Russian President’s Potemkin Press Conference

Posted May 20th, 2011 at 8:20 am (UTC+0)

Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev prepares for the first major news conference of his 3-year presidency, at the Moscow School of Management Skolkovo Photo: RIA Novosti - Dmitry Astakhov

The empty box said it all.

Each reporter was issued a neat white plastic box, complete with notepad, pen and computer memory stick. Each item was embossed: “Press Conference of the President of the Russian Federation Dimitry Medvedev.”

But unlike most press kits, there was no press release, no biography of the president and no glossy photos of the great man.

Indeed, what was billed as the first major press conference of President Medvedev turned out to be like what many here think of his 1,000 day presidency – all talk and no substance.

In Russian terms, it was the Potemkin press conference.

The form was right: the live nationwide television broadcast, the hall packed to the rafters with 800 reporters, the wall of television cameras, and the explosion of camera flashes every time the president took a sip of tea. The president luxuriated in picking and choosing among dozens of hands and notebooks waving in the air, as reporters essentially implored, “pick me, pick me.”

Admittedly, the quality of questions from the reporters was generally low: How can I find a parking space in Moscow? Why do we have to get our cars inspected every year? Where do you get your designer jeans? And, from a reporter flown in from the Arctic, will there be federal help this year for reindeer herders?

Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev walks into a press conference packed with 800 journalists at Skolkovo. Dmitry Astakhov/RIA Novosti

Amid the chaff, some substantive questions were asked. The fourth questioner finally asked the question that most Russians presumably want answered: With an election in 10 months, will you run for reelection as president?

The president good naturedly chided the press for waiting so long to pop the big one.

Reporters held their breath.

Eight-hundred souvenir pens poised above 800 souvenir notebooks.

Then the answer came.

“A press conference of this kind is not the right occasion for such an announcement,” the 45-year-old leader of the largest nation in the world told the press he had summoned to the day-long event. “I think decisions of this kind need to be taken and announced in a somewhat different format. . . . If I make such a decision, I will certainly announce it.”


Are we here, assembled in a faraway Moscow suburb, as bit players, as window dressing, for a pretend press conference?
The morning after press reviews were scathing.

“Mr. President, what was that all about?” Alexander Minkin wrote in the mass-circulation Moskovsky Komsomolets. He called the president “a Kremlin dreamer.”

President Medvedev holds a cup of tea during his marathon 2 hour 15 minute press conference. REUTERS/Alexander Natruskin

Vedemosti, the business daily, published a front page story saying: “Dmitry Medvedev’s first major news conference turned out to be strange: he neither summed up the results nor shared his plans for the future.”

Lilia Shevtsova, a Kremlinologist for Carnegie Moscow research center, wrote on the site of Echo of Moscow radio station: “All of that looked not merely helpless. In front of the entire country Medvedev was committing political hara-kiri. Why did he have to take the stage if he has got nothing to say? Endless gabbing about modernization without the ambition or readiness to do anything undermines any idea of change.”

Indeed, after three years of talk, many here feel President Medvedev has little to show in the way of action. Lacking action on his resume, he has lost credibility.

At the Wednesday press conference, president criticized the United States and NATO for proceeding with building a European missile defense without including Russia. Such a path, he said, could force Russia into a new arms race, forcing it to increase its nuclear strike capability, and creating “a new Cold War.”

The following morning, Ellen Barry’s account of the Medvedev press conference in The New York Times did not mention the Cold War threat.

When a Russian president threatens an arms race with Washington, and a Times reporter does not bother to mention it, you can see that the president has a credibility problem. (Barry won a Pulitzer Prize last month for her Russia coverage, so her credibility is hard to dispute).

During the marathon two hour and 15 minute press conference, the president’s political mentor, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, cast a palpable shadow over the hall. Although both men are equal in the polls, everyone knows who wears the pants in Russia’s ruling tandem.

And some of those pants are forest green camouflage. During the Medvedev event, several reporters were spied scanning the online version of a new interview with Prime Minister Putin in Outdoor Life magazine. Although there are no new bare-chested fishing shots, there are new action pictures of Putin with an Amur tiger, harpooning a whale, and clambering over rocks.

OK, OK, the link is:

The questions by reporter Gayne C. Young were not much better than some of the softball pitches lobbed to President Medvedev on Wednesday.

Outdoor Life: “Because of your work in conservation and given the incredible adventures you have participated in, you are probably the coolest man in politics. Please do not be modest: Are you the coolest man in politics?”

Reporters from Siberia and Moscow gathered for a press conference, expecting a major announcment.Dmitry Astakhov/RIA Novosti

Vladimir Putin: “I do not think I am ready to wear the laurel of “the coolest man in politics,” and actually I do not find anything out of the ordinary in my work in conservation or my active lifestyle.”

Desperate for political meat to chew on, I went back today to my presidential press conference kit box.
VOA Moscow producer Diana Markosian had warned me I was too old school.

No one hands out reproducible glossies anymore.

“It’s all on that memory stick,” affirmed Diana, who celebrated her twenty something birthday on Tuesday.

Chastened, I hurried to my laptop and shoved in my presidential press conference souvenir memory stick.

The computer file flashed on the screen.

I contentedly clicked on contents.

The message read: “This Folder is Empty.”

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.

Victory Day: Soviet Liberators or Occupiers?

Posted May 13th, 2011 at 9:23 pm (UTC+0)

In Soviet times, the day of victory over Nazi Germany was marked with a level of reverence that seemed to make May 9 the only religious holiday on the Soviet calendar.

Ukrainian nationalists burn a Soviet army red flag in riot surrounding ceremonies in Lviv celebraiting victory over Nazi Germany AP Petro Zadorozhnyy

The reason is clear.

Study the family tree of almost any Russian, and you will find branches that abruptly ended at the war years. Soviet authorities calculated that 26 million citizen perished in the war.

Fast forward to last Monday.

In Lviv, Western Ukraine, a crowd of young nationalists, enraged at the site of a red banner, attacked the Russian Consul, and trampled and stomped the memorial wreath he was carrying to the city’s Hill of Glory.

In contrast, in Kirkenes, Norway, red and white balloons floated into the Arctic air as school children, town officials, and the Russian Consul gathered with bouquets at the foot of a bronze statue of a Red Army soldier.

The difference revolves about what happened after the defeat of the Nazis.

In Northern Norway, Soviet soldiers liberated, and then went home. By the end of the summer of 1945, they had all pulled back to Murmansk.

In Western Ukraine and the Baltics, Soviet troops liberated and stayed. And stayed. And stayed.

To non-Russian populations on Russia’s western edge, liberators became occupiers.

Norwegian children and town officials in Kirkenes, Norway join local Russia consul in celebrating Victory Day in front of statue honoring Soviet soldiers who liberated Northern Norway from Nazi rule. Photo: Rune Rafaelsen

“Russian soldiers never liberated Estonia. For us, one occupation regime was replaced by another,” the Estonian Nationalist Movement said in a statement distributed on Monday during a demonstration held in front of the Russian Embassy in Tallinn. Some picketers held photos of a Soviet-era war memorial, with the inscription: “This soldier occupied our country. He never liberated Estonia.”

In 2007, Estonian authorities moved this bronze statue of a Soviet soldier from a prominent place in the national capital to a suburban war memorial cemetery. In response, Kremlin-backed youth groups camped for two weeks outside the Estonian embassy in Moscow.

In December 2009, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili earned the undying enmity of the Kremlin by blowing up a massive Soviet era World War II monument in Kutaisi. He said the site was needed for a parliament building.

On Monday, President Medvedev pointedly sent his Victory Day congratulations to the Georgian people, omitting any mention of the nation’s president. In response, Georgian Foreign Minister Grigol Vashadze said the Russian leader’s Victory Day message was unacceptable: “I don’t think that the Georgian people have accepted the Russian president’s greetings. The buffoonery has no limit.”

Faced with these Victory Day controversies, President Medvedev told young parliamentarians of the ruling United Russia party on Friday: “As for Estonia, Georgia and Ukraine, it saddens me as much as you. It was unpleasant and painful to watch that. It is an indication of the immaturity of the political systems in those countries.”

Defiant Victory Day supporters brandish a red banner, a color associated with the Soviet victory over Nazi troops in World War Two, during Victory Day celebrations in Lviv in western Ukraine on May 9, 2011.REUTERS/Andriy Polikovsky

The bad blood goes back to different perceptions of history.

To the dismay of many Russians, museums of the Soviet occupation have opened in Georgia, the Baltics and in Ukraine.

These diverging views of history remind me of Japan and Korea where I worked as a reporter in the early 2000s. Young Japanese would watch TV reports of anti-Japanese demonstrations in China and South Korea, and then complain naively: “Why do they hate us so?”

Although the Chinese and South Korean governments had their own interests in stirring up nationalism, real animosities revolved around this question: Do you know what your grandfather did to my grandfather and grandmother?

But in Japanese schools, Japanese history instruction usually stops around 1930, the time when Japanese militarism embarked on its most lethal rampages. Colonialism of Korea was treated lightly. Looking at the world through the lens of their own hierarchical society, Japanese believed the history problem could be addressed with politely worded apologies and carefully calibrated bows by a series of prime ministers.

In contrast, Germans confronted their war history head on, debating it frankly, deeply and incessantly. Here is the fruit: today, there is little animosity between Germans and Russians.

But, Russia, like Japan, takes the path of defensive denial. Stung by losing the Cold War, Russians do not want to tarnish the one undeniable victory of the Soviet era. Wary of division and discord, Russians do not do self-criticism.

And so Victory Day, the region’s unifying day for the last half of the 20th century, is now a source of division for the 21st.

Without a frank dialog over Soviet history, Russia and several former Soviet republics seem fated to become increasingly distant neighbors.

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.

Reality Check: Russian vs American record in Afghanistan

Posted May 9th, 2011 at 3:07 am (UTC+0)

Russia’s foreign ministry has just issued a new statement lecturing the U.S.-led coalition “to take additional steps” to reduce civilian casualties in Afghanistan.

Presumably, in this post-Osama Bin Laden era, Moscow is trying ingratiate itself with Afghan public opinion, and ultimately, the Taliban.

An Afghan soldier cradles his rifle outside a gateway to Kabul's airport following a shooting incident in Kabul, Afghanistan, April 27, 2011 AP

If so, then it’s time for some reality checks:

Reality Check 1: in March, the United Nations issued its annual report on civilian casualties in Afghanistan. Of the 2,777 civilians killed last year, the U.N. said, 75 percent were killed by the Taliban, 16 percent were killed by NATO and Afghan government forces, and 9 percent by unknown actors.

The trends favor NATO forces. In 2010, the number of civilians killed by NATO and Afghan government troops dropped by 25 percent compared to the previous year. In contrast, the number of civilians killed by the Taliban increased 28 percent during the same time.
As the legal successor government to the Soviet Union, the Kremlin might best stick to highlighting civilian casualties in Libya’ civil war, its pet human rights cause this spring.

In pumping up NATO-caused civilian casualties in Afghanistan, Russian diplomats must think – or hope — we live in a world without memory.

Reality Check 2: During the nine year, 50 day Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, between 1 and 2 million Afghan civilians were killed. Since the Afghan population was 15.5 million in 1979, at the start of the war, let’s say the Soviet invasion led to the deaths of 1.5 million people, or 10 percent of the population. With another 5 million fleeing to Pakistan and neighboring countries, about one third of the population became refugees. Another two million were internally displaced inside Afghanistan. So about half Afghanistan’s 15.5 million people were killed or forced to flee their homes.

A US soldier gestures as he guards a NATO compound in Kabul, Afghanistan AP

During the nine year and 213 day (as of Monday) American-led war in Afghanistan, total civilian deaths range from 14,000-34,000. Since Afghanistan’s current population is 28.4 million, let’s assume, for mathematical neatness, that 28,400 Afghan civilians have died during the decade since the Taliban were forced from power.

In the war between NATO and the Taliban, one out of 1,000 Afghan civilians have died.

In the war between the Soviet Union and the mujahedeen, one out of 10 Afghan civilians died.

So, one can conclude that Washington’s war in Afghanistan is 100 times easier on the civilian population than Moscow’s war was.

But let’s drop the numbers and get on the ground.

In September 2002, I spent two weeks reporting newspaper stories in and around Kandahar.

Kandahar Airport was built in the late 1950s by the U.S. Government. During the Soviet period in Afghanistan, it became a key staging area for Soviet forces in southern Afghanistan. During the Taliban era, it became an international training center for Al Qaeda.

Kandahar’s three kilometer air strip is the key to supplying southern Afghanistan. The key to controlling the strip is to control a 15-kilometer perimeter zone around the airport. Mortars infiltrated into this zone threaten the air strip and the airplanes parked there.

One morning that September, I climbed into a United States Army humvee to ride along as American soldiers patrolled the perimeter zone. We passed the Tarnak Farms, a series of obstacle courses and firing ranges that Al Qaeda had used to train international jihadists.

After a few kilometers, our three humvee convoy rolled to a dusty stop at a baking hot village. Kids immediately ran out of their houses and gathered around the military vehicles. I soon saw why. Before leaving the base, the soldiers had thrown into their humvees several cardboard boxes. They were stuffed with small gifts collected and shipped from the soldiers’ hometowns, somewhere in the U.S.A.

Soon these beefy privates in flak jackets and helmets were handing out pens, school notebooks, and the occasional ball.
Meanwhile their officers had disappeared into a mud-walled house, where they sipped tea with elders and discussed, through an interpreter, civic action – well drilling, farm tools, jobs on the base. The trade off was clear: In return, alert us to all, absolutely all, outsiders who come into the area.

During a break in the tea drinking, I walked outside. Through an interpreter, I struck up a conversation with a farmer in his 40s, not old enough to be an elder, but old enough to remember the Soviet era.

How, I asked, were relations with the Soviet troops at Kandahar base?

There was no contact, but one. And he remembered that one very clearly. There had been a nighttime mortar attack on Kandahar airport from the vicinity of his village.

The next morning, Soviet tanks lined up on that ridge over there, he said, pointing to a slight rise with eucalyptus trees.

Then, the tanks shelled the village. Several hundred people, about 40 percent of the village population, were killed. The firing stopped. The tanks clanked back to the base.

Today, in the jockeying for influence in the post-Osama era, the Russians should remember that they return to Afghanistan with heavy historical baggage, marked USSR.

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.

A Tale of Two Wars: United States in Afghanistan and Russia in the Caucasus

Posted May 4th, 2011 at 9:39 pm (UTC+0)

Oddly, the death tolls in both wars stand at 440.

In Afghanistan, 440 American soldiers were killed by hostile action last year.

In Russia’s Caucasus, 440 Russian police and soldiers were killed by Islamic insurgents last year.

Abzulit Shauxalov, 31, a former policeman, was shot in the back while on duty in Ingushetia, a republic in the Russian Caucasus.. Islamic militant violence has killed 400 police officers over the past five years in Ingushetia alone. Photo: Diana Markosian

The death of Osama bin Laden has many Americans thinking: let’s declare victory, crank up the brass bands, and get out of Afghanistan.

The billions of taxpayer dollars for nation-building in Afghanistan and Pakistan could be far better spent at home, some think, rebuilding America’s rust belt regions. And, on Nov. 6, 2012, the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan will not be voting in American elections for president and congress.

Here, much closer to Afghanistan-Pakistan, positioning for a post-America Afghanistan is already getting started.

It was maybe a coincidence, but just a few hours after President Obama announced the death of bin Laden, Moscow announced the appointment of a Russian heavyweight to co-chair a Russia-Afghan trade and aid commission. The leader of the Russian side will be Sergei Shmatko, minister of energy and arguably the most powerful cabinet member for Russia, the world’s largest oil and gas producer. Russia has plans to run gas pipelines and electric power lines through Afghanistan to Pakistan.

Back to the 440 dead in the Caucasus.

Russia cannot declare victory and go home.

For the last 150 years, the Caucasus have been part of the Russian homeland.

The death of bin Laden, may speed up thinking that, in the age of the Arab Spring, the Saudi outlaw was yesterday’s man and that his suicide bombings were yesterday’s perversion of a great religion.

But 20 years after the breakdown of pax sovietica, the rag tag rebellion on Russia’s southern fringe persistently bubbles in a deadly stew. Ingredients include:
 a profound sense of ethnic, religious, and regional alienation from Russia’s Slavic, Christian core;
 age-old, Sicilian-style vendettas between mountain families and clans;
 and lunges by ambitious men to get a slice of the billions of rubles that Moscow pumps yearly into the region.

What young man is going to be happy herding sheep, if he dreams of earning $30,000 a year working as the fourth bodyguard for Chechnya’s deputy minister of postage stamps?

Google “Kadyrov cars” or “Kadyrov palaces” and you’ll get a Technicolor picture of the action flowing the way of Chechnya’s 34-year-old playboy prince, Ramzan Kadyrov.

People are starting to grumble in Moscow.

“Stop Feeding the Caucasus!” was the rallying cry at a nationalist demonstration on a recent sunny Saturday in Moscow. Addressing 500 protesters — largely young men in black jackets — one speaker shouted: “We spend too much money and too much blood on the Caucasus.”

Russian nationalists now talk openly of cutting off the four majority Muslim republics on Russia’s southern edge – Dagestan, Chechnya, Ingushetia and Kabardino Balkaria. Let them eat independence, they cry.

Dream on.

The people who run Russia face (their own kind) of elections this December and next March. With Russian oil selling for 50 percent over last year’s prices, the Kremlin can easily afford to keep irrigating the Caucasus with billions of rubles. Just a few weeks ago, Prime Minister Putin announced the launching this year of 37 development projects for the Caucasus. The price tag: $15 billion, about $2,000 per inhabitant.

So while the Washington can start quietly cutting the American blood and treasure spent on Afghanistan and Pakistan, Russian taxpayers are condemned to keep spending, and Russian soldiers, police and civilians are condemned to keep dying.

According to Caucasian Knot, a regional website, 211 people — a mix of soldiers, civilians and rebels — were killed due to armed conflict in the Caucasus during the first three months of this year. For Russian security forces in the Caucasus, their 2011 death toll could be on its way back to 440.

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.

Public Enemy No. 1 in Belarus: A Diplomat turned Democrat

Posted April 29th, 2011 at 9:34 am (UTC+0)
1 comment

Former presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov sits in a cage during a court hearing in Minsk April 27, 2011. REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko

When I last talked to Andrei Sannikov, on the night of Dec. 19, he was partly leading, partly being swept along, by a river of Belarussians who filled the largest avenue in Minsk, protesting yet another fraudulent presidential election.

Dressed in a business suit and tie, speaking English polished during a five year diplomatic stint in New York, he looked like the deputy foreign minister he once was. In a “normal country” (one of his favorite phrases), he would be part of the power elite, another urbane, but slightly forgettable 56-year-old Central European politician. (Quick, quick: Who is prime minister of Slovakia?).

But this is Belarus. And he had just lost an election to Alexander Lukashenko, the president for 17 years.

Two hours after our fleeting encounter on the avenue, riot police attacked the protesters. Wading into the crowd, they went for Sannikov. They broke his legs. They beat him unconscious. Later, as friends were taking him to a hospital, more police attacked the car. They beat his wife, Irina Khalip, as she was giving a live interview to a Moscow radio station. Then they dragged him off to a cell of the state security police, still called by its old Soviet initials, KGB.

During his booking at the prison, he was forced to stand for one hour, despite his injuries.

Belarus Sannikov Lawlessness Dec. 18, 2010

Only one day earlier, Sannikov and Vladimir Nekliayev, the other leading opposition candidate, were the toast of the foreign press, calmly addressing Europe and the world through a battery of 12 television cameras.

Presidential candidates Vladimir Neklyaev (L) and Andrey Sannikov attend a news conference for international press in Minsk December 18, 2010. The following evening they were attacked by riot police and jailed in KGB cells. REUTERS/Vasiliy Fedosenko

In coming days, as Sannikov and Khalip were held incommunicado in KGB cells, “social service” workers tried to take the couple’s three-year-old son, Daniil, away from his grandmother and put him into an orphanage.

Weeks turned into months. Sannikov turned 57 in the KGB prison. His lawyer was disbarred. His campaign spokesman, Alexander Otroschenkov, was sentenced to four years in jail for “organizing and taking part in a mass riot.”

On Wednesday, Sannikov reappeared in public after a four month absence. He was seated behind bars in metal cage in a Minsk courtroom facing a series of charges that could bring him 15 years in jail.

Remembering her Soviet childhood, his mother, Ala Sannikova, whispered to a foreign reporter that her son was being put through a “show trial.”

After the Soviet Union collapsed, some Soviet dissidents, when left to their devices, turned out to have rather odd views – nationalist bordering on fascist, religious bordering on fanatic.

But in a normal country, Sannikov’s views would be mainstream, bordering on boring.

Three years ago, he formed European Belarus, a group devoted to bringing this former Soviet republic into the European Union, following in the footsteps of two of its neighbors, Poland and Lithuania. In 1997, he co-founded Charter ’97, modeled on the Charter ’77 movement formed in then-Communist Czechoslovakia. In 2005, he was awarded in Vienna the Bruno Kreisky Prize, a prestigious human rights award.

Speaking four languages and the son of Minsk intellectuals, Sannikov represents the other Belarus – urbanized, democratic and Western looking.

This is the Belarus feared and despised by President Lukashenko, the hockey playing former border guard and agricultural school graduate. The first rung on his step ladder to power was service as director of a collective farm.

But Belarus is not moving Lukashenko’s way. As the nation urbanizes, his elderly, rural support dwindles. This spring, peace and prosperity, his justification for power, is vaporizing.

Outside the Minsk courthouse, Belarussians line up at exchange shops, fearing that last week’s 50 percent devaluation of the national currency is only the beginning. This week, according to the state statistics office, 15 percent of the nation’s workforce was put on leave because factories did not have access to hard currency to import materials.

No longer an “island of peace,” Minsk suffered a mysterious terrorist bombing in the capital’s subway system earlier this month. Exploding at rush hour, the bomb killed 14 and wounded 202.

Inside the courtroom, as diplomats from Sweden, Hungary, the United States and Russia watched on Wednesday, Sannikov defended the mass march last December as “entirely peaceful.” The vandalism that took place, he said, was carried out by government provocateurs.

During his four months in the hands of the KGB, Sannikov did not cut deals or recant his democratic ideals. As a result, human rights watchers fear, he could get a sentence of 10 years or more.

Sannikov will probably remain in jail as long as Belarus remains an “abnormal” nation.
From today’s vantage point, it is anybody’s guess how long that will be. All bets are off whether the Lukashenko regime will last 10 years, 10 months, or 10 days.

Former presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov sits in a cage during a court hearing in Minsk, where he on trial with other activists arrested December 19, for rallying against the relection of Alexander Lukashenko, president of Belarus since 1994. REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko

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.

Chernobyl Zone — Europe’s Largest Wildlife Refuge?

Posted April 25th, 2011 at 4:00 pm (UTC+0)

Japan has imposed a 20-kilometer exclusion zone around Fukushima nuclear power complex, banning human habitation for the foreseeable future.

April 26, marks the 25th anniversary of the worst nuclear accident on record, the explosion of the nuclear power plant in Chernobyl, Ukraine. The fate of 4,500 square kilometer exclusion zone around the old Soviet plant may give a glimpse into future of the area now banned for human habitation around Fukushima.

A hunter chases a fox just outside the 19-mile exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear reactor near the village of Novosiolki, Belarus on January 11, 2009. After the evacuation of the human population, wildlife populations have exploded. Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters

One quarter century ago, a flotilla of trucks and buses evacuated the 330,000 human inhabitants from Chernobyl’s exclusion zone, a massive area almost twice the size of Luxemburg. Today, some biologists have a different name for that zone: Europe’s largest wildlife refuge.

The human story is well told. Centuries old villages vanished from maps, disappearing into the undergrowth. Less has been said about resurgence of wildlife caused by the withdrawal of the hand of man.

Wolves, wild boar, elk, moose, roe deer, foxes, lynx, beavers, badgers,  white-tailed eagles, nesting swans, cranes, black stork and great white egrets now abound, checked only by their natural predatorsRussians may make dark jokes, calling their national symbol, the two-headed eagle, the “Chernobyl chicken.”

A worker feeds European Bison introduced to a state ecology reserve established in the Chernobyl exclusion zone, near the village of Babchin, Belarus. Photo: Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters

But biologists working around Chernobyl say they have found few deformities. This is partly because the law of the forest dictates that predators kill animals with abnormalities. In addition, animals do not seem to suffer from the psychological stress endured by humans after a nuclear accident.


Indeed, with the disappearance of hunters, dogs, cats, pesticides and automobiles, animal and bird populations probably feel less stress than before. When I spent a day in the Chernobyl area earlier this spring, I was struck by the quiet, the sense of peaceful solitude.

Cattle and mice that endured the initial radiation blast suffered health setbacks. But, biologists say, subsequent generations bounced back normally. One radioecologist, Sergey Gaschak, told BBC recently of finding nests – and eggs — of starlings, pigeons, swallows and redstarts inside the “sarcophagus” – the containment shell built over the radioactive remains of the burnt reactor.

And authorities in post-independence Ukraine introduced into the exclusion zone two endangered species: European bison and Przewalski’s horse. Both populations are thriving.There is talk of sightings of brown bears, a species not seen in this corner of Central Europe for decades.

At the time of the accident, the radioactivity from Chernobyl blew north, contaminating large areas of what are now Belarus, Ukraine and Russia. Belarus already has turned much of its exclusion zone into an official nature reserve. Ukraine and Russia are studying similar proposals..

A deer stands in the state radiation ecology reserve in the 19-mile exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear reactor near the village of Babchin. Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters

Russia has a precedent.

In September, 1957, an explosion took place at a nuclear fuel reprocessing plant near Chelyabinsk, about 1,400 kilometers east of Moscow. On the International Nuclear Event Scale, the disaster was ranked as a Level 6, making it the third most serious nuclear accident, after Chernobyl and Fukushima.

One week after the explosion, about 10,000 people were evacuated from an 800 square kilometer area, about one fifth the area of the Chernobyl exclusion zone. A pollution plume fell in a long, northeast track, now known as the East-Ural Radioactive Trace. Ten years after the accident, Soviet authorities justified closing the area by calling it the East-Ural Nature Reserve.

Closer to Japan, there is the Demilitarized Zone, a band of land 250 kilometers long and four kilometers wide that has kept the two Koreas apart since the Korean War armistice of 1953.

Running from seashore to seashore, the DMZ crosses mountains, plains, lakes and swamps. This geographic diversity, coupled with isolation from man for almost six decades has created what is probably the most biologically rich corner of the Korean peninsula today.

In the DMZ, biologists have identified 70 types of mammals and 320 kinds of birds, including the red-crowned crane and the white-naped crane, both staples of traditional Asian art. If land mines are cleared, the DMZ could be the best place in Korea to reintroduce large, endangered mammals – the Korean Tiger, Amur leopard and Asiatic black bear.

In 2005, I traveled from Seoul to the southern edge of the DMZ to interview Ted Turner, the founder of CNN. He had come to unveil his proposal to one day turn the DMZ into a peace park and nature reserve. While inter-Korean relations have not thawed since then, many people back the concept of conserving this green strip across the Korean peninsula.

Today, a question mark hangs over the empty Japanese coastal villages surrounding Fukushima. Some believe that human habitation may never resume.

One option may be a green belt surrounding the nuclear plant complex. By coincidence, the exclusion zone surrounding Fukushima went into effect on April 22, a day, marked in Japan and around the world, as Earth Day.

Selah Hennessy is a well-traveled California girl who previously worked in Dakar, Sierra Leone and Democratic Republic of Congo for VOA. While Ted is out on a cross-country trip, she'll be guest blogging about her own trip from New York through Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Michigan, Illinois, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and then all the way northeast back to New York.

Belarus’ Lukashenko and his Mini-me: Biographer Needed

Posted April 22nd, 2011 at 5:58 pm (UTC+0)

Calling all political biographers: We have here on the eastern edge of Europe a quirky modern dictator in desperate need of a world-class writer to tell his tale. Alexander Lukashenko, the long running ruler of Belarus, never ceases to surprise.

For starters, there is his 6-year-old son, Nikolai. The president dresses him up in various outfits, totes him around to various events, and calls him his “talisman.”

Nikolai Lukashenko casts his father's ballot in Dec. 19, 2011 presidential elections

Two weeks ago, hours after a massive bomb blew up in a subway station 100 yards from the presidential residence in Minsk, Alexander and Nikolai picked their way down a shattered escalator and paid their respects with a memorial bouquet of flowers. (Nasha Niva, Belarus’s lone opposition newspaper, won an official reprimand for running a story alleging that the remains of a young woman, one of the 13 fatalities, still lay just a few yards away.)

For military parades, Lukashenko dresses up his mini-me in a beribboned dress uniform or in a camouflage green GI Joe outfit. Together, they review the troops.

For voting, father and son wear matching navy blue suits. Nikolai gets to drop the ballot in the box. (No scary suspense about the results.)

Russia's President Medvedev and Belarus' President Alexander Lukashenko help Nikolai Lukashenko holster his very own gold-plated pistol.

For their audience with Pope Benedict in the Vatican, Nikolai wore a simple white dress shirt. Back home in Belarus, where 15 percent of the population is Roman Catholic, malicious tongues clucked about the Vatican’s liberal open-door policy for photo ops with a conservative pope. Lukashenko, an unreconstructed communist, proudly calls himself “an orthodox atheist.” Nikolai is not the son of his wife, Galina Rodionovna. The boy’s mother reputedly is the president’s personal physician.

And therein lies rich material for a biographer with a psychoanalytical bent.

Lukashenko grew up with without a father and was taunted by Soviet classmates for having an unmarried mother. Sometime during the course of his 17 years in power, he started to encourage voters to call him “Batska,” or Daddy.

Perhaps growing up without a father taught Lukashenko to fend for himself and to trust no one.
Ministers long ago learned that they can be publicly berated and fired one day. And then six months later “Batska” calls them back to government service.

Everything that goes wrong is someone else’s fault. Or gets ignored. On Thursday, the president managed to talk on television for three hours without once mentioning this week’s 50-percent devaluation of the Belarussian ruble.

Loyalty and constancy are not in his political playbook.

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko and his son Nikolai cruise in a holiday parade.

On several occasions, Lukashenko has double-crossed Vladimir Putin, the undisputed political godfather of the Slavic world. Normally, this means political death. Last summer, relations were so poor that the Kremlin ordered up a series of slashing prime-time television exposés about “Batska.”

But Belarus is not a western oblast, or state, of Russia. It is an independent country. For the Kremlin, it is a vital buffer state between Russia and NATO.

So the Kremlin gates keep opening for Lukashenko. Putin, looking like he has swallowed a frog, grudgingly receives him. Dmitry Medvedvev, Putin’s understudy and Russia’s normally congenial president, also has a hard time forcing a smile in Lukashenko’s presence.

From the West, there is no love lost for the man whom Condoleezza Rice once dubbed “the last dictator in Europe.”

Two years ago, when I was on a break from journalism, I stopped by the American embassy during a visit to Minsk. Nine months earlier, the U.S. ambassador had been expelled. The three remaining American diplomats were playing the roles of Maytag repairmen – they had the skills and offices, but their telephones never rang.

The day I visited, I was invited to the embassy cafeteria for lunch. An Embassy officer slid his plastic tray next to mine and announced that his assignment was ending. In one hour, he was leaving for Minsk airport.

I innocently asked if he had any end-of-tour thoughts he would like to share about Lukashenko. That flipped his switch for a 15-minute tirade.

The bottom line was this: Lukashenko will do whatever is needed to stay in power. If necessary, he will zig west to Europe. If necessary, he will zag east to Moscow. Self-preservation is the sole goal. This spring he is zagging east to Moscow in hopes of landing a $3 billion bailout loan.

With this move, the real Lukashenko is once again out of the closet, unleashing anti-democracy tirades more often associated with 1930s Europe.

Fearful of public gatherings, he lectured his nation on Thursday that democracy should be “limited to a square meter around where you stand.”

“Brush shoulders with another person,” he warned, “and that is where your democracy ends.”
(Dictators say the darnedest things!)

Unfortunately, George Orwell is no longer with us to introduce “Batska” to his “Animal Farm.”
The field is wide open for a good psychobiography.

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.

Belarus: Bombing while Economy Burns

Posted April 18th, 2011 at 6:05 am (UTC+0)
1 comment

When a massive bomb goes off in a police state, one can only ask: where were the police?

Belarus is the Cuba of Central Europe — a police state.

Type “List of countries by size of police forces” into Wikipedia and you will find that Belarus is the champion, with 1,442 policemen for every 100,000 people. Vladimir Putin’s Russia lags far behind, with only 976. Belarus’ other two neighbors on the 65-nation list lag even further – 327 in Lithuania, and 264 in Poland.

Belarussian ouple mourn near the entrance to central Minsk metro station where a mysterious bombing killed 13 and wounded 203. Photo: AP

The rush hour bomb in the central Minsk metro station killed 13 and wounded 203. Filled with shrapnel, the bomb went off at the busiest hour in the city’s busiest station – the only transfer station in the system.

The last time a major bomb went off in Minsk, in 2008, police fingerprinted 1.3 million men. This time, police say, their all-seeing circuit TV camera network allowed them to capture the culprit. At first he was identified as a lone madman. Then we heard that five Belarussian men under the age of 30 had been detained.

Woman lays flowers at Oktyabrskaya Station, while more and more Belarussians wonder: who did it? Photo: AP

Belarussians are in deep shock as they struggle with the biggest attack in their capital since World War II. Roses and candles have turned Oktyabrskaya station into a shrine.

As the shock wears off, some Belarussians are asking: who benefits from such an attack?

Not the opposition. As expected, President Alexander Lukashenko unleashed his police again on what remains of the opposition, seizing computers, blocking web sites, and interrogating the few opposition members who are not in jail or in exile following the Dec. 19 elections.

Thursday night, Stanislaw Shushkevich, Belarus’ first post-Soviet leader, was on Russian television, on the prime time debate show of Vladimir Solovyev. (Shushkevich is banned from Belarus television).

Shushkevich, now 77, looked back on the last 17 years of Lukashenko rule of Belarus, and noted: “Whenever our regime falls into a difficult spot, something happens that makes people pay attention to something else.”

Let’s look at what is happening off camera in Minsk these days.

Belarus KGB say this closed circuit TV grab shows the bomber carrying 20 kilo bomb on platform of Oktyabrskaya Station. President Lukashenko says the man was arrested the day after the bombing. The suspect has not been publicly identified. Photo: Reuter

Faced with lines of people waiting hours to change their Belarussian rubles into hard currencies, Belarus banks announced limits last week on foreign exchange transactions. On Friday, the nation’s central bank suspended gold sales. Two weeks ago, the bank authorized a de facto 10 percent devaluation of the currency.

As shortages spread through shops, economists for foreign banks in Belarus predict the government will be forced to devalue by another 20 percent.

Belarus is running out of money.

In the run up to the December 19 elections, President Lukashenko raised pension payments and state salaries by 30 percent. In the last two years, he doubled the national debt. With Russian oil and gas subsidies drying up, the nation’s trade deficit has quadrupled. Since October, Belarus’ foreign exchange reserves have dropped by 60 percent.

Belarus’ current account deficit is 15.6 percent of GDP. When Greece turned to the European Union for a bailout, its deficit was 13.6 percent.

But no one wants to bail out Alexander Lukashenko.

After the elections, widely derided outside the country as fraudulent, the U.S. and E.U. placed travel bans on President Lukashenko and 157 other high officials involved in the elections or the subsequent repression. In recent weeks, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Senator John Kerry have sharply criticized the Lukashenko government. The EU is debating whether to add another 19 names to its blacklist.

In short, Washington and Brussels will block any attempt by Belarus to get an IMF loan.

So, Lukashenko has turned east, asking Moscow for $3 billion.

But, that was six months ago, and Moscow is playing hard to get.

In March, Prime Minister Putin was in Minsk. Asked about the loan request, he complained that Russian oil and gas subsidies still add up to $4.3 billion a year.

Then, the Belarus President tried a charm campaign with the Russian press, saying he would like to join Russia in a political union. He complained that the Russian media suffers from “Lukashenko syndrome.”

Two weeks later, Moscow’s Izvestia newspaper, close to the Kremlin, came out with an (unfounded) story alleging that the Moscow embassies of Belarus and North Korea pay their bills by running clandestine gambling casinos on their premises.

With friends like these…

Economists say Russia is holding out to get low prices for Belarus’s ‘crown jewels’ – the state companies that Lukashenko will be forced to sell this summer. When a Russian reporter asked the Belarus president if he would sell his government’s controlling stake in a local mobile telephone company, he shot back: “We are not against this: just pay $1 billion.”

Meanwhile, officials of what is still called the KGB in Minsk, say the investigation of the bombing will take months. As one police official said, they have 200 victims to interrogate.

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.

Yuri Gagarin: When the Soviets Beat the Americans

Posted April 13th, 2011 at 3:10 pm (UTC+0)

I remember standing in a field in southern France one evening in the summer of 1962. My father watched a blinking red light slowly arcing across the night sky. “That,” he said pointing. “That is a sputnik.”

It could well have been the night flight from Paris to Algiers. But the uneasiness in his voice reflected deep anxiety among Americans that the Soviets were beating us in the space race.

This week, the glory days of the Soviet space program came back in a rush as Russians celebrated the 50th anniversary of Yuri’s Gagarin’s flight into space.

Yuri Gargarin, first man in space, orbited the earth on April 12, 1961

There have been fireworks, art exhibitions, a musical, space movies, special school programs, Soviet hymns played in the metro, official ceremonies designed to allow Russian politicians to rub shoulders with Soviet cosmonauts and endless grinding on TV of the old black and white footage of a man in an oversized round helmet, ensconced in a nose cone high atop a massive Vostok rocket.
He shouts hoarsely: “Poyekhali!” — “Let’s go!”

Up he went, this Soviet Christopher Columbus, into space, a place where no man had ventured before. When he came down, one orbit and 108 minutes later, he was on his way to being transformed into the most popular Soviet icon since Lenin.

Gagarin, with his easy smile, became the poster boy for the USSR

With his easy smile and congenial nature, Gagarin was soon dispatched on a 27-nation goodwill tour. His friendly grin appeared on postage stamps the world over. As a poster boy for the Soviet way of life, Gagarin flashed perfect teeth, choppers that seemed to speak of the wonders of Soviet health care.

Americans, by contrast, were gnashing their teeth.

It is hard to recall, but this was a time when many people in the West feared that Soviet Union would beat the United States. One third of voters in France and Italy were voting communist. For fear of alienating European film audiences, the producer of James Bond movies altered the novel “From Russia with Love.” Instead of the British spy fighting Soviet counter intelligence, Bond battled SPECTRE, an imaginary crime syndicate.

With Gagarin’s April 12, 1961, flight, the world seemed to have proof of the superiority of Soviet science.

Gagarin’s flight spurred the U.S. Congress to approve huge space budgets. The payoff came at the end of the decade, when the United States placed the first man on the moon.

Russian Soyuz Rocket emblazoned 'Gagarin' launches April 5, 2011 from the same Baikonour, Kazakhstan cosmodrome where Yuri Gagarin launched into space almost 50 years earlier. The rocket took two Russian cosmonauts and one American astronaut to the International Space Station, an orbiting research facility maintained by the space agencies of Russia, the United States, Canada, Japan and the European Union. Photo: AP

To this day, Russians downplay this feat. Some will argue that the 1969 moon landing was a stunt filmed on a Hollywood movie set.

In Moscow, tickets to the Cosmonautics Museum show a photo of Russia’s “Luna Xhod,” or moon buggy. Located at the foot of a soaring metal sculpture of a rocket blasting into space, this newly refurbished museum presents exhibits and captions in such a way that visitors can easily leave without ever realizing that Americans really did land on the moon.

On Monday night, this museum was the setting for what may be a final reunion of veterans of the golden era of Soviet space exploration: Alexei Leonov, the first man to walk in space, Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space, and Thomas Stafford, commander of the first joint US-USSR space mission, known as the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project.

On Tuesday, this group went to the Kremlin for an award ceremony presided by President Dmitry Medvedev. Seated in front row was Gagarin’s widow, Valentina Gagarina. Forty three years after her husband’s death, she lives largely in seclusion in Star City, the cosmonaut compound outside of Moscow.

Gagarin never lived to see his star eclipsed by the 1969 American lunar landing. On March 27, 1968, his MiG-15 jet crashed on a training flight. As with many murky events in the Soviet era, conspiracy theories shroud the fatal crash of the handsome, 34-year-old space pioneer.

According to the leading explanations, his jet was either thrown out of control by the shock wave from another plane’s sonic boom, or he veered suddenly to avoid collision with a weather balloon.

Tuesday night, fireworks burst around his most prominent memorial: a titanium statue that soars 38 meters above Gagarin Square, one block from the Hotel Sputnik.

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 Corruption Fighter — Censored?

Posted April 6th, 2011 at 3:59 pm (UTC+0)

Do a Google search on “Kadyrov cars,” or “Kadyrov palace,” or “Kadyrov racehorse.”

Russians often wonder what happens to the billions of rubles the Kremlin pours into Chechnya to prop up Ramzan Kadyrov, the chief of the long rebellious republic. Five minutes on Google gives a juicy hint.

Russia is riding the rocket of some of the fastest growing rates of internet connectivity in the world. Week by week, more and more Russians have been getting a clearer, uncensored picture of the corruption that permeates a government funded with $120 a barrel oil.

From a spare office in Moscow, Alexei Navalny uses his laptop to fight corruption in Russia. Photo: AP

The poster boy for this new transparency is Alexei Navalny, a 34-year-old, blue-eyed, anti-corruption crusader.

Shut out of Kremlin-controlled TV, Navalny develops his audience on the internet.

Last fall, one million unique visitors came to his site when he posted documents alleging that officials at Transneft, the state oil pipeline monopoly, stole $4 billion during the construction of Russia’s first pipeline to China. After Navalny debated corruption-fighting strategies with a Moscow economist, 700,000 watched the debate on YouTube.

“If 800,000 people read my blog, why do I need the First Channel?” Navalny asked me over dinner recently, referring to the nation’s lead, government controlled station.

But Russia is entering an election year. In December, Russians vote for parliament. Next March, they vote for president. Voter surveys show that corruption now tops the anger lists of voters. Many Russians say they do not need Transparency International to tell them they are navigating in the world’s most corrupt major economy.

Corruption stories ricochet around Russia’s lightly regulated internet.

In one, a nurse alleged that before Prime Minister Putin visited a regional hospital last year, the doctors told several nurses to dress up as patients. They were filmed, lying in bed, telling the visiting prime minister that the care they were receiving was great.

In another case, a psychiatric hospital in St. Petersburg bought 200 mink coats. When asked why, the hospital director answered that the patients wanted to wear mink.

In the past, crusading newspaper reporters have been beaten or killed.

In the most prominent case, Anna Politkovskaya, was shot to death in the elevator of her Moscow apartment building on Oct. 7, 2006, the birthday of then President Putin. Putin later said that Politkovskaya was little known and little read in Russia.

But Navalny, with his massive following of middle class netizens, is too powerful to be attacked directly.

But now, we may be witnessing the start of a veiled campaign to silence Navalny and to stifle his anti-corruption crusade.

Last month, Russian web surfers noticed anonymous offers to pay people 14,000 rubles a month – about $430 a month — to spam Navalny’s blog with hostile comments.

This week, anonymous internet hackers intermittently shut down Navalny’s site and then its host, the LiveJournal blogging site. LiveJournal hosts 45 percent of the nation’s online blogs and diaries. With almost one million visitors a day, it is the seventh most popular site in Russia.

President Medvedev often calls the internet a crucial tool for transparency in government.

But the fate of Alexei Navalny in an election year may determine limits on the internet in Russia for years to come.

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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