Russia’s Choice: Power Balancer or China’s Canada?

Posted August 10th, 2013 at 7:04 pm (UTC+0)
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The reset between the Kremlin and the White House is dead.

President Obama did not want to go through all that again. Here the American President meets Russian President Vladimir Putin at last June’s G-8 in Northern Ireland. Forget the bonding. The US-Russia relationship will be transactional and second tier. Photo: Reuters


Now, the question in Moscow is: what will replace it?

With the cancellation of President Obama’s visit here next month, it is unlikely that the president of the United States will devote much of his second term to dealing with President Putin. The White House will relegate the relationship to a second level – as seen by Friday’s meeting Washington of the two countries’ foreign and defense ministers.

Obama will not waste more time on trying to work up personal chemistry and goodwill with Putin. At his news conference Friday, the U.S. leader said of the Russian president: “I know the press likes to focus on body language, and he’s got that kind of slouch, looking like the bored kid in the back of the classroom.”

The relationship will be transactional and largely behind closed doors. Many analysts in Washington see Moscow as less useful on several fronts. With the American withdrawal, Afghanistan may become, once again, a Russian problem. The new president of Iran may decide to freeze his nation’s nuclear bomb program, for his own reasons, regardless of Russian influence. On Syria and nuclear disarmament, Russia shows little interest in cooperating with Washington.

Given that Putin may run Russia for another 5 or 10 years, he now has to decide which road to take:
Continued anti-Americanism and gluing Russia to China?
Or aspiring to the triangular, balancing position that Moscow played between Beijing and Washington in the 1970s?

Chinese President Xi Jinping made his first foreign trip, in March, to Moscow. By gluing Russia to China is the Kremlin losing autonomy on the world stage? Photo: Reuters/Alexander Zemlianichenko

The “reset” – now seen as a lost era of good feelings – was a product of the new Obama administration and the presidency of Dmitry Medvedev.

But after Putin returned to the Kremlin 15 months ago, he gave Russia a hard right turn. He jailed opposition leaders, curbed civil society, closed human rights groups, and purged the Duma to make for unanimous votes in the style of the old Supreme Soviet.

To prepare and sustain public opinion, his government launched an anti-American campaign – accusing the State Department of funding opposition rallies, closing USAID and other aid programs, banning American parents from adopting Russian orphans and, most recently, granting asylum to Edward Snowden, the fugitive leaker from the National Security Administration.

Creating a straw enemy out of the United States had an extra bonus, giving the Kremlin political cover for a $700 billion military rearmament program. (No matter that virtually all US tanks have been shipped out of Europe. No one in Moscow dares to associate the military buildup with the country that shares 3,645 kilometers in land borders with Russia).

The anti-American campaign was created largely to bolster Putin’s conservative, TV-viewing, domestic audience.

But it turns out the wrong people were listening.

According to an annual world attitudes survey commissioned by the BBC, the percent of Russians with a negative view of the United States world influence actually dropped over the last four years, from 65 percent in 2009 to 53 percent in 2013. This year, about 20 million Russians are expected to spend about $40 billion this year on travel to the West. It seems that the nation’s best educated and best paid citizens are voting with their feet, tuning out their president’s anti-West campaign.

But during almost the same period, the number of Americans classifying Russia’s world role as “mainly positive” has dropped by half – from 45 percent in 2008 to 23 percent today.

In the United States, Putin’s campaign managed to unite the editorial boards of The Wall Street Journal (conservative) and The New York Times (liberal) in writing anti-Putin editorials. The Snowden affair sparked angry comments in Congress from Republicans and Democrats alike. The favorite image was “a poke in the eye.”

Putin’s recent anti-gay legislation has stirred up a hornet’s nest of blogs, petitions and protests – all aimed at next February’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

Russia’s heavy handed treatment of gays is alienating many people in the West. Here a man punches a LGBT protester in St. Petersburg. Photo: Reuters

With the cancellation of the Obama-Putin summit, Kremlin analysts now may realize they overplayed their hand. The Obama administration is pushing back.

If Kremlin analysts take the long view, they may realize that they need to rebuild relations with Washington. But doing that, takes the courage to look economic and demographic trends in the eye.

Given these sobering trends, Russia has a short window to restore its former balancing role between Washington and Beijing.

At present, the America’s $16 trillion economy is double the size of China’s $8 trillion economy. And China’s economy is four times larger than Russia’s $2 trillion economy.

Despite China’s current “slowdown” to 7.5 percent growth in the second quarter of 2013, it is still growing six times as fast as Russia’s second-quarter growth of 1.2 percent.

Conservative economists forecast that the Chinese and U.S. economies will be roughly equal in size in 10 years, around $18 trillion. If growth flattens in Russia, that would give China an economy nine times the size of Russia, its northern neighbor.

In terms of economic size, that is the same ratio seen today between the United States and its northern neighbor, Canada. The American population is also nine times the size of Canada’s – the same ratio seen today between the populations of China and Russia. The implication for Russia’s ambitions to remain an autonomous world power are clear.

On Sept. 5, Obama will travel to Russia, to the annual meeting of the G20 nations, held this year in St. Petersburg. Kremlinologists will once again study Putin’s body language at the public sessions – this time when he encounters Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

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.

Is Russia Turning Protestant?

Posted July 30th, 2013 at 9:32 pm (UTC+0)
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In advance of Pope Francis’ visit to Brazil, a Copacabana Beach artist sculpted in sand his vision of Latin America’s first Pope. VOA Photo: James Brooke

RIO DE JANEIRO — In 1990, an American anthropologist wrote a controversial book: “Is Latin America Turning Protestant?”

Two decades later, that same provocative question can be asked of Russia.

Who will win: The Church of the Golden Domes? Or the Church of the Catacombs?

Before I grapple with Russia, let’s look at what is happening in Brazil, a country steeped in centuries of Catholicism.

On Thursday night, the crowd on Rio de Janeiro’s Copacabana Beach gave a powerful vote for Catholicism.

My sons William and Alexander and I were lost in a happy, singing river of more than 1 million young people — Catholic faithful who came to welcome pope Francis, Latin America’s first pope. On Sunday morning, that figure was topped as some reporters estimated that 3 million people attended the pope’s farewell mass.

In the flesh, Pope Francis, an Argentine, charmed Brazilians as he sought to reinvigorate Catholicism, a religion that been losing ground in Brazil to rapidly expanding Protestant churches. Photo: Reuters

But the new pope’s first international visit had a strategic element. It was clearly aimed at countering the explosive growth of Protestantism in what long has been called “the world’s most populous Catholic country.”

In 1960, 93 percent of Brazilians identified themselves as Catholics. Today, 58 percent do.

In 1960, 4 percent of Brazilians identified themselves as Protestants. Today, nearly 25 percent do.

Five centuries after Portuguese explorers dropped anchor in this lovely harbor, Catholics now are the minority in South America’s third largest city, population 6.3 million.

In Brazil, Protestant Evangelicals make up a powerful bloc of 73 deputies in Brazil’s Congress. Last month, Evangelicals fielded 800,000 followers for an annual “March for Jesus” through central Sao Paulo. In this environment, Brazilian politicians have banished the phrase “Protestant sects” from their public vocabulary.

Sunday morning, an estimated 3 million people attended Pope Francis’s farewell mass on Copacabana Beach. Rio de Janeiro officials said a record 1.5 million tourists had visited the city for World Youth Day, a Catholic event held once every two years. Photo: Reuters

In Russia, the Kremlin takes an opposite strategy.

Since returning to the Kremlin last year as president, Vladimir Putin seems determined to restore the Orthodox Church to the official status it enjoyed during the time of the Czars. Increasingly, Protestant churches are kept underground. But they are expanding rapidly.

Last month, President Putin signed into law vaguely worded “defense of religion” legislation. In theory, this protects from “insults” Russia’s four religions deemed “historic” by a 1997 law – Christian Orthodoxy, Judaism, Buddhism and Islam.

Last weekend, any illusion that the law covered Islam disappeared when 263 Central Asians were detained in Moscow for gathering in an informal prayer house and partaking the traditional “Iftar” dinner to break the Ramadan fast. Although there are about 1 million Muslims in Moscow today, the city has only four mosques. City officials deny construction permits, saying most Muslims in Moscow are guest workers who will go home.

Instead, official support for the Orthodox Church can be seen everywhere – from the restoration of golden domed churches, to President Putin’s televised attendance at Orthodox Easter services, to the pre-election comment last year by Patriarch Kirill that Putin’s leadership of Russia is “a miracle of God.”

On Thursday evening on Copacabana’s Avenida Atlantica, families held up their children for blessings by the Pope. VOA Photo: James Brooke

The patriarch recently was given use of lodgings inside the Kremlin, a unique privilege enjoyed during the time of the Czars.

As the Orthodox Church exerts increasing influence over the Russian state, admirals of Russia’s Pacific Fleet nearly dropped traditional images of Neptune, the Roman god of the sea, from last Sunday’s Navy Day celebrations. A local Orthodox leader had warned that pagan gods should have no place “at a celebration of an Orthodox Christian Navy.”

Meanwhile, Russian Protestants increasingly hold religious services in living rooms as their pastors are routinely denied permits to build churches. Visas for foreign missionaries are rare. Russia’s anti-Protestant actions are regularly chronicled in Forum 18 News Service, a website based in Oslo, Norway.

But out of sight does not mean out of mind.

Despite the efforts of Russian police and prosecutors, Protestantism keeps growing in Russia.

On Copacabana Beach, the happy mood was infectious. James Brooke with sons, William (left) and Alexander (right) VOA Photo: James Brooke

Last Easter, as is customary, Russian police were deployed to every Orthodox church in the land. They kept order and conducted a census. According to Interior Ministry statistics, about 4 million Russians attended Easter services at Russian Orthodox churches. That is 2.7 percent of the population in Russia, a nation where around 65 percent of survey respondents call themselves Orthodox. According to a survey made last April by the Public Opinion Foundation, about half of Russians who call themselves Orthodox admit they have never opened a Bible.

Russia’s Justice Ministry has registered 14,616 Orthodox parishes, 4,409 Protestant parishes, and 234 Catholic parishes. But Anatoly Pchelintsev, a religion specialist and professor at the Russian State Humanitarian University, estimates that for every registered Protestant congregation, there are at least two unregistered ones.

Pchelintsev, who edits the Religion and Law publication here, concludes that Russia has about 15,000 Protestant congregations, roughly equal to the number of Russian Orthodox ones. He says the number of Catholic parishes is roughly the same as the official number.

In Siberia, long a land of dissenters and discontents, there are believed to be more Protestants in church on Sunday mornings than Russian Orthodox. On one recent visit to Khabarovsk, the second largest city of the Russian Far East, I went to a packed Baptist church, only a kilometer from a sparsely attended Russian Orthodox Cathedral. The massive Cathedral had been built with federal funds.

What is to be done?

Built in the late 16th century, at a time when the Protestant Reformation started to sweep Northern Europe, Moscow’s St. Basil’s Cathedral seems to incarnate Russian exceptionalism and the Orthodox Church’s resistance to change. VOA Photo: James Brooke

In the 16th Century, the Russian Orthodox Church rejected the Protestant Reformation that swept Northern Europe. In the 17th century, minor reforms by Patriarch Nikon triggered the Great Schism, provoking millions of “Old Believers” to reject Moscow’s Patriarch. Some moved as far away as Alaska.

But with the vast majority of contemporary Russians rarely entering churches, many feel the Orthodox Church will have to change — or end up with the declining demographics of Brazil’s Catholic Church.

On Friday, a push for change came from an unexpected corner: Alexander Lukashenko, the archconservative president of Belarus, a country where half the population is nominally Orthodox.

“As the world is undergoing change, therefore the Church must change also,” said Lukashenko, who has received awards from the Belarusian Orthodox Church. “I think we are on the threshold of reforms in the Orthodox Church.”

“Our church should begin a reform, step-by-step, beginning with the church language,” he continued, referring to Old Church Slavonic, a 1,000 year old liturgical language unintelligible to most Russians and Byelorussians.

“The prayers, services and sermons are too long,” Lukashenko continued. “Adults and the elderly just cannot endure them. One should be brief, succinct and more modern.”

“I am against the practice of people coming in, listening to a sermon standing on their feet and having no opportunity at all to sit,” he said, referring to Russian Orthodox churches that have no chairs or pews. “The practice of building huge cathedrals is no good either. Churches must be cozy and warm, and they must not oppress believers.”

Oddly, similar advice came the next day from the far side of the planet.

In a meeting on Saturday in Rio de Janeiro, Pope Francis addressed 300 active and retired Brazilian cardinals and bishops, giving the longest speech of his four-month-old pontificate.

“We have labored greatly and, at times, we see what appear to be failures,” the pope said in a veiled reference to the millions of Brazilians who have abandoned Catholicism for Protestantism. “We feel like those who must tally up a losing season as we consider those who have left us or no longer consider us credible or relevant.”

Then, warming to the central theme of his speech, he said: “At times we lose people because they don’t understand what we are saying, because we have forgotten the language of simplicity and import an intellectualism foreign to our people. For ordinary people the mystery enters through the heart.”

For Russia, the future offers a choice: Will Russia’s Orthodox Church compete with Protestantism, or try to crush it?

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.

Why Should Obama Visit Russia for a Putin Summit?

Posted July 19th, 2013 at 3:57 am (UTC+0)
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In court on Thursday, Alexey Navalny, Russia’s leading opposition politician, embraces his wife, Yulia, before going to prison for a start of a 5-year jail term. Navalny was released Friday, apparently in order to make Moscow mayoral race seem more competitive. Photo: Ria Novosti

Why is Barack Obama planning to be in Moscow in early September for a two-day summit with Vladimir Putin?

Mystery to me.

Thursday’s conviction and sentencing Alexei Navalny make the Putin government increasingly look like a South American military dictatorship from the 1970s. And you can be sure that American presidents, especially Democratic ones, did not do photo ops with likes of Chile’s President Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

In year XIV of Putinism, opposition politicians go to jail, pro-government governors rule all the regions, and votes in the Duma like the old unanimous hand raising drills in the Supreme Soviet. The Russian state tightly controls television, police intimidate protesters and prosecutors close down human rights groups and other NGOs.

Sounds a lot like Brazil 1972, Chile 1976 and Argentina 1979. During that era, American presidents generally kept the generals at arm’s length. Even when they wore business suits, like Mr. Putin.

After what critics called “a show trial” Russia’s leading opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, was taken to jail Thursday. Within hours, thousands of people, largely young professionals, gathered in an unauthorized “flash mob” to protest Navalny’s conviction and jailing.

In the realpolitik of today’s world, Putin needs Obama more than Obama needs Putin.

The planned Moscow summit Sept. 3-4 will boost Putin’s prestige at home and abroad. For Obama, it could turn out to be red meat for the Republicans.

The last 24 hours have seen Republicans in Washington:
 assail the jailing of Navalny, the leading opposition politician of Russia’s post-Soviet generation
 one Senator, Lindsey Graham, saying the U.S. should boycott the Sochi Winter Olympics if Russia grants asylum to fugitive NSA leaker Edward Snowden.

Indeed, for the last month, the Putin government has been harboring Snowden, the individual who has delivered the biggest blow in recent years to the images of the United States and of President Obama.

Of course, President Putin tries to have it both ways – keeping Snowden under control of government agents at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport, but then saying the fugitive American intelligence expert is an unwanted visitor.

Putin asks Snowden not to attack “our American partners.” But Russia’s leader does not send Snowden on his way — either in the custody of a U.S. Federal Marshall on the next Aeroflot to Washington, or in the back of a Russian Bear bomber to Caracas.

Patrick Chappatte, cartoonist for the International Herald Tribune, recalls the “reset” policy that successfully lowered tensions between the U.S. and Russia during the first Obama term.

Snowden’s Kremlin-friendly asylum lawyer, Anatoly Kucherena, reported Wednesday that his client promises to stop “harming our U.S. partners.” The lawyer added: “I believe we should trust him. Naturally, we can’t sign any document with him to that effect.”

Hmm, he might ask the National Security Administration how well Snowden keeps a promise.

What would be the deliverables of the Putin – Obama summit?

So far, it looks like two days of meetings for the sake of meetings.

On Syria, the Kremlin greeted Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace talks initiative by dispatching ship-sinking and aircraft-downing missiles to Syria. Russian military aid seems to be tipping the balance in Syria’s civil war, pushing peace talks further and further down the road.

On President Obama’s nuclear arms cuts proposal, the Kremlin poked so many holes in the idea that it seems to be a non-starter. (On Friday, Russia’s Foreign Ministry dismissed an Obama Administration arms control report with language that seemed borrowed from a North Korean diplomatic dictionary: “The new report gives an impression that the United States is stuck in the vise of Cold War propaganda although the world has long since changed…The stubborn wish of our American partners to judge and brand others is being accompanied with the persistent unwillingness to look in the mirror.”)

Both countries generally see eye to eye on controlling nuclear weapons programs in Iran and North Korea. But both these countries border Russia – North Korea by land and Iran by sea. Given this geography, Russia has a real interest in curbing nuclear weapons in its neighborhood.

Then there is the famous personal presidential chemistry that historically can bubble up during a summit.

But it should be clear by now that the chemistry between the two leaders has been bad.

Whenever the two presidents meet, Putin looks bored or uncomfortable.

At the G-8 summit in Camp David last year, the Russian president stood up the American host by pulling out at the last minute, sending Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in his place. The next month, at the G-20 meeting in Mexico, the Russian leader showed up half an hour late for his meeting with Obama.

At the Asia Pacific Economic Conference in Vladivostok, Putin timed the meeting so the American president could not come. It was in early September, during the final stretch of the American presidential campaign.

So it is not as if Obama feels he should go to Moscow to repay a fistful of social IOUs to Vladimir Putin.

And there are the great intangibles: the symbolism and responsibility that comes with leading the world’s most powerful democracy.

In the 1970s and 1980s, this responsibility prompted most American presidents to keep South America’s military leaders at a distance.

If President Obama is starting to think legacy in his second term, here is a vision to ponder.

Twenty years from now, Vladimir Putin, age 80, could be looking like Hosni Mubarak.

Twenty years from now, Alexei Navalny, age 57, could be the next president of Russia.

The turn of generational wheels can cause surprises.

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.

Snowden and Russia’s Whistleblowers

Posted July 14th, 2013 at 6:18 am (UTC+0)
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This Russian whistleblower is dead. Grave of Russian laywer Sergei Magnitsky in a Moscow cemetery. Although Magnitsky died in a Moscow prison on Nov. 16, 2009, he was tried posthumously and convicted Thursday of tax evasion. Photo: Sergei Rozhkov

“These nations, including Russia, Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Ecuador, have my gratitude and respect for being the first to stand against human rights violations carried out by the powerful rather than the powerless. By refusing to compromise their principles in the face of intimidation, they have earned the respect of the world. It is my intention to travel to each of these countries to extend my personal thanks to their people and leaders.”
Edward Snowden, July 12, 2013, on seeking asylum in Russia.

Oh well, at least standing up for the rights of one very special human.

As the libertarian seeks refuge among the authoritarian, Edward Snowden seeks asylum in Moscow at a harsh time for Russian whistle blowers.

While asylum has not been granted, Russian politicians have tumbled over themselves to welcome Snowden to Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The American’s bid to stay in Russia comes neatly framed by reprisals against two of Russia’s most important internet whistle blowers.

On Thursday, the day before Snowden’s request for asylum here, a Moscow court completed its trial of a dead man, a practice that apparently faded out elsewhere in Europe in the Middle Ages.

Edward Snowden at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport on July 12, flanked by an unidentified translator on his left, and Sarah Harrison of Wikileaks on his right. Photo: Human Rights Watch

In 2008, Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer for the Hermitage Fund, denounced the theft of $230 million in Russian tax money by a group of government officials. For his pains, he was jailed, denied medical treatment, and according to the Kremlin’s human rights commission, beaten to death by jail guards. Three years after his death, no official in Russia has been tried and convicted for his death or for the theft of the tax money.

The case caused a huge international scandal.

But instead of prosecuting the crimes Magnitsky denounced, the Kremlin ordered prosecutors to try the dead man on the same charge – theft of tax money. And so on Thursday in a Moscow district court, judge Igor B. Alisov droned on for an hour and a half reading a guilty verdict to an empty steel cage.

Aleksei A. Navalny in court with his wife, Yulia, center, and one of his lawyers, Olga Mikhailova. If Navalny is convicted of embezzlement, his sentence could keep him in jail and out of September race for Mayor of Moscow and out of the 2018 race for the Presidency of Russia. Photo: Reuters/Sergey Brovko


(Edward, if have you downtime in the Moscow airport transit area and want to read up about the Magnitsky case, check out this link. Oops, on second thought, don’t go there. I forgot: the U.S. isn’t the only government in the world that can monitor web browsing histories.)

Looking ahead to next Thursday, a judge is expected to convict Alexei Navalny of embezzlement. Navalny runs an anti-corruption website that routinely draws so many readers that he is called “Russia’s most popular blogger.” He coined and promoted a fatally damaging nickname for Russia’s ruling party: “the party of crooks and thieves.”

In a normal country, Navalny, aged 37, would be running for governor of a large region. In fact, he is a candidate this summer for Mayor of Moscow.

But a conviction on Thursday would keep him off the ballot in September for the mayoral election, and probably off the ballot in 2018, for the next presidential election.

The trial is taking place in Kirov, a regional capital 1,000 kilometers away from his internet readers in Moscow.

On July 5, Navalny summed up his defense with a phrase that applies far beyond the walls of his Kirov courtroom: “Let us get out of the world of fantasy and fairy tales.”

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.

For Russia’s Kremlin, Snowden Goes from Trophy to Liability

Posted July 4th, 2013 at 7:05 am (UTC+0)
3 comments

Happy ending for Edward? Russian spy Anna Chapman tweeted Thursday to 30-year-old American bachelor fugitive: “Edward will you marry me?”
But then, the red-haired Russian heartbreaker queried: “NSA, will you take care of our children?”
Photo: Ria Novosti/Grigory Sysoev

The Latin Americans came and left in their presidential jets.

But Edward Snowden stayed behind.

For the Kremlin, a propaganda coup is quickly becoming hot potato.

For over 10 days, the fugitive American intelligence agency leaker has been marooned in legal limbo, living invisibly somewhere in the “transit” area of a busy Moscow international airport.

But Washington is making it clear that there will be a price to pay for harboring America’s most wanted man.

“C’mon guys, can’t someone take him off my hands?” President Putin seems to be imploring at a meeting of gas exporting countries that brought to the Kremlin the leaders of Iraq, Iran, Venezuela, and Bolivia to the Kremlin. Over the last 10 days, For Edward Snowden has shifted from Kremlin propaganda coup to international liability. Photo: Reuters/Yuri Kochetkov

In Moscow on Tuesday for a gas exporters’ congress, Bolivia’s leader Evo Morales made sympathetic comments about Snowden to state-controlled Russian TV. A few hours later, his plane home was “redirected” to Vienna as France and Portugal closed their airspace to Snowden. Austrian police did not find the American fugitive on board.

Venezuela’s president, Nicolas Maduro, also hinted Tuesday in Moscow that he would grant Snowden asylum. But then flew off to Belarus, without Snowden on board. (This weekend, Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua offered asylum to Snowden. If the Russians wants to avoid sending him in a commercial jet through NATO airspace, the simplest would be out the back door –Vladivostok — to South America by corporate jet. Another alternative: in recent years Tupolev Tu-160 strategic bombers have flow from Russia to Venezuela)

South American leaders have reacted with anger at the grounding and check of President Morales after it left Moscow. But no concrete offers of asylum have been made to Snowden. [Over the weekend, Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua, offered asylum to Snowden. If the Kremlin wants to avoid sending him in a commercial jet through NATO airspace, the simplest route would be out the back door (Vladivostok) to South America, by corporate jet. Another alternative: in recent years Tupolev Tu-160 strategic bombers have flown directly from Russia to Venezuela for training missions]

As Washington exerts behind-the-scenes pressure, country after country – 22 at the last count — have said no to the former National Security Agency computer specialist.

President Putin said he only talked about gas with Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. Was there a secret deal for Venezuela to take Snowden? Photo: Reuters/Maxim Shemetov

On Wednesday, Russia seemed to have joined this group. The Vedemosti newspaper reported that Snowden had been “persuaded” to withdraw his asylum application to Russia.

Vladimir Putin, who rarely passes up a chance to needle the United States, seems to realize there will be penalties this time.

Three months from now, the Russian president is to host President Obama here for a two-day summit long sought by the Kremlin. Six months from now, Putin hopes that thousands of Americans will be packing their bags attend the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

Patrick Chappette of the International Herald Tribune highlights the two countries that initially welcomed Snowden — only long enough to copy his National Security Agency files?

One can only imagine the behind-closed-doors message from the Obama Administration: if you keep harboring Snowden, forget about the September summit with Obama, and forget the State Department issuing a mild travel warning for the Olympics. Mention could be made of Wednesday’s threat by Russia’s terror leader, Doku Umarov, to carry out bomb attacks against the “satanic” Olympics.

Initially, Putin seemed to think he could have it both ways with Snowden.

By preventing Snowden from traveling on to Havana after a one-night stop in Moscow, Russia’s security services presumably gained full access to his four lap tops, filled with information stolen from the National Security Administration.

At the same time, Russia’s state-controlled TV ginned up a solidarity program with Snowden, allowing the Kremlin to take a stand for “human rights” and “transparency.”

More importantly, Snowden’s revelations of a massive spying program served to illustrate Putin’s theme that the U.S. is an enemy.

By raising the status of the U.S. to Russia’s enemy, Putin believes he has justification for his draconian new laws against non-governmental organizations, freedom of assembly and gays.

To bolster his base, Putin needs an external “enemy” — the US — and internal enemies, currently gays and democracy advocates. Here an anti-gay activist grabs a rainbow flag at a gay demonstration in St. Petersburg on June 29, the day before President Putin signed a wide ranging law banning all manifestations of “gay propaganda.” Photo: Reuters/Alexander Demianchuk

With an enemy (albeit a “safe” one that is far away), Putin can justify his big defense build-up. In Russia’s 2014 budget, defense spending is to rise by 22 percent, while health care spending is to drop by 25 percent and education is to drop by 16 percent. To sell that kind of budget, any president dearly needs a foreign “enemy.”

But judging by angry comments coming from members of the U.S. Congress over Snowden’s stay in Moscow, American animosity is shifting from virtual to real.

A big blow to American interests came last weekend, when the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel used Snowden’s stolen files to outline a massive spying campaign that the National Security Administration has undertaken against European citizens, European embassies, and the offices of the European Union.

This news could prove to be a game changer in relations between Europe and the United States. Leading Europeans are calling for suspending talks with Washington on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership treaty.

Clearly, the spying program is a wound self-inflicted by Washington. But, it irritates many Americans that the agent for this upheaval is quietly enjoying the hospitality of Moscow. Since the end of World War II, a primary foreign policy goal of the Kremlin has been to drive a wedge between Europe and the United States.

Aware of this symbolism, Putin has been furiously trying to put daylight between the Kremlin and Snowden. Putin, a former KGB colonel, repeatedly has said that Russian security services would never ever take a peek at their guest’s computers.

Bolivian President Evo Morales and a military aide at Vienna’s international airport on July 3. The grounding and search of Bolivia’s presidential jet may embolden some South American nation to give asylum to Edward Snowden — “Washington’s most wanted man.” Photo: Reuters/Heinz-Peter Bader

The Der Spiegel revelations may have had diplomats at Russia’s Foreign Ministry slapping high fives behind closed doors, but the Russian president’s public advice to Snowden was: “If he wants to stay here, there is one condition: He must stop his work aimed at harming our U.S. partners, no matter how strange this may sound coming from me.”

At the same time, Putin has publicly ruled out helping his American partners by putting Snowden on the next Aeroflot flight to Washington.

So now, with the Latin Americans undecided, the search continues for a third country.

Here is one option: the once a week Air Koryo flight from Vladivostok to Pyongyang. The last American I know who went to North Korea for asylum, Army Sergeant Charles Robert Jenkins, ended up getting stuck there for 40 years.

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.

Welcome to Moscow’s Transit Lounge, Mr. Snowden

Posted June 26th, 2013 at 8:27 pm (UTC+0)
3 comments

Patrick Chappatte, cartoonist for The International Herald Tribune, has this explanation for why Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency leaker, has seen his overnight stay at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport stretch on for days.

Uncle Volodya went to Finland this week and told three fairy tales.

– Gays have equal rights in Russia.
– Russia’s new Foreign Agent law, which is killing Russian non-governmental groups, is just a copy of a 1937 American law with a similar name.
– Russia’s intelligence agencies have not questioned Edward Snowden, the fugitive American leaker, since he arrived at Moscow airport Sunday afternoon.

Russia’s president routinely reserves the first two stories for foreign audiences. (Watching the press conference in Moscow, I could imagine eyes rolling among the Finnish reporters who had traveled from Moscow).

But the third fable offered a news nugget.

Russia’s President confirmed that Snowden is in the international transit section of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport.

Russian President Putin confirms to reporters that Edward Snowden is in transit area of a Moscow airport, but stresses that he is “a free man.” Here Putin speaks Tuesday at a joint press conference with Finnish President Sauli Niinisto in Naantali, Finland. Photo: Reuters/Kimmo Mantyla/Lehtikuva

Only a few hours earlier, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had huffily said of Snowden: “He didn’t cross the Russian border. And we consider the attempts we are seeing to accuse the Russian side of violating United States law as completely ungrounded and unacceptable.”

Putin matched the tone, dismissing U.S. criticisms as “ravings and rubbish.”

Taking the high road, the Russian president smiled and said: “I myself would prefer not to deal with these issues. It’s like shearing a piglet: there’s a lot of squealing, but there’s little wool.”

But Putin did end the international mystery of “Where’s Snowden?”

Where is Edward? During his first four days at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport, there were no photos or confirmed sightings of fugitive NSA analyst, called by the Russian press “the world’s most wanted man.” This frame grab taken from a video interview in Hong Kong. Photo: AFP

But then Russia’s president seemed to veer back into fantasy land.

Asked if Russia’s FSB, the successor to the KBG, was questioning Snowden, he responded that Russian security agencies “never worked with Mr. Snowden and don’t work with him today.”

Mr. Putin, a former KGB colonel who spent five years in East Germany working with the Stasi secret police, knows a basic rule of intelligence: Do not reveal what you know.

Snowden, a former computer contractor for the U.S. National Security Agency, flew into Moscow with four laptop computers and a wealth of NSA documents downloaded onto a thumb drive. It is rare that such an American intelligence treasure trove just lands in the laps of Russian intelligence.

Snowden’s WikiLeaks travel agents apparently thought that he would get a good night’s rest, and then bounce onward, catching the 14:05 Aeroflot to Havana.

The Moscow-based press corps confirmed this onward reservation. Dozens of journalists scrambled to buy seats on the flight.

Russian press mob scene at Moscow’s international arrivals terminal in Sheremetyevo. The report that Snowden was on Monday’s flight from Moscow to Havana provoked a stampede to buy tickets. Photo: Reuters//Sergei Karpukhin

In an encouraging sign, police ringed the Aeroflot jet before takeoff for Cuba.

Oops. Maybe they were there to ensure one passenger did not board.

After the jet doors were locked, the reporters realized they were prisoners on a 13-hour flight to Havana, with no alcohol served on board. They consoled themselves with taking digital phone photos of seat 17A, Snowden’s empty window seat.

I guess everyone had expected that the FSB chief at Sheremetyevo would simply escort Snowden to his one-way flight to Cuba. Then, he would report back to his superiors: “Gee, it would have been interesting to talk to Snowden. But he was in the transit area of the airport, and we did not have the legal right to interrogate him (sigh).”

That agent’s next assignment: Border post Chukchi, scanning the horizon for suspicious “polar bears” crawling over the ice from Alaska.

Once the jet doors were locked, reporters realized they had been tricked. During the 13-hour flight to Havana, reporters took photos of empty seat 17A, the window seat booked for Edward Snowden. A fake Twitter account was also started: “17A: SnowdensSeat.” One tweet: “I feel empty.” Photo: Reuters/Maxim Shemetov

So while the foreign ministers of Venezuela and Ecuador tumble over themselves to announce they are “considering” (wink, wink) offering asylum to Snowden, the price of Snowden’s Latin vacation may be getting higher by the day.

Maybe to turn up the heat a little, Russian authorities have not slapped down a proposal made here that Snowden be traded to the U.S. for Victor Bout, the Russian arms dealer who is serving a lengthy sentence in a U.S. jail.

Snowden’s heart must have sunk when he heard that Aeroflot jet rumble down the runway Monday afternoon for Havana. Then the Tuesday flight took off for Cuba. The next flight from Moscow is Thursday. But, some media speculate that the Castro brothers have decided, after half a century, that they want American tourists to come back to Cuba. Unlike the American hijackers of the 1970s. Snowden’s presence could be…inconvenient.

More likely, what stands between Snowden and his stay-out-of-jail boarding pass is cooperation with Russia’s intelligence service.

In public, the Kremlin revels in the global attention and the reaffirmation of its “independent” stance. Washington already sees any relationship with Putin’s Kremlin as transactional. In this case, the Kremlin seems to value the publicity over a deal.

But day after day, Snowden’s stay at Moscow’s airport in taking another toll: American public opinion.

Last month, the BBC completed its annual 25-nation survey of public attitudes toward other countries.

In one year, the portion of American respondents holding negative views of Russia spiked – from 47 percent to 59 percent. Among major countries, only Germans, 61 percent – and French, 63 percent – held greater negative attitudes toward Russia.

The sharp drop in American goodwill was probably due Russia’s reaction to American anti-corruption legislation. It banned American adoptions of Russian children. (Criticize us, and we will whack the kids!)

Once again, the Kremlin’s moves are drawing American hostility.

Walter Russell Meade writes in his blog on The American Interest website:
“It appears that Putin is no longer content with just kicking sand in John Kerry’s face. With NSA leaker Edward Snowden in hand, Moscow is now giving wedgies and making the Obama administration eat bugs.”

Snowden’s revelations have left the American public struggling to digest the news of massive information gathering program.

More attractive than debating that program, the U.S. Congress has chosen to demonize the messenger.

The Steven Spielberg movie featuring Tom Hanks was based on the real case of an Iranian refugee who lived in Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport for 17 years. Credit: DreamWorks Pictures

With each day that Snowden remains holed up in Moscow’s dingy airport transit area, the more American irritation grows with the Kremlin. By now the price for getting U.S. Congressional approval for any deal with Russia during the rest of the Obama Administration seems prohibitively high.

Foreign Minister Lavrov may have realized that on Wednesday when he told a reporter who asked about Snowden: “He is in the transit zone of the airport and has the right to fly to any direction he pleases. And as the president of Russia said, the sooner this happens, the better.”

Presumably, Snowden will not end up like the homeless figure portrayed by Tom Hanks in the Hollywood movie, The Terminal. The movie was based on Mehran Karimi Nasseri, an Iranian refugee who lived in Terminal One of Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport — for 17 years.

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.

Kremlin Crosses Russia’s Sunni Muslims by Joining Syria’s Shia Alliance

Posted June 19th, 2013 at 8:45 pm (UTC+0)
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“Chilly” was how some described Obama and Putin’s discussion of the civil war in Syria during their bilateral meeting Monday at the G-8 in Northern Ireland. Photo: AP/Evan Vucci

Vladimir Putin got out of the G-8 summit in Northern Ireland without any broken china on the floor.

In the lead up, Syria’s civil war loomed like a polarizing issue capable of turning the meeting into seven against one. But Putin checked his aggressive instincts. The Russian leader knew he will host the next G-8, in Sochi, Russia, in June 2014.

Now that Putin no longer has to try to smile for Western cameras, he can revert to form – threatening to send to Syria ship-killing and aircraft-killing missiles, and then complaining about “western interference.”

Now Putin is free to revert to the old Soviet foreign policy role of playing the spoiler. (UK Prime Minister David Cameron reminded Putin that Britain also has a veto vote in the UN – something most people forget because the British don’t revel in obstructionism).

Putin, a child of the Soviet 1960s, seems to live by the old Soviet drinking toast: “Let them be afraid of us.”

The Kremlin is back to the old zero sum game of the Soviets: West up, Moscow down; Moscow up, West down.

But, this time, in the case of Syria, the Kremlin might take a step back and look at the big picture.

Like it or not, the Muslim world is re-dividing along the old Sunni-Shiite schism.

Egypt’s decision to break off ties with Syria on Saturday lays bare a Sunni alliance that unites such diverse countries as Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

On the other side, there is the Shia alliance stretching from Iran, through Shia-influenced Iraq to Syria and to Lebanon’s Hezbollah, on the Mediterranean. Despite all the smoke and mirrors in Moscow, Russia has now joined that alliance.

So what?

Well, there is an inconvenient fact Moscow strategists feel they can ignore: 15 percent of Russia’s 144 million people are Muslim. And 95 percent of those are Sunni.

Because of draft dodging by Russia’s urban middle class, Russia’s army now is now 20 percent Muslim, according to a government survey last February. By the end of this decade, Muslims are expected to account for 20 percent of Russia’s overall population.

No room at the mosque: thousands of Russian and Central Asian Muslims join Eid al-Fitr prayers marking the end of Ramadan last August, outside Moscow’s main Mosque. Photo: AP/Mikhail Metzel

From the point of view of many Russian Muslims, the Kremlin has placed itself on the wrong side of the Sunni-Shia divide.

But Moscow foreign policy makers have a long history of ignoring domestic “constituencies.”

Most of Russia’s 1 million Buddhists follow Tibetan Buddhism. Yet, for fear of irritating China, Russian diplomats routinely ignore visa requests for the Dalai Lama to visit Russia.

Of course, since a dozen big energy and mining companies account for more than half of the budget revenues of the Russian Federation, it is easy to overlook the millions of little people.

Russian law recognizes Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Judaism as the nation’s four historic religions. But after that perfunctory nod, the official attitude toward Islam is often one of denial.

Moscow has four mosques and an estimated Muslim population of 2 million people. Do the math.

When the Islamic fast of Ramadan ends in August, there will be tens of thousands of men praying in streets around the mosques. Applications to build mosques in Moscow are routinely denied. The argument usually runs that half of Moscow’s Muslims are guest workers, from Central Asia or Russia’s Caucasus. They will eventually go home.

Last August, more than 200,000 Muslim men gathered outside Moscow’s four Mosqes to perform Eid al-Fitr prayers marking the end of Ramadan in Russia. Photo: AP/Alexander Zemlianichenko Jr

In this environment, the leadership in Moscow can blithely ignore the sentiments of Russia’s Sunni millions and treat Syria’s civil war as a geostrategic power game. Something like the board game of Risk, except for the 93,000 dead.

But things get delicate down in Russia’s overwhelmingly Muslim Caucasus.

On Saturday, Ramzan Kadyrov, the Kremlin ally who runs Chechnya, ordered Chechen officials and clerics to “constantly educate the youth about the real nature of Syrian events, to prevent possible recruitment of young people for participation in the war.”

He said that “five or six” Chechens have been killed fighting in the ranks of Syria’s Sunni opposition. Russian security officials estimate that about 200 Russians are fighting with the Syrian rebels. The fear is that one day they will bring their fighting skills back to Russia. (On Friday, President Putin told attendees of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum that at least 600 Russians and Europeans are fighting in Syria with the rebels).

Although Russians and the outside world pay little heed, a slow motion war is burning in Russia’s Muslim majority borderlands. Last year, this violence created 1,225 civilian and military casualties – 700 killed and 525 wounded. By contrast, 310 American soldiers were killed last year in Afghanistan – a nation with six times the population and six times the territory of Russia’s southern Caucasus.

The causes of Russia’s violence are varied and deep.

But one step toward reconciliation might involve adjusting the Kremlin’s foreign policy to take into account the world views of a sizable minority of Russia’s population.

Why do you think that every American President since George H.W. Bush has visited Africa? Could it have anything to do with the fact that African Americans account for 14 percent of the U.S. population? Think about that next week when President Obama flies to Africa next week for a five-day trip to Senegal, South Africa and Tanzania.

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.

Setting the Pace for Russia, Moscow Tames Its Excesses

Posted June 10th, 2013 at 9:34 pm (UTC+0)
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Last summer, The Hungry Duck, Moscow’s legendary home of 1990s excess, re-opened on the Garden Ring road. At a beach party, Nicole Deli, Moscow journalism student, won a squirt gun for her skill at dancing on the zinc bar. Six months later, the Duck closed. Two weeks ago, Nicole got married in Paris. VOA Photo: James Brooke


Last week, an American friend of mine received two mysterious white envelopes in the mail.

On opening them, he found that each contained a black and white photo of his car, each taken secretly, in the middle of the night. Below each photo was printed: his name, his employer and his home address.

No, this was not the U.S. National Security Agency tracking down a runaway American who owes money on his student loans.

Moscow now has secret traffic cameras. The cameras caught my friend, speeding home from his girlfriend’s apartment at 1 am. In two 80 km an hour zones, he was clocked at 100 km an hour.

The fine: 300 rubles – about $10, if paid promptly.

Long gone are the days, when my son James watched bug-eyed as a Moscow taxi driver hit 200 km an hour gunning his cab down the final highway stretch to Sheremetyevo airport.

Just as James has grown up and now has a job in New York, post-Soviet Moscow has turned 21, and is settling down.

Moscow’s 1,000-year-old Kremlin has a new addition: a helicopter pad for President Putin. Now Russia’s President can fly over traffic jams, and not have to listen to the cacophony of car horns blaring when his motorcade sweep down blocked off avenues. Photo: Reuter/Sergei Karpukhin

Nowadays, Moscow’s wild days increasingly are seen only in the rear view mirror.

As of last week, there is new street furniture on streets of Moscow’s innermost core: parking machines. Street parking is 50 rubles an hour – about $1.50. To cut corruption that comes with the human element, the parking spaces are digitally monitored. To cut cruising for spaces, a mobile app tells drivers where there are open spaces.

Owners of $50,000 SUVs are proving amazingly stingy.

All of a sudden city parking spaces are free of cars. Tverskaya, the Fifth Avenue of Moscow, is now a civilized European avenue, free of cars parked on sidewalk.

In another attack on Moscow’s car culture, 130 bicycle rental stands are opening this month across the city. Following such cities as Berlin and New York, bicycle rentals are accessible through a mobile phone app.

Two prong war on cars: new bike/moped rack, backed by dreaded orange “evakuator” — the now ubiquitous tow truck. VOA Photo: James Brooke

Monumental traffic jams still define Moscow life. But two sources are being phased out. Helipads have been installed at the Kremlin and at Russia’s White House. Now, President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev can commute by air from their estates in the western suburbs.

Previously, official motorcades provoked such horn-blowing dins from angry drivers that I would capture “natural sound” for radio reports by sticking my microphone outside the window of the VOA office on Kutuzovsky Propect.

On Sunday afternoon, while inspecting a new bicycle stand next to the Arbatskaya Metro station, I spotted another novelty: pay toilets. Located between the station and Russia’s Defense Ministry, these cabins are designed to break the habit of some Moscow men who seem to enjoy urinating in full view of Russia’s military high command. But judging by the familiar acrid, odor of the spot, some men are too cheap to pay.

A potential customer studies new pay toilets, with Ministry of Defense in the background. VOA Photo: James Brooke

The Kremlin’s reformist zeal does not stop with pay toilets.

As of June 1, smoking is banned outside metro stations, building entryways, schools and hospitals. So far, police are limiting themselves to verbal warnings.

But the big test comes one year from now.

On June 1, 2014, smoking is banned from all of Russia’s bars and restaurants.

In Russia, where 60 percent of adult men smoke, the current attitude is denial.

Last week, I asked for a non-smoking table at the summer veranda, Blackberry Café, a trendy place that featured an eye catching parade of models coming and going. On hearing that pathetic request for a non-smoking section, “ne-kuryiashi sektor?” the hostess gave me a condescending look as if I asked for a glass of warm milk and a bowl of porridge.

Let’s see who is laughing this time next year.

Profile in Courage: Moscow woman prepares to take on city traffic. She passes several of 1,000 bikes now available for rent this summer in Moscow. Photo: Reuter/Sergei Karpukhin

Denial was the reaction when President Vladimir Putin promised to close all of Russia’s casinos on July 1 2009. Smart people said it would not happen.

The deadline came. The casinos were closed.

Since then, with less fanfare, all cigarette and alcohol ads have disappeared from billboards, televisions, newspapers and magazines.

The anti-tobacco campaign is being matched by an anti-alcohol campaign.

Sunday night, around 11:30, after dinner at a friend’s apartment, I stopped by a local supermarket to pick up groceries for this week. On filling my cart, my eye was caught by a special sale display of California Zinfandel. As I was holding a bottle of red wine to the light, a blue-uniformed supermarket guard appeared out of nowhere. He politely, but firmly, reminded me that all store sales of alcohol now stop in Russia at 11 pm.

Small stores have lost the right to sell alcohol and cigarettes. In recent months, this law change had prompted the closure of thousands of small, freestanding kiosks across Russia. As it is, supermarkets routinely place their liquor stocks deep inside the stores, knowing that liquor pull huge amounts of foot traffic through stores.

At the same time, police are enforcing a radical crackdown on drunken driving. In most of the United States, a man my size – 1m 94 and 88 kilos — can have two glasses of wine with dinner, and then get behind the wheel.

Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev wants to make sure that Moscow drivers know he is no longer blocking city traffic. Here he boards sleek helicopter for the ride home after a day of work at Russia’s White House. Photo: Reuters/Ekaterina Shtukina

In Russia, zero tolerance means zero alcohol consumption. One glass of wine means you are over the limit.

This zero consumption approach comes from the belief that once Russians start drinking, they do not stop at two glasses. Indeed this is a nation, where vodka is often sold in bottles with tops designed to prevent re-corking.

It used to be said that Sunday morning was the most dangerous time to drive in Moscow: all the drunks were tumbling out of the night clubs.

Now Moscow’s night scene has a new figure – the designated driver. And on Saturday nights, half the wheels on city streets belong to taxis.

During the Gorbachev era, radical measures for social improvement led to tobacco and vodka riots.

Putin’s sneak attack on Russians’ self-destructive habits has the same goal as Gorbachev’s blunt approach: to raise birth rates and life expectancies for Russians. Currently, life expectancy for Russian males is about 60 years.

Last week, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin announced that the combined life expectancy of Moscow men and women – about 10 percent of Russia’s population – has reached 75 years, near the levels of Western Europe.

He may have declared premature victory. But then again, he just announced that he is running in a snap mayoral election, to be held Sept. 8. Sobyanin is leading in polls, with voter approval rating of about 50 percent. Polls indicate that voters like his campaign against cars, cigarettes and alcohol.

In the first quarter of this year, about 9.5 million Russians vacationed outside of the former Soviet Union. On returning home, this growing and influential segment of the population are demanding the same levels of urban amenities that they see in Western Europe. Moscow’s wild days may be receding into the history books and Hollywood stereotypes.

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.

Dagestan: Russia’s Wild But Beguiling Southern Frontier

Posted May 22nd, 2013 at 10:36 pm (UTC+0)
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Journalists love superlatives, and Russia’s southernmost republic, Dagestan, obliges.

Car bombs keep the tourists away. On a lovely May morning, we had the 2,000-year-old Derbent Fortress, a UNESCO World Heritage site, all to ourselves. VOA Photo: James Brooke

Of Russia’s 83 regions, Dagestan last year recorded the highest level of political violence — 53 bombings and 405 dead.

Last year, Tamerlan Tsarnaev spent six months in Dagestan. Last month, world attention swiveled to Dagestan when Tsarnaev emerged as the lead suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings.

This week, Dagestan’s reputation for violence was underlined when two car bombs exploded Monday in Makhachkala, the republic’s capital, killing four and injuring 44.

I just spent four days driving around Dagestan, talking to people.
There is more to this majority Muslim republic on the Caspian Sea than car bombs.

First of all, it is Russia’s southernmost republic, blessed with 245 hours of sunshine in May, and 400 kilometers of sandy beaches year round. Moscow’s grumpiness is a world away. Dagestanis smile a lot.

The most populous republic in Southern Russia, Dagestan may also be the youngest.

Grandson rides in style. Shepherd takes his flock — and his grandson — up to the summer pastures. VOA Photo: James Brooke

Of 3 million Dagestanis, one million are between the age of 15 and 30. This demographic youth bulge accounts for some of the political turmoil, much the way the post-World War II baby boom generation shook up Western Europe and the United States in the late 1960s.

Maybe Dagestanis should know better, but they are optimists.

On paper, Dagestan scores – another superlative — Russia’s lowest per capita income.

But on the ground, lines and lines of cars clog roads. And roads are lined with rows upon rows of houses under construction. Could it be that half of the economy is under the table?

Commercial centers are chock-a-block with new stores, often blaring their wares with garish signs.

Dagestani donkeys ponder the road ahead. In reality, donkey jams are rare in modern Dagestan. Cars and trucks form chronic traffic jams as the republic cannot keep up with the surge in rubber wheeled vehicles. VOA photo: James Brooke

Elsewhere, polls indicate that only 2 percent of Russians dream of opening a new business – far below the Brazil-Russia-India-China average of 20 percent. In Dagestan, half the population seems to want to open a store.

Maybe Dagestanis know that, as outsiders – non-ethnic Russians without Moscow connections – they have no chance of landing a cushy job with a Russian state company. Instead, Dagestanis live by their wits.

In a “normal” setting, this would be a recipe for separatism.

But Dagestan is – another superlative – Russia’s most ethnically diverse region.

In an area the size of Denmark, there are 13 “major” ethnic groups, and 30 “major” languages.

Dagestan’s ethnic Russian population has dropped in half in the last half century. But more important, ethnic Russians have dwindled from 20 percent of the population in 1960, to 3.6 percent today. A 60-something taxi driver told me that, half a century ago, his elementary school class was 80 percent ethnic Russian.

But, no single ethnic group is large enough to impose its will on the others. Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s mother, Zubeidat, is from the largest group, the Avar. But they only account for 29 percent of Dagestan’s population.

The centerpiece of Dagestan’s Islamic revival, Makhachkala Grande Mosque was financed by Turkey and completed in 1998. Styled after Istanbul’s Sultan Ahmed Mosque, the Grand Mosque can accommodate up to 17,000 worshipers. VOA Photo: James Brooke

As the English language is to modern India, Russian is the lingua franca that allows Dagestanis to communicate with each other. Financially, Dagestan is kept afloat by Russian government subsidies and wage remittances from the 500,000 Dagestanis who work outside of the republic.

Islam should be a unifying force.

One imam told me that 25 years ago, in the late Soviet period, Makhachkala’s 500,000 people were served by one mosque. Today, he said, Makhachkala has 400 mosques. All this in a city founded as a Russian military fortress, a place that was long called Petrovsk, after one early Russian visitor — Czar Peter the Great.

Across Dagestan today, it is hard to stand in a city, without spotting a nearby minaret. Overall, 83 percent of Dagestanis identify themselves as Muslims.

But Islam is split between followers of the Sufi Islam, and the new Salafi Islam introduced by foreign missionaries and Dagestanis who studied in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Emirates.

A lot of today’s violence stems back to this religious divide, a gap that can be as deep as the Sunni-Shia divide in the Middle East.

On the other hand, Dagestanis can be very tolerant.

In Derbent, Russia’s southernmost – and oldest – city (two more superlatives!) Muslim Azerbaijanis and Christian Armenians live and work together in relative harmony. Forty kilometers to the south, in Azerbaijan, pogroms ethnically cleansed that nation of Armenians in the early 1990s. Similarly, neighboring Armenia has pushed out virtually all Azeris from its lands.

So Dagestan is a bundle of contradictions.

But it is a bundle that the Kremlin that will cling to.

About 2,000 years ago, a fortress was raised at Derbent. It blocked trading caravans and raiding tribes from moving south, passing through a three kilometer choke point between the Caucasus Mountains and the Caspian Sea.

Watchtowers looked north. Persian mystics called Derbent the northernmost edge of the world.

Last week, as I walked the tourist-free ramparts of Derbent’s fortress, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it occurred to me that Derbent now serves as the southernmost edge of the Russian empire.

Car bombs will come and go, winning headlines and alarming TV viewers. Many Muscovites think Dagestan as a foreign country. Many Dagestanis talk of traveling ‘to Russia.’

But, following in the footsteps of Peter the Great, Vladimir Putin will not loosen Moscow’s hold on the strategic piece of southern real estate that is Dagestan.

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 Promotes Safe Olympics, Downplays Caucasus Link

Posted May 13th, 2013 at 6:22 pm (UTC+0)
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Russian President Vladimir Putin and British Prime Minister David Cameron look out of the window during a helicopter flight over venues for the upcoming 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi May 10, 2013. Photo: Reuters/Alexei Nikolsky

Why was British Prime Minister David Cameron helicoptering around the Caucasus Mountains recently with Russian President Vladimir Putin?

Ostensibly Putin, host of the 2014 Winter Olympics, was repaying Cameron a favor. Last summer, when Putin was cheering on Russian judo athletes at the London Summer Olympics, the British leader and Olympics host, stopped by for a photo op.

But last Friday’s tour of Russian Olympic sites was part of Russia’s new drive to project the upcoming Winter Olympics as safe.

Russia is run by a generation of men who bear the psychological scars of the Western boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. In that Olympics, most Western nations refused to send athletes to protest the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.

Now, the U.S. media spotlight unexpectedly burns bright on Russia’s Caucasus region, the ethnic homeland of the Boston Marathon bombers, the Tsarnaev brothers.

For these Olympics, Moscow dreads a backdoor boycott by bureaucrats.

For Sochi, the threats are government travel advisories. These anonymous, but powerful, warnings can turn on and off international tourist flows.

There is no strong, direct movement afoot to boycott Russia’s Winter Olympics.

On May 2, Georgia formally reversed an earlier boycott decision and decided to send its athletes to neighboring Sochi. Russia and Georgia broke off relations after the Russian invasion of August 2008.

The only serious boycott calls come from descendants of Circassian peoples who were deported from the area around Sochi 150 years ago. But whether the historical wrong was too long ago, or the people too little known today, the movement has not gained traction.

But on May 3, Britain’s Foreign Office re-issued a pretty standard travel advisory against much of the Caucasus.

Surprisingly, this drew a lengthy and blistering response came from the Russian Embassy in London.

The British travel advisory starts with Dagestan (where I am today), runs west through Chechnya and Ingushetia and stops about 150 kilometers east of where the Winter Olympics will take place next February. The current U.S. government travel advisory covers virtually the same ground. According to Russian government statistics, not cited in the advisories, the political and religious violence in this region has taken about one life a day since the start of this year.

Outside a Winter Olympics skating rink in Sochi, Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron during their visit to venues for the February 2014 Winter Olympics. Photo/Reuters: Alexei Nikolsky

But the Russian Embassy statement protested: “This warning by the Foreign Office to British citizens is bound to give rise to bewilderment. Is the British government better informed on the state of affairs concerning the threat of terrorism on Russian territory than the Russian government?”

Believing that the best defense is a good offense, the diplomatic statement continued: “Judging by information from British specialized services, there remains quite a high terrorist threat throughout Britain, including London and Northern Ireland, where the G8 is due to hold a summit in June.”

Travel advisories from big countries, like Britain and the United States, have a ripple effect as they are often studied by travelers and policy makers in smaller countries. American diplomats are saying that the tenor of the American travel advisory about the Winter Olympics could be affected by the quality of cooperation between Russian and American security forces.

Winning one battle in the war for public opinion, Russian officials quietly blocked the return to Russia of the body of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the lead Boston bomber. His mother, Zubeidat Tsarnaeva, a Russian citizen, said she wanted her son, Tamerlan, a Russian citizen, to be buried here in Dagestan, Russia.

But Russia blocked the move. Their fear, of course, was that his burial here would, at the very least, provoke massive, unwanted Western media coverage, drawing a visual link between the Boston bombing and the Caucasus. Not the kind of PR that Kremlin wants as a time when foreign sports fans are starting to buy tickets and reserve hotel rooms for the Sochi Olympics.

Unwanted in Russia and unwanted in Massachusetts, Tsarnaev’s body was finally buried last Thursday in Doswell, Virginia, 841 kilometers south of his adopted home in Cambridge, Mass.

For comparison, had Tsarnaev been buried here in Makhachkhala, Dagestan, the gravesite would have been a 970 kilometer drive from Sochi.

That is because the two cities – one on the Caspian, the other on the Black Sea – are separated by the Greater Caucasus Mountains. This glorious natural barrier includes 18 peaks over 4,000 meters, starring Mount Elbrus, a 5,642 meter high mountain considered the tallest peak in Europe.

Makhachkala, where Tsarnaev spent six months last year, is so isolated that the capital’s airport has flights to only three other Russian cities. The only way to fly to Sochi from here is through Moscow.

Russian officials suspect that these geographic fine points are lost on Western audiences.
To counter the obscure geography and anonymous government travel advisories, what better than images of British Minister Cameron touring Olympic sites in shirt sleeves in the Sochi sunshine.

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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