From Chernobyl to Fukushima: Nuclear Safety?

Posted March 31st, 2011 at 6:32 pm (UTC+0)

Soldiers long ago shot the dogs and cats. Today, the only sound on Lenin Avenue is a chill wind blowing dead leaves. In the summer, thick vegetation obscures six-story apartment blocks, once homes for the city’s 50,000 residents. Once a model Soviet community built for Chernobyl’s nuclear power station, Pripyat now looks like a post apocalypse film set.

Tourists, some wearing face masks, pick their way carefully through dimly lit corridors, boots crunching on broken glass. They walk down debris strewn sidewalks, keeping an eye out for missing manhole covers. Side streets have narrowed into tunnels as bushes and trees have grown unchecked for a quarter century.

Alex, the guide, says visits after dark are forbidden. Packs of wild boars and gray wolves roam the ruins. I roll my eyes with skepticism. Then, I see stretches of dirt freshly torn up by wild pigs rooting for food after a long winter.

Like archeologists exploring the lost city of the Soviets, visitors peer through the underbrush and make out heroic statues and monuments, raised when Chernobyl was designed to be the largest nuclear power station in Europe.

Twenty five years after the nuclear explosion at Chernobyl, Pripyat gives mute testimony to the “downside” of nuclear power.
In the heart of Central Europe, an expanse of land larger than the American state of Rhode Island – about 4,300 square kilometers – is off limits to human habitation.

Old Soviet news reports show Pripyat, model bedroom community for workers at Chernobyl nuclear power plant, designed to be the largest nuclear power complex in Europe:

This was not empty Siberian tundra. To create the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, authorities forcibly moved 330,000 people from an area that overlaps parts of modern day Ukraine, Belarus and Russia.

Few ever returned. Once a year, families are allowed back to tend ancestral graves, Russian Orthodox and Jewish. Records of human habitation on Chernobyl’s once fertile lands along the Pripyat River stretch back to 1,000 AD. This human history stopped in May 1986.

Given current limits of scientific knowledge, no one can reliably predict when human settlement can safely resume. Work is starting on a new, $2 billion containment “sarcophagus” for the stricken power plant. It is to keep the 200 tons of highly radioactive material sealed – for another century.

The lessons of Chernobyl seem clear to Japan, Russia and the United States.

Time and time again, nuclear safety is sacrificed for cost cutting.

Soviet era footage of the accident at Chernobyl nuclear power plant and the April 1986 evacuation of Pripyat, a modern city of 50,000 people:

For the first part of the 2000s, I lived in Tokyo. I happily enjoyed the cheap electricity provided by Tokyo Electric Power Company’s nuclear reactors up the coast in Fukushima. Reports (some written by me) of safety short cuts, of radiation accidents, of poor maintenance of the aging American-designed reactors never got much traction.

The Christmas Eve 2004 tsunami that devastated the coasts of Indonesia and Thailand should have sent a clear wakeup call about the fragility of structures built on the shores of the Pacific’s “Rim of Fire” earthquake zone. A week after the 2004 tsunami, I picked through the ruins of destroyed beach hotels in Phuket, Thailand. Nearby, Japanese television crews filmed stand up reports for news shows back home.

On another reporting visit, this time to Shimoji Shima, one of Japan’s southernmost islands, I stared at a lovely beach, oddly littered with boulders the size of Toyotas. A local explained: “That was from the Yaeyama tsunami of 1771. It killed 12,000 people.”

With this kind of collective memory among the people who invented the word tsunami, it is strange that critics of nuclear power safety are ostracized as Chicken Littles – nitwits who run around squawking that the sky is falling, the sky is falling.

With Chernobyl looking more and more like a mysteriously abandoned city of the Mayas, it is clear that technology does fail. The radioactive rain does fall.

If Russian, American, and Japanese engineers – arguably among the most scientifically sophisticated on the planet – cannot get nuclear safety right, who can?

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.

Libya abstention – Kremlin’s post imperial foreign policy?

Posted March 23rd, 2011 at 5:56 pm (UTC+0)

The Soviet Union vetoed.

Russia abstains.

Is Russia’s U.N. vote on Libya part of a wider, post-Imperial foreign policy in the Kremlin?

That is the question Moscow is debating as Russians watch from the sidelines as needle-nosed Western jets bomb military targets in Libya, once a Soviet ally.

Diplomats schooled in Soviet ways would have expected Russia last week to veto the United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force against the military of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. Instead, Russia abstained.

Clearly, Russia’s leadership did not want to throw the new relationship with Washington under the bus for Libya.

“This change is another step away from the Kremlin’s inflated self-image as a guardian of the global order,” Dmitry Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, wrote Monday in The Moscow Times. “Russia is still wedded to ‘realipolitik’ as its guide in foreign policy, but this is now becoming post-imperial.”

A bit like British politicians harrumphing their way through the 1960s, imperial nostalgia has lasting appeal in Moscow.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin takes tea with Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi in a tent pitched in the Kremlin garden on a chill night in November, 2008. Photo: AP

Prime Minister Putin, once a KGB agent stationed in East Germany, stepped up to play the old Soviet role of “Mr. Nyet.” Answering the unspoken desire of many Russians – “Let Putin be Putin” – the Russian leader lambasted U.S., British and French attacks in Libya as a “medieval crusade.” At the same time, Putin youth, the Nashi and Stal groups, picketed the U.S., U.K. and French embassies in Moscow.

In response, President Medvedev donned a brown leather bomber jacket, embossed “Commander in Chief.” Talking to his press pool, he warned about “unacceptable” comments that could lead to a “clash of civilizations.”

Then, in the worst possible timing, the U.S. secretary of defense, Robert Gates, came to town for a long planned visit. Kremlin choreographers had a chore figuring out how to handle this inconvenient guest.

Russia’s defense minister, Anatoly Serdyukov, was chosen to be the fall guy to give the televised lecture to Gates calling for a ceasefire, a call that everyone knew would be ignored.

Tuesday night, state-controlled television led the news with lengthy reports on Mr. Putin’s trip to Slovenia. About 15 minutes into the programs, viewers learned that, oh, yes, the most powerful military man in the world was in Moscow today. Not allowed to open his mouth on Russian TV, Mr. Gates was largely seen patiently sitting through lectures by President Medvedev and the Defense Minister.

Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russian in the journal Global Affairs, gave me a different take on Mr. Putin’s “crusade” comment. Noting that it was made while he was visiting an intercontinental ballistic missile factory, he said that a hidden motive may have been to bolster internal support for Russia’s new military spending program.

Over the next decade, Russia is to spend $750 billion to rearm its military. For Russia, the geostrategic insecurity that dare not speak its name is spelled C-h-i-n-a.

So instead of Beijing, Moscow may be using phantom foreign threats to justify its investments in arms.

Last month, Russia rattled its sabers against the Japanese, making enough noise to slip new air defense systems into Russia’s Northern Pacific islands, presumably without the Chinese taking offense. This month, the performance of NATO member militaries against targets in Libya is a timely justification for more spending on high performance fighter jets.

Interestingly, there has been little concern coming out of the Kremlin about the fate of Colonel Gadhafi. Two years ago, in November 2008, the Libyan leader pitched his desert tent inside the Kremlin walls for a state visit, giving Prime Minister Putin and President Medvedev a chance size him up. Let’s just say that they have not spoken out on his behalf in recent days.

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.

Saint Patrick: Subversive to Moscow?

Posted March 15th, 2011 at 4:31 pm (UTC+0)

For the first time in almost two decades, Moscow authorities will not allow a Saint Patrick’s Day Parade. Every year, since 1992, the Irish community has led a street parade through the center of Moscow. Increasingly popular with Muscovites, the parade draws thousands of Russian revelers, many with their hair dyed green.

But this year, Russian officials worry that behind the emerald green lurks revolutionary red.

A Baku policeman detains a protester, one of 150 arrested last weekend in Azerbaijan, the first former Soviet Republic to experience democracy protests since the Tunisia revolt. REUTERS/Orhan Orhanov

In this season of revolution, a St. Patrick’s Day parade could be hijacked by democracy protesters.

So city officials, who routinely clog streets with their motorcades, declared that in the interests of avoiding clogged streets, the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade would not be held. The Irish Business Club gamely offered a substitute – an indoor song fest.

Russia’s rulers are not the only ones to worry about St. Patrick-the-Subversive. Two days after Moscow, Shanghai officials also banned their annual St. Patrick’s Day parade.

In Moscow, a common dinner party game is to look at the area of the former Soviet Union and debate which of the 15 countries are most vulnerable to an Arab-style democracy revolt.

Although Russia’s ruling party had a lackluster showing in elections on Sunday, the general belief is that Russia is safe for authoritarianism, for now.

In a poll conducted nationwide last month, 49 percent of respondents said they were dissatisfied and ready to participate in a protest, a jump from 32 percent in December. But Russia’s oil is selling at $115 a barrel – 50 percent over last year’s price. This price spike has been perfectly timed for Prime Minister Putin. Facing parliamentary and presidential elections over the next year, he has plenty of rubles to jolly voters with higher pensions and state salaries.

In Russia, the Kremlin worries less about a youth revolt and than about a pensioners’ revolt.

In a reverse of Egyptian demographics, one million young Russians enter the job market each year, while 2.5 million workers exit, either through death or retirement.

The vulnerable parts of the former Soviet Union are the ‘stans’ – the six republics with young, Muslim-majority populations that take some inspiration from Cairo.

Last month, Kazakhstan, the richest and most economically successful, scheduled a surprise presidential election for April 3. The idea is to lock in the genuine popularity of the nation’s long running president, Nursultan Nazarbayev.

Kyrgyzstan has had two revolutions in five years. Tajikstan is still recovering from a civil war in the mid-1990s that claimed 100,000 lives. Turkmenistan probably has enough oil and gas billions to pacify its relatively small population of five million.

The two most vulnerable are Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan, two countries with entrenched ruling families, high corruption, high unemployment and large, young populations. Transparency International’s corruption index places them at the bottom of the barrel – Azerbaijan at 134 and Uzbekistan at 172.

Uzbekistan has been ruled since 1989 by Islam Karimov. Now he is 73 and without a male heir, a key obstacle to creating a political dynasty in Central Asia. State controls, monopolies and corruption have retarded economic development and fostered huge income gaps, pushing many of Uzbekistan’s 27 million people to look for jobs elsewhere.

Azerbaijan has been run by the Aliyevs for the last 42 years — first by Heydar Aliyev, who started the dynasty in 1969 as First Secretary of the Communist Party of Azerbaijan.
Currently, his son Ilham runs this oil and gas rich nation on the Caspian with the title of president. Critics say a more historically accurate title would be “Khan.”

On Friday and Saturday, the protests started, spread by Facebook and Twitter. Azeri police moved in fast, arresting 150 young people around Baku’s Fountain Square, including anyone wearing a red T-shirt.

There will be no St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Baku.

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.

Golden Chains Bind Chechnya to Moscow

Posted March 11th, 2011 at 3:55 pm (UTC+0)

At the end of Putin Avenue, rises The Heart of Chechnya mosque, reputed to be the largest in Europe Photo: Diana Markosian

Grozny’s new mosque, The Heart of Chechnya, is modeled after the Blue Mosque of Istanbul and has minarets soaring 60 meters into the sky. Behind construction workers are building three office and apartment towers, the tallest towers in the Caucasus. On a field outside of this city of 350,000, finishing touches are being put on a new, 30,000-seat glass and cement football stadium. Chechen officials hope that Moscow will include Grozny in the list of host cities for 2018 World Cup.

In Moscow, dial-a-quote experts who rely on their knowledge of their Caucasus from trips made 5 to 15 years ago, like to tell reporters that Chechnya is ‘a failed state’ and that the tide of history will sweep the Islamic majority republics out of the Russia Federation.

On the ground, the picture is different.

A Chechen woman washes a floor inside Grozny's new mosque. (AP Photo: Sergey Ponomarev

Yes, there is violence. Yes, there are lots of poorly shaven young men in strange uniforms carrying fully loaded kalashnikovs. And, yes, Chechnya is probably economically unviable, depending on Moscow for as much as 90 percent of its budget.

But, no, the fashionable new dream of Russian nationalists, the dream of cutting off the Caucasus and watching them eat their independence, is not going to happen on the watch of the Putin-Medvedev tandemocracy.

After visits in recent weeks to Chechnya and neighboring Ingushetia, it is clear to me that the Kremlin will shovel south as many rubles as it takes to keep the Caucasus under Russia’s wing.

Last week, Prime Minister Putin announced that 400 billion rubles will be spent this year on 37 development projects in the Caucasus. With Russia’s oil-inflated ruble trading at 28.7 to the dollar, that means $14 billion for 5 million people who are spread over less than 1 percent of Russia’s territory.

On my visit to Grozny, I searched in vain for evidence of what the city in notorious for – the war devastation that left Chechnya’s capital looking like Stalingrad after the Nazi siege. I came too late. After 1,000 days of frenzied construction activity, the city has been rebuilt.

Copy the countryside. A Chechen acquaintance, who investigates cases of people who disappeared during the Chechen wars and current ‘dirty war,’ says the most visible evidence of past fighting are the continued presence of armored personnel carriers in rural areas.

To outflank the fundamentalists, Chechnya's leader, Ramzan Kadyrov has mandated that Chechen women wear headscarves in school, offices and downtown Grozny. With Islamic fashion boutiques now dotting Putin Avenue, an aide to Kadyrov models the new/old style. Photo: James Brooke

While plaster and mortar can cover up the external damage, the internal, psychic damage will take decades to heal. Wednesday afternoon , I was driving in a sagging Lada to the airport (newly refurbished), when the taxi driver mentioned that his brother, then 19, was killed in the early 1990s, fighting for Chechen independence. For a few blocks, a sad, gray cloud hovered over the taxi. Then he said that Chechnya can only be run by a strong hand.

Indeed, somewhat similar to the conflicts I once covered in Central America, Chechens are suffering from war fatigue. They don’t love the Russians any more than they did 15 years ago. They have realized they cannot survive economically on their own.

Tuesday night, in the opening ceremony for the Brazil-Grozny football game, massive loudspeakers blared, consecutively, the hymns of Brazil, Russia and Chechnya. As the Italian Romantic notes of the Brazil’s Hino Nacional floated through the mountain air, the 10,000 fans stopped their cheering and yelling to listen to this musical curiosity.

When the Russian anthem was played, they chatted, checked cellphones for messages, shuffled their feet, looked down, looked embarassed.
When, the Chechen anthem played, they rediscovered their vocal chords with a collective roar.

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.

Gorbachev to Kremlin: Tear down these walls!

Posted March 2nd, 2011 at 9:34 pm (UTC+0)

Mikhail Gorbachev turned 80 on Wednesday. In advance, Russia’s political bear gave himself a birthday present: he came out of political hibernation.

After two decades of lying low and not tangling with the current occupants of the Kremlin, the last leader of the Soviet Union finally opened up.

“Incredible conceit!” Gorbachev, still barrel chested and feisty, snapped when an interviewer asked him about the plan of Prime Minister Putin and President Medvedev to decide between themselves who will be the official candidate in Russia’s presidential election next March. Russia’s ruling tandem act “act as if society, constitution, elections did not exist.”

“They’ve come to believe they’re the saviors of the fatherland,” he said of Putin and Medvedev during a radio interview. “The policy they are offering now is to throw everything behind personal power to keep it in their hands.”

Russia today, he said at a press conference, is an “imitation” democracy. The ruling United Russia party is a “bad copy of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.”

Addressing Putin in an interview published Wednesday in the weekly, Argumenty I Fakty, he said: “ Vladimir Vladimirovitch has already served two terms as president and another as prime minister. If I were him, I would not run for president.”

Russia must “definitely” draw lessons from the revolutions sweeping the Arab world, he said. Referring to Russia’s leaders, he asked: “How many times have they promised people that they will be loosening the screws?”

And Gorbachev didn’t stop there. The country’s “ruling class” is “rich and dissolute,” he said in an interview published in Novaya Gazeta, a newspaper he partly owns.

In keeping with Russia’s ‘imitation’ democracy, few of his critical comments saw the light of day on Russian national television specials about his birthday.

U.S. President Ronald Reagan smiles as he talks to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev outside the villa Fleur D'Eau at Versoix near Geneva, Switzerland, November 19, 1985

Every time, I’ve met Gorbachev over the years, here or in the U.S., he was a big talker, reminiscent of America’s ham fisted union leaders of the 1950s. But, he generally talked about his role in history, his relations with Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher – not about current Russian politics.

Now, some are saying that Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin’s chief ideologue, flipped Gorby’s switch. Surkov, who is barely half Gorbachev’s age, told the former ruler of the Soviet Union that the Kremlin would not allow the registration of his social democratic party.

But perhaps in an effort to charm an untouchable critic, Putin and Medvedev unexpectedly reached out to Gorbachev on his birthday. Putin, known for lamenting the collapse of the Soviet Union, sent him a telegram, praising him as “one of the great statesmen of modern times, who have made a significant impact on world history.”

Medvedev received Gorbachev for a fireside chat at his suburban residence, welcoming him with candies and champagne. He bestowed on his surprised visitor Russia’s top state honor, the Order of St. Andrew, saying the decoration was “proper recognition of your enormous work as head of state.”

A hero in the West, Gorbachev evokes mixed feelings at home.

In the West, he is revered for lifting from Europe and the United States the real threat of a nuclear weapons exchange with Russia. He is admired for presiding, in a dignified way, over Russia’s loss of empire – first the satellite nations of Eastern Europe, then the 14 non-Russian republics of the Soviet Union.

But from the Russian side of the fence, the collapse of the Soviet Union was traumatic. Jobs vanished. Inflation consumed savings. Crime and ethnic violence erupted. Heath care services fell apart. Mortality rates soared.

And, one day, each and every Russian eventually woke up to the realization that Moscow was no longer the capital of a superpower.

Though the collapse of the Soviet empire was probably inevitable, Gorbachev has been made the scapegoat.

Even so, many Russian now take for granted the freedoms that Gorbachev’s guidance eventually brought them – to travel overseas, to open a business, to buy Western quality goods inside Russia, and to freely cruise the Internet.

The split view on this man who changed history came into sharp focus on his birthday.

In Moscow, celebrations of Gorby’s 80th were largely confined to “Mikhail Gorbachev: Perestroika”, a historical photo exhibit near the Kremlin. When I went on his birthday at 4 pm, a large policeman gruffly told me the show closed at 3 pm.

In contrast, a gala concert is planned March 30 at the Royal Albert Hall in London. The celebration is being organized to raise contributions for The Gorbachev Foundation, an entity that aids children’s cancer hospitals in Britain and Russia. Gorbachev’s beloved wife, Raisa, died of leukemia in 1999.

The guest list includes ex-presidents and prime ministers, Hollywood actresses, financial leaders, and publishing tycoons. According to ‘Gorby 80’ the organizing committee, the glittering evening will be split into seven phases, each marking milestones in the trajectory of a man whose first job was driving harvester combines on a collective farm in the late 1940s.

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

Will Islamic Fundamentalists Threaten Russia’s Winter Olympics?

Posted February 22nd, 2011 at 10:39 pm (UTC+0)

One thousand days from now, television cameras from around the world will focus on Krasnaya Polana, Russia’s new ski resort complex on the western end of the Caucasus Mountains. The ski and snowboard events of the 2014 Winter Olympics will be held on slopes now under construction.

Ski gondola cabins litter slopes of Mt. Elbrus, the tallest mountain in Europe, after Islamic rebels blew up lift tower in attack on tourism industry in Caucasus. Photo: Reuters

Last weekend, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev, met at Krasnaya Polana to watch the European Alpine Ski Competitions.

But, simultaneously, several mountain peaks to the east, Russian security officials conducted anti-terrorist operations after the first known Islamist insurgent attack on Russia’s ski industry.

On Friday afternoon, masked men in a black car without license plates stopped a van shuttling Moscow skiers from a regional airport to Elbrus, the tallest mountain in the Caucasus chain. When one tourist asked their identities, the men opened fire, killing three and wounding two.

Later in the evening, after all skiers and snowboarders were off Elbrus, an explosion knocked down a pylon of a new Swiss-built gondola. Cables derailed, sending dozens of cabins crashing to the ground. Then, on Saturday, alert security officials detected and defused three bombs in a car parked outside a ski hotel near the base of Elbrus. The bombs contained a total 70 kilos of TNT.

Two winters ago, two friends and I drove up that access road, past that ski hotel, and skied Elbrus. The ethnic Russian driver who met us at the Mineralni Vodi airport became visibly uneasy when the road crossed into the majority Muslim area of Karbardino Balkaria. Going back, the Balkar driver was equally uneasy crossing into the ethnic Russian area around Mineralni Vodi, a Russian spa resort since the 1880s.

Russia TV shows downed gondola cabin from new lift built to attract skiers and snowboarders to the slopes of the Caucasus. Photo: AP

On the approaches to Elbrus, green flags of Islam flew over family compounds, and new Mosques gleamed in the winter sun. For local men, the main job options seemed to be herding sheep, taking care of skiers, or migrating to Moscow. Along the route, a massive Soviet era Tungsten mining settlement stood largely abandoned, looking like an end of the world film set. Last October, an insurgent group killed several policemen, and then escaped into the mine, never to be seen again.

Last weekend, Kavkazcenter, a website that speaks for the Islamic fundamentalist rebels, praised the attacks on the ski resort, saying: “Puppet sources reported that ‘tourist industry in the region is almost paralyzed.’ Tourists leave the province hastily, despite the fact that the invaders introduced an impressive armed protection for them.”

Then on Monday, the site said: “Local apostates and “interior ministry” gangs from other regions are now busy protecting Russian tourists, occupation sources report. Also reported is that many “Russian tourists” hastily left resorts on Saturday and early Sunday.

President Medvedev, in a show of confidence for Russia’s ski industry, skied a few runs in front of television cameras Monday at a future Olympic resort about 200 kilometers west of the attack sites. He told reporters: “Forces that would impede holding the Olympics must be identified and brought to justice, if we are talking about citizens of our country.”

Last month, President Medvedev traveled to the Swiss ski town of Davos and sought $15 billion in foreign investment for a chain of five ski areas across the Caucasus. Last weekend’s attacks at Elbrus are the insurgents’ response.

The Caucasus mountains are steep and relatively untouched. One day, they will make for wonderful skiing with breathtaking views.

But modern ski areas, with their chair lifts and gondolas, are essentially indefensible. Skiers will not regress 50 years to the era of rope tows and T-bars. Skiers also will not clamber into chair lifts and ride 10 meters over rocks and cliffs if they worry that a terrorist down below may be fastening a bomb to a lift tower.

The mountains and their ski slopes can wait.

First, the demands and needs of the people living around the Caucasus will have to be taken care of.

With the 1,000 day Olympic clock ticking, it is unclear how Russia will meet its security deadline.

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

Can the Arab revolt spread to Russia and the former Soviet Union?

Posted February 17th, 2011 at 8:13 pm (UTC+0)

I had dinner the other night with Alexei Navalny, Russia’s sandy-haired, impassioned, anti- corruption activist. At 34 years of age, Alexei is using his internet campaign to build a place for himself in Russia’s political future But over dinner, at Moscow’s trendy Red October arts complex, every third sentence of Alexei’s discourse was punctuated by the word ‘Tunees’ – or Tunisia.

Mikhail Gorbachev believes Russia could be headed toward an Egyp Scenario. Photo AP

Earlier in the day, it was the turn of Russia’s older political generation. Mikhail Gorbachev, the last ruler of the Soviet Union turns 80 on March 2. He told a Moscow radio station: “If things continue the way they are, I think the probability of the Egyptian scenario will grow.”

The Arab revolt, stretching from Tunisia to Bahrain, has transfixed Russia’s beleaguered opposition.

Could it happen in Moscow?
The short answer is: no.

In Iran and the Arab nations in revolt, the demographic wheel releases millions of young men and women onto weak job markets every year. In contrast, Russia’s population has a profile similar to Japan’s. It is aging and shrinking. Russia’s revolutionaries want their pensions paid on time.

Also, the most threatened nations in the Arab world are run by men that people here would consider dinosaurs. Hosni Mubarak was 82 when he was forced to step down in Egypt. Russia’s leadership is relatively youthful. Prime Minister Putin is a vigorous 58. President Medvedev, sometimes called Winnie the Pooh in Russia’s blogosphere, is a soft featured 45.

And, so far, Russia’s authoritarian tandem is delivering the goods.

Over the last decade, per capita income increased 6-fold in Russia. While political freedoms in Putin’s Russia are comparable to Mubarak’s Egypt, Russia has delivered a series of benefits unheard of during the Soviet era – vacationing on a sunny foreign beach, shopping at home in a Western standard mall, driving a world class automobile, attending church or mosque, and surfing the internet.

The one part of Russia that is not enjoying this mix of economic consumerism and demographic conservatism is already in revolt. In the southern Caucasus, a largely Muslim area, unemployment ranges around 50 percent. This week, Alexander Khloponin, the presidential envoy to the Caucasus, estimated that the average age of the 1,000 active insurgents in the Caucasus is 18.

Other parts of the former Soviet Union where generational turmoil threatens entrenched rulers are Belarus and two countries in Central Asia, Tajikstan and Uzbekistan.

Alexander Lukashenko, a former collective farm manager, rules Belarus, a nation that is now 75 percent urbanized. Short term, he is holding on in face of widespread domestic opposition, a wall of hostility from the European Union, and skepticism from the Kremlin.

In Central Asia, rising tides of young job seekers are colliding with collapsing infrastructure implanted by the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s. In a report last week, the International Crisis Group said that in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, young people are fed and educated more poorly than during the Soviet times. For now, emigration to Russia to work is the only solution. Popular revolts have happened in Kyrgyzstan. More are expected in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

But at the end of the day, Russia’s own political fate is determined by the price of oil. Taxes on oil and gas sales account for 40 percent of Russia’s budget.

With oil near $100 a barrel, as it is today, the Kremlin can continue to run Russia like Alaska, handing out relatively generous social benefits subsidized by natural resource exports. With parliamentary and presidential elections to take place in Russia over the next year, the Kremlin last year boosted pensions by 45 percent.

Only if oil falls below $30 a barrel, we can think of ‘Tunees.’

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

Kremlin Fear of WikiLeaks lead to deportation of British reporter?

Posted February 9th, 2011 at 7:53 pm (UTC+0)

Marching on an embankment between the ice-bound Moscow River and the snow-bound British Embassy, a pro-Kremlin youth group demonstrated last month for the freedom of Julian Assange, the mastermind behind WikiLeaks.

The march featured a top hatted Uncle Sam leading a submissive John Bull on a leash. In bold white letters, a red banner demanded “Free Assahge.” (That put Russia’s post-Soviet education standards on display for the world to see. )

Assange Demo Moscow

Pro-Kremlin Youth Group, Mestniy, Demonstrates in support of WikiLeak's Julian Assange outside British Embassy, Moscow

At the time, I wondered: how long will it take for these dunderheads to learn the party line?

It didn’t take long.

Last Saturday night, the Kremlin’s real view of Wiki Leaks came out of the closet when Luke Harding, staff correspondent of The Guardian newspaper, was detained at Moscow’s Domodedevo airport. An agent for the FSB, the successor agency to the KGB, told the Moscow-based reporter, “For you, Russia is closed.”
Escorted to a plane headed back to London, he was handed his passport. A journalist visa that had been valid through May was stamped “Annulled.”

(Note: After a week of British protests and Russian debate. Russia allowed Luke Harding to return to Russia this weekend. On Sunday Feb. 13, he wrote on his Twitter account: “Yes, I am back in Moscow.” On Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov arrived in London for a pre-planned visit and meeting with British Prime Minister David Cameron.)

Luke Harding

Luke Harding, British reporter and WikiLeaks author, expelled from Moscow Feb. 5, 2011

Luke and I had bumped into each other now and then since he moved here in 2007. Often the two tallest members of the Anglo-American press community here, we seemed to naturally collide at events.

On one train ride out of Moscow, in the summer of 2008, Luke described to me what he saw as a pattern of intelligence service monitoring. On returning to their apartment after an excursion, the Harding family would find that a toy or another household item had been moved in their absence.

Luke said it was the intelligence services way of signaling to him that they were watching.

Luke may have first drawn official wrath with a 2007 story alleging that that then President Vladimir Putin had $40 billion in an offshore bank account. A few weeks later, the president responded during a nationally televised press conference, saying that people who write such things “dig it out of their noses and smear it on their papers.”

Other run-ins followed, including a detention in Ingushetia, a republic in the war-torn Caucasus. Last November, officials formally canceled his visa. He appealed and won a six-month reprieve so his son and daughter could finish their school year in Moscow.

Then in December, Luke wrote several stories based on WikiLeaks memos about Russia, including one where a Spanish prosecutor described this country as “a mafia state.”

At the same time, two Moscow publications, the Novaya Gazeta newspaper, and Russia Reporter, a newsweekly, had become partners of WikiLeaks. Promising revelations, Assange warned in an interview with Izvestia, a pro-government newspaper: “The Kremlin had better brace itself for a coming wave of WikiLeaks disclosures about Russia.”

Five days before flying to Moscow, Luke and his co-author, David Leigh, launched in London their new book: WikiLeaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy.

Luke’s expulsion may be the FSB’s way of sending a warning shot to foreign and Russian reporters alike: WikiLeaks and Russia’s election year will not make a healthy mix.

In a bureaucratic split, Russia’s Foreign Ministry is doing damage control, saying that the deportation is all a paperwork misunderstanding. Coming two weeks after President Dimitri Medvedev appealed for Western investment at the economic forum in Davos, Switzerland, the first expulsion of a staff correspondent of a British newspaper from Moscow since the days of communism does not send a welcoming message to foreign investors

While Luke wrote his WikiLeaks book, his wife, Phoebe Taplin, wrote Phoebe’s Weekend Walks. This column runs weekly in The Moscow News, a government-owned biweekly newspaper here.

An indomitable British woman, of the mold who favor hiking books in a land of stiletto heels, Phoebe created what is probably the best read feature of The Moscow News. Coaxing – or dragging – her mop-haired son and daughter over hill and dale, she produced a weekly column for Russia ramblers.

Recent columns include “Ivan’s World,” a walking tour of central Moscow landmarks associated with Ivan the Terrible, “Notes from Dostoevsky’s Underground,” and “Tolstoy’s Fine and Joyful World.”

I once cornered her at a news event party and told her that directions were so vague in one column that a friend and I ended up fording frigid streams and climbing over barbed wire fences. She diligently took note. I later heard that she would sometimes do a walk twice to get the directions right.

Her fans grew over the years. For expat wives, it became a social coup to be invited to join her rambles. I was told she had her very own undercover FSB female agent assigned to her walking parties, presumably to shoo off barking dogs and defuse grumpy locals.

With an eye to the future, Phoebe had the savvy to only surrender one time publication rights to the newspaper.

Presumably, a guide book is now in the offing. I can imagine the book jacket blurb next summer: “A walking guide to the wonders of Moscow and its environs. Author’s husband was deported last winter, but otherwise, Moscow welcomes foreigners.”

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.

Islamic Prohibition: Russia’s Dry Corner

Posted February 2nd, 2011 at 9:24 pm (UTC+0)

It was Friday night at the Assa. That’s the top hotel in Ingushetia, a republic in Russia’s heavily Islamic Caucasus region.

There were two tables of visiting journalists. And in one corner, at a third table: six ethnic Russian men, eating dinner and quietly nursing their vodkas. Something did not add up. Russian men, Friday night, vodka — and quiet?

Ingush Wedding animated by love, friendship, and fruit juice. Photo: Diana Markosian

Suddenly, three Ingush men in full camouflage and carrying automatic weapons swaggered through the restaurant door.

One man’s face was fully masked with a black wool balaclava. Russians call this hat a “racketyorka,” because they are favored by racketeers.

Our armed guards sprung into action.

Tense negotiations in Ingush ensued.

The restaurant is being closed, we were told, for serving alcohol.

There are bad men who cruise the city at night, we were told. The hotel could be shot up for serving alcohol. It is haram, forbidden.

I made sympathetic noises, and deftly moved my table’s bottle of Moldovan red wine to the floor.

The Russians, who as locals knew the rules better than we out-of-towners, sheepishly got up, paid their bill, put on their fur hats and overcoats, and disappeared into the winter night.

Once they were gone, the waitress hurried over to explain that the restaurant was not really closing. Local rules dictate that the hotel can only serve alcohol to registered guests, not to locals who came in off the street.

In this corner of Russia, and in neighboring Chechnya and Dagestan, Russian law is stepping aside in face of an Islamic revival.

In Ingushetia, a bombing campaign has restricted alcohol sales to a handful of stores that operate behind bomb barriers.

Diana Markosian, the VOA Moscow producer, attended a wedding Saturday night in Ingushetia where the dancing went on until 3 am. But the refreshments would have been appropriate for a Cub Scout meeting in suburban America.

Thursday night, Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, the republic’s president, offered a dinner for visiting foreign correspondents. The banquet table was dominated by large boxes of fruit juice.

Boxes of apple and cherry juice and bottles of Ingush mineral water lubricate dinner conversation between VOA's James Brooke and Ingush President Yunus-Bek Yevkurov. Photo: Peter Gysling

Although a few underground speakeasies exist in Ingushetia, locals who want to drink safely drive half an hour to the west, to Vladikavkaz, capital of Northern Ossetia, a predominantly Christian republic.

In face of this rapid Islamisation of the three ‘Green Republics’ of the Caucasus – Ingushetia, Chechnya and Dagestan – the ethnic Russian population has dropped to less than one percent.

The Russians have retreated to two historically Christian strongholds in the southern Caucasus – Stavropol and Northern Ossetia.
Many have settled in Vladikavkaz, which means Ruler of the Caucasus. Founded in 1784, this fortress city garrisoned czarist troops who ultimately imposed Russian rule over the Islamic populations of the Caucasus.

Now, as evidenced by the alcohol divide, the cultural and religious fault lines in the Caucasus are reverting to where they were in the days of Catherine the Great.

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.

Moscow Airport Bombing Targets Foreigners

Posted January 31st, 2011 at 5:25 pm (UTC+0)
1 comment

I traveled through a Moscow airport this weekend. Security checks were tight, but the passenger flow was normal.

Indeed, on the evening of last week’s suicide bombing at Moscow’s Domodedevo Airport, passenger jets continued landing and taking off. At the main entrance, ambulances continued ferrying away the 35 dead and 168 wounded. The bomb blasted area, the waiting zone for international arrivals, was blocked from view by blue plastic sheets. Nearby, clerks at taxi counters and mobile phone rental stands went back to their work shifts.

Ukrainian Playwright

The Moscow Airport bomb killed Anna Yablonskaya, Ukrainian playwright and young mother, who had just flown in from Odessa to accept an award for her work. Photo: Alexey Zhiryakov

One Muscovite captured the local fatalism, saying: “If you are fated to hang, don’t worry about drowning.”

Over the last year, terrorists caused the deadly derailing of a luxury train to St. Petersburg and exploded bombs in Moscow subway cars packed with morning rush hour commuters.

Facing seemingly endless attacks by Islamic radicals from the Russia’s southern fringe, some Muscovites trudge along, acting as if they were living through a slow motion version of the London Blitz of 1940-41. Last weekend, false bomb reports forced the evacuation of tens of thousands of shoppers from malls in suburban Moscow, creating massive traffic jams that stretched for miles through the winter dark.

This week, the 30,000 Russians lucky enough to be on vacation in Egypt are refusing to go home early.

And in a Moscow winter, fatalism mixes with cynicism in a kind of toxic mental slush. Two days after the airport bombing, the newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets polled readers about the authors of the bombing. The largest group, 41 percent, said they suspected it was organized by Russia’s security services.

But foreigners here don’t share the same fatalism, or cynicism. They worry that they are now bulls’ eyes.

Over the weekend, Russian authorities officially announced that foreigners were the targets of the January 24 airport bombing. The suspect, a 20-year-old man from Russia’s southern Caucasus, lingered in the area for 15 minutes, apparently waiting for a critical mass of foreign visitors before blowing himself up with the equivalent of three kilograms of TNT.

By killing foreigners, Russia’s Islamic extremists hit a publicity home run.

Last year, the number of terrorists attacks doubled in the Caucasus. Most merited a few lines at best in Moscow newspapers, and less in the world press. The Moscow metro bombings of April briefly flared up — and then flared down — in the world press.

But by killing a Briton, a German, an Austrian, and a promising Ukrainian playwright in Moscow’s main, showcase international airport, the terrorists created a story with staying power.

For the first time in memory, Russian terrorists are targeting foreigners.

Now foreigners living here worry: will their gathering places be the next soft target for what seems like a war without end?

The attacks cause similar worries for the Kremlin, which is trying to pull Russia out of its shell of isolation. The bombing came the day before Russian president Dmitry Medvedev was to travel to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland to woo foreign investors. One pet project was to lure $15 billion in foreign investment to build five ski areas in the Caucasus. The president went ahead with his visit and the investor pitch, but the timing could not have been worse.

Looking ahead, Russia is to throw open its doors for a series of high profile, international sporting events – the Universiade, or world university games, in 2013; the Winter Olympic Games in 2014; and, in 13 Russian cities, the World Cup in 2018.

Violence has bubbled in the Caucasus for 20 years now. There is no reason to believe that peace will magically descend in time for these world gatherings on Russian soil.

Two novelties for Russia — good detective work and Israeli-standard security measures — will be needed to get the country – and its foreign visitors through unscathed.

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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