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    Friday, April 27, 2007

    An ominous growl from Moscow

    Vladimir Putin's last (he promises) state-of-the-union speech was a disturbingly hawkish one, announcing that Moscow would suspend its participation in the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe as a response to the U.S. plan to deploy a missile defense shield in Eastern Europe.

    Putin effectively announced that Russia was joining a new arms race, and declared the old fears about a nuclear confrontation may no longer be a thing of the past. If the missile shield goes ahead, he said today, "the threat of causing mutual damage and even destruction increases many times."

    Pulling out of the 1990 treaty is a largely symbolic gesture since it's 1999 update was never ratified by NATO countries because of Russia's failure to comply with conditions that it pull its soldiers out of Georgia and Moldova. Nonetheless, it's a strong declaration of how far relations between Moscow and the West have deteriorated under Putin.

    The treaty regulates the number of tanks, aircraft and artillery pieces each side can deploy in Europe, and its signing 17 years ago was one of the biggest signs that the (first) Cold War was coming to an end.

    As I noted in a previous post, the expansion of NATO and particularly the deployment of the missile shield are viewed in as hostile encirclement by the Kremlin. "This is not just a defence system, this is part of the US nuclear weapons system," Putin said today.

    It will be interesting to see the American response. To date, Condoleeza Rice has ridiculed the Russian suggestion that the the shield poses any kind of risk to Moscow. She points out, correctly, that Russia has thousands of warheads that would overwhelm the small system that the U.S. wants to set up in Poland and the Czech Republic.

    This has all the makings of the most serious crisis in U.S.-Russian relations since the fall of the USSR.

    Another interesting and ominous note in Putin's address yesterday: while he promised that next year's address will be delivered by another head-of-state - suggesting that he still intends not to break the constitution and run for a third term in office - he added that "it is premature for me to declare a political will."

    The last remark drew the loudest applause of the day.

    Tuesday, April 24, 2007

    Yeltsin spurns the Communists one final time

    So Boris Yeltsin will be buried at the Novodevichy cemetary, not along the Kremlin walls. It's a fitting resting place - alongside dissident writers like Mikhail Bulgakov, rebellious figures like General Alexander Lebed, and Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader who denounced Stalinism and was never forgiven by his peers in the Politburo.

    It's a lot more fitting for the man who broke the USSR than the row of "heroes" graves behind Lenin's tomb on Red Square. I'm not sure Boris Nikolaevich would have slept well beside Stalin and Brezhnev.

    For those who are interested, I'll be narrating some of the coverage of the funeral on CTV Newsnet tomorrow.

    The struggle to define how Yeltsin should be remembered is already on. Liberal leaders like Boris Nemtsov have been quick to recall Yeltsin as the hero who stood up to the hard-line coup attempt in 1991, bringing about the fall of the Soviet Union. "We should fight for freedom in the memory of Boris Yeltsin because there is none left now," he told The Moscow Times.

    More subtly, the Kremlin-run Itar-TASS news agency is emphasizing Yeltsin's later years as a bumbling, often drunk, figure. It's telling that only Putin is quoted in the story, reminding Russians that Yeltsin asked him to "take care of Russia."

    The turnout and the tenor at the funeral tomorrow will be interesting to see.

    Monday, April 23, 2007

    Boris Yeltsin dies

    Boris Yeltsin died this morning at the age of 76, it's being reported. Heart failure is said to be the cause.

    The debate over how he should be remembered will begin immediately. Was he the great democrat who stared down the hard-line Communist coup in 1991? Or was he the weak, often drunk, leader who sold off the state's assets for a song to the oligarchs and presided over the 1998 financial collapse? Or the cynical deal-maker who handed the Kremlin keys back to the KGB in 1999 to spare himself prosecution?

    Turns out he was all of these, to the disillusionment of millions. I know many in Russia who will mourn Yeltsin's death today not because they'll miss the man (he has largely disappeared from public life since Putin took office), but because they attach his name to the exhilirating hope they felt in 1991 when the Soviet Union finally broke apart at the seams. That's him aboard a tank in the photo to the left, on the day it became clear that the USSR was finished.

    The hope then was that Russia was on its way to becoming a normal, free, country that would soon integrate with its new friends in Europe and the West. And for all his failings, the system Yeltsin presided over was remarkable as the freest Russians have experienced in their history. The media said what it wanted, the Duma was a place of genuine debate.

    After seven years under Vladimir Putin, the man Yeltsin chose to succeed him, all that is gone.

    Yeltsin largely refrained from commenting on the actions of his successor, something that was widely perceived to be a condition of the pact he struck to avoid prosecution. But in the aftermath of the 2004 school massacre in Beslan, and Putin's subsequent moves to use the incident to strengthen his personal power, Yeltsin gave us a hint of what he felt in a statement he gave to the Moscow News.

    "We will not give up on the letter of the law, and most importantly, the spirit of the Constitution our country voted for at the public referendum in 1993," he wrote. "If only because the stifling of freedom and the curtailing of democratic rights is a victory for the terrorists. Only a democratic country can successfully resist terrorism and count on standing shoulder to shoulder with all of the world’s civilized countries."

    I wish he'd said that more loudly and more often in the last seven years. Rest in peace, Boris Nikolaevich.

    Sunday, April 22, 2007

    Paul Wells on The New Cold War (review of a review)

    The latest issue of Macleans magazine features a full-page review of The New Cold War by premier columnist Paul Wells. (Oddly, it appears to only have run in the print edition, I can't find it online.)

    Paul's impression is, uh, mixed. He compliments my "formidable reporting" in the book, then sharply takes me to task for the "moral failure" of not saying "America good, Russia bad" often enough.

    I hardly think that I let the Kremlin off easily - the book opens by once more raising the question of whether the FSB carried out the 1999 apartment block blasts that killed more than 300 people, and goes on to chronicle the country's rapid descent towards dictatorship under Vladimir Putin.

    "By using mass murder to convince Russians that they needed to put their trust in the secret agents that they had so long despised, the old KGB had effectively carried out a coup in the Kremlin." I write that on page 3. Roughly half the rest of the book is spent despairing at what Russia has become and where it's headed.

    Paul's complaint is that even though I establish that Putin and Putinism are dangerous, I don't go the extra step and on cheer freedom-loving America as it helps topple governments that the State Department doesn't like. And I don't.

    A large part of the book is dedicated to exposing how America uses supposedly non-partisan "democracy promotion" groups to advance its interests. American-funded NGOs played essential roles in bringing down Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia, Eduard Shevardnadze in Georgia and Leonid Kuchma in Ukraine.

    My argument is not that this is entirely a bad thing - only that the revolutions in Serbia, Georgia and Ukraine need to be understood (along with the more recent streetfights in Minsk and Moscow) for what they were: the first battles in a renewed struggle for influence between America and a resurgent Russia. And both sides are more concerned with who controls the lucrative oil and gas fields of ex-Soviet Central Asia and the Caucasus than the will of the people.

    Paul rightly points out that the current occupants of the Kremlin are prone to thuggery and have even been known to start wars based on false premises when it suits their grander political aims. What he oddly neglects to consider is that the George. W. Bush's White House is guilty of the same charges, and is no more deserving of our trust and admiration than the current Russian government.

    Paul's a great writer and I appreciate his interest in the topic.

    But his complaint is an odd one: I as a journalist stand accused of failing to take sides.

    In this business, that's usually a compliment.

    Wednesday, April 18, 2007

    They're coming for ya, Vladimir

    It's still a well-kept secret in the West, but Russia and the United States are now very definitely - as one recently published author put it - in the throes of a New Cold War.

    The latest proof can be found in the 2007-2012 strategic plan released this week by the U.S. State Department and its grant-giving arm, USAID.

    Listing off the challenges America expects to face in the next five years, "relations with Russia" are given a section all of their own. The list of American concerns is a long one:

    ...increasing centralization of power, pressure on NGOs and civil society, a growing government role in the economy, and restrictions on media freedom have all emerged as clear and worrisome trends. Russian weapon sales to such states as Iran, Syria, and Venezuela are also cause for great concern throughout the international community. Russia’s policy toward its neighbors is another major challenge, especially Moscow’s support for separatist regions in Georgia and Moldova, its political and economic pressure against Georgia, and its monopolistic use of energy to pressure neighboring states and gain control of infrastructure and strategic assets.

    The proposed remedy won't sit well in Moscow - a continuation of the interventionist policies that helped spur the recent pro-Western revolutions in Serbia, Georgia and Ukraine.

    We seek to consolidate new democracies in Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova by fighting corruption and assisting economic reforms. As these countries break with their Soviet past and move closer to European and Euro-Atlantic institutions, we need to continue to provide our support, encouragement, and technical advice. Elsewhere in Eurasia, people yearn for the hope kindled by the “color revolutions” of 2003 – 2005, while the dictatorial regime in Belarus faces unprecedented pressure from both the West and Russia. To promote reform and democratic development, we are sustaining support for civil society and independent media, bilaterally, in conjunction with the EU, and through multilateral fora such as the OSCE.

    "Sustaining support for civil society" sounds a lot nicer than it is, but USAID isn't talking about helping Greenpeace here. What they mean is that they will contiune backing groups like Otpor, Kmara and Pora (see last post) that will butt heads with the regime and get out the anti-Kremlin vote.

    "Independent media" meanwhile is also code. USAID is not interested in helping some kid in Krasnoyarsk set up They're looking for anti-Kremlin (and anti-Lukashenko) outlets that can play the anti-regime role that B-92 did in Serbia, Rustavi-2 did in Georgia and Fifth Channel did in Ukraine.

    What the State Department and USAID are talking about is setting the table for more "colour revolutions" in the post-Soviet space. Only this time the Kremlin knows they're coming - hence the harsh crackdowns in Moscow and St. Petersburg this weekend.

    Monday, April 16, 2007

    Oborona rising

    During this weekend's opposition rally in Moscow, it was impossible to miss the clenched-fist flag that some protestors were waving.

    The Russian youth group Oborona has arrived, based on Otpor, the Serbian student movement that led the successful push to topple Slobodan Milosevic in 2000 (that's their symbol at left - Oborona's is identical). Oboron is the Russian word for "defense."

    Otpor's success spawned copycat groups like Georgia's Kmara and Ukraine's Pora, which played key roles in the 2003 Rose Revolution and the 2004 Orange Revolution respectively.

    Crucially, all three groups received financial and other aid from the U.S. government's National Endowment for Democracy and George Soros's various non-governmental organizations. These are the battlegrounds that "the new cold war" (plug, plug) is fought on.

    The fact that the clenched-fist flag is now regularly seen in central Moscow is the clearest sign yet that the opposition is gearing up to follow the Serbian-Georgian-Ukrainian model (falsified elections, followed by mass protests) around the coming Duma and presidential elections.

    The Kremlin, which got its nose badly scraped in Ukraine, knows that too, which partly explains the harsh response this weekend.

    A bad day for democracy

    Two seemingly minor incidents in the past 24 hours that say a lot about the rapidly tightening political space in the post-Soviet area.

    On Sunday, Russian riot police violently cracked down on another peaceful anti-Putin rally, this time in St. Petersburg. Though no candidates have yet been declared, we can now say that the 2008 presidential election campaign has begun, and the Kremlin is serving angry notice that it won't tolerate anything resembling an Orange Revolution in Russia. I expect the protests, and the repressions, will continue to grow in the months ahead.

    And this morning, news from Uzbekistan - arguably the darkest corner of ex-Soviet Central Asia - that Human Rights Watch is being forced out of the country. HRW was one of the last international organizations with an office in Tashkent, and one of the few remaining checks on the power and abuses of President Islam Karimov.

    His regime has been known to boil its political opponents alive. Literally.

    Five years ago, both Putin and Karimov were labelled allies by the Bush Administration in the so-called "war on terror." In exchange for their support of the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan, both regimes were given a carte blanche domestically.

    We're seeing the fruits of that short-sighted policy now in St. Petersburg, Moscow and Tashkent.

    Saturday, April 14, 2007

    Kasparov arrested

    BBC is reporting that opposition leader Garry Kasparov was arrested today at an anti-Putin rally in Moscow.

    I wish I could say I'm surprised, but this is the way Russia is heading now. Where dissent was tolerated, if sidelined, in the early Putin years, paranoia has now completely taken over. You can once more get arrested simply for expressing your political opinions - just like the bad old days.

    Nine thousand riot police to deal with a march that organizers had said would draw a maximum of 5,000 people?

    I remember chatting a few years back with independent MP Vladimir Ryzhkov. He told me then that Russia was on the road to "Belarusification," in other words becoming more and more like Alexander Lukashenko's neo-Soviet hermit state next door.

    Today, it looks like that journey is complete.

    Excerpt from The New Cold War

    The Globe and Mail has excerpted a short passage from my book in today's paper. It's not my favourite bit, but it goes nicely with a report I filed from Ukraine on Canada's behind-the-scenes role in the Orange Revolution.

    Here's what ran in The Globe today:

    In his new book, Globe and Mail correspondent Mark MacKinnon recalls how he came to meet the hero of Ukraine's Orange Revolution:

    Vladimir Putin's vision of how to formally restore Russian influence in the post- Soviet space began to take shape in May 2003, when he met Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma for a five-day summit in the Crimean resort of Yalta. Two months later, Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan -- the four largest former Soviet republics -- signed a draft deal calling for the creation of something innocuously named the Common Economic Space (CES).

    The four countries pledged to move toward free trade, joint economic and energy policies, a tax and customs union, and co-ordinated talks with international bodies such as the World Trade Organization that had previously shown more interest in admitting Ukraine or Kazakhstan than Russia's still lawless and unpredictable economy; now one would not join without the others.

    Voting on all matters would be weighted according to the size of the countries' economies -- meaning that Russia, which dwarfed the other nations in every respect, would effectively be the only one with a say.

    Although Kuchma was distrusted and widely disliked by ordinary Ukrainians, the same people looked east and admired the way Putin was restoring a sense of order in Moscow. Some polls suggested that, were Putin allowed to stand in Ukraine's next presidential election, he'd win in a landslide.

    The West, though, had not given up on the idea of pulling Ukraine out of Moscow's orbit, nor of re-reversing the flow of the Odessa-Brody oil pipeline. Their hopes, however, were pinned on the uninspiring former central banker Viktor Yushchenko.

    When I landed in Kiev shortly after the CES deal was signed, I met Yushchenko at the office of his Our Ukraine party in Kiev's bohemian Podil neighbourhood.

    The CES, he told me, was a threat to Ukraine's sovereignty, giving Russia the final say in far too many matters. The next presidential elections, he foretold, would be "a good time for Ukraine to choose between East and West."

    Yushchenko, already by then identified as Ukraine's great democratic hope, had the monotone voice of an economics professor. As he droned on about the relative benefits and drawbacks of free trade with Russia, I started looking around the room, focusing first on the grandfather clock behind his chair, then on the gold telescope pointed out the window, then on an oversized Fabergé egg in the corner.

    I thought to myself that this man couldn't hold the attention of a dinner party, let alone convince a nation of famously laid-back Ukrainians to follow him. Furthering our absent-minded professor impression, he'd left a button undone on his shirt that day, leaving my friend and translator Yuriy Shafarenko and me trying not to look at the exposed white belly of Ukraine's would-be president.

    Faced with a slate of options that included a boring ex-banker, a president implicated in murder, a prime minister with a history of violent assault and Yulia Tymoshenko, the beautiful and fiery opposition leader who had allegedly made her fortune by illegally siphoning Russian gas, I could understand why some Ukrainians wanted to see Putin's name on the ballot.

    The book hits stores in Canada on Tuesday. Anyone who's in the Toronto area is welcome to swing by the Pravda Vodka Bar on Wednesday night to celebrate.

    Friday, April 13, 2007

    The battle of Pushkin Square

    Looks like tomorrow could be a bellweather day in Russia, with four separate marches expected to collide on Moscow's Pushkin Square.

    The first to choose April 14 for a demonstration was The Other Russia, the opposition umbrella group that includes everyone from former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov and chess grandmaster-turned-politician Garry Kasparov to the National Bolshevik Party. Organizers expect to draw about 5,000 people, from democrats influenced by Ukraine's Orange Revolution to Bolshevik skinheads, all under the catch-all banner of "those who do not agree" (with Putin and Putinism).

    Since The Other Russia declared its intention to march on April 14, the pro-Kremlin Young Guard - as well as the ultranationalist Movement Against Illegal Immigration and the likeminded Congress of Russian Communities - have all announced they would rally on Pushkin Square the same day with the intent of disrupting The Other Russia protest.

    As The Moscow Times reports, everybody's expecting trouble. Riot police forcibly broke up two Dissenters' Marches last month in St. Petersburg and Nizhny Novgorod.

    In this kind of situation, the last thing the democratic opposition needs is self-exiled oligarch Boris Berezovksy spouting off like he did in today's Guardian about forcibly bringing down Putin. ("We need to use force to change this regime," he said. "It isn't possible to change this regime through democratic means.")

    Berezovsky is arguably the most unpopular man in Russia. The fastest way for the Kremlin to turn public opinion against the opposition is to demonstrate Berezovsky's involved in it. Every time he opens his mouth, he hurts those he purportedly aims to help.

    Thursday, April 12, 2007

    See, I'm not making this "New Cold War" stuff up...

    ...or if I am, it's in cahoots with The Guardian.

    I've always felt the United States's insistence on an anti-ballistic missile shield to be unwise, especially one that covers Russia's neighbours but doesn't include Russia itself. For all the talk about the need to defend against Iran, it needlessly antagonizes the Kremlin, and forces them to respond.

    I rarely find myself nodding in agreement when Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov speaks (although he's a nice man), but I did this time: "It brings tremendous change to the strategic balance in Europe, and to the world's strategic stability," he said in his interview with The Guardian. "We feel ourselves deceived. Potentially we will have to create alternatives to this."

    The world according to Lukashenko

    Here are the latest thoughts from the President of Belarus, as published by the Sovietskaya Byelorussia newspaper.

    Just in case it affects how you read what follows, you should be aware that Sovietskaya Byelorussia was founded by President Lukashenko's office. Notice the sweet comparison between pro-democracy movements like Zubr and the Nazis.

    On to our edification, courtesy of Mr. Lukashenko:

    "In today's Belarus the conditions for good and clean life are created and improved.... Little by little, without political rattle and social demagogy, the authorities build a strong and cosy house."


    "They want to take away all this - quiet life today and clear prospects for tomorrow. Not with the help of the war, as it was in 1941, but through the ballot box, with the help of 'political technologies,' promoted by those who received a cheque and an order for changing our life from abroad. While they do their best to convince us that their thoughts are pure, that they are only driven by their adherence to democracy, that they are capable of changing life to better, who can believe in it? Either an ignorant man, or an adventurer like them, or an innocent teenager."

    Ah! Just reading this makes a young man dream of owning a "strong and cosy house" in Minsk! With the gracious help of the "authorities," of course!

    (Translation courtesy of the good people at Belarus Productions.)

    Perennial Tulips

    They're back on the streets again in Bishkek, as it seems they have been ever since the "Tulip Revolution" (which was more like a riot that evolved into a coup) there in 2005.

    On one hand, the political pluralism on display in Kyrgyzstan has to be envied by those living under the repressive regimes in neighbouring Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan.

    On the other, a constant state of crisis benefits no one, least of all the ordinary Kyrgyz. I found this comparison of Kyrgyzstan now with Tajikistan in the early 1990s (just before the civil war there) particularly sobering.

    As Publius Pundit notes, there is a strong element of regionalism in all this, just as there was in 2005. Don't be confused by all the gaily coloured flags: politics in Kyrgyzstan is primarily about clans.

    At risk of oversimplifying, the Uzbek-dominated south seized power and influence from the ethnic Kyrgyz north in the 2005. Now the north (including many who were close to the ousted president Askar Akayev) wants back in.

    It's a tinderbox that the world needs to keep an eye on.

    I am a cheap media ho

    My good friends at TV Ontario are featuring me as a guest blogger just now.

    Check it out and comment here, there or anywhere.

    Wednesday, April 11, 2007

    Backing down?

    BBC is reporting that Viktor Yushchenko is considering suspending his decree that dissolved parliament and ordered a May 27 election. In exchange, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich and his supporters would ostensibly agree to early elections, though at a later date. In the meantime, the current parliament would be reinstated.

    It sounds like a typical Yushchenko compromise, but the upshot is that such a decision would mean that Yanukovich's tactic of putting his supporters in the streets of Kiev has worked. If Yushchenko goes through with this, I can guarantee you that his erstwhile ally, Yulia Tymoshenko, will be furious.

    So will a lot of people who finally thought their President had taken a stand.

    Monday, April 9, 2007

    Now, a gas cartel

    A Russian delegate at the summit of gas-exporting nations in Doha, Qatar has just declared that an OPEC-style price-setting cartel for natural gas is a "necessity." See the Ria Novosti report here.

    Since Russia, which controls by far the largest share of global production (21.6%, compared to just over 3 % each for runners-up Algeria and Iran), looks set to play a leading role in any such organization, that's got to be disquieting news for anyone in Europe who remembers the famous Gazprom cutoffs to Ukraine, Belarus and Georgia.

    Robert Amsterdam, a Canadian lawyer who defended Yukos founder Mikhail Khodorkovsky in his spectacle/show trial a few years back, has some nice analysis on his blog.

    For those wondering where Khodorkovsky's case is at, the man who was once Russia's richest man (until he challenged the Kremlin) is two years into a nine-year sentence that he's serving at a Siberian labour camp known as YaG-14/10.

    Orange Square?

    Ever since the orange-waving crowds took over the streets of Kiev in the winter of 2004, Kremlin strategists like Gleb Pavlovsky have openly worried about a repeat revolt on the streets of Moscow. The fact that they admit they're concerned is as close as Pavlovsky and his ilk have come to recognizing the critical flaws contained in the system of "managed democracy" (which could be defined as giving people the appearance of choice, while clearing the political landscape so that they have nothing to choose between) that they have constructed in Russia over the past seven years.

    Whether or not a "coloured revolution" is possible in Russia is very debatable, given the country immense size and the logistical nightmares involved with coordinating an uprising across 11 timezones. And how do you tell people about it when the Kremlin controls the airwaves?

    That said, nervousness is clearly rising ahead of the Duma elections this December and the presidential vote scheduled for next spring. Check out Nabi Abdullaev's report in The Moscow Times on the latest Kremlin-sponsored demonstration here.

    While researching my book, I interviewed pro-Western opposition figure Boris Nemtsov and hard-line rightist Dmitry Rogozin about the prospects of an Orange Revolution repeat in Moscow.

    Both said they expected people to take to the streets to show their displeasure this election season. While both said they expected Vladimir Putin, or a hand-picked successor, to maintain control, they agreed that if the Kremlin did lose its grip, those that seized control just as easily be fascist brown as pro-Western orange.

    Friday, April 6, 2007

    Yulia Tymoshenko interview

    Hi all - for anyone who missed it, I did an interview with opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko for The Globe and Mail. You can read it here.

    Let me know what you think. In case it looks like we're taking sides, it should be noted that we also asked Viktor Yushchenko and Viktor Yanukovich for interviews, The Braided One was just the first to respond.

    Thursday, April 5, 2007

    Revolution Inc.

    So the blue-red-pink (Viktor Yanukovich's Party of Regions, plus the Communists and the Socialists) demonstrations continue in the centre of Kiev, growing in size if not in enthusiasm. There are now several thousand people (maybe 10,000?) on the streets, though the protest remains lifeless other than the loud pop music from the stage. One band actually played The Beatles' "Back in the USSR" to the delight of those waving the hammer-and-sickle.

    Still, you have to give Yanukovich's advisors credit for learning some of the lessons of 2004. They've occupied not only Independence Square, but also every conceivable spot that the "orange" forces might use as an alternate rallying point. There are blue tents outside the Rada, the cabinet of ministers and the presidential administration.

    Interestingly, Pora, the pro-Western youth group that formed the backbone of the 2004 protests that became the Orange Revolution, has reappeared in recent days. They've set up their own tent camp, forming a thin yellow line protecting Viktor Yushchenko's besieged office.

    I also saw a single young man walk through the sea of blue on Independence Square brandinshing an orange flag. He ignored the threatening glares from some rather sizeable Yanukovich supporters and said his solo protest was "a scream of my soul."

    Tuesday, April 3, 2007

    The Blue Revolution?

    It looked like it for a while this morning anyway. A few thousand people, waving the blue flags of Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich's Party of Regions, plus a few thousand more waving red Communist and Socialist banners, showed up on Kiev's Independence Square - the very site of the Orange Revolution in 2004. They're protesting President Viktor Yushchenko's controversial decision to dissolve parliament and call fresh elections in the face of alleged efforts by Yanukovich to bribe opposition lawmakers to join his coalition. They're pitching tents and promising to stay indefinitely.

    For a while it looked like something remarkable was happening, but so far it's a lifeless demo. Try asking people why they're there, and the answers lack conviction. Maybe that's because they really don't believe in the cause they're protesting for. One woman told me she was there because she'd been paid 50 hrivnya (about $10 US) to stand on the square and wave a blue flag.

    But the news services are reporting that thousands more Yanukovich supporters are headed for the capital from his power base in the Russified east of the country. Meanwhile, the pro-Western Yushchenko and his fiery ally Yulia Tymoshenko are said to be planning protests of their own. Could it be 2004 all over again?

    We'll see. More later.

    Here we go again...

    Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko just dissolved parliament and is calling for fresh elections.

    Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich is fighting the move as unconstitutional and calling for his supporters to take to the streets. And it's all happening on my second day in Kiev, a few hours after I was walking around the city feeling nostalgic for the snowy days of the Orange Revolution.

    Sometimes I feel like Forrest Gump. I was in Georgia for the Rose Revolution (on purpose), in Ukraine for the Orange Revolution (on a hunch), in Lebanon for the Cedar Revolution (entirely by accident). Now, more demos on the streets of Kiev?

    I'm filing a report for tomorrow's edition of The Globe and Mail. Give it a read and tell me what you think. If things get hot in Ukraine, check back here for updates.

    Sunday, April 1, 2007

    Will he or won't he?

    Vladimir Putin continues to swear that he'll leave office when his term ends in 12 months' time. Constitutionally, he's barred from running for a third term in the 2008 presidential elections, and he says he has no intention of amending the constitution to change that.

    But reading the Russian media, you have to wonder how final that decision is. Top Putin allies continue to propose ways of keeping Putin in power. Most recently it was Sergei Mironov, the head of the upper house of Russia's parliament, the Federation Council, who suggested that presidential term limits should be eliminated.

    Opinion polls continue to show that Putin is wildly popular (usually with 70 per cent support) and that the quiet campaigns of his would-be successors - Putin allies like Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov and Deputy Prime Minister Dmitriy Medvedev, as well as opponents such as ex-prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov and chessmaster Garry Kasparov - have yet to generate any excitement.

    In fact, the majority of Russians would probably prefer an unconstitutional prolongation of Putin's term to a constitutional power struggle that would threaten to plunge the country back into the uncertainty of the 1990s.

    To the West - and it's no longer clear how much anyone in the Kremlin cares what Washington and Brussels think - any move to remain in office past 2008 would confirm suspicions that Putin is an autocrat bent on rebuilding the USSR.

    But in Russia - maybe not in liberal Moscow and St. Petersburg, but in most of the rest of the country - such a move would likely be welcomed. Many Russians are just beginning to benefit from Russia's economic recovery under Putin; seeing their salaries and pensions continue to rise is far more important to them than respecting the letter of the constitution.

    The bottom line is that if Putin wants to stay he can. And if the public supports him (insert caveats here about state control over the media), it's hard to argue that it's entirely undemocratic.