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    Tuesday, August 28, 2007

    Who killed Anna Politkovskaya?

    Just a quick post to highlight Novaya Gazeta's editorial today (it's here in imperfect English, which is nonetheless a first for NG) on the arrest of 10 suspects in connection with Anna Politkovskaya's murder last fall. It's a very carefully worded piece, one that takes pains to praise the police work, but one that also makes it clear that this story isn't over yet.

    The newspaper has been conducting its own investigation of who killed their prominent reporter, and editor Dmitry Muratov confirmed that the 10 people arrested - a group that includes three members of a Chechen crime family as well as one FSB officer, one police major and three former police officers - were the same people that Novaya Gazeta's investigation was pointing towards. So the paper gives cautious kudos to Prosecutor-General Yury Chaika.

    But the paper also says that it believes the 10 men arrested yesterday were contract killers. Charging them is half the prosecution's task here, the other half is to find out who hired them and to bring them to justice.

    While noting that many people had reason to hold a grudge against Politkovskaya, whose tenacious and aggressive reporting work is said to have angered President Vladimir Putin and Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov among many others, the paper nonetheless suggests it knows who the contract killers' "clients" were.

    Promising to reveal what it knows later, the paper hints quite strongly that charging the real perpetrators will require an act of bravery from Chaika and his investigators and could have an impact on the coming Duma and presidential elections:

    It’s too early to talk about those who ordered this murder; the coming elections... may cause political special operations around the circumstances of Politkovskaya's murder. Besides, we don’t yet have any guarantees that the real clients’ names will be mentioned in the indictment. And that wouldn’t be investigation’s fault.

    We have repeated many times that we don’t have claims against those who investigate the murder of Novaya Gazeta’s journalist. We are collaborating [with them], and the mutual opinion is that this collaboration is effective. We just want to be sure that “expediencies” that don’t relate to this matter directly, wouldn’t influence the outcome of our joint work. The outcome we need is clear. The killers, accomplices and real clients of this murder must be established and convicted.

    Sounds like they're hoping another shoe will drop soon. I've read that Novaya Gazeta will go ahead and publish what it knows on Oct. 7, the anniversary of Politkovskaya's murder.

    Robert Amsterdam, who as a member of Mikhail Khodorkovsky's defense team knows something about politically charged investigations in Russia, adds his own pessimistic analysis of the arrests here.

    Sunday, August 26, 2007

    Problematic Putin porn

    So Vladimir Putin has a chiselled (if oddly hairless) chest. In the words of a presidential admirer who left their thoughts on the Komsolmolskaya Pravda website, it's one "vigorous torso."

    To Vladimir Vladimirovich, I say congrats. It's likely not easy staying in shape whilst plotting your country's return to superpower status. The days, surely, are already filled with meetings about how to marginalize the pro-Western opposition, bring Ukraine to heel or what journalist to silence next. It's gotta be doubly tough when etiquette requires your attendance at myriad sour cream-laden banketi, which I know did nothing for my physique.

    The question that comes to mind, though, is why are we being shown these pictures now. After all, Vladimir Vladimirovich is stepping down next year, heading into graceful retirement at age 55. Right? With presidential elections just half a year away, shouldn't we be pondering the pecs of Sergei Ivanov and Dmitriy Medvedev, Mikhail Kasyanov and Garry Kasparov?

    Why is Komsomolskaya Pravda still telling kids to "Be Like Putin" on its front page? Is it because you're not going anywhere after all, Vladimir Vladimirovich?

    Though I make no claim to being a political strategist (it's Mark McKinnon - no relation - who used to work for George W. Bush), I have to agree with Yevgenia Albats who worried aloud on her Эхо Москвы show that the pictures - which ominously were posted on the official Kremlin website - might be the strongest statement yet that Putin is planning on sticking around after his second term expires next year.

    These photos are campaign material, pure and simple. They're meant to show the Russian public (and the world) that Putin is fit and ready to remain at Russia's helm past 2008, if he so chooses.

    Vladimir Vladimirovich, of course, is constitutionally barred from running for a third consecutive term next year. But two of his closest allies, Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus and Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan, have changed the rules in their neighbouring ex-Soviet republics so that they can run as often as they like. Nazarbayev recently urged Putin to follow suit in the interests of Russia's stability.

    Sergei Markov, a Kremlin advisor, told the Associated Press that the pictures emphasized again that Vladimir Vladimirovich was "cool" - at least in the eyes of the Russian public. "That's been the image throughout the presidency, cool," Markov said.

    Markov is one of those in the Kremlin's inner circle who's been tasked with finding a successor to Putin, be it Ivanov, Medvedev or one of the other siloviki. The decision to publish the Putin porn tells me they haven't yet found anyone "cooler" than Vladimir Vladimirovich and that "Operation Successor" as its known inside the Kremlin, may be morphing into "Operation Incumbent."

    Tuesday, August 21, 2007

    Election farce in Kazakhstan

    Ninety-eight out of ninety-eight.

    That's how many seats the suling Nur Otan party won in this weekend's parliamentary elections in Kazakhstan, which were held early in a bid to demonstrate the Central Asian nation's democractic progress and to bolster the President Nursultan Nazarbayev's effort to seek the chair of the 56-country Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in 2009.

    By any standards, the election clearly demonstrated the opposite. OSCE monitors sent to observe the election found reported instances of multiple voting (for Nur Otan), falsified signatures (by Nur Otan) and votes cast for opposition parties counted that were counted for Nur Otan.

    Officially, Nazarbayev's party won 88 per cent of the vote - which by my rough math makes him 18 per cent more autocratic than Vladimir Putin (who most opinion polls say has around 70 per cent support) and 11 per cent shy of Saddam Hussein in his salad days.

    When Leonid Kuchma and Edurad Shevardnadze were found committing fraud on a far less audacious scale, the West refused to recognize the results of the votes and supported Ukrainians and Georgians as they overthrew their governments.

    Not in Kazakhstan. There's far too much oil at stake here, and while Nazarbayev might not tolerate opposition parties or a free press, he does allow Western oil companies to operate as long as he gets a cut.

    The biggest disgrace is that somewhere in all this both the U.S. State Department the OSCE election observer mission were able to find and laud "welcome progress" towards democracy in Kazakhstan. I'm embarrassed that a fellow Canadian, Senator Consiglio Di Nino, was able to say with a straight face that "notwithstanding the concerns contained in the report, the elections continue to move Kazakhstan forward in its evolution toward a democratic country."

    Before spouting such nonsense, Sen. Di Nino should have pondered if he was seeing the complete picture, given the recent New York Times report on how Kazakh intelligence - at Nazarbayev's behest - conspired to mislead OSCE monitors during the 2005 presidential elections.

    Perhaps the OSCE is indeed fit to have Kazakhstan as its chair.

    Sunday, August 19, 2007

    The counter-revolution starts here

    Two stories caught my eye today which might seem like separate issues but which in fact are thickly linked. One was a lengthy report in Moscow News Weekly about the summer camps being hosted by Nashi and the other pro-Kremlin youth groups.

    The other was the Kremlin's paranoid decision to order the Russian edition of the BBC World Service off the FM dial.

    The link? Both the Kremlin's bolstering of "patriotic" youth movements and its crackdown on non-state media outlets are moves directed at heading off any kind of Orange Revolution-inspired uprising in Russia around December's Duma elections and/or next year's presidential vote.

    Kremlin strategists Gleb Pavlovsky, Sergei Markov and Vyacheslav Nikonov all gave speeches to the Nashi camp at Lake Seliger outside Moscow (as did, notably, leading Kremlin-backed presidential contenders Sergei Ivanov and Dmitriy Medvedev). Two years ago, following the uprising in Ukraine, Pavlovsky and co. were charged with making sure the orange tide never reached Red Square. One of the first things they did was establish Nashi - the name means "Ours" - to counter the pro-Western youth groups like Ukraine's Pora that formed the backbone of the revolutions that hit Serbia in 2000, Georgia in 2003 and Ukraine a year later.

    At the first Nashi camp in the summer of 2005, Pavlovsky gave a speech that neatly summer up the role he expected the kids to play: "You must be ready to disperse fascist (a word Pavlovsky tried hard to attach to Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko and his supporters) rallies and physically oppose attempted anti-constitutional coups," he said. In other words, their job was to prevent Red Square from going Orange.

    Nothing's changed. As MN reports, "[this summer's] camp's key note is political indoctrination." To that end, not only are the 10,000 Nashi members (as well as members of similar groups like Rossia Molodaya, or Young Russia, and Novye Lyudi or New People) indoctrinated about the values of patriotism and the evils of the West, they're lectured about the need to procreate as a way of reversing Russia's rapid population decline. They also get a talking-to about underwear.

    The bizarre details, courtesy of MN:

    The Seliger camp has its own TV network called Zyr, a radio station, news agency, and two newspapers. There is also a number of ongoing programs such as the School of Mass Action, the Institute of Entrepreneurship, the Schools of Animators, the Institute of Social Management, and the Antifa School, among others. One of this season's projects, Bashnya Gazproma (Gazprom Tower), offers successful contestants internship at the natural gas monopoly. Such projects as The Museum of Double Standards and Fat Man from Hell, are designed to show the pernicious effect of the Western lifestyle. A daily serial titled I Want Three encourages young families to have at least three children: thus, dozens of couples celebrated their weddings in the camp and were given separate tents. Dmitry Medvedev and Sergei Ivanov, two men who are widely seen as leading contenders to replace Putin next year, wore T-shirts with an emblazoned call to boost birth rates. A group of activists were urging girls to surrender their G-strings as a factor in female sterility, providing instead more conservative outfits and destroying the discarded G-strings in front of their former owners. Considering that a demographic revolution to the Seliger campers is an imperative at the behest of Vladimir Putin, G-strings have become a symbol of counterrevolution.

    The BBC crackdown is linked because Pavlovsky, Markov and Nikonov understand that anti-government media - namely B-92 radio in Serbia, the Rustavi-2 television station in Georgia and Ukraine's Fifth Channel - were perhaps even more important than the youth groups in bringing Serbs, Georgians and Ukrainians into the streets. Having already taken direct or indirect control of all the country's major broadcasters, the Kremlin is now apparently turning its attention to the BBC.

    While I'm quite cynical about the kind of "reporting" Fifth Channel did during the Orange Revolution - it wasn't so much as covering political events as inciting them - any efforts to squelch a media outlet is obviously an attack on free speech.

    The BBC, in particular, has an unimpeachable reputation for reporting all sides of a news story. They really do. As a reporter myself, I can tell you that there are a lot of outlets who simply spew silly anti-Russian propaganda (or whatever the State Department's narrative of the day is), but the BBC isn't among them.

    For the Kremlin to see the Beeb as an enemy only shows how paranoid they've become about the coming elections. And how far they'll go to keep control.

    Friday, August 17, 2007

    The darkest side of modern Russia

    I still remember him. Tolessa was a young Ethiopian student attending Moscow's famous People's Friendship University, and one of the few I could find who would talk to a newspaper reporter about what it was like living as a foreigner - a black foreigner - in a time of rising Russian racism and xenophobia.

    It was a life of violence and fear that he told me about. He and the other African students on campus were so terrified of Russia's notorious skinheads that they were afraid to leave their dorm rooms. When they did go out into the city around them, they went in groups.

    Even at on-campus cafeteria, Tolessa was nervous and asked to sit at a table in the corner furthest from the windows. In the weeks before he and I had lunch, there had been eight arson attempts and several bomb threats directed at the dormitory where most of the African students were staying.

    "We stay on the campus and, if we want to go anywhere, we have to organize a group. Maybe in a group they won't attack us," he told me. "This group, the skinheads, they are not small in number. In fact, I sometimes feel as though they are half the population of Moscow. People tell us to leave this country, that Russia is only for the Russians."

    Russia for the Russians. It's a phrase that I hear more and more often. One of my friends - as white as the Russian snow - was punched out for speaking English in Moscow. My wife and I were physically threatened by a group of skinheads on the metro who drunkenly told us "Yankees go home."

    The fact that Canada is a separate state was lost on him, so we got off at the next station even though it was nowhere near from our destination.

    The Moscow police, Tolessa told me, were open admirers of the "Russia for the Russians" crowd. When an African student who was attacked called for help, the police would just as often join the beating as stop it. It wasn't just Africans. Anyone from the former Soviet republics of the Caucasus and Central Asia was liable to be targeted as chorniyy, or "black."

    For too long, the Kremlin tolerated and manipulated the ultranationalist crowd, allowing people like Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Dmitry Rogozin to spew hatred because it suited their political aims. If the West was truly worried that a Zhirinovsky or a Rogozin might come to power, it would let up in its calls for more openness and democracy and perhaps come to see someone like Vladimir Putin as a least-bad option.

    The strategy worked like a charm from a political point of view, but the monsters it created are now out of even the Kremlin's control. Take the grisly execution video that was first posted on the Russian Internet community livejournal last week.

    The killing of two men - one identified in a caption as an ethnic Tajik, the other as a Dagestani - was horrifying and disturbing. One was beheaded, the other shot, while their murderers shouted "Glory to Russia!" and displayed a Nazi flag. The video is titled "Operation of the National-Socialist Party of Russia to arrest and execute two colonists from Dagestan and Tajikistan."

    In a poorly attended press conference back in May, Alexander Brod of the Moscow Bureau for Human Rights warned that, in the past two years alone, the number of skinheads in Russia had risen from 50,000 to 70,000.

    "Nowadays, they could be found in each regional center, they are emerging even in small towns and villages. In big cities, the attacks happen nearly each day and murders [are committed] weekly," he said.

    In other words, the only thing truly remarkable about the livejournal video is that the perpetrators bothered to film it.

    Thursday, August 16, 2007

    Ukrainian déjà-vu

    Another Ukrainian election campaign, another farce.

    The Central Election Commission - perhaps Ukraine's least-respected institution after being caught aiding Viktor Yanukovich's attempted theft of the 2004 presidential elections - started the 2007 parliamentary campaign in ignominious style last week by refusing register candidates from Bloc Yulia Tymoshenko.

    Their reasoning was as scurrilous as anything offered up three years ago: Tymoshenko's slate of candidates, the CEC said, was illegitimate because while they had submitted the names of their home towns to the registrars, they hadn't given their actual street addresses. It somehow escaped the noble commission's attention that BYuT had registered its candidates the exact same way during last year's parliamentary elections and nobody saw a problem then.

    While the CEC yesterday backed down from its decision and registered BYuT - which polls suggest is the No. 1 contender to Yanukovich's front-running Party of Regions - the early chicanery doesn't exactly inspire hopes that this will be a free and fair election. Instead, it's looking more and more likely that the 2007 parliamentary elections will be a carbon copy of the 2004 presidential vote - a tooth-and-nails, anything-goes struggle for power between the Kremlin-backed Yanukovich and the Western-friendly team of Tymoshenko and President Viktor Yushchenko, whose Our Ukraine movement is currently running third.

    (A recent poll by the Socioizmerenie research centre suggested that the Party of Regions had 26.3 per cent of the vote, compared to 21.4 for BYut and 14.1 for Our Ukraine. The Communist Party, which usually lines up with the pro-Kremlin Yanukovich, trailed at 4.7 per cent.)

    As Nina Khrushcheva wrote in a column that appeared in Lebanon's Daily Star newspaper, we could be heading for an Orange Revolution re-run:

    By seeking to cling to power by hook or by crook, Yanukovich is likely to bring on the deluge. In Ukraine that means not only violent unrest, but economic decline and renewed repression. At the end of the day it could lead to the sort of huge street protests that marked the Orange Revolution, and their attempted violent suppression. Recent history is replete with alarming examples of dictators and would-be dictators who refuse to recognise when their time has run out.

    The truth is that both sides - the pro-Kremlin bloc and the off-again, on-again Yushchenko-Tymoshenko alliance - have the support of about 30 per cent of the public, which is the reason neither group has been able to vanquish the other during a decade of political quarrelling. The hundreds of millions of dollars spent by the Kremlin and the White House in recent years to promote their favoured candidates has done little to solve the perpetual gridlock.

    The elections, I'll be so bold as to predict now, won't be decided at the ballot box on Sept. 30, but in the streets of Kyiv in the days that follow.

    The people I truly feel sad for are the 40 per cent of Ukrainians who are caught in the middle, badly disillusioned with both sides and fed up with the disputed elections and street theatre that have kept the country captive almost since the day it won independence 16 years ago.

    But with Moscow and Washington now openly antagonistic towards each other, Ukraine looks doomed once more to serve as their battleground.

    Saturday, August 11, 2007

    Good morning Guam?

    I got a chuckle a few days ago out of the latest display of the new Russian swagger - media reports that a pair of TU-95 long-range bombers flew some 5,120 kilometres to do an unannounced flyby of a major U.S. military exercise off the Pacific island of Guam:

    "Whenever we saw U.S. planes during our flights over the ocean, we greeted them," Air Force Major General Pavel Androsov told reporters. "On Wednesday, we renewed the tradition when our young pilots flew by Guam in two planes. We exchanged smiles with our counterparts, who flew up from a U.S. carrier and returned home."

    If it happened the way Androsov suggests, it would have been the first such Russian sortie since the end of the Cold War, and yet another major statement that Moscow is back playing on the global map. But then came this response from Washington:

    "We prepared to intercept the bombers but they did not come close enough to a US Navy ship or to the island of Guam to warrant an air-to-air intercept," a Pentagon spokesman said.

    So what really happened? My guess is we'll never know how close the Russian planes really got to Guam or what measures the American forces there took to counter the presumptive threat.

    What we do learn from this is that the propaganda machines of the Kremlin and the White House are already humming along, whether or not the war machines are "exchanging smiles."

    Tuesday, August 7, 2007

    Another act of war

    Count me among those unsurprised this morning when Georgia reported that a pair of Russian SU-24 fighter jets had entered Georgian airspace and fired a surface-to-air missile that landed near the town of Tsitelubani, outside Tbilisi. Thankfully it didn't explode - that's a picture of the crumpled dud at left.

    This is at least the fourth time in six years that Russia's air force has attacked Georgian territory. Five years ago (while I was in Georgia on a reporting trip) the cause was ostensibly to root out Chechen fighters holed up in the Pankisi Gorge. These days, (there was another attack, confirmed by the United Nations, back in March) the attacks seem linked to Russia's dissatisfaction with the American-supported President Mikhail Saakashvili and a broader problem the Kremlin has accepting the influence Washington now wields over the tiny ex-Soviet republic.

    In particular, Saakashvili has made no secret of his intention to bring the Russian-backed separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia back under Tbilisi's control. The March attack by Russian helicopters occurred in the Kodori Gorge, a part of Abkhazia still under Tbilisi's. Yesterday's attack happened near the informal border with South Ossetia. These attacks are very clear, if very clumsy, warning signals about the position Russia will take if Saakashvili pushes too hard.

    The Russian military, for the record, has denied the attack and said no Russian planes were anywhere near Tsitelubani. The South Ossetian separatist leader, meanwhile, has suggested that Georgia fired the missile at its own territory as part of a plan to discredit Russia. Given the history, I'll wait for the next UN report before I put much credibility in such the Russian air force's version of events.

    In the meantime, I'm beginning to sympathize more and more with something I previously didn't agree with - Saakashvili's quest to bring Russia into NATO.

    Russia back in the Mideast?

    Just days after planting the white-blue-and-red Russian flag under the ice of the North Pole, the Russian navy is planning another expansionist expedition.

    “The Mediterranean Sea is very important strategically for the Black Sea fleet,” the head of the Russian fleet Admiral Vladimir Masorin said last week as he toured the Russian base at the Ukrainian port city of Sevastopol. “I propose that, with the involvement of the Northern and Baltic fleets, the Russian Navy should restore its permanent presence there.”

    Russian military experts say the intent is to return warships to a Soviet-era naval base at the Syrian port of Tartus, which is still open though largely in disuse. (The base is said to currently consist of three floating docks - of which only one is operational - a floating workshop, storage facilities, barracks and other facilities.)

    Admiral Masorin's statement - reported prominently by the state-run RIA Novosti newswire, a sure sign he wasn't speaking strictly for himself - has caused major ruffles here in Jerusalem. Israel's mass-selling Yediot Aharonot newspaper's front-page headline yesterday was right out of the movie Red Dawn: "The Russians are coming."

    “A Russian flag on Syrian soil has significant strategic implications. Firstly, it challenges the US and the dominance of the Sixth Fleet stationed in the Mediterranean. Secondly, with its actual presence in Syria, Russia is announcing that it is actively participating in any process and conflict in the Middle East, that it has a stance of its own, and that it must be reckoned with,” the article read.

    It's not just the idea of a Russian fleet in Tartus that has the Jewish state and its American backers concerned. It's the wider pattern of Kremlin backing for those the U.S. and Israel consider to be enemies in the region.

    - Russia has continued to sell its technology to Tehran for use in in Iran’s controversial nuclear program.

    - Russia’s relations with Syria have warmed even as Washington has sought to isolate Damascus over its ties with Hezbollah and Hamas, as well as its alleged support for insurgents in Iraq. Two years ago, Moscow wrote off a nearly $10-billion Soviet-era debt owed to it by Syria. Now it’s reportedly in the midst of selling medium-range missiles and MiG-31 fighter planes to Damascus.

    - The Kremlin has also happily bucked the White House line when it comes to dealing with Hamas, the Islamist movement that recently seized control of the Gaza Strip from the American and Israeli-backed Fatah movement. "The level of relations with Russia is excellent," Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said recently.

    As I wrote in an article in today's The Globe and Mail, much of the motivation for backing Syria and Iran can be attributed to crass commercialism – there are few markets these days for Russian military hardware – the underlying policy increasingly appears to be that Russia supports whatever America is against, and will throw its lot in with anyone willing to stand up to U.S. hegemony.

    Sounds, uh, a little like the Cold War.

    Friday, August 3, 2007

    American cover for The New Cold War (and Publishers Weekly review)

    So my American publishers, Carroll & Graf, have chosen to go with a dramatically different cover for The New Cold War than the Canadian edition (shown on the top right-hand side of the blog), which was published by Random House.

    Any opinions on the new cover? Anyone want to take a stab about the differences in what publishers believe will grab an eye in the U.S. as opposed to Canada says about the differences in the two markets?

    While I'm self-promoting, here's what Publishers Weekly recently had to say about the book:

    MacKinnon, a former Moscow bureau chief for Toronto’s Globe and Mail, explores the theory and practice of “managed democracy” in this well-researched and engrossing investigation into post-Soviet politics. While Putin cements power in Russia by co-opting now independent neighboring countries, pro-democracy advocates—including the likes of George Soros, as well as familiar organizations like Freedom House—work with the American government to support Western-oriented movements and political parties in the region. Focusing on the Commonwealth of Independent States and other formerly Soviet-influenced states such as Serbia and Slovakia, MacKinnon chastises both democrats and authoritarians for their actions. While officially nonpartisan, Western organizations make no secret of their allegiances and goals, he shows. For example, the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation, which received extensive support from U.S. taxpayer-funded USAID during the Orange Revolution of 2004, is run by the wife of Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko. In a recent Ukrainian election, he notes, a number of foreign (mostly Canadian) poll watchers “had to be asked to remove orange Yushchenko scarves so as to at least maintain the appearance of neutrality.” MacKinnon’s provocative book will interest anyone concerned about the possibilities and shortcomings of democratic change and popular revolution.

    The release date for the American edition is Sept. 22, and soon afterwards I'll be doing a tour of Toronto, Boston, New York and Washington.

    The Canadian edition, of course, is already on bookshelves in Canada, and is also available at places like Amazon and

    Thursday, August 2, 2007

    Beslan questions linger

    As we approach the third anniversary of the massacre at Beslan's School No. 1, the same questions about why and how 365 people - nearly half of them children - died that fateful week back in September 2004.

    A new video (see it here, the link's on the left-hand side) published by the Beslan Mothers' Committee appears to show that the bloody climax was sparked not by an explosion inside the school, as the Kremlin has always claimed, but by shooting that originated outside the school.

    While the video isn't conclusive, there is audio of voices - identified by Russia's Kommersant newspaper as army engineers -examining the evidence and discussing what happened inside the gymnasium where most of the hostages were held until the final minutes. "Inside the building, there was no explosion," one of the men says.

    In the face of utter obfuscation from the Kremlin, you can see why the mothers of the dead children remain furious three years on.

    Covering the Beslan school siege was one of the toughest gigs, psychologically and otherwise, I ever did as a reporter. It's also one that landed me in deep trouble with the Kremlin for my coverage.

    That said, I think this one article in particular I did for The Globe and Mail stands the test of time. It was published a week after the siege ended:

    By Friday, the captors' mood had changed for the worse. 'We'll make a bloody mess of you.'

    BESLAN, RUSSIA -- Zinaida Urutskoyeva was awake for most of the second night she spent in the gymnasium at Middle School No. 1. It was hard to sleep on the cold floor, packed shoulder to shoulder with other hostages. But she remembers her short dream well.

    "I dreamed of having some water before I died," the Grade 3 teacher recalled. It was Friday, Sept. 3, and like most other hostages at Middle School No. 1, she had had nothing to eat or drink since Wednesday, the first day of the deadly siege.

    Dozens of people had already been killed -- most of them men who, survivors say, were the most physically fit and may have been considered a threat by the militants who seized the school. The remaining hostages had been reduced to drinking their own urine.

    But even after more than 40 hours of terror, the hostages now say, they could feel something different in the air on Friday morning. Their captors' collective mood had changed for the worse. They had become more hostile to the schoolchildren, teachers and parents they held at their mercy. For some reason, they seemed to know the police were going to make a move.

    "There will be a storm today. We'll make a bloody mess of you," one of the hostage-takers told those around him in the gym.

    The true story of the Beslan hostage-taking is chilling, gory and heart-rending. Survivors and witnesses tell stories of incredible suffering, inhuman cruelty and acts of individual bravery during the three days of hell that shocked the world and traumatized this tightly knit community.

    On several important points, their stories contrast sharply with the Kremlin's version of events.

    There is no confirmation of Arab involvement, despite the story the Russian government tells -- a tale backed by what is probably pressured testimony from the sole surviving hostage-taker. Nor is there information on the role played by "international terrorists," or about a motive other than forcing Russia to pull its troops out of Chechnya.

    Witnesses across a wide spectrum agree that the gunmen spoke Russian, even among themselves, and that most were either Chechens or ethnic Ingush from Ingushetia, a region not far from Beslan. Others may have been Slavic mercenaries.

    Even at this late date, the numbers of dead and missing don't add up. One ex-hostage died in hospital yesterday, bringing the official death toll to 360, including 30 hostage-takers. But journalists who were in the morgue in the chaotic first hours after the siege ended say they saw more than 400 bodies.

    The local Red Cross says about 200 families are still looking for their kin, but authorities say only 90 bodies are still to be identified.

    Not included in the count are 38 body fragments, which may increase the death toll.

    Survivors also cast doubt on the Kremlin's assertion that officials were actively seeking a negotiated end to the crisis. They say the hostage-takers frequently expressed frustration at not being able to get authorities to talk to them, and told the hostages they expected the police to storm the school at any minute.

    And they say their captors appeared to believe authorities were deliberately misleading the public about the number of hostages, in order to be able to lie about the number of dead if the drama ended badly. Officials said during the siege that there were 354 captives, but there were more than 1,200.

    The gunmen were annoyed at seeing the lower figure reported, recalled Margarita Komoyeva, a teacher who was huddled in the gym with her three daughters. "They told us that if the authorities are saying there's just this number of people inside, they will be storming -- get ready for the storm," she said.

    Even before sunrise on Friday morning, tension had begun to build. The previous day, the militants had released some of the youngest children and their mothers after a visit by the former president of Ingushetia, Ruslan Aushev. But shortly after 1 a.m. they fired a rocket-propelled grenade at government forces surrounding the school, injuring one police officer.

    Petrified hostages watched after daybreak as the gunmen began rearranging the explosives they had set up on the first day, placing more of them near the gym windows in apparent anticipation of an attack. They forced small boys to stand in the windows as human shields.

    Children who only a day before had been chanting for water sat in silence, sensing the new, more dangerous mood. Survivors recalled trying to inch closer to the exits, hoping to save themselves and their families from whatever came next.

    The siege leader was a man referred to by his followers as Colonel.

    Zara Medzeva, a 65-year-old grandmother, said she heard him speaking Russian as he used his mobile phone to call someone outside the building, apparently an official negotiator.

    The Colonel said: "We've done our part. We've done what was asked of us. What should we do now?" Ms. Medzeva recalled. He apparently didn't like the answer he received, because he slammed his phone down and shouted: "How long should we wait?"

    It was barely minutes after 1 p.m. when the bloodbath began. Exactly how it was triggered remains unclear.

    What is known is that negotiations suspended early in the morning were back on track. At 12:45 p.m. the hostage-takers agreed to let rescuers from the Ministry of Emergency Situations retrieve about 20 corpses that had been rotting in the sun since being thrown from a second-floor window early in the siege.

    As they approached the school, an explosion rocked the gym. Many hostages believe a mine suspended from a wire between two basketball hoops, attached only by tape, came unglued and fell into the crowd below. But no one seems to have seen this happen, and the story appears to be based on the fact that many of the hostages had stared at the hanging explosives for three days, worried they weren't firmly attached.

    In other accounts, a mine was set off when someone accidentally touched a foot pedal rigged as a detonator. In another version, floated by the Kremlin, the hostage-takers quarrelled just before the explosion, with one group wanting to escape while others planned to fight to the death.

    Whatever the cause, the explosion occurred on the west side of the gym. "When the first bomb exploded, it felt as though everything inside me were on fire," said Alik Sagolov, a 54-year-old physical-education teacher who was sitting perhaps 20 metres away. "I put my hand to my chest -- I thought my chest was injured. Then came the second explosion." A week afterward he popped heart medication as he walked through the ruins of the school. "I just said to myself 'God save me,' and covered my head."

    Soslan Beteyev, 12, was stationed by a window as a human shield when the shock wave hit him. "I was just about to step down from the window and there was an explosion, and I fell on some children," he said. "I tried to get up again and there was another explosion. There was panic and everybody tried to get out." He spoke so fast he was almost incomprehensible, his words spilling into each other without pauses, as if he had gone over it a million times in his head.

    Soslan climbed out a window and dashed across the courtyard to a store on the edge of the school property. He escaped, along with Ms. Komoyeva's two older daughters, who had been forced to stay behind when their mother was allowed to leave on Thursday with her youngest child.

    "They were shooting at our backs," Soslan said robotically. His arms and back were covered in tiny shrapnel wounds, but it was his mind that seemed to have suffered the most damage.

    Asked why he returned to the school, he broke into tears. "I don't know," he said. "I thought maybe I could help find some of the missing."

    The chaos spread outside the gym after the initial explosion. The hostage-takers, apparently believing it was the beginning of a police effort to storm the building, began firing on the emergency workers and then on hostages trying to escape.

    Security forces outside had ruled out using force to free the hostages, and had no set plan for seizing the building. But with the shooting, they decided they had no choice but to move in.

    "When they started killing civilians, there were no other options," said Vitaly, an Interior Ministry officer who was crouching behind a tree about 50 metres from the gym door when the order came. The operation, he said, was made up as it went along. "It was a total mess."

    After the second explosion, the remaining militants moved around the smoke-filled gymnasium looking for survivors. They rounded up everyone moving and took them down the hall to the school cafeteria, planning to make a final stand.

    Mr. Sagolov was one of several hostages who fled upstairs in the confusion and hid behind a curtain on the stage of the assembly hall. They were discovered and also taken to the cafeteria.

    "The terrorists were shouting 'hurry up -- walk quickly or we will kill you,' " said Ruslan Margiyev, a short-haired 12-year-year-old, who by this point was bleeding from a shrapnel wound to his hand. "But we were afraid to step on the corpses."

    Bullets were pouring into the cafeteria from outside, he said. He took cover behind an oven, but the hostage-takers ordered the children toward the window. "They said, 'if you do not wave a cloth in the window, we will kill all of you.' "

    One woman got up on her knees and was hit in the chest by two bullets fired from outside. Eight-year-old Zaur Bitsiyev, whom Ruslan recognized, was killed at the same time -- shot in the back by someone in the cafeteria.

    A Russian spetznaz, or special-forces officer, stepped through the window and told Ruslan to run. The officer was shot and killed by a Chechen who had been hiding in the kitchen, his body falling on top of the boy. Ruslan said he hid under the body until the shooting ended, protected by the soldier's bulletproof vest.

    Vitaly, the Interior Ministry officer, was among the first of the troops to reach the blackened shell of the gym. "I saw a sea of blood and corpses -- adults and children -- all over the gymnasium," he said, his husky voice dropping low. "Everything was burned. It was impossible to recognize anything."

    Mr. Aushev, the former Ingushetia president, said that even after the initial explosion, negotiations might still have worked if it hadn't been for well-armed local citizens -- many of them with family inside the building -- who decided to take matters into their own hands.

    Shortly after the first bomb went off, he spoke by telephone with the hostage-takers. He later told the Novaya Gazeta newspaper they were convinced the explosion was the beginning of a police operation to storm the building, but were willing to stop shooting if the Russian forces outside did the same.

    "They said, 'We have stopped shooting, you are shooting,' " he said. "We gave the command to stop the shooting. But a stupid 'third force' intervened . . . . Some militia with assault rifles decided to free the hostages themselves, and they opened fire at that school."

    Kazbek Torchinov, a former deputy in the local parliament, said that version of events fits with what he saw from the window of his home opposite the school. "Armed civilians opened fire first. I called the operations centre and said 'What the hell are you doing?' "

    None of the survivors saw Arabs for sure during the siege. Twelve-year-old Soslan said one man "might have been an Arab," but the rest were Chechens and Ingush and possibly some Russians and Ossetians.

    "They had Chechen and Ingush accents," Ms. Komoyeva recalled. "By appearance they were Chechens, but when Aushev came, we realized some were Ingush."

    Beyond ending the war between Russian troops and separatist forces in Chechnya, the only demand the hostage-takers made was for the release of 24 Chechen and Ingush fighters detained after a raid on Nazran, capital of Ingushetia, in June.

    The Kremlin's claim that 10 of the hostages were Arabs was repeated by President Vladimir Putin. But Prosecutor-General Vladimir Ustinov contradicted his bosses, saying no Arabs were among the corpses identified. Those whose names are known are Chechens and Ingush, apparently members of a unit led by notorious warlord Shamil Basayev -- a thorn in Russia's side for 10 years.

    Many in the region known as North Ossetia, where Beslan is located, are talking about taking revenge against the neighbouring Ingush as soon as the 40-day Orthodox Christian period of mourning is over. The Caucasus is often compared to the Balkans, Ossetians and Ingush are historical rivals, and fear is high that the Chechen war is about to be regionalized.

    But although Ms. Medzeva, the grandmother, would like to see the guilty punished, she is even more anxious to avoid a further wave of killing.

    "I wish I was dead and the small people were alive," she said through tears in the burnt-out gym, as a crowd of people listened, silent with sorrow. "But enough war. Enough bloodshed.

    "I will even come to peace with the man who held a gun to my head if it means this will not happen again."

    (The Globe and Mail; Saturday, Sept. 11, 2004)

    The race for the Arctic

    So Russia, already the world's biggest country, is planning to annex most of the Arctic as well.

    A Russian expedition headed by the Rossiya nuclear icebreaker reached the North Pole yesterday. The next step, we're told, is to send a pair of mini-submarines to the seabed to plant a Russian flag there. That could happen as early as today.

    It's the latest and boldest move to support a decades-old Russian claim to much of the Arctic and the rich stores of oil and natural gas believed to lie under the seabed there. The claim is based on a Russian conclusion that an underwater shelf known as the Lomonsov Ridge is in fact an extension of Russia's continental land mass.

    Each of the five countries that border the Arctic - Canada, Russia, the U.S. (via Alaska), Norway and Denmark (via Greenland) - has a 200-mile zone of control that stretches out from their northernmost tip of land. It's a formula that leaves most of the Arctic as international waters, under no country's sovereignty.

    The Russian argument, however, is that the Lomonsov Ridge, which runs right under the currently international section of the Arctic, is as Russian as St. Petersburg or Murmansk, meaning that its 200-mile zone-of control now includes much of the previously unclaimed parts of the Artic.

    If we needed any more proof that Vladimir Putin's Kremlin is expansionist, here it is. But on a more serious note, does the claim make any sense?

    Here's what Sergey Priamikov, the international co-operation director at the Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute in St Petersburg, told The Guardian:

    "Frankly I think it's a little bit strange," he said. "Canada could make exactly the same claim. The Canadians could say that the Lomonosov ridge is part of the Canadian shelf, which means Russia should in fact belong to Canada, together with the whole of Eurasia."

    In fact, Canada is making the same claim - at least as far as the Lomonsov Ridge and the resources beneath it - and Prime Minister Stephen Harper is scheduled to visit the Arctic next week.

    But might likely makes right in this case. While Russia has the technical capability to sail to the Arctic and plant a flag beneath it, Canada simply does not. There are only five submarines in the world that can descend to the Arctic seabed. Russia has two of them, Canada has none.

    That said, I'm hearing Canada may yet trump the Russians by asserting its sovereignty over all of Eurasia.

    Frankly, you should all start getting used to the taste of maple syrup on everything.

    See what the future looks like here, at one of my favourite websites, The Canadian World Domination General Headquarters.