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    Friday, March 30, 2007

    Orange Revolution redux?

    Here we go again? Is it possible that Ukraine is heading back down the same road it did in 2004, when hundreds of thousands took to the streets to demand change?

    Yulia Tymoshenko certainly hopes so. The firebrand ex-prime minister says she's fed up with the country's backwards slide under the current occupant of the Prime Minister's Office, Viktor Yanukovich (yes, that guy).

    Ukraine, Tymoshenko says, is now suffering from worse cronyism, corruption and media intimidation than before the Orange Revolution - a devastating indictment. She plans to take her supporters into the streets this weekend to back her demand that her former ally, President Viktor Yushchenko, dissolve parliament and call fresh elections.

    The fact that Yanukovich is back in the prime minister's chair after his role in perpetuating the 2004 vote fraud shows how effectively the Kremlin has used the energy card, primarily the threat of turning off the flow of natural gas to Ukraine, to undo the strategic losses it suffered during Orange Revolution. Tymoshenko is right when she says the people who took to the streets three years ago didn't get the change they demanded.

    But going to the streets again is a risky gambit. Just like in 2004, the country is split between pro-Western "orange" supporters - who, disillusioned with the compromise-seeking Yushchenko, now seem to be rallying around Tymoshenko - and those who back the pro-Russian Yanukovich. Given the economic punishment the Kremlin inflicted on Kiev after 2004, the latter camp may be stronger this time around.

    In 2004, the average Ukrainian was fed up with the corruption and stagnation and wanted change. In 2007, they might be understandably fed up with the turmoil and unrest. Even those with a pro-Western outlook might not heed another call to go into the streets.

    I'm heading to Ukraine next week on assignment for The Globe and Mail, so I'll write more soon once I get a feel for the situation on the ground.

    Tuesday, March 27, 2007

    Locked in a timewarp

    "Freedom Day" in Belarus came and went with barely a whimper. Somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 people took to the streets of Minsk to mark the anniversary of the creation of the first independent Belarussian state today, but when the officially sanctioned rally was over, only a few hundred hardy souls stayed on to face what they knew was inevitable: riot police and water cannons. A hundred people were arrested by President Alexander Lukashenko's thugs.

    It's easy to understand. Lukashenko, the "last dictator in Europe," has made protest almost impossible for those who have jobs to keep and families to feed. In a country where the state provides almost all employment and tolerates no dissent, the equation is simple: you express your displeasure at living in a country that's locked in 1984, you lose your job. If you're a student, you get kicked out of your program.

    Still, it's hard to believe how much hope has evaporated since early 2005. Back then, in the heady days after the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, it seemed impossible that Lukashenko could maintain his hermit kingdom next door. And yet, two years on, it seems nothing has changed.

    For more on what happened today in Belarus, and the names of those detained, check out the website of the Charter 97 human-rights group.

    To read some of the reports I did from Minsk for The Globe and Mail, check the Belarus section of my website,

    Tuesday, March 20, 2007

    Anna Politkovskaya's final book

    The Guardian has been publishing excerpts of Anna Politkovskaya's final book, A Russian Diary. They read like the rest of her work: an angry call to action from a woman who loved her country and desperately wanted it to be better.

    Somebody killed her for that. The first piece, an examination of the state of Russia at the time of the 2003 Duma elections (won handily by United Russia, which Alexander Yakovlev used to call the "Communist Party, Part 2"), is here.

    The second, a recounting of the Beslan school siege that left at least 344 people dead, is

    Part three, which is in today's Guardian, is an interview with Chechnya's scary boy-president Ramzan Kadyrov, one of the leading suspects in her murder. Read it here.

    There were a lot of people who wanted her voice silenced. And a system that doesn't protect those who speak out against power.

    Sunday, March 11, 2007

    Just don't eat the sushi

    So it turns out that it's bad for business to have an ex-KGB agent die a horrible radiation death shortly after meeting someone at your hotel.

    Click here for a Washington Post article on the Millennium Mayfair hotel, the place where Putin critic Alexander Litvinenko was given a lethal dose of Polonium-210.

    Bad for the hotel, bad for the neighbourhood, bad for Mr. Litvinenko. But good for me. Suddenly, there are four-star hotel rooms in the centre of London (Grosvenor Square) for just 90 pounds a night. I've paid that much for space at a backpackers' hostel in Earl's Court.

    True, three staff members - and one teapot - tested positive for radiation months after the fact. But I'm not too worried. Having visited the trifecta of the worst Soviet nuclear disasters (Mayak, Chernobyl and the Polygon test site near Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan), I'm no ordinary radio-tourist.

    I'm heading to London for a few days later this week, and I'm booking a suite.

    Thursday, March 8, 2007

    This year's hot new travel destination: Grozny

    Incredible. Aeroflot-Don (one of those notorious "babyflots" that emerged from the state-run airline after the fall of the Soviet Union) has just announced that it will begin thrice-weekly flights between Moscow and Grozny.

    To me, this is stunning. The last time I travelled to Chechnya, I got there by hiding in the back of a battered Neva as we travelled along the dirt paths that head east from Nazran, the capital of the neighbouring republic of Ingushetia. We avoided the main roads (we were travelling there without the permission of the Russian government, and feared we would be expelled from the country if we were caught) and never made it to Grozny because we received word that there was shooting on the road ahead of us. We did a few interviews in the town we stopped in, then got the hell out before nightfall.

    Chechnya, after years of non-stop warfare, was an incredibly dangerous part of the world, an easy place to get killed or kidnapped. Those of us who had to travel there from time to time - mostly foreign correspondents and aid workers - only did so after a lot of careful planning.

    Even when the Russian army took groups of foreign correspondents in to show us their side of the war, we didn't fly directly into Chechnya. We would fly first to a nearby town (usually Mineralnye Vodiy), and then travel in a guarded convoy to the main military base outside Grozny.

    You could sense how nervous the soldiers were; I spent one night at the base sharing vodka with some of the terrified young conscripts, and letting them borrow my satellite phone so they could speak to their families for the first time in months. Each one burst into tears when they spoke with their mother.

    Like in Iraq, Afghanistan or the Palestinian territories, I thought the resistance to the Russian presence in Chechnya would only end when the Russians pulled their troops out, as they briefly did in the late 1990s after their humiliating defeat in the first Chechen War.

    I'd read media reports recently suggesting that the second Chechen War really was over, and that Russia had finally asserted its control over the entire country. Frankly, I doubted them, and probably will until I return to see the situation again for myself.

    But if these flights start taking off and landing in Grozny without incident, that's a sign that things on the ground have changed dramatically.

    Of course, that's a very big if.

    Wednesday, March 7, 2007

    Ukraine and Georgia in NATO?

    I just read that the U.S. House of Representatives has endorsed another (eventual) expansion of NATO, this time to include Albania, Macedonia, and Croatia, as well as the ex-Soviet republics of Ukraine and Georgia.

    Ukraine and Georgia are, of course, indepedent states that can join whatever international organizations they choose. But the endless eastward expasion of the trans-Atlantic alliance - while telling Russia that it is not welcome and will never be welcome to join - is what Putin was talking about in his Munich speech when he grumbled that "we have the right to ask, against whom is this expansion directed."

    I don't often agree with Vladimir Vladimirovich, but in this case, he's right. Why does NATO need to add the military might of an Albania or a Georgia to its already unrivalled force? To fight "terrorists"?

    Mikhail Saakashvili would point out here that Georgia has already proven itself a strong U.S. ally, and is deserving of being formally recognized as such. It's the only country still offering to send more troops into the Iraqi quagmire when Italy and Spain are long gone and Britain and Poland are leaving.

    The Kremlin, however, sees it as pure, aggressive, encirclement. It can still stir up a lot of trouble in Ukraine (it's Black Sea Fleet is still parked at Sevastopol) and in Georgia, where it effectively controls the renegade provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

    If NATO gets closer to formally inviting Kiev and Tbilisi to join, don't expect the Kremlin to take it lying down.

    Tuesday, March 6, 2007

    Lawrence Martin on The New Cold War

    My thanks and kudos to my colleague Lawrence Martin, who mentioned my book in a recent column that nicely explains the covert conflict between Moscow and Washington that became an overt one with Putin's Munich speech.

    Unfortunately, you now have to be a subscriber to read it, but for those who are, here's the link.

    Me and my book

    So yeah, I'm a blogger now too. Who isn't?

    For now, this blogspot will be about news and politics in Russia, my former home and the subject of my book The New Cold War.
    Look out too for the latest about developments in Ukraine, Belarus, the Caucasus and Central Asia.

    First of all, I'd like to thank Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin for making my book so timely and relevant. See BBC coverage of his speech in Munich last month: Putin's speech: Back to cold war?.

    The book, in case your interested, hits bookshelves in Canada on April 17, 2007 (published by Random House), and in the United States on September 22, 2007 (Carroll and Graf). You can already buy it here:

    The New Cold War on Amazon.

    If you want to know more about me, see my profile at The Globe and Mail website.

    до следующего раза!