With Russia, Fight Fire With Fire

Posted March 14th, 2014 at 7:31 pm (UTC+0)
18 comments

A worker puts up a poster that reads, "Together with Russia" in Simferopol.

A worker puts up a poster that reads, “Together with Russia” in Simferopol, Ukraine.


Vladimir Putin is right.

The West has interfered massively in Ukraine.

Let me explain.

Last year, about 15 percent of Russian adults traveled outside the former Soviet Union.

By contrast, about one third of Ukrainians between ages of 20 and 50 have traveled to Western Europe – to work.

That is the difference between peeling off a 10 Euro note to pay for a caffe latte in Prague, and waiting tables for tips in a Czech coffee shop. Or hailing a cab in Vienna, and cruising for fares in Vienna. Or enjoying a modern shopping center in Berlin, and building it.

When residents of Moscow, capital of Saudi Arabia of the North, sneer that all the EU offers the Ukraine are jobs as bellhops, chamber maids and construction workers, many Ukrainians respond – fine, that is a start.  As a former bellhop in a Swiss hotel (Hotel Elite, Bienne, 1974), I wholeheartedly agree with them.

Since the Berlin Wall fell, Ukrainians have watched the economy of neighboring Poland increase four fold, while Ukraine’s economy flat lined for a generation. The difference?  Poland joined the EU and got a massive influx of capital from neighboring Germany. Ukraine suffered under a generation of misrule (including by Saintly Yulia Tymoshenko). Oligarchs created monopolies and then drained billions out of Ukraine.  Labor followed this capital outflow to the West.

So Ukrainians have lived and worked in the European Union. Unlike Russian tourists, they have not skated over the surface, skipping from Florence to Barcelona to the Riviera. Ukrainians like what they saw, starting with the rule of law.

Russian soldiers march through Crimea's capital Simferopol, the day before Crimeans were to vote on joining Russia. Photo: Reuters

Russian soldiers march through Crimea’s capital Simferopol, the day before Crimeans were to vote on joining Russia. Photo: Reuters

In short, Russia has lost the hearts and minds of the majority of Ukrainians to the West. They are not coming back.

A realist, Putin now settles for second best – destabilizing Ukraine by laboring to exacerbate linguistic and ethnic tensions.

The Kremlin’s strategy is to surround itself with weak and divided states. Ever wonder why there is no solution in sight for Moldova’s breakaway region of TransDniester Republic? For Georgia’s secessionist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia? For the Azeri-Armenian dispute over Nagorno Karabagh?

Very simple: the EU and NATO will not accept as members countries with territorial disputes. So now, Ukraine joins the list of former Soviet republics kept weakened and on the defensive by Kremlin policy.

Crimea exemplifies a zero sum view of the world that Russian foreign policy makers have adopted without much change from their Soviet predecessors. If you are up, I am down. If I am up, you are down.

In North American terms, Russia’s work in Crimea would be comparable to Washington fomenting separatism in Quebec to split up and weaken Canada, or funding rebellion in southern Mexico, to put Mexico on the defensive. Instead, the American people and their policy makers believe that the successes of Canada and Mexico are pluses for the United States. Hence the North American Free Trade Agreement, a voluntary association of democracies that, like the European Union, is designed to raise all boats.

Which leads to Putin’s Eurasian Union, a Moscow-led Dictators ‘R Us club.  Maybe after gobbling up Crimea, Putin will grab parts of Eastern Ukraine and create a rump Ukrainian state that can bring Ukraine’s industrial heartland into the Eurasian Union. Inside Russia, Putin tighten controls on the press and on the dwindling right to protest. Russia is becoming a big Belarus. The last thing Putin’s authoritarian regime wants is a Slavic success story on its Western border – a thriving democratic Ukraine.

Watch the imposition of Putinism in Crimea: the independent press is shut down, YouTube videos show masked men beating up journalists, and pro-Ukraine rallies are broken up. Sunday’s plebiscite on the future of Crimea looks like a modern version of the various post war votes in Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia that “endorsed” forced transitions to communism.

After 7.5 years living in Moscow, my conclusion is that the only language the Kremlin understands is the credible threat of force.

It is no accident that Russian was not the foreign language taught on the eastern bank of the English Channel from 1950 to 1990.  Boring, but true, it was NATO that stopped Moscow’s expansion westward. Without the credible threat of counterforce, a stop sign is just an annoyance to a Russian tank. Just look at Crimea.  Today, were it not for NATO, the Russian bear would sneeze and blow the democracies of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania into the Baltic Sea.

As a New Englander, I know that good fences make good neighbors, (See Robert Frost poem). But the Russian people largely inhabit a large plain, with few mountain ranges (fences) to protect them. Over the centuries, Russia’s borders have expanded and contracted like an amoeba.

With Russia’s occupation of Crimea, a new chapter opens in the relations between Russia and the West.

Farewell

Jim Brooke at Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

Jim Brooke at Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

I am leaving to others more eloquent than I to chronicle this new chapter.

I write these lines while on vacation in Mae Sot, Thailand, on the Burmese border.

On March 17, I start a new job, as editor-in-chief of The Cambodia Daily, a privately owned newspaper printed in English and Khmer, with an editorial staff of 50. So I am trading Moscow for the Mekong. My best wishes to all my readers of the last three years!

Jim Brooke in Yangon. Based in Phnom Penh, Brooke will also work as editor in chief of The Burma Daily, a new website.

Jim Brooke in Yangon. Based in Phnom Penh, Brooke will also work as editor in chief of The Burma Daily, a new website.

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

Russia’s Occupation of Crimea: Blueprint for Eastern Ukraine?

Posted March 4th, 2014 at 8:14 am (UTC+0)
6 comments

Russian soldiers on the march in Crimea. Stop signs only work if there is credible fear of a fine. Photo: Reuters/Baz Ratner

Russian soldiers on the march in Crimea. Stop signs only work if there is fear of a fine. Photo: Reuters/Baz Ratner

After the Sochi Winter Olympics, Vladimir Putin has won a gold in the Occupation Olympics. They are being held in Crimea, just across the Black Sea from Sochi.

Putin managed to seize Crimea without firing a shot. Not bad for taking over a population of 2 million people living on a peninsula slightly larger than Israel.

Will the Kremlin’s stealth blitzkrieg on Crimea now serve as a model for Putin to grab juicy chunks of Russian-speaking Eastern Ukraine, like the cities of Donetsk and Kharkiv?

Or has Monday’s dramatic 11 percent fall in Moscow’s stock market clipped the claws of the Russian bear?

Russia’s velvet glove invasion of Crimea displayed the same kind of ‘New Russia’ organizational expertise that we saw at the Sochi Olympics.

Here is the blow by blow:

First, armed men burst into Crimea’s parliament and forced legislators to vote for a new prime minister behind closed doors. Voting with guns in the room, this rump parliament elected a politician whose Russia Unity party had won three seats out 100 in Crimea’s last regional election.

With that democratic fig leaf in place, an incident was fabricated – a nighttime attack on the police headquarters in Crimea’s capital. The only problem: no neighbors heard shots, and no damage was shown to reporters.

Ukrainian soldiers wait inside the gates of their base Perevolnoye, Crimea, which was surrounded Sunday by 400 Russian soldiers and four Russian armored personnel carriers. Photo:AP/Darko Vojinovic

Ukrainian soldiers wait inside the gates of their base Perevolnoye, Crimea, which was surrounded Sunday by 400 Russian soldiers and four Russian armored personnel carriers. Photo:AP/Darko Vojinovic

In response to that phony incident, Putin’s soldiers fanned out across Crimea, ostensibly to protect Russian-speakers — although none had been hurt. In an expertly choreographed operation, Russian soldiers surrounded all Ukrainian military bases, blockaded all ports and airports, and set up checkpoints with Russian flags on the two highways linking Crimea with the continent.

Although 13,000 Russian troops are believed to now be in Crimea, they all work in uniforms stripped in advance of insignia. Also indicative of the high level of planning, there were no reports of the foreign troops getting lost and asking for directions.

In the east, across a five kilometer strait from the Crimean city of Kerch, a column of Russian armored vehicles is reportedly massed at a Russian ferry landing. On Monday, Prime Minister Medvedev ordered a state construction company to start work on a $3 billion bridge across Kerch Strait, still an international waterway.

Oddly, as recently as Friday, Dmitri Trenin, director of Carnegie Moscow Center, was telling Western reporters that Putin was merely reacting to events, struggling to keep up. In reality, the invasion of Crimea followed a meticulously planned political-military blueprint. Crimea 2014 borrows a bit from Hungary 1956, a bit from Czechoslovakia 1968, and a bit from Afghanistan 1979

The occupation of Crimea is not the work of a rogue, hysterical admiral at the Russian Navy base in Sevastopol. Instead, a disciplined, unbroken chain of command runs straight back to the Kremlin.

For years, Russia prepared the political ground, bankrolling pro-Russian parties and associations in Crimea. Just last month, Vladislav Surkov, a top Kremlin political strategist, visited the peninsula. The new mayor of Sevastopol is a Russian citizen. Within hours of the arrival of Russian troops, crisp new Russian flags mysteriously erupted across Crimea, a strange sight in a region controlled by Ukraine since 1954.

Indeed after 70 years of control by Ukraine, it is unclear how many of Crimea’s Russian speakers really switched national allegiances overnight.

Germany's 1938 annexation of German-speaking Austria, the Anschluss, was also greeted with smiles and the dismantling of border posts. Photo: Scherl

Germany’s 1938 annexation of German-speaking Austria, the Anschluss, was also greeted with smiles and the dismantling of border posts. Photo: Scherl

I have been to Crimea several times over the last seven years, visiting Yalta, Simferopol, Balaklava, and the Russian navy base city of Sevastopol. In Sevastopol, I talked to many people who were hostile toward Kyiv and the forced adoption of the Ukrainian language in schools. But it is unclear if Sevastopol residents speak for the 85 percent of Crimeans whose lives are not connected to this navy base city. Only 4 percent of Crimea’s population are believed to hold Russian passports.

My bet is that invasion opponents are lying low, waiting to express their views in the debate prior to a March 30 referendum on the peninsula’s future status. The choice: independence, continued autonomy within Ukraine, or absorption into Russia.

There is nothing terribly revolutionary about such a vote. The US territory of Puerto Rico, a former Spanish colony in the Caribbean, has held three such plebiscites since 1993. Scotland and Catalonia have similar votes planned.

But the Crimea vote will probably take place with the peninsula occupied by troops from Russia, a country where blatant ballot rigging in 2011 elections sparked massive public protest.

To have any credibility, Crimea’s poll will have to be overseen by international observers with serious democratic credentials. If the vote is rubber stamped by observers from Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia, the outside world will just laugh it off.

For now on Crimea, Ukrainian soldiers and Russian-speaking Ukrainian civilians are restraining themselves. Presumably, they want to avoid a shooting war between two Slavic Orthodox Christian peoples. But Kyiv’s government repeated this week that Crimea belongs to Ukraine. Ukrainian flags fly over many government buildings in Crimea. If a political solution is not found, anti-Russian guerrilla actions may follow.

The wild card in Crimea are the Tatars. This Muslim, Turkic speaking group accounts for 15 percent of the peninsula’s population. Crimean Tatars have big grudges against Russia.

Catherine the Great annexed Crimea in 1783, ending an independent Crimean Khanate. During 135 years under the Czars, relations between Tatars and Russians were often poor. But under the Soviets, they were disastrous. Civil war, famine and deportation cut the Crimean Tatar population in half.

The Crimean War of 1853-56 became a big power confrontation resulting in 500,000 dead soldiers from Russia, Turkey, France, and Britain and Italy Here, Turkish soldiers storm a Russian fort.

The Crimean War of 1853-56 became a big power confrontation resulting in 500,000 dead soldiers from Russia, Turkey, France, Britain and Italy. Here, Turkish soldiers storm a Russian fort.

In 1944, Stalin deported all Crimean Tatars to Central Asia.

That same year, he deported all of Russia’s Chechens to Central Asia.

We know the legacy of Chechen bitterness: two wars since 1991 against Russian rule.

How Putin would respond to violent anti-Russian resistance by Crimean Tatars? With the scorched earth anti-Chechen policies of the first Putin presidency? Or the waterfall of rubles for Chechnya of the second Putin presidency?

Mustafa Dzhemilev, a former Soviet gulag prisoner and leader of the Crimean Tatars, reacted to Russia’s March 1 invasion by writing: Crimean Tatars “will fight. Even if we have to physically fight the usurpers. Units of Crimean Tatars who are battle-ready are being formed now.”

And here, geopolitics come into play. Putin said Tuesday that his goal is not to annex Crimea. But if he sets up a puppet republic, like Georgia’s Abkhazia, he will be stripping Ukraine of much its coastline and boldly asserting that the Black Sea is a Russian lake.

But, how would Turkey see the expansion of Russia’s coastline and territorial waters by 1,000 kilometers? Probably not well. Especially, if it comes with curbs on Crimea’s Tatars, Turkey ethnic and linguistic cousins. The Crimean Tatar diaspora has an influential lobby in Ankara.

For two centuries – from 1676 to 1878 – Russia fought 12 wars with Turkey over Black Sea real estate. The Crimean War of 1853-1856 drew France and Britain to the side of the Turks. Today, European powers are not threatening military action over Crimea. But from the point of view of Turkey, a NATO member, Kremlin control of Crimea would shift a balance of power that has existed in the Black Sea for a generation.

If Russia does not handle Crimea’s Tatars and Turkey with real diplomacy, Turkey can retaliate by blocking Russia’s oil shipments through the Bosphorus. About one third of Russia’s oil exports pass through that strategic choke point.

So what started as a smooth occupation of Crimea, could get quite messy, quite fast.

And how did the last Crimean War end in 1856?
Russia lost to an alliance of Turkey and the West.

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

Will Russia’s Putin Try To Split Crimea from Ukraine?

Posted February 22nd, 2014 at 6:38 pm (UTC+0)
31 comments

President Putin skipped this on Thursday night: Russia's Adelina Sotnikova celebrates after winning the women's figure skating event. Photo/ AP

Putin missed this Thursday night: Russia’s Adelina Sotnikova celebrates after winning the women’s figure skating event. Photo/ AP

Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych has fled the nation’s capital, taking refuge in Crimea, a region where politicians increasingly call for annexation by Russia.

Separately, two leading Russian politicians met with hundreds of politicians from Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine. At the meeting, one speaker called for “self-defense units” to block revolutionaries from Kyiv if they try to move on Eastern Ukraine.

On Saturday, Rossiya 24 broadcast an interview with Russian nationalist Alexander Dugin who said Russia should protect Crimea and Eastern Ukraine “with tanks.”

Will Europe’s largest nation split up?

Will Crimea break away from Ukraine and return to Russia, its historical ruler?

If Ukraine cracks, will it be peaceful, the way Czechoslovakia split in 1993? Or will it be bloody, the way Yugoslovia did in slow motion in the 1990s?

A lot depends on Russia’s President Vladimir Putin.

Russia’s president returned to Sochi for the closing ceremony of his $51 billion pride and joy, the Winter Olympics.

President Putin left his Olympics to return to Moscow to preside on Friday over Security Council meeting on Ukraine. Photo: Alexei Druzhinin, Presidential Press Service

President Putin skips his Olympics to return to Moscow to preside on Friday over Security Council meeting on Ukraine. Photo: Alexei Druzhinin, Presidential Press Service


Putin is probably furious that after seven years of Olympic preparations, Yanukovych bumbled, cracked down, killed almost 100 people, and then lost control of the nation.

Instead of the world watching the New Russia — hockey games and figure skaters in Sochi — world television viewers are watching journalists and Ukrainian citizens tour a gaudy mansion abandoned by Yanukovych in Kyiv.

But Putin is cold and calculating, one of the world’s most astute geo-strategists. Last week, he skipped watching a young Russian woman win a gold medal in figure skating. He was back in Moscow Friday preparing to lead a meeting of his Security Council, about Ukraine.

What will Putin do?

In the past, Putin has stated publicly what many Russians think privately: that Ukraine is not a nation.

Past Russian leaders have seen Ukraine as an economic colony and as a security buffer zone. It slowed down invaders from Europe. Today, Russia’s navy base in Crimea at Sevastopol projects power into the Black Sea and on to the Mediterranean.

So in a replay of Soviet history, we might soon hear calls for “fraternal assistance” from political leaders in Crimea and eastern Ukraine who want Russian peacekeepers to protect them.

Six years ago, Putin got unending flak for directing his military to cut Georgia in half while he was at the Beijing Summer Olympics.

Russia's nightmare: Rebels ride atop a confiscated military truck in central Kyiv on Feb. 22. Will they next head East to confront Yanukovych supporters? AP Photo: Darko Bandic

Protesters ride atop a confiscated military truck, in central Kyiv on Feb. 22. Will they next head East to confront Yanukovych supporters? AP Photo: Darko Bandic

On Monday morning, the Winter Olympics are over. Don’t be surprised if the Olympic host stops playing Mr. Nice Guy. The Kremlin has prepared the ground for a possible “peacekeeping” option.

I was in Georgia the week before Russia’s invasion on Aug. 8, 2008. The parallels between that situation and the current crisis in Ukraine are crystal clear.

The Sunday before the Georgia-Russia war, Russian state TV gave hysterical coverage of the evacuation of women and children from South Ossetia to Russia. Hysterical because the Russian TV reporter seemed to be on the verge of a heart attack. In contrast, the women and children boarding buses were as relaxed as if they were going to summer camp.

Similarly, Russian government TV is now in overdrive telling viewers that Ukrainian nationalists are neo-Nazi bandits paid and manipulated by the West. At the same time, the Kremlin is restricting dissident voices – TV channel Dozhd, Ria Novosti news service and Echo Moskvi radio.

And while Russia’s state-controlled media replace their portrayal of Ukrainians as Slavic brothers to with criticism of Western puppets, Russia distributes Russian passports in Crimea. This also was done in the region’s three Russian-speaking separatist enclaves that are now controlled by Russian “peacekeeping troops” – Moldova’s TransDniester and Georgia’s Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

If the Kremlin tries to engineer Crimea’s secession, it would fit with Russia’s divide and control policy toward its immediate neighbors.

Rather than seeking outright Soviet-style administration, the Kremlin prefers to be surrounded by neighbors that are weakened by separatist conflict. Not coincidentally, a new pan-Russian group called “Rusintern” was formed last week in Moscow. In an echo of the Comintern of the 1920s – the Communist International – its slogan is “Russians of the world unite.” Rusintern supports pro-Kremlin groups in the Baltics and Ukraine.

Last year, I visited three of these secessionist statelets – Abkhazia, TransDniester and Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous corner of Azerbaijan controlled by ethnic Armenians. One factor unites all three: ethnic homogeneity, achieved through violence and ethnic cleansing.

And that will be the rub for Russia in Ukraine.

In Crimea, 10 percent of the population are Crimean Tatars. Largely Muslim, they are dead set opposed to any return to rule by Moscow. During the first half of the 20th century, Moscow nearly wiped out the Crimean Tatar population through famine, war and mass deportations.

There is a second factor that would make any Russian “peacekeeping” in Ukraine more difficult: Russia’s Soviet-educated leaders do not understand that in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, many Russian-speaking Ukrainians do not want to be Russians.

Finally, there is a third factor: Ukrainians, generally under 35 years of age, who simply cannot speak Russian. I have found them in the West, but also in villages east of Kyiv. Some have studied Russian, but most TV is now in Ukrainian language. And in the West, some Ukrainians who still speak Russian, refuse to do so out of nationalist conviction.

Before Putin, a normally cautious leader, sends Russian peacekeepers into Ukraine, he should remember that wars are often easier to get into than to get out of. I write “war” because any Russian “peacekeepers” dispatched to Crimea or eastern Ukraine might be supported by Russian public opinion, but also face a possible guerrilla campaign of violent opposition.

The tenacity of Kyiv’s winter protesters gives a taste of what could come.
A few years ago, I visited the regional museum in Nikolaev, a Russian-speaking city in southeastern Ukraine. The city has historic ties with Russia. It was founded by Grigory Potemkin in 1789 as a shipyard for the Russian navy. The museum followed Ukrainian history up to the end of World War II.

Then, starting in 1945, Soviet-era panels were blocked by life-size portraits of handsome, sandy-haired men wearing uniforms that were unfamiliar to me. After studying the Ukrainian-language explanations, I realized that they were soldiers of the post-war Ukrainian Insurgent Army, the anti-Soviet guerrilla group.

Little known in the West, these guerrillas turned western Ukraine into a hellish assignment for police and soldiers sent from Moscow. In turn, Moscow’s agents killed an estimated 150,000 UPA soldiers and supporters, some by shooting, some through torture.

Today’s draft-age Ukrainians, aged 18 to 35 years, have been taught in school and by the media to revere the UPA. Some have assimilated these teachings. Some have not.

But keep this history in mind when you read that young men in western Ukraine have invaded Ukrainian army bases and seized weapons armories.

Russian “peacekeepers” who enter Ukraine will face the grandsons and granddaughters of the UPA.

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

Potemkin Olympics or Palm Tree Olympics?

Posted February 12th, 2014 at 7:48 pm (UTC+0)
2 comments

Winter Olympics? Girls in Sochi practice cartwheels on grass in front of the Olympic Flame on Feb. 12. Photo: AP/Darron Cummings

Winter Olympics? Girls in Sochi practice cartwheels on grass in front of the Olympic Flame on Feb. 12. Photo: AP/Darron Cummings

In Sochi today, the most carefully watched page is not the Olympic medals count. It is the weather forecast.

Down here on the Black Sea coast, daytime highs are nudging 20C. People are peeling off jackets and putting on sunglasses. One can only wonder why Russia chose to host the Winter Olympics in a city with palm trees and the world’s northernmost tea plantations. Sochi is a two-hour flight — or 1,360 kilometers — due south of the snows of Moscow. Weather history shows Sochi to be the warmest Winter Olympics host city since the games started in 1924.

But that is not the issue.

As in balmy Vancouver in 2010, all events on the seacoast are enclosed in temperature controlled covered skating rinks. The power comes from a newly gas-fired generator built by Gazprom. Russia’s biggest company has pride of place in Sochi’s Olympic Park. At one end, are two brightly painted generator smokestacks standing like red and white peppermint candy sticks. At the other end, is Russia’s version of the Olympic torch, a fat, yellow flame roaring through the night like a flare from a Siberian oil field.

But skating rinks only host of five of the 15 Winter Olympic sports.

It may be healthy, but it is not cold. Man jogs on coast near Olympic Park. Photo: Reuters/Shamil Zhurnatov

It may be healthy, but it is not cold. Man jogs on coast near Olympic Park. Photo: Reuters/Shamil Zhurnatov

The real problem is up in the mountains, where the other 10 sports take place, including downhill skiing, cross country skiing, ski jump, and biathlon. At Krasnaya Polana, the hub for the mountain events, nighttime temperatures are not forecast to drop back below freezing until Tuesday.

On the plus side, no rain is forecast for the mountains. If humidity is low, it is possible to make snow in temperatures as high as 3C above zero. For now, experts bet that there will be enough snow pack in the mountains to get through the last mountain event, Men’s Cross Country on Sunday, Feb. 23.

Whether at the skating events and the skiing events, it is fun to play the new Sochi game: spot what’s left of the old Soviet Union!

Chances are, all but the most expert will end up with a big “nul,” or zero.

If politics are theater, President Putin has set a very large, very expensive stage to showcase The New Russia.

Eye-catching examples include: state of the art skating rinks built on an old collective farm, shiny new European gondolas strung through the Caucasus Mountains, and bridges and tunnels of the new electric train that climbs up from the seacoast.

But train your eyes on the details.

At the Olympic Park, Oxsana Kharitonova lies on the grass while posing for a photograph with friends on Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014.  Photo: AP/David J. Phillip

At the Olympic Park, Oxsana Kharitonova lies on the grass while posing for a photograph with friends on Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014. Photo: AP/David J. Phillip

All the police officers wear uniforms that look as if they were issued last week. There is not a dented or dirty police car in sight. Also brand new is the ‘street furniture – highway guardrails and digital traffic lights. The bristle brush truck that scours dirt of streets looks as if it rolled off a German assembly line last week. Ditto for the sleek (Italian?) ice grooming machines.

In places where Soviet Sochi could not be renovated in time, views of old building have been daintily blocked by boosterish billboards. Construction dirt has been spray painted green.

Of course, the easy shot would be to call Putin’s Olympics the Potemkin Olympics.

The phrase started with villages that Gregory Potemkin, a military leader, allegedly built along the Dnieper River in 1787 to fool Empress Catherine II (the Great) and the ambassadors of her military allies as she floated down river to inspect “New Russia” (now Ukraine).

But in the 2014 Olympics, Putin’s strategy is more complex.

On one hand, he is showing his “New Russia” (yet again) to the world.

Who cares if an estimated 85 percent of Olympic visitors to Sochi are Russians? The real audience is the worldwide television audience of an estimated 1 billion.

They are watching snowboarders performing acrobatic feats in Russian mountains, fireworks exploding over Russian stadiums, bobsledders rocketing down Russian ice tracks, and figure skaters performing dreamy ensembles in Russian skating rinks.

And for Russians, the president’s goal is to inspire.

Let's hope  snow stays on the mountaintops and does not water the palm trees of Sochi until the Winter Olympics are over, Feb. 23. VOA Photo: James Brooke

Let’s hope snow stays on the mountaintops and does not water the palm trees of Sochi until the Winter Olympics are over, Feb. 23. VOA Photo: James Brooke

Here is the New Russia, a can do country without screw-ups. Russia’s flag waving patriotic State TV is focusing on Russian successes and heroes – not much different than the core coverage by NBC, the American rights holder.

Will images prevail over words?

Russian respondents to a public opinion poll said they thought the chance to steal from the public was a more important motivation for officials to host the games than promoting the nation.

Indeed, some Russians are not moved. I asked my friend Ekaterina from Yekaterinaburg if she was coming to Sochi. She Facebooked back: “Well, evidently, I am not coming. The Olympics is one of the (biggest) global thefts in the history of Russia ☺”

Time will tell what will be the legacy of the Putin Olympics.

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

The Olympics of Control — 2014 or 1984?

Posted February 7th, 2014 at 9:39 pm (UTC+0)
3 comments

Sochi may be sunny and the skies bright blue, but I feel as if the Olympics are in 1984.

I walked into the Olympic Village train station and was confronted by
the longest row of x-ray machines I have seen in my life. There were more x-ray machines and more gray uniformed security guards at this suburban rail station than I saw last month when transiting through Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport.

The long-awaited 'high speed train to the mountains' turned out to be just a modern, imported train traveling on a new rail line, at 30 km/hour. VOA Photo: James Brooke

The long-awaited ‘high speed train to the mountains’ turned out to just a modern, imported train traveling on a new rail line, at 30 km/hour. VOA Photo: James Brooke

But, once aboard, I found the spiffy new “Expres” still had that homey
feel of a creaking Moscow “Elektrichka”: a red-faced young man whining
to a (presumably irate and female) caller: “No!! I have not been
drinking!!”

It is not enough to buy a ticket to an Olympic event. You have
to also apply for a spectator pass. Security wants to know who will
sit in each and every seat. The nanny state has already told several
dissidents they can forget about using their Olympics tickets. Other
than that, everyone should feel spontaneous, act happy, and be polite.
Closed circuit TV is everywhere.

I can only hope that Dmitry Kozak, the deputy prime minister
responsible for the Olympics, misspoke Thursday when he answered a
reporter’s question about housing problems this way: “We have
surveillance video from the hotels that shows people turn on the
shower, direct the nozzle at the wall, and then leave the room for the
whole day.”

At journalist hotel, food is tasty, like this spoonful of seafood dinner. VOA Photo James Brooke

At journalist hotel, food is tasty, like this spoonful of seafood dinner. VOA Photo James Brooke

In addition to monitoring visitors’ physical movements, state security
is monitoring visitors’ mental movements.

In Sochi, every email, SMS and phone call is being recorded. Given
last week’s leak of a recording of two American diplomats discussing
Ukraine, we kind of suspected that. It still makes Russia an odd
refuge for Edward Snowden, flag bearer of the privacy cause.

On the topic of housing, I have received five queries from female
friends fishing for delicious horror stories about the state of my
room.

The one male query came from Jerry Kobalenko, the Canadian Arctic
adventurer in Banff:

“Jim, as someone who knows Russia well, you should do a bit on the
spoiled Western reporters coming to Sochi and expressing horror
because they expected Russia would still offer them their Starbucks
(or antiseptic bathrooms) just like at home.”

Sorry, I side with Jerry.

No complainers here. VOA Sochi team enjoys the February sunshine. From left, Misha Gutkin, Jon Spier, James Brooke, Mike Eckels, Parke Brewer.

No complainers here. VOA Sochi team enjoys the February sunshine. From left, Misha Gutkin, Jon Spier, James Brooke, Mike Eckels, Parke Brewer.

A lot of journalists are fit to be tied to discover that the
Russians, on building 24,000 hotel rooms in three years, placed a
priority on completing the rooms of athletes over rooms of
journalists. (I mean, who is more important here, anyhow?)

There is the German photographer who threw up his hands when he
discovered a stray dog snoozing in a half-completed room down the
hall. Well, with “Animal Control” teams combing Sochi like Cruella de
Vil, where would you take refuge if you were a stray dog?

I have a top, fifth floor- room with the most sunshine I have seen since I was in Rio de Janeiro six months ago.

Ok, the elevator, sometimes works, sometimes doesn’t. But yesterday, I
noticed on my tour on the Mountain Olympic Village that the athletes
at 1,200 meters elevation spurned shuttle buses and hiked to the gondola station. Odd how they invariably had flat stomachs. At sea
level, I can handle five flights of stairs.

Ok, there was no soap (fixed). I still can’t figure out how to use the
TV (not a new phenomenon). And the water dribbles out of my shower
head (I survived summer camp).

Hopefully, Sochi will follow the trajectory of Beijing, Vancouver and
London. After several days of nervous, pre-game trash talking,
everyone will now focus on the athletes.

Let the Games begin!

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

Don’t Underestimate Ukraine!

Posted January 29th, 2014 at 7:45 pm (UTC+0)
35 comments

With nighttime temperatures falling to -20C, wood fires provide some warmth for protesters. VOA Photo: James Brooke

With nighttime temperatures falling to -20C, wood fires provide some warmth for protesters. VOA Photo: James Brooke

the late 1940s, the mortality rate for Soviet troops fighting Ukrainian insurgents in Western Ukraine was higher than the mortality rate for Soviet troops fighting in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

This little known fact, long suppressed by Soviet censors, helps to explain why, after two months of harsh winter weather, Ukrainians are still manning barricades against their government.

Beneath the amiable, and sometimes jovial, exterior of many Ukrainians is a hidden self-discipline, nerves of steel, and an impressive ability to cooperate under duress for a common cause.

Many Westerners, myself included, assumed that the pro-Europe protests of late November would blow over after a week or two. Protesters would fold their tents and redirect their political energies toward the March 2015 Presidential election.

Two months later, in face of riot police clubbings, sniper fire from rooftops, and drenchings by fire hoses in Arctic weather, Ukrainians still stand tall. In fact, there are more protesters than ever. President Yanukovych is tossing concession after concession, hoping to avoid an early, South American-style departure from a back door of the Presidential Palace.

Volunteer "fighters" prepare to leave the Maidan for a mission. VOA Photo: James Brooke

Volunteer “fighters” prepare to leave the Maidan for a mission. VOA Photo: James Brooke


Yanukovych, a 63-year-old Soviet man, faces a new, post-Soviet generation of Ukrainians. They think of themselves as Europeans. And, little understood outside of Ukraine, much of this generation grew up worshipping the feats of the UPA, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army. Study photos of the demonstrations: increasingly, you will see the red and black flag of the UPA. Listen for the ritual chant: “Glory to Ukraine – Glory to her Heroes.” That is the old UPA greeting from the 1940s.

What also drives the protesters? Sharp knowledge of the neighborhood.

To the North is Belarus, and to the East is Russia. Belarus is run by a healthy 59-year-old dictator, Alexander Lukashenko. Russia is run by a healthy, 61-year-old, authoritarian, Vladimir Putin. It may only be biology that will stop these two men from running their countries for another 15 years. With both countries locked in the political deep freeze, Ukrainians can clearly see their future in this Slavic troika — and they don’t want it.

In the Kremlin’s worldview, Ukrainians are falling victim to the eternal anti-Russian alliance of Poland-Lithuania-Sweden. Once again, these historic enemies of Russia are thrusting down where they do not belong, threatening Russia’s Black Sea underbelly.

On a tent in Kyiv's Maidan Square, the symbol, alluding to Moscow, reads: "Stop Slavery." VOA Photo: James Brooke

On a tent in Kyiv’s Maidan Square, the symbol, alluding to Moscow, reads: “Stop Slavery.” A favorite chant on the Maidan is: “No to Moscow Imperialism.” VOA Photo: James Brooke


Putin’s attempt to export his economic and political model to Ukraine seems doomed to failure.

Russia, the Saudi Arabia of the North, floats on a sea of oil and gas. Putin can spend $50 billion on the Sochi Olympics, allow half of the money to be stolen, and no one will raise a peep. Why? Because there is money left over to pay salaries and pensions on time.

But Ukraine is a normal country. Like France or Brazil, it is forced to make products other people want to buy and to live largely within its means. The Russian model does not work in Ukraine which exports corn and steel.

In a tight economy, unchecked corruption is a driver of protest. On the Maidan protest square, there is a widespread conviction that one of the President’s sons Oleksandr, a trained dentist, has worked hard during his father’s first 1,000 days in office. His business empire is believed to be now worth nearly half a billion dollars.

Protesters say the politically connected steal businesses. Entrepreneurs are wary of starting new companies. In this environment, the best option for young people is to emigrate to Western Europe to work as second class citizens.

"Revolutsiya 2014" -- complete with mask and Molotov cocktail -- reads fresh graffiti near the Maidan. In 1939, Finnish soldiers named their gasoline bottle bombs after Vyacheslav Molotov, the Soviet foreign minister who signed a secret protocol with the Nazis to allow a Soviet attack on Finland. VOA Photo: James Brooke

“Revolutsiya 2014″ — complete with mask and Molotov cocktail — reads fresh graffiti near the Maidan. In 1939, Finnish soldiers named their gasoline bottle bombs after Vyacheslav Molotov, the Soviet foreign minister who signed a secret protocol with the Nazis to allow a Soviet attack on Finland. VOA Photo: James Brooke

This explains why Ukrainian protesters say they fight for “European values.” This is shorthand for courts, judges and prosecutors that crack-down on corruption and the theft of businesses by powerful politicians. This is the crucial software of a modern market economy.

Modern Russia lacks the above. As a result, Putin has lost Ukrainians’ hearts and minds. And $15 billion in Russian credits are not turning Ukrainians around.

Further driving the protests is President Yanukovych’s surprisingly inept handling of the demonstrations.

He played the geopolitical game well, walking the European Union to the altar last November, and putting Putin into fits. By doing this fake move to the west, Yanukovych was able to shake the Kremlin down for the $15 billion in aid.

But on the domestic front, time and time again, his security forces overreacted. Each time the protest spirit was lagging, a smart phone video would capture his riot police committing a new atrocity. In response, the EuroMaidan protest square would pop back up again, from 2,000 people to 200,000.

In the latest video to go viral, riot police can be seen stripping a man of his traditional Cossack uniform, then making him stand naked in the snow while policemen kick and taunt him.

Patriarch Filaret, the head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, has said this Cossack symbolizes Ukraine: naked, tortured but holding his head high and not surrendering to brutal force.

Soot from burning tires mixes with water from riot police fire hoses to create a front line landscape of black ice. VOA Photo: James Brooke

Soot from burning tires mixes with water from riot police fire hoses to create a front line landscape of black ice. VOA Photo: James Brooke

The quality and proximity of the naked Cossack video suggests that it was taken by a policeman, then leaked to the public.

Indeed, some people think Yanukovych is dealing with the opposition because his government is running out of bodyguards. Hundreds of riot policemen have been injured, and several units in the western part of the country have switched sides. The Ukrainian Army leadership has made it clear that it will not move out of the barracks in this political battle. Equally important, Yanukovych’s oligarch supporters may be calculating that it is best to reform now than to face a revolutionary government that might nationalize their assets.

The emergence of a pro-European, anti-corruption government in Ukraine could prove to be an existential challenge to Putin. With pro-Russian groups in Crimea toying with secession, Russia’s President might be tempted to send Russian “peacekeepers” to Ukraine, a la Prague 1968. But he will have to wait one month. Acting now would spoil his long awaited $50 billion coming out party for “The New Russia” — the Sochi Winter Olympics, just across the Black Sea from Ukraine.

So, for now, the red and black UPA flags proliferate at demonstrations, waving over the coffins of martyred protesters. The flags signal no compromise, no retreat. The colors stand for “Ukrainian red blood spilled on Ukrainian black earth.” As it looks now, the only thing that will melt the snow and ice barricades in Kyiv may be general elections in May.

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

Can Ukraine’s Two Nations Stay Under One Roof?

Posted December 14th, 2013 at 8:03 pm (UTC+0)
43 comments

KYIV — To understand what is happening in Kyiv today, remember that Ukraine has a larger landmass in Europe than France, the largest nation of the European Union.

Geographiically, Ukraine is entirely in Europe. Polls indicate that Ukrainians prefer a Western direction over an Eastern one by a two to one margin. Photo: Reuters/Gleb Garanich

Geographiically, Ukraine is entirely in Europe. Polls indicate that Ukrainians prefer a Western direction over an Eastern one by a a two to one margin. Photo: Reuters/Gleb Garanich

From East to West, Ukraine is longer than Italy, from the Alps to the heel of the boot.

In Northern Italy, people look to Switzerland and Germany. In Southern Italy, people look to Greece, Malta and Libya.

Similarly, Western Ukrainians look to Poland, Austria and Germany. People consider themselves European to the core. City halls in Western Ukraine now fly European Union flags. In schools, children study German and Polish. This new post-Soviet generation speaks Russian poorly, if at all.

Travel 1,200 kilometers to the East, and Ukrainians look to Russia. They produce goods that are exported to Russia. They speak Russian. The Soviet generation often has a hard time speaking Ukrainian, the national language.

For three years as President, Viktor Yanukovch has tried to balance these two sides, roughly comparable to the way pre-Civil War U.S. presidents tried to keep America’s house together by waffling on slavery.

Now, the European Union and the Kremlin are telling Ukraine: make your choice!gleb garanich lenin
This winter, in the biggest political crisis since Ukraine won independence in 1991, foot soldiers for both sides are on the march.

At Kyiv’s pro-government camp, Grisha, a 30-year-old tattooed construction worker, from the Russian-speaking city of Nikolaev, says his opposition to the European Union is a no brainer. Reeling off the names of his city’s three remaining factories, all from the Soviet era, he says: “If Russia refuses to buy, the factories simply shut down.”

A few steps away, near an olive green army tent, the same fear comes from Ruslan, a fur-hatted businessman from Kremenchuk, another Eastern city.

“If we join the EU, there will be no work,” he says with conviction “All the factories will stop. Production will collapse. The EU does not need our products.”

But one kilometer down a cobblestone street, views are diametrically opposed.

In normal times, Oleg works in a pharmaceutical warehouse in Lviv, the Western Ukrainian city near Poland. But now, he mans a 3-meter high barrier that faces Kyiv’s government quarter.

Defenses start with steel cables strung across the street, move to welded metal anti-tank barriers, backed up with steel barrels. Finally, there is a high wall of sandbags filled with snow and reinforced with steel. Overhead, a banner addressed to Ukraine’s Berkut, or “Eagle” riot police reads: “Berkut, Welcome to Hell.”

The pro-Europe Maidan has become a huge magnet for Kyiv residents. Here a man poses on barricade that blocks Kreschatyk,  the capital's central avenue. VOA Photo: James Brooke

The pro-Europe Maidan has become a huge magnet for Kyiv residents. Here a man poses on barricade that blocks Kreschatyk, the capital’s central avenue. VOA Photo: James Brooke

Taking a break from scrutinizing a constant flow of pedestrians entering the pro-Western camp, Oleg says that entering the European Union is a no brainer.

“Look how Poland lived, and how Poland lives now,” Oleg, 45 years old, says, recalling Poland when the economy was communist and the security services answered to Moscow. “You have to go and look at the world. You can’t hide in the attic and be afraid.”

He is confident that by orienting his country toward the European Union, Ukraine can be Europe’s next Poland. He says: “The country will be more open, and investment will come, and factories will work again.”

Pressure is mounting on President Yanukovych to take make the choice for Europe.

In Kyiv, the capital, people are responding overwhelmingly in favor of the “Euromaidan.” Specialized Facebook groups channel a steady flow of warm clothing, tents, firewood and food to Kyiv’s Independence Square. Some of Ukraine’s best pop groups sing nightly on the stage. After three weeks of police attacks and freezing temperatures, the Euromaidan keeps bouncing back, always larger than before.

Volunteers feed hot tea and sandwiches to thousands every day. Photo: Reuters/Gleb Garanich

Volunteers in the pro-European camp feed hot tea and sandwiches to thousands every day. There is a total alcohol ban in the camp. Photo: Reuters/Gleb Garanich

The Interior Ministry no longer views Kyiv police as politically reliable. Repressive actions are carried out by riot police trucked in from Russian speaking areas of Ukraine. But, in general, policemen are known to be fans of Vitaly Klitschko, the 2-meter tall boxing prize fighter who is the opposition’s rising star.

Ukraine’s Army leadership has publicly stated that the Army is politically neutral.

Ukraine’s financial oligarchs now are covering their bets.

Graphic TV coverage of the protests has moved out of the ghetto of one small commercial channel to national channels owned by wealthy Ukrainians.

Two of the nation’s richest oligarchs, Victor Pinchuk and Rinat Akhmetov, have broken their silence and called on the President to start serious talks with the opposition.

On Friday, Yanukovych’s government release all jailed protesters. On Saturday, the government fired Kyiv’s City Administrator, the City Police Chief, and a National Security Council official. At the same time, the President has mobilized his supporters, bringing tens of thousands to Kyiv by bus and train from Eastern Ukraine.

Food donations flow steadily into the Maidan protest city, enough to feed the thousands who come and go daily. Photo: Reuters/Gleb Garanich

Food donations flow steadily into the Maidan protest city, enough to feed the thousands who come and go daily. Photo: Reuters/Gleb Garanich

Ducking responsibility, the President blames the police violence on rogue policemen and the fact that he did not sign a EU trade and political association on his own negotiators. The policemen should be tried and the negotiators fired, the President said Friday.

On Monday, he travels to Moscow to sign economic agreements in Moscow.

Although Ukraine’s battle lines are hardening, mainstream analysts do not see secession on the horizon.

But while in the Kremlin, Ukraine’s President might want to closely inspect maps on the walls. On some maps, Ukraine’s Russian-speaking Crimea is said to be marked “Temporarily Occupied Territory.”

For three centuries, much of what is modern day Ukraine was ruled from the Kremlin. Under the Czars, it was called “Little Russia.”
In 2008, at a NATO meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin told President Bush: “Ukraine is not a real country.”

Time will tell if President Yanukovych can keep Ukraine’s two nations under one roof.

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

From Ukraine to Georgia to Russia, the Internet Breaks the Information Rules of the Old USSR

Posted December 5th, 2013 at 9:35 pm (UTC+0)
38 comments

Leonid from Lviv traveled halfway across Ukraine to demonstrate in favor of Ukraine moving closer to the European Union. AP Photo: Efrem Lukatsky

Leonid from Lviv traveled halfway across Ukraine to demonstrate in favor of Ukraine moving closer to the European Union. AP Photo: Efrem Lukatsky

KYIV — In August of last year, Mikhail Saakashivili was cruising to what looked like an easy election victory. Today, he travels Europe, cut loose from Georgian politics after one decade as President.

What made the difference?

Just before last year’s parliamentary elections, video clips circulated like wildfire on the Internet showing Georgian prison guards sodomizing prisoners.

Two weeks ago, Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych seemed to be weathering protests over his decision to back away from signing a free trade pact with Europe.

Then, all of a sudden, 1 million protesters were on the streets. They moved like a human river through Kyiv, the nation’s capital.

What made the difference?

Video clips had circulated like wildfire of riot police clubbing peaceful protesters in the pre-dawn darkness.

In the pre-dawn darkness of Nov. 30, rriot police used tear gas and clubs to clear Kyiv's Maidan or Independence Square. Photo: AP/Sergei Chuzatkov

In the pre-dawn darkness of Nov. 30, rriot police used tear gas and clubs to clear Kyiv’s Maidan or Independence Square. Photo: AP/Sergei Chuzatkov

In the old days – three years ago – prison guards could sodomize prisoners and riot police could savagely attack sleeping protesters — and get away with it.

Now, everyone has a mobile phone with a camera.

And that is changing the political rules.

Within hours of the riot police attack on protesters, Ukrainian journalist Mustafa Nayyem posted on YouTube a video of the riot police rioting. Within 48 hours, the clip had been viewed more than 780,000 times. Literally overnight, a Sunday afternoon protest march that was expected to draw 10,000 people, drew one million.

But Sunday night, Ukrainian authorities were still on autopilot, still playing by the old rules. Riot police rioted again, whacking everyone in sight, included 43 journalists.

This violence generated a fresh round of videos, a fresh round of outrage, and an opposition movement that dug in its heels in a fortified downtown encampment.

I caught up with Nayyem on Wednesday and asked him what had changed.

Afghan-Ukrainian journalist Mustafa Nayyem put out the first call for protesters on Facebook. Later he posted a police brutality video on YouTube, drawing almost 800,000 views in 48 hours. VOA Photo: James Brooke

Afghan-Ukrainian journalist Mustafa Nayyem put out the first call for protesters on Facebook. Later he posted a police brutality video on YouTube, drawing almost 800,000 views in 48 hours. VOA Photo: James Brooke

He said the conflict in Ukraine is between the Soviet-era TV generation and today’s Internet generation.

“It is not a conflict between West and East,” he said referring to Ukraine’s rough linguistic divide, between Ukrainian speakers in the West and Russian speakers in the East. “It’s between the new generation and old generation.”

Nayyem said that President Yanukovych, aged 63, believes that by controlling television and newspapers, he controls the thinking of the nation’s “Soviet generation.”

“But if you cannot hide things anymore,” Nayyem continued. “Even if you try on TV, the Internet will show it. This gap between TV and reality does not work in favor of Yanukovych. This gap works against Yanukovych. It does not work against people because people know everything.”

Gromadske.tv (Public TV) and Spilno.tv (Together TV) are two new Ukrainian Internet television channels that are streaming live coverage from the protests.

Video clips went viral of riot police clubbing, gassing and kicking demonstrators under the cover of darkness. Photo: AP/Sergei Chuzavkov

Video clips went viral of riot police clubbing, gassing and kicking demonstrators under the cover of darkness. Photo: AP/Sergei Chuzavkov


Nayyem, an Afghan-Ukrainian, is credited with jump starting the protest movement by sending out Facebook appeals for protesters on Nov. 21, the day the government backed away from signing the pact with the European Union. That evening, about 1,500 people responded to his appeal.

Nayyem says he chose Facebook, over its Russia-based rivals, Vkontakte and Odnoklassniki, because Facebook in Ukraine is used by the elite, the opinion makers.

Facebook, he said, is democratic because it allows for instant, horizontal communication among people who trust each other and who consider themselves social equals. By contrast, television is better suited for the kind of Soviet-style, top down, vertical communication that politicians of Yanukovych’s generation are comfortable with.

No one knows how Ukraine’s uprising will play out.

Behind wooden barricades, anti-government protesters wonder if the police will launch another night attack. Photo: AP/Sergei Grits

Behind wooden barricades, anti-government protesters wonder if the police will launch another night attack. Photo: AP/Sergei Grits

In Russia, an internet-fueled opposition movement gathered tens of thousands of people into the streets of Moscow in the winter of 2012.

But President Putin held the day, winning reelection on the shoulders of the TV tribe, still the nation’s majority.

In Ukraine, Yanukovych may be able to restore order in time to mount a serious candidacy in the March 2015 presidential elections.

And police injured almost 80 people last Saturday on the Maidan, or protest square, the government now is showing that it can adapt.

On Wednesday, Ukraine’s Interior Minister formally ordered police to not use violence against protesters. And on Thursday, Interfax news wire carried this news flash: UKRAINIAN PROSECUTOR GENERAL’S OFFICE CALLS INTERIOR MINISTER FOR QUESTIONING REGARDING DISPERSING MAIDAN.

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

Russia’s Putin Uses Political Karate To Keep Ukraine from Moving West

Posted November 25th, 2013 at 8:11 pm (UTC+0)
18 comments

Young people in Ukraine see their future with the European Union and are providing the backbone for the mass protests.

Young people in Ukraine see their future with the European Union. They are providing the backbone for the mass protests.

German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck once observed that the Russian cavalry are “slow to saddle up, but ride fast.”

In the case of Ukraine this week, the Kremlin’s cavalry cut off Ukraine’s move to the West last week, dealing the European Union its biggest defeat – and first geographical reversal — since the end of the Cold War.

Russia’s decisive action provoked on Sunday the biggest protest demonstration seen in Kyiv since the Orange Revolution, almost a decade ago. But, while Ukraine’s youth may be outraged, it may take years to reverse Moscow’s power play.

For five years, the Kremlin seemed to be sleepwalking while Ukraine conducted an increasing flirtation with the European Union.

President Yanukovych's abrupt decision to not sign free trade pact with European Union triggered the biggest demonstrations in Kyiv since the 2004 Orange Revolution. The first big protest, on Sunday Nov. 24, brought out 100,000 at its peak.

President Yanukovych’s abrupt decision to not sign free trade pact with European Union triggered the biggest demonstrations in Kyiv since the 2004 Orange Revolution. The first big protest, on Sunday Nov. 24, brought out 100,000 at its peak.


Waking up last summer, the Kremlin first tried soft power, reminding Ukrainians of their shared orthodox faith, their common cultural and linguistic roots. Pushing a hot button issue, Moscow warned that joining the EU would mean adopting Western Europe’s laissez faire approach to homosexuality.

Ukrainians reacted by asking: Where are Slavic bonds of brotherhood when Russia charges Ukraine some of the highest gas prices in Europe?

Then, the Kremlin toyed with hard power, playing with unilateral trade sanctions. But the longer the lines of trucks stretched at Ukraine’s border with Russia, the higher the European option grew in Ukrainian public opinion polls.

As the Nov. 28 deadline approached for Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych to sign a free trade pact with the European Union, Ukraine’s signature on the EU deal seemed to be guaranteed.

But this looming deadline focused the attention of one of the most ruthless and clever political leaders in the world today: Vladimir Putin

Two months after brokering a Syrian chemical disarmament deal, Putin pulled off his second strategic coup, inducing Ukraine’s leadership to switch directions, and move East, instead of West.

Reuters, the normally sedate financial news agency, wrote this screaming headline: “Russia steals Ukrainian bride at the altar.”

In Lviv, the largest city in Western Ukraine, this couple went from their wedding on Sunday to the pro-Europe demonstration. On Monday, 10,000 University students went on strike in Lviv, which is a one hour drive from Poland.

In Lviv, the largest city in Western Ukraine, this couple went from their wedding on Sunday to the pro-Europe demonstration. On Monday, 10,000 University students went on strike in Lviv, which is a one hour drive from Poland.


Yanukovych’s abrupt switch flies in face of Ukrainian public opinion polls. They indicate Ukrainians favor the European Union over Russia by a margin of 3 to 1. Indeed, on Sunday, 100,000 pro-EU protesters flooded central Kyiv, with many pitching tents for the long haul.

So how did Putin persuade Ukrainian president last week to shift course and not sign with Europe?

Putin analyzed Yanukovych’s vulnerabilities. Then, they hit him where it hurt most — his political power base in Eastern Ukraine. Bordering Russia, this region is economically dependent on Russia.

Russian sanctions targeted Eastern Ukraine companies – railroad wagon manufacturers, steel producers, a chocolate manufacturer, and suppliers for the Russian military. Due to the Russian boycott, Ukrainian exports dropped by 25 percent, the economy shrank by 1.5 percent, companies laid plans to lay off thousands of workers, and Ukraine’s foreign currency reserves fell to an amount sufficient to cover two months of imports.

In a direct threat to Eastern Ukraine’s energy intensive factories, Russia’s Gazprom threatened to cut off gas supplies unless Ukraine started to make payments on his back bill of $1.5 billion.

In American terms, this is comparable to an American president closing the border with Mexico to force a Mexican president to join Nafta. (Mexico voluntarily joined the North American Free Trade Association in 1994.)

A protester wrapped in a European Union flag confronts two riot policemen guarding Ukrainian cabinet of ministers building in Kyiv on Monday, the fourth day of protests. Photo: Reuters: Gleb Garanich

A protester wrapped in a European Union flag faces two riot policemen guarding Ukrainian cabinet of ministers building in Kyiv on Monday, the fifth day of protests. Photo: Reuters: Gleb Garanich


Last year, Russia joined the World Trade Organization, which severely restricts such unilateral barriers. But one year later, some economists say, Russia treats the WTO accession agreement like a scrap of power. In the last three months, Russia has bullied other neighbors, banning milk products from Lithuania, fish from Estonia, and wine from Moldova.

On Nov. 9, Yanukovych flew to Russia for a secret meeting with Putin. Talks lasted until late at night. To finalize details, the Ukrainian and Russian prime ministers met in St. Petersburg last week. Details have not been made public. But gas pricing discounts may be part of the deal.

Russia’s damage to Ukraine’s economy was so severe, that Ukraine’s Prime Minister Mykola Azarov said that the main benefit from the deal will be simply to reestablish normal trade relations with Russian.

On Yanukovych’s return from Russia, the mood music from the Ukrainian government changed sharply — toward Euro skepticism. Yanukovych briefed his supporters well. When key pro-Russia votes were needed, his cabinet and Party of Regions voted unanimously.

On Nov. 21, Yanukovych let his prime minister make the surprise announcement of Ukraine’s return to the Russian fold. That day, the President was in Vienna, continuing to promise that Ukraine’s future is with Europe.

Protesters sing Ukraine's national anthem Nov. 25 in Kyiv. They vow to come out on bigger numbers on Nov. 29, the day that President Yanukovych was to sign a free trade pact at a EU Summit meeting in Vilnius, Lithuania. Photo: Reuters/Gleb Garanaich

Protesters sing Ukraine’s national anthem Nov. 25 in Kyiv. They vow to come out on bigger numbers on Nov. 29, the day that President Yanukovych was to sign a free trade pact at a EU Summit meeting in Vilnius, Lithuania. Photo: Reuters/Gleb Garanaich

Yanukovych still nurtures ambitions to win Ukraine’s presidential elections in March 2015. With or without Russian aid, Yanukovych has to find $17 billion in new credits for Ukraine next year. With the country teetering on the edge of default, alternative include jacking up household gas prices and devaluing the currency. Evidently, Yanukovych is banking of Russian aid to help his win reelection.

Back in Moscow, Putin, the cold master of political karate, did not waste capital on victory celebrations. Instead, he launched a pre-emptive attack on Friday against protest demonstrations that he knew were planned. He accused the European Union of paying to organize anti-Russia rallies. Once again, Putin used an aggressive offense to play defense.

So when 100,000 people marched Sunday in Kyiv, Russia’s state controlled media downgraded the turnout, and then quoted Putin predicting that the EU would organize anti-Russia protests.

Sharp reaction came from Europe’s top two leaders, José Manuel Barroso, European Commission president, and Herman Van Rompuy, European Council chief.

Victor Yuschenko, Ukraine’s former president, appealed for European aid, writing in The Financial Times: “Those who underestimated Moscow’s readiness to use whatever means to maintain a sphere of influence must draw lessons from this development and help overcome Russia’s imperialistic claims.”

But, in a review of Putin’s ruthless tactics, one European analyst conjured up the image of French baguette, a long loaf of bread that is slender and somewhat soft. He compared Brussels’ duel with Russia to a man brandishing a baguette in a knife fight.

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

Latinas Rule! Africans, Asians and Europeans Pushed Aside in Moscow’s Miss Universe Contest

Posted November 12th, 2013 at 9:05 am (UTC+0)
13 comments

Miss Israel,Yityish Aynaw, was born in Gondar, Ethiopia and served as a Military Police Lieutenant in the Israeli Defense Forces.

Miss Israel,Yityish Aynaw, was born in Gondar, Ethiopia and served as a Military Police Lieutenant in the Israeli Defense Forces. VOA Photo Ksenia Kuznetsova

OK, I did not interview Miss Venezuela.

I did not think the Miss Universe jury in Moscow would really fall for the latest plastic product of Venezuela’s beauty queen assembly lines.

Last week, at a press availability for the Misses, I could not fail to miss Miss Venezuela, Maria Gabriela Isler. Her blinding white teeth made me want to put on dark glasses. Her princess gait made the other Misses look like peasants. Earlier, at a night club “night out with the contestants,” I noticed she had a skillful way of elbowing her way to the front of the cameras.

But, early on Moscow’s Sunday morning, the Miss Universe diamond tiara landed once again on the head of a Miss Venezuela — for the third time in six years.

The fact that it kept sliding off Maria Gabriela’s leonine locks might have been a signal that the jury made the wrong call.

Out of 86 contestants from around the globe, the jury winnowed the race down to a ‘diverse’ group of five Latinas: Miss Spain, Miss Ecuador, Miss Venezuela, Miss Brazil, and Miss Philippines. (The Philippines are sometimes called Spain’s gift to Asia).

VOA Moscow's videojounalist Austin Malloy hard at work filming Miss Mexico.

VOA Moscow’s videojounalist Austin Malloy hard at work filming Miss Mexico.

Gosh, five Latinas. No Miss from Africa, Europe, or mainland Asia was good enough to make the final cut.

The contest evening started on a sensible note.

To pick the top 16, the jury picked beauties from little countries – Costa Rica, Switzerland and Nicaragua. It also chose contestants from big countries — China, India, Brazil, Britain, the United States, Spain and Indonesia. This strategy kept hundreds of millions of people around the globe glued to their TV sets.

But slowly, as the magic number of 16 inexorably approached, it dawned on millions of Russians that this jury was not picking a BRIC, but a BIC – Brazil-India-China.

Despite the swelling chant of “Rossiya”, the jury culled Russia in the first cut. What a slap in the face to the host country!

MIss Russia Elmira Abdrazakova pauses for photographers at SoHo Rooms, Moscow night club.

MIss Russia Elmira Abdrazakova pauses for photographers at SoHo Rooms, Moscow night club.

Lovely Elmira Abdrazakova, Miss Russia, was consigned to a back row, forced to wear a wide smile for the rest of the night. (Miss Abdrazakova is tougher than she looks. Six months ago, when she was elected Miss Russia, hundreds of racist knuckle draggers clogged her social network pages with hate messages, objecting that a woman with a Tatar father was to be Russia’s face to world. She disabled the pages and went on with being Miss Russia.)

On a lighter note, we were treated to singing by Emin Agalarov.

Emin is the son of Aras Agalarov, the Azeri-born Russian businessman who owns Crocus City, the Moscow venue for Miss Universe and the largest shopping mall in all of Russia. In a dynastic coupling, Emin is married to Leila Aliyeva, the daughter of the President of Azerbaijan.

The whole thing seemed to shaping up a huge joke on NBC, the American network with broadcast rights. Headline: Billionaire Russian Oligarch Buys a Miss Universe Contest to give Karaoke Singing Son Worldwide TV Exposure.

In reality, Emin turned out to be a surprisingly good singer – energetic, passionate and a good voice.

Miss Myanmar, Moe Set Wine, was the first contestant to represent her country in the MIss Universe contest since 1961. The 25-year-old MIss has a business degree from California Lutheran University.

Miss Myanmar, Moe Set Wine, was the first contestant to represent her country in the MIss Universe contest since 1961. The 25-year-old MIss has a business degree from California Lutheran University.


He was a refreshing contrast to the other entertainer, Steven Tyler, the deeply aged, 65-year-old American veteran of Aerosmith. On his visit to Moscow, Tyler should have visited the Lenin mausoleum on Red Square to learn some embalming tips.

With Russia out, Russian state TV commentators dropped the cheerleading and started commenting.

Fortunately, Ksenia Sobchak, the Pasionaria of the anti-Putin opposition, had been summoned back from state television Siberia. Still off camera, she provided catty commentary. On Miss Switzerland: “Her lower half looks a bit fat.”

Invisible to TV viewers around the world was the political controversy over hosting the pageant in Russia. This summer Russia implemented “a gay propaganda law,” a vague piece of legislation designed to push openly gay behavior out of the public eye.

Miss Nicaragua, Nastassja Bolivar, performed well without all the artificiality and rumors of plastic surgery of her neighbor, across the Caribbean, Miss Venezuela. Bolivar also won Best National Costume for an amazing tropical feathers outfit.

Miss Nicaragua, Nastassja Bolivar, performed well without all the artificiality and rumors of plastic surgery of her neighbor, across the Caribbean, Miss Venezuela. Bolivar also won Best National Costume for an amazing tropical feathers outfit.

In August, Andy Cohen, last year’s Miss Universe male co-host, announced that he would not come here from the United States. He told E! News that, as an openly gay man, he would be “unsafe” in Russia.

Taking over as co-host, Thomas Roberts, a NBC reporter who is also openly gay, flew into Moscow with his new husband, Patrick D. Abner. Before and after the show, Roberts sharply criticized the law.

But on camera, at show time, he lost his voice, limiting himself to flashing his bright white smile and making forgettable comments. Maybe he was intimidated by Donald Trump, who sat scowling in the front row. Trump, who owns the Miss Universe Pageant, is notorious for shouting at people he barely knows: “You’re fired!”

Comic relief came from Philipp Kirkorov, the Russian pop singer, who blackens his eyebrows and goatee to look like an operatic version of Ivan the Terrible. Kirkorov is widely presumed to be gay, but he plays by Moscow rules: act as you please, just don’t say you are gay.

Hello, Miss Universe Jury! Beauty and charm come in all colors and accents! Here is Miss Ethiopia, Mhadere Tigabe, a 21-year-old student from Addis Abba.

Hello, Miss Universe Jury! Beauty and charm come in all colors and accents! Here is Miss Ethiopia, Mhadere Tigabe, a 21-year-old student from Addis Abba.

Kirkorov had a bright question for Miss Brazil – on the future of women in the workplace.

Miss Brazil, Jakelyne Olveira, launched into a smart response.

But, in the fast-paced show, her answer got lost in a cumbersome translation from Portuguese to English to Russian. That night, millions of Russians went to bed failing to learn that the President of Brazil is a woman.

So, there we were at the end, a choice among five finalists – all big-haired Latinas.

Africa was out. Europe was out. Mainland Asia was out.
Over the last eight years, five of the Miss Universes have been Latinas. Six, if you count Leila Lopes from Portuguese-speaking Angola.

Maybe it is time for the Miss Universe organizers to reshuffle the jury, open the windows, and let in the rest of the world.

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

About

About

James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow in 2010. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.

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