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    Thursday, December 20, 2007

    Person of the Year?


    So the illustrious Time Magazine has named Vladimir Putin its Person of the Year, adding him to a list of winners that includes a few people he admires (his role model, Yuri Andropov, shared the title with Ronald Reagan in 1983), a few people Putin has never quite seen eye-to-eye with (George W. Bush and Lech Walesa, to name a couple) and, well, me.

    Does he deserve the prize? As Time notes in its explanation, the honour is not a popularity contest, nor an endorsement. Here's the offered explanation:

    At its best, it is a clear-eyed recognition of the world as it is and of the most powerful individuals and forces shaping that world—for better or for worse. It is ultimately about leadership — bold, earth-changing leadership. Putin is not a boy scout. He is not a democrat in any way that the West would define it. He is not a paragon of free speech. He stands, above all, for stability — stability before freedom, stability before choice, stability in a country that has hardly seen it for a hundred years. Whether he becomes more like the man for whom his grandfather prepared blinis (Stalin) — who himself was twice TIME's Person of the Year — or like Peter the Great, the historical figure he most admires; whether he proves to be a reformer or an autocrat who takes Russia back to an era of repression — this we will know only over the next decade. At significant cost to the principles and ideas that free nations prize, he has performed an extraordinary feat of leadership in imposing stability on a nation that has rarely known it and brought Russia back to the table of world power.


    Putting judgements aside, as Time has, it's hard to argue that Putin hasn't transformed Russia in a very short period of time. Eight years ago, he inherited a nearly failed state and now Russia, while it still has dangerous internal problems, is a force to be reckoned with on the international stage again.

    A test of Putin and the new Russia looms next in Kosovo, where Serbs are looking to Putin as the only person willing to stand up for them as the West throws its weight behind the Kosovar Albanian leadership as it moves towards declaring full independence. More on that later...

    Tuesday, December 18, 2007

    A tale of two prime ministers

    It's fitting that Yulia Tymoshenko should finally become prime minister of Ukraine one day after Vladimir Putin declared he would be Russia's prime minister under a President Dmitry Medvedev.

    Both have been prime minister before, Tymoshenko for a short and tumultuous period in 2005 before she was fired by President Viktor Yushchenko, Putin for a controversial six months in 1999 before Boris Yeltsin stepped aside to hand him the presidency. They have open distaste for each other stemming from the long and ongoing Russia-versus-the West struggle for Ukraine's soul, in which Tymoshenko has played (at least in the Western media) Princess Leia to Putin's Darth Vader.

    The way the two old foes were named to the PM's chair this time around says much about the comparative state of democracy in their respective countries today.

    For all Ukraine's instability, Tymoshenko's dramatic return to power - establishing herself as a third power centre beyond both President Yushchenko and his rival Viktor Yanukovich - shows how vibrant and pluralistic Ukraine's political scene now is. Yes, all of the main parties are tinged with corruption and are too close to big business, but Tymoshenko's election victory two months ago stands as proof that no politician can rule Ukraine without the consent of the people.

    More good news: even though her party emerged as the de facto winner of the Sept. 30 elections, Tymoshenko only became prime minister after a long process of bartering and coalition-making. No one force can dominate Ukraine on its own anymore, as Leonid Kuchma and his allies did until the 2004 Orange Revolution.

    None of the above can be said about Russia. Vladimir Putin stands alone in Russia as the sole centre of power. If he says the unheralded Dmirty Medvedev shall be president, then Mr. Medvedev it will be. If Putin says he wants to be PM, only a fool would bet against him achieving that aim.

    As I have frequently pointed out in the past, Putin does all this largely with the consent of the Russian people. But that doesn't make it any more democratic. The institutions needed to make and keep Russia great - a free media, serious opposition and a real parliament - have been systematically eliminated during his eight years in power. For all its oil-fuelled economic growth and new swagger on the international stage, the country is inherently weaker as a result.

    Today may look like a triumph for Putin and Putinism. But one day, when he's gone, Russians will come to rue the system they watched him build.

    In the meantime, at least future summits between the Russian and Ukrainian prime ministers will have a touch of drama to them.

    Monday, December 10, 2007

    President Dmitry Medvedev


    So now we know. It will be Dmitry Medvedev, not Sergei Ivanov (and not Vladimir Putin) who succeeds Vladimir Putin. Putin, it's just been announced, "fully supports" Medvedev's candidacy to replace him when he leaves office after his second term expires in the spring.

    So all hail President Dmitry. There is, of course, the small matter of elections to be sorted out, but you can be sure that the Kremlin - unless this decision creates a major rift behind the red walls - will make sure Putin's man is elected. The liberal opposition is self-destructing anyway, choosing not one, but three candidates to run for the presidency in April.

    So what can be deduced from this, in these first minutes after Putin's announcement? To me, it says that Putin, instead of choosing someone else from inside the siloviki, the cadre of security service veterans who run the country, has chosen someone personally loyal to him. Medvedev is not a chekist (ex-KGB agent) like Putin and Ivanov, he's a Putinist.

    Medvedev has been at Putin's side since the early 1990s, when Putin was chief of staff to St. Petersburg mayor Anatoliy Sobchak and Medvedev was a foreign affairs advisor.

    As Putin rose to power, Medvedev followed. First he was chief of staff to Putin after he was appointed prime minister in 1999 by Boris Yeltsin. Then he ran Putin's 2000 presidential election campaign and afterwards became deputy chief of staff to President Vladimir. Next he was installed as chairman of the board at Gazprom, the giant gas company that Putin has turned into the Kremlin's most effective foreign policy tool.

    When Alexander Voloshin quit as Putin's chief of staff over the sordid Mikhail Khodorkovsky affair in 2003, Medvedev was brought in to replace him and get the Kremlin back on course. Two years ago, in the first hint that this moment might eventually come, he was made First Deputy Prime Minister (along with Ivanov).

    What does all this mean? Two things.

    The first is relations between Russia and the West may yet recover some. The 42-year-old Medvedev is seen as more liberal and pro-Western than the hardline Ivanov. Ivanov was the tough guy you always saw in military fatigues noddling gravely at the testing of new Russian military hardware. Medvedev was the mild-mannered man in the suit that you rarely saw at all until he was made deputy PM in an effort to build up his public persona (although he was theoretically also the guy who made the decision to turn off Gazprom's taps to Ukraine and Belarus when those countries bucked the Kremlin's will...).

    The second is that real power will remain in the hands of our old friend, Vladimir Vladimirovich. Putin's choice was between a man unquestionably loyal to him (Medvedev) and a man unquestionably loyal to the system (Ivanov). He chose the former.

    Medvedev owes Putin everything. If Putin asks him to do something - to make him prime minister, or even to relinquish the presidency because Vladimir Vladimirovich misses the comforts of the Kremlin - he'll do it.

    Monday, December 3, 2007

    Russia chooses authoritarianism


    It was, as Vladimir Putin has proclaimed the morning after, a "doubtless success." According to official results, his United Russia party won upwards of 64 per cent of the vote in yesterday's Duma elections. According to Vladimir Vladimirovich himself, that translates into 315 of the 450 seats in parliament.

    That two-thirds majority in the Duma allows Putin and his acolytes to alter the constitution. They can abolish term limits so that Putin can run again in the presidential vote this spring. They can rename the country Putinistan.

    There's no question now that Vladimir Putin will continue to dominate the Russian political scene after his term ends next year. If he doesn't find a way to retain the presidency (and I remain convinced that he will), he'll be the most powerful prime minister Russians have had since the post was created. If he's neither president nor PM, he'll be the man who yanks the strings on both.

    It all seems so anti-democratic. And yet, yesterday's election results - and the passivity with which Russians went to the ballot boxes to lend their endorsement to what's going on - reminds us again that Putin has done all this with the consent of the vast majority of Russia's 142 million citizens.

    Never mind the weak protests from the OSCE and American-backed NGOs like Golos. The West can kick and scream all it wants (with justification) about media manipulation and suppression of dissent under Putin. But take a drive 100 kilometres outside of Moscow - or better yet, fly to any city east of the Ural Mountains - and you'll see that the liberal elite whose rights we're so concerned with don't represent more than a tiny minority of Russians.

    The masses voted for Putin yesterday - and will again if he finds a way to run for president - because their lives are far better now than they were under the Western-sponsored "freedom" and "democracy" of the Boris Yeltsin years. They, like the country, are back on their feet again economically after the economic chaos of the 1990s, and they give Putin nearly all the credit for the turnaround.

    (A recent Kommersant examination of the Putin era found that "the country’s history has hardly seen another period when the prosperity of the population improved at such a fast rate." The newspaper reported that Russians' real incomes had grown from 6,087 rubles a year in 2000, the year he took office, to 11,425 in 2006.)

    That Putin could preside over eight years that included the Kursk submarine disaster, the Nord-Ost theatre siege debacle and the Beslan school massacre and still be seen as a "stability" president speaks to how disastrous the Yeltsin years - and Western policy towards Russia immediately after the end of the Cold War - really were.

    Much has been made of the Kremlin's near-complete control over the airwaves, and rightly so. The fact that most of the country gets little news beyond what they see on state-controlled television has definitely warped the Russian political map in Putin's favour. But whenever I travelled in Siberia and suggested as much to the reputedly brainwashed people who lived in the Russian heartland, they'd scoff indignantly. They're not stupid, was the reply. After decades of living in the Soviet Union, they know when they're being told the truth and when they're not. Better than any Westerner, they can spot propaganda when they see it.

    My argument here is not that the elections were "free and fair." I've written just last week about what a fraudulent process this election is. No one can or should believe that 99 per cent of Chechens voted for United Russia, as Ramzan Kadyrov and his thugocrats are claiming.

    What I'm saying is that Russians aren't fooled as easily as many seem to think. Rather than rising up and demanding better, they went to the polls yesterday and cast their ballots. By doing so, whether they voted for United Russia or not, they tacitly backed what Putin's been doing, and whatever he'll do next.

    Yes, there were instances of intimidation, but so far such reports are few and far between. With far more thought and experience than most outsiders give them credit for, the majority of Russians have chosen resoundingly chosen to back Putin's vision for their country's course.

    They've chosen security and oil-fuelled economic growth over freedom and democracy. Likewise, they've backed an independent, often anti-Western course on the international scene rather than bowing to Washington's leadership.

    A day after Putin's "doubtless success," it's time the West accepted that, together with all its many implications.

    (For more on this theme, Mikhail Gorbachev, in a fascinating interview with the Wall Street Journal, said he supports Putin and the "transitional democracy" he believes Putin is creating. Gorbachev also claims Dick Cheney once admitted to him that the West wanted to keep Russia on his knees. For those without a WSJ account, lawyer-blogger Robert Amsterdam has posted a full transcript here.)

    Sunday, December 2, 2007

    Election Day

    The polls are now open in the Duma elections.

    I've got 50 rubles on United Russia. Any takers?

    Monday, November 26, 2007

    Master and Margarita elections, part two


    This is Behemoth, or at least an unknown artist's conception of the fast-talking, hell-raising black cat who was the hero (at least in my reading) of Mikhail Bulgakov's classic novel The Master and Margarita.

    The book revolves a visit by the devil himself (in the company of his nefarious furry friend) to officially atheist Soviet Russia. Following his arrival, a Moscow that doesn't believe in the devil's existence rapidly descends into surrealist chaos, a place where Satan wows the crowd with magic shows and naked witches fly over the city.

    Marat Gelman, the spin doctor who was involved in both bringing Vladimir Putin to power and making sure he stayed there, once told me that the 2003 Duma elections that marked the rise of United Russia and the 2004 presidential campaign that secured Putin's second term were, in his mind, Russia's "Master and Margarita elections."

    Gelman called them that because he understood well the kind of system he had helped to create. He had been personally responsible for shaping the message on state-run television - hailing Putin and United Russia while either ignoring the oppoistion completely or portraying them as dangerous extremists - and knew the goal was never to test the public's support for what was going on.

    Putin was always going to win a landslide with something close to 70 per cent support, not too much more but certainly nothing less (he ended up with 71.3 per cent). United Russia was going to emerge as the first party to completely dominate the country since the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

    In the system Gelman and his colleagues would come to call "managed democracy," there would be elections every four years, but no real chance that anyone but a Kremlin-appointed candidate could win. The appearance of choice, but no one to choose between.

    "After the elections, our politicians stopped being able to influence anything. There remained only one politician in the country - Putin," Gelman told me when I visited him afterwards at the art gallery he runs in Moscow's trendy Zamoskvareche neighbourhood. The elections, he said, marked "the end of politics" in post-Soviet Russia.

    But shortly afterwards, even Gelman and his colleagues started to question the stability of the system they had helped to build. The Orange Revolution in neighbouring Ukraine jolted that country out of its semi-authoritarian stupor, and many were wondering whether the same thing couldn't happen in Russia itself.

    The "democracy promoters" funded by the U.S. State Department began to investigate the possibility, and opposition leaders like Boris Nemtsov and Garry Kasparov began investing their hopes in the idea that the wave of pro-Western uprisings that had washed over Belgrade, Kiev and Tbilisi in recent years could eventually hit Red Square too.

    But the three years since the Orange Revolution have given the Kremlin plenty of time to prepare. First we saw the rise of groups like Nashi and now Zaputina, which serve the purpose of imitating and confronting the pro-Western civil society that was so critical to mobilizing popular opinion in Serbia, Georgia and Ukraine.

    More dangerously, we've seen the complete suppression of the media and nearly all dissent, as evidenced again by the heavy handed police response to this weekend's marches by The Other Russia opposition movement.

    I used to argue with my friends over whether the revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine were good news for Russia's democrats. They believed in the "wave of freedom" theory, and thought Russia too would eventually be hit by it.

    Perhaps. But my fear was always that the pro-American non-government organizations who helped fund and fuel those uprisings were so partisan in their behaviour (it's a "free and fair election" if Washington's candidate wins, a disturbing backslide on the country's commitment to democracy if they don't) that the response in Russia and other post-Soviet countries that were already tipping towards authoritarianism would be to tighten the screws on the things that made the "colour revolutions" possible - namely free media and civil society.

    In 2003, with the exception of the Baltic States, Eduard Shevardnadze's Georgia and Leonid Kuchma's Ukraine were the freest and most open of the states that emerged from the collapse of the USSR. By using the political space that Shevardnadze and Kuchma gave to their opponents and critics to push for rapid radical upheavals, the revolution-makers scared the bejesus out of the authorities in other former Soviet republics.

    The lesson people like Belarus's Alexander Lukashenko and Uzbekistan's Islam Karimov took away from the Rose and Orange revolutions was that Shevardnadze and Kuchma had spent too much time worrying about where they ranked on the Freedom House list, and it had cost them control of their countries. Better to crack down fast and hard, take the international tsk-tsking that comes with a "not free" rating from Washington, and keep your job and all the loot that comes with it.

    Putin, it's now very clear, has drawn the same conclusion. Who cares what the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe election monitors have to say? They're all tools of the State Department, after all. The opposition? They're all dangerous thugs who belong in jail. The media? Some die, some live. It's really not worth investigating why that is.

    So here comes another round of elections without a choice. Behemoth walks the streets of Moscow again.

    Thursday, November 22, 2007

    The cult of personality, evolving


    Yesterday's "Za Putina" (For Putin) rally at Luzhniki Stadium was disturbing to watch.

    On one level, it was little different than an American political rally - all banner waving and adulation for the leader. Except the man they were saluting wasn't some new candidate on the rise, but an outgoing president at the end of his constitutionally mandated eight years in office.

    What was most remarkable (other than Putin's attacks on the opposition as "jackals" who beg for money at foreign embassies and desperately want to keep Russia weak) was that this was Putin, actually campaigning.

    He spurned such rallies during both the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections, arguing he was too busy handling the affairs of the nation for such silliness. It was an effective tactic that was aided in large part by the Kremlin's control over the media, which reported on his every move so fawningly that he didn't need to stoop to debates and campaign speeches.

    So - and I keep coming back to this - why is he doing this now? Because he's concerned that United Russia might not cross the 70 per cent barrier in the Duma elections? (The latest poll from VTsIOM has them at 63.8 per cent, with the Communists the only other party to cross, barely, the 7 per cent barrier needed to win seats in parliament.)

    Unlikely. This is still about the presidency and creating the impression that the people are wild about Putin (sadly true) and don't want to see him go. Having him as prime minister won't satiate these Putinmaniacs. They want him, need him as the country's uncontested leader.

    Putting aside the niceties of the constitution, how can Vladimir Vladimirovich not answer such rabid public demand? My feeling is that the Kremlin is creating a scenario where he'll seem to have no choice but to give the public what they want. I think Putin's time out of the Kremlin will be measured in days, not years.

    As Vladimir Vladimirovich himself obliquely told the crowd at Luzhniki: "If there is a victory in December (the Duma elections), then there will be a victory next March (the presidential vote) as well."

    If you want to read more about the rally yesterday, check out Andrey Kolesnikov's coverage in Kommersant. It's laugh-out-loud, sigh-in-despair brilliant.

    (There. Since I've linked to Kommersant, I can justify swiping the photo above... gotta love leopard print.)

    Sunday, November 18, 2007

    Could Putin run for a third term after all?

    Why, suddenly, are so many people talking (again) about the possibility of Vladimir Putin seeking a third term as Russian president?

    The idea - which many thought had gone away when Vladimir Vladimirovich started mumbling about how neat he thought the prime minister's job would be - has shot back to the forefront in recent days after Alexander Shokhin, the head of the powerful Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, told Itogi magazine that it was "quite possible" for Putin to legally run for a third term, despite an apparent constitutional ban on him doing so.

    The plan, which was later expanded on in the Nezavisimaya Gazeta newspaper (the Jamestown Foundation has an analysis here), would see Putin run at the head of the United Russia ticket in next month's Duma elections, then resign from the Kremlin to assume his seat in parliament. An interim president would be appointed and, since Putin would no longer be seeking a third "consecutive" term, Vladimir Vladimirovich would be free to run for his old job in the March 2 presidential vote after just a couple of months out of office.

    Could Putin be this cynical? I was actually somewhat relieved when he started talking about the PM's job, since it at least preserved the idea that the constitution should mean something in the Russian Federation, even if it currently does not. At the very least, there would be the faint possibility that the next president might occasionally disagree with PM Putin, ensuring he alone wouldn't completely dominate the political scene.

    Abusing a consitutional loophole to run for a third term - a blatant bending of the state's basic law by the president - would make it clear that concepts such as the rule of law and democracy now mean absolutely nothing in modern Russia. It's a short walk from democracy to autocracy, an even shorter one from there to outright dictatorship.

    Any hope that the Russian people will oppose this in large numbers is rapidly fading. A group calling itself simply "Pro-Putin" claims to have collected 30 million signatures urging VVP to stay on. That seems inflated, but there's a definitely an effort foot to at least create the perception of public support for the initiative. The zaputina ("For Putin") website has collected upwards of 63,000 signatures calling for their beloved president to stay on.

    No wonder the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has withdrawn its monitoring mission for the Duma elections. It's becoming quite clear that there's going to be nothing like a real election to observe.

    First Russian reviews of The New Cold War


    The first Russian reviews (or at least the first reviews published in Russia) of The New Cold War came out in the past couple of days, and the bottom line is two thumbs up.

    I have to say that when I started this book, I never expected to get a positive review from the state-run Itar-Tass news agency, especially given my history of run-ins with the Kremlin (most infamously, they once accused me of "connivance at terrorism" and invited me down to Lubyanka for a chat). But Vladimir Kikilo's fair-minded review in the weekly ЭХО ПЛАНЕТЫ finds the book to be full of "rich material" that "sheds new light on many events in recent history."

    Now maybe, just maybe, the Kremlin will give me another visa.

    Mike Averko (a Russophile blogger and frequent commentator on this site) is less enthusiastic. In a review first published in the Russia Journal (is that thing still alive?), he takes issue with a lot of what I have to say, but concedes that the "prose is crisp" and ends up recommending the book anyway, if only so people like him can better understand "views we find disagreeable."

    The review was posted over at Siberian Light, and has generated some decent debate there. (And may I assure any would-be readers that I know my Marovics from my Markovics and don't confuse the two in the book. One's a dark-haired guy with an earring who lives in Belgrade, the other (Marko) has blonde hair, lives in Kiev and has largely given up revolution-making to help out at things like Eurovision.)

    Thursday, November 8, 2007

    Snap elections in Georgia

    News agencies have been reporting in the last few minutes that President Mikhail Saakashvili has declared there will be a snap presidential election on Jan. 5.

    If true, it's a wise move by President Misha. His move to crack down on protests this week and declare a state of emergency smelled of the kind of autocracy he once stood against.

    It's also politically smart: the opposition so far doesn't have a single figure it can rally around, now they have less than two months to find someone. Unless Nino Burjanadze, the popular speaker of parliament and a loyal Saakashvili ally, can be convinced to run against him, Saakashvili's main contender is likely to be the controversial ex-defense minister Irakli Okruashvili, who is currently in exile in Germany, avoiding prosecution on corruption charges.

    Saakashvili's decision to deploy soldiers on the streets of Tbilisi to quell the opposition protests this week shouldn't be forgotten, or forgiven, but I'd still bet that Misha comes out of this smelling, well, like roses.

    Wednesday, November 7, 2007

    Tear gas in Tbilisi


    The latest out of Georgia is that riot police, acting on the orders of President Mikhail Saakashvili, have dispersed several thousand anti-government protestors using tear gas, water cannons, fists and batons.

    In a televised address, Saakashvili said the protests were part of a Russian plot to create unrest in the country. He promised he had "incontrovertible evidence" of such nefariousness that he would release "soon."

    We'll see.

    In the interim, a few things strike me about President Misha's crackdown, most of all that it's a final break with many of the people who helped bring him to power during the Rose Revolution four years ago. In contrast, Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko - ever-conscious that it was the people who brought him to power - has tolerated all kinds of protests against his rule, some of which have blocked the centre of Kiev and left the country almost ungovernable for weeks at a time.

    The people still own the streets in Ukraine, for better and for worse. That's no longer so in Georgia.

    This quote, from Giga Bokeria, the head of Saakashvili's National Movement, was particularly jarring to me:

    "This is absolutely normal for any Western democratic country," he told The Messenger newspaper in defense of the crackdown. Bokeria said the authorities had no choice ut to act once the protestors "made direct calls for the overthrow of the government."

    This from one of the key plotters of the Rose Revolution, a man who helped plan the occupation of the centre of Tbilisi for three weeks in 2003. Back then, it was he who was calling for the overthrow of the government, so I guess it was OK.

    More obvious hypocrisy: The pro-opposition Imedi TV was also taken off the air, apparently after police raided the studios (Imedi recently ran an interview from the exiled opposition figure Irakli Okruashvili in which he vowed that Saakashvili's "days are numbered.") Not so long ago, Bokeria and Saakashvili were among the crowd in the street, decrying the previous government for briefly shutting down the Rustavi-2 channel that was to Saakashvili's uprising what Imedi is today's protestors.

    Regardless of the allegations of Russian involvement (and we must remember here that Saakashvili came to power with plenty of American help), Saakashvili is showing that he can and will crack down where Eduard Shevardnadze did not.

    While researching my book, I interviewed Saakashvili and many others who helped plan and carry out the Rose Revolution. They all told me that one of the reasons they had the courage to remain in the streets for three chilly weeks back in 2003 was their conviction that Shevardnadze was not a complete autocrat. Unlike, say, Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus or Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan, they believed that the Silver Fox would not use force against his own people.

    With some of his old Rose Revolution allies now arrayed against him, the tear gas and the water cannons were a message from Saakashvili to his former comrades that could be boiled down to "I know your game, I know how this works. Don't expect me to go as gently as Shevardnadze did."

    And bringing down Saakashvili is exactly what the opposition now plans to do.

    I'm torn about all this. I've written admiringly about the evident progress Georgia has made under Saakashvili. But it all risks coming undone if he starts behaving like just another post-Soviet autocrat.

    It saddened me to see the scenes on Rustavelis Gamziri today.

    A shout-out to a fellow blogger: Matthew Collin of This is Tbilisi Calling fame is filing great reports from the scene for BBC World.

    Monday, November 5, 2007

    The crisis this time


    Poor Georgia. The country, perhaps more than any other former Soviet republic, has been in constant turmoil since the day the USSR dissolved. Wars, revolutions, mass protests - these things are as Georgian as khachapurri and over-sweet red wine.

    Mikhail Saakashvili's rise to power via the Rose Revolution in 2003 was supposed to bring an end to all this. And if you were watching the slick government-bought commercials that are in heavy rotation on CNN ("And the winner is: Georgia"), you might believe that he'd succeeded in finally making the tiny Caucasian state into a stable, westward-looking, ready-for-Europe country.

    But here we are exactly four years after the heady days of the Rose Revolution, and the streets are again full. Saakashvili can, with some reason, call the protests Russian-inspired but that doesn't negate the fact that the centre of Tbilisi is shut down and his government is facing its most serious challenge to date. And, of course, the Rose Revolution came about with more than a little American help.

    Most opinion polls show that Saakashvili's National Movement is still easily the most popular party in the country, though he certainly wouldn't win 96 per cent support, as he did four years ago, in another presidential vote. But even the president has admitted that he's done a poor job of explaining why there isn't going to be fresh elections until next fall - five years after the last round. (Georgia previously had elections every four years, meaning this should be parliamentary election time, but Saakashvili changed the constitution two years ago so that presidential and parliamentary elections would be held together from now on.)

    Saakashvili's inferences during his lengthy interview with Georgian TV about not wanting the country to be in an election cycle while Russia was holding its own parliamentary and presidential votes are fascinating. So too is his open linkage of the Kosovo crisis to the separatist regions of Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Saakashvili clearly sees an international showdown coming, and doesn't want to have to deal with it and an election at the same time.

    Still, the most interesting thing for me about these protests is the leading role of figures like Tinatin Khidasheli, who were once allies of Saakashvili's and who were instrumental members of the NGO coalition that brought about the Rose Revolution four years ago.

    Back then, Saakashvili was their chosen saviour who would save Georgia from chaos and corruption. Now they're pining for the golden days of poor old Eduard Shevardnadze, whom history may once more come to judge kindly.

    One more thing. I urge all of you to check out Natalia Antelava's beautifully written tribute to Alisher Saipov, the Uzbek journalist who was murdered last week, likely because of the work he did writing about corruption, torture and the betrayal of the people by Uzbek President Islam Karimov's government.

    She gets it exactly right. The international media relies on people like Alisher Saipov to understand the countries that we're hurriedly sent to when a crisis breaks out. Without people like him (I can't help thinking and worrying of my own Uzbek friends right now), the story doesn't get out, and the thugocrats win.

    As for the whodunnit, Antelava's piece leaves little question in my mind:

    [Saipov's] paper was becoming increasingly popular ahead of the December presidential election, in which Mr Karimov is seeking re-election.

    And, with its popularity, Alisher's name too was gaining prominence.

    He was beginning to feature heavily on Uzbek state-controlled television, portrayed as a terrorist, a dangerous man with a hidden agenda of overthrowing the Uzbek state.

    The last time I saw him he told me that there were even rumours that the Uzbek government had put a price on his head.

    Monday, October 29, 2007

    Russians take on the GAI (at last)


    It was a nightmare moment: after a highly lubricated Moscow evening with two visiting Canadian friends, we piled into a cab (actually, random Lada that pulled over and agreed to my price for a ride from Lubyanka Square to Oktyabrskaya metro station) and turned down one of the back streets of Kitai-Gorod.

    Moments later, a member of the hated, baton-wielding GAI, the traffic police, waved us down. Our crime, I immediately realized, was getting into a car with a Central Asian driver. The racist and corrupt GAI were about to hand him a ticket for Driving While Uzbek, and we three Canucks were also going to be scrutinized to see if additional graft couldn't be extracted.

    The first officer gave my passport a prolonged look, only to shove it back in my face with disappointment when he couldn't find anything out of order. He went through the same process with my friend Blayne, then turned his attention to the third Canadian, a gentle man named John who had made the cardinal mistake of bringing his passport with him, but forgetting the white entry card he had filled out upon landing at Sherevmetyevo Airport.

    Delighted to have caught a foreigner without proper dokumenti (Russia's police, having solved all the country's larger crimes, are obsessed with making sure foreigners have their documents in order) - and even more ecstatic when they realized John didn't speak Russian and didn't know what was going on - they shoved John into the back of a police cruiser. Then they turned to me, the Russian-speaker in the crowd, and asked what I was going to do about it.

    They told me they needed to take John down to the police station. I said that was fine, since we had done nothing wrong, and moved to get in the back of the cruiser alongside my friend.

    They blocked me physically. I couldn't come, they told me, since I wasn't going to be charged with the grievous crime of forgetting my entry card at home. John would be taken to the station alone, something they knew I wouldn't allow.

    Having lived three years in Moscow, I knew what came next.

    Mui mojem reshit etu problemmamu po-drugomu? I sighed, a line I'd memorized during years of dealing with corrupt cops. "Maybe we can solve this problem a different way?"

    Of course, this was what they wanted to hear. An on-the-spot fine of 500 rubles (about $20 at the time) was agreed on and we were free to go. Our Uzbek driver paid a smaller fee of 100 rubles for being brown.

    All this is a prologue to explain the delight I felt when I read the story in today's New York Times entitled "Weary of Highway Bribery, Russians Take On the Police." By Clifford J. Levy, it tells the story of Kirill Formanchuk and how his decision to stand up to the GAI (which earned him a prolonged hospital stay) has inspired others and made him a folk hero.

    Now that's a Russian revolution I'd take up citizenship to join.

    Friday, October 26, 2007

    Reflections from a land (almost) without wireless

    I've been unable to blog for almost two weeks now, hit by the double-whammy of being busy reporting on the crisis along the Iraq-Turkey border (as always, you can find my latest reports at The Globe and Mail website) and the fact that Turkey's telecommunications sector has gone on strike, making Internet access scarce in some of the places I've been the last little while.

    To catch up quickly, short notes on a few things that caught my eye this week:

    New rhetorical heights: Putin is banging the drum lounder than ever today, warning the United States (and Poland and the Czech Republic) against the planned missile defense system for Europe. This time he's comparing the situation to the Cuban Missile Crisis that almost started a nuclear war between the U.S. and the USSR back in 1962. "I would remind you how relations were developing in an analogous situation in the middle of the 1960s," Putin said in a press conference at the end of today's Russia-EU summit. "Analogous actions by the Soviet Union when it deployed rockets on Cuba provoked the Cuban missile crisis.... For us, technologically, the situation is very similar."

    An overstatement, perhaps, given that the Soviet Union was deploying offensive weapons in the Carribean back in 1962, while the White House is contemplating a defensive shield today. But Putin's point is valid: George W. Bush's provocative plan to set up a missile defense network in in Eastern Europe, like Nikita Khrushchev's decision to sneak missiles into Cuba, would have the effect of changing the nuclear balance-of-power. Russia, as Putin has repeatedly made clear, would have to do something to counter that, likely by restarting the Cold War arms race and developing new missiles and warheads that could overwhelm any system the U.S. builds.

    Does the world need this? Given that any Iranian nuclear threat is still theoretical at this stage, why is Bush so determined to go ahead with the shield plan when it delivers few strategic benefits and is so provocative to the Kremlin?

    If a vote is cast in Siberia and nobody monitors it, is anybody elected? The Moscow Times has an interesting front-page report today on the troubles international election monitors are facing getting registered ahead of the looming Duma elections.

    No surprise here - you can argue (as I do in my book) that without international monitors from the OSCE and other organizations, the authorities in Georgia and Ukraine would have gotten away with their election tampering and there would have been no Rose or Orange Revolution.

    When Kremlin aide Sergei Yastrzhembsky says "we do not want to listen to any lectures," he's hinting at what everybody already knows will happen:

    1) there will be electoral manipulation (either through physical means at the ballot box, or through the use of "administrative resources" to tilt the playing field before voting day) to ensure that Putin and United Russia win by an acceptably large margin.

    2) the West, and more specifically monitors from the OSCE and other groups, will complain about it, providing fuel to those who are planning to take to the streets on and after election day.

    Election monitors provided a causus belli and the moral high ground to pro-Western demonstrators in Belgrade in 2000, Tbilisi in 2003 and Kiev in 2004. The Kremlin is doing everything it can to ensure that it doesn't happen in Moscow in 2007.

    Prepare the way for PM Yulia, Take 2: Ukraine's High Administrative Court has finally validated the results of the Sept. 30 election, meaning that an already negotiated power-sharing deal between on-again Orange Revolution allies Yulia Tymoshenko and President Viktor Yushchenko can finally kick in. Tymoshenko will be prime minister, while the cabinet posts will be split between her party and Yushchenko's Our Ukraine movement.

    When I interviewed The Braided One back in April at her Kiev office, I asked her why the Orange team deserved another chance after she and Yushchenko squandered the mandate the people gave them back in 2004, spending more time publicly dquabbling over the spoils of power than they did tackling the country's endemic problems. Yushchenko eventually fired her, setting the stage for Viktor Yanukovich's startling political comeback.

    Tymoshenko correctly predicted that the reformed Orange team would win the vote, and promised that the pro-Westerners had learned from their mistakes and deserved another chance to govern. "I firmly believe that ... these early elections will give us a new chance that we will not misuse or lose," she told me.

    I hope so.

    Alisher Saipov, 1981-2007: Another journalist brutally murdered, this time an Uzbek reporter who had recently founded a newspaper called Siyosat. The paper's name means "Politics" - a dangerous thing to report on in that part of the world. Saipov also reported for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, as well as the Uzbek-language services of Voice of America and Radio Liberty.

    No question it was an assassination: he was shot three times as he walked the main street of Osh, in southern Kyrgzstan, on Wednesday night.

    Read the IWPR's tribute to Saipov here.

    Saturday, October 13, 2007

    Ra-Ra-Ras-Putin


    Oh, to be in Tamarasheni today. The South Ossetian village, one of the few in the breakaway republic that is still under the Georgian government's control, is the site of a remarkable concert today by 80s disco stars Boney M (pictured).

    Yep, the musical geniuses behind such hits as "Rasputin" (which while a hazy memory in the West is still a big hit across much of the former Soviet Union) have somehow found their way to a pokey village on the edge of a conflict zone.

    Believe it or not, the show is part of Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili's efforts to win over the "hearts and minds" of South Ossetians. Word is that the music will be cranked up loud enough to be heard in the rebel capital, Tskhinvali.

    The message, distilled: See, you silly Ossetians, life really is better over here in the rest of Georgia. So good that we have time for disco dancing. When was the last time you got your groove on? Drop all this silly separatism and we can all dance together.

    My good friend Michael Mainville, the Agence France Presse correspondent in the Caucasus, filed this report to AFP from Tbilisi:

    The concert is part of a wider effort to convince South Ossetian rebels that they would lead more peaceful, prosperous - and possibly funky - lives
    under Georgian control.

    "Our message is that we are against war, extremism and violence. We want to resolve all problems peacefully, and peaceful life resumes where people sing songs," said Dmitry Sanakoyev, the head of a rival pro-Georgian administration in South Ossetia.


    Oh, and:

    Violence continues to plague the area and sniper fire is common after nightfall. This summer saw some of the heaviest fighting in the region in years, with both sides accusing each other of launching mortar and grenade attacks.


    Nevermind that. A little Ossetian cheese pie, a glass of Georgian red wine (preferably a Saperavi) and Boney M belting out "Daddy Cool." I can't decide if that's heaven or hell, but I wanna be there either way.

    If this works, perhaps Saakashvili can convince his buddy George W. Bush to bring some other 80s stars out of retirement - Wang Chung and Level 42 jump to mind - to see if they can't cheer up those grumpy Iraqis.

    Sunday, October 7, 2007

    Day of shame


    Perhaps one day, people in Russia will come to see Oct. 7 as a day of mourning.

    First, it's the anniversary of Anna Politkovskaya's murder, a sad day for anyone who cares about free press in the country. Whatever you think about her writing, and whoever ordered her murder, the end result is that fewer Russian journalists, writers and intellectuals feel comfortable expressing dissent. For a country with Russia's dark past, that's very bad news.

    (For plenty of great material on Politkovskaya - pictured - and her life and death, see today's edition of La Russophobe and the special English page done by the staff at her old newspaper, Novaya Gazeta.)

    Just as disconcerting, some 10,000 people, many of them wearing shirts emblazoned with Vladimir Putin's name and image, marched along the Moscow River today to celebrate the president's 55th birthday. They shouted birthday greetings, as well as slogans like "Putin is our future." The rally was organized by the ever-creepier Nashi youth movement.

    (As an aside, only a few hundred people commemorated Politkovskaya's life at a rally in Moscow today, and demonstrators attending a conference marking the anniversary in NIzhny Novgorod were briefly arrested by police there.)

    There will be those who will say that Putin's "birthday party" was just another demonstration of how beloved the president is. That's nonsense.

    Yes, Putin is popular. But these sycophantic rallies evoke the "popular" demonstrations organized by dictators the world over. I've been to rallies like the one I saw today in Syria, Pakistan and Belarus. That's not a list any country should aspire to join.

    We're not witnessing the evolution of Russian democracy, but the creation of a one-man personality cult. Again, for a country with such a tortured history, that's frightening to watch.

    I could go on, but I have a plane to catch. Suffice it to say that Oct. 7, 2007 was a dark day in Moscow.

    Wednesday, October 3, 2007

    Gazprom weighs in on Ukraine power struggle

    With voting still going on in Ukraine - and results close between those who support the Russian-backed Viktor Yanukovich's bid to remain prime minister and those likely to pick the pro-Western, pro-NATO Yulia Tymoshenko - the Kremlin has predictably sent the energy giant Gazprom into the fray.

    (With the last results trickling in, Yanukovich's Party of Regions led with just over 34 per cent of the vote, with potential coalition allies the Communists and the Lytvyn bloc together pulling in about another 10 per cent. Tymoshenko had just under 31 per cent, with President Viktor Yushchenko's Our Ukraine movement, which has said it will back her as premier, receiving 14 per cent of the vote. The evolving dead heat can be viewed in a handy little graph on the main page of the Ukrainska Pravda website. A key remaining question is whether the Socialist Party of Aleksandr Moroz will cross the 3 per cent threshold needed to win seats in the Rada. If he does, that likely puts Yanukovich over the top.)

    In what looks a lot like an attempt to influence the coming fight over who will be PM, Gazprom - which provides nearly all the natural gas used in Ukraine - yesterday to reduce supplies if by the end of the month it didn't receive some $1.3 billion it claims it's owed by the Ukrainian government. While Gazprom's business case may be entirely justified, the company has long coordinated its goals with the Kremlin (unsurprising, given that deputy prime minister and potential Putin successor Dmitriy Medvedev is Gazprom's chairman).

    Gazprom, of course, denied that it's statement had anything to do with the election, but it looks a lot like 2006 all over again. Back then, Gazprom briefly switched off the gas right in the middle of another parliamentary election campaign, reminding Ukrainian voters that severing ties with Moscow came with a cost. Many credit the Gazprom cutoff with helping propel Yanukovich's unlikely political comeback after the disaster of the 2004 Orange Revolution.

    Volodymyr Bronnikov, a parliament member with the Party of the Regions, made the connection Gazprom wouldn't. If Tymoshenko is prime minister, and her goal is to move Ukraine away from Russia and towards the West, then Russia is justified in charging Ukraine the same price for natural gas that it does other European countries, he said yesterday. (Ukraine, like most other former Soviet republics, currently receives discounted supplies from Gazprom, a holdover from the days of the USSR.)

    "If Ukraine is an ordinary European country, then it must pay ordinary European prices for gas," Bronnikov was quoted as saying by The Moscow Times.

    This one looks like a warning shot, intended this time for President Yushchenko himself. The message seems clear: make a grand coalition with Yanukovich (something one Ukrainska Pravda report suggested he was considering), and the last two years of your presidency will go relatively smoothly in terms of relations between Ukraine and its larger neighbour to the east. Put Tymoshenko back in power and the Kremlin will make sure it's a cold winter in Kyiv.

    Tuesday, October 2, 2007

    The other shoe drops: Putin wants to be PM


    Well a three-year-old guessing game appears to be coming to an end. Ever since Vladimir Putin cruised to a second term in the 2004 presidential election, the question has been inevitable: what will Putin do when the term is over and the constitution forbids him from running again?

    Today, Putin pretty much put an end to the speculation, strongly suggesting that when he leaves the Kremlin, his new office will only be a short drive a way down Kutuzovsky Prospekt to prime minister's office, the White House.

    Addressing the congress of the United Russia movement - a party he oversaw the creation of, and that has little ideology beyond loyalty to Putin - Vladimir Vladimirovich said it was "entirely realistic" that he could end up as prime minister after his term as president ends next year.

    Putin, who previously had not been an official party member, said he will head the United Russia list into the December elections for the Duma.

    He set two conditions for taking the job, both of which should be easily met:

    - United Russia must win the December elections. Given the state of the opposition, it would be a shock if they didn't. (United Russia currently controls 305 of the 450 seats in the Duma, giving it the the two-thirds majority necessary to amend the constitution.)

    - The next president must be someone Putin feels he can work with. Given that he's hard at work hand-choosing his successor, that too seems likely to be the case.

    (As an aside, The Moscow Times reported today that the Other Russia opposition movement has nominated chessmaster Garry Kasparov as its leader. That would be interesting news if two other pro-Western liberals, ex-prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov and perennial loser Grigoriy Yavlinsky, hadn't already thrown their hats in the ring. With all three siphoning votes off from each other, Putin's man - be it Sergei Ivanov or someone else - should coast to an easy victory)

    Putin's hint about the PM job doesn't end the guessing over who will be the next president, but it does lessen the importance of the question. It's now clear that Putin will retain much of the real power.

    Right now the presidency is far more powerful than the PM's job. I'm not sure Putin, after eight years as top banana on the tree, is interested in playing second mango. Now the fun shifts to watching out for moves between now and the presidential elections next spring that suggest an effort to pass powers from the presidency to the prime minister and his cabinet.

    It's all very constitutional and very clever.

    By the way, there's no limit on how many terms someone can serve as prime minister of the Russian Federation. Oh, and the prime minister is also first in line for the presidency should the president resign or somehow become incapacitated.

    Monday, October 1, 2007

    Tymoshenko wins big in Ukraine?


    IF the exit polls that are being reported out of Ukraine come anywhere close to reflecting the official vote count in today's parliamentary elections (never an assumed thing in Ukraine), then Yulia Tymoshenko is today's big winner, and likely Ukraine's next prime minister.

    Exit polls, conducted by a trio of Ukraine's top firms, led by the Democratic Initiatives Foundation, show incumbent Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich's Party of Regions coming out on top, but with a narrower margin than expected. The exit poll gave the Regions 35.5 per cent, with the Bloc Yulia Tymoshenko right behind at 31.5 per cent.

    The Regions result is roughly in line with expectations. But while opinion polls had Tymoshenko running second, most had her at around only 23 per cent.

    According to the poll (you can see the full results here at the Orange Ukraine blog), President Viktor Yushchenko's Our Ukraine party finished, as predicted, a distant third at 13.4 per cent. But that's enough to make sure that a reconstituted "orange" alliance between he and Tymoshenko controls the next Rada.

    Which means Tymoshenko, not Yanukovich, is likely the next premier. If the exit polls come anywhere close to matching the official results. If.

    Already there are quite different numbers appearing on the homepage of the Central Election Commission, the much-maligned official body that was implicated in the 2004 presidential election fraud that fueled the Orange Revolution.

    At last click, the CEC had Tymoshenko in front with about 34 per cent, followed by Regions with 27 per cent and Our Ukraine with just over 19. However, that was with less than 1 per cent of votes cast.

    Any differences between the pre-election opinion polls, today's exit polls and the official results can potentially be used as fodder by the quarrelling camps. (It should be noted here that the Democratic Initiatives Foundation has received grants from the United States and other Western governments, making it untrustworthy in the eyes of Yanukovich's team and much of the Russified east of the country.)

    As I noted yesterday, the followers of both Tymoshenko and Yanukovich are already camping (separately) in the streets, ready to begin rolling demonstrations at the first word from their leader.

    According to the Kyiv Post Yanukovich's supporters have already alerted police that they intend to gather 150,000 people tonight for a demonstration "in support of democratic and transparent elections." AFP says a pro-Yanukovich protest is planned for tomorrow.

    Sunday, September 30, 2007

    Early reports of violations in Ukraine

    Just a quick note to pass on a report I got from a friend who is an international monitor observing today's Ukrainian parliamentary elections. He's in the Crimea (a stronghold of the pro-Russian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich) and passed along these notes:

    (Bits in square brackets are my additions for clarity's sake. My source can't be named at this point.)

    The most egregious rule breaking I've witnessed and documented to date:

    1) Voters lists being added to during the course of Election Day. I took a photo before I was prevented from taking any more pictures, interference [with the election monitoring team] which is also contrary to regulations.

    2) Russian citizens using their Russian passports to vote. Despite commision head's denial I stopped a voter who had just finished casting her ballot and admitted she was not a Ukrainian citizen.

    3) Two polling stations in which contrary to the rules thousands of ballots not fully distributed and held back in a safe to which only Party of Regions [Yanukovich's party] official had access.


    Sounds to me like more of the usual shenanigans. I'd like to hear from an observer in the west of the country if there's one out there who happens to be reading this.

    The Committee of Ukrainian Voters, an American-funded non-government organization, is also posting reports (in English and Ukrainian) throughout the day.

    Through the early hours they had observed "critical" problems with the voters lists, "occasional" instances of open bribery and, perhaps most significantly, the barring of some 570,000 Ukrainians who had recently travelled abroad because the State Border Service had not updated the voters list when they returned to the country. Despite all this, the CVU also declared that "no gross violations" had been registered as of this morning (Ukraine time).

    Turnout was on pace for 65 to 70 per cent, the CVU said. Should be an interesting day.

    Saturday, September 29, 2007

    Street theatre season begins


    In the Soviet era, questions of power and politics were decided by a small group of men, meeting in private within the red walls of the Kremlin in Moscow. The masses in far-flung places like Tbilisi and Kiev played no role whatsoever in deciding whether Nikita Khrushchev should remain in power in 1964, or who would replace Leonid Brezhnev as their leader after his death in 1982.

    These days, however, the masses rule. Or at least whoever can get the masses out on his side does.

    Protests against Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili began today in Tbilisi. Duelling demonstrations by the supports of Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko and his archrival, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich, could begin as early as Sunday (I'll be on CTV's flagship morning program Canada AM Monday morning to talk about why).

    And Russia's Duma elections this December, as well as the presidential elections coming in the spring, are expected to be marked by some of the largest protests (both for and against the current establishment) that country has seen since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

    The Georgian protests (pictured) were sparked by a chain of events that first saw former defense minister Irakli Okruashvili make astonishing allegations that Saakashvili was not only corrupt, but had once ordered him to kill businessman Badri Patarkatsishvili. (He also suggested a government cover-up in the mysterious 2005 death of former prime minister Zurab Zhvania, saying Zhvania had died somewhere besides where his body was found.)

    Two days later, on Thursday, Okruashvili was arrested and charged with extortion, money laundering, misuse of power and criminal negligence. Yesterday, his supporters took to the streets, 6,000 to 7,000 of them, according to Georgia's The Messenger newspaper.

    Even without the usual Washington-versus-Moscow overtones, it would be a pretty complicated drama. But as Olga Allenova wrote in Russia's Kommersant newspaper, it's likely Moscow that encouraged Okruashvili to take on Saakashvili head-on. Whatever the truth of the back-and-forth allegations of criminality, the Kremlin has tired of Saakashvili, who came to power through the American-backed Rose Revolution in 2003, and is supporting Okruashvili's push to oust him. Post-Rose Revolution, the way to do that is to make it appear as though the streets are with your man.

    A similar dynamic is playing out in Ukraine, where both the Kremlin-backed Yanukovich and the Western-friendly Yushchenko are each accusing the other side of election fraud before the first ballots are even cast.

    The elections are so close that some tampering seems inevitable. "Half of Ukraine supports Orange [Yushchenko and his Orange Revolution ally Yulia Tymoshenko], and the other half Blue [Yanukovich], so a tiny additional margin added by cheating could make all the difference," Roman Koshovi, Lvov chairman of the Committee of Ukrainian Voters, an election-monitoring group, told my friend and colleague Fred Weir of the Christian Science Monitor. "The temptation to fix some ballots will be very strong on all sides," Koshovi added.

    And when the cheating happens, people like Committee of Ukrainian Voters and the election monitoring team sent by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe will be there to catch them and tell the world (or at least the Western media).

    Which is why Canadian politician Gerard Kennedy got in trouble with the Donetsk cops today. With the stakes so high and the race so close (polls put Yanukovich ahead, but with the "orange team" attracting roughly the same amount when Yushchenko and Tymoshenko's support is combined), international monitors are seen not as arbiters, but as potential instigators. What they say could influence how big, and how motivated, the crowds in the streets are the next day.

    As an aside, Canadian monitors are also seen as highly partisan, after some of them were spotted wearing orange during the 2004 showdown.

    Whoever wins in Ukraine, the other side is likely to try and reverse the result on the streets of Kiev. Both Yanukovich and Tymoshenko already have their tent cities set up.

    Yanukovich's people are already camping on Independence Square, the site of the Orange Revolution three years ago. Tymoshenko's followers on Sofievsky Square, a few blocks up the hill.

    Stay tuned. Just like in Georgia and Russia, the Ukrainian elections won't end when the voting does.

    Thursday, September 27, 2007

    The new face of Russian "extremism"


    Forget about the 10,000 skinheads, Rodina and Vladimir Zhirinovsky. It turns out that the real extremists in Russia are people like the nice man in the photograph, Andrei Piontkovsky.

    Piontkovsky has been charged with extremism in connection with two of his books, "Unloved Country" and "For the Motherland! For Abramovich! Fire!" (He also has another book, translated into English called "Another Look Into Putin's Soul" that you can buy here. Some might take the fact that the Kremlin doesn't want you to read it as recommendation enough...)

    The idea that Piontkovsky, a member of the liberal Yabloko party, is an extremist is absurd. He is a right-winger, yes, deeply opposed to the Putin regime, for sure, and someone with thick ties to the American establishment (I met him last year at the Hudson Institute, a right-wing think tank here in Washington D.C.). But none of those things should be illegal in a country like Russia that still pretends at being a democracy.

    The fact that he's been charged with inciting hatred against Russians, Americans and Jews deepens the farce. Piontkovsky, it should be noted, is a Russian Jew who spends a good chunk of his time in America. There are few people in the world less likely to hate Russians, Americans and Jews. At his trial in Moscow, the prosecutor couldn't even cite which passages of Piontkovsky's writing were doing the inciting.

    Simply put, Andrei Piontkovsky is in trouble because he's one of the Kremlin's most vocal and effective critics. He also speaks and writes in English, which made him a favourite of the Western media.

    Russia's recently amended extremism laws (which were broadened this year after charges against opposition leader Garry Kasparov failed to stick) are nothing but tool for suppressing political opponents. According to a story in today's Washington Post, other people being investigated for "promoting extremism" right now are Vladimir Pribylovsky, another liberal (and quotable) favourite of the Western press, and human-rights advocate Lev Ponomarev, who notably was among those who led the demonstrations that stopped the hard-line coup and brought about the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

    Like Piontkovsky, Pribylovsky had written extensively on the corruption of Russian democracy. Ponomarev's most recent "crime" was to organize a day of mourning on Moscow's Lubyanka Square (right in front of the KGB/FSB headquarters) for the victims of 2004 Beslan school massacre.

    These are not extremists. These are people who dream of a different Russia than the one they currently live in.

    Wednesday, September 26, 2007

    Zero hour approaches in Ukraine

    Election day is just four days away in Ukraine. The protests about the fairness of the vote, it seems, will begin as soon as the polling stations close.

    Two bits of news today that make some sort of repeat of the street theatre of 2004 seem almost inevitable.

    First, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich told regional television in the eastern oblast of Poltava that he would be bringing his supporters to the streets of Kyiv on Sunday night to protest what he says will be electoral fraud perpetrated by the erstwhile "team" of Viktor Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko.

    "We see that orange team (Yushchenko) and white brotherhood (Tymoshenko) will not win the election honestly. And they feel this. Their rating is falling. They see they will lose, that is why they are preparing for the falsifications," Mr. Yanukovich said. "We have enough power not to allow this."

    Forget the absurdity of Yanukovich - who was behind the spectacular election fraud of three years ago that sparked the Orange Revolution - accusing anyone else of planning to rig an election. What's important here is that he does have enough money and support to make a mess of the coming election.

    Yushchenko, for his part, sees the trouble coming, and has rightfully pointed out that it's up to the prime minister and his government to oversee the vote. He alleged that it's Yanukovich (again) who is plotting to defile the results of the vote.

    "I want to make it clear to Mr. Yanukovych and his team: the government bears personal responsibility for holding honest, transparent and democratic elections," the president said on a visit to Sumy. "Why does Mr. Yanukovych speak about fraud? This is because he is planning it."

    What can we draw from all the threats and acrimony, so close to voting day? My conclusion is the same as Eugene Ivantsov's, who wrote this in Ukrainska Pravda.

    "The Parliamentary election will not be over after polling stations close in the evening. This election will most likely begin after that."

    Pity the ordinary Ukrainians who are trapped in this never-ending tug-of-war.

    Sunday, September 23, 2007

    I'm readable and astute

    I really am. Or at least the good people at The Messenger, Georgia's top English-language daily newspaper say I am.

    Writer Christina Tashkevich reviewed my book, The New Cold War last week and concluded that the book deserved a "thumbs up."

    Thorough reporting, interesting accounts, and a fascinating revival of the past events give the book a thumbs-up. The author’s account of how each former revolutionary republic is doing now, after events, is particularly worth a glance over to see where he suggests progress has been made and problems encountered.


    The review ran under the headline "Canadian journalist’s 'The New Cold War' readable, astute."

    What made me proudest, though, was that Tashkevich wrote that although I had the viewpoint of a "foreign observer" to Georgia's Rose Revolution and the other events that make up the heart of the book, "[MacKinnon] comes to the same conclusions as us, the people who have been at the center of all these events."

    I can think of no higher compliment for a foreign journalist to receive.

    Just a reminder that the book (finally) lands on American shelves at the start of October. If you're in Washington D.C., please swing by the National Press Club on Sept. 27 to say hello and celebrate with me a little bit.

    Friday, September 21, 2007

    The failures of Viktor Yushchenko


    When Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko this week told my friend Ron Popeski (the Reuters correspondent in Kyiv) that he could envision Yulia Tymoshenko as prime minister following the Sept. 30 parliamentary elections, he was admitting two things:

    1) That he erred (although he rightly suggests there's plenty of blame to go around) in firing Tymoshenko back in 2005, thereby rupturing the "orange" coalition that brought him to power. Although he doesn't go on to say it, Yushchenko surely knows he made an even bigger error by replacing her with his old enemy Viktor Yanukovich - a move that led directly to the current political crisis. (As an aside, and proof that Yanukovich never changed his stripes, read this tale about how three years later, the prime minister still can't stand to even look at the colour orange.)

    2) That his own Our Ukraine movement is now a spent political force, meaning there's virtually no chance the premier will be coming from its ranks. It's Tymoshenko or Yanukovich. (The latest polls show Yanukovich's Party of Regions leading with about 31 per cent of the vote, with the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc running second at 19 per cent. Our Ukraine trails with just under 16 per cent, with the Communists and perhaps one other party looking likely to crawl over the 3 per cent barrier needed to win seats in the Rada)

    How did we get here?

    Ask a Ukrainian who lives west of the Dnipr River what they think of Viktor Yushchenko and they'll likely respond with a sigh and a shake of their head. After putting so much blind faith in him during the heady days of the Orange Revolution, they feel incredibly let down. Even betrayed.

    Two unsolved mysteries have come to symbolize how quickly the air went out of the orange balloon: the 2000 murder of investigative journalist Heorhiy Gongadze (pictured) and the near-fatal poisoning of Yushchenko himself during the 2004 presidential campaign.

    When I met with the president at his office in Kyiv earlier this year, he told me that "certain progress" was being made in the poisoning investigation. "The investigators have received sufficient data on how this poison works, and what’s the technology of its application. Where the poison could be produced, in which lab, and how it could be delivered to Ukraine," he told me. (To read a complete transcript of the interview, click here.)

    Yushchenko made it sound like investigators were closing in on the truth, but since then we've heard nothing. We've heard even less about the investigation into Gongadze's killing, a case that's nearly as important to Ukrainians. Gongadze's murder, and the evidence pointing to former president Leonid Kuchma's office, ignited the groundswell of protest that culminated in the 2004 uprising. Many who stood on the streets during the Orange Revolution cited their disgust at the poisoning of Yushchenko and the grisly Gongadze killing as reasons they decided to take action.

    They want the culprits - whether they be in Kyiv or Moscow, part of the current administration or the last one - identified and brought to justice. But it's looking increasingly unlikely that will ever happen.

    Earlier this month, the International Federation of Journalists criticized the Ukrainian government for lacking the "political will" to pursue the Gongadze case to its conclusion.

    Unfortunately for Yushchenko, many Ukrainians are looking at the two cases and concluding that perhaps he also lacks the political will to lead.

    Wednesday, September 19, 2007

    The Putin years


    Kommersant has begun what we're told will be an eight-part series examining Vladimir Putin's legacy in office (based on Kommersant's assumption that "it would seem that he is in fact going to leave office"). The period of 2000-2008, the paper surmises, will be remembered as the Putin "era" - one that will be remembered primarily for such shocking events as the tragic sinking of the Kursk, the horrifying Beslan school siege and the Soviet echoes of the Yukos affair.

    All three were scandalously managed by the Kremlin. It's difficult to imagine any Western leader surviving one such debacle, let alone all three, with his or her popularity intact.

    And yet Putin did, his popularity never dipping below a stratospheric 70 per cent for a prolonged period of time. The rest of Part One of the Kommersant series goes a long way towards explaining why.

    (It should be noted here that despite being owned by Alisher Usmanov, a businessman with close ties to the Kremlin, Kommersant is still seen as a largely independent voice. Unlike most of the now-docile Russian media scene, the paper regularly prints articles that displease the authorities.)

    As they say in American politics, "it's the economy, stupid." The Kommersant series kicks off by looking at the social and economic progress made since 2008. The overall assessment is glowing:

    "During the eight years that Putin has been in office the income of Russians has grown quickly; the country’s history has hardly seen another period when the prosperity of the population improved at such a fast rate," the article reads. "The Kremlin can boldly state that as far as the population’s standard of living is concerned, he has succeeded in wiping out the consequences of the 'Yeltsin chaos' of the 1990s."

    The last line is one of the hardest truths for the liberal opposition in Russia to deal with: when they attack Putin (quite justifiably) for the systematic evaporation of freedoms during his "era," they have to be careful not to sound like they're calling for a restoration of the Yeltsin years. The West (and the oligarchs who unfortunately hover around the opposition) may remember that time as halcyon, but the ordinary Russian recalls only the chaos - and the poverty they were forced to endure in the name of "freedoms" and "democracy."

    As Kommersant explains, the Putin years saw more Russians emerge from the black market, more income from the private sector and more Russians reaching their own definition of "middle class."

    Though the black market is still bigger than the legal one in Russia - a massive problem for Putin and whoever succeeds him - legal earnings now make up 48 per cent of a Russian's income, up from 38 per cent at the start of the decade. The percentage of a family's income that comes from the legal private sector (as opposed to the black market or the government) grew from just 9.2 per cent in 2000 to 19.5 per cent by 2006.

    Perhaps most crucially, Kommersant notes that "the Russian middle class is made up of people who, because of their education and professional qualities were able to adapt to the market. According to the [Expert-Data] agency, this middle class made up 15% of the population in 2001 and 37% in 2005."

    But while the big numbers are all looking up (something many experts believe should be attributed more to rising oil prices than any policies of Putin's), Putin has clearly failed to reduce poverty, something he repeatedly identified as a government role. In fact, poverty levels remained stubbornly high during the Putin era, while income inequality grew.

    "The income of the richest 20% of households was 6 times richer than the poorest 20% of households. To compare, this factor was only 5.2 in 2005. Measured by expenditures, the split is even greater: a factor of 6.7 in 2005 and 8.9 in 2006. This spread points to a colossal difference in lifestyle – but not in terms of mansions and limousines. The best-off Russian families, compared to their poorest countrymen, spend 7.7 times more on fruits and vegetables, 10 times more on alcohol and 12.6 times more on meals outside the home.

    "The unevenness of income growth calls into question the possibility of ending poverty in Russia.... The poverty level ratings vary greatly depending on who you consider to be poor. According to Rosstat, in 2000 42.3% of Russians had incomes below the cost of living. In 2004 25.5% of Russians earned less than the cost of living. However, the percent of families who receive charity or help from relatives is growing steadily. Currently 29.9% of the population fits this category. In other words, whatever the statistics say, one third of families are poor enough to accept material support from those around them."

    It's a fascinating start to the series, which the paper promises will include future articles examining the state of the education system (my assessment: getting better, but with dark trends including politicization of the curriculum to whitewash Soviet and KGB history), governance (less open, less accountable than under Yeltsin) and the army (still decrepit, despite recent stunts intended to demonstrate otherwise).

    Last remark: the photo above (first noticed by Russian blogger Drugoi, which translates as "The Other") was taken last week on Moscow's Leninsky Prospekt, walking distance from my old home on Kaluzhskaya Ploschad. The billboard reads "Putin's Plan - The Victory of Russia!" Other bloggers say they've gone up all over the city.

    On his blog, Drugoi wonders if anyone knows what the plan is. My question is similar to one I've asked before - if Putin's really stepping down in six months (as he is constitutionally obligated to do), why are we still discussing "Putin's plan"? Why aren't we seeing billboards hailing the competing and contrasting plans of Sergei Ivanov, Dmitriy Medvedev, Mikhail Kasyanov or Viktor Zubkov?

    The only answer that makes sense is that some people in the know don't believe the Putin era really ends in 2008.

    Monday, September 17, 2007

    Russia, explained

    When I read this article in the Week in Review section of The New York Times yesterday, I almost clapped in appreciation. It's the disturbing truth: none of the pundits, journalists (or bloggers) is offering anything more than a best guess when they try and explain what's really going on behind the Kremlin walls.

    The article is by Clifford J. Levy and ran under the headline "Required Reading in Moscow: Tea Leaves."

    Kremlinoglogy during the cold war sometimes seemed
    to have as much rigor as astrology, offering up
    prophesies about an opaque nation by surveying
    all manner of ungainly texts, dubious statistics,
    retouched photos and back-room whisperings.
    Perhaps it was folly to predict the new Soviet
    leadership or policies based upon which
    apparatchiks clustered around Brezhnev on the
    parade stand in Red Square, but what else was there?

    You can detect a similar desperation in Moscow
    these days in the attempts to divine what
    President Vladimir V. Putin has in store for his
    nation in the six months before the next
    presidential election. While Russia in the Putin
    era is a far more open society than the Soviet
    state, the inner workings of the Kremlin are as
    confounding as ever. Still, the art of
    Kremlinology has changed, in ways subtle and not.

    Witness the events that buffeted the Russian
    government last week, and the theories and
    questions and rumors that sprouted in response.

    Without warning, Mr. Putin sent his prime
    minister into political exile (or did he?) and
    installed a shadowy newcomer (does he have
    something on the president?), all the while
    leaving in place two other potential heirs to the
    presidency (why didn't one of them get the prime
    minister's job?). Mr. Putin continued to insist
    that he will abide by term limits and not run for
    president next year (but will he stick to that?).

    It was not only the public that was blindsided by
    the appointment of the new prime minister, Viktor
    A. Zubkov. Members of Parliament from Mr. Putin's
    own party, United Russia, appeared to have had no
    inkling either, though they did not complain.

    Instead they heaped praise on Mr. Zubkov. A
    deputy speaker, Lyubov Sliska, told reporters
    that Mr. Zubkov's ''entire working life deserves
    a Hero of Socialist Labor award,'' apparently
    forgetting that such honors fell out of favor around, oh, say, 1991.

    Grasping at clues about whom Mr. Putin will
    endorse for the presidency, today's
    Kremlinologists have updated some of their old
    ways. Instead of tracking who stands next to the
    party general secretary as soldiers march by,
    they meticulously calculate which officials get
    the most time on the television news - after Mr. Putin, of course.

    And so it was that in recent weeks, pundits
    pondering the rivalry between two supposed
    presidential heirs - the first deputy prime
    ministers, Sergei B. Ivanov and Dmitri A.
    Medvedev - were predicting Mr. Ivanov's ascent.
    After all, he had increasingly appeared to be Mr.
    Putin's favorite sidekick in public. The two even
    toured Kamchatka in the Russian Far East together.

    On Wednesday morning, a respected newspaper,
    Vedomosti, reported that, based on information
    from a high-ranking, though anonymous, Kremlin
    official, Mr. Putin was about to dismiss his
    prime minister, Mikhail Y. Fradkov, and elevate Mr. Ivanov to the post.

    The information was half right.

    A few hours later, the replacement turned out to
    be Mr. Zubkov, an obscure Putin confidant who had
    been heading a federal financial crimes agency.
    Speculation flared that he was being groomed as a
    presidential place holder who would let Mr. Putin
    return to office later. Others darkly suggested
    that in his job he had obtained compromising
    information on officials' finances.

    As usual, it was anyone's guess, with the first
    question being whether the Vedomosti leak had
    been Kremlin disinformation intended to throw the political class off balance.

    Nikolay V. Petrov, an expert in Russian politics
    at the Carnegie Moscow Center, said that if
    anything, Kremlinology was more difficult now.
    Under Communism, he said, at least the party had
    practices that were rigidly followed. It was all
    but impossible, for example, to be appointed
    prime minister without first rising to
    prominence; an obscure official like Mr. Zubkov
    wouldn't have stood much chance.

    "It is much more closed now, and it's like
    studying K.G.B. clans," Mr. Petrov said. "There
    is no public evidence. There are few details that
    you can see at the surface. And it's hard to construct what is happening."

    It could be said that the Kremlin under Mr.
    Putin, a former K.G.B. officer, reflects a spy's
    penchant for tight-lipped leadership. But Russia,
    whether under czars or commissars, never had a
    tradition of open government. The word
    ''Kremlin'' derives from the Russian for
    fortress; the government has the nickname because
    it is based inside Moscow's medieval walls.

    For a time in the 1990s under President Boris N.
    Yeltsin, it seemed possible that a more open
    government would grow roots here. Still, the
    Yeltsin tenure ended with its own intrigue -- Mr.
    Yeltsin's abrupt resignation on New Year's Eve
    1999 and Mr. Putin's sudden ascension to the presidency.

    Now, whatever Mr. Putin's grand plan turns out to
    be, this much seems clear: He feels that the more
    he reveals, the more he diminishes his own power
    in the next presidential succession. Once he
    anoints a candidate, he is a lame duck, and he
    wants to forestall that as long as possible.

    Dmitri Peskov, Mr. Putin's spokesman, was asked
    about the various presidential possibilities. He
    smiled and said that almost all were, well, possible.

    "If anyone tells you that 'I know!'," he said, "he will be lying."

    Thursday, September 13, 2007

    More election dirt in Ukraine

    Just a quick post to highlight a pair of worrying articles in the Kyiv Post.

    The first is a warning from the Committee of Ukrainian Voters that the Sept. 30 parliamentary vote looks likely to be "dirtier" than the rigged 2004 presidential race that sparked the Orange Revolution.

    The KVU, as it's known by its Ukrainian acronym, is an American-backed NGO that played a key catalyst role three years ago, publicly highlighting the fraud perpetrated by the Yanukovich side and inciting Ukrainians to take to the streets to "defend" their vote. It's not hard to interpret the press conference by KVU head Ihor Popov as a clear indication he thinks the country is headed for yet more street theatre after the parliamentary vote.

    “Further escalation of societal tension can lead to direct action of the losing side that does not recognize defeat and use all resources to prove it is right,” Popov is quoted as saying.

    The other article of note is a report by Stephen Bandera on the alleged doctoring of opinion polls by the various camps. "Rumors continue to spread that many pollsters fudge figures for a fee to boost voter confidence in the party that paid," Bandera writes.

    Paid-for polling (by both the pro-Western and pro-Russian camps) was another feature of the dirty 2004 vote. It's astonishing how quickly Ukraine appears to be tumbling back into the same trap.

    Thermobaric bombs and Viktor Zubkov


    So I was sitting in the radio studio yesterday ready to record another interview promoting my book The New Cold War for the BBC/PRI program The World, when a pair of odd questions came over the line: are you ready to talk about thermobaric bombs and Viktor Zubkov?

    You can hear my off-the-cuff remarks during my interview with Lisa Mullins here.

    Even with an extra 24 hours to think about it, I still can't quite figure out what Putin's up to by appointing someone as unknown as Zubkov to the PM's post this close to the Duma and presidential elections.

    I have three, admittedly incomplete, theories:

    - Putin hasn't made up his mind yet between leading contenders Sergei Ivanov and Dmitriy Medvedev. Under this scenario, Zubkov is a third candidate that Putin wants the public to get to know before the presidential elections in the spring. Remember that Putin himself was a nobody when Boris Yeltsin made him prime minister back in 1999. (Zubkov himself said yesterday that he "does not rule out the possibility" of running for the big job next year.)

    - Putin HAS decided on one of Ivanov or Medvedev (the smart money's on Ivanov, an ex-KGB man like Putin himself who has served as defense minister and deputy PM), and Zubov is that man's choice for prime minister. Putting Zubkov in now, the thinking goes, would allow a smooth transition between this administration and the next one.

    - Putin's not going anywhere, and he's deliberately muddying the field to show how far he stands above any challengers to his throne.

    It's too early to say which of these scenarios is right. We'll have to wait to hear more from Putin, and Zubkov himself.

    As for the big blast in the desert, the Father of All Bombs was tested for one reason only - because it was bigger than the U.S.-produced Mother of All Bombs. Just another hello to the West from Russia's suddenly revived armed forces.