English language blogs on Russia and the CIS suffered a major setback last week. After almost two years of providing news and commentary on all things Russia, Andy from siberianlight.net has called it quits. This is a loss for us all. There was some indication that this might happen when Andy took a short leave of absence to recharge. It was nice to see him return albeit briefly.
I only recently discovered siberianlight.net a few months ago while searching for blogs to link to this site. To my delight I found Andy’s site. It became an instant source of information and inspiration. For those who don’t know (and I doubt many reading this blog are unfamiliar with siberialight.net), Andy’s site provides probably the most comprehensive collection of links to Russian and English language blogs. Andy says that he will keep the site up for a while. This is good news because even if he won’t be making posts, it will serve as a vital resource.
Though I don’t know Andy personally, I want to thank him for his work. His kind mentions have pointed many readers to my blog. His posts were always opinionated, informative and balanced. To his credit he often commented on the quirky aspects of Russian life and news that seems to escape many blogs on Russia, including this one. Most amazing is that many of his posts were done with brevity, something that I myself can’t seem to master. I only hope that he reconsiders and finds the time and energy to start anew. Siberianlight.net will be sorely missed.
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As the leaders of the G8 meet in St. Petersburg to discuss energy policy, terrorism, Iran, and infectious diseases, hundreds of activists have gathered in the former Tsarist capital to protest the proceedings. St. Petersburg is no different than past gatherings of international organizations like the G8, IMF, World Bank, WTO or the World Economic Forum. For the past 10 years these meetings have been steadily met with people who see themselves as global citizens bent on challenging a political and economic order they see leaves little room for small “d” democracy.
St. Petersburg is also no different in how these protesters are treated by security and law enforcement. Gatherings are relegated to Kirov stadium on the outskirts of the city where the Russian Social Forum is to be held. Police have locked them in the stadium gates and have prevented activists from carrying their message beyond it. Protests are forbidden in the city center unless they have been approved by the state like the small Communist Party rally. The Russian police have carried out preemptive arrests and have jailed others on a whim. Estimates are that over 200 activists have been arrested.
Organizers expected all of this. They made no illusions as to a low turnout, hoping that at least 2000 activists would show. Visa restrictions, registration woes, costs, and just plain fear kept many away. By all accounts the numbers range in the hundreds. Russian authorities vowed to prevent the G8 from descending into the violence that erupted in Genoa in 2001. With all of this, some activists are surprised that they made it. Alex Kinzer, a 19-year-old activist who traveled from Perm by train, told Mosnews, “I’m surprised I even got here.”
There is a bit of comic irony in the fact that reports about the Russian police’s crackdown on protesters are followed by comments about the country’s antidemocratic practices in general. The methods that are being used in St. Petersburg—preemptive arrests and detention, restricting protests and protesters, caging them in, preventing foreign activists from entering the country—are not new in any way to anti-globalization activists. These weapons of state power have been employed against them for years now. Making Russian actions seem any different, or worse, than protests in the past, whether they were held in Western Europe, the United States, Asia, or Latin America, is laughable. The news coverage of the repression, though welcomed, is rather startling. One suspects that the portrayal of Russia as exception is perhaps a way to mask the rule. The methods to squash protest are as global as the protests themselves. To make Russia an exception in this case is to absolve the widespread and violent repression used against anti-globalization activists in general.
Many activists will argue that this oppression is the reason why the attendance in St. Petersburg is so low. They are right, but only partly. The use of force by the state does work. If it didn’t states wouldn’t use it. However, another reason why the attendance is so low is because the movement itself has waned since 2001. September 11 all but ended the movement in the United States, and to some extent in Europe. The War in Iraq further shifted activism away from global economics. And while attendance to the World Social Forum continues to grow, one wonders what kind of relevance it has at all except for a place were activists meet to debate, preach to the choir, train, and network amongst themselves. Much of the focus on issues of global economics rightly remains in the Global South. After all, they are disproportionately affected, and perhaps because of this, they have had the most success in pushing a populist agenda which has translated into state power. Without the Global South there would be no movement to speak of.
Until now the anti-globalization movement in Russia has been an uncertain force. The radical forces that normally attach themselves to the anti-globalization cause are small. A good sign is that they do seem to be growing. However, some are politically questionable as they embrace nationalism and authoritarianism as core beliefs. It also doesn’t help that Russia’s political opposition is fractured in a political climate where it faces state repression, electoral challenges and little public support.
Nothing showed this more than the Other Russia Conference which was held this week. The three political parties that actually have electoral support, Yabloko, the Communist Party, and the Union of Right, refused to attend. Those who did attend included a potpourri of the Russian political fringe: the National Bolsheviks, the Red Youth Vanguard, ex-Premier Mikhail Kasyanov (who incidentally got punched in the face by a member of the Eurasian Youth League), chess champion and presidential hopeful Gary Kasparov, and Viktor Anpilov of the Working Russia movement. This motley crew dubbed themselves “Russia’s real civil society,” a phrase commentator Sergei Roy took great umbrage to, opting to instead call the forum the “Lunatic Fringe Zoo.”
However much one may have sympathy for the conference, Roy does have a point. How seriously should such a forum be taken when even the real electoral opposition shuns it? It also doesn’t help that much of its funding came from Soros’s Open Society and the National Endowment for Democracy, thus heightening suspicion that the opposition is a CIA front. However paranoid this may sound, the Russians do have some reasons. Ukraine’s “Orange Revolution” received support from the same foundations. The latter outfit in particular is funded by the Untied States government. It also doesn’t help that the “Other Russia” was attended by such high profile neo-con figures as Daniel Fried, the US Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, and Barry Lowenkron, the Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. On Wednesday, Antiwar.com’s Justin Raimondo, didn’t hesitate to point out how utterly typical that an American outfit like the National Endowment for Democracy, whose slogan is “Spreading Freedom Around the World,” would fund a conference where a group like the National Bolshevik Party would attend. The NBP’s symbol of a black Soviet hammer and sickle on a Nazi flag melds the two of the 20th centuries most powerful, and violent authoritarian systems.
It is hard to take away anything positive from all this political theater. Every side seems to have been perfectly stage managed. Putin struts across the world stage showing Russia’s new found strength and assertions that Russian democracy will proceed on its own path. Yet when it comes to handling anti-globalization protests Russia’s path seems so similar to the path already practiced by many of the world’s model democracies. Then we have Bush’s challenge to Russian democracy easily swatted away with Putin remarking, “”Well, of course, we wouldn’t want the same kind of democracy as in Iraq, I’ll say that quite honestly.” Bush’s response, “Just wait.” What the hell is that supposed to mean!? Still, Bush stood firm and didn’t give his blessing to Russia’s entry into the WTO. However, they did agree on a deal that would allow American nuclear waste to be stored in Russia! Somehow that doesn’t help me sleep at night.
The big losers are probably the so-called Russian opposition and the anti-globalization movement. The movement not only revealed its weakness, it showed its irrelevance. There are no signs of any real opposition to the Putin’s handpicked successor and United Russia candidate in 2008. Not to mention any possibility of an “orange” anything. As for the anti-globalists, and I should say that I cast my ideological support with them, I’m still waiting for them to stand for something besides being against the nightmare we already have. Perhaps it is time to take a cue from the Global South and build a real movement in the North that doesn’t simply organize for the next big protest. Mass protest seems so late 1990s, amyway.
On second thought, the biggest losers of all are the residents of St. Petersburg. The place sounds like a prison. I’m sure anyone with half a brain fled to their dachas.Post Views: 460
Today, Human Rights Watch released their report on systematic torture in Chechnya. The report, “Widespread Torture in the Chechen Republic” serves as HRW brief to the 37th UN Commission Against Torture. None of its contents should be a surprise to anyone. Though the Chechen War has been officially declared over by the Russian Government, war continues by other means. Chechen rebels continue to target Russian forces. The most recent reported incident of Russian casualties was on Saturday, when two Russian soldiers were wounded when their vehicle hit a rebel landmine. Despite hopes that violence would abate with the killing of Shamil Basayev in July, many believe that Russia now faces a regrouped force of younger, harder, and even more fanatic jihadis.
For the Russian side, violence continues mostly via proxy. Since 2003, “Chechenization” has increasingly put efforts to eliminate Chechen rebels in the hands of Putin’s man in Grozny, Chechen Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov. According to HRW, since “anti-terrorist” operations came under Kadyrov command, secret detention, disappearances, and torture have become the norm, even overshadowing the methods of Russia’s Second Operational Investigative Bureau (ORB-2).
Torture and other forms of ill treatment by ORB-2 personnel appear aimed at coercing confessions from detainees, which then lead to fabricated criminal charges and court convictions. Kadyrovtsy, by contrast, resort to such treatment to secure incriminating information about rebel forces from detainees whom they subsequently release or force to join their ranks. They have also taken hostage and mistreated relatives of alleged rebel fighters.
This is exactly what Anna Politkovskaya’s last article documented, and HRW’s report now confirms.
In regard to ORB-2 tortures, one Sulim S., 29, told HRW in an interview:
For the first five days they kept me blindfolded. I did not know what they wanted. They kept saying, “We know that you know, and you know that we know!” and when I asked what I was supposed to know, they tortured me. They put a gas mask on my face and would cut the airflow until I started suffocating. They repeatedly gave me electric shocks—my head was swinging back and forth; one discharge went through my tongue, and my tongue got all swollen and was falling out of my mouth.
They beat me mercilessly. They put me against the wall with my legs spread apart and kicked me on my privates—I later saw that the entire area in between my thighs was all black from bruises. They pulled my pants down and threatened to rape me.
I kept telling them, “Just kill me!” but they said, “No, we won’t kill you right away—we’ll do it slowly, and we will also rip your brother apart.” I felt like during these interrogations I was dying over and over again, and they would revive me to continue. Finally, after they realized I could not come up with anything, they offered me three crimes to choose from—a bombing of a bus, a killing of two policemen or a killing of one woman. But I refused.
About a week after his detention, Sulim’s brother, Salambek was detained. He described similar torture at the hands of ORB-2:
The men started beating me while we were still in the car, but did not explain where they were taking me and why. Then they put me into a room, and told me to tell them “everything.” I thought they were referring to a short period of time in 1999 when I helped to dig trenches in the city along with everybody else, but they . . . said they were not interested in that—they wanted me to confess to bombings and killings. I said they must have mistaken me for someone else.
They attached wires to my fingers and ears, and started giving me electric shocks—I could not see the device, as they put a gasmask on my head, but heard the clicking sound. They pushed me against the wall and started beating me on the kidneys, and then threw me on the floor—I was lying on my stomach, and one of the men put his boot under my heart area, while [at the same time] another was sitting on my back. As other men pressed the pain zones on my legs I would twitch and the boot would press hard into my heart—I felt like my heart was stopping and couldn’t breathe.
They repeated these interrogations and beatings for several days, and then told me that if I did not confess, they would bring my wife and rape her in front of my eyes, and then do the same with me. They brought a club and said they would stick it up my ass.
I would rather die than be dishonored like that; it is just unthinkable in our culture—I told them I would confess to a bombing of a bus, and made up a story, coming up with the most unbelievable details. When I tried to take my confession back, they started torturing my brother in the adjacent cell, saying, ‘Do you hear? That’s your brother screaming.
The Kadyrovtsy’s methods show little difference. HRW documented 82 cases of torture committed by the Kadyrovtsy, 54 of which occurred in 2006 alone.
Take for example, the secret detention and torture of one Magomed M., 24.
Magomed M. told Human Rights Watch that Kadyrov’s forces brought him and the four other men to one of Kadyrov’s bases on the outskirts of the village of Tsentoroi. Personnel at first put them in a boiler room on the base, and soon thereafter the base commander took three of the detainees out to a nearby field for questioning. Magomed M. told Human Rights Watch:
“There were three or four personnel there—the same ones who brought us to the base. They kept asking about a rebel fighter from our area—they said we should know him since we are the same age. I knew nothing about the man, but they wouldn’t believe me. They kept kicking me and beating me with sticks; it lasted for five or six hours.”
Magomed M. said that he was taken out for questioning and severely beaten every day during his detention.
Relatives of the five detainees learned of their whereabouts through a contact in Kadyrov’s forces and managed to secure their release; four of the men were released the day following their detention, and Magomed M., several days later. “Before releasing me they warned me not to say a single word about my detention,” he told Human Rights Watch. “Otherwise, they said they would take me away again and I would disappear.”
After his release Magomed M. spent more than three weeks in a hospital, where he said doctors documented his injuries, including multiple hematomas on his body, kidney damage, and a concussion.
Thus the meat grinder of asymmetrical warfare continues unabated in Chechnya.Post Views: 350
No matter how many times he denies it, people keep asking Vladimir Putin if he will seek a third term. He was asked again during Wednesday’s “Hot Line with President of Russia Vladimir Putin”. A driver named Arkady Kokayev asked, “What will happen to us, to the country after 2008?” In addition to assurances that things will be fine after his term is over Putin said,
As for me personally, as I have said before, even though I like my work, the Constitution does not allow me to run for office three times in a row. But even once I no longer have my presidential powers, I think that without trying to shape the Constitution to fit my personal interests, I will be able to hold on to what is most important and most valuable for any politician, namely, your trust. And building on this trust we will work together with you in order to influence our country’s life, ensure that it follows a consistent path of development and have an impact on what happens in
So there you have it. Another denial that he will seek a third term. Though he maintains that his influence will still be felt.
The “Hot Line” is a fascinating event in and of itself; an event whose importance is too often quickly passed over. The switchboard received over a million calls from citizens asking Putin questions that ranged from the economy,
Russia’s future, , the murder of Anna Politkovskaya and issues regarding everyday life. It is one of the few instances where the mediation between leaders and led is reduced to a point that allows for a measure of unpredictability. Far more unpredictability than journalists’ questions seem to provide. It is one of the few instances when a leader is directly confronted with people’s personal grievances. Georgia
The process is also a long tradition in
. As Dmitry Babich noted on Russia Profile, the event upholds the idea of na?ve monarchism, where the leader appears to be on the side of the people against evil bureaucrats that try to ruin their lives. It maintains the leader as part of the “eternal good,” as Babich calls it. Russia
There are many instances of the “eternal good” in Russian history. When Alexander II emancipated the serfs, thousands of peasants sent petitions were to the Tsar claiming that landlords were defying the Tsar’s will to give them real and complete volia (freedom).
As one N. A. Krylov wrote about cause for the massacre of 55 peasants at Benza, Samara gubernia in 1861,
“Anton [Petrov, an Old Believer who claimed to discover true volia in the emancipation decree] sits in his hut at Bezdna looking at these naughts and smoothly reading out, “Land for the pomeshchik: the hills and the hollows, the ravines and the roads, the sandbanks and the reedbeds, and nor one twig of the forest. If he takes a step over the boundary of his land, drive him back with a kind word, and if he doesn’t obey—cut off his head and you will get a reward from the tsar.” The narod liked this kind of volia, and crowds came in from all sides to hear real volia. . . .Anton preached like this for five days in a row. Then he put abroad rumors that he had received a charter from the Tsar, read the Bible until he attained the power of prophecy, and, mixing the one and the other together preached, “. . . They [the landlords] are going to frighten you with troops, but don’t be afraid, no one dares to kill the orthodox people without the tsar’s order. And if the nobles distribute bribes [to the soldiers] and you are shot at, then get your axes and chop up those who disobey the tsar.” (D. Field, Rebels in the Name of the Tsar, 72)
For the peasantry, the tsar was on their side.
Things were no different in the Soviet period. Party leaders were inundated with letters asking for material and psychological help. Many of the complaints were about injustices perpetrated by Communist bureaucrats. Then, as now, the people turned to the “eternal good” for help even if the Kremlin was occupied by someone as heinous as Stalin. Believe it or not, if Stalin’s handwriting in the corners of letters, passing them to his officials for redress is any indication, sometimes the petitioners even got results to their favor.
One can easily pass this off as PR to keep up the image that the leader cares for the people. And though it is certainly true, I think that explanation is too simple. It also says something about what the “people” expect from their leaders, and how they feel they have a right to have those expectations met.
I wouldn’t call this mentality a sign of “formal” democracy. The fact that citizens feel the only avenue to redress is to appeal directly to the top suggests that the institutions that mediate them are untrustworthy, ineffective or wholly corrupt. But it is a form of “informal” democracy because Russians feel that their leaders have a responsibility to the people and the people have a right to demand redress from their leaders. This mentality may be na?ve monarchism personified, but the last two times Russians lost faith in the “eternal good,” they brought the whole system crashing down.Post Views: 494