A Kremlin Christmas Carol: Russia’s Scrooge Against The Orphans?

Posted December 22nd, 2012 at 1:11 pm (UTC+0)

An orphan child looks out from a window at an orphanage in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don

No American adoption in sight for this orphaned Russian girl looking out a window at an orphanage in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don, on December 19. Two days later Russia’s parliament gave final approval to a bill banning all adoptions from the United States, historically the major source of foster parents for expensive Russian adoptions. The bill is now before President Putin to sign. Photo: Reuters/Vladimir Konstantinov

A light snow covers Moscow, subzero temperatures provide bright sunshine and Jingle Bells wafts through malls filled with happy shoppers.
And, befitting, the holiday season, Russian politicians and American parents are acting out a real life version of Charles Dickens’ 1843 classic, “A Christmas Carol.”
But this is no high school play.

This is…geopolitics!

Guess who landed the role of Ebenezer Scrooge, the miserly millionaire?
(Hint: type ‘World Richest Head of State Wiki’ into your Google search window)

Guess who landed the role of Bob Cratchit, the heart-of-gold, but financially strapped father of Tiny Tim?
(Clue: What country adopts the most orphans every year from Russia, 60,000 in the last 20 years?)

Guess who landed the role this Christmas of Tiny Tim, the plucky, disabled boy? As you remember, he warms hearts in the first act, by crying out at Christmas dinner “God Bless Us, Everyone!” Then, he disappears from the tale, leaving behind his crutch.
(Clue: What country has 633,000 orphans and abandoned children living in state institutions, possibly the most since World War II?)

Guess who plays the four ghosts who torment Scrooge? That’s easy – Russian journalists!

By now you have an outline of the Kremlin’s Christmas Carol, the December 2012 edition.

On Friday, the Duma’s lower house voted 470 to seven to ban American parents from adopting Russian children. The Duma’s upper house is expected to vote to pass the bill on Dec. 26, the day after the Western Christmas.

The Duma bill is known as the anti-Magnitsky bill. It was drawn up in response to an American bill signed into law Dec. 14 by President Obama. The U.S. law normalizes trade relations with Russia. It also directs the president to bar known Russian human rights violators from entering the United States or from holding American bank accounts. Initially, the law is to target 60 Russian officials implicated in the imprisonment and death of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer.

In recent weeks, the Kremlin adroitly shifted perceptions of the law here. Instead of being seen as an attack on corrupt government officials, many Russians see it as an attack on Russia.

Realizing that few American officials have property in Russia, the Duma decided to hit Americans where it would hurt – the adoptions of Russian orphans.

Last year, American families adopted almost 1,000 orphans. American families are often seen as the only possibility for orphans with disabilities to escape institutions that are often called “Dickensian.”

On Wednesday, the day of the first Duma vote, dozens of protesters picketed outside in Arctic weather.

Mainly women, they carried signs with such slogans as:
“Why are you taking vengeance on children?”
“Children as a Strategic Weapon. Are you kidding?”
“How many children with disabilities have deputies adopted?
“Don’t deprive children of the chance to live.”

Police said the protest was not authorized. They detained about 30 protesters, mainly women. (You could almost hear a voice grumbling from inside the frost-covered Kremlin walls: ‘Bah! Humbug!’)

Inside the Duma, the vote was lopsided in part because Russia’s parliament is still largely a men’s club, almost as exclusive as the London clubs Dickens so despised in the 1840s.

Women account for only 11 percent of both Duma chambers. In contrast, the European average is 24 percent. The Nordic average is 42 percent.

In a suitably Dickensian twist, one of the legislators, Vyacheslav K. Osipov, actually voted for the anti-Magnitsky bill while dead.

Duma rules allow proxy voting, where a member votes in the absence of another member. In this case, several ballots were cast Wednesday in the name of Osipov, before legislators learned that their 75-year-old colleague had expired in a Moscow hospital.

Prior to the Duma vote, Russia’s ombudsman for children, Pavel Astakhov, a former television reporter with political ambitions, had briefed Duma deputies.

Orphan children play in their bedroom at an orphanage in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don

Orphaned boys and girls play in the Rostov-on-Don orphanage. Most Russian orphans are never adopted and are released to society at age 16. Follow up studies show that they suffer from high rates of addiction and incarceration.
Photo: Reuters/Vladimir Konstantinov

“Do not believe the myths and hysterical warnings of those who try to convince us that foreign adoptions must not be banned because that would leave Russian orphans without a future – these are all lies,” he said at a Duma hearing on human rights problems in the United States. “Those who spin us tales about the happy lives that Russian children have in America and their bright future there, are either involved in this business or are simply unscrupulous.”

Astakhov and others say that 19 Russian children have died following abuse by American foster parents since the international adoptions began, in the early 1990s.
Nineteen children killed by foster parents out of 60,000 is 19 too many. But Astakhov neglected to mention that from 1991 to 2006, 1,200 Russian adopted children were killed by their Russian foster parents.

Astakhov cited the case of an American woman who placed her seven-year-old adopted son alone on a one-way flight back to Moscow in 2010.But he neglected to mention that last year Russian foster parents returned 4,500 children to orphanages.

Nor did he mention, that during the first nine months of this year, 1,291 Russian children were killed, largely by a parent. Nor did he mention that Russian ranks third in the world for suicides by minors, about 1,700 a year. One boy committed suicide because a Russian judge refused to allow him to be adopted by a Spanish couple.

Despite the Duma’s overwhelming support for the adoption ban, more rational views are appearing in Russian society.

More than 100,000 Russians have signed an online petition organized by Novaya Gazeta newspaper demanding that the Kremlin review the law.

Grigory Yavlinsky, a veteran liberal politician popular in Moscow, tweeted this week: “Because some bureaucratic scum will not be allowed into the U.S. for shopping, thousands of tiny children will be denied a normal life,”

On Thursday, at Vladimir Putin’s annual marathon press conference, the Russian president’s bravura performance before 1,000 journalists was marred by repeated questions about the adoption ban.

“I understand that the response of the State Duma is emotional. But I also think it is appropriate,” Putin said of a law that deems all of America’s 150 million parents unfit to adopt a Russian child.

“This is how we see it,” continued the Russian president. “American lawmakers sort of showed everyone who is the real master of the house, so that we don’t get relaxed. Had there been no Magnitsky, they would have found another pretext.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin was on the defensive about the Duma’s adoption ban — the top topic for questions at his 4.5 hour marathon press conference on Thursday. VOA Photo: James Brooke

Slumped in my seat in row 23, I watched one Russian journalist and after another needle their president about the adoption ban. Slowly, Putin started to sound like Ebenezer Scrooge, tossing in bed as he is haunted by visits from The Ghost of Jacob Marley, The Ghost of Christmas Past, The Ghost of Christmas Present, and The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.

“Do you consider this normal?” Putin finally blurted out at one journalist. “You like this? What are you? A sado-masochist? There is no need to humiliate the country! We do not forbid the adoption by foreigners in general. There are other countries besides the United States.”

Every Orthodox Christmas Eve, Mr. Putin goes to church. He appears on national television, crossing himself and lighting a candle. But Mr. Putin was not in the Christmas spirit when the adoption ban came up yet again at his press conference.

“But we are not – or, probably, I am not a very good Christian, because when you are slapped on one cheek, you are supposed to turn the other,” said Mr. Putin, black belt judo athlete. “I am not morally prepared for this so far. If we are slapped, we should respond, or otherwise we will always be slapped.”

But, in many people’s eyes, those who are getting slapped here are the kids.

In October, the Kremlin kicked out USAID, the American aid program.
A U.S. Embassy fact sheet described one program: “USAID’s child welfare program has provided over 80,000 at-risk children and their parents with innovative services designed to reduce abandonment, resulting in a 33 percent increase in family reunification and an 85 percent increase in the number of foster families in target regions.”

Created in 1957, the Grinch, now aged 55, suffered at birth from a heart “two sizes too small.” Despite this alarming condition, he eventually embraced Christmas and his heart grew three times in size.

Next up? UNICEF.

On Dec. 31, the United Nation’s Children’s Fund is to close all activities in Russia, per Kremlin order.

One of UNICEF’s goals in Russia: reducing the number of orphans.

For Christmas season readers who find Charles Dickens’ 1843 story a little heavy going, an eminent American analyst, Theodor Seuss Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, has written a hipper, simpler – although equally scary — analysis of Kremlin politics.

It’s called “How The Grinch Stole Christmas!”

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

Russian Conservatives See ‘Foreign Agents’ and ‘Treason’ Behind Social Change

Posted December 11th, 2012 at 6:12 am (UTC+0)

At Moscow’s “Foreign Agent” party Ashley, American, dresses to compete — with Moscow women (background) plotting to meet a foreign man for the holiday season. VOA Photo: James Brooke

Ashley, an American friend, and I were walking on a bridge over the Moscow River to the “Inostranii Agent” or “Foreign Agent” party. To dress the part, I wore my trench coat.

Our destination: Red October, the rambling red brick industrial space that has morphed in recent years from Soviet chocolate factory to hipster hangout. The party organizers had emailed a password: “I am the agent.”

I knew the party organizers. At first, the concept seemed to be an edgy Muscovite response to the official spy paranoia emanating from the Kremlin. But, on crossing the Moscow River, my own paranoia grew with each step. As the byzantine towers of Kremlin glowed in the background, I started to fret that the party was a clever trap set by the FSB, Russia’s successor agency to the KGB.

Hidden cameras would record dozens of gullible foreigners “confessing” — simply in return for a club admission.

Ashley thought otherwise. Accordingly, she had dressed for success. She suspected a simpler plot line: Moscow women flocking to the Foreign Agent party, scheming to meet a foreign man for the holiday season.

Ashley’s instincts were correct.

At the party, at Reka (or River) Club, the music was so loud, the liquor so abundant and the female outfits so distracting, that no one remembered to ask for the “secret password.” The crowd was 95 percent Russian, drawn largely by the opportunity to meet members of the opposite sex — and the chance to win a door prize, like a BMW X5 car for a day.

Meanwhile, official Moscow – the humorless, political one — marches on with its foreign agent witch hunt.

FSB 2012? FB1 1968?
American FBI agents film anti-Vietnam War protesters in Washington in 1968. At the time, a book, “None Dare Call It Treason” blamed much of American social change on weak-kneed pro-communist elites. American conservatives snapped up 7 million copies. Substitute ‘pro-communist’ for ‘pro-democracy’ and a Russian edition would be best seller among Moscow conservatives in 2013. Photo: Steve Shapiro

Last week, prosecutors charged that Leonid Razvozzhayev, a jailed leftwing dissident, was taking “Georgian money” to organize “mass riots” and a “coup.”

Andrei Isayev, a ruling party leader in the Duma, charged that Mikhail Kasyanov, a former prime minister, “absolutely corresponds to the status of ‘an agent of foreign influence.'” Kasyanov supports the Magnitsky Act, which was overwhelmingly approved last week by the U.S. Congress. It calls for placing visa and banking bans on Russian officials believed to involved in major human rights violations.

Earlier this year, the Duma passed legislation requiring foreign supported nongovernmental groups to declare themselves “foreign agents.” Soon, spray paint appeared on the walls of Memorial, the Russian history and human rights organization: “Foreign Agent. I love USA.”

Now the Duma is considering legislation that would apply to reporters for media organizations that receive financial support from foreign governments, such as VOA, BBC, and AFP, the French wire agency. Under this bill, we would not only have to get accreditation as “foreign correspondents,” we would be register as “foreign correspondent foreign agents.”

Presumably, “foreign correspondent foreign agents” would be required to walk the streets of Moscow wearing fluorescent yellow beanies, topped with wind-driven propellers that would power flashing red warning lights. (That is a joke, OK?)

As the “Foreign Agent” party indicates, some Muscovites roll their eyes at the government’s attempt to blame Russia’s social change on foreigners.

In sharp contrast to the closed days of Ivan the Terrible or Joseph Stalin, about 10 percent of Russian adults now vacation outside Russia every year. About 50 percent freely surf the worldwide web.

Moscow’s dupes? Or Civil Rights Marchers?
In 1960s America, many conservative whites believed that southern black Americans were being led astray by Communist agents. Photo: Steve Shapiro

A few days after the “Foreign Agent” party, I got a reminder that foreign agent paranoia can be a political dead end.
Around the alley from Reka, in a building where Soviet worker elves once made delicious chocolate bars, Lumiere Brothers Photography Center was hosting a thought provoking show.

Called “Living America,” the show of photojournalist Steve Shapiro captured a time – half a century ago – when some conservative Americans brushed off social change as the work of agents of Moscow.

First the civil rights movement, then the anti-Vietnam War movement were dismissed by many American conservatives as plots led by agents of Moscow, paid by “Moscow’s gold.”

Yes, the Communist Party USA received funding from Moscow. Yes, the CPUSA was very active in both movements. But, the Communist Party’s influence in the sea changes of late 20th century American social history was, at best, marginal.

Dismissing wide social change as the work of “foreign agents” was not only intellectually lazy. It put a good number of American politicians on the losing end of history.

A lesson for modern Russia?

American political dinosaur, circa 1967. Photo: Steve Shapiro

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 Winter Transport: From the Troika to Rubber Tires

Posted December 3rd, 2012 at 9:46 pm (UTC+0)

The good old days. Winter travel in Russia in 1819. Lithograph by Aleksander Orlowski , The Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg.

It snowed in Russia last week.

(Yawn. What else is new?)

But Russia no longer is Dr. Zhivago country, a rural place where troika sleighs slide smoothly across white, wintry landscapes.

Modern Russians have a deep, passionate, often unrequited, love affair with rubber tires.

Last weekend, on the highway between Moscow and St. Petersburg, the nation’s two largest cities, an above-average snow storm trapped drivers for three days in a traffic jam that stretched for 200 kilometers.

In Moscow, drivers ignored snow warnings, and drove into a storm that paralyzed the capital’s streets for hours.

A snowstorm in the beginning of December is nothing new for Russia. Over two days, the city was treated to 30 centimeters of snow and some freezing rain. Not pleasant, but part of winter life in this part of the Northern hemisphere.

But Russians’ inability to cope with the white stuff is news.

In Moscow, snow was forecast, and yet hundreds of thousands of drivers set off for work in the morning as if they were living in Miami. For some modern Muscovites, the right to drive is their most cherished civil liberty.

The bad new days. One million commuters took to their cars to drive to work Thursday in Moscow’s first snow storm. Subconsciously, did they think they would glide across the snow like the troikas of their ancestors two centuries ago? Instead, they spent hours trapped in their cars. Photo: Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin

The right to sit in a mobile steel cocoon is a key to many people’s identity.

In 1970s America, gun owners used to sell bumper stickers that read: “I’ll give you my gun, when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers.”

For Moscow commuters, the refrain would be: “I’ll give you my steering wheel, when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers.”

Some Muscovites recount with pride that they have not been down in the metro in 13 years, in 18 years.

So off they drove Thursday and Friday mornings. Within minutes, the city’s Yandex traffic jam meter hit 9. On a scale of 1 to 10, one is good.

They sat in four-hour traffic jams watching digital billboards beckoning them to tropical beach vacations. So many Muscovites now live for their warm weather vacations that they seem to be in denial of about living in Moscow. It is hard to drive in an ice storm, if you are day dreaming about Christmas in Goa, the Maldives or Phuket.

On the other side of the car windows, armies of workers from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan wielded alien implements, once familiar to Russian young men as snow shovels.

Moscow and St. Petersburg, like northern versions of the oil-rich city states of the Persian Gulf, have outsourced much manual labor to gastarbeiters, in Russia’s case from Central Asia.

Next: A talking snow shovel? In this “Labor Migrant’s Handbook” printed in October to help migrant workers deal with Russia, gastarbeiters were portrayed as smiling paintbrushes, mops, and brooms. AP Photo: Dmitry Lovetsky

Russia’s social chasm was captured recently in a cartoon health booklet addressed to Central Asian migrant workers. Russian health workers were depicted as people. Migrant workers were depicted as smiling mops, brooms, and paintbrushes. Maybe next year’s booklet will feature smiling snow shovels.

Last weekend in Moscow, 12,000 snowplows moved 1.1 million cubic meters of snow. Of drivers blamed gridlock on city officials. But, in reality, Moscow’s chaos was created by as many as 1 million individuals deciding to drive to work in falling snow.

In contrast, the highway chaos of last weekend was largely the government’s doing.

The highway between Moscow and St. Petersburg should be a national showcase. It unites the nation’s largest and wealthiest cities – with a combined population representing at least 10 percent of Russia’s total population.

Crammed 24 hours a day with thousands of tractor trailer trucks bringing goods to Moscow, the 600-kilometer road is narrow, potholed and scary. (So scary, in fact, that last December, I shelled out $1,000 for five train tickets to St. Petersburg and back, rather than risk the lives of most of my family by driving in a car).

For starters, there should be an eight-lane highway joining Russia’s two biggest cities. If Russian contractors are unable to build it without going five times over budget, hire the Chinese. In 10 years, China has built an interstate highway system rivaling one that took 30 years to build in the United States.

For the challenge of this winter, highway police should watch weather forecasts around the clock. When storms are coming, close the road with storm gates, forcing traffic to wait in holding areas in towns. That solution saves lives every winter on highways in North America’s snow country. Also essential is a fleet of snowplows with drivers on 24-hour call.

Instead, Russia’s laissez faire approach resulted in a line of stopped vehicles that stretched, in American terms, half the distance from New York to Boston. An estimated 10,000 trucks and cars were marooned in sub-freezing temperatures, with drivers running engines to keep warm.

News crews from state television focused on the warming tents and field kitchens offering hot tea and sandwiches. But – surprise! – many drivers report that they were stuck in areas without these tents.

The traffic jam took on a life of its own, prompting headlines like this one from Interfax: “Authorities pledge to do away with traffic jam near Tver by Monday morning.”

If it is any consolation to Russians, Brazilians recently faced a worse traffic jam. On June 1, heavy rains combined with Friday evening weekend departures to create 295 kilometers of traffic congestion around Sao Paulo, the largest city in the southern hemisphere.

North or South, it pays to check the weather before you get behind the wheel.

Near the VOA office in Moscow, an entrepreneur has found one solution. He named his cafe “Probki,” – or traffic jam. That way, drivers can call home – or to the office – and say, in good faith: “I’m running late, I’m stuck in the Probki.”

A good team of Russian horses like a brisk trot in the snow. Here a troika sets out in Vologda, north of Moscow. Photo: Lena

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.

Back to the Future: 2012 US-Russia Relations Echo 1832

Posted November 24th, 2012 at 10:00 am (UTC+0)
1 comment

James Buchanan the future president of the United States serveed as Ambassador to Russia. Here, he stands for her presidential portrait by George Peter Alexander Healy in 1859 — 26 years after sailing out of St. Petersburg. Photo: Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.

The U.S. Ambassador labored to get Congress to ratify a trade treaty that would grant “favored nation” status to Russia. Washington’s leading newspaper harshly criticized Russia for human rights violations. Russia’s secret police were reading all the Ambassador’s mail. The Czar was convinced that Washington was fomenting democracy rebellions inside his empire.

Sound like last week’s news? No, this is not about U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul, the Magnitsky Act, President Vladimir Putin, ‘color revolutions’ and US-Russian relations in 2012.

It is 1832. It is US Ambassador James Buchanan trying to negotiate the United States’ first free trade treaty with Russia, under Czar Nicholas I.

My trip back 180 years started on Thanksgiving, a family day in the United States. On Thursday, I gave the family tree a good shake. Down tumbled Buchanan, a family ancestor who became the 15th president of the United States.

My paternal grandmother was the granddaughter of Edward Buchanan, a younger brother of the President. Ok, that’s a bit tenuous. It might get me a free cup of coffee the next time I stop by the James Buchanan Pub and Restaurant on North Main Street in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania.

My father had a few books around the house signed by Buchanan. Unfortunately, his is not a hot presidential autograph. American historians routinely rank Buchanan as one the five worst presidents of the United States.

In the last two months of his Presidency, seven southern states seceded and formed the Confederate States of America. On March 4, 1861, President Buchanan handed over power to president-elect Abraham Lincoln. Five weeks later, the opening shots were fired in the Civil War, the bloodiest war in American history.

Complicating the ancestor claim is the fact that Buchanan never had any children. Through the 1970s, history books diplomatically referred to him as America’s only bachelor president. Now, he is more often referred to as America’s only gay president.

Before he became president, Buchanan shared a house in Washington for 15 years with Alabama Senator William R. King. President Andrew Jackson, an army general who fathered 10 children, lampooned Buchanan and his Washington housemate as “Miss Nancy” and “Aunt Fancy.”

Historians differ on why Jackson dispatched Buchanan, then a former Congressman, to St. Petersburg. Some say it was a reward, some say it was a punishment for a political slight.

It is known that in January 1832, days after the Senate ratified his posting to Russia, Buchanan wrote a letter to an influential friend in Washington, hinting that “London would be a pleasant exchange for St. Petersburg.”

But his destination was to be Russia.

Many of the Russian issues and attitudes that US Ambassador Michael McFaul grapples with today were confronted 180 years earlier by his predecessor, James Buchanan.

Relations between US and Russia have changed – and have not changed, if one is to judge by old letters and a 1962 book, “President James Buchanan: A Biography” by Philip Shriver Klein.

Transport and communications have changed, but a values trench still separates Russia and the United States.

The transatlantic sail from New York to Liverpool took 25 days. Buchanan wrote home that he was seasick almost the entire way.

In Liverpool, he was met by a Mr. Ogden, the American consul. According to Klein, Ogden warned the neophyte ambassador “of the need for security in diplomatic activity, and gave him a special cipher” to code his letters.

Happy to see the world at Washington’s expense, Buchanan visited London and eight other British cities. He took his first ride on a railroad, traveling from Liverpool to Manchester at the giddy speed of 30 kilometers an hour. Finally, he set sail for Lubeck, Germany and on to St. Petersburg.

In St. Petersburg, he found an American legation that, in these days before the international telegraph, had not received mail from Washington in one year. He raised their spirits by renting a large mansion at “Grand Neva 65.” The villa was furnished with bronzes and marbles and the pantry had enough silver, porcelain and crystal for dinner parties of 30.

On June 11, two months after leaving New York, Buchanan presented his credentials to Czar Nicholas I.

Czar Nicholas I, Emperor of Russia from 1825 to 1855, approved the first trade treaty with the United States, negotiated by James Buchanan, US Ambassador to Russia 1832-1833. At the time this oil portrait was painted by Franz Kruger, in 1852, the Russian Empire was near its geographic zenith. Photo: Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg.

Klein writes: “The monarch rather surprised the new envoy by coming forward, shaking hands with warmth and cordiality, and wishing him a happy stay in the city.”

The Czar’s wife, Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, proved to be very talkative, repeatedly stressing one point: “She thought the Americans were wise to keep out of European troubles, because they had enough of their own at home, especially with the Southern states.”

This sounds like advice Russia’s Foreign Ministry could have offered yesterday.

At the palace reception, Buchanan did not argue with the Empress. He said his mission was to negotiate the first trade treaty between the United States and Russia.

While getting acclimated to Russia, Buchanan studied French, then the language of diplomacy and of Russia’s upper class. Buchanan had grown up in Pennsylvania, a state where the second, unofficial language was German.

“What a dunce I was not to have learned the German language!” he lamented in a letter to a friend back home. “It would have been almost as useful here as the French. I now understand the latter tolerably well, but it will be long before I shall speak it fluently.”

German would have been useful in 1830s St. Petersburg. Not only was the Empress a Prussian princess by birth, but the Ambassador’s key interlocutors on the trade treaty were four Baltic Germans working for the Czar: Count Nesselrode, Russia’s foreign minister; Baron Von Stieglitz, banker to the Czar; and Barons Krudener and Sacken, who served successively as Russia’s ambassadors to Washington.

To an American born in a log cabin, Buchanan wrote Russia’s titles and aristocratic pomp grated on “the Republican simplicity of my country.”

He wrote that if the folks back home in Lancaster could see his coach with four horses, “I would soon have a mob of men, women and children in my train.”

“What is most ridiculous of all is the Chasseur, who stands behind me,” he wrote in a letter. “He is decked out in his uniform more gaudy than that of our Militia Generals, with a sword by his side & and a large chapeau on his head, surmounted by a plume of feathers.”

Noting that passersby were supposed to doff their hats as his coach passed, he wrote: “I feel ashamed of myself whenever I pass through the city.”

In his letters, Buchanan also had some undiplomatic remarks about Russian food and drink.

“The Russian employed the best French cooks,” he wrote. “But usually ate a sour soup that would have repulsed a Delaware Indian.”

Here he probably refers not to borscht with sour cream, but to shchi – a vegetable soup based on cabbage or sauerkraut.

“Russian ladies were of high caliber, beautiful and educated,” Klein wrote. But Buchanan apparently preferred what he called ‘stag parties.’ Writing 180 years before St. Petersburg’s City Council passed a law banning “gay propaganda,” Buchanan apparently followed local tradition by keeping things discreet.

James Buchanan from a daguerrotype taken by Mathew Brady in the early 1850s.

But, in general, Buchanan wrote of St. Petersburg aristocracy: “Too quiet for me!”

In contrast, the American envoy found Russia’s ‘lower classes’ were more convivial and drank “a species of white brandy strong enough to kill the Devil.”

Presumably, he was talking about vodka, a spirit largely unknown to Americans for another century.

The Ambassador felt free to be undiplomatic in his outgoing letters, because he personally handed them to American ship captains sailing out of St. Petersburg.

But, he repeatedly warned friends to be careful in their letters to him.

“When you write, do not say anything which would be offensive to the Government,” he once wrote. “They are not very delicate about opening letters here.”

One day his secretary, Captain Barry, rushed to the ambassador, saying he had just seen a Russian servant of the legation going through official papers. Buchanan later wrote that it was no surprise to him.

Klein, his biographer, wrote: “He had known, before he ever got to St. Petersburg, that there was no security of information in Russia, and he made it a point never to put in writing anything that could give offense or disclose a secret. In practically every document he wrote official and private, he included some comments highly complimentary to the Emperor.”

Instead, Buchanan focused on his mission — negotiating the trade treaty. American unrefined sugar would be traded for Russian hemp, iron and sail cloth. Just the way Russian and American businessmen today lobby Congress to grant preferential trade status to Russia, Buchanan enlisted the help of von Stieglitz, the Czar’s banker, who maintained a large trading office in New York.

A separate maritime treaty failed. Russian shipping companies feared that their seamen would jump ship in American ports, leaving their ships stranded.

In behind the scenes court intrigue, Russia’s Ministers of Finance and Interior nearly persuaded Czar Nicholas I to scrap the trade treaty with Washington.

In a last minute move, an aide to the Russian foreign minister went to the American legation and coached the ambassador changing the language to win the Czar’s approval. (Only one year ago, American diplomats were coaching their Russian counterparts prepare their ultimately successful application to join the World Trade Organization.)

On Dec. 18, 1832, at a court reception for foreign ambassadors, Czar Nicholas announced that he had approved the trade treaty with the United States. The treaty, which awarded each nation “most favored nation” trading status, was believe to the first that Russia signed with a foreign power.

In a snub to the British, the Czar then turned to the British ambassador, a Mr. Bligh, and ordered him to translate his remarks for the linguistically challenged American ambassador.

With Czarist approval coming just before Christmas, Buchanan suddenly became the popular man about St. Petersburg. He was invited to the best winter season balls. The Emperor would stop him on a snowy street and loudly address him as “Buchanan.” The Empress praised him as fine dance partner.

In 1832, Czarina Alexandra Feodorovna gave the U.S. Ambassador what is now perennial advice from Russia: stay out of European affairs. This oil portrait was painted by A. Malyukov in 1836, three years after she danced with Buchanan during St. Petersburg’s winter season balls of 1833. Photo: Hermitage Museum

It took a while for Buchanan to realize why he was the flavor of the season. The British and French had come to an agreement over Belgium and were moving toward an entente. The Russians were hedging their bets, cultivating United States.

Fueling tensions, British and French newspapers were filled with reports of Russian atrocities in the Czar’s repression of the Polish uprising of November 1830. Buchanan had avoided taking sides in the Polish conflict, ducking any statement that today would be called advocating “human rights.”

But the Czar saw a hidden American hand at work in restive Poland.

“America was its home, American was its spokesman,” Klein writes of the Czar’s view of Poland’s ‘color revolution’ of the early 1830s. “If America saw mitigating factors, it would moderate the frenzy of European revolutionaries on the subject.”

Foreign Minister Nesselrode complained to Buchanan that The Washington Globe, a newspaper that backed President Jackson, “had been reprinting from the French and English journals some of the worst attacks against the Emperor.”

Klein summarized: “Would Buchanan not write to Jackson and request to him to have the editor of the Globe stop printing this kind of material and to direct him to publish some compliments about the Emperor?”

Buchanan tried to explain that the U.S. Constitution guarantees an independent press, ruling out the possibility that presidents would order newspaper editors to print articles. Perhaps Buchanan suspected that President Jackson, a tough, two term president nicknamed “Old Hickory,” was not likely take advice from a man he had dispatched as far from Washington as possible.

Why not, Buchanan suggested, have Russian newspapers print rebuttals to British and French stories? Then, translations of these can be supplied to American newspapers to give Americans the Russian side of the Polish question.

Buchanan apparently thought this pioneering foray into international public relations was successful.

But back in Washington, the Russian Ambassador was now Baron Sacken, an elderly, ill-tempered Baltic German who had commanded Russian troops in Poland. Sacken accused President Jackson of hypocrisy: “He claimed friendship for Russia in his messages to Congress, but encouraged the Globe to print articles abusive of the Emperor.”

At the time, Buchanan knew what Washington and the State Department were thinking – weeks after his Russian counterparts. Buchanan later complained that he never received a letter in St. Petersburg that had not been opened by the Russian police.

“The letters have been sent to me either almost open, or with such awkward imitation of the seals as to excite merriment,” he complained in a letter to the State Department.

What did get through to the State Department were his appeals to be relieved of his post before the onset of winter. While waiting for a response, he did some tourism in June of 1833, visiting Moscow and the Sergiyev Posad, the 16th century monastery outside of Moscow.

On his return, he found that Washington has granted his wish. On August 5, he had his last audience with Czar Nicholas I. By then, the U.S. Senate had ratified the Russia-US trade treaty. The U.S. ambassador was back in the good graces of Czar Nicholas I.

“Whilst we were taking leave, he told me to tell General Jackson to send another Minister exactly like myself – he wished for no better,” Buchanan wrote proudly of their last meeting, at Peterhof, the summer palace on the Gulf of Finland. “Thus has my mission terminated.”

Then, with no one in Washington to check his expense accounts, Buchanan turned his trip home into a leisurely four-month Grand Tour of Europe, paid for by US taxpayers. After sailing from St. Petersburg to Lubeck, Germany, he visited Hamburg, Amsterdam, the Hague, Brussels, Paris, London, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Belfast, Dublin, and Liverpool. The stop in Paris included a meeting with the Marquis de Lafayette, the hero of the American Revolutionary War, then in the last year of his life.

By December, he was back in Pennsylvania, preparing to run for the US Senate. After 12 years in the Senate, he served as Secretary of State, then as ambassador to Great Britain.

During his term as President, he seemed to have carried with him the advice given him one quarter century earlier in St. Petersburg by Empress Alexandra Feodorovna. He avoided European entanglements, focusing instead on such bizarre ideas as purchasing Cuba from the Spanish and turning Mexico into a protectorate.

It is too bad he failed to act on the second part of her advice: Take care of problems at home, “especially with the Southern states.”
For the next chapter, go watch Steven Spielberg’s new hit movie “Lincoln.”

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.

Judge a regime by its heroes: Moscow — 1962, Moscow 2012

Posted November 19th, 2012 at 9:08 pm (UTC+0)

For Moscow of 1962 – it was Yuri Gagarin.

Yuri Gagarin, first man in space, was a genuine Soviet hero who thrilled crowds from Leningrad to London.

With his wide, easy grin, Gagarin was an internationally renowned poster boy for Soviet science – first man in space! – and for Soviet health care – great teeth! From East to West, from First World to Third, the Soviet regime put forward Gagarin as a walking advertisement for the New Soviet Man.

As a young stamp collector in the United States, I carefully stuck in my Stamps of the World album stamps that honored Gagarin and his April 12, 1961 flight. Some stamps came from countries that today no longer exist — Czechoslovakia, East Germany and North Vietnam.

To this day, cranky grandmothers in Moscow will melt at the memory of that magical summer day in Minsk when they met…Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin!

Half a century later, their grandchildren are supposed to emote over the Kremlin’s current hero – Viktor Bout.

Viktor Bout, Russian arms merchant, arrives for trial in New York after extradition from Bangkok. Russian officials and state-controlled media have turned his extradition, trial, and conviction into a contemporary cause celebre. Photo: US Drug Enforcement Agency

But while Gagarin was world famous, Bout is world infamous.

In 2005, he was Hollywood’s model for the Nick Cage movie  “Lord of War.” Two years later, he was the subject of an unflattering biography: Merchant of Death: Money, Guns, Planes, and the Man Who Makes War Possible.

While most governments might avert their gaze, not a day goes by in Moscow without a Foreign Ministry statement, or a Duma declaration, or a state-run TV show — all lamenting the martyrdom of Viktor Bout.

Which is all very odd, because, with a click of a computer mouse, anyone can learn that, starting in the 1990s, Bout made his living as an international arms merchant, ducking sanctions to fuel wars in Africa and Afghanistan with excess arms stocks from the old Soviet war machine. 

Bout’s arms dealing career came to an abrupt halt in 2008, when he flew from Moscow to Bangkok to meet with men he thought were representatives of the FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. According to court testimony, Bout popped open his attaché case and offered to take orders for his latest specialty: shoulder-held surface-to-air missiles.

The Colombian “guerrillas” turned out to be US Drug Enforcement agents. Royal Thai Police arrested Bout. After a 2.5-year legal battle he was extradited from Bangkok to New York for trial. One year ago, he was convicted of selling weapons to a terrorist group and sentenced to 25 years in jail.

Russian weapons merchant Victor Bout shortly after arrest in Bangkok, Thailand on March 8, 2008. He was convicted last year in New York federal court on charges of conspiring to sell weapons to a terrorist group — shoulder held anti-aircraft missiles to Colombian guerrillas. Photo: AP/David Longstreath

But here is Alexei Pushkov, chairman of the Duma’s International Affairs Committee, speaking Monday in Moscow: “Bout committed no crime. Instead, his abduction from the territory of a foreign country and conviction in the U.S. based on false and fabricated documents violated international norms.”

Coincidentally, also on Monday, peace talks started in Havana, Cuba,  between the Colombian government and representatives of the FARC. I used to cover Colombia as a newspaper reporter. I have flown over Colombia’s rugged landscape in Army helicopters, the workhorses of a campaign to control an insurgency financed by kidnapping and cocaine manufacturing. I wonder if the FARC would be talking peace today if they had gotten hold of the shipments of Russian-made shoulder-held missiles promised by Viktor Bout.

Some analysts here feel that the government’s campaign to free Bout has a very important audience of one: Alla Bout. Alla can raise the morale of her husband, who now faces the prospect of emerging from an American jail at age 70.  If Bout feels the Kremlin has abandoned him, the thinking goes, Viktor could squeal to the Americans about Moscow’s gray zone of arms sales.

USSR stamp honoring Gagarin who died in 1968 during a MIG-15 training flight.

While victimization and anti-Americanism attract some Russians, negative sentiments do not a hero make. The Soviets were smart enough to realize that with Gagarin they had scored a golden PR coup. The current inhabitants of the Kremlin don’t seem to realize that Bout is a turnoff.

It is hard to imagine, Viktor Bout standing in the back of an open convertible, grinning as confetti swirls around him. Gagarin got that kind of reception, not just in Moscow, but in Manchester, Cairo, Paris, Rome and Rio.

Jack Payton
Jack Payton was the executive editor of VOA’s principal English-language website. His reporting from New Orleans was Jack's final professional work before his unexpected death at age 69.

Reset the Reset: Can Russia’s Putin Make Deals With Obama II?

Posted November 12th, 2012 at 8:42 pm (UTC+0)

Chilly body language at their last meeting. Russian President Vladimir Putin and American President Barrack Obama had a brief meeting in Mexico last June, on the edges of the G20 meeting. Photo: AP

The reset jet no longer flies to Moscow.

In March of 2009, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Hillary Clinton, then a brand new secretary of state, jointly pushed a “reset” button, signaling an end to the acrimony of the George W. Bush years. In that same month, United Airlines inaugurated direct jet service between Washington and Moscow.

A few weeks ago, United quietly suspended the Washington-Moscow flight.

International air passenger traffic out of Moscow is up 19 percent this year. But traffic to Washington is soft.

President Putin may drum up a little business with his invitation last week to President Obama to visit Moscow in 2013.

Rare birds in Moscow. United quietly stopped flying from Washington to Moscow a few weeks ago.

But to use 1980s Cold War vocabulary familiar to Russia’s rulers, let’s see how far the Kremlin’s détente lasts with the second Obama Administration.

This week, the U.S. Congress is set to debate the Magnitsky Act. Tied to a bill granting permanent normal trade relations to Russia, this legislation allows Washington to impose banking and visa restrictions on foreign officials seen as guilty of human rights abuses.

Russia sees this bill as being aimed at Russians, and has already announced that it will take retaliatory measures. So the Russian-American détente may last — until Christmas.

On the Kremlin side, President Putin needs an enemy to rally his blue collar, small city, less educated supporters. The United States is a convenient “enemy” — because, from the Kremlin’s viewpoint, the U.S. ‘threat’ is manageable.

Unlike a certain Asian country with 10 times Russia’s population, the United States does not share a long land border with Russia. The U.S.-Russia border is water, ice, and lightly populated by Eskimos.

One generation after the collapse of the Soviet Union, trade between Russia and the U.S. is so anemic that the Kremlin feels it can afford to give Washington a few verbal kicks. On the trade side, 40 percent of Russia’s imports come from Europe, 16 percent from China, and only 4.5 percent from faraway USA.

A close friend in a high place: James Brooke stands with life size photo of the winner on election night 2012 at U.S. Embassy reception, Spaso House, Moscow. VOA Photo: Kristen Blyth

For the Cold War generation, now ruling Russia, the U.S. is easy to see as a threat, or, at least, as a rival.

Fifty years ago, Nikita Khrushchev did not pound his shoe on a desk, and exhort his Soviet countrymen – “We must catch up with…the French.”

Since then, the reality on the ground has changed. But nearly half a century of Cold War rivalry has a psychological momentum that continues into the 21st century in the brains of many Russians.

But, it is an unrequited enmity. On the American side, Americans are obsessed – not with Russia – but with the rise of China, and how to react to it.

I once interviewed Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the Brazilian sociologist who was launching his ultimately successful candidacy for the presidency of Brazil. Looking back at Brazil’s “lost decade” of the 1990s – hyperinflation and low growth – he said the biggest threat to Brazil was “irrelevancia.”

Russia, with its massive nuclear arsenal, will never be irrelevant on the international stage.

But to many Americans, Russia too often gets attention for the wrong reason – for playing the spoiler, for kicking Washington in the shins.

On Syria, the world looked last July to the Kremlin as the only outside power that could broker a deal to end the civil war and to ease Bashar al-Assad into a golden exile. But instead of playing a constructive role, the Kremlin, as the Brazilians would say, stepped on the ball.

More constructive is the Kremlin’s recent acceptance – and advocacy – of the idea that the United States and Iran talk directly about Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Creative thinking goes like this: if Nixon could go to China, maybe Obama, in his second term, can go to Tehran.

But, in general, official Washington remains wary of Putin’s Russia. While most of the anti-American propaganda here is for domestic consumption, Russian officials seem to forget that what is said here eventually makes it back to Washington.

If Russia’s state-controlled media harasses and vilifies U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul, the Kremlin should not forget that he worked for three years inside the Obama White House, was unanimously approved by the U.S. Senate, and maintains a direct line to the man who will be President of the United States through 2016. Guess who will walk with President Obama into the room for a meeting with President Putin?

While I spent the U.S. election period in Moscow, my friend and fellow columnizer, Konstantin von Eggert, spent the election time in Washington. In his latest Due West column, this Russian columnist for Ria Novosti writes of American attitudes:
“’Let the Russians do their own thing as long as they do not become too much of a nuisance,’ seems to be the prevailing view in the White House. Once adopted, it is hard to change. As long as the Kremlin makes sure it does not do anything that is spectacularly offensive to America’s sensitivities, this policy is bound to last.’’

President Putin’s invitation to President Obama is a positive step forward.

But Obama is just as pragmatic a politician as is Putin.

In his second term, Obama may have more flexibility, but he wants concrete results. The essence of a transactional relationship is to do deals. Obama’s job is not to lead group therapy for Russian officials bitter over perceived American slights that took place when he was in law school.

If Obama sees that Moscow’s polemics and posturing are going to bog down the Russian-American deal making, he will redirect his time and attention elsewhere.

The American voters have reset the Obama presidential clock for four more years.

Now let’s see if Moscow and Washington can reset the reset.

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.

New Kremlin Headache: Democracy is Alive in Ukraine and Georgia

Posted November 3rd, 2012 at 12:09 pm (UTC+0)

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich invested millions of dollars in wooing voters with free events, like this concert Oct. 26 in central Kyiv. Voters repaid the favor by giving his Regions Party only 30 percent of the vote. VOA Photo: James Brooke

Vladimir Putin is suffering back pains and is cancelling foreign trips and his annual November press conference marathon.

He may also be suffering from a foreign policy migraine: multi-party democracy is alive and well in the most unexpected of places: Russia’s neighboring southern republics — Georgia and Ukraine.

The key to democracy is decision by the voters. Any American who told you who would win the Nov. 6 U.S. presidential vote was either lying or blindly partisan.

Back to the old USSR.

On Oct. 1, foreign reporters flew into Tbilisi, Georgia for the parliamentary elections. According to common wisdom, and the polls, the election would be won by the party of Mikhail Saakashvili, president of Georgia for the last eight years. Then, the thinking went, the Georgians would jump up and down about fraud, things would quiet down, and Saakashvili would sail on to become a super-empowered prime minister.

Wrong. Georgian voters thought otherwise.

In an unexpected turn of events, voters migrated heavily to the opposition party of Bizdina Ivanishvili. Ivanisvhili’s supporters won. Saakashvili conceded defeat. And last week, Ivanishvili became the new prime minister of Georgia.

Last week, a similar scenario played out in Ukraine.

The government of President Viktor Yanukovych held his midterm presidential elections. Going into Sunday’s vote, analysts predicted the worst, saying the government had done its best to tilt the vote in its favor. And the tilt was pronounced.

Nice to the old folks: Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich greets World War II veterans during a ceremony marking the day of Ukraine’s liberation from Nazi invaders during World War II, on the day of the parliamentary elections in Kiev. Photo: Reuters

According to OPORA, an election watchdog group, 41 opposition candidates were physically attacked or harassed by government officials. The most prominent opposition leader, Yulia Tymoshenko, was in jail, held largely incommunicado. In the three months prior to the election, the TVi, the nation’s only independent TV channel, was dropped from cable packages offered to six million Ukrainians.

On the spending side, the government pumped so much money into social spending that the budget deficit tripled during the first nine month of this year. In addition, the government postponed two unpopular moves: allowing the national currency, the hryvnia, to devalue and household gas prices to rise.

And then there was the sneakiness – confusing voters with clone parties.
At one polling station I visited, there were three Green Parties. Two of them featured photos of candidates who looked like they’d been recruited from the middle management of the post office – solemn middle aged men in coats and ties. The third, presumably the real Green party, had women and younger men in edgy haircuts.

Around the nation, OPORA counted 45 cases of “twins” – or clone candidates.

Not nice to the old folks: dozens of “clone” candidates and parties were registered to confuse voters. Here a young man helps an elderly woman read her voting ballot at a polling station in Kyiv during the Oct. 28 parliamentary elections. Photo: AP

My VOA Ukrainian Service colleague, Oksana Lihostova, a savvy political observer, writes me that she intended to vote for an opposition candidate, Teriokhin, Sergii. But, on filling out the ballot, she marked the space for Teriokhin, Andrii, a pro-government candidate. His name came first – A before S.

She emails me: “And when I was leaving the station, I saw on the wall a picture of another Teriokhin. Only then did I realize that I had been deceived.”

These kinds of election dirty tricks put a bad taste in people’s mouths. They prompted Brussels and Washington to give the election poor grades. On Monday, the State Department called the election “a step backward.” The European observer mission said: “Democratic progress appears to have reversed in the Ukraine.”

But, as foreign observers packed their bags, Ukrainian poll watchers and vote counters in contested races were, in some cases, wrestling over control of boxes with ballots, in other cases, sleeping with their arms around them.

One week after the election, the dust has largely settled. Vote counting in several districts has been so disputed that re-balloting may be needed.

Riot police separate opposition and pro-government activists outside an election precinct in Kiev where the opposition alleged election fraud in parliamentary election. One official candidate, facing major corruption charges, is battling particularly hard to retain his seat — and his parliamentary immunity. Photo: AP

But, OPORA, the most respected election watchdog group, declared that the final results for the five big parties only varied from their own parallel vote counts by maximums of 1 percent point.

For all the money spent, President Yanukovych’s Party of Regions won only 30 percent of the vote. His parliamentary delegation will be 186 — nine seats smaller than going into the election. His allies, the Communists, increased their delegation to 32. Huffy about coming in fourth out of five, the Communists now are threatening to not work with the president.

The three opposition parties won a total of 50 percent of votes cast.

Yulia Tymoshenko’s Fatherland Party reversed its slide, adding six new seats for a total of 104. President Yanukovych’s ham-handed handling of the opposition leader can be thanked for her political resurrection.

Voters wiped out the party of Viktor Yushchenko, the former president who has been seen as soft on his successor.

In its place, there are two new totally new opposition parties, Svoboda, or Freedom, and UDAR, the pro-European party lead by Vitaly Klitschko, the heavyweight boxer.

On one side, President Yanukovych’s party controls 41 percent of parliamentary seats.

On the other side, the opposition will control 40 percent. President Yanukovych will only fashion a working majority by luring back the communists and a large number of independents.

Gone are his October dreams of a two-thirds majority that would allow him to change the constitution. To get legislation passed, he will have to create situational majorities. And, with the next presidential election two years away, the interest of independents in helping an unpopular president will not last long.

And this brings us back to the policy headaches for President Putin.

On the domestic front, Putin has been trying to persuade Russians that they are better off under his personalist rule – “vertical power” dressed up with democratic window dressings. But, Georgians and Ukrainians, his former Soviet brethren, seem to prefer real, multi-party democracies.

On the foreign policy front, Russia’s President has spent two years alternately cajoling and threatening Yanukovych, trying to lure Ukraine into a Moscow-dominated Customs Union – sort of a Soviet Union lite.

Now, it is clear that a majority of Ukrainian voters do not want that. The three opposition parties that collectively received half of the vote are all pro-Western and all favor a free trade treaty with the European Union.

In Ukraine, the sour grapes mood is so strong in Yanukovych circles that government supporters demonstrated outside the Russian Embassy on Thursday. They charged that Ukraine’s opposition candidates were subsidized by Alexander Lebedev, a Russian oligarch opposed to Putin. In response, Lebedev, an investor in Ukraine, wrote in letter of complaint to President Yanukovych: “The masterminds behind this show clearly wanted to question the parliamentary elections results.”

Maybe, instead of looking for wild, convoluted conspiracy theories, it might be best to go back to a basic rule of democracy: listen to the voters.

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

Is Russia’s Putin a Secret Fan of Mitt Romney?

Posted October 24th, 2012 at 4:05 pm (UTC+0)

Toughness or flexibility with Russia’s President Putin? Russia has popped up in the U.S. presidential race. Here Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney answers a question as U.S. President Barack Obama looks on during the second U.S. presidential campaign debate. Photo: Reuters/Jim Young

The conventional wisdom is that the Kremlin would like to see Barack Obama back in the White House next year.

Just last month, President Putin told RT, the state-owned TV channel, that Obama was “a genuine person” who “really wants to change much for the better.”

But these platitudes fail to cover up the big picture.

To shore up his internal support, Putin has inflicted on Russians the kind of anti-American campaign not seen here since the Soviet era. With “foreign agents,” and “treason” the flavors of the political season, today’s Kremlin might be better off without an “Amerikanski partnyor” in the White House.

For Russia’s leaders, the Obama Administration has proved annoyingly adept at ignoring the growing stream of accusations that now come from official Moscow.

When Mitt Romney told CNN that Russia is the “No. 1 geostrategic foe of the United States,” I thought I could hear the cats purring in the Kremlin.

Yesss! Instead of being treated like an oversized Serbia with nukes, we finally get some respect! With Romney, we will be back to being eyeball to eyeball with the Americans!

On Monday night, in the Obama-Romney foreign policy debate, Obama mocked Romney for promoting Russia to “No.1 foe.” He said: “And the 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back, because, you know, the Cold War’s been over for 20 years.”

Romney shot back: “I have two clear eyes on this. I’m not going to wear rose-colored glasses when it comes to Russia or Mr. Putin, and I’m certainly not going say to him, I’ll give you more flexibility after the election. After the election he’ll get more backbone.”

Not best buddies. After standing up President Obama at the G-8 Summit in May at Camp David, President Putin showed up late for a quick meeting on the sidelines of the G-20 in June in Mexico (photo), then scheduled the APEC in Vladivostok at the time of the Democratic Convention in September, ensuring that the American President would be a no show. Photo: AP/Carolyn Kaster

High fives in front of the big screen in Kremlin!

You see, Putin needs a “safe” enemy – one without a long land border with Russia, like you know who. The way he sees it, Americans are currently obsessed with China, bear no deep animosity to Russia, and, anyhow, have a hard time keeping two enemies in their heads at the same time.

So, for the Kremlin, Romney would play the useful role of the un-reconstructed Cold Warrior determined to subvert the divinely ordained state of autocratic rule in Russia.

But, equally important, Putin is embarking on a massive $770 billion, 10-year rearmament program for Russia’s armed forces.

Even for oil-rich Russia, this is no small sum. There is fierce competition for this budget money, notably from Russia’s swelling population of pensioners.

Last fall, Alexei Kudrin, Putin’s respected Finance Minister of 11 years, quit over this military spending plan. As recently as last week, he was criticizing the armaments spending program as wasteful. Kudrin estimates that Russia’s ballooning annual pension shortfall will hit $42 billion this year – 43 times the level of 2005.

To keep the military shopping list intact, Putin needs an external threat. And what better “enemy” than one that resonates with the Cold War era generation of pensioners?

“Despite the fact that Mr. Romney considers Russia enemy number one, if he is elected president of the U.S., certainly we, including me, will work with him as an elected head of state,” Putin said last month in Sochi.

“I am actually very grateful to him for formulating his position so clearly and freely,” Putin continued. “He has again confirmed the correctness of our position on missile defense problems.”

A few days later, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich told reporters: “If Romney wins, we may have to enlarge the defense budget.”

But, on the other hand, Putin appreciates Obama as “a genuine person.”

And the winner gets to try his magic on Vladimir. Romney and Obama cross verbal swords at last Monday’s Foreign Policy debate, the last debate before the Nov. 6 presidential election. Photo/AP Charlie Neibergall

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.

After 20 Years of US Aid, Russia Goes Solo on Controlling Loose Nukes

Posted October 18th, 2012 at 5:03 pm (UTC+0)

A Russian loose nuke blows up on the steppe? No, just a soldier violating no smoking rules at an ammo dump. The explosions on Oct. 9 rattled windows and rattled nerves in nearby Orenburg Photo: AP/Yevgeny

The day that Russia’s government decided last week to end its participation in the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program, a huge, mushroom-shaped cloud rose high in the air over Orenburg.

In this case, the dust was kicked up by massive, accidental blasts of conventional weapons, largely stores of Soviet-era artillery shells.

To avoid the real thing, a nuclear explosion, American taxpayers have paid $7 billion over the last 20 years to cut the threat of loose nukes scattered around the former Soviet Union. The program did things as simple as build secure fences around warehouses that held nuclear materials, and as complicated as evacuating all nuclear weapons from Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine.

The thinking was that, given the lax safety measures of the Soviet Union, and the “anything goes” capitalism that followed the Soviet collapse, Russia and other successor states needed help fast.

But 20 years later, Russia’s government finances are among the best in the world. The Kremlin bridles at what it sees as the paternalism and intrusion of foreign aid in securing nuclear, chemical and biological materials.

In 1998, journalists stand around a Ukrainian SS-24 missile silo after it was destroyed at Pervomaisk, Ukraine. Ukraine inherited the world’s third-largest nuclear arsenal with the 1991 Soviet collapse. The doomsday scenario of Soviet nukes falling into the hands of rogue states or terrorists has remained fiction, thanks to the massive U.S.-Russian effort to lock them up safely after the Soviet Union fell apart. At Pervomaisk, one missile silo was retained and converted into the Museum of Missile Troops Photo: AP Efrem Lukatsky

But that mushroom-shaped cloud over Orenburg hangs like a question mark over one all-Russian arms disposal program.

Down on the ground, at the Donguz military range on the morning of Oct. 9, Private Alexander Kasatkin had been unloading old ammunition for controlled disposal. The work was tiring and boring, so Private Kasatkin decided to sneak a cigarette break.

Apparently, an officer approached.

The private tried to ground out the butt with his army boot.


The ensuing fire raged for four hours, blowing up 4,000 tons of ammunition.

Private Kasatkin, being a young draftee, was fleet of foot and managed to scamper out of harm’s way, along with 300 other soldiers.

Amazingly, the only injury was to an officer discovered later in a protective bunker.

He was found to be suffering, understandably, from shell shock.

As sappers comb the area — finding 724 unexploded shells at last count — it would be nice to write off the Orenburg blast off as an embarrassing coincidence to the Kremlin’s decision to go it alone on nuclear and chemical disposal.

But reporters with computer search services quickly recalled that an officer was killed last month by an ammunition disposal blast, and that six soldiers were killed last May in a similar accident.

Alexander Kanshin, a member of the Russia’s Public Chamber, pulled it all together, saying at a press conference: “More than 50 servicemen have died and over 300 have been wounded in the scrapping of munitions in recent years.”

The military state that was the Soviet Union left behind vast stores of armaments. Those old explosives are becoming unstable. Rubber seals are drying and cracking.

Over the last two years, the Russian military has scrapped about half of 8 million tons of missiles and ammunition left over from the Soviet era, Deputy Defense Minister Army General Dmitry Bulgakov told a Defense oversight panel on Oct. 23. He said that about two thirds of the remaining 3.6 million tons are to be scrapped by the end of next year. Newer, safer disposal technologies are to be adopted, he said.

During 20 years of disposing nuclear materials and weapons under the Nunn-Lugar program, there are no known fatalities.

Instead, the track record is pretty impressive.

The day after the Russian Foreign Ministry announced that Russia wants to end — not amend — Nunn-Lugar, Senator Richard Lugar, Republican from Indiana, and one of the programs initial sponsors, announced the results of 20 years:

Officials and onlookers inspect the remains of the last Minuteman II missile silo after it was imploded Dec. 15, 1997, near Dederick, Missouri, USA. The implosion is in accordance with the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty signed in 1991. Photo: AP/John S. Stewart

“The Nunn-Lugar scorecard now totals 7,610 strategic nuclear warheads deactivated, 902 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) destroyed, 498 ICBM silos eliminated, 191 ICBM mobile launchers destroyed, 155 bombers eliminated, 906 nuclear air-to-surface missiles (ASMs) destroyed, 492 SLBM launchers eliminated, 684 submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) eliminated, 33 nuclear submarines capable of launching ballistic missiles destroyed, 194 nuclear test tunnels eliminated, 3,192.3 metric tons of Russian and Albanian chemical weapons agent destroyed, 590 nuclear weapons transport train shipments secured, security at 24 nuclear weapons storage sites upgraded, 39 biological threat monitoring stations built and equipped.”

This work has gone on largely behind the scenes. You have not heard about it because it was done safely, and professionally, without big oops moments.

This week brought a typical small item on the Interfax news wire.

On Oct. 18, work was completed in Kazakhstan on a 20-year American-Kazakhstan-Russian project to clean up Semipalatinsk, once the world’s largest nuclear testing ground. Stretching over 18,500 square kilometers, Semipalatinsk was used for testing about 500 nuclear bombs over 40 years, from 1949 to 1989.

Also this week, Kazakhstan agreed to host in Almaty the headquarters of the International Science and Technology Center (ISTC). Set up in Moscow in 1992, the largely Western and Japanese-funded program has helped 58,000 former Soviet weapons scientists find peaceful work in industry and in universities. Last year, Russia pulled out of the agreement, prompting the group to decide to move from Moscow.

As dust settled over Orenburg last week, Vedemosti, an independent Moscow newspaper, questioned whether: “Declarations of self-sufficiency to dispose of ammunition sound good in light of the explosion of thousands of shells in the Orenburg region.”

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.

Charm Alert! Georgia Welcomes Russian Tourists!

Posted October 10th, 2012 at 9:17 pm (UTC+0)

For Russians, Georgia is friendly, familiar, foreign, yet near. Almost all movies are dubbed into Georgian VOA Photo: James Brooke

Nervousness was in the air the other afternoon when my S7 Airbus, packed with Russian tourists, touched down at Tbilisi’s international airport.

The tourists walked down a sparkling glass corridor to a terminal that Russian bombs narrowly missed four years earlier during the war with Georgia. They meekly lined up in the no-visa line at passport control.

Crisply uniformed Georgian immigration officers sitting in glass booths carefully inspected each red passport, embossed in gold with the double-headed eagle. Each border control officer then reached under his desk and, with a practiced move, returned every passport with an unexpected object. It was a 200-milliliter bottle of red wine, packed in a crimson gift box and stamped: “Welcome to the Land of 8,000 Vintages.”

“Welcome to Georgia!” the officers repeated in Russian, offering unrehearsed, centuries-old Georgian smiles.

Despite the warnings of the Kremlin nanny state, Russian tourism to Georgia is booming.

Citibank Russia estimates that Russians will splurge and spend $50 billion on foreign trips in 2012. International travel out of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport is up 19 percent this year. The increase is so steep that Russian airlines are debating whether to hire 1,000 foreign pilots to fly the extra Airbuses and Boeings required to meet the demand.

As Russia’s flush middle class scours the world for new destinations, many think of an old favorite close to home: Georgia. In Soviet times, Georgia received 3 million tourists each year.

Tourists explore the ancient settlement of Shatili, some 140 km north of Tbilisi. The historic village, made up of a unique complex of medieval-to-early modern fortresses and fortified dwellings of stone and mortar, lies near the border with Chechnya (Russia) and has become a popular tourist destination. Photo: Reuters/David Mdzinarishvili

But today, many Russians think twice before venturing south.

In Moscow and Tbilisi, police guard the long-shuttered, empty embassies of Georgia and Russia. Georgia broke off relations with Russia in August 2008, shortly after losing a five-day war with Russia. Four years later, about 7,000 Russian soldiers are garrisoned in two secessionist regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which occupy 20 percent of Georgia’s territory.

On the Georgian side, the war wounds are still raw. About 400 Georgian civilians and soldiers were killed and 1,700 were wounded, and about 15,000 new internally displaced people are still living in refugee villages.

On the Russian side, Kremlin-controlled television has fed the population a steady diet of scary stories about Georgia. In May, 41 percent of Russian respondents to a Levada poll said the biggest security threat to Russia is Georgia, a nation of only 4.5 million people. (That percentage roughly corresponds to the portion of Russians who get most of their news from state-controlled television — a medium that opposition leader Alexei Navalny derides as “the zombie box.”)

Not Kremlin-approved tourism: The Soviet Occupation Museum spells out some of the human costs of 70 years of Soviet rule of this nation of 4.5 million people: 80,000 Georgians shot by secret police, 400,000 sent to Gulag labor camps, and 400,000 dead in World War II. When, I visited the museum, one block down from Freedom Square (ex-Lenin Square), the only visitors were Russian families. VOA Photo: James Brooke

In late February, Georgian authorities took the pragmatic step of trying to thaw the ice by waiving visa requirements for Russians. The Kremlin refused to reciprocate. Instead, Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich advised Russians not to travel to Georgia.

“A large number of Russian nationals would automatically be subject to prosecution on entry into the country,” Lukashevich warned in March, a time when Russians were planning their summer vacations. “Since Georgia severed diplomatic relations with Russia, we have extremely limited resources for the consular and legal defense of our fellow citizens who have found themselves in trouble in Georgia.”

Defying official warnings, Russian tourist arrivals have jumped by 55 percent. Half a million Russians are expected to visit Georgia this year. S7, which restored service last year between Moscow and Tbilisi, started direct flights in June between Moscow and the Georgian resort town of Batumi. This month, the airline starts direct charter flights between Moscow and Kutaisi, Georgia’s second-largest city. Since there are no diplomatic relations between the two countries, these are technically charter flights.

“This is the first year we saw Russian tourists everywhere,” said Larry Sheets, an American who has lived on and off in Tbilisi for the last 20 years. “We saw groups in Tbilisi being led around by tour guides, out in the countryside. It was an amazing amount.”

This year, Russians have explored Tbilisi’s medieval Old Town and gone by bus on wine-tasting tours in the countryside. This winter, they are to pack the chairlifts in Caucasus mountain resorts once used as training grounds for Soviet Olympic skiers. Kazbegi, a new Georgian casino resort built just across the border from Russia, is a big attraction for those who live under varying degrees of Shariah in the North Caucasus.

Two weeks ago, my Voice of America colleague Vadim Massalsky drove with a carload of friends from Krasnodar, Russia to Tbilisi, and then on to eastern Georgia. During his 500-kilometer drive through Georgia in a car with Russian license plates, he was never stopped by Georgian traffic police.

After a few toasts, one table at Pheasant’s Tears broke into songs from Georgia’s ancient polyphonous tradition. VOA Photo: James Brooke

The most alarming aspect of the road trip, he wrote in his blog, were the constant calls from worried friends back home in southern Russia.

“Yes, it is just awful!” he recalled one traveling companion, Pavel Kazachenok, a Volgograd lawyer, shouting into his mobile phone. “Yesterday, they tortured us all night long with wine and barbecues. And today, Merab and Valiko have threatened us that the torture will continue.”

Meanwhile in Moscow, Gennady Onishchenko, Russia’s chief health inspector, met Monday with Georgian winemakers to discuss ending Russia’s six-year embargo on Georgian wines. The embargo violates the rules of the World Trade Organization, which Russia joined in August.

Banned in St. Petersburg, welcomed in San Francisco. Lisa Costa, manager of The Punchdown, an organic winery in Oakland, California, tastes an amber wine from Pheasant’s Tears winery in Sighnaghi, Georgia. While some limited label wines like Pheasant’s Tears win premium prices in the United States, neighboring Russia bans imports of all Georgian wines for ‘health’ reasons. VOA Photo: James Brooke

The surge of Russian tourists into Georgia poses two problems for the Kremlin. First, it shows that a large segment of Russians, generally the most affluent and most educated, increasingly ignore the Kremlin’s xenophobic worldview.

Second, Russian tourists are expected to join the chorus for normalizing Russia’s relations with Georgia. Last week, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who oversees the defense industry, lampooned soft power as sissy power.

“Smart power and soft power are fine words that make sense, but real power — power to be reckoned with — is the physical power of knowing that you can strike with an iron fist,” he said.

The bedroom in the Tbilisi apartment I rented came with this unique bedside lamp. VOA Photo: James Brooke

But Georgia, only too recently on the receiving end of Moscow’s iron fist, has now set a goal of welcoming 5 million Russian tourists by 2020 — more than one Russian for every Georgian.

If Georgia succeeds in seducing millions of Russian tourists every year with fine wines, rich meals and warm hospitality, this tourism campaign could end up subverting the Kremlin’s cold war in the hot Caucasus.

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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