Can Russia’s Democracy Movement Lift the Weight of History?

Posted January 12th, 2012 at 4:07 pm (UTC+0)

Still from a 1925, Soviet-era film, 'Devyatoe Yanvarya,

My sons and I are in St. Petersburg, walking across Palace Square toward the green and white baroque façade of the Winter Palace, now the Hermitage Museum. In my mind’s eye, I see images from Dr. Zhivago recreating in film that snowy Sunday of January 22, 1905.

Tens of thousands of protesters are converging on Palace Square, carrying petitions of reforms to Czar Nicholas II. Nervous Imperial Guards fire warning shots in the winter air. The marchers keep advancing. The guardsmen lower their rifle barrels.

For generations of Russians, what happened that afternoon has been memorialized as “Bloody Sunday.”

Fast forward one century. On Saturday, Feb. 4, Alexei Navalny, the rising star of Russia’s political opposition, plans to fulfill a promise he made to 100,000 demonstrators before Christmas holidays: a mass march on the Kremlin.

Will history repeat itself?

At first, Russia’s Omon riot police were tough. Here, a protester in St. Petersburg tries to wriggle free as riot police detained opposition activists during the first protest against alleged vote fraud, on December 5, 2011. Photo: AP

How will Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s “omonchiki” – his well-equipped RoboCop riot police – perform if their backs are against the red brick walls of the Kremlin?
Mr. Putin, a St. Petersburg native, undoubtedly has weighed the consequences of a Bloody Saturday.

In 1905, popular pressure was so great after Bloody Sunday, that the Czar was forced to issue the October Manifesto, creating a national Duma and imbuing this parliament with real legislative power.

In modern times, Putin has enjoyed a compliant, rubber stamp Duma, controlled by United Russia, the ruling party. But today’s protest movement erupted after widespread charges that the Kremlin resorted to fraud to narrowly win the December 4 parliamentary elections. There are now widespread calls to hold new Duma elections in December.
With or without new Duma elections, the groundswell of opposition means that if Mr. Putin is elected president in March, he will have to adapt to ruling in a new, consultative fashion.
Czar Nicholas II had a hard time adapting. He dissolved the first two Dumas.

Russians celebrate the 'October Manifesto

Will Russia’s current autocrat prove flexible?
Nikolai Petrov, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, writes in today’s Moscow Times:
“Since Putin will be a far weaker president in his third term, this will create serious problems for him and his inner circle. Is Putin ready to play such a role? It would seem not. After all, he is used to playing only one role — a combination of “alpha dog” and tsar. He is fundamentally unable to adapt to a constitutional monarchy, much less a democracy. He made this clear during his televised call-in show on Dec. 15. As hard as he tried to appear democratic, tolerant and compromising, he couldn’t help reverting back to his autocratic style and condescending tone toward the people who oppose his course.”
Prime Minister Putin, of course, never compares himself to Czar Nicholas II.

Separated at birth? No, separated by a century. Pyotr Stolypin (beard), Prime Minister to Czar Nicholas II, is hailed as a role model by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (no beard). Serving from 1906 to 1911, Stolypin left a legacy as an authoritarian modernizer.

Instead, he compares himself to Pyotr Stolypin, the Czar’s law-and-order interior minister who became prime minister in 1906. Stolypin stabilized Russia after the revolution of 1905 and introduced a series of modernizing economic reforms.
Last summer, Mr. Putin ordered his cabinet ministers to personally contribute money to a Stolypin monument to rise this April outside Moscow’s White House, the federal government building. Mr. Putin has quoted approvingly a statement to the czar, attributed to Stolypin: “Give me 20 years of calm, and I will reform Russia.”
Opponents of Mr. Putin say this gives historical cover to Putin supporters’ plan to extend his rule over Russia to 2024 — a quarter century in power.
But an advisor to President Dmitry Medvedev commented to me the other day: “The problem with comparing yourself to Stolypin is that we all know what happened to Stolypin.”
One night at the opera in Kyiv in 1911, a radical entered the Prime Minister’s box and shot him fatally in the chest. Radicals hated Stolypin’s for his ruthless campaign against them. In Russia of a century ago, people called the hangman’s noose “Stolypin’s Necktie.”
Yes, all this happened a long, long time ago.
But as Russians look to the future, they keep an eye on the past.
On Monday in Moscow, Sergei Udaltsov, leader of the Left Front and fresh from jail, stood in the snow, exhorting his followers to visit factories to bring workers to the February 4 mass march on the Kremlin. Where did Udaltsov choose to make his appeal: outside the 1905 Street metro station.

Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill conducts an Orthodox Christmas service at Christ The Savior Cathedral in Moscow, Friday, Jan. 6, 2012. The next day, on Orthodox Christmas, he made a televised appeal for Russian authorities to listen to reformers to head off a disaster similar to the Communist revolution of 1917. AP Photo: Misha Japaridze

On Saturday, Kirill I, Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, devoted much of his Orthodox Christmas televised address to warning the nation’s leaders about the folly of ignoring protest.
The Patriarch recalled the mass demonstrations that broke out in St. Petersburg and Moscow in early 1917 as Russia reeled from the massive economic, territorial and human losses of World War I. He said: “If the demonstrations prior to the 1917 revolution had ended in peaceful protests, not being followed by a bloody revolution and fratricidal war, today, Russia would have more than 300 million people and would be on the same level as the USA in terms of economic development, or even higher. We weren’t able to maintain our balance, and we lost our heads. We destroyed our country. Why did this happen? To put it simply, political forces seeking power very cleverly used the just protests of the people.”
Perhaps haunted by history, the Russians I have interviewed at protest demonstrations say they want reform, not revolution.
I once asked a Russian friend, why there is a restaurant in St. Petersburg’s historic core called “1913.”
Russia’s 20th century may have unreeled through his brain, for he responded, sourly: “That was the last good year.”

On a snowless late December day, James Brooke and sons pause on the history trail, Palace Square, St. Petersburg. Photo: Drew Kirchhoff

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.

Are International Astronauts Playing Russian Rocket Roulette?

Posted January 6th, 2012 at 9:36 pm (UTC+0)
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After NASA ended it shuttle program last July, Russia offers the only taxi to space. U.S. astronaut Donald Pettit (L), Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko (C) and Dutch astronaut Andre Kuipers, members of the International Space Station crew, wave before the December 21, 2011 launch of the Soyuz TMA-03M spacecraft at Baikonur cosmodrome, Kazakhstan. REUTERS: Dmitry Lovetsky

On January 15, Russia’s military space forces say, about 30 pieces of the Russia’s Mars probe are expected to crash back to earth, reminders of Russia’s latest botched rocket venture.

In 2011, Russia recorded six failed launches.

Last August 18, a Proton rocket put a telecommunications satellite in the wrong orbit, rendering it useless. A week later, an unmanned Russian Progress supply ship got four minutes into a voyage to the International Space Station when its Soyuz rocket failed, sending it crashing into Siberia.

Then in November, it was the turn of the $170-million Mars probe. It had been designed to travel to Mars, launch a Chinese Mars orbiter, scoop up Martian soil, and then return to Earth – a three year trip. But, shortly after a successful launch, the probe’s engines failed to kick in, dooming it to a low earth orbit and a fiery end this month.

Most recently, on December 23, a Russian-launched Soyuz rocket failed to put a Meridian communications satellite into orbit.

This failure prompted Vladimir Popovkin, administrator of Roscosmos, Russia’s federal space agency, to tell news agencies: “What happened today was a highly unpleasant situation. It confirms that the industry is in crisis and its weakest link is engine-building.”

The crisis in Russia’s space program is not just a problem for insurance companies and for Russia’s international image.

Russia now provides the only taxi service between earth and the International Space Station.

It’s a long way up. The International Space Station orbits between 330 and 410 kilometers above the earth. AP Photo: NASA

Last July, the Atlantis flew NASA’s final shuttle mission to the $100 billion orbiting laboratory. NASA will now rely on Russian Soyuz rockets until a private sector American shuttle service starts up, expected sometime around 2016.

But after the recent rocket failures, one can only wonder: Are Russian cosmonauts and their foreign colleagues playing rocket roulette?

Will we wake up one morning to the kind of disaster news that shook Americans in January 1986 when NASA’s Challenger shuttle blew up shortly after launch?

Moscow’s rocket failures coincide with two other recent reminders of Russian industrial carelessness: the sinking of a Russian oil rig and the burning of a nuclear submarine.
Defenders of Russia’s space program call it “the last bastion of quality control.” That was the phrase used in an excellent article on Dec. 22 by Will Englund in The Washington Post.
The headline, however, warns about the bigger picture: “In Russia, the lost generation of science.”

On Dec. 26, when the launch of a Proton-M rocket carrying a Dutch satellite was postponed for a month, defenders of Russian rockets noted that the launch would have been the 70th successful launch of a Proton since commercial service started in 1995.

Russia’s Soyuz TMA-03M spacecraft carrying Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko, NASA astronaut Don Pettit and the European Space Agency's Andre Kuipers launches on Dec. 21 to the International Space Station from Baikonur. Recent misfires of Russian rockets on unmanned missions has caused nervousness. REUTERS/NASA

Last August, after the crash of the unmanned Progress rocket carrying three tons of supplies to the space station, program defenders noted it was the first failure after 43 successful launches to the space station.

In the winter of 2009, Esther Dyson, the American tech venture capitalist, went through the Russian cosmonaut training program at Star City, outside of Moscow. At the time, I had lunch with Dyson and was impressed by her inside view of the system.

On Saturday, she emailed me her thoughts:
“”Having been on the inside, I would go up myself. What I saw of the Russian space program in many ways reflected the very best of the Soviet era – people genuinely motivated by a great enterprise, with a personal sense of shared mission. I’ll always remember when a seamstress came to adjust my [cloth] flight suit and happened to place a pin on – not in – my space suit. Everyone in the room gasped, as if she had lit a cigarette next to a fuel tank. Nonetheless, space travel is inherently risky, as NASA well knows. It has had its own failures. But as far as I know, space travel is now less risky than climbing Mount Everest… If anyone wants to cede their flight slot to me, I am ready.”

Indeed, as all Americans know, NASA has had its fatal errors.

Of 135 shuttle launches over 35 years, two – the Challenger in 1986 and the Columbia in 2003 – ended in horrible failures, killing a total of 14 crew members.

Though overshadowed by failures of its unmanned rockets, Russia quietly carried out two successful manned launches to the International Space Station, one in November and one in December. With these launches, Russia’s Soyuz rockets safely carried a total of six astronauts to the station.

But, on the ground, there is skepticism of Roscosmos’ fix-it capability.

On Dec. 20, a Soyuz-2 rocket carrying a $500 million satellite misfired, sending pieces crashing near the Siberian city of Tobolsk. One piece, a five kilogram titanium ball crashed through the roof of the home of Andrei Krivorukov. Fortunately, Mr. Krivorukov had just stepped outside to get some firewood.

The Russian press descended on his cottage, amazed at the coincidence that the space junk had fallen on his house — located on Cosmonaut Street.

Mr. Krivorukov sized up the media frenzy, the official promises of a new roof, and the deepening Siberian winter. He decided to pay for the roof repairs himself.
Four days after I posted Rocket Roulette, an explanation came from Roscosmos:

Russia’s space chief says failures may be sabotage
AP Photo MOSB104, MOSB105, MOSB103
Associated Press=
MOSCOW (AP) _ Some recent failures of Russian satellites may have been the result of sabotage by foreign forces, Russia’s space chief said in comments apparently aimed at the United States.
Roscosmos chief Vladimir Popovkin stopped short of accusing any specific country of disabling Russian satellites, but in an interview Tuesday in the daily Izvestia he said some Russian craft had suffered “unexplained” malfunctions while flying over another side of the globe beyond the reach of his nation’s tracking facilities.
Popovkin spoke when asked about the failure of the $170-million unmanned Phobos-Ground probe, which was to explore one of Mars’ two moons, Phobos, but became stranded while orbiting Earth after its Nov. 9 launch. Engineers in Russia and the European Space Agency have failed to propel the spacecraft toward Mars, and it is expected to fall back to Earth around Jan. 15.
Roscosmos spokesman Alexei Kuznetsov refused to elaborate on Popovkin’s comments, which marked the first time a senior Russian government official has claimed that foreign sabotage has been used to disable one of the country’s satellites.
Popovkin said modern technology makes spacecraft vulnerable to foreign influences.
“I wouldn’t like to accuse anyone, but today there exists powerful means to influence spacecraft, and their use can’t be excluded,” he said.
The failed Phobos mission was the latest in a series of recent Russian launch failures that have raised concerns about the condition of the country’s space industries and raised the pressure on Popovkin. Space officials have blamed the failures on obsolete equipment and an aging work force.
Popovkin also said in 2013, Russia will launch three new communications satellites that will be able to retransmit signals from other Russian spacecraft as they fly over another hemisphere.
A retired Russian general alleged last November that the Phobos-Ground satellite might have been incapacitated by a powerful U.S. radar. Nikolai Rodionov, who previously was in charge of Russia’s early warning system, was quoted as saying that a powerful electromagnetic impulse generated by U.S. radar in Alaska might have affected the probe’s control system.
Popovkin said experts so far have failed to determine why the Phobos-Ground probe’s engines failed to fire, but admitted the program had suffered from funding shortages that led to some “risky technological solutions.”
The spacecraft was supposed to collect soil samples on Phobos and fly them back to Earth in one of the most challenging unmanned interplanetary missions ever. It was Russia’s first foray beyond the Earth orbit since a botched 1996 robotic mission to Mars, which failed when the probe crashed shortly after the launch due to an engine failure.
Scientists had hoped that studies of Phobos’ surface could help solve the mystery of its origin and shed more light on the genesis of the solar system. Some believe the crater-dented moon is an asteroid captured by Mars’ gravity, while others think it’s a piece of debris from when Mars collided with another celestial object.

AP-WF-01-10-12 1650GMT

In the latest of series of high profile industrial accidents, a fire burned the rubber coating encasing a Russian nuclear submarine on Dec. 29, 2011, when it was in drydock. Here, firefighters spray water on the Yekaterinburg submarine near Murmansk. The fire injured seven crewmembers, a light toll compared to the 53 oil workers killed earlier in the month when their drilling platform sank in icy waters. AP Photo/Ru-RTR Russian state TV

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.

Message from Sakharov Avenue: Russia’s Emperor Has No Clothes

Posted December 26th, 2011 at 5:23 pm (UTC+0)

For the crowd on Sakharov Avenue, Vladimir Putin has passed his “Emperor Has No Clothes” moment.

So, faced with naked power, they offered him condoms.

Condoms inflated like balloons. A condom wrapped around his head like a grandmother’s shawl. A condom shaped like a rocket ship carrying a Putin image to outer space. A Putin-condom collage, marked: “Warning: Do Not Reuse.” And one speaker addressing the sea of protesters, dressed like a condom.

The condoms were a slap at Russia’s prime minister who joked on national television that he first thought the protesters’ symbols – white ribbons for peace – were condoms.

Joking aside, these condoms pose a fundamental question: will Mr. Putin ever again be able to govern Russia as before?

When an authoritarian leader loses the respect of a large portion of people in a nation’s capital – and when they lose their fear of him — the relationship between the ruler and the ruled either evolves — or ends.

Traditionally, opposition movements march under one banner. They wave similar signs, chant the same slogans and follow a recognized leader. For a ruler, it is easy to negotiate with an organized adversary.

But the key to understanding what happened on Sakharov Avenue Saturday was the proliferation of handmade signs. A myriad of individuals across Moscow dreamed up their own messages, and then fashioned them on kitchen tables, on office computers, or in copy centers.

Putin is not facing an organized opposition movement. He faces something worse: an atomized, but spreading mood of disrespect and rejection.

What do you do about a young woman who fashions a banner at home, carts it through the metro, trudges a kilometer across snow and ice, passes through police checkpoints, all to hold up her message in public: “Fly Away Botox Blimp”?

Going back to the long ago days when Russian politics seemed like a TV game show – actually only three months ago — Russia’s prime minister appeared with unnaturally smooth facial features. Amateur plastic surgery analysts speculate that Russia’s 59-year-old leader had undergone Botox de-wrinkling injections.

Alexei Navalny, an opposition leader, also took up the Botox reference. He dismissively told the crowd, referring to Russia’s ruling tandem of Mr. Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev: “They are pressed cheek to cheek, fresh from the recent skin-tightening, trying to get some warmth. But Botox does not make you warm. As for me, I feel heat radiating from you.”

Another protester took the flight image to heart. He took an enlarged copy of the steely black and white Putin image that served as Time magazine’s cover shot for its 2007 Man of the Year. He attached several balloons. And as photographers snapped, the Putin image floated up and over the crowd, roughly estimated to be near 100,000 people.

On Sakhavov Avenue, it was clear that many Russians do listen to their leaders. They just reject them.

As Russia’s agit prop legacy passes to the Halloween generation, several protesters came Harry Potter-style, dressed as wizards.
After Russia’s ruling United Russia Party officially won about half of the Dec. 4 parliamentary vote, President Dmitry Medvedev praised the national elections commissioner as a ‘wizard.’ Opposition leaders said that without fraud the real vote for the ruling party was about one third.

An elderly man held a white flower, the symbol of the protest movement. His inscription: “Election Results.”

In another Kremlin blooper, the President’s twitter account erroneously released a tweet that described protesters as sheep that provide sex.

In an initial reaction, a large bearded man attended the Dec. 10 protest holding a homemade sign. A big red X was painted over a reasonable depiction of a woolly lamb. The caption: “I am Not a Sheep.”

By Saturday, this theme had evolved into a group of five young women and men holding an even bigger sign, reading: “We are Not Sheep.”
They were dressed, head to toe, as rabbits.

In another political misfire, Mr. Putin told millions of TV viewers that he felt like the powerful python from Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book.” This wise reptile faced the Bandar-logs, an anarchic tribe of scatterbrained monkeys.
Surprise, surprise. Some protesters held signs: “We are not Bandar-logi.”

Navalny, the opposition orator, picked up the animal theme, referring to Mr. Putin’s appearances on state-controlled TV: “These days, with the help of the zombie-box, they try to show us that they are big and scary beasts. But we know who they are. Little sneaky jackals!”

Other protest signs carried a whiff of menace.

One homemade poster was photo-shopped to show Moammar Gadhafi and Vladimir Putin walking side by side, dressed in matching military uniforms. The caption: “Col. Putin and Col. Gadhafi, you are on the true path, comrades!”
The allusion was to Mr. Putin’s rank of colonel in the KGB. Lurking in the background, was Alexander Lukashenko, the long running dictator of Belarus.

Others protesters noted that the Kremlin sent condolences to Pyongyang after the death of Kim Jong Il, North Korea’s “Supreme Leader,” but neglected to send condolences to Prague after the death of Vaclav Havel, the anti-Soviet activist and elected President of the Czech Republic.
On Sakharov Avenue, named after the Soviet-era dissident, elderly protesters carried black and white photographss of the late Czech President, with the inscription: “Havel Would Be With us!”

Other protesters took aim at Mr. Putin’s charge that the protesters were paid by foreign governments and activated by a secret signal from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Signs demanded: “Hillary, Where is My Money?” “Hillary, I am waiting for my money,” “Let’s bankrupt the State Department.”
One man held a sign announcing: “I am Here For Free.”

In the art department, one man went minimalist, carrying a tiny Putin cartoon image atop a long stick. Another went surrealist, showing a Putin face melting like a Salvador Dali clock. The caption: “Time is Running Out.”

Speakers and protesters had an eye on Russia’s political clock. Presidential elections are to be March 4. The opposition wants elections postponed for two months – and for the race to opened up to new faces and new parties.

Chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov, a veteran of Russia’s democracy movement, spoke of the sea change he felt.

“They used to say that we are few and they are many,” he told the crowd. “Now the situation is reversed: We are many and they are few, and we will only grow, because we have lost our fear.”

At the end of the rally, protesters walked toward the metro stations chanting: “We will come again! We will come again!”

One banner was rolled up for next time.
It warned the Kremlin: “We Woke up – and This is Only the Beginning.”

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 Moves into Arctic Oil Frontier With A Lax Safety Culture?

Posted December 22nd, 2011 at 7:00 am (UTC+0)

Stalin keeps popping up at protests in Russia. Almost 60 years after his death, some Russians profess nostalgia for his harsh methods in dealing with incompetence and corruption. Several Stalin images waved Sunday at Russian Communist Party Rally near the Kremlin. AP Photo: Mikhail Metzel

Westerners wonder why images of Stalin ominously pop up at Russian protest rallies. Like most people, Russians cherry pick from their history.

Almost 60 years after Stalin’s death, what appeals to some Russians is not Stalin, the mass murderer, but Stalin, the manager who had incompetents shot.

After six months that brought us the sinking of a decrepit cruise ship drowning dozens of women and children, and the crashing of an aging airplane killing an entire hockey team, now we have an oil drilling platform sinking as it transports 67 men through icy waters — well past the close of the shipping season.

In these three cases, the three companies blame the captain or the pilot, who is, conveniently, dead.

But there is a little snag with Sunday’s sinking of the Kolskaya, an oil rig in the Sea of Okhotsk. The captain was so opposed to moving the 26-year-old drilling rig that he resigned. The rig owner, Arktikmorneftegazrazvedka (AMNGR), refused to his accept his resignation, essentially forcing him to gamble on the passage.

Vladimir Putin, Russia’s current czar, repeatedly tells the world that Russia’s new oil frontier is the Arctic. Last year in Moscow, at Russia’s annual Arctic conference, I recorded Mr. Putin assuring international Arctic experts that, in the wake of the BP oil rig blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, Russia would only adhere to the highest safety and environmental standards when drilling in the Arctic.

But if recent experience is a guide, there will be a meandering investigation of the rig sinking, and then Sunday’s disaster will be swept under the rug. Fifty-three men are dead, no one will go to jail, much less to the firing squad. Russia’s lax safety culture will lumber into the Arctic Energy Era.

On Monday, in a separate case, we again saw this modern syndrome of burying official incompetence. Survivors of 130 people who died in the 2002 siege of a Moscow theater finally won their first judgment against the Russian government – from the European Court of Human Rights. In the siege, police pumped knock out gas into the theater, which had been seized by 40 Chechen terrorists. Although dozens of ambulances were parked outside, no one in the police provided medics with antidotes. Almost all fatalities among the theater-goers were attributed to the knock out gas.

A passenger ship for 67 men well after the northern shipping season closed? No, a 26-year-old oil drilling drig in the wrong place at the wrong time. File photo taken last year in Murmansk, home of the rig's owner, Arktikmorneftegasrazvedka.Reuters Photo: Andrei Pronin

Sunday’s oil rig sinking in the Arctic involved the kind of stunning incompetence that most nations would probably rule criminal.

For starters, the rig arrived to work off the west coast of Kamchatka peninsula in September, at a time when most operations prepare to close down for the season. In the winter, winds barrel down from the Arctic creating dangerously high seas and then pack ice. AMNGR, the rig owner, evidently feared that their rig would be damaged in the ice. So they attempted a 500 kilometer crossing of the Sea of Okhotsk to a safe harbor, south of the 50th parallel in Sakhalin. The safer route south is longer — island hopping down the Kuriles.

I have made about five trips to Sakhalin, all to report on the offshore oil business. If you fly north from Hokkaido at this time of year, you with see floating equipment stored safely for the winter, in Wakkanai, Japan or, in Korsakov, Sakhalin’s southernmost port. For some reason, the owners of the rig decided to move it south almost two months after it had finished drilling, in October.

Sergei Loiko, of The Los Angeles Times, talked to Lyudmila Kozlova, the widow of Alexander Kozlov, the rig captain.
“My husband called me several times and said that the mission was suicidal, as it was prohibited to transport rigs in those waters between Dec. 1 and Feb. 29,” Kozlova told Loiko by phone from the port of Murmansk. “He said the waves were very high, and the wind was very strong and cold and if the platform got all iced over it would surely capsize, which turned true in the end.”

Widows of other crew members have told other media outlets that their husbands had deep misgivings about attempting a crossing in mid-December.

Compounding the tragedy, the rig was carrying 67 people, 14 more than its crew of 53. Because oil rigs can be highly unstable, Russian and international regulations stipulate that only a skeleton crew be on board when rigs are being moved. Of the 67 people on board during the crossing, 60 could have sailed instead on the ice breaker and the tugboat that led the southbound convoy.

So, here is an unstable rig, packed with people like an inter-island ferry in Indonesia, attempting a dangerous northern crossing — out of season.

How did the Yuri Melekhov, AMNGR’s acting general director, describe the disaster at press conference Monday in Murmansk? Force majeure.

The dictionary defines that as “an unexpected and disruptive event that may operate to excuse a party from a contract.”
Presumably AMNGR’s response is legal positioning in hopes of getting some insurance money. I don’t know what company, if any, insured the rig. But the phrase “force majeure” is unlikely to impress international insurers like Lloyds of London, which are very well versed in the arcane world of northern shipping seasons and ice-class vessels.

A friend who worked in oil and gas exploration offshore of Sakhalin emailed me Tuesday: “As I recall, there is a law or reg that requires all rigs to be south of the 50th parallel by 15 Oct, for just this reason. Puts operators under a lot of pressure to get all the work done in one season. So what were they doing out there two months after the deadline? I suspect irregularities, and if it involves Gazprom we’ll not hear more about it.”

Gazprom, Russia’s state energy giant, contracted the research by the exploration rig. But Gazprom is washing its hands of the disaster, saying its contract ended Dec. 4, two weeks before the sinking. And, since Russia’s move into Arctic energy is to be based in Murmansk, Moscow is going to need companies like AMNGR.

If potential criminal negligence surrounded the sinking, more incompetence surrounded the rescue effort.

Although the sinking took place in daylight and stretched out for 20 minutes, the two accompanying ships in the convoy, the icebreaker and tugboat, only managed to rescue one out of five men on board.
From the rig, life rafts were launched empty. In a 21st century version of the Titanic, most men stayed on the deck, believing until too late they were going to be rescued by helicopter.

Some men, in what can only be described as superhuman feats of strength, donned wetsuits and managed to swim far enough in the freezing water to avoid getting pulled down in the deadly whirlpool created by the massive, multi-ton structure as it sank 1,000 meters to the ocean floor.

On nearing the accompanying ships, exhausted survivors apparently encountered more incompetence.

“They thought we would be clambering up, but we were already too weak,” the rig’s chief, Alexander Kovalenko, told a television interviewer. “Everyone shouted, ‘Lifeboats, lifeboats, rafts.’”
“I do not know why captains of the rescue vessels did not drop their rafts,” said Kovalenko, evidently still weak from hypothermia.

The first Russian seamen to venture into the Arctic were the Pomors. About 1,000 years ago, they sailed north out of the White Sea. Braving these icy waters, these resourceful sailors presumably did not need to consult a safey manual before stretching out a hand to a man overboard.

Russia's experience in Arctic waters date back to the Pomors who sailed north out of the White Sea about 1,000 years ago. Painting by Valentin Serov, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

Ten years ago, I was on a list to travel by helicopter to visit Hibernia, the world’s largest oil producing platform, off shore of Newfoundland, in the North Atlantic.
The trip did not take place. Exxon Mobil, the operator, insisted that I take two days of cold water safety training, two days that I did not have. I settled for sitting in a conference room in St. Johns, watching a video about Hibernia.

As Russia moves into the Arctic energy frontier, it is time to implement tough safety regulations and to end impunity for managerial incompetence. You can be smart tough — without being Stalinist.

Addendum: I read in today’s Moscow Times, that the captain of cargo ship that steamed by the sinking Bulgaria without stopping was fined by a judge the equivalent of $4,200. The court accepted his argument that if he stopped his ship, he risked crushing the Bulgaria’s lifeboats. hmmm…
Next up is the case of tugboat captain who also did not stop.

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.

Dmitry Rogozin: Russian Nationalist? Or Secret Advocate for American Taxpayers?

Posted December 18th, 2011 at 7:40 pm (UTC+0)

Dmitry Rogozin: Russian Nationalist or Closet Friend of The American Taxpayer? Russia's ambassador to NATO floats idea of blocking Afghan military supply route through Russia to Afghanistan. Photo: A. Savin.

Is Dmitry Rogozin a secret agent of a clandestine Tea Party/Occupy Wall Street alliance, infiltrated into the halls of NATO?

Mr. Rogozin is Russia’s Ambassador to NATO. By day, he is known as a vocal, articulate advocate of Russian national interests. But, by night, is he a secret advocate of the interests of American taxpayers?

At a Tea Party debate on Nov. 17, Republican presidential candidates faced the question: “The US spends about $2 billion a week in Afghanistan; can American afford it?” Candidate after candidate agreed with Rick Perry, the governor of Texas, who said: “Bring our young men and women home.”
Coincidentally, three days later, I was on vacation in New York City. I found the same “bring the troops home” sentiment among signs at the Occupy Wall Street gathering in lower Manhattan.
In the middle, a number of polls indicate that about two-thirds of Americans want a rapid drawdown from Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, the United States completed it war mission in Iraq on Sunday. The media calculated the nine-year bill at nearly $1 trillion. Two days earlier, the U.S. Congress narrowly averted shutting down the federal government in another fight over budget cuts. Now, as unemployment benefits dry up across America, congressmen are desperately searching for new sources of money.
Into this environment, Rogozin, Russia’s NATO ambassador, threw a bombshell: threatening in remarks to Russian reporters to shut down the American military supply line to Afghanistan. Mr. Rogozin knew he would have the U.S. over a barrel because Pakistan closed NATO’s land-based supply routes in late November.

Back to the future? Soviet armored personnel carriers pull out from Afghanistan in 1988. The Soviet military presence lasted 9 years, and no one in the Kremlin is in a hurry to go back. Photo: Mikhail Evstafiev

But Ariel Cohen, a Heritage Foundation research fellow, spelled out for Russia the consequences in an essay:
“Rogozin forgets that if the U.S. contingent in Afghanistan is trapped or leaves in haste, the Russian troops may need to fight the Taliban on the Tajik border. This will be a disaster for a country that was defeated in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Russia does not have the resources, personnel, or credible allies for such an open-ended engagement.”

Rogozin floated the threat as a way to push the US to drop construction of a defense system in Eastern Europe designed to knock out one or two missiles fired from Iran. Moscow sees this as ultimately destabilizing a world balance of power, which is predicated on its possession of roughly 1,300 missiles and about 3,500 nuclear warheads.

Rogozin failed to realize that if he pushed the Americans on Afghanistan, he was pushing on an open door.

Given the needed budgetary cuts and the low public support for the war, many powerful people in Washington would be happy to hand off to the Kremlin all or part of the $2 billion a week Afghan bill.

Evidently, that reality penetrated the thick walls of the Kremlin. Someone sat on Rogozin. Now, he says Russian reporters took his threat “out of context.”
After the failure of his Afghan trial balloon, Rogozin now is embarking on a new project. He has just joined the leadership of the campaign to elect Vladimir Putin president.

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 Protesters for Reform: 21st Century Dekabristi?

Posted December 14th, 2011 at 7:52 pm (UTC+0)

A world traveler, Olga works in Moscow and enjoys traveling to Europe and the US. She is part of a new generation of Russians who see Western travel as their unalienable birthright. VOA Photo: James Brooke

At Centrale, an Italian thin crust pizza restaurant, a European soccer match was on the big screen, American pop music wafted out of the sound system and Olga was nibbling on her Norwegian salmon carpaccio.
I asked her how many foreign countries she had visited.
“Italy, Switzerland, France, Turkey, Egypt, Greece, Spain – four times, I liked Spain – U.S., Bulgaria, um…Maldives, and Croatia,” the 26-year-old ad account manager said. “I love to travel.”
Ok. And how many countries had your mother visited when she was your age?
“Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Ukraine — of course it wasn’t a country then,” she said.
When Vladimir Putin was 26, he could only dream of the plum KGB assignment that he won seven years later — East Germany.

Fast forward to 2011. Mr. Putin, now prime minster, is grappling the fruits of the decade of stability he provided Russia.
This December, the largest protests in a generation have broken out across Russia. Olga was home nursing a cold and skipped the Moscow protest. But it was her generation out there — middle class, university-educated, in their 20s and 30s, people with exposure to the outside world.

Two weeks from now, when the last New Year’s eve flight takes off packed with Russian holiday makers, the total number of Russians traveling this year outside the former Soviet Union is expected to hit 15 million. That means that roughly 10 percent of Russia’s population has traveled outside Russia this year.
Olli Perheentupa, Finland’s consul general in St. Petersburg expects that his office will issue nearly 1 million visas to Russians this year, making it the busiest consular office in the world.
Then there’s virtual travel. Fifty-one million Russians – about 40 percent of adults – now regularly cruise the world on the Internet.

Never in history, has there been such a massive, peaceful exposure of Russians to the West. (Note, I stress peaceful: I rule out Polish invaders in the 17th century, French in the 19th century, and Germans in the 20th century.)

Prime Minister Putin knows Russian history very well. He knows the story of Russia’s last December rebels, the “Dekabristi.”

In 1815, at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, Russian officers returned from occupation duty in Paris and chafed under the autocratic rule of the czar. They demanded a constitutional monarchy, freedom for serfs, and equality under law. After a decade of debate and organizing, they rose up in St. Petersburg on Dec. 26, 1825.

The revolt failed. The top leaders were publicly hung. Others were exiled to Siberia.
Although the revolt failed, these first Dekabristi occupy a beloved place in Russian history.

Nearly two centuries later, experts on the Dekabristi generally agree that the key destabilizing element was direct and prolonged exposure of a group of Russian elites to 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.

Russia’s Great December Evolution Moves Faster Than The Kremlin?

Posted December 12th, 2011 at 5:27 am (UTC+0)

Protesters carry white carnations to signify that the rally is peaceful. White ribbons are the new symbol of Russia's protest movement. VOA Photo: Yuli Weeks

They call it Russia’s Great December Evolution — a peaceful counterpoint to the Great October Revolution of 1917.
Civility, friendliness and unity in disgust with Russia leadership were the hallmarks of Moscow’s mass meeting to protest what was called blatant election fraud.
Nationalists with Czarist flags marched next to Communists, next to aging dissidents — all amidst a sea of seemingly unaffiliated, first time demonstrators. With the exception of the ruling United Russia Party, the whole Russian political soup was there. They stood together in the cold of the first winter snow.
Everyone I approached was happy to openly vent into a VOA microphone.
Anger was high over widespread corruption. Humiliation was clear over the announcement last September by President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin of their choreographed job pirouette. In retrospect, that job swap plan may have been a bridge too far.

A slice of the crowd that gathered Dec. 10 in Moscow to protest alleged vote rigging in Russia's parliamentary elections. Russians protested alleged vote rigging in cities from the Pacific to the Baltic, a striking show of indignation, challenging Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's hold on power. AP Photo:Mikhail Metzel

Igor Khodorov, a 33-year-old employment agency worker, said he had not been to a demonstration since he was a student, in the 1990s. Corruption was on his mind as we marched in the tight crowd across a Moscow River bridge, with the red walls of the Kremlin fading into the snow, and the demonstration site, Swamp Square, nearing in the half light. Massive riot police trucks ground past, but he spoke his mind bluntly:
“The leadership of Russia is so corrupt that stealing millions of votes is no harder for them than picking someone’s pocket in this crowd.”

After a decade, the magic spell of Putinism has been broken for many Russians.
For a decade, Vladimir Putin successfully ran Russia by wrapping himself in the flag of political stability. Stability is deeply desired by many Russians who feel burned by their two 20thcentury revolutions – the rise of Communism in 1917, and the fall of Communism in 1991.
To remind Russians of the benefits of Putin-provided stability, state-run Russia 24 news channel begins every hour with a 60-second round up video of recent street violence from around the world – looters in London, anarchists in Athens, police wrestling with Occupy Wall Streeters in New York.
So, last week, when Russia’s election protests spread like wildfire over the internet, Kremlin Cassandras loudly warned of the worst. When protests hit the streets, police cracked down hard, arresting hundreds. Detainees reported being beaten – before and after being thrown into prison wagons..

Russian police on Revolution Square prepare to channel protesters to a larger protest site, Bolotnaya Polschads, or Swamp Square. Photo: AP

Faced with a mass demonstration called for Saturday, the Kremlin let it go ahead, but only after surrounding protesters with a Hollywood style military operation that seemed designed to contain bomb-throwing anarchists.
Protesters marched between long lines of police. On leaving, everyone walked past a long line of riot policemen wearing Robocop armor. Long lines of gray metal prison trucks waited on side streets.
But, by the end of the day, there had been no violence, no detentions. Not one window was broken. Not one line of graffiti was sprayed.
Across Russia, similar protests were held in dozens of cities. Overwhelmingly, they too were peaceful.
Anton Krasovsky, an NTV political talk show host, posted on his Facebook page: “To all those who were yelling that there would be blood, who hoped for bodies, for provocations, what did you get?”
A Kremlin ideologue once told me that Russians only respond to the red flag and the black flag. In this paternalistic mindset of the Kremlin, Russians do not yet have the political maturity to elect their own mayors and governors. (Unlike the Brazilians and the Indians).
But, in this “Father Knows Best” world view, the children proved themselves on Saturday to be adults. Russia’s fast evolving middle class showed that political protest does not mean tacking a red flag or a black flag to a baseball bat. The new byword is peaceful dissent.

Aleksei Navalny, the most popular opposition leader, sent Saturday’s gathering an address from jail where he is serving a 15-day sentence for resisting police at the first post-election protest, on Monday night.
“Everyone has the single most powerful weapon that we need ― dignity, the feeling of self-respect,” he said. “It’s impossible to beat and arrest hundreds of thousands, millions. We have not even been intimidated. For some time, we were simply convinced that the life of toads and rats, the life of mute cattle, was the only way to win the reward of stability and economic growth. We are not cattle or slaves. We have voices and votes and we have the power to uphold them.”
Building on Saturday’s peaceful rally, organizers now are using social networking sites to organize a second one in Moscow, on Dec. 24. Their goal: 500,000 people.
The terms of Russia’s political debate are changing fast. On Saturday, a popular chant was: “New Year’s Without Putin!”
Now, the world asks this question for Russia’s leaders: Can they evolve fast enough to keep up with their citizenry?

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: TV Generation Cracks Down on Internet Generation

Posted December 6th, 2011 at 7:14 pm (UTC+0)


After the protest, Irina, age 21, Google-chatted me at 1 am from her apartment: “For the first time in my life I felt like I have many pals in this city.” She had just joined the largest demonstration seen in Moscow in years — 6,000 Muscovites charging that blatant and massive electoral fraud took place in their city.

On Sunday night, election night, a Kremlin-funded exit polling company said 27 percent of voters voted for the ruling United Russia party. The next morning, the Kremlin-controlled election authorities reported that 46.5 percent of the city’s votes went for United Russia.

In almost identical bedroom communities, divided only by an avenue, people on one side of the street voted 25 percent for the government. On the other side of the street, 60 percent of people voted for the government.
So how had Irina magically discovered so many like-minded, outraged people, all gathering at 7 pm around Chistii Prudi metro station, only two blocks from the looming headquarters of successor agency to the KGB?
“For the last two days, my Facebook page has exploded with everyone talking about the election,” she told me. Dozhd TV, a privately-owned internet channel, now calls it “The Facebook Revolution.”


On Monday night, state-run TV did not air images of 300 people arrested at the downtown Moscow protest. Instead they trained their cameras two blocks away — on a state-sponsored “Clean Elections” rally that had the look of a high school pep rally. The political conflict shaping up in Russia today is between the Television Generation and the Internet Generation.

On Sunday, the TV Generation won Round One. Officially, 49.64 percent of Russians voted for the ruling party. Opposition leaders like Vladimir Ryzhkov estimate that only one third of voters cast ballots for United Russia, and fraud took care of the rest. There were some interesting results.

Dagestan, an impoverished southern region, is in such a state of violent rebellion that a BBC report two weeks ago called it: “The Most Dangerous Place in Europe.” Yet on Sunday, 92 percent of Dagestanis who voted cast their ballots for the Kremlin’s United Russia party. Neighboring Chechens outdid them, with 99.5 percent voting for the official party. (This is a touching change of heart as Prime Minister Vladimir Putin led the second war against Chechen separatists in the fall of 1999. This year-long conflict resulted in about 65,000 dead on both sides.) These impoverished areas on Russia’s southern edge have some of the nation’s lowest Internet connectivity rates.

Russian blogger Alexei Navalny often gets 1 million hits for each post on Life Journal. Moscow riot police gave him some hits of a different kind for participating Monday in a large street protest against electoral fraud. As police trucks occupied central Moscow Tuesday, Navalny was taken to court where he received a 15-day jail sentence. Protests continued – and spread to new cities – on Tuesday. Photo: Reuters/Anton Golubev

But in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and the 10 ‘millioniki’ – provincial capitals with 1 million people – Internet connectivity rates are fast approaching levels of Western Europe. By some estimates, 90 percent of Moscow households are now online. And Moscow now concentrates almost 10 percent of the nation’s total population.

So who was the Kremlin’s number one target in days prior to the election?

Golos, or Voice, is a small non-governmental office, with about eight fulltime employees. It’s located on a back street in Moscow, up two flights of stairs from a book review magazine. One week before the election, Prime Minister Putin fired the starting gun for the attack. In nationally televised remarks, he made a veiled attack on the largely foreign-funded group, comparing it to Judas, the Biblical traitor of Jesus. Almost immediately, prosecutors raided Golos. A judge fined it $1,000. On Friday, NTV, a state TV channel, devoted a 30-minute, prime time attack documentary to Golos. On Saturday, customs agents at Moscow’s Sheremeyetevo Airport detained the Lilia Shibanova, the Golos director, for 12 hours. Following telephoned instructions, they confiscated her laptop.

Before the sun rose on voting day, Golos’ website went dark, a victim of as many as 50,000 spam attacks a second. Spam disabled its email and SMS accounts. Waves of robot calls tied up Golos’ hotline telephone numbers all day long.

Responding to Moscow’s “Facebook Revolution,” Russian police detained 300 participants during an opposition protest in central Moscow on Monday. On Tuesday, they detained the same number. Protesters called Sunday’s parliamentary elections “a farce,” riddled with fraud. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin responded by flooding downtown Moscow with dozens of prison trucks and thousands of police. Photo: Reuters/Anton Golubev

Why was Golos the Kremlin’s Public Enemy Number One?

Golos is Russia’s only independent election observer group. Working with the, the online arm of a Moscow newspaper, it hosts an interactive website –

This is a map of Russia, showing in glow red dots the locations of reported cases of election fraud. Internet users can click on their city and scroll through reported violations – 7,135 nationwide, last time I checked. For a system built on secrecy, the transparency of a national internet billboard of election fraud reports was toxic. On voting day, professional hackers – Shibanova charges they are from the FSB, the KGB’s successor agency – knocked down Golos, and about half a dozen independent media sites.

Attesting to the power of the Internet, one affected site, from Echo Moscow radio, draws 2 million individual visitors a month. Echo Moscow and others fought back, offering their news through Facebook and Twitter. Another site,, featured films and denunciations of government workers busing groups of voters from one polling station to the next. Smartphones are the universal badge of membership for Russia’s middle class. On Sunday, voters had a field day filming the unfilmable — for the entire nation to see. In one, Yegor Duda, a bearded volunteer election observer, tiptoes down a stairwell filming a gray suited election official as he apparently checks the United Russia box on a fat stack of blank paper ballots. When confronted, the official responds: “Go away!” Yegor did as he was told. He went home. He then posted the video on YouTube. Oops!

As of Tuesday afternoon, 1.1 million people had watched the video. So many videos have been posted that President Medvedev cautioned Russians Monday about their authenticity. The warning probably only boosted internet viewership. Taking on the protesters, Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin’s ideologue, posted this message on LiveJournal: “Stop wailing, I am sick of you.”

On Sunday, hackers attacked Live Journal, rendering access spotty to Russia’s top blogging site, a space that increasingly is dominated by independent and opposition critiques of Russia.
Alexey Navalny, one of Live Journal’s most popular bloggers, coined a label that United Russia can’t seem to shake. One year ago, he called the ruling party “the party of thieves and swindlers.” Today, if you do a Google search in Russian for United Russia, the most associated phrase that pops up will be “thieves and swindlers.” In a nationwide poll taken last month, more than one third of respondents agreed with the label that Navalny hung around the neck of United Russia – “the party of thieves and swindlers.”

In Russia’s blogosphere, Navalny, a square-jawed, blue-eyed 35-year-old, is seen as a potential presidential candidate in the March 4 elections. But Prime Minister Putin does not want the competition. The authorized candidates are three aging leaders who have been on the political scene here for 20 years. So Monday night, Moscow’s OMON riot police zeroed in on Navalny. They took him out of action, forcing him into a police bus.

From the dark confines of the bus, came a Tweet. “I am in an OMON bus with other guys. They send their greetings to everyone.” As his wife posted news of his 15-day jail sentence, an initial wave of 2,500 sympathizers posted comments on his blog.

Two weeks ago, a data company reported that 51 million Russians now go on line – about 40 percent of the adult population. In the last year, viewership of top Sunday news programs on state-controlled TV dropped by 10 to 14 percent. Last Sunday night, several commentators on state-run television looked at plummeting results for the ruling party and used several variations of the Russian word “katastrofa.” They were soon brought into line. But many analysts believe that this will be Russia’s last election where TV will be the dominant factor. Middle class Russians now take internet freedom as their birthright, along with foreign travel and the ability to choose among 50 models of foreign made cars.

Alexei Venediktov, director of Echo Moscow radio, was unfazed by the hacker attacks on his station. He says of Internet freedom in Russia, “the toothpaste is out of the tube.” Walking home early Tuesday morning, after filing interviews with two protest organizers, I realized that their work was helped by warm temperatures. For early December, Moscow temperatures were unseasonably balmy – 5 degrees C – no need for scarf, hat and gloves.

Unfortunately, for the Kremlin, the weather here feels, oddly, like Spring.

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.

Syria: Russia Clings to Legacy of Soviet Ties in Arab World

Posted November 29th, 2011 at 7:30 pm (UTC+0)

Next stop Syria: The Russian Navy's aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, is preparing to steam from the Arctic to Tartus, Syria, where Moscow has maintained a naval base on the Mediterranean for 40 years. Photo: AP

As Russia’s lone aircraft carrier prepares to steam from the Arctic to a Russian-operated naval base in Syria, Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s Foreign Minister, is on the attack, warning against outside military intervention in Syria’s slow motion civil war.

“It’s not so much the authorities, but armed groups that are provoking the unrest,” Lavrov told reporters on Tuesday. He urged all parties to pressure Syria’s political players to forego violence saying: “This has to do with what the authorities are doing, but even more, this applies to the armed groups that work in Syria and which maintain contacts with a host of Western countries and a host of Arab states. Everyone knows this.”

After being on the losing sides in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Yemen, Russia now is making a stand in Syria.
The Kremlin hopes the Arab Spring will wither into the Arab Winter.

No foreign military interference in Syria! Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warns Arab ambassadors gathered in Moscow on Monday, the day after the Arab League voted to impose sanctions on Syria's Government. Photo: AP/Sergey Ponomarev

On Monday, the day after the Arab League voted to impose sanctions on Syria, Lavrov addressed Arab ambassadors in Moscow. He stressed the Kremlin’s policy that internal problems “should be resolved peacefully through national dialogue aimed at promoting civil harmony and without outside interference.”

The meeting seemed to be a warm up for an expected veto by Russia if the Arab League asks the United Nations Security Council to approve sanctions against Syria.

Russia has a lot at stake in Syria. And, despite the talk of peace, most of these stakes are military. For over half a century, Moscow has been the main arms supplier to Syria.
The Kremlin’s stake in Syria stretches all the way back to the Suez Crisis of 1956.
That year, Moscow signed a military aid pact with Damascus.
Relations further tightened after the bloodless coup of 1970 that started the dynasty of the Assads, leaders of the nation’s Alawite minority. A few months after the coup, Moscow signed an agreement for the installation of a naval supply and maintenance base at Tartus, a port in the traditional heartland of the Alawites.

During the Soviet era, Tartus was a key base for Soviet Navy’s Mediterranean Fleet. When the Soviet Union collapsed 20 years ago, this fleet was disbanded and Russian naval power largely receded from the Mediterranean.

These Syrian women living in Jordan don’t seem to want Russian military support for Syria's President Bashar Al-Assad. At a demonstration in front of Syria’s embassy in Amman on November 17, they shout slogans against the Assad government, which the United Nations blames for deaths of 3,000 protesters this year. Photo: Reuters/Majed Jaber

At Tartus, floating docks fell into disrepair and Russian Navy visits became infrequent. Then in 2008, when Russia was flush with oil money, Moscow started to renovate the base. The stated goal was to once again make it Russia’s window on the Mediterranean.

According to the newspaper Izvestiya, 600 Russian technicians now work in Tartus, upgrading facilities, dredging the harbor, and preparing for Russian Navy port calls. Next week, the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov is to start steaming from the Arctic toward Tartus. The Kuznetsov, which carries at least 10 late model Sukhoi and Mig fighter jets, is to be joined by two other Russian Navy vessels.

Russia’s show of naval force comes one week after an American naval task force, led by the USS George H.W. Bush, the Navy’s newest aircraft carrier, arrived off Syria’s coast.

If gunboat diplomacy is the cards, Russia has an advantage on land. Hundreds of active duty Syrian officers have trained at Russian military academies. Russia-trained Alawite officers could attempt a palace coup, according to one scenario explored by Nour Malas in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal.

These pro-government protesters in Damascus don’t show signs of planning to retreat to an Alawite coastal statelet. They carry a huge portrait of Syrian president Bashar Assad during a protest against the Arab League on Friday. Two days later, the bloc voted to impose economic sanctions against Damascus for its eight-month long crackdown on dissent. Photo: AP/Muzaffar Salman

Malas quotes an Alawite officer saying from exile in Jordan: “Once they get the green light from Russia, the (Alawite officers) may well go ahead.”

But it is unlikely that Syria’s Sunni majority would accept a revolving door of Alawite minority rule.

In another scenario, Syria would disintegrate into a loose ethnic federation. In this case, the Alawites would retreat to their historical coastal stronghold, an area that was a mini-state during the French Mandate period of 1920-1946. Under this scenario, Sunnis would control Damascus and Aleppo, the nation’s two largest cities. On the Alawite-controlled coast, Russian basing rights would endure intact.

But, it is unlikely that Sunni rulers in Damascus would settle for running a landlocked, rump state.
For now, Moscow is talking peace — but is starting to brandish its big stick.

“A scenario involving military intervention in Syrian affairs is absolutely unacceptable for us,” Foreign Ministry Spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said on Friday, on the eve of the Arab League’s vote to impose sanctions.

Then, on Sunday, within hours of the Arab League vote, a Russian Navy General Staff officer briefed Izvestiya about the deployment of the aircraft carrier to Syrian waters.

As the Kremlin moves its military pieces on the strategic chessboard, at stake in Syria is one of Russia’s two remaining major Arab allies on the Mediterranean. If Syria goes, only Algeria remains from the glory years of Soviet diplomacy in the Arab 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.

Russia: Ground Shifting Under Putin’s Feet?

Posted November 18th, 2011 at 7:09 am (UTC+0)

Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin meets with members of the Valdai international discussion group of experts in Krasnogorsk outside Moscow. Putin promised modernization of Russia's political and economic system, without going into details. REUTERS: Alexsey Druginyn

The other evening, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin sketched out his vision of Putin 2.0.

Speaking to the Valdai Club, an annual gathering of foreign and Russian academics and journalists, he offered a gradualist, evolutionary path for ruling Russia through what will be his 60s. Like many men of his age, Mr. Putin dwelled on his past achievements. He offered a future policy of tweaking an already winning strategy.

Watch out, Vladimir Vladimorich, as you prepare for your second decade ruling Russia, the ground may be shifting under your feet.

As he spoke, ComScore, an internet research company was finalizing a report that says Russia has overtaken Germany to have the largest number of internet users in Europe – 50.8 million people. About 40 percent of Russian adults are now online, a figure expected to reach 60 percent during the six-year term that Mr. Putin seeks in the March 4 presidential election.

For the first time, opposition critiques of the Putin government are regularly scoring over one million hits on the Internet. Shut out of state controlled TV, “Citizen Poet,” an internet political satire show, draws six million hits weekly. YouTube, Facebook, and LiveJournal are popular mediums for unfettered debate on Russia’s problems.

Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin gestures as he meets with members of the Valdai international discussion group. Participants said direct questions received vague answers. REUTERS/Maxim Shipenkov/Pool

Two weeks before Dec. 4 parliamentary elections, United Russia, the ruling party, is struggling with approval ratings that have slumped to 51 percent. And in the six weeks since Mr. Putin and Russia’s President Dimitry Medvedev announced their plan to switch jobs next year, Mr. Putin’s approval rating has fallen to 61 percent. That is high by Western standards, but the lowest since he first took national office in 2000.

I have seen this before, hard working dictators who perform so well, that they work themselves out of their jobs. Chile’s Augusto Pinochet and Peru’s Alberto Fujimori defeated armed insurgencies, ended hyperinflation and stabilized their economies. But neither leader knew when or how to exit. Voters forgot why they wanted authoritarian leaders in the first place, and then turned on their tough guys.

When I first moved to Moscow five years ago, Russian eyes would mist over and knees would grow wobbly at the mention of…Gen. Pinochet. (I did not spoil these magic moments by describing how a large Chilean riot policeman once chased me down a street of Santiago, brandishing a large oaken club).

Russia is over its secret love affair with the Chilean Army general in the Prussian-style uniform. The Caucasus has been quieted, by rivers of rubles and by a television blackout. This quarter, Russia’s economy completes its recovery from the 2008 nosedive.

Now Russians seem restless. They want more.

But it does not look as if they are going to get more under Putin 2.0.

At the Valdai dinner, it fell to Timothy Coulter, a Harvard professor, to bell the cat, to speak truth to power.

“The present model of government, which took shape in Russia in the last 10 or 12 years, appears to have exhausted its potential or is about to reach that point,” said Coulter, chairman of Harvard’s Government Department. Referring to conclusions adopted by the roughly 400 Valdai participants, he continued: “So the majority of our group – I don’t say all, but the majority anyway – are saying this year that Russia is facing formidable challenges. And what’s going on now isn’t very practical. Perhaps things will look different after the elections, when you become president again. But it cannot go on and on endlessly.”

He also cited the group’s report that said Russia has “no efficient parliamentary system, no independent judicial system.” Political parties were “imitations.” And corruption was out of control.

In response, Mr. Putin responded that he had rebuilt Russia and its economy since the economic crisis of 1998 and the wars in the Caucasus. Looking ahead, he promised “modernization,” steps to increase “links” between citizens and government officials, and implementation of Russia’s national development plan.

Then the official transcript stops. But the day after the meeting, I had dinner with one participant, Anatol Lieven, a professor at King’s College London. He conveyed a disappointment expressed by other participants: a lack of details on modernization, and no indication that Putin will confront corruption.

Instead, according to Prof. Lieven, Putin 2.0 may be a complacent extension of Putin 1.0, complete with scratchiness with the West.

Russia’s prime minister assailed NATO’s bombing campaign in Libya as “a tragedy” and “an absolute outrage.” Speaking a few weeks after the death of Col. Moammar Gadhafi, this simply reminds Libya’s new leaders that Russia backed the other side in their civil war. (Note to Kremlin: If you are in a hole, stop digging!)

Mr. Putin zeroed in on missile defense, complaining that the West does not listen to him. He threatened to post his own missiles. While Mr. Putin’s complaints seem sincere, they also seem irrational to many people in the West. NATO’s goal of missile defense is to stop an Iranian missile from delivering a nuclear bomb to Western Europe.

Russia is believed to have around 4,000 active nuclear warheads. Westerners do not see how a picket line designed to knock down one or two Iranian missiles will alter the strategic balance of power in Europe. But, as the Kremlin sees it, the camel’s nose will be under the tent.

Turning to another point of contention with Europe, Mr. Putin grabbed a notebook and sketched an expose of how shale gas’ “fracking” technology threatens drinking water in Europe.

Behind his concern over European water quality is the knowledge that in the last decade, shale gas rendered North America self-sufficient in natural gas. With Poland and Ukraine now investing heavily in shale gas, this new technology could further dent natural gas prices in Western Europe.

So in the decade ahead, Russia’s leadership may have to grapple with two game-changing technologies.

The Internet threatens the Kremlin’s carefully constructed media monopoly.

Shale gas could deliver an ax-blow to its resource-based economic model.

After a decade of ‘stabilnost,’ Russians seem increasing forgetful of why they once wanted an authoritarian ruler.

Looking to the decade ahead, they seem increasingly dissatisfied with a leader whose policy for the future is to tweak the status quo.

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.



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.



June 2024
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