Friday, February 29, 2008

Vladimir Putin's poodle may yet bite

By Con Coughlin

No one is looking forward to Dmitry Medvedev's decisive victory in this weekend's Russian presidential election more than the incumbent, Vladimir Putin.

Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin: the would-be president still uses the formal 'vy' to address his boss. Ever since Mr Putin realised that not even such an autocratic ruler as himself could tamper with the constitution to secure a third term, he has been scratching around for ways to maintain his stranglehold over the Kremlin's levers of power - while still maintaining the pretence that Russia is now a truly democratic country.

By arranging for his St Petersburg protégé to become Russia's next president, Mr Putin believes he has found the perfect solution. Mr Medvedev will succeed him as president in name only, while Mr Putin, who officially will take up the lesser role of prime minister, will continue to run the country from behind the scenes.

Or at least that's the theory. But there is another school of thought that suggests it would be wrong to underestimate Mr Medvedev's desire to be his own man.

With an opinion poll rating of 79 per cent, Mr Medvedev can claim that he genuinely merits his elevation to one of the world's most powerful positions. That would, of course, overlook the fact that Mr Putin has effectively emasculated all the other serious rivals and, by his ruthless suppression of independent media channels, has succeeded in brainwashing the Russian public into believing that Mr Medvedev is the best candidate for the job.

advertisementBut even though Mr Putin's motives in choosing Mr Medvedev can hardly be described as altruistic, he could still be proved right about the qualities of his anointed successor.

Mr Medvedev might be derided - certainly within Western diplomatic circles - for being Mr Putin's lap-dog, but he has notched up a number of significant achievements of his own, not least of which is the transformation of Gazprom.

Mr Medvedev turned a Soviet-era industrial basket case that made $670 million in 1998 into one of the world's biggest industrial concerns, with profits reaching $25 billion last year. Gazprom is far more than a mere energy provider: it is a crucial political resource that has financed Mr Putin's dream of restoring Russia's international prestige.

And it has also been used to punish former Soviet states that dare to defy the Kremlin's will, such as Ukraine and Georgia, which suddenly found their energy supplies cut off in 2006 when they provoked Mr Putin's ire.

Mr Medvedev's commitment to both the cause of resurgent Russian nationalism and the continued development of Gazprom's business potential were much in evidence in the Serbian capital Belgrade this week, when he met the hardline Serb nationalist prime minister Vojislav Kostunica to sign a deal that will make Russia the main energy provider for Serbia.

What should have been a straightforward business arrangement became a highly significant political gesture, as Mr Medvedev's presence in Belgrade was seen as a welcome gesture of support by Moscow to the beleaguered Serbs after their violent protests against Kosovo's declaration of independence only served to increase their international isolation.

But while Mr Medvedev undoubtedly has the brains for the job, the big question is whether he has the personality and strength of character to lead a vast and complex nation like Russia - while at the same time keeping his uppity prime minister in his place.

Even though Mr Medvedev and Mr Putin go back more than two decades, the two men are like chalk and cheese when it comes to backgrounds and personalities. While Mr Putin is as proud of his working-class roots as he is of his physical prowess - stripping to the waist to show off his impressive physique during a fishing trip last summer - Mr Medvedev's background is altogether more genteel.

Born in 1965 in what was then Leningrad, the young Medvedev was raised by two university professors who were active members of what passed for the intelligentsia. Yulia, his mother, taught Russian literature, while his father was a physics professor.

As a schoolboy, he dreamt of becoming a lawyer, although he also developed an interest in "decadent" Western culture. He took part-time jobs as a construction worker and cleaner to earn money to buy jeans and foreign records, and he was particularly keen on Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. He once lamented the fact that his parents did not have enough money to buy a copy of The Wall on the black market.

His interest in politics developed during the glasnost era of the 1980s when it was clear the Soviet Union's days were numbered. As a law student he actively campaigned for the election of candidates who promoted free market economics, a heretical ideology in Soviet Russia.

And when a candidate whom Medvedev had supported became mayor of St Petersburg, as the city once more became known after the collapse of the Soviet Union, he found himself working in the mayor's office on reconstruction projects. It was while working for the city that he met Mr Putin, a recently decommissioned lieutenant-colonel in the KGB.

From the outset Mr Putin, who was a good decade older, was the more dominant figure, a dynamic in the relationship between the two men that has lasted to this day, with Mr Medvedev still using the formal "vy" to address his boss.

Whether this attitude survives once Mr Medvedev takes over as president of Russia on Sunday is another matter. When Mr Putin became president eight years ago his detractors said he had only got the job because he had made himself indispensable to Boris Yeltsin. It was only after Mr Putin had taken up residence at the Kremlin that he began to show his true colours, and showed himself to be an autocratic Russian nationalist.

In private, Mr Medvedev is said to be more far more liberal, and committed to the rule of law, than Mr Putin, and does not share Mr Putin's boundless enthusiasm for confronting the West at every opportunity.

Perhaps Mr Medvedev will surprise us all after Sunday's election and show that he is his own man, and not Mr Putin's, after all.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Medvedev on Election/Kosovo

Medvedev Makes Sole Appeal Ahead of Vote

By Vladimir Isachenkov
The Associated Press
Dmitry Medvedev pledged Wednesday to maintain President Vladimir Putin's course and focus on stability as the country counted down the final days to Sunday's presidential election.

Medvedev, who is all but guaranteed to be elected as Putin's successor, also promised to intensify the fight against corruption, cut red tape and encourage small business.

"I will feel obliged to continue the course which has proven its efficiency over the past eight years: the course of President Putin," Medvedev told voters in Nizhny Novgorod.

Medvedev, a first deputy prime minister openly endorsed by Putin, made similar pledges later in a recorded televised address to the nation set against the backdrop of the Volga River city's snow-covered ancient towers.

"We need political stability, we need to keep improving people's lives, develop the economy, ensure reliable protection of Russia's sovereignty and protect citizens' freedoms," Medvedev said, imitating Putin's forceful manner of speaking.

The address, shown repeatedly on state-run television, looked and sounded strongly like a campaign speech, though it was broadcast as part of newscasts. It was preceded by a nearly eight-minute news report on Medvedev's campaign appearance, and most of that report was taken up by his speech to voters.

Medvedev is expected to win Sunday's vote easily, thanks to Putin's broad popularity and the Kremlin's overwhelming control over the national media and political landscape.

Putin, who accepted Medvedev's offer to become prime minister if Medvedev is elected, has said he would retain a leading role.

"I always have felt comfortable working together with the president," Medvedev said, adding that he and Putin have had "comradelike, productive interaction," since the early 1990s.

Medvedev, who has cultivated an image of a liberal and business-friendly leader, also promised to implement new measures to combat endemic official graft.

"A plan for combating corruption will be approved in a few months, and we will start implementing it," he said.

He pledged to rein in corporate raiders who often use force to seize companies from rightful owners and to streamline state regulations to make life easier for small businesses.

"We have had enough of revolutions, instability and declining living standards; we want to have a break," he said. "We need decades of stable development."

Russia's Medvedev Warns Kosovo Independence Could Trigger Unrest
By VOA News

Dmitri Medvedev looks on during a meeting in Nizhny Novgorod, 27 Feb 2008
The man nearly certain to win the Russian presidency Sunday, Dmitri Medvedev, says Kosovo independence has jeopardized security and stability in the Balkans.

Medvedev, campaigning Wednesday in central Russia, said Western recognition of the February 17 independence declaration by Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority has put Europe in what he called a difficult situation.

By comparison, he said the United States, which backs Kosovo independence, is not facing the same political risks as Europe.

Russia, Serbia's strongest ally, has condemned the Kosovo declaration, saying it will spark secessionist movements elsewhere in Europe and beyond. Today, Medvedev promised continued political support for Belgrade.

In other developments, the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch is accusing some Serbian ministers of using Kosovo's secession to enflame regional tensions.

In a statement, the organization cited five incidents of violence in the past week, and urged Belgrade to speak with "one voice" against unrest in the region.

In northern Kosovo Wednesday, Serbia's Tanjug news agency says about 100 Serbs in the divided town of Mitrovica were continuing to protest the loss of their jobs. Demonstrators are demanding that the two local courts that employed them be returned to Serbian jurisdiction.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Free speech 'shrinking' in Russia

Russian freedom of speech is "shrinking alarmingly" under President Vladimir Putin, says Amnesty International.The murders of outspoken journalists go unsolved, independent media outlets have been shut and police have attacked opposition protesters, said the report.

It also said "arbitrary" laws were curbing the right to express opinion and silencing NGOs deemed to be a threat by the authorities.

The report comes ahead of Russian's presidential elections on 2 March.

The director of Amnesty International UK, Kate Allen, said: "The space for freedom of speech is shrinking alarmingly in Russia and it's now imperative that the Russian authorities reverse this trend."

She said dissent could be a matter of life or death in the case of outspoken journalists like Anna Politkovskaya, who was shot dead in Moscow two years ago.

The 52-page Freedom Limited report warned any opposition demonstrations could suffer heavy clampdowns in the coming days, as Amnesty said had happened in the run-up to past elections.

First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, whom President Putin has named his favoured successor, is expected to be elected in this Sunday's poll.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Putin’s Iron Grip on Russia Suffocates His Opponents


NIZHNY NOVGOROD, Russia — Shortly before parliamentary elections in December, foremen fanned out across the sprawling GAZ vehicle factory here, pulling aside assembly-line workers and giving them an order: vote for President Vladimir V. Putin’s party or else. They were instructed to phone in after they left their polling places. Names would be tallied, defiance punished.

The city’s children, too, were pressed into service. At schools, teachers gave them pamphlets promoting “Putin’s Plan” and told them to lobby their parents. Some were threatened with bad grades if they failed to attend “Children’s Referendums” at polling places, a ploy to ensure that their parents would show up and vote for the ruling party.

Around the same time, volunteers for an opposition party here, the Union of Right Forces, received hundreds of calls at all hours, warning them to stop working for their candidates. Otherwise, you will be hurt, the callers said, along with the rest of your family.

Over the past eight years, in the name of reviving Russia after the tumult of the 1990s, Mr. Putin has waged an unforgiving campaign to clamp down on democracy and extend control over the government and large swaths of the economy. He has suppressed the independent news media, nationalized important industries, smothered the political opposition and readily deployed the security services to carry out the Kremlin’s wishes.

While those tactics have been widely recognized, they have been especially heavy-handed at the local level, in far-flung places like Nizhny Novgorod, 250 miles east of Moscow. On the eve of a presidential election in Russia that was all but fixed in December, when Mr. Putin selected his close aide, Dmitri A. Medvedev, as his successor, Nizhny Novgorod stands as a stark example of how Mr. Putin and his followers have established what is essentially a one-party state.

Mr. Putin’s Russia is not the Soviet Union. For most Russians, life is freer now than it was in the old days. Criticism of the Kremlin is tolerated, as long as it is not done in any broadly organized way, and access to the Internet is unfettered. The economy, with its abundance of consumer goods and heady rate of growth, bears little resemblance to the one under Communism.

Still, as was made plain in dozens of interviews with political leaders, officials and residents of Nizhny Novgorod over several weeks, a new autocracy now governs Russia. Behind a facade of democracy lies a centralized authority that has deployed a nationwide cadre of loyalists that is not reluctant to swat down those who challenge the ruling party. Fearing such retribution, many of the people interviewed for this article asked not to be identified.

The government has closed newspapers in St. Petersburg and raided political party offices in Siberia. It was hardly unusual when in Samara, in the nation’s center, organized crime officers charged an opposition campaign official with financial crimes shortly before the December parliamentary elections and froze the party’s bank accounts.

Here in this historic region on the Volga River, Mr. Putin’s allies now control nearly all the offices, and elections have become a formality. And that is just as it should be, they said.

“In my opinion, at a certain stage, like now, it is not only useful, it is even necessary — we are tired of democratic twists and turns,” said the leader of Mr. Putin’s party in Nizhny Novgorod, Sergei G. Nekrasov. “It may sound sacrilegious, but I would propose to suspend all this election business for the time being, at least for managerial positions.”

Mr. Putin, who intends to remain in power by becoming prime minister under Mr. Medvedev, has in recent days declared that Russia has a healthy democracy, a renewed sense of national pride and a prominent role on the world stage. His supporters in Nizhny Novgorod point to his high approval ratings as evidence that his policies work.

A refrain often heard here and across Russia is that the distressing years right after Communism’s collapse left people craving stability and a sturdy economy far more than Western-style democracy. These days, they care little if elections are basically uncontested as long as a strong leader is in charge.

“There is some hope for us now,” said Nina Aksyonova, 68, a Nizhny Novgorod resident, explaining Mr. Putin’s popularity.

Propaganda Onslaught

Nizhny Novgorod, an industrial center with 1.3 million residents, was known as Gorky during the Communist era, when it was closed to foreigners and was home to the dissident physicist Andrei D. Sakharov, who was sent into internal exile here. After the Soviet Union’s collapse, it became a hotbed of liberalism, earning international recognition after officials sought to jettison the old sclerotic economic structure and embrace what were considered far-sighted political reforms.

Today, authority flows from the Kremlin to a regional governor appointed by Mr. Putin, who abolished the election of governors in Russia in 2004. The governor, Valery P. Shantsev, was brought in from Moscow and is charged with running the region and ensuring that Mr. Putin’s party, United Russia, wins elections. The lines between the government and party have become so blurred that on election day in December, regional election commission members wore large United Russia badges.

Boris Y. Nemtsov became a political star in Russia and the West as governor of Nizhny Novgorod and deputy prime minister in the 1990s, but in recent months he and his opposition party have taken a battering here. Regional and national television stations, controlled by the Kremlin and its surrogates, have repeatedly attacked him — calling him everything from a corrupt bureaucrat to a traitor.

“His career has been accompanied by scandals,” went a typical report on the popular Channel One right before the December elections. “It was the elderly who were the first to feel the results of the work of Nemtsov’s government on their purses. Pensions dropped to the lowest level in all Russia’s history. Boris Nemtsov used to gather the press just to say that he did not care who the pensioners, deprived of money, would vote for. According to the plans of young reformers, only the strongest were supposed to live until the next century.”

Meanwhile, a different kind of propaganda war was being waged on the streets. Russia has relatively conservative attitudes toward homosexuality, and all autumn long Nizhny Novgorod was blanketed with tens of thousands of leaflets saying that Mr. Nemtsov’s liberal, pro-Western opposition party, the Union of Right Forces, ardently favored gay rights and employed canvassers with AIDS. Neither was true.

The leaflets often included the name and phone number of a leader of the party’s regional candidate slate, Andrei Osipenko. Some had condoms attached and announced offers to send supporters to a gay-pride event in Amsterdam.

Intimidation and violence came next. Businesses cut off donations after receiving threats from government officials, said Sergei Veltishchev, an organizer for the Union of Right Forces. Someone obtained the confidential list of party members — the party officials say they suspect that it was the security services — and hundreds of menacing phone calls were made to volunteers, saying they or their families would be hurt if they helped the party.

The party was refused advertising space on everything from billboards to newspapers to television. When Mr. Nemtsov tried to campaign in Nizhny Novgorod in the fall, no one would rent him a hall. In November, the party headquarters were ransacked and spray-painted with profanities and graffiti that called it the “Party of Gays.”

A few weeks before the elections, Mr. Osipenko gave up, renouncing his party at a news conference that was heavily covered on state-controlled television and had the feel of the Stalinist-era public confessions that followed show trials. Other party officials did the same.

The party’s remaining candidates in the region were too fearful to campaign.

“You begin to think: you have a family, you have a business, and you may value this significantly more than a political career,” said Artur Nazarenko, an official with the Union of Right Forces. The party, once a regional power, received only 1 percent of the vote in the parliamentary elections, both in the Nizhny Novgorod region and nationally.

Other opposition figures in Nizhny Novgorod have been treated just as harshly over the past year. Leaders of a loose coalition called Other Russia have been repeatedly arrested, with some charged with inciting terrorism. When the group held a demonstration here last March, local television stations tried to scare away the public, labeling the event a gathering of either racist skinheads or gay rights advocates.

“Now about the so-called opposition, though there is a big doubt that it exists at all in the country,” an announcer asserted on the Seti NN channel. “They have been acting in violation of the law.”

The mayor of Nizhny Novgorod, Vadim Bulavinov, a United Russia leader, said the opposition had failed because it was poorly organized.

“If an organization is weak because people do not want to work for it or to help it, why should United Russia be blamed for that?” the mayor said. “I think that if the opposition parties want to find out who is guilty, they need to look in the mirror.”

Attacks on the Press

With the opposition suppressed in the months before the December elections, anti-Kremlin activism coalesced around independent newspapers and nonprofit groups, making them another target of the security forces.

In August, police officers broke down the door to the local offices of Novaya Gazeta, an opposition paper that had criticized Governor Shantsev and Mayor Bulavinov. Investigators accused the paper of using unlicensed software and hauled away its computers, shutting down the paper until after the elections.

Prosecutors also closed or prevented the distribution of two other regional newspapers, Leninskaya Smena and Trud, and conducted aggressive inquiries into the finances of several others. “It is a demonstration of force: ‘If you behave wrong, we will punish you,’ ” said Zakhar Prilepin, Novaya Gazeta’s editor in Nizhny Novgorod.

The regional prosecutor, Valery Maksimenko, did not respond to several requests for comment.

On the day of the Novaya Gazeta raid, the police removed computers from the offices of the Foundation to Support Tolerance, a nonprofit group that has been harassed for four years after criticizing the Kremlin and the war in Chechnya.

The authorities seem especially distrustful of the foundation because it receives money from the National Endowment for Democracy, an American nonprofit group financed by the United States government. The Kremlin has blamed Western pro-democracy groups for fomenting popular uprisings in Ukraine, Georgia and elsewhere in recent years, and vowed that that sort of thing would never happen in Russia.

The Federal Security Service, known by its initials in Russian, F.S.B., has interrogated the tolerance foundation’s workers, family members and friends. Its leaders, Stanislav Dmitriyevsky and Oksana Chelysheva, have received death threats. And as part of a smear campaign, the Volga regional television station showed Russian soldiers being beheaded in Chechnya and said the group had justified such killings.

In October, when the foundation held a memorial for Anna Politkovskaya, an opposition journalist killed in 2006, several foreign human rights advocates were arrested in Nizhny Novgorod. The police again raided the foundation’s offices, and the authorities froze its bank accounts, saying it supported terrorism.

“The ruling elite nowadays has no ideology,” Ms. Chelysheva said. “Their only aim is to obtain as much power as possible, to keep this power, by whatever means, and to profiteer off this power. In this respect, these people, who are so cynical, are much more dangerous than was the Communist Party of the U.S.S.R.”

The group had been called the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society, and it focused on exposing what it deemed human rights violations in the Russian war against separatists in Chechnya. But it ran afoul of the Kremlin, which deemed its work as little more than collaboration with the enemy.

Prosecutors accused the society of extremism and shut it down after it republished letters from two Chechen separatist leaders. Mr. Dmitriyevsky was convicted of inciting ethnic hatred and received a suspended prison sentence.

A Push for Legitimacy

While the Kremlin has succeeded in discrediting and stifling opposition parties, it has nonetheless faced a predicament of its own making. Elections draw little public interest now that they are essentially noncompetitive, and leaders of the governing party fear a low turnout. If relatively few people vote, then Mr. Putin’s claim to a widespread following could be called into question. So the authorities have also focused their energies on getting people to the polls.

Though Mayor Bulavinov and Mr. Nekrasov, the United Russia leader, said residents were not compelled to support the party, numerous interviews in the city and a review of municipal records indicated otherwise. It was clear that strong-arm tactics were common before the December elections in Nizhny Novgorod, and the opposition said it expected them again before the presidential election on March 2.

At the GAZ vehicle factory, known for its Volga sedan, workers were not only ordered to vote and then phone in from the polling place afterward: some had to obtain absentee ballots and fill them out in front of their bosses.

“If you don’t vote for United Russia, it will be very bad,” a worker named Aleksandr recalled, characterizing the pressure on the rank and file.

The coercive voter drive clearly had the desired effect, in the Kremlin’s view at least. After the election, the GAZ president, Nikolai Pugin, who is a senior United Russia leader and a regional lawmaker, announced that nearly 80 percent of his workers had voted, far higher than the city’s overall turnout, 51 percent. The Kremlin rewarded Mr. Pugin by making one of his workers a deputy in the federal Parliament.

Asked this month about the high turnout, Mr. Pugin said in an interview that his workers had voted freely. “People see positive changes and as a result, they express their opinion,” he said.

The public schools also were caught up in the campaign. Parents at some schools were ordered to attend mandatory meetings with representatives of United Russia, and the children were used to drag their parents to the polls.

“It was the same scenario at all the schools,” a teacher said. “And it was all from the city’s leadership. The school directors were given instructions, and they carried them out.”

Regional officials were vigilant about developments at local universities, particularly two of the largest, Lobachevsky State and Volga State. Students said they were warned not to join marches sponsored by the Other Russia coalition. And they said that before the elections, administrators issued a threat: if you do not vote for the ruling party, you will be evicted from your dorms.

“Everyone was frightened, and our group, in full, went and voted, like a line of soldiers marching,” said a Volga State student.

Administrators at both universities said the students’ statements about pressure were false.

Yet it did not stop with the voting.

Shortly after election day, several hundred Lobachevsky students were told that they were being bused to Moscow, but the university would not say why. When they were let off near Red Square, they found themselves among a huge throng of people.

It was only then that they realized that they had become unwilling participants in a rally sponsored by Nashi, a fiercely pro-Kremlin youth group, to celebrate United Russia’s triumph and to congratulate Mr. Putin.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Putin warns West over Kosovo dispute

By MIKE ECKEL, Associated Press Writer

Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a sharp warning to the West on Friday about the consequences of recognizing Kosovo's independence, saying the decision would "come back to knock them on the head."

The televised comments, made during an informal meeting of leaders from former Soviet republics, were the strongest by the Kremlin leader since Kosovo's ethnic Albanian leaders issued their declaration of independence from Russian-allied Serbia.

Earlier in the day, Russia's envoy to NATO warned the alliance against overstepping its mandate in Kosovo and said Moscow might be forced to use "brute military force" to maintain respect on the world scene. Other Russian officials sought to tone down that view, saying the dispute should be resolved peacefully.

Putin used the meeting of presidents from the Commonwealth of Independent States — a loose, Russian-dominated organization of former Soviet states — to lambast Western nations that have recognized Kosovo's independence. Among those are the United States, Britain, Germany and France.

"The Kosovo precedent is a terrifying precedent. It in essence is breaking open the entire system of international relations that have prevailed not just for decades but for centuries. And it without a doubt will bring on itself an entire chain of unforeseen consequences," Putin said.

Governments that have recognized Kosovo "are miscalculating what they are doing," he added. "In the end, this is a stick with two ends and that other end will come back to knock them on the head someday."

Moscow has heatedly protested the Kosovo declaration, which has sparked violent protests by Serbs and international squabbling over whether to recognize the fledgling nation.

Russia's NATO ambassador, Dmitry Rogozin, said the Russian military might get involved if all European Union nations recognized Kosovo as independent without United Nations agreement.

"If the European Union works out a single position or NATO goes beyond its current mandate in Kosovo, these organizations will conflict with the United Nations," Rogozin said in a televised hookup from NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium.

If that happens, Russia "will proceed from the assumption that to be respected, we have to use brute military force," he said, although he later said that Russia was not making plans for any such confrontation.

Rogozin's comments sparked quick reaction. Nicholas Burns, the State Department's third-ranking official, called them "highly irresponsible."

"This cynical and ahistorical comment by the Russian ambassador should be repudiated by his own government," Burns said.

Sergei Yastrzhembsky, Russia's envoy to the European Union, used a more conciliatory tone, saying the Kosovo problem should be resolved exclusively by political means.

Russia has staunchly supported Serbia in opposing Kosovo's secession, and has vowed to block any effort in the United Nations to recognize its independence.

Russia has been joined in its opposition by China and others, including EU member Spain, who worry the Kosovo example might be viewed as a precedent by separatists in other places.

Predominantly ethnic Albanian Kosovo, which has been governed by a U.N. mission and patrolled by NATO peacekeepers since 1999, had been widely expected to declare independence from Serbia after internationally mediated talks on its future fell apart last year.


Thursday, February 21, 2008

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Russia denounces Kosovo independence

(AP)Russia denounced Kosovo's declaration of independence from its ally Serbia on Sunday and called for an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council.

Kosovo's parliament approved a declaration of independence from Serbia, backed by the U.S. and European allies but bitterly contested by Serbia and Russia.

The Foreign Ministry said Russia supports Serbia's "just demands to restore the country's territorial integrity" and wants the Security Council to renew efforts to reach a settlement on the issue of Kosovo's status.

Kosovo's independence declaration violates Serbia's sovereignty and the U.N. Charter and threatens "the escalation of tension and ethnic violence in the region, a new conflict in the Balkans," the ministry said in a statement. It warned other nations against "supporting separatism" by recognizing Kosovo.

Kosovo has formally remained a part of Serbia even though it has been administered by the U.N. and NATO since 1999, when NATO airstrikes ended former Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic's crackdown on ethnic Albanian separatists.

Russia has stressed its opposition to any decision on Kosovo's status that is not accepted by Serbia. It has warned that recognition of Kosovo by the United States and other nations would encourage separatists in the former Soviet Union, across Europe and around the world.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov echoed the ministry statement in comments on state-run Vesti-24 television. He called Kosovo's declaration an "illegitimate act" and said Russia supports what he called Serbia's pledges to struggle in a constructive way to keep its borders intact.

"All possible international mechanisms, first of all the United Nations and its Security Council" would be called upon to address the issue," Peskov said.

He said Russia would closely monitor the response of other countries to the declaration.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Kremlin's grip puts Medvedev vision in doubt

By Catherine Belton in Moscow (Financial Times)

Dmitry Medvedev, who is most likely to be Russia's next president, yesterday unveiled a liberal-sounding economic agenda to cut back red tape and clamp down on corruption. However, he offered little sign that he would attempt to carve out a path independent from Vladimir Putin.

"One of the key elements of our work in the next four years will be ensuring the independence of the legal system from the executive and legislative branches of power," Mr Medvedev said in a speech, just two weeks before presidential elections on March 2. As Mr Putin's preferred successor, he is expected to sweep to victory.

Mr Medvedev said he wanted to make freedoms, both economic and personal, the cornerstone of his policies, in which the rule of law and property rights would reign. But economists and politicians warned it was far from clear whether Mr Medvedev would be able to push through any such liberal initiatives when faced with the vested interests of the Kremlin so long as he remained in the shadow of his predecessor.

Mr Putin, who will stay largely in charge of economic policy as prime minister to his protégé, has already upstaged Mr Med-vedev by presenting his own strategy for Russia's development up to 2020 last week.

In his last annual press conference this week before he steps down as president, Mr Putin staked out a powerful role for himself implementing his development plan. He said Mr Medvedev's economic programme, in contrast, would deal only with the next four years and merely "add detail" to his own vision.

"We've tried to do this all before. A great deal was not implemented," said Yevgeny Yasin, rector of Moscow's Higher School of Economics and a co-author of Mr Putin's programme in 2000. "Instead, they carried out completely different tasks which the country could have done without, such as increasing the role of the state, and control over the electoral system and the media."

Mr Yasin said the sudden inflow of oil dollars as prices soared soon after Mr Putin came to power led the Kremlin to ditch most of the plan for liberal and institutional reform that he had helped plot. Instead of cutting back on the number of state officials, under Mr Putin their number had grown, as had corruption, Mr Yasin said.

Mr Medvedev, speaking in Siberia, repeated calls by Mr Putin for a reduction in value added tax and presented a detailed breakdown of ways he wanted to raise living standards via improvements in education and healthcare.

In a rare sign he might pursue a more liberal agenda than Mr Putin, he called for a reduction in the number of state officials on the boards of some of Russia's biggest corporations. "They should be replaced by truly independent directors, which the state would hire to implement its plans," he said.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Rice attacks ‘reprehensible’ Putin warnings

By Daniel Dombey in Washington (Financial Times)

Condoleezza Rice, US secretary of state, on Wednesday highlighted the tense relations between Moscow and Washington when she hit out at Russia’s “reprehensible” rhetoric and said she would appoint a special energy co-ordinator for central Asia, a region dominated to date by Russian energy interests.

Appearing at the Senate’s foreign relations committee, Ms Rice responded fiercely to questions about recent Russian behaviour, including President Vladimir Putin’s suggestion this week that Ukraine could be targeted with nuclear missiles and his warning of a new arms race with the west.

“The unhelpful and, really, I will use a different word, reprehensible rhetoric that is coming out of Moscow is unacceptable,” Ms Rice said.

Relations between Moscow and Washington have hardened in the wake of disputes over Russia’s objections to proposed US missile defence bases in Poland and the Czech Republic, as well as US concerns about what it sees as Mr Putin’s use of intimidation at home and abroad.

But the US secretary of state emphasised that she believed the principal areas of difficulty related to the post-cold war map of Europe – on issues such as North Korea and Iran, the two countries co-operated much more closely.

“The Soviet Union . . . is gone forever, and I hope that Russia understands that,” she said. “We are absolutely devoted to the independence and sovereignty of Ukraine and of other states that were once a part of the Soviet Union.”

Ms Rice was prodded by Richard Lugar, the committee’s ranking Republican, to respond to Russian initiatives with countries such as Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Serbia and Bulgaria that seem to have cemented Moscow’s position as gas supplier to the rest of Europe.

“I do intend to appoint, and we are looking for, a special energy co-ordinator who could especially spend time on the central Asian and Caspian region,” she replied. “It is a really important part of diplomacy. In fact, I think I would go so far as to say that some of the politics of energy is warping diplomacy in certain parts of the world.”

Privately, many US officials complain that the European Union has not made a more effective attempt to build relations with the central Asian countries that provide Russia with an increasingly important part of its gas supply, or to forge a common policy on Russia.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Putin's Torture Colonies

The Wall Street Journal

February 12, 2008

"The protest began after OMON [riot police] had been brought to correctional colony No. 5 (Amur Oblast, Skovorodino Rayon, village Takhtamygda) and started massive beatings of the prisoners. People in camouflage and masks were beating with batons inmates taken outside undressed in the freezing cold. . . . As a protest, 39 prisoners immediately cut their veins open.

"Next day, on 17 January, the 'special operation' was repeated in an even more humiliating and massive form. At that time, about 700 inmates cut their veins open. . . ."

The description here comes from a report received by the Moscow-based Foundation for Defense of Rights of Prisoners. The time reference is to 2008 -- that is, last month. This is not Alexander Solzhenitsyn's Russia. It's Vladimir Putin's. And correctional colony No. 5, located not far from the Manchurian border, does not even make the list of the worst penal colonies in the country.

That distinction belongs to the newly revived institution of Pytochnye kolonii, or torture colonies. After all but disappearing in the 1990s under the liberal regime of Boris Yeltsin, there are now about 50 pytochnye kolonii among the roughly 700 colonies that house the bulk of Russia's convict population, according to FDRP cofounder Lev Ponomarev. And while they cannot be compared to the Soviet Gulag in terms of scope or the percentage of prisoners who are innocent of any real crime, they are fast approaching it in terms of sheer cruelty.

The cruelty to prisoners often begins prior to their actual sentencing. "When people are transported from prisons to courts to attend their hearings, they are jammed in a tiny room where they can barely stand. There's no toilet; if they have to relieve themselves, it has to be right there," says Mr. Ponomarev. "Then they are put on trucks. It's extremely cold in winter, extremely hot in summer, no ventilation, no heating. These are basically metal containers. They have to be there for hours. Healthy people are held together with people with tuberculosis, creating a breeding ground for the disease."

Once sentenced, prisoners are transported in packed train wagons to distant correctional colonies that, under Russian law, range from relatively lax "general regime" colonies to "strict," "special," and (most terrifying of all) "medical" colonies. Arrival in the camps is particularly harrowing. According to prisoner testimonies collected by Mr. Ponomarev, in the winter of 2005 convicts from one torture colony in Karelia, near the Finnish border, were shipped to the IK-1 torture colony near the village of Yagul, in the Udmurt Republic, about 500 miles east of Moscow.

"The receipt of convicts 'through the corridor' takes place in the following manner," Mr. Ponomarev reports. "From the [truck] in which a newly arrived stage [of prisoners] is brought... employees of the colony line up, equipped with special means -- rubber truncheons and dog handlers with work dogs. . . . During the time of the run, each employee hits the prisoner running by with a truncheon. . . . The convicts run with luggage, which significantly complicates the run. At those [places] where employees with dogs are found, the run of the convict is slowed by a dog lunging from the leash."

The prison gantlet is just the welcome mat. At IK-1, a prisoner with a broken leg named Zurab Baroyan made the mistake of testifying to conditions at the colony to a staff representative of the Human Rights Ombudsman of the Russian Federation. "After this," Mr. Baroyan reported, the commandant of the colony "threatened to rot me in the dungeon. They did not complete treating me in the hospital. The leg festers [and] pus runs from the bandage. . . The festering has crossed over to the second leg."

Not surprisingly, suicide attempts at these colonies are common. One convict, named Mishchikin, sought to commit suicide by swallowing "a wire and nails tied together crosswise." As punishment, he was denied medical assistance for 12 days. Another convict, named Fargiyev, was held in handcuffs for 52 days after stabbing himself; he never fully recovered motor function in his hands.

WSJ columnist Bret Stephens speaks to's Brendan Miniter about the revival of prisoner colonies in Russia and the subject of torture.

Even the smallest of prisoner infractions can be met with savage reprisals. In one case, authorities noticed the smell of cigarette smoke in a so-called "penalty isolator" cell where seven convicts were being held. "A fire engine was called in. . . . The entire cell, including the convicts and their personal things, was flooded with cold water." The convicts were left in wet clothes in 50 degree Fahrenheit temperatures for a week.

As a legal matter, the torture colonies don't even exist, and Mr. Ponomarev doubts there has ever been an explicit directive from Mr. Putin ordering the kind of treatment they mete. Rather, for the most part the standards of punishment are determined at the whim of colony commandants, often in areas where the traditions of the Gulag never went away.

That doesn't excuse the Kremlin, however. Under Yeltsin, the prison system had operated under a sunshine policy, as part of a larger effort to distance Russia from its Soviet past. "But when Putin came to power, a new tone was set," Mr. Ponomarev says. "The sadists who had previously been 'behaving' simply stopped behaving."

Now reports of torture are systematically ignored or suppressed while regional governments refuse to act on evidence of abuse. Commandants at "general regime" colonies can always threaten misbehaving convicts with transfer to a torture colony -- a useful way of keeping them in line. The Kremlin, too, benefits from the implied threat. "The correct word for this is Gulag, even if it's on a smaller scale," warns Mr. Ponomarev. "This is the reappearance of totalitarianism in the state. Unless we eradicate it, it will spread throughout the entire country."

Readers interested in a closer look at what is described above may do a YouTube search for "Yekaterinaburg Prison Camp." The short video, apparently filmed by a prison guard and delivered anonymously to Mr. Ponomarev's organization, is a modern-day version of "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich." It isn't easy to watch. But it is an invaluable window on what Russia has become in the Age of Putin, Person of the Year.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Russia's Putin lashes out at West's "arms race"

By Michael Stott and Oleg Shchedrov

President Vladimir Putin accused the United States of unleashing a new arms race on Russia's borders on Friday in a speech that is likely to provide a blueprint for his successor's policies.

Laying out his legacy three months before he is to step down, Putin said Russia had to wean itself off energy exports, compete in the world economy and stand up to the West.

In an address containing long passages of tough rhetoric aimed at the West, Putin said NATO expansion and U.S. plans for a missile defense shield in eastern Europe had touched off an arms race.

"It's not our fault, we didn't start it. ... funneling multibillions of dollars into developing weapons systems.

"NATO itself is expanding. It's approaching our borders. We drew down our bases in Cuba and in Vietnam. What did we get? New American bases in Romania, Bulgaria. A new third missile defense region (the U.S. defense shield) in Poland, where it's being built," Putin told the State Council.

"It's already clear that a new arms race is being unleashed in the world ... We must not allow ourselves to be drawn into this."

Putin's address to the State Council, which gathers minister, regional governors and lawmakers, will be one of his last keynote speeches before he steps down.

It was also widely regarded as a manifesto for Dmitry Medvedev, the man he has endorsed to succeed him.

Medvedev, a 42-year-old first deputy prime minister and loyal Putin ally, said this week he was not issuing his own program because it would be no different from his mentor's policies.

Putin, 55, opened his speech by emphasizing how far Russia had come in the eight years he had been in power.

In 2000, Russia was reeling from economic collapse, insurgents were marauding through the country and the Kremlin was being manipulated by tycoons, he said.

"Wealthy Russia had turned into a country of impoverished people. In these conditions, we started to implement our program to take the country out of crisis," he said.

"We have been able to rid ourselves of the practice of taking state decisions under pressure from financial groups and media magnates."


He hailed the strength of the Russian economy, pointing to a boom in investment, state coffers which are now full and gross domestic product growth of more than 8 percent a year.

But Putin also said Russia needed to develop its human capital if it was to compete in the global economy and reduce its dependence on oil exports.

He proposed tax breaks for companies investing in employees' training and healthcare and said the government should help promote scientific research and innovation.

Putin also touched on Russian democracy, which has come under close international scrutiny three weeks before the presidential election.

Opposition parties say the vote is a farce and slanted in Medvedev's favor. Europe's main election watchdog announced on Wednesday it was pulling out of monitoring the March 2 vote because of Moscow's obstruction.

Putin said democracy was a cornerstone of Russian society but that political parties who took money from foreign governments were guilty of "immoral" behavior and "demeaning the Russian people."

Monday, February 4, 2008

The man behind the curtain

The Washington Times - Oliver North

February 3, 2008

In the movie "The Wizard of Oz," Dorothy's little terrier Toto pulls aside a curtain to reveal that the awesome "wizard" is really a little man frantically pulling levers to create an illusion of power.

Moscow is not quite the "Emerald City" — but Vladimir Putin is certainly acting like the wizard — and seems intent on trying to re-create the "Iron Curtain." Worse still, leaders here in the United States and in Western Europe appear to be as fearful as Dorothy's craven lion in looking at what is really going on behind the curtain.

In December, the editors of Time magazine glossed over Mr. Putin's repression of political dissidents, interference in the affairs of other nations and willingness to support Iranian nuclear ambitions to choose the Russian strongman as their "Person of the Year." Since then the former KGB officer has made it clear to anyone who cares to look that he intends to remain in power once his term as president expires in May. The old Soviet leaders of yesteryear would be proud to see the political machinations in Moscow.

Mr. Putin is barred by the Russian constitution from seeking a third consecutive term as president. Undaunted by such a statutory trifle, he has decided to run as a United Russia Party candidate for a seat in the Russian Duma. Once elected to the parliament, it is foregone that he will then become prime minister — a post from which he can continue to exercise control over international and domestic affairs of state.

To ensure success, he has hand-picked as his presidential successor, Dmitri Medvedev, now Russia's deputy prime minister and head of the country's state-run natural gas monopoly, Gazprom. If all goes as planned, Mr. Putin would be able to reclaim the Russian presidency in 2012.

Apparently not satisfied that this outcome is all but guaranteed, Mr. Putin has also had Russia's Central Electoral Commission jump into the fray. The commission, headed by Vladimir Churov, a Putin crony, is supposed to ensure that multi-party and multicandidate elections in post-Soviet Russia are carried out fairly. But if the commission ever did that, it doesn't now.

Last week, the Russian Election Commission denied a place on the March 2 presidential ballot for Mr. Putin's principal opponent, former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov. Mr. Kasyanov, a close associate of former Russian President Boris Yeltsin, is known for his economic reform efforts — and as a vocal critic of Mr. Putin's consolidation of power in Moscow.

In rejecting the ballot application, the Electoral Commission ruled that 13 percent of the signatures on Mr. Kasyanov's filing petitions were "invalid." Kremlin authorities have since threatened Mr. Kasyanov's supporters with loss of their jobs or incarceration if they protest the decision.

The Election Commission has also decided that only 70 observer-monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) would be permitted to observe the election — and that their visas would not be issued until Feb. 28, three days prior to the election. In 2004, the OSCE sent 387 observers a month in advance to cover the Russian presidential elections. But that was then — and this is now.

Moscow's blatant interference in the electoral process prompted Curtis Budden, a spokesman for the OSCE, to plaintively note that the European watchdog group might not bother to send any observers in March because, "We are not satisfied with their conditions since they don't allow meaningful observation." Prior to last December's parliamentary elections, Moscow imposed similar restrictions and the OSCE refused to send observers and subsequently criticized the elections as unfair.

In what may prove to be a final effort to capture the attention of Western policymakers, former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev told reporters this week that "something is wrong with our elections, and our electoral system needs a major adjustment." And just to make sure we all would know what's "wrong," he added that the upcoming election result was "predictable from the outset" and "predetermined by the enormous role that Vladimir Putin has played." That's not all that was "predictable" or "predetermined." Though Mr. Gorbachev's remarks were broadcast around the world, they were all but ignored in European capitals and Washington. And Russian television viewers never got to see them at all.

Last December, on the eve of elections for the Duma, Mr. Putin made a televised appeal in support of his United Russia party candidates. "Please, do not think that everything is predetermined and the pace of development we have attained, the direction of our movement toward success will be maintained automatically by itself," he said. "This is a dangerous illusion."

It turns out Vladimir Putin, like the Wizard of Oz, is a master of illusion. Where is Toto when we need him?