. "Whatever happens, I believe that at the beginning of next year, a real opposition to the regime will begin to form in Russia."

Sunday's vote, he said, will bring "total domination by United Russia."

"Russia today does not correspond to even the most primitive idea of a democratic state," he said. It is "an authoritarian state with a very serious tendency toward single-party dictatorship."

Aside from United Russia, only one party _ the Communists _ appears certain to clear the 7 percent threshold needed to win seats in the 450-member State Duma, the lower house of parliament.

Kasparov, who has struggled to attract more than a few thousand people to protests he has led over the past year, said more people could join opposition groups after the vote.

Opinion polls put Putin's approval rating around 80 percent and indicate United Russia could win that proportion of parliament seats. But Kasparov, citing rising prices and the gap between rich and poor, says there is much more discontent.

He asserted that the heavy-handed campaign being carried out by United Russia is motivated by Putin's awareness of that discontent.

"He knows that the real situation in Russia is far, far apart from the virtual reality he presents on television," he said.

Kasparov has sought to harness opposition through a series of street protests called Dissenters' Marches, several of which have been violently broken up by police. The Other Russia has voted to nominate him as its presidential candidate.

He has been detained several times, and last Saturday he was sentenced to five days in jail, convicted of leading an illegal march, chanting anti-Putin slogans and resisting arrest during a Moscow protest.

Kasparov said he and others jailed were denied access to lawyers and visitors.

"The authorities ... are ignoring the constitutional minimum that was followed even in the Soviet Union," he said.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Moscow: Oil Town

Moscow: Oil Town
Petrodollars are fueling an unprecedented—but precarious—prosperity in Russia’s capital.

Guy Sorman
Autumn 2007

Those who knew the Soviet Union before 1991 agree that Moscow is a happier place today. In the old days, the city wore a dark, brooding look. People were poor and afraid; the ruble was worthless, though there was nothing to buy anyway. Imperial Moscow boasted two, perhaps three, restaurants, offering meager fare. The only ones to ply a trade were watchmakers, who made their living repairing old watches—a telling sign of the low level of consumption and innovation. Soviet Russia manufactured weapons, and little else.

In just 15 years, Moscow has transformed completely. Restaurants, bars, and hotels overflow with people, day and night. Gilded youth and nouveaux riches flaunt their wealth and expensive cars. French and Italian luxury goods adorn the shops on Pushkin Square and Tverskaya Street. The roads, once empty save the occasional official limousine, surge with traffic.

The money from oil, gas, and raw materials is flowing freely, driving this revolution. The biggest gainers, those at the top of the pyramid, are the officials, bureaucrats, and merchants who are part of the export network. Prosperity has trickled down, though, and many Russians have benefited. In 2006, median wages rose by more than 20 percent and the country posted 7 percent growth. Only those living in smaller towns and in the countryside, which still hasn’t recovered from the trauma of agricultural privatization during the nineties, have been left out, Yegor Gaidar informs me.

Gaidar, Boris Yeltsin’s prime minister in 1992 and the architect of Russian privatization, insists that soaring oil and gas prices aren’t the sole reasons for Russia’s economic recovery—indeed, he points out, the recovery began before the oil boom, thanks to the Russian spirit of enterprise and the introduction of the free market. Gaidar famously went in for “shock therapy,” lightning-swift privatization, rather than gradual change. Russians hold him responsible for the disruptions and poverty of the nineties, though it’s unfair to paint him as a villain. He was just the doctor, summoned to do something for an economy in its death throes. His sale of state assets was an attempt at a cure, not the illness.

People tend to forget that Yeltsin had inherited an economy almost wholly dependent on oil. Russia, Gaidar reminds me, could only feed her people by importing food in exchange for oil, a choice made in the twenties after Stalin’s collectivization destroyed the country’s agriculture. As energy prices plummeted in the eighties, Mikhail Gorbachev drove the country deep into debt to maintain food-subsistence levels. When Yeltsin came to power in 1991, Russia stood on the brink of famine, in no position to pay back her debts. The economy had ground to a halt, and oil production was dwindling. It was only after Gaidar’s privatization that production picked up. True, the so-called oligarchs—the well-connected elites of Russia—made a killing, buying state enterprises for a song. Yet they also put the economy back on track. “Their enterprise,” says Gaidar, “saved Russia.”

So is Russia truly a market economy? “We’re almost there,” says Arkady Dvorkovitch, President Vladimir Putin’s 35-year-old economic advisor. Trained in the United States, he has become the icon of the new generation in power. “We still do not have an independent judiciary,” he admits, “nor do we have genuine rule of law and officials who apply the rules rather than embezzle funds”, “almost there” suddenly seeming quite a ways off.

No business can function in Russia without official protection, or having a “roof,” in local parlance. The protection comes at a price, yet foreign investment pours in, proof that, corruption notwithstanding, profits are healthy. Like Gaidar, Dvorkovitch praises the Russian spirit of enterprise. But once you look beyond restaurants, shops, and real estate, I remark, there’s little investment: just 20 percent of national wealth. “It will come, things are happening very fast,” responds Dvorkovitch. The Russians, he claims, are just beginning to have faith in the stability of the new economy; credit based on predictable rules has only just started. But there’s no going back, Dvorkovitch maintains: no one wants a return to socialism. As in the West, the debate is about the role of the state in the market system.

Dvorkovitch would like to see greater market autonomy in investment decisions, rather than the state’s making so many major investments. Despite all the privatizing of the nineties, the state is still heavily involved in the economy—and in the energy sector, it has been retaking control from private companies, both Russian and international. The national ventures are hardly role models when it comes to investment strategy. State-run energy giant Gazprom, for instance, finds it more lucrative to invest its money in the financial market than to explore for new reserves or improve its technology. “It will happen,” asserts Dvorkovitch yet again. “President Putin is keen on investing in new sectors like petrochemicals, food processing, biotechnology, and IT,” he adds, doing his best to sound convincing.

Putin may decree, but nothing happens on the ground,” says former finance minister Yevgeny Yasin. The Russian president, he tells me, thinks that it’s enough to allocate public money for a sector to develop, as if by magic. Putin has yet to realize that in a market economy, development requires an institutional framework. “There can be no major innovation,” Yasin explains, “as long as there is no rule of law and when entrepreneurs who refuse to kowtow to the establishment risk being put behind bars.” Yasin calls the surfeit of oil and gas “the resource curse”; it exonerates both the Russian leadership and people from thinking about needed reforms.

How long will the oil boom last? Forever—or that’s what the current Russian leadership seems to think. The growth potential of China and India has convinced them that oil prices can only rise further, to Russia’s great benefit. When I raise the specter of global warming and the policy response to it, which could result in lower oil and gas consumption, my Russian interlocutors laugh. This is a debate fabricated in the United States, they explain, and it doesn’t cut much ice with the Indians and Chinese—and, in any case, Russian climatologists don’t subscribe to the global warming theory. “Hasn’t Russia ratified the Kyoto Convention on the limiting of greenhouse gases?” I ask. Dvorkovitch is dismissive: it was merely a political gesture.

Economist Vladimir Milov belongs to the same generation as Dvorkovitch, but he chose to leave the government on moral grounds. Unable to accept the high-oil-price way of thinking, Milov spoke his mind, a heroic feat under a regime intolerant of criticism. He succeeded in setting up an energy consultancy, which initiates foreign clients into the mysteries of Russian politics.

“Marxism is very useful in understanding the political life and ideological development of Russia,” Milov observes, aware of the irony. According to Marxism, the economic base determines the ideological superstructures. When Putin took office in 1999, Milov points out, energy prices were low, and the president happily adopted a liberal line and left things to civil society. As soon as energy prices began to rise, and it appeared that they would continue rising for a long time, however, Putin started renationalizing parts of the economy, taking over the media, and restoring to the bureaucracy and the FSB (formerly the KGB) all their old powers.

Oil may prop up the Russian economy, but no market can stay on a rising curve forever, Milov concludes. Sooner or later, prices will begin to fall. As things stand, Russia will not be able to cope.

The sale of oil and gas brings in $150 billion every year; arms sales, a mere $6 billion. Is the oil boom a new Russian curse, or a restoration of national sovereignty? Moscow’s youth lives it up. But some Russians believe that the KGB has never really left the dreaded Lubianka, the city’s dark heart.

In 1991, the people pulled down the statue of Felix Djerzinski, the founder of the KGB. Since then, it has lain on its side in the courtyard of Moscow’s Museum of Modern Art, corroded and covered with weeds. In the same museum, a retrospective is devoted to Oleg Kulik, a video artist who epitomizes new Russian art. Kulik became famous after he walked naked on the streets of Moscow, wearing only a necklace, barking or jumping on passersby to lick or bite them. “Today,” Kulik says, “Russian artists have complete freedom to do what they want—provided that they don’t criticize Putin or the Orthodox Church.”

Thus Moscow 2007: newly prosperous, only partially free—and precarious.

Guy Sorman is the author of numerous books, including The Empire of Lies, forthcoming from Encounter. He lives in Paris and is the president of the publishing house Éditions Sorman.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Kasparov jailed after anti-Putin protest

Kasparov jailed after anti-Putin protest

By MANSUR MIROVALEV, Associated Press

Russian authorities arrested former world chess champion Garry Kasparov on Saturday and sentenced him to five days in prison after he helped lead a protest against President Vladimir Putin that ended in clashes with police.

Kasparov, one of President Vladimir Putin's harshest critics, was charged with organizing an unsanctioned procession of at least 1,500 people against Putin, chanting anti-government slogans and resisting arrest, court documents said. His assistant said he was beaten during the demonstration.

At the hastily organized trial, two police testified that they had been ordered before the rally to arrest Kasparov.

"What you read is the fruit of a fantasy dictated on orders from above," Kasparov told the court.

The violence came amid an election campaign in which some opposition political groups have been sidelined by new election rules or have complained of being hobbled by official harassment.

The Kremlin has mounted a major campaign to orchestrate a crushing victory for Putin's United Russia party in Dec. 2 parliamentary elections — perhaps to ensure that Putin can continue to rule Russia even after he steps down as president in May. The constitution prevents him from serving three consecutive terms.

The fracas also comes at a time of growing concern in the West over the state of democracy in Russia, with western critics saying freedoms have been curtailed during Putin's eight years in office. Putin accuses the West of meddling in Russian politics.

Kasparov and dozens of other demonstrators were detained after the rally which drew several thousand people.

The opposition activist was forced to the ground and beaten, his assistant Marina Litvinovich said in a telephone interview from outside the police station where Kasparov was held.

"Putin's brakes don't work," Kasparov told a reporter in the courtroom. "I didn't hear any orders from police, unless you count the strike of a police club as an order."

Protesters were surrounded by metal fences and funneled through metal detectors while hundreds of uniformed police and interior ministry troops stood by. Men in black coats who refused to identify themselves circulated through the crowd shooting video.

After the rally ended, a line of helmeted police tried to prevent a march and channel protesters back toward a nearby Metro station.

Among the dozens of demonstrators arrested was Eduard Limonov, author and leader of the National Bolshevik Party, Kasparov's closest partner in a coalition of anti-Kremlin organizations. Supporters said he was later released.

Police in other Russian cities, including Nizhny Novgorod and Samara, detained local opposition protest organizers, according to the Interfax news agency.

Kasparov's coalition, which includes radicals, democrats and Soviet-era dissidents, has drawn wide media coverage but generated little public support.

Its ranks have expanded, though, as more mainstream political parties complain that officials have excluded them from freely contesting the upcoming elections.

On Friday, the Moscow offices of Kasparov's political organization were searched by police, who seized campaign materials, and the headquarters of the opposition Union of Right Forces party was hit by vandals, the groups said.

Police in Moscow and several other cities have used force to break up several so-called Dissenters Marches in the past year, sometimes beating protesters with truncheons.

The city gave organizers a permit for Saturday's rally but forbid them to march.

Meanwhile, an opposition party candidate from Russia's troubled Dagestan region who was shot by unidentified gunmen earlier this week died Saturday of his wounds.

Farid Babayev, a Yabloko party candidate, was shot Wednesday in the entryway to his apartment. His party's leader linked the killing to Babayev's efforts to hold authorities accountable for human rights abuses in Dagestan.

Yabloko party leader Grigory Yavlinsky called Babayev "one more victim of the authoritarian regime of Putin, where the physical destruction of your political opponents has become the norm."

Friday, November 23, 2007

Ex-Kremlin Insiders Join Russian Protest

MOSCOW (AP) — Once they were pillars of Russia's political establishment, members of a pro-business party with a presence in parliament and influence in the halls of the Kremlin.

But now the Union of Right Forces, or SPS, teeters on the edge of political extinction, and its leaders plan to join protesters in the streets of Moscow and St. Petersburg this weekend to denounce President Vladimir Putin's rule.

Putin has described the demonstrators as extremists determined to weaken Russia. But by tightening election rules and restricting access to Russia's political arena, the Kremlin has given even its most cautious, conservative rivals little choice but to take their opposition to the streets.

Nikita Belykh, the party's national leader, last week accused the government of using "totalitarian and barbaric methods" to sabotage his group's campaign for the Dec. 2 parliamentary elections. He said candidates have been offered bribes — or even threatened — to try to push them off the party's ticket.

In a televised debate, Belykh said he regretted the SPS' support for Putin when he first ran for president eight years ago.

"Yes, we were wrong," he said. "Putin was our mistake."

Boris Nemtsov, another national SPS leader, previously showed little appetite for confronting Putin. In a recent campaign ad, though, he denounced the "cruelty, cynicism and indifference of those in power." And he called the platform of the main pro-Kremlin party, United Russia, "all lies."

Noted intellectuals such as former chess champion Garry Kasparov and the free-market economist Andrei Illarionov, once one of Putin's top advisers, months ago joined the opposition demonstrators. So did the measured Vladimir Ryzhkov, a member of parliament whose Republican Party was one of more than a half-dozen denied registration under the new election rules.

But the leaders of SPS criticized the protests, saying more could be accomplished by talking to the Kremlin than by confronting authorities. That has changed in recent months as the party's campaign for parliament has run into roadblocks across Russia. While SPS presents no real threat to United Russia, which is expected to win two-thirds of the vote, a strong showing by the liberal party could prevent a crushing victory in some regions — embarrassing local officials.

"The governors ... must show brilliant results for the president," said Dmitry Oreshkin, a political analyst who heads the Moscow-based Mercator Group. "How they do it is their problem."

One place where the local SPS party is under pressure is in Siberia's Krasnoyarsk region. Vladislav Korolyov, the local party chief, said police entered a printing plant this month and seized more than 1.5 million copies of the party's campaign newspaper.

The grounds? An article on inflation named a Moscow supermarket, which authorities claimed amounted to prohibited negative advertising. Police could not immediately be reached for comment.

Korolyov said employees of the state-owned Sberbank told several would-be contributors that the bank could not process their donations — as required by Russian law. In one case, he said, a clerk said she had been told by a superior not to deposit SPS contributions. Sberbank officials did not respond to requests for comment.

Meeting hall managers, sometimes citing pressure from authorities, have turned down SPS requests to rent space for rallies — and in some cases revoked signed contracts, Korolyov said.

"I consider this political censorship and a return to the police state," he said, sitting in his cramped office in the Krasnoyarsk regional legislature, off a square where a statue of Vladimir Lenin still broods.

SPS gets little media coverage here. The Moscow-based radio station Ekho Moskvy, one of the few media outlets where opposition voices are routinely heard, was taken off local airwaves earlier this year.

Meanwhile, United Russia's campaign in Krasnoyarsk is in full swing. Billboards trumpeting United Russia's slogan, "Putin's Plan is Russia's Victory," line the streets.

Selling cuts of pork at a Krasnoyarsk market, a resigned Natalia Ivanova said the election's outcome will be dictated by officials, not voters.

"We've talked to friends, neighbors, family, even customers," said Ivanova, 43. "They don't vote for United Russia, but United Russia somehow wins."

Below: Part of Putin's Nov 21st Speech at United Russia Rally

Thursday, November 22, 2007

My Apologies

I apologize to those of you who have regularly looked at my blog for news in the past several months. I have been unable to post for a few reasons but will try to get back into the usual swing of things. Thanks to those of you who keep checking in.

I would recommend checking out . This is put together by the same folks that brought you and other putin establishment members, this will send chills (the bad kind) down your back. It's very reminiscent of the youth movement in the USSR.

Happy Holidays and I hope to have some more information up soon.