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    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


    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.