I have no idea what to make of this report. That is except that this whole affair is getting stranger and stranger . . . and if true, scarier and scarier.
By Cahal Milmo, Peter Popham and Jason Bennetto
Published: 29 November 2006
Alexander Litvinenko, the poisoned former Russian agent, told the Italian academic he met on the day he fell ill that he had organised the smuggling of nuclear material out of Russia for his security service employers.
Mario Scaramella, who flew into London yesterday to be interviewed by Scotland Yard officers investigating Mr Litvinenko’s death, said Mr Litvinenko told him about the operation for the FSB security service, the successor to the KGB.
Police said that Mr Scaramella, who met Mr Litvinenko at a sushi bar in London on 1 November to discuss a death threat aimed at both of them, was a potential witness. He was being interviewed at a “secure location” in London but was not in custody.
The Health Protection Agency said that eight people had been referred to a clinic in London for tests for exposure to polonium-210, the radioactive substance that killed Mr Litvinenko. It declined to say whether Mr Scaramella was among them.
A post-mortem examination will be carried out on Mr Litvinenko on Friday.
In an interview with The Independent shortly after the poisoning became public, Mr Scaramella said that Mr Litvinenko, a friend and professional contact since 2001, told him he had masterminded the smuggling of radioactive material to Zurich in 2000. There have long been concerns that turmoil in Russia and other former Soviet states after the fall of Communism created an international black market in radioactive substances.
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By Sean — 12 years ago
Reporters Without Borders has released its annual index on worldwide press freedom. The questionnaire the group used to calculate the index can be found here. According to the report Russia ranks 147th, where it is sandwiched between Singapore and Tunisia. Last year, Russia was ranked 138th. RWB explains the reason for the drop as follows:
Russia, which suffers from a basic lack of democracy, continues slowly but steadily dismantling the free media, with industrial groups close to President Vladimir Putin buying up nearly all independent media outlets and with passage of a law discouraging NGO activity.
Each year several journalists are murdered in Russia with complete impunity. The person who ordered the July 2004 killing in Moscow of Paul Klebnikov, editor of the Russian edition of Forbes magazine, remains publicly unknown. The murder of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya in early October 2006 is a poor omen for the coming year.
When put into context, the decline in the free press in Russia is symbolic of a global phenomenon. The index also notes that even traditionally high ranked countries like France, the United States, and Japan has seen press freedom deteriorate. Since 2002, when the ranking was created, the US has fallen from 17th to its current position of 53rd. It dropped seven ranks in the last year. RWB explains the drop in the US as a result of, “Relations between the media and the Bush administration sharply deteriorated after the president used the pretext of “national security” to regard as suspicious any journalist who questioned his “war on terrorism.”
France has dropped a whopping 24 places in the last five years to its current position of 35th. French journalists have been victims of increasing police searches and violence. Japan, which has fallen 14 places to 51st, has seen the press under increasing verbally and physically attacked by nationalist forces.
The main culprits for the deterioration of press freedom aren’t surprising: war, nationalism, state censorship, and political and economic instability all contribute to a climate where journalists craft becomes dangerous.Post Views: 340
By Sean — 11 years ago
Despite the sharp differences and disagreements Kim Zigfield and I have had over Russia and its nature, I have to give credit where credit is due. I highly recommend reading La Russophobe’s translation of Igor Korolkov’s article “Spare Organs” published in Novaya Gazeta. The original Russian version can be found here.
It’s a chilling tale of the impact of quasi-autonomous police organs that carry out extra-judicial reprisals grew out of the chaos of the 1990s. Now it seems that these “organs” are beyond control and even containment. Originally created in the early in mid-1990s to protect “state security,” these “gangs,” as Korolkov calls them, could literally embody blowback against the very state, law, and security, and order they were supposedly to “secure.” One leaves this article wondering what role these extra-judicial organizations area already playing in Russia in regard to the 2008 Presidential election.
Heavy stuff indeed.Post Views: 566
By Sean — 12 years ago
The Italian Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci wrote that hegemony is exercised through the combination of force and consent. Ideally, rule by consent is preferred, though force is always waiting in the wings. Gramsci, however, mentioned a third form of rule, one that is often skipped over because it is buried in a footnote of his classic essay “Notes on Italian History.” That third is rule by corruption and fraud. “Between consent and force,” he wrote, “stands corruption/fraud. This consists in procuring the demoralization and paralysis of the antagonist (or antagonists) by buying its leaders—either covertly, or, in cases of imminent danger, openly—in order to sow disarray and confusion in his ranks.”
It would be beneficial to keep rule through corruption and fraud in mind when thinking about the nature of the Russian state. In many ways, it is not a traditional liberal state with independent branches of government, though it professes itself to be as such. It is also not a state solely based on vertical flows of power. While one may view Putin’s centralization of power as a sign of the state rotating on a singular axis, this view is more a mystification than anything else. To be sure, Putin specifically and Russia in general would like to be perceived as a unipolar state. The ubiquity of photos of Putin personally meeting with officials strives to reproduce a common theme in Russian history: a strong, competent Tsar at the center who subordinates his functionaries for the safety and benefit of the people.
But Putin’s photo ops also engender another interpretation. Putin must personally meet with his functionaries because he can’t trust the state apparatus to run itself. It is and can only be held together through a widespread network of personal connections. Therefore, I would argue that the Russian state is a network state where power is located in concentric circles that are held together by an axis personified by Putin himself. The words “held together” need to be emphasized here. The figure of Putin is not so much for benefit of himself, but more for the benefit of the rulers of the fiefdoms that make up the circles. Putin keeps the peace. He prevents the competing power centers from killing themselves.
This geography of the Russian state has its social manifestation in corruption. Much of this corruption is illegal in that it violates Russian law; some of it is not. However, it is ubiquitous because it is socially legitimized. Corruption gets its legitimacy because the ruling classes rule through personal connections, clans, and networks. As Owen Mathews writes in an article in Newsweek called “The New Feudalism,”
These days, any transaction of value—from getting your kid into university, to arranging visits to doctors, to starting a business—depends upon the whims of the king, his knights in the Kremlin or the legions of vassals who live off their patronage and in turn pay them tribute. From the mightiest oligarch to the lowliest common citizen, every aspect of every Russian’s life—their right to a home, their car or work—increasingly presupposes some form of crooked relationship with the state and its servants.
While I think Owen overstates the issue by implying a straight line from the Kremlin down to its lowliest municipal servant, in a sense he is right. The problem is that corruption in Russia mostly appears benign. There is a saying there, “?????? ?? ????????,” or “forbidden but possible.” Combining two seemingly contradictory worlds captures the essence of corruption. And that corruption is not necessarily located in monetary bribes. There is a recognition in Russia that “?????? ?????,” or “personal connections” open doors, get things done, thereby making the forbidden possible. This doesn’t mean that personal connections are rooted in illegality. It merely functions according to long standing traditions of customary law which in the flow of everyday life trump juridical law.
Being a friend of a friend matters. As a Russian researcher explained to me the other day, “You can’t survive in Russia with just your immediate family. Therefore you have to make your family larger. When a person climbs the economic or social ladder, the rest, the “?????,” has an interest in that person too. Your benefit is also theirs.” Though ???? (pull or influence) is becoming increasingly monetarized, as you go up the class ladder, the connections widen. It is trickle down economics ?? ??????????? (that is person to person)
My own experience in this has been minor though rewarding. I’m too small of a fish to be privy to any real corruption. Since I tend to have good relations with archivists (or know people who do), my orders get filled quicker than others, I am warmly greeted when I arrive, and sometimes I get privileges that others don’t, namely working in the archive when it is closed for others, discounts on photocopying, and other advantages when they stretch the rule.
It also would be wrong to charge that blat is immoral or corrupt. As one observer Alena Ledeneva quotes in her book, Russia’s Economy of Favours:
“You of course will think that . . . the behavior of [the] Homososes [that is Homo Sovieticus—Sean] in such a situation is amoral. But we look at it differently. It is easy to be moral if you live in conditions which do not force you into morally reprehensible actions. You are well fed and clothed; you have a nice house with books and other ways of enjoying yourselves. And it seems to you that to be moral is natural and not in the least bit difficult . . . Everything is simple and clear cut. But if a man finds himself below the bread line, beneath the minimum that is indispensable if morals are to be considered applicable in real life, then it is senseless to apply moral criteria to his behavior. A man in such a position is not only freed ipse facto from normal norms; he is freed from them by these moral concepts themselves. It is immoral to expect a man to be moral if he lacks the minimum living conditions that permit society to demand morality from him . . . Homososes are born, are educated and live in such conditions that it is just ridiculous to accuse them of immorality.”
While this quote was from the Soviet period, I think it still can be applied today in terms of how blat is understood by its practitioners. It does however raise the question that if Russia is structured around a multiplicity of personal networks, does that necessarily make the Russian state feudal as Owen suggests?
Forgetting the fact that Owen doesn’t provide a definition of feudal in his article, to suggest that Russia is also implies that it is a) not modern, and b) states based on the rule of law are devoid of such corruption. The latter is rather easy to dismiss. Most liberal states have a measure of corruption and personal connections that make them work. Liberal blat exists up and down the social food chain in various degrees. More doors open when you know someone than when you don’t. The difference between Russia and liberal states is one of quantity than quality.
Still, at some point quantity becomes quality. The social and cultural importance of connections in Russia suggest that there is a qualitative difference between how things are done there than in liberal societies. This is where the issue of modern comes in. Liberal states became “modern,” the argument goes, by eliminating the importance of personal connections, and by extension corruption by establishing the rule of law. On a cultural level most citizens in liberal states believe, rightly or wrongly, that the law stands above society. In Russia, however, the law is understood by most as merely a tool of the powerful. In this way, many observers place Russia next to “third world” countries in Latin America, Africa, and Asia rather than in the modern pantheon of the West.
It seems that the Economist shares this latter point. Citing the Transparency International’s “corruption perceptions index”, it reports that “Russia has fallen to rank alongside Niger, Sierra Leone and Albania. A recent survey by Indem, a Russian think-tank, found an enormous hike, since 2001, in the number and size of bribes given by young men and their families to avoid conscription and, relatedly, in those paid to get into universities. (Fixing a court case, Indem found, has got a bit cheaper.)”
All of this reflects on the nature of the Russia state. From the upper circles of the Russian state to the lowest rungs of society, Russians can only rely on others in their circle for mutual aid. That means that the institutions that the Russian state provide: security, legal recourse, social welfare, education, and more importantly stable rule, gives way to a system that is inherently centralized but at the same time dispersed. The result produces what the historian Alfred Rieber said of Alexander II, a managerial tsar that keeps the warring clans from eating themselves. The “autocrat,” therefore, finds himself not in hegemonic control, but constantly playing a careful game of placating the powerful whose patronage allows him to rule in the first place.Post Views: 582