Russia’s Red and Blacks: A Tale of Two Generations

Posted November 10th, 2011 at 6:41 pm (UTC+0)

This is a tale of Moscow’s two demonstrations — first the Nationalists, then the Communists , It is not just a tale of the Blacks and the Reds, but a tale of two generations.

“Russkii Sport” chanted one flying squad of nationalists. And, on signal, they threw themselves horizontal on the cold, gray asphalt, pumping out pushups.

It looked a mite comical with their winter coats, and the scarves their babushkas had probably forced on their tough guy grandsons.
I thought of the Women Talk column that Svetlana Kolchik, a friend, had written two days earlier for Ria Novosti: “Where are the Men?”
C’mon Svetlana, you should have taken the Marino metro line almost to the end, to Lyublino. Ok, all the guys wore black, many covered their faces with bandannas, and some snapped sinister stiff arm salutes.
The nationalists were young, male, and angry.

Targeting Russia’s ruling United Russia party, one group carried a banner that showed United Russia’s bear symbol dragging a bag of loot. They chanted: “Down with the party of thieves and swindlers.”.

Young Russian Nationalists hit the pavement to show their fitness in rightwing Russian March VOA Photo: James Brooke

Targeting Muslim immigrants, one squad of 40 young men, clearly pumped for action, chanted: “Arm yourselves! Don’t tolerate them!”

One large banner read in English: “Gaddafi Is Killed, Who’s Next?”

Oh, I thought, more whining about the demise of the Kremlin’s favorite dictator. Then, the group’s chant started to sink in, ever louder: “Rossiya Bez Putina! Rossiya Bez Putina!”

They were chanting: “Russia Without Putin! Russia Without Putin!”

As a youth, I grew up next door to William Shirer, author of “Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.” When I became interested in journalism, we met and talked a few times in the 1970s – 40 years after he had covered the early years of Nazi Germany. Now 40 years after those conversations, as I stood on the cold sidewalks of Lyublino, I felt a whiff of Germany, a la 1931.

While standing near a metro exit, a large man in a black jacket accosted me. He sneered: “I suppose you would like to see Moscow all American?”

As a seasoned street-wise reporter, I read this as the awkward appeal of a lonely soul who wanted to talk. So we chatted for a while, warily.

His main assertion: 90 percent of Muscovites share nationalist anger over the massive influx of migrant workers from the Muslim south – Central Asia and Russia’s own Caucasus.

Startlingly, I found sympathy for the nationalists from two people I interviewed at random as they came out of the metro. Blinking in the sun of a holiday afternoon, they had stumbled on the public rage of the black jackets.

Three days later, the Reds had their turn.

The Communists marched down Tverskaya, Moscow’s central shopping avenue. The police seemed to be mostly concerned with picking up plastic traffic cones, restoring Moscow traffic to its rush hour paralysis. Two ambulances closely followed the parade, standing by in case a marcher had a stroke.
The Communists were poor and old. They were overwhelmingly pensioners, women fumbling in their purses for the right coins to pay for a cheaply printed Communist newspaper.

Pensioners and nostalgia for the Soviet era dominated the Communist march in central Moscow. VOA Photo: Yuli Weeks

Gennadi Zyuganov, the Communist leader, gave a brave speech about new blood coming into the party and new (invisible) brigades of Communist Youth.

But marchers under 40 years of age clustered together, evincing the kind of self conscious uneasiness that some people show when they visit a retirement home.

Viktor, a retired construction worker, said life was great under the USSR: “Free education, free health care, guaranteed work.” When I asked if his children were helping out, he said they had all turned out “bumzhi” – bums. A harsh verdict on a cold gray evening in the stone city (Moscow).

As the red banners passed the Zara clothing store, reportedly the most expensive street level merchant space in Moscow, I watched as sleek metrosexual salesmen cautiously peeked through their window displays. They looked out as if their luxury turf was being invaded by Martians.

The sea of red flags, the comfortable old language of 5-year plans, and the chance to meet with old comrades were the main attractions. Few people I talked to expressed the slightest hope that December’s parliamentary elections will change anything.

I asked one woman why she was buying a newspaper.

She responded: “You are a big American jerk.”

(Gee, how did she see through my disguise so quickly?)

As a seasoned street-wise reporter, I coolly sized her up.

To me, she looked like an older, shrunken version of Rosa Xhleb, the ex-KGB colonel in “From Russia with Love”. In that movie, Col. Xhleb pops a poisoned blade out of the toe of her shoe and repeatedly tries to kick James Bond.

With that vision in my head, I decided to keep moving.

As I walked away, she actually cackled: “Xa, xa, xa, XA.”

This Rosa Xhleb, 2011 edition, was clearly delighted that, there on Tverskaya, only two blocks from the Kremlin, that she had unmasked a “vrag naroda” – enemy of the people.

The march ended on Theater Square. But the Communists turned their back on the neo-classical front of the Bolshoi Theater. A few years ago, workers removed the hammer and sickle from its place of honor. They restored the double headed eagle of Czarist Russia.

Only one week before the Communist march, Theater Square was the stage for the gala reopening of the Bolshoi, capping a lavish, six year, $680 million renovation. Instead, the Communists faced the grey granite statue of Karl Marx, the largest in Russia. There, the “Lenin Generation” bathed in the warmth of the old songs and slogans of their youth.

The Kremlin evidently sizes up the Communists as yesterday’s people. Not a future threat, they get prime time and prime real estate for their march.

In contrast, the angry young men in black got police helicopters, detention trucks, and a desolate, windswept marching site that cried out: Siberia!

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.

Russian Nationalists Aim Double Standard Critique at Muslim South

Posted November 7th, 2011 at 7:08 pm (UTC+0)

Nicole, a Moscow State Linguistics University journalism student, showed up for dinner Sunday night, a bundle of energy, ready to interview me for her thesis. I was more interested in what she had to say, so I asked if anyone had approached her on the 10 minute walk from Kievskaya metro station to the Georgian restaurant.

“Stop Feeding The Caucasus” reads a banner held by protesters, backed by Czarist-era flags, at nationalist rally in Moscow, on Nov. 4, a holiday ironically called “National Unity Day.” VOA Photo: James Brooke

Although bundled up like a winter fur ball — coat, hat, scarf, mittens, boots — Nicole said she walked the usual gauntlet of leers and sexual invitations from young men from the Caucasus who hang around the metro exits. In fact, she said, it has become so common that she had not even thought about it, until I asked her specifically.

I had been pondering something very strange that I noticed Friday at the rally in Moscow of 7,000 Russian nationalists.
There was a total absence of signs denouncing the USA or NATO.
Instead, the Nationalists were entirely focused inward, largely on the Caucasus.

“Stop Feeding the Caucasus,” seemed to be the most a popular slogan, objecting to the billions of dollars funneled south to pacify Russia’s heavily Muslim southern border region. Another was: “Stop Stealing from Russian Regions.”

If you want to draw a nationalist crowd in Moscow this season, don’t waste your energy hyperventilating about Kosovo, missile defense, or even Georgia.

Instead, appeal to the sexual politics of the city’s streets.

Margarita Simonyan, a Russian journalist of Armenian descent, is editor-in-chief of RT, the Kremlin-supported television channel formerly known as Russia Today. Shielded by these impeccable establishment credentials, she broke a mainstream media taboo last week, by writing an essay that was aired on Dozhd TV and then published in The Moscow Times.

Under the headline, “Why We Hate Each Other,” she wrote:
“Last weekend, I happened to be at the Kazansky Station where I witnessed a disgusting scene: Three young men from the Caucasus were taunting female train conductors standing on the platform. ‘Hey babes, are all women in Moscow as beautiful as you are?’ they jeered. Then they joined hands and began yelling, ‘We are from the Caucasus!’”

Russians love the phrase double standard – “dvoinoi standart.”
For decades, it has been directed outward, to the West.
But now, more and more Russians are directing the double standard critique inward, to their heavily Muslim South.

They object to the fact that some young men come from the Caucasus to Moscow under the impression that they have just won a ticket to a sexual Disneyland. If you just proposition 10 – 20 – 50 girls on the street, the thinking goes, eventually, you will get lucky.

Earlier this year, I was down in Chechnya and its sister republic Ingushetia on reporting trips. Chechnya is part of the Russian Federation, but now it lives under virtual Sharia law. Last week, a Reuters friend reported from Chechnya that security men are invading beauty salons and tearing down pictures of women modeling hairstyles. Apparently hair dressers can no longer display photos of hair styles. It sounds like Monty Python, but that is Grozny today.

Ms. Simonyan is a well-traveled, multi-lingual, 31-year-old executive, whose family roots go back to the southern Caucasus. She blames the problem on parents sending the wrong signals to their sons: “Why do some from the Caucasus behave this way in Moscow? Do they behave in the same way in their native regions? Of course not. They respect their countrymen. But they have no respect for Muscovites — or Russians in general. If those young men at the Moscow train station had dared to taunt “their own” in such a crude manner in the Caucasus, somebody certainly would have broken their jaws.”

Next month, my three sons, all American university students, will visit Moscow for the holidays with two college buddies. I will explain to all five, very clearly, in plain English, that their health insurance policies do not, in any way, cover the consequences of harassing girls on the streets of Moscow.

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.

‘Voters, I Shrunk the Nation’ – A Slogan for Russia’s Elections?

Posted October 31st, 2011 at 6:25 am (UTC+0)

My Russia Watch on the plight of Tajik migrant workers in Russia earned me grumpy emails, many from Russian nationalists. This Friday, November 4, is National Unity Day in Russia, the annual holiday that nationalists celebrate as their own.

After dressing up on Friday for National Unity Day, why not undress after the parade? Russian nationalists despair falling birth rates of the nation

So, in honor of Unity Day, I devote this column to you, Russian Nationalists. Right-thinking guys and gals, after the rally, after raising a ruckus on the metro, why not go home, fold up your Czarist banners for next year, unlace the storm trooper boots, have a glass of wine (one), relax, and, you know, maybe procreate a bit. Create cute little baby nationalists.
Modern young Russians have no aversion to sex.
It’s the reproduction part that seems to be a problem. Abortions outnumber live births in Russia.
You may have seen the demonstrations of frustrated grandmothers who march into the metro, corner fertile younger women, and wave signs reading: “Have a Baby!”
So, guys, step up to the plate. Do your patriotic duty: Be a Dad!
In Japan, they used to say, young women prefer the (designer) handbag over the baby. In Russia’s consumer-crazed society, many couples choose a Turkish vacation over changing the diapers.
With no mindset change in sight, Russia’s population shrinkage is slowly moving through society.
The latest victim is the nationalists’ favorite institution: the Russian Army.

Endangered species? Russian soldiers training for May 9, 2011 Victory Day parade. VOA Photo: James Brooke

In fall 2009, the Russian Army drafted 305,000 young men.
In fall 2010, the Army drafted 280,000 men.
In fall 2011, the Army is drafting 136,000 men.
Get the trend? Forget about the million man army.
Part of that drop is because draft dodging is such a national sport in Russia it could be included in the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics. Depending on the region, a false medical exemption costs between $4,000 and $7,000.
After five years in Moscow, I can count on my left hand the number of Russian men I know under 35 years of age who have performed their obligatory military service. (When Muscovites hear that one of my sons, now in university, aspires to be an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps, they think that he – and I — have holes in our heads.)
Faced with a dwindling number of healthy young Russian men interested in military service, Russia’s Defense Ministry now is debating forming a French-style “Foreign Legion.” Under this scheme, foreigners who sign up for five year contracts would be eligible for Russian citizenship after three years.

Russian soldiers parading on Red Square. Ten years from now, will a Russian Foreign Legion unit march across the cobblestones? VOA Photo: James Brooke

Guess where foreign volunteers will come from?
The same Central Asia nations that now provide about 10 percent of Russia’s workforce of 74 million people.
Take Tajikistan. Before independence , about 10 percent of the republic’s population was ethnic Russian, Ukrainian or German. In the 20 years since independence, Tajikistan’s total population has increased by 40 percent. (De-colonization can have unexpected benefits.) As a result, half of Tajikistan’s population of 7.5 million tis now under 21 years of age. Guess who is going to be looking for work in the 2010s?

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, right, welcomes an Orthodox relic believed to promote female fertility. On loan from a Greek monastery, the Belt of the Virgin Mary arrived in St. Petersburg on Oct. 20, 2011, and is to tour the nation -- from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok. AP: Alexei Nikolsky

Contrast that with Russia.
According to preliminary results of the Russia’s 2010 census, there are 142.9 million people living in Russia – a 1.5 percent drop since the previous census, in 2002.
But, last July, the CIA’s World Factbook published a lower population estimate – 138.7 million. This would represent a 4.4 percent population fall in one decade. This loss of 6.4 million people during the 2000s is comparable to the loss of Russia’s entire population between Lake Baikal and the Pacific Coast.

More dramatic than contraction is the aging profile of Russia’s population. Russia, like Japan and Europe, is moving steadily toward a world where there will soon be one retiree for every two workers.
With the ranks of Russian pensioners swelling by the day, authorities pray for continued high prices for Russia’s oil and gas. That way Europe will keep shipping truckloads of money east, covering the Soviet generation’s massive, unfunded pension liabilities.

For months, rumors have circulated in Moscow that the 2010 Census results would not be rosy.
In mid-October, Rosstat, the Federal Statistical Service, scheduled a census press conference — for mid-December. Conveniently, this will take place after people cast their ballots in Dec. 4 parliamentary elections.

Two decades ago, the American comedy movie, “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” was funny.
But this week, it would not be a great vote getter for Prime Minister Putin to review his decade running Russia, and then announce on National Unity Day: “Voters, I Shrunk the Nation.”

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.

China, India, Iran and Pakistan Crowd Russia in Today’s Great Game in Central Asia

Posted October 25th, 2011 at 9:10 pm (UTC+0)

When I was in Dushanbe, India’s defense minister just happened to be in the neighborhood, and popped in for a visit.

India's Defense Minister A.K. Antony gets traditional bread and honey welcome from Tajikstan Defense Minister General Sherali Khairyulleov on Oct. 3, 2011 stop at Dushanbe's international airport. Photo: Sitanshu Kar, DPR, India Defense Ministry

After the traditional bread and honey welcome ceremony at the airport, he met behind closed doors with Tajikistan’s defense minister and discussed future uses of Ayni. This former Soviet airbase was re-commissioned last month near Tajikistan’s capital. India had quietly renovated the base and its 3-kilometer landing strip to the tune of $70 million.
Two weeks later, Pakistan rose to the challenge, announcing relief for “landlocked Tajikistan.” A $25 million, 220 kilometer road would be built north from Gilgit, Pakistan. It would follow river valleys bounded by 7,000 meter high peaks, cross Afghanistan’s Wakhan corridor, and reach the soaring Pamir Mountains of eastern Tajikistan. A Pakistani press report said: “Pakistan is the only country through which this Central Asian State could do business with the outer world.”

The Chinese, who recently built roads to Tajikistan from east, told Dushanbe there is no hurry to pay off their $1 billion foreign debt to Beijing. And to clear the diplomatic decks for a solid relationship, Beijing has dropped its claim to 20 percent of Tajikistan’s territory. In a final border settlement this year, Tajikistan signed over to China about one percent of its eastern mountains.
Within months, Tajik and Chinese soldiers were participating in a joint anti-terror drill in Western China. And, as Russian language skills whither among a new generation of Tajiks, China has opened a Confucius Institute in Dushanbe to promote the study of Mandarin.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (C) bonds with Tajikistan's President Emomali Rahmon (L) as Afghan President Hamid Karzai listens during a meeting at health resort in Sochi, Russia on August 18, 2010. Russia seeks to increase its influence in Afghanistan and Central Asia two decades after Soviet troops withdrew. REUTERS/RIA Novosti: Dmitry Astakhov

Not to be left behind, leaders of Russia, the former colonial power, visited Dushanbe (former Stalinabad). In a joint press appearance with Tajik President Emomali Rahmon, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev announced that the two countries had agreed to a 49-year renewal on leases for three bases that house Moscow’s 201st Motorized Division. This is the largest Russian army detachment posted outside of Russia. (The Moscow press trumpeted this victory. But Tajik reporters noted to me that Tajikistan rejected Russia’s offer to take over border policing duties and that at the base lease press conference, Tajikistan’s President stood by silently, not saying yes, not saying no.)

Not to be outdone, Iran’s President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, also flew into Dushanbe last month. He brought words of good cheer for this fellow Persian speaking nation. He and President Rahmon inaugurated a new hydroelectric plant, and signed accords for Iran to build a second one.

Tweaking Russia, Iran’s defense minister, Sherli Khairulloyev, said that if Tajikistan ever has any security problems, their Persian big brother is only a two hour flight away. (So far, neighboring Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have proved to be wet blankets. When President Ahmadinejad sent a ceremonial guard to Tajikistan for its independence day parade last month, these two Turkic-speaking nations closed their air space to the Iranian military plane, forcing it to fly over Afghanistan).

Hmm, am I forgetting a player here? Of course, my country, the USA!

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton walks with Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon at the gardens of the Palace of the Nation in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, October 22, 2011. REUTERS:Kevin Lamarque

Marc Grossman, U.S. Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, was due to come to Dushanbe on October 6, as part of fast-paced 12-nation tour. But, an “Afghan,” a massive dust storm blew in from the south, blanketing Dushanbe in dust, and shutting down the airport.

No worries. Grossman’s staff tore up his schedule, and found time for him fly into Dushanbe the following day. Since 2003, the U.S. has built border posts, barracks, bridges and now a special forces training center in Tajikistan.

Two weeks later, it was the turn of U. S Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to make her pilgrimage to Dushanbe. She walked the new gardens with President Rahmon, thanked him for his help on Afghanistan, and admired his big, new flagpole.(The world’s largest, American designed; see my recent story: ).

Get the big picture by now? Central Asia’s Great Game is back in play.

Setting the pieces in motion is Washington’s new timetable that reduces American current troop levels in Afghanistan by one third by Election Day 2012 – about one year from now.
Setting those pieces into faster motion is Washington’s new, speeded up timetable for Iraq: get all American troops home by Christmas – about 60 days from now.

The Great Game Board. Played by Russia and Britain in the 19th century, today's game is complicated by new players: India, China, Pakistan and Iran. Wiki: Themightyquill

If there is one place where America’s Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements converge, it is this: stop funneling billions of dollars into overseas wars.

In Moscow, the slow moving Russian foreign policy establishment belatedly realizes this. For most of the past decade, Russian officials and analysts happily talked on auto-pilot, taking potshots at the horrible American intervention/invasion/occupation of Afghanistan.


Now, the Kremlin is getting what it so loudly wished for.

It has finally dawned on Russia’s leadership that, for the last decade, American taxpayers footed the bill for what historically was Russia’s job: keeping Islamic holy war out of Central Asia.
Nikolai Patrushev, head of the Russian Security Council, recently said of Afghanistan’s government: “We think they are not ready.” When communist and nationalist members of Russia’s Duma threatened to vote against allowing American military aid to move through Russia en route to Afghanistan, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov lectured them: “What matters is preventing a re-Talibanization of Afghanistan.”

On Oct. 12, the United Nations Security Council voted to extend the mandate of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. Within hours, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement praising the vote, but saying, essentially: “Slow down!”
The Russians cautioned: “With regards to ISAF troops’ withdrawal from Afghanistan, the resolution made clear that the transition should proceed responsibly so as to ensure proper training of Afghan security forces so that they can build up resistance to the continuing threats to national security.”

Russia’s change of heart is too little too late. American politicians, facing reelection one year from now, are probably not listening to Moscow.

So back to Tajikistan.

In relation to Afghanistan, Tajikistan can be seen, roughly, as Pakistan of the north.

About 40 million Pashtuns straddle Pakistan’s 2,430-kilometer long northern border with Afghanistan.
About 16 million Tajiks straddle Tajikistan’s 1,206 kilometer long southern border with Afghanistan.
Since the 1980s, Pakistan has played its Pashtun card to the hilt, seeking to install a friendly regime in Kabul.

Since the 1980s, Russia, and more recently, India have played their Tajik card to the hilt, bolstering a Tajik-dominated coalition, known as the Northern Alliance.

This is not just history.

In recent days, India’s press has run reports that Delhi is offering to Dushanbe to reopen Farkhor, an air base that India maintained in Tajikistan until 2003. Located only five kilometers from the Afghan border, Farkhor also had a 25-bed field hospital that treated wounded Northern Alliance fighters.

On his visit to Dushanbe in October, Indian Defense Minister A.K. Antony glided over reporters’ questions about future military cooperation. Asked about Ayni, the massive airbase near Dushanbe that was recently renovated by India, he only volunteered that Ayni is “the best air base in entire Central Asia.”

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 Frets About a “Libya Scenario” for Syria

Posted October 20th, 2011 at 8:09 pm (UTC+0)

Images of Libyans celebrating the death of Moammar Gadhafi are leaving Russian officials cold. And it’s more than a pre-winter chill.

President Dmitry Medvedev and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte heard the news from reporters Thursday afternoon when they emerged from a bilateral meeting.

“It’s great,” said the Dutch leader.

“We had nothing to do with it,” said the Russian leader.

Sour grapes is the mood in Moscow.

Mikhail Margelov, a Russian senator who tried and failed to negotiate a Libyan settlement several months ago, warned darkly Thursday evening of the dangers of democracy to the wealthy Arab nation on the southern shores of the Mediterranean.

“The West should not rush to impose the Council of Europe’s democratic principles on Libya,” the senator told Interfax news agency. “These principles only hurt the country plagued by the civil war.”

Russia’s authoritarian rulers distrust democracy at home. Voters of Moscow, St. Petersburg and all other major cities are not deemed politically mature enough to elect their own mayors.

Another member of parliament, Konstantin Kosachyov, told Interfax: “The Gaddafi regime doomed itself to defeat, when, unlike Syria, it refused to carry out political reforms.”

It is unclear what reforms are being taken in Syria, a nation where 3,000 people have been killed in recent months in a slow motion revolt against the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

This year, Russia clung to losing leaders in revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

Two weeks ago, Russia joined China in vetoing a United Nations resolution that would have imposed sanctions on the Syrian government. Now, Russia advocates political dialogue in Syria.

While the Kremlin likes to believe it is being evenhanded, Syria’s government is trumpeting Russia’s “support.”

Here are recent headlines from Interfax, the Russian news agency: “Damascus hails Russia’s stance on Syrian issue.” “Syria expects Russia to honor its military contracts.” “Syrian leadership wants West to assume same attitude toward developments as Russia.” “Syrian authorities losing war to Western media – Russian Senator.” And, “Syrian leadership determined to conduct political reforms peacefully – Russian Senator.”

The senator in that last headline, Iyas Umakhanov, hailed President Bashar al-Assad’s “desire to steer the country toward democratic reforms by the way of peaceful transformation.” (Senators in Russia are not elected by direct popular vote, but by provincial legislatures).

Two weeks ago, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a commentary attacking the “foreign media” for “slurring the image of Syria and its leadership in the eyes of the world community and in creating conditions for justifying foreign interference in Syrian affairs and overthrowing the current regime.”

On Monday, Moscow’s normally tough police looked on indulgently as about 30 Syrians demonstrated at Pushkin Square, holding portraits of the presidents of Russia and Syria and chanting: “Syria-Russia: Friends Forever.”

The jury is out on how the Syria revolt will play out. It could well be that the Kremlin is once again on the wrong side of history of this year. Either way, the perception will likely endure that the Kremlin sided with the Assad government.

Irrespective of Syria’s endgame, Russian officials might consider dropping their new pet phrase: “Libya scenario.” As in this headline about Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov: “Lavrov believes Syria can well avoid Libya scenario.”

Today, the airwaves and the Internet are filled with Libyans joyously celebrating the end of Moammar Gadhafi’s 42-year grip on their nation. Each time, a Russian official warns in an ominous voice about “the Libya scenario,” Libyans are reminded, once again, which side Russia took in their eight-month struggle against the dictator.

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.

Russian Killings of Tajik Migrant Workers — Now at a Level with American Lynchings in the 1930s?

Posted October 18th, 2011 at 2:55 pm (UTC+0)

The Tajik Air jet was still taxiing to a stop at Dushanbe’s airport, but the men on board were already in the aisles, smiles on their faces, happy to be home.

Happy to be home -- alive! Migrant workers crowd the aisle as a Tajik Air jet from Moscow taxis to a stop at Dushanbe's airport. VOA Photo: James Brooke

Home alive that is.

I did not know if below my feet on the plane was any “Cargo 200” – Soviet slang for bodies sent home in zinc lined coffins.
A few days before I arrived in Dushbanbe, Tajikistan’s Migration Service announced that during the first eight months of 2011, the bodies of 603 Tajik gastarbeiters had been repatriated from Russia. (By comparison, 1,811 American soldiers were killed in Afghanistan over the last 10 years.) With about 700,000 Tajiks working in Russia, that factors to an annual mortality rate of around one to 1,000.
The high death toll, which is little changed in recent years, is largely due to lethally lax safety procedures on Russian construction sites. The Migration Service collects data on flights arriving from the 17 Russian cities that have direct service to Tajikistan’s two international airports, in Dushanbe and Khujand.
But one detail jumped out of the latest report. Of the 603 deaths, 67 were attributed to “attacks by nationalist groups.”
Russia’s media largely ignored this item. But the following week, a group of Tajik public figures sent an open letter of protest to Russian authorities, the United Nations, and the Council of Europe.
“We, representatives of the Tajik and international public, are extremely alarmed by the growing intensity of the efforts of radical neo-Nazi organizations in the Russian Federation stimulating the growth of xenophobic sentiments in society. Therefore we are calling on the Russian authorities to take more resolute measures to resist the growth of nationalist extremism in the country,” the letter read.

Russian nationalists hold flags and shout slogans during a march in Moscow on October 1. Moscow has become a focal point for racist violence in recent years, given its mix of disenchanted ethnic Russian youth and labor migrants from the Russian Caucasus and impoverished former Soviet republics in Central Asia, like Tajikstan. REUTERS: Sergei Karpukhin

After a little internet research, I calculated that a Tajik working in Russia today runs the roughly same risk of lynching as an African American did in the American South in 1930.
By reviewing annual lynching rates compiled by a researcher at Berea College, a historically black American college, I found that in 1930, 20 white on black lynchings were recorded in the United States. All of these took place in the 11 southern states of the Old Confederacy, an area that historically accounted for about 30 percent of the United States population.
Russia’s skinheads are more high tech than the American Ku Klux Klan was. They have websites to make their race hate available to anyone with a computer connection. Instead of pushing crudely printed pamphlets under doors at night, Russian racists have posted on the web a cell phone video of skinheads capturing and beheading a Tajik migrant worker in a forest.
In 1930, the Soviet Union was around to lecture Americans about their racial shortcomings.
Today, in this part of the world, there is a conspiracy of silence.
For Tajikistan, remittances from guest workers equal half of the impoverished nation’s GDP. In a country where the average monthly salary is $93, a recent survey by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development found that the happiest families in Tajikistan are those supported by a worker in Russia.

A Tajik migrant worker is seen through a train window in Moscow as he waits for departure of a train bound for Tajikistan, October 7, 2011. REUTERS/Denis Sinyakov

Given this dependency, Tajik authorities rarely raise the issue of Russian racism louder than a whisper. And when they do, Russian politicians know how to handle former colonials when they get uppity.
Last year, when polio broke out in Tajikistan, Vladimir Zhironovsky proposed two solutions: shutting down all flights from Tajikistan or absorbing the nation into a “Ninth Central Asian Federal District.”
In August, when Tajikistan balked at allowing Russian border guards to patrol Tajikistan’s border with Afghanistan, Boris Gryzlov, the speaker of Russia’s State Duma, proposed visa restrictions on gastarbeiters from Tajikistan.
And with parliamentary and presidential elections taking place in Russia over the next five months, don’t expect the Kremlin to start teaching tolerance.
The most practical move has come from migrant worker defense groups. Their core advice to Tajik men going to work in Russia for the first time: when you leave your work site, walk in threes.

Russian nationalists rally against non-Slavic labor migrants from the Caucasus and Central Asia, in downtown Moscow, on Oct. 1, 2011. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)

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.

Yulia Tymoshenko: Ukraine’s Faded Evita?

Posted October 13th, 2011 at 6:12 am (UTC+0)

In the musical, the Evita Peron character sings to Argentines: “I will return, and I will be millions.”
In Kyiv this week, Evita’s Ukrainian version, Yulia Tymoshenko, could have lamented: “I will return, and I will be thousands.”
Newspaper editorial writers waxed indignant over the guilty verdict and seven year jail sentence handed down against Ukraine’s former prime minister. But many Ukrainians did not seem to care about her conviction on the charge of abuse of power.

Yulia Tymoshenko addresses journalists as Kyiv Judge Rodion Kireyev reads guilty verdict in her trial for abuse of power. Photo: AP

In November 2004, during the cold and dramatic days of Ukraine’s the Orange Revolution, Yulia, as she universally known here, drew crowds of one million people to Independence Square.
In a role reversal, her target then was her persecutor today, Victor Yanukovych, now President of Ukraine.
Fast forward seven years, and move only two blocks down Kyiv’s main street to the courthouse. At best, 2,000 people turned out Tuesday for her judgment day. In this city of 2.8 million people, that means one tenth of one percent of all adults turned out in her defense. For a politician who won 11.6 million votes in Feb. 2010, the depth of her support seems mighty thin.
In August, Yulia’s people blamed low protest turnouts on police allegedly stopping buses of supporters coming from the countryside. This week, hours after the verdict, her supporters announced the formation of the “Dictatorship Resistance Committee” and called for mass protests.
Don’t hold your breath.

Yulia Tymoshenko was supported in court by her daughter, Yevhenia Tymoshenko Carr. Photo: Reuters

I was in Kyiv last weekend, and everyone I asked seemed to have tuned out Yulia and her three month trial. Yevgeniy Kiselov, a Russian TV political host who has opted to work in Kyiv’s comparatively free media environment, told me that Yulia is scraping the single digits in the approval polls, and her negatives are sky high. About 70 percent of Ukrainian adults tell pollsters they will not vote for her in future elections.

One catty Kyivlyanka, or female resident, told me Ukrainians now can see through Yulia the way they also see the black roots of her hair showing after two months in jail. Her world famous flaxen blonde peasant braid is a dye job.

Given several chances to govern from 2005 to 2010, Yulia instead feuded with then-President Viktor Yuschenko. Thanks to that political paralysis, 46 million Ukrainians had to tread water economically for five years.
And don’t think that only President Yanukovych bears a grudge. Who showed up in court two months ago to testify against her? Her former co-commander of the Orange Revolution – ex-President Yuschenko.
Last February, I jumped through hoops to do a TV interview with Yulia. She proved to be the implacable Mistress of PR. Controlling shots, lighting, and language (only Ukrainian), she worked to shape her image for the masses.
As a backstage veteran of a Yulia show, it was fun to analyze her work as theatrical director of what was essentially a political trial.

First, she did everything possible to anger the judge, virtually forcing him to arrest her. With her jailing, her martyr aura could only grow and glow.
For Tuesday, verdict day, she crafted an image that was beamed into Ukrainian homes as television networks broadcast live from the cramped courtroom.
She arranged the seating so the cameras focused on her and her 31-year-old daughter, Yevhenia Tymoshenko Carr.
Her daughter wore a royal blue, figure-hugging turtleneck, presumably to keep the attention of male viewers as the judge droned on and on, reading his 51-page verdict. Together, mother and daughter bonded to form a portrait of female innocence and vulnerability.
Kept out of the picture was Yevhenia’s metal rocker husband, Sean Carr. Described by BBC as “a leather-clad and tattooed biker from Leeds,” Sean now parks his Harley at his new mansion in Kyiv. According to the BBC, Sean wowed Yevhenia with “the bone-shaking chords of his heavy metal band, Death Valley Screamers.”

Also kept largely out of the frames was Yulia’s bullet-headed husband Oleksandr, a well-built man who largely avoids the journalists after a legal unpleasantness a decade ago kept him in hiding for two years. As the court was adjourning, Oleksandr broke his vow of public silence and snarled at the departing judge a phrase that means, in effect: “You will get yours.”
But, with their men folk off camera, the mother-daughter pair presented a wholesome, almost angelic image.
The dramatic highpoint came when Yulia stood up and addressed journalists in the court as the judge was nearing the end of his reading. She recited an eloquent speech in defense of court system free of political interference. Then she veered into the future, appealing to TV viewers to ‘join hands” with her to build a new Ukraine.
As her hip daughter would SMS: OMG.
Oh, my God, but we just went through five years of that.
Outside the courtroom, the political theater continued. As the verdict approached, a group of her deputies tried to force their way into the courthouse, conveniently eliciting images of “police repression” for TV cameramen gathered outside the court.
The supporters at the street tent encampment seemed little changed from the ones I had interviewed in August. The hard core faithful waved photo shopped images of Ukraine’s Saint Yulia.

Kyiv riot police confront demonstrator supporting Yulia Tymoshenko Oct. 11, 2011.Photo: AP

Then there were middle-aged guys, evidently angry over their loss of access to power. On Tuesday afternoon, it was these men who seemed the most upset. Russian TV aired again and again a clip of men trying to overturn a streetcar, pushing and rocking, pushing and rocking. In the end they decide it was, uh, too hard.

Unfortunately for Yulia, Kyiv’s riot police are also well schooled in the arts of political theater. At the end of the day, the total number of detained protesters was three.
Quite a contrast to televised riots we have seen this year in London, Athens, and Cairo.

Despite the passions and provocations, police arrested only three people in the protests against the conviction and sentencing of former Prime Minister Tymoshenko. Photo AP

Yulia’s conviction was for “abuse of power” — in this case an administrative error done in office. In many countries, this is not a criminal offense.
In Yulia’s case, she approved in January 2009 a 10-year gas supply contract with Russia. The Kremlin obligingly offered 1-year teaser of low prices during 2009 – the year Yulia ran for president. With the elections receding into history, prices charged Ukraine are now climbing above the levels that Russia charges Germany.
In a WikiLeaks cable, an American diplomat drily summarized the accord as “a good deal” for Russia.
Not a good deal for Ukrainians. But, hey, a politician’s career was at stake.
With the verdict, President Yanukovych evidently believes he is pulling off a master stroke in Ukraine’s rough game of political chess.
In one blow, he has taken revenge against his biggest political rival, besmirching her political CV with a guilty verdict. At the same time, he believes he has cast legal shadow over the gas pact with Russia.
But the Kremlin already sniffs a bid to use the verdict to annul the gas deal. Immediately after the verdict, Russian officials denounced the court case as “anti-Russian” and declared the 10-year gas treaty to be valid.
On the political front, it might not be so smart to knock out of the way his 50-year-old rival. Without her, a stronger, new generation figure may emerge, without the baggage of failed years as Prime Minister.
With Moscow, Brussels and Washington united in their anger over the trial and verdict, Yanukovych now is moving to defuse the West.
He has signaled that next week his parliamentary bloc will support a bill to decriminalize abuse of power violations. There would be no jail time, possibly no fine, and possibly no loss of political rights. Under this formula, he would have had the pleasure of humiliating his political rival — and have taken care of all those pesky democracy critics in Brussels and Washington.
But, this is a high risk gamble with the European Union.
Living in the Kyiv bubble, President Yanukovych and his advisors may not realize that the fabled “sick man of Europe” is not Greece, but the European Union itself.
First, the EU is still struggling to digest the ‘big bang” expansion eastward of the mid-2000s. This expansion essentially doubled the EU’s membership to 27 nations.
Then, there is today’s challenge: the Mediterranean belt of members, rudely referred to by their initials PIGS. These nations spent wildly beyond their incomes. Now they want northern taxpayers to pay their bills.
In this atmosphere, many European politicians are looking for an excuse not to take under their wing Ukraine, a nation the size of France, with the population of Spain, and a per capita income of Kosovo.
With the sentencing of his rival, Yanukovch may have handed opponents of EU expansion an excuse on a silver platter.

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.

Color Comes to Moscow

Posted October 7th, 2011 at 3:20 pm (UTC+0)

Anya’s pumpkin orange tights got me thinking.
Moscow is a far more colorful place than when I first visited, in September, 1991, in the dying days of the Soviet era.

Anya wears orange to Moscow Biennale VOA Photo: James Brooke

For the recent opening of the Moscow Art Biennale, Anya, an art critic, wore orange tights. For second night, she wore electric yellow. For the opening of Art Moskva, she told me, she wore pink.

Art Critic Anya wears yellow to opening of Japanese manga show at Moscow Biennale. VOA Photo: James Brooke

As bab’ye leto, the equivalent of the American Indian Summer, warms Moscow this weekend, there is color on the streets. And it is not just the golds, reds and oranges of fall foliage.
Moscow has been called ‘kamenii gorod’, or stone city. During the Soviet era, its people overwhelmingly dressed in gray or black, seeming to want to blend in with the granite and painted iron.

Jim Brooke, wearing navy blue, gets ambushed by color at Moscow Biennale

Moscow will never compete with the bright painted doors of Dublin, the pastel hues of coastal Brazil, or the zany murals of Kinshasa.
But color has lightened up the place in a way that would jolt a Rip Van Winkle, the New Englander who struggled to recognize his village after a 20-year snooze in the woods.
On a recent afternoon, two Rip van Winkles unexpectedly knocked on the VOA bureau door in Moscow.

Orange lion on the loose in Moscow Zoo VOA Photo: James Brooke

They were Dusko Doder, the former Washington Post correspondent, and his wife Louise Branson, formerly of the Sunday Times of London. They had worked here in the 1980s, and not visited Moscow since 1992 – almost 20 years.
“It’s the color, the way people dress,” Louise marveled over coffee in the VOA kitchen. “Russians dress normally. They look better. We were just in Starbucks, and we could see it.”
Conjuring up an increasingly forgotten Soviet Moscow, she recalled: “If you dressed like a Westerner, people would move away from you. In the metro, they would create a ring around me. People didn’t dare get close.”

Alena makes a friend at the Moscow Zoo. VOA Photo: James Brooke

After strolling the Arbat pedestrian mall, Dusko concluded: “Muscovites walk with more energy. A dissident friend once told me: ‘You can see the way a Soviet man walks – aimless, no point to his existence.’ Well, people walk with purpose now.”

With that, Dusko and Louise marched on, urban archeologists on a weekend visit from Washington. Wearing a cherry red raincoat, Louise was soon lost in the crowd.

A Tiger in Training -- Siberian Tiger Day at the Moscow Zoo. VOA Photo: James Brooke

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.

Pasha Putin Takes a Cue from Central Asia’s Sultans

Posted October 4th, 2011 at 3:20 pm (UTC+0)

“Sultanism” is an invented word that keeps popping in comments about Vladimir Putin’s decision to stretch his rule over Russia for as long a quarter century.
After failing to build a dominant political party, analysts say, Putin is taking the Central Asian route: ruling through a personality cult. In the eternal East-West, push-pull over Russia, the winner over western democracy is, once again, “oriental despotism.”

On a highway billboard, Emomalii Rahmon, leader of Tajikistan since 1992, inaugurates a river bridge. VOA Photo: Yuli Weeks

A few days after the unveiling of a political plan that would allow Putin to rule Russia through 2024, I flew 3,000 kilometers southeast to Tajikistan, one of five nations on the southern flank of the old Soviet Union that are now run by strong men.
They all carry the titles of President, but several started politics as First Secretaries of local communist parties. Their 19th century counterparts carried the titles of ‘emir,’ ‘khan,’ or ‘sultan.’
After one week in Tajikistan, I still do not know the name of the ruling party.
But I sure do know the name and face of Emomalii Rahmon, Tajikistan’s ruler since 1992. On the three hour drive south to the Afghan border, full color billboards with his portrait seemed to appear every 10 minutes.
Here he is standing tall in a field of cotton. Here he is lecturing with a pointer on the construction of Rogun, designed to be the world’s tallest dam. Here he is in a black business suit walking through a new monumental arch. In that shot, the angle makes the 59-year-old leader look as if he were wearing a crown.
Below each photo is a pithy quotation in Tajik, signed: “E. Rahmon.”
The strong Central Asian sun has not yet faded the photos. Many were put up in time for the Sept. 9 celebrations of the 20th anniversary of Tajikistan’s Independence. To mark the date – and celebrate Rahmon’s leadership – the government spent $210 million — or 10 percent of its annual budget — on a series of public works projects, including the erection of the world’s tallest flagpole.
To the south of Russia, almost all of Central Asia is ruled by strong men. Now billionaires, these politicians have all but declared themselves presidents for life.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, center, listens to his Uzbek counterpart Shavkat Mirziyoyev, center left, with their counterparts from Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries walking nearby prior to a meeting of the CIS Council of Heads of Government in Minsk, Belarus, May 2011. AP Photo:Sergei Grits

Kazakhstan has been ruled since 1989 by a man of humble origins, whose parents had the foresight to name him Nursultan, roughly “Sultan of Light.” Nursultan Nazarbayev rose to become First Secretary of the Kazakh Communist Party. As he concentrated more and more power in his hands, Nazarbayev faced calls from supporters last year to formally taken on a new title: President for Life.
But as the Arab Spring shook autocrats from Tunisia to Syria, Nazarbayev decided to hold a quick election in April. He easily won reelection with 95.5 percent of the vote. With another five year term, he now has a mandate to rule Central Asia’s richest nation through the age of 75.
Next door, Islam Karimov, has run Uzbekistan, Central Asia’s most populous nation, since 1989 when he became First Secretary of the local communist party. In the last presidential election, in 2007, his ‘rivals’ had only praised for him. He won 88 percent of the vote. Now 73 years old, Karimov shows no sign of stepping down. Last week, he talked on the telephone with President Obama about expanding use of Uzbekistan to supply NATO troops in Afghanistan.
The leaders of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have daughters, but no sons. In the patriarchal societies of Central Asia, this seems to rule out creating a dynasty.
Across the Caspian Sea, in Azerbaijan, the Aliyev family has pulled off just such a feat: the first dynastic succession of the post-Soviet space. The current president, Ilham Aliyev is the son of Heydar Aliyev, who was president of Azerbaijan from 1993 to 2003. Azerbaijan’s oil and gas wealth and a strong dose of repression keep the Aliyev dynasty in place in Baku. It is considered poor form to propose trading the modern title of ‘president’ for the traditional title of a ruler of Baku: “Khan.”
Back across the Caspian in Central Asia, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan offer two end games for “sultanistic” rule.
In Turkmenistan, Saparmurat Niyazov took over leadership in 1985, when he became First Secretary of the local communist party. Over the next two decades, he progressively went haywire.
He renamed months of the year, schools, towns and airports after himself and family members. Flush with billions of dollars in oil and gas earning, he erected in the capital a gold-plated statue of himself that revolved around the clock to eternally face the sun. Calling himself Turkmenbashi, or leader of all Turkmens, he closed hospitals and required reading in schools of his book of political thoughts. Newscasts began with the pledge that the announcer’s tongue would shrivel if he defamed the nation or Turkmenbashi.
In a final bizarre act, he ordered pensioners to repay to the state the pensions they had received in the previous two years.

At an office building reception in Dushanbe, Tajikistan's capital, President Emomalii Rahmon lectures on the construction of a major hydroelectric project. VOA Photo: Yuli Weeks

Niyazov, who enjoyed the best health care in the nation, died unexpectedly in December 2006, at the age of 66. Two months, later Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, was elected president of the one party state.
The last Central Asia nation, Kyrgyzstan, is the only one with a political system that the Kremlin seems to find unsettling.
Starting in 2005, Kremlin strategists started to organize to block the possibility of a so-called “color” street revolution at home. The Orange Revolution had defeated a pro-Russian candidate in Ukraine. The Rose Revolution had brought Mikhail Saakashvili to power in Georgia. And the Tulip Revolution drove from power Askar Akayev, who started politics as First Secretary of the Kirghiz Soviet Republic.
Today, in an oddity for a region run by sultans with cellphones, Kyrgyzstan is run by a woman, President Roza Otunbayeva.
On Sunday, Oct. 30, Kyrgyzstan is to have presidential elections. There are 20 candidates. Then, in the Kremlin’s eyes, things get really weird.
No one knows who will win the election.

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.

Putin to Russia: Will You Still Love Me When I am 72?

Posted September 27th, 2011 at 6:23 pm (UTC+0)

It’s the year 2024. President Vladimir Putin is now 72. His sandy hair has thinned. But those icy cold blue eyes still transfix.

Nominating committee of one. Prime Minister Putin, who is not formally a member of the ruling United Russia, decided that the party's candidate in the March 4 presidential election will be Vladimir Putin. AP: Ivan Sekretarev

This nightmarish vision had many Russian democrats tossing and turning in bed Saturday night. With the daylight, they woke up. Then, they remembered: it was not a bad dream, their nightmare was true!
As if to rub it in, Nova Gazeta published a front page cartoon, showing today’s Russian cabinet, aged 12 years, looking like a Soviet politburo of old.
Indeed it is back to the future, as today’s Kremlinologists study online biographies of Leonid Brezhnev and Joseph Stalin to figure out how long they ruled Russia until they died in their beds. (Answer: 18 years for Brezhnev and 30 for Stalin).
If Putin can pull it off (not a big if), he will win a six year term in presidential elections next March. In 2018, he could run for another term, which would take him to 2024.
Unlike power shifts in the Soviet Kremlin, last week’s elite electorate was not the voting membership of the Politburo, historically about 14 barons of the Communist Party.
Instead, Putin chose himself.
Then in a closed door meeting, he broke the news to his protégé, Dmitry Medvedev. Under the deal, he promised to make Medvedev his prime minister next May.
Thus in a backroom deal, the leadership was decided for the next decade of Russia, a country of 141 million, the world’s largest energy producer and the holder of the world’s largest arsenal of nuclear weapons.
Short term, it all should work because public opinion polls show Putin as the most popular politician in the country. Control of television, controls on political opposition, and controls on vote counting, all help embellish his natural charisma.
Adding a democratic tone to the proceedings, the Putin-Medvedev job swap plan was unveiled at a congress of Russia’s ruling United Party. The congress immediately rubber stamped it.

Time to swtich jobs? Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (left) and President Medvedev announced plans to switch jobs next year. They spoke Saturday before thousands of delegates of the ruling United Russia Party, gathered in Moscow at Russia's largest sport stadium. AP: Yakaterina Shtukina

Putin is an expert at keeping his counsel. Close associates were clearly caught off guard.
On a visit to Washington, Alexei Kudrin, Russia’s finance minister for 11 years, was evidently so miffed about being passed over for the prime minister job, that he announced he would not work for the new government. In an unexpected display of force, President Medvedev told him on Monday that he had until sundown to quit or stay on. By the end of the day, Kudrin, the pillar of Russian financial planning since 2000, was gone.
Russia’s stock markets and exchange markets continued their fall, hitting two year lows. Factoring in the Kudrin exit, economists now estimate that Russia’s net capital flight this year will hit $70 billion.
And a brain drain may follow the money drain.
Seeing crony capitalism and unchecked corruption as a dead end, half of Russian university students and half of Russian business entrepreneurs told the Levada polling company in August that they want to emigrate. It is no wonder that one of the Kremlin’s top issues with the European Union is visas. Cuba and Belarus show that authoritarian regimes are much easier to maintain if the malcontents just leave.
Putin’s coronation of himself speaks volumes about how a cult of personality is supplanting institutions in today’s Russia.

The faces of Russia's future -- Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, right, and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin wave during the United Russia party congress in Moscow, Saturday, Sept. 24, 2011. Russia's dominant political party on Saturday nominated Vladimir Putin for president, almost certainly ensuring his return to the office he held for eight years, and approved Putin's proposal that current president Dmitry Medvedev swap places and become prime minister. AP: Yekaterina Shtukina

A former KGB officer in East Germany, Putin has long maintained an authoritarian’s distrust of elections. Making no secret of his low expectations, he seems to see Russians as political teenagers, people who are not yet mature enough to elect their own mayors, governors, and presidents. By pruning back civil society, he retards a natural growth in citizenship.
Defenders of the system correctly say that Russia’s history gives little hope that democracy can take root here.
But they twist uncomfortably in their seats when reminded that the same could have been said of nations as diverse as Taiwan, Brazil, South Korea, Spain, Poland, Mexico, Serbia and Japan. In recent decades, all have moved beyond authoritarian systems to create multiparty democracies.
In that tapestry of societies, the common change agent was a middle class that grew to the point where it reached a critical mass.
Russia is moving steadily in that direction. Already half of Russia’s adults go online, with millions turning to the largely unfettered internet for their news and views. About 15 percent of the population is expected this year to go on a foreign vacation. Car ownership levels are rapidly catching up with Western Europe.
Successful autocrats work themselves out of their jobs.
Those who overstay their leave risking ending up like Alberto Fujimori, the former president of Peru. Fujimori, a politician I have interviewed many a time, decided to go for a third term. He now sits in a jail cell near Lima serving 25 year sentence for human rights violations.
Behind the growth of Russia’s middle class is the stability of the Putin decade.
I once asked a Muscovite why there is a restaurant was called ‘1913.’
He grumpily responded: “That was the last good year.”
After a disastrous century of revolution, famine and war, Putin became president in 2000. He delivered a golden decade. In 10 years, the economy grew by 60 percent, unemployment dropped by one third, real salaries tripled, the debt to GDP ratio dropped from 58 percent to 12 percent, and oil production increased by 56 percent.
Putin was no miracle worker. He simply provided stability. Strong international oil and gas prices did the rest. Now, oil and gas account for two thirds of Russian export earnings. Coal, iron, gold and other minerals and metals account for most of the rest.
But another world recession — or a pause in China’s headlong growth — would push down commodity prices, plunging Russia’s economy into crisis.
Before he quit as finance minister, Kudrin was the Kremlin’s Cassandra.
Two years from now, he warned recently, export prices for Russia’s oil will slip to $60 a barrel, from $106 today — well below the $110 level needed to balance Russia’s swollen budget.
Last weekend in Washington, Kudrin worried about Russia’s deep addiction to commodity exports: “Will we, in the next 5-10 years, tear ourselves away from this dependence, get off this needle, or won’t we?”
In the political field, the price of economic stability was Putin’s “soft” authoritarian political system.
Most Russians are not economic stakeholders in their government in the Western sense.
In American terms, Russia is like Alaska — residents are paid to live there. Each year, a portion of Alaska’s oil and gas bounty is divided up and mailed out in the form of checks to bona fide residents who made it through the winter.
With Russia’s flat 13 percent income tax, the Kremlin gets the bulk of federal funding from 15 companies – largely oil and gas producers.
Marginalized from the political arena, most Russians retreat into their personal spheres, channeling energies into places where they can make a difference and get a real benefit — family, friends, work and travel.
In this depoliticized atmosphere, a protest was held the day after Putin unveiled a roadmap for his own rule of Russia through 2024. The protest was held at Pushkin Square, a confluence of three subway lines. In this city of 12 million, the rally drew about 250 people.
The next morning, the most widely read story on the Ria Novosti Internet news site was not about Russia’s political leadership. It was about a Federal plan to allow the industrial cultivation of hemp, also known as cannabis sativa, or marijuana.

Will you still love me when I am 72? Novaya Gazeta, a Russian opposition newspaper, aged Vladimir's Putin team, bring them to 2024, the constitutional presidential term limit for Russia's strongman, Vladimir Putin.

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.



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