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    Thursday, May 31, 2007

    The New Cold War

    What a day. Spies and double agents. New ballistic missile tests. A threatening speech by the Russian President. More political turmoil in Ukraine. Gunfights in a breakaway region of Georgia. The gloves, it seems, are truly off between the Kremlin and the West.

    Take today's allegations by Andrei Lugovoi that Alexander Litvinenko was a British agent who tried to recruit him, and that either the British secret service or exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky was behind Litvinenko's murder-by-polonium. Whatever the truth of his charges, he couldn't have made them at the Interfax press centre without approval from very, very high up in the Kremlin. It tells you that relations between London and Moscow have now officially reached the abysmal stage.

    The same goes for Washington. A few hours after Lugovoi finished his jaw-dropping press conference, Vladimir Putin held one of his own to announce that American actions - specifically moves to establish an anti-missile shield in Eastern Europe - had forced Russia to begin a "new round of the arms race" in order "to maintain the strategic balance in the world." Putin's remarks came two days after Russia tested a new intercontinental ballistic missile, which is capable of carrying up to 10 warheads (thereby easily overwhelming the limited defenses the U.S. wants to establish in Poland and the Czech Republic). It suddenly feels very 1980 around here.

    In this context, the sudden backtracking by Kremlin ally Viktor Yanukovich in Ukraine (who is footdragging on promises to pass legislation for a fall election there), as well as the shelling of Georgian positions this week by Russian-backed separatists in South Ossetia, look like part of a broader message from Moscow.

    Don't back us into a corner, the Kremlin is bearishly saying. If you do, we can cause no end of trouble.

    Saturday, May 26, 2007

    Ukraine, dissolving

    The crisis in Ukraine continues to rapidly worsen. First we had the President dissolving parliament, parliament ignoring the order and the Constitutional Court hemming and hawing over what to make of the whole mess. Then we had duelling street demonstrations, with orange and blue flags reappearing on the streets of Kyiv, 2004-style. Then we had Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western president, and Viktor Yanukovich, the Moscow-backed prime minister, agreeing that the way out of the crisis was to hold fresh elections, but unable to set a date for said vote to happen.

    Does Ukraine have a parliament? It's unclear. Will there be elections? Probably, but no one knows when.

    Now we have President Yushchenko firing Svyatoslav Piskun from his post as Prosecutor-General, supposedly because Piskun was a member of parliament and couldn't hold both posts. Never mind that Piskun was a member of a parliament that Yushchenko had theoretically dissolved.

    In the past few days, the crisis has slid from the farcical to the highly dangerous. On Thursday, Interior Minister Vasily Tsushko, a Yanukovich ally, sent troops to Piskun's office - not to evict him, but to protect him. Yushchenko responded by putting the Interior Ministry's 40,000 troops under his command - a move that Yanukovich says is unconstitutional and shold be ignored.

    Where all this is heading is unclear, but the tug-of-war over the Interior Ministry troops is as dangerous a crisis as any Ukraine has faced since it won independence 16 years ago. The latest reports are that 2,000 Interior Ministry troops loyal to Yushchenko are moving towards the capital.

    Yushchenko has for months been warning that Yanukovich and his allies have been preparing a "creeping coup." Until now, it was assumed that he was referring to allegations that Yanukovich and his allies had bribed MPs from pro-Western factions into crossing the floor, putting the pro-Russian bloc on the verge of the two-thirds majority in the Verkhovna Rada needed to change the constitution.

    Yushchenko's latest moves suggest that as the crisis deepens, he's also worrying about the possibility of a coup in the more conventional, military sense.

    Thursday, May 24, 2007

    Litvinenko, Lugovoi and the KGB coup

    The British government's announcement that it wants to charge ex-KGB agent Andrei Lugovoi in Alexander Litvinenko's murder - and the Kremlin's decision not to extradite him - is further proof (as if any more were required) of what Russia has become under Vladimir Putin: a rogue state that no longer cares what the West thinks of it. One apparently capable of carrying out spectacular political assassinations in other countries, and then of ignoring the international community's demands that the alleged killers face justice.

    Even if Putin himself didn't order the Litvinenko hit, someone else with close ties to the KGB/FSB apparatus almost certainly did. You don't just buy Polonium-210 from a pharmacy, even in Russia. Nor do you keep it in a drawer for years after you leave your KGB job. It's entirely reasonable to assume that the Kremlin knows who did this.

    If Putin didn't order the hit, it's almost as disturbing as if he did because it means that he has little control over what the security apparatus does at home or abroad. His unwilligness to hand Lugovoi over to the British police (who are not known for politically motivated prosecutions, despite Lugovoi's protests) suggests that he's either complicit in the killing, or that his hands are tied in the matter. Both versions are chilling.

    There's no making light of this one. Litvinenko's killing not only silenced a prominent Putin critic, but the chosen method put any Londoner who happened to frequent the same restaurant or hotel as Litvinenko at grave risk. (I myself have stayed at the Millennium Mayfair hotel, albeit months later.)

    The whole episode hammers home the truth of the 2000 elections that brought Vladimir Putin to power. This was not the "peaceful transition" that the Western media hailed it to be at the time. It was a quiet, efficient KGB coup.

    Boris Yeltsin, whose corruption in office had long since compromised the principles he once fought for, was forced aside by the KGB that he dismantled and then reformed under a new name. He sold the country that he had helped liberate back to those he had liberated it from in exchange for immunity from prosecution for he and his family.

    Putin brought with him to the Kremlin a phalanx of other KGB agents (I've dropped the "ex-" bit here since even Putin had admitted that once a chekist, always a chekist, referring to the original incarnation of the Soviet security services, the Cheka). Sociologist Olga Kryshtanovskaya says that the percentage of siloviki or "men of power" (which she defines as those from police, military or security services backgrounds) in positions of influence in the Kremlin increased from less than 5 per cent in Mikhail Gorbachev's day to almost 55 per cent by the end of Putin's first term. That figure has continued to rise.

    With them, they brought back the old assumptions: Russia is a global power that has the right to a "sphere of influence" over its neighbours and whose interests are fundamentally opposed to the West. They also apparently brought with them the old Soviet habit of violently eliminating dissent.

    Litvinenko understood what had happened and tried to tell the world. An old agent himself, he understood that in doing so he had broken the KGB code. To the unreformed chekists in the Kremlin, that meant he had to be punished appropriately.

    Embassy magazine review of The New Cold War

    "Mr. MacKinnon's eye-opening book masterfully shows that a secret war has been in full swing for years, and that it is far from over." Those are their words, not mine.

    You can read the rest of the review of The New Cold War by Embassy magazine, a respected Ottawa-based foreign policy weekly, here.

    The headline on the article "Putin is Selling my Book for Me: Author" remains true. Thanks Vlad. And Condi too.

    OK, enough with the shameless self-promotion (for now).

    Friday, May 18, 2007

    President for life

    Wow. The parliament of Kazakhstan has just lifted the limit on the number of terms in office that President Nursultan Nazarbayev can serve. Given that the 66-year-old autocrat wasn't scheduled to face re-election until 2012, the unexpected move is effectively permission from parliament for Nazarbayev to remain in office for the rest of his life.

    It's sad how quickly the dream of democracy in Central Asia died. After the "Tulip Revolution" in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan in early 2005, there was hope that the old elites who had ruled the region since it was part of the Soviet Union could all be swept aside by a tide of change. Nazarbayev himself was in full panic, terrified that his regime would be the next to face a popular uprising.

    The Kazakh opposition kicked into high gear, preparing for street protests in Almaty and other Kazakh cities and pleading for Western help in ensuring the December 2005 presidential elections would be free and fair. The West never responded, and Nazarbayev was allowed to remain in office, claiming improbably to have won 91 per cent of the vote.

    This is where I get cynical about Western "democracy promotion" efforts. The West - specifically U.S. organizations like the National Endownment for Democracy - which had played such a big role in helping bring about change in Ukraine and Georgia in the previous two years, basically ignored the Kazakh opposition's cry for help in 2005. Why? Oil and Islamophobia.

    Nazarbayev's regime was allowed to survive because it allows American and British oil firms to basically do what they like in the country. Oil companies like stability, and they effectively told the Western governments that they were happy to deal with the corrupt devil they knew, rather than someone who might sweep in and examine the deeply tainted privatization process under which they came to control so much of Kazakhstan's natural resources. (A process under which Nazarbayev and his family are believed to have pocketed billions.)

    Equally, by late 2005 there was significant cooling in the White House's desire to see democractic change in Muslim world. After watching Islamists gain power or a share of power through the ballot box in Iraq, Iran, Lebanon and elsewhere, the U.S. was newly receptive to Nazarbayev's message that his repressive methods, while unsavoury, were keeping Islamists from seizing power along the key Central Asia-Caspian Sea-Caucasus energy corridor. The same factors, it's worth noting here, are behind the West's reluctance to put too much pressure on Azerbaijan's Ilham Aliev.

    Never was the message clearer than on Dick Cheney's trip to the region last year. After stopping in Lithuania to give a speech slamming Kremlin "intimidation and blackmail" and decrying the lack of democracy in Russia, Cheney flew on to Kazakhstan to embrace Nazarbayev and sign more oil and gas contracts.

    The silence so far from the White House on the Kazakh parliament's announcement is deafening. Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukashenko are surely taking notes.

    Here's the reaction of Kazakh blogger Yasharbek:

    Nazarbayev for life. I’m in shock. A new Turkmenbashi :) I always used to say that the most democratic country in the whole CIS is Kyrgyzstan. The rest have a sort of medieval monarchy.

    And from another blogger, Sarimov:

    Bastards! They decided the fate of the whole country in just 17 minutes!

    There's a great discussion on the topic at

    (And yes, I'm aware that neweurasia is part of the same democracy promotion regime that I just slammed. I'm not saying they don't do good work, only that the U.S. withheld crucial support in Dec. 2005 that it had been willing to offer the Ukrainians and the Georgians. Anyone who disagrees should ask the Kazakh opposition how they feel about Condoleeza Rice.)

    Wednesday, May 16, 2007

    The coming Kosovo crisis

    Despite assertions by certain Canadian authors to the contrary, there is no "New Cold War" between the United States and Russia, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov assured us yesterday. Damn, guess I was wrong. And to think my book is listed as non-fiction.

    In fact, Rice and Lavrov agreed on very little during the former's two-day visit to Moscow this week. She still wants to see democracy (aka, a different government) in Russia, and less Kremlin control over the energy corridor between Central Asia and Europe. The Kremlin still wants the U.S. to butt out of not only its internal affairs, but to drop its missile shield plan for Poland and the Czech Republic. "Russia and the United States do not see eye-to-eye," Rice understated at one point in the press conference, an instant of truthfulness in an afternoon of smiley faced denial.

    While the Kremlin's anger over the missile shield is well-documented, the showdown over Kosovo is promising to be almost as heated. Russia - which has historic and cultural ties to Serbia - has promised to veto a Western-backed plan to give the predominantly Albanian province effective independence from Belgrade. With Kosovar Albanian and Serbian radicals alike hinting at violence if they don't get their way, the standoff could get ugly.

    Having visited Serbia several times, but never Kosovo, I'm fairly agnostic about whether breaking up the current Serbian is a good idea. In the long term, perhaps the Serbs and the Kosovar Albanians are perhaps better off if they live separately and each govern themselves. Until now anyway, they certainly haven't done a very good job of coexisting.

    But as the Kremlin might point out, you could say the same about other breakaway regions such as Moldova's Transdniestr, or Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia. Or Kosovo itself, which has a Serb-majority enclave in the north. (One could easily add Chechnya and Iraq to the list of regions where current international borders don't make much sense.)

    The question is why - after eight years of relative stability in the Balkans - is there a sudden headlong rush to solve the Kosovo issue? As even William Montgomery, the U.S. ambassador who headed the efforts to oust Slobodan Milosevic seven years ago, and no Russophile, has warned in a column he penned for the B-92 website, the ramnifications will reach far beyond Belgrade and Pristina. I quote: terms of US-Russian relations, the timing of the Kosovo question could not be worse. Russian President Putin is actively looking for ways to show his unhappiness with U.S. policies and Kosovo provides a golden opportunity. It seems more and more likely that Kosovo will not be resolved in the near future by a UN Security Council Resolution and that this in turn will lead to significant instability in the region. One can be sure, for example, that many in the West will blame Russia for the recent election as Serbian Speaker of Parliament, Toma Nikolic, acting head of the Serbian Radical Party. Richard Holbrooke, publicly, but many American officials privately, have made it very clear that Russia will be held accountable for any violence that occurs due to failure to pass a Security Council Resolution on Kosovo.

    The point is that both Russia and the United States should be looking for ways to improve their relationship in the interest of both parties, but that events like Kosovo keep getting in the way. And without any advance planning or intention, the relationship continues to deteriorate. In the great scheme of world events, Kosovo is far less important either to Russia or to the United States than is the bilateral relationship between the two countries. But at the present time, neither seems willing or able to take the sort of steps (and compromises), which would reflect that reality.

    Montgomery's point, supported by the International Crisis Group isn't that Kosovo should never receive the extra autonomy its people are demanding. He's asking why Washington and Moscow are hurtling towards a confrontation that both sides claim they don't want.

    If nothing else, the obstinacy of Putin, Bush, Rice and Lavrov is good for book sales. Perhaps I'll offer them a cut to keep all this up until the U.S. launch this September.

    Friday, May 11, 2007

    The Kremlin's man comes to Canada - next stop Detroit?

    So Oleg Deripaska is making a $1.54-billion investment in Canadian auto parts giant Magna International. The Globe and Mail reports today on how buying into Magma could be a backdoor way for the oligarch to gain control of American auto giant DaimlerChrysler.

    While there's nothing inherently sinister about that, it's worth noting that Deripaska is seen as the closest to the Kremlin of Russia's remaining oligarchs, largely because he often does the president's bidding. The Globe also reports on how Magma boss Franch Stronach met with President Vladimir Putin before agreeing to the deal.

    Unlike his fellow billionaires Vladimir Gusinsky, Boris Berezovsky and Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Deripaska followed the "stay out of politics" warning Putin delivered to the oligarchs after he was first elected in 2000. Those who tested the new president soon wound up either in exile (Gusinsky, Berezovsky) or in a Siberian labour camp (Khodorkovsky). But Deripaska played by the new Kremlin's rules and emerged, by some counts, as Russia's richest man.

    It probably doesn't hurt that Deripaska is married into the family (often referred to as The Family, with all the mafiaesque implications intended) of former president Boris Yeltsin. But he's also played it smart, pandering to the current occupants of the Kremlin by investing in a way meant to please. Most obsequiously, his holding company last year poured $800-million into a sports complex near Russia's Black Sea resort of Sochi.

    If Sochi wins its bid to host the 2014 Winter Olympics, that might look like a smart investment. Otherwise, it's $800-million down the drain of appeasing the Kremlin, which in Russia is a smart investment anyway.

    The Magna investment is also likely to cheer the president. Consider Putin's Feb. 7 address to the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs (effectively the oligarchs' club): "The time has come to expand the participation of our enterprises in international cooperation and the realization of serious commercial initiatives abroad," he told them at a meeting inside the Kremlin walls.

    In other words, let's start using our new economic clout to increase our political influence in other countries. While he warned his audience not to use words like "conquer" or "expansion" when speaking of foreign markets, lest it frighten the locals into thinking the Russians are up to something, Putin said that "it goes without saying that the diversification of the Russian industry is becoming one of our main and common economic priorities."

    Almost three months to the day later, the deferential Deripaska has already delivered. If you're a Russian oligarch who acquired your money in a shady fashion in the 1990s, doing what the president asks of you is the smartest way to stay out of jail.

    Wednesday, May 9, 2007

    The rise of Nashi

    The AFP newswire just moved an interesting story about the growing rent-a-crowd trend across the former Soviet Union. The clearest example of this in recent months was Viktor Yanukovych's limp "Blue Revolution" on the streets of Kyiv, where protestors spoke openly of having been paid $10 (sometimes more) to stand in Independence Square and wave a blue flag.

    Those demonstrations were so pitiful as to be almost laughable. But some aren't funny at all.

    Take Nashi. The Kremlin-founded youth group has staged protests in Moscow, Pskov and Tallinn during the ongoing Bronze Soldier dispute between Russia and Estonia, at one point putting physical chase to the Estonian ambassador to Moscow.

    In the eyes of some, Nashi are the modern equivalent of the Komsomol, the Young Communists of the Soviet era. Then, and increasingly now with Nashi, being a member put you on track to a more successful career, and past membership was effectively a prerequisite if you aspired to a job in the bureaucracy or the security services.

    To others, Nashi are the Brownshirts of an increasingly despotic Russia.

    Nashi (the word means "Ours") are the creation of Vladislav Surkov, Putin's deputy chief of staff and powerful Kremlin spin doctor Gleb Pavlovsky. Charged in the wake of Ukraine's Orange Revolution with making sure revolutionary tents were never pitched on Red Square, the two decided to implement strict new restrictions on Western NGOs (read Surkov's paranoid secret speech on NGOs and conspiracies against Russia here). Then they created Nashi, a group they hoped would serve as a counterweight to rabble-rousing pro-Western groups like Kmara in Georgia, Pora in Ukraine and now Oborona in Russia. Today the group claims to have tens of thousands of members.

    My fear about Nashi is that it dangerously plays with one of the most disturbing trends I witnessed during the three years I lived in Moscow: the growing "Russia for the Russians" sentiment across the country. Towards the end, it seemed like that there was another report every day in the newspaper of a foreigner being beaten or stabbed by ultranationalist thugs.

    At the group's founding meeting at a summer camp outside of Moscow two years ago (an event closed to the foreign press), Pavlovsky made clear two a crowd of 3,000 young activists what their role was going to be: "You must be ready to disperse fascist rallies and physically oppose attempted anti-constitutional coups." In other words, make sure that any attempt at a peaceful revolution like the one that happened in Ukraine the year before doesn't stay peaceful for long.

    Sunday, May 6, 2007

    Liberal imperialism and Estonia

    Estonians are the latest to experience the Kremlin's new tool for controlling its neighbours: energy. They're learning (as Ukrainians, Belarussians, Latvians, Lithuanians and Georgians already have) that their big neigbour to the east is ready and willing to fight dirty as it tries to reel its former colonies back in.

    It's what Anatoliy Chubais, the head of Unified Energy Systems, described a few years ago as "liberal imperialism" - using Russia's abundant economic levers to restore the country's dominant position over Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia.

    Foremost among the tools at the Kremlin's disposal is Moscow's control over a staggering share of the region's oil and gas resources. Much of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe is entirely reliant on Russian natural gas. Increasingly, so too is the European Union.

    That position gives the Kremlin a dangerous trump card in any dispute, as we're now seeing as the Bronze Soldier affair between Russia and Estonia continues to escalate. On May 1, Russia cut off oil and coal exports to its much-smaller neighbour, ostensibly because of railway "repairs," but in reality to punish Estonia for supposedly insulting Soviet war dead.

    This is hardly the first time we've seen the Kremlin act like this. And, as journalist Derek Brower noted on lawyer-blogger Robert Amsterdam's site, each case has been more egregious than the last.

    In frigid January 2006, Moscow briefly cut off the flow of natural gas to Ukraine in a pricing dispute that had the intended side-effect of scaring many Ukrainians into voting for the Kremlin-friendly Party of Regions and its leader Viktor Yanukovich in parliamentary elections two months later. With a single flip of the switch, the Kremlin had undone much of the strategic loss it suffered in 2004 when the pro-Western Orange Revolution swept Viktor Yushchenko to office.

    Earlier this year, Gazprom did it again, threatening to cut off the flow of gas to Belarus, and only backing down when Alexander Lukashenko's government agreed to sell it a 50 per cent share in Beltranzgas, the Belarussian company that operates the pipeline network that ships Russian gas to Europe (see map top left).

    Similar tactics were used by the Gazprom to pressure Serbia in 2000 and Georgia in 2001 into giving in to the Kremlin's political demands.

    This is a major theme of my book, The New Cold War, which was published last month in Canada and hits U.S. bookstores in September.

    Here's a bit of what I wrote on the topic:

    In czarist Moscow, before Communist dictators flattened entire sections of the once-charming city centre and filled it with buildings tall enough to match their egos, nothing stood higher than Ivan the Great’s Bell Tower, a white stone spire topped by a gleaming golden dome that still stretches above the Kremlin’s red walls. Before the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, it was illegal to build anything in Moscow that exceeded the eighty-one-metre height of the Bell Tower, which stretches above a trio of magnificent Orthodox cathedrals — Assumption, Archangel and Annunciation — that house the tombs of a long line of czars, czarinas and crown princes. In pre-revolutionary Russia, it would have been hard to get past the impression that God and the czars—perhaps not in that order—were observing everything you did.

    But in today’s Moscow, the building that stands imperiously over everything else in the city’s jumbled skyline is the thirty-five-storey grey concrete and blue glass headquarters of Gazprom OAO, the giant energy company that would become as vital to Vladimir Putin’s influence over Russia’s neighbours as the horse-borne Cossack armies had been to the czars, or the Comintern to Lenin.


    Putin realized that the West’s tolerance for using tanks and attack helicopters as a way of expanding influence was on the wane. Russia’s resurgent economic strength, as well as its abundant supply of natural resources—oil and, in particular, natural gas—could strengthen his hold on the near abroad far better than could any conscript soldier. He didn’t need to send in the army to settle a dispute. All he had to do was flip the switch and let the neighbours shiver until they came around to seeing things his way.

    As an aside, The Globe and Mail ran a review of The New Cold War on Saturday. Review Juliet Johnson, a political science professor at McGill University, said the book "wonderfully documents the conflicting interests and policies of Russia and the West in an engaging, easy-to-read style." You can read the whole review here.

    Friday, May 4, 2007

    Ukraine heading to the polls

    The standoff is over for now, and Viktor Yushchenko appears to have won the test of nerves against his arch-rival, Viktor Yanukovich. The two men announced today that they have agreed to hold new parliamentary elections in the near future, something Yushchenko has been demanding since dissolving parliament last month amid a bribery scandal.

    So far, no date has been set, but Yushchenko said today that the vote would be held within 60 days. July 8 is the best guess of some people in the know.

    Why did Yanukovich throw in his cards? Because his "Blue Revolution" on the streets of Kyiv was a failure. The demonstrations on Independence Square were lifeless affairs, and as word got out that most of the protestors were being paid to participate, the farce became more of an embarassment to Yanukovich than a tool for pressuring Yushchenko.

    But the demos did serve a useful purpose for Yanukovich and his allies. When Yushchenko originally dissolved parliament on April 2, he set the fresh polls for May 27. At the time, people close to the Party of Regions told me that Yanukovich hadn't expected Yushchenko's move, and that the party was in no position to run an election.

    Seeing the election date pushed back five or six weeks gives Yanukovich - whose party still maintains a strong lead in the polls over both Yushchenko's Our Ukraine movement and the Yulia Tymoshenko bloc - a chance to win the victory at the ballot box that he wasn't going to achieve in the streets.

    How well the old Orange Revolution allies, Yushchenko and Tymoshenko, can cooperate over the campaign may determine whether Yanukovich and his Kremlin backers succeed.

    Stay tuned.

    Review of The New Cold War

    A quick break from the news to point to a review of my book that I stumbled across on the website of Jeff Jedras, better known in the blogosphere as A BCer in Toronto. It's "a very enlightening read, well recommended," says Jeff of The New Cold War.

    Read the rest here.

    I'm told The Globe and Mail's review - ack! - is coming out tomorrow.

    Tuesday, May 1, 2007

    The struggle over history

    The struggle for modern Russia is, in many ways, a struggle for its collective memory. What was the USSR, and how should it be remembered?

    In the West, the answer is easy: the Soviet Union was the "evil empire" - an aggressive dictatorship that terrorized its own people and those in neighbouring countries.

    To many Russians, especially those who suffered through the country's chaotic experience with democracy and free-market economics in the 1990s, the answer is less clear-cut. Disillusioned with what "freedom" brought them, many Russians now openly pine for the stability, or stabilnost, of the past.

    I interviewed pollster Yuri Levada shortly before he died about the wave of nostalgia for the "good old days" that had helped to sweep Vladimir Putin to power and make him one of the most popular leaders on the planet. The first sociologist to conduct polls of how Russians felt, his surveys showed that when the USSR collapsed in 1991, 50 per cent of citizens still admired the totalitarian system that existed before Mikhail Gorbachev and perestroika.

    Levada, at the time, had assumed that the number would eventually decrease as Russians became accustomed to Western-style democracy and capitalism. But shortly before his death last year, that number stood at 65 per cent. The people, he told me in an interview for my book The New Cold War, had come to believe that stability and order were more important than democracy and freedom.

    That verdict is playing an important role in the flaring Russian anger over the Bronze Soldier affair in neighbouring Estonia. While Estonians, rightfully, view the arrival of the Red Army in their country as the day the Nazi occupation ended and another began, many Russians (like many Japanese) have never come to accept or understand how their country's dark history is viewed in the rest of the world.

    There was some poignant writing on this by Boris Makarenko in Kommersant over the weekend:

    First, let's remember that Riga and Tallinn were not liberated by our troops so much as taken: far from all of the inhabitants of the Baltic countries liked the Germans, but few wanted to fall under the scepter of the Kremlin. Like Eastern Europe, the Baltic countries were deprived by us of their right to free elections, but Prague and Budapest at least got to be their own countries and have their own national flags and symbols; they were not settled by a massive wave of Russian speakers; and if someone there was repressed, at least they were sent to a jail near home instead of being exiled to Siberia. Should we really be surprised that there was more rage in the Baltic countries after the departure of Moscow, even if takes such uncivilized forms?

    Second, it shouldn't be forgotten that, in the eyes of the majority of Central Europeans, the liberation from fascism and even the Cold War do not justify the fact that soldiers in a foreign uniform and under a foreign flag stood between them and Europe for half a century. We have been laboring too long under the impression that the Central Europeans liked being in the Warsaw Pact – despite the evidence of the events in Berlin in 1953, Budapest in 1956, and Prague in 1968.

    Levada's numbers showed that lesson isn't being learned. More dangerously, history is rapidly being forgotten.

    In praise of the eXile

    One of the oddest truths about reporting in Russia is that we - the Western press corps - often found ourselves outdone by a satirical local rag called the eXile.

    Put together by a bunch of expats who have found a home in Moscow, the eXile blends sometimes hilarious, sometimes revolting features on living debaucherously in the Russian capital.

    That wasn't the part that impressed the rest of us hacks. What did was the political reporting tucked in between the pages of "Death Porn" and "Whore-r Stories." Unlike much of the rest of what was produced by the Western journalists living in Moscow, the eXile doesn't buy the simple State Department narrative of "Russia intrinsically bad, West trying to save it."

    Reporters like the eXile's Mark Ames see the "struggle for democracy" across the former Soviet Union for what it is: an arm-wrestle between the neo-cons in the White House and the neo-authoritarians in the Kremlin. Both sides say they're interested in the prosperity and freedom of the Russian people, in reality both are cynically pursuing their own, largely commercially oriented, agendas.

    For a different perspective, check out the eXile's takes on the recent protests in Moscow and the ongoing standoff in Ukraine. Weed through the silly, self-indulgent bits and you'll get to a lot of nuggets that The Economist tends to brush by in its telling of the same tales.

    And to head off the criticism that the eXile (like me) is too gentle on the current Kremlin, it's worth noting that they once ran a multi-page feature that was titled something like "99 ways that Putin's Russia is like Weimar Germany." I can't find it online anymore, but it was one of those pieces where you started out laughing, then got deeply unsettled as you considered the substance underpinning the humour.