Is Ivanishvili a Trojan Horse for Russia’s Return to Georgia?

Posted October 3rd, 2012 at 8:17 pm (UTC+0)

Bidzina Ivanishvili, leader of the Georgian Dream coalition and future Prime Minister, answers the question: Are you a Kremlin Project? VOA Photo: James Brooke

In the run-up to Georgia’s parliamentary vote, supporters of President Mikheil Saakashvili derided their opponent, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, as “a Kremlin project.”

Activists for Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition were even chased out of one village housing refugees from the 2008 war, shouts of “Russians” ringing in their ears.

These Georgians say: follow the money.

Not only did Ivanishvili make his fortune of $6.4 billion in Russia during the wild years of the 1990s, but he was able to liquidate his Russian holdings last year at reasonable prices.

In Russia, oligarchs only survive if they enjoy the good graces of Vladimir Putin. Mikhail Khordokhovsky, a political rival, is in jail. Mikhail Prokhorov retreated from politics after a tepid bid for president this year. And Alexander Lebedev finds that the price for opposing Putin is that no one dares to buy his assets.

On Friday, I asked Ivanishvili, in Russian, if he is “a Kremlin project.”
He laughed off the question, responding first in Russian, then in Georgian, that over the last decade he gave $1.7 billion in aid to Georgia. He added jokingly: “If that means being a Kremlin agent, then the Kremlin has in me the best agent for Georgia.”

At age 56, Ivanishvili is a shrewd pragmatist.

Ivanishvili greets one of the estimated 100,000 people who attended his final campaign rally Saturday afternoon in Tbilisi’s Freedom Square. On Monday, he received about 75 percent of the votes in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. VOA Photo: James Brooke

My bet is that he will try to steer Georgia into a more neutral course. American conservatives will disparage this as “Finlandization.” But this policy served Finland well after fighting two bloody wars with Moscow in the early 1940s.

Ivanishvili says he wants to normalize relations with Russia.
In addition to reopening embassies, this would mean restoring trade ties. Once Georgia’s main trading partner, Russia now accounts for only 4 percent of Georgia’s trade – behind China and the United States. With 30 times the population of Georgia, Russia is a natural source of visitors for Georgia’s booming tourism industry.

As a new member of the World Trade Organization, Russia is obligated to drop unilateral trade sanctions. The WTO could provide a fig leaf for Moscow to normalize.

Looking forward to the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, Russia has one year to lock in peace and quiet on its southern border. It has created a buffer state, Abhazia, directly across the border from the skiing venues. But it would further calm pre-Olympic nerves if there was a leader in Tbilisi committed to controlling rogue nationalist elements of Georgian security forces.

For Moscow, the red line has been NATO membership.

“Get out of town while you can” — these Georgian Dream supporters at Saturday’s rally wanted to see the end of Mikheil Saakashvili’s presidency. VOA Photo: James Brooke

In 1944, before NATO was created, U.S. diplomat George Kennan wrote: “The jealous eye of the Kremlin can distinguish, in the end, only vassals and enemies; and the neighbors of Russia, if they do not wish to be one, must reconcile themselves to being the other.”

On Tuesday, after winning elections, Ivanishvili repeated his commitment to winning NATO membership for Georgia. But, in reality, Russians and Georgians may privately agree to publicly disagree on NATO – and to get on with trade and tourism.

Realpolitik analysts in Moscow, Brussels and Tbilisi know that NATO membership is not going to happen as long as up to 9,000 Russian troops are firmly entrenched in Georgia’s two secessionist territories, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Last summer, I stood one kilometer south of the South Ossetia truce line where I borrowed a pair of high-powered binoculars from a Polish peacekeeper. Studying the new watchtowers and fresh concertina wire of three new Russian army outposts, I concluded that the truce line is about as temporary as the inter-Korean DMZ. And that has been around for 59 years.

Georgians know that, given the signal from Moscow, Russian troops could once again break out of South Ossetia, drive south, and cut the country in half — all in about 45 minutes.

With that knowledge, Ivanishvili shows no sign of throwing away the close relationship that Saakashvili forged with the United States. If he seeks to follow “a third way” (my words), he needs Washington to counterbalance Moscow.

On Monday night, back at Freedom Square, these Georgian Dream supporters, seemed to know what the rest of us learned the next day: Ivanishvili’s team had won by a large margin. Official nationwide results: Georgian Dream – 55 percent; Saakashvili’s United National Movement: 40 percent. VOA Photo: James Brooke

Before Monday’s election, he reportedly spent $600,000 a month on lobbyists in Washington. The morning after the vote, he met in Tbilisi with two visiting United States Senators who are members of the Foreign Relations Committee, James Risch, Republican of Idaho, and Jeanne Shaheen, Democrat of New Hampshire.

Referring to the United States, he said: “We talked about the future, how to develop our relationship with our big friend, and how to develop democracy in Georgia.”

On Wednesday, as it became increasingly clear that he would be Georgia’s next prime minister, he told reporters: “My first visit abroad will be to Washington and the United States is our main partner.”

On one level, Georgia receives large amounts of foreign aid from the United States. On another level, U.S. engagement frees Georgia to pursue a regional role as a transit country for Central Asian oil and gas through pipelines that are outside of Kremlin control.

Indeed, for Ivanishvili, Moscow is just one point in his mental compass.
Like most successful Georgians of his generation, he has moved far beyond his Soviet upbringing and feels comfortable in the West. He holds a French passport and speaks French. He stores his $1 billion modern art collection in London. He discusses with foreign architects a pet project – building a world class modern art museum in Georgia to house his art collection.

As Russian tourists start to rediscover Georgia, they are discovering that Moscow has lost a generation of Georgians.

If tourists want to speak in Russian, they have to seek out a Georgian over 35 years of age. Two decades ago, Russian language study was largely dropped from schools here. Instead, the study of English is now universal and obligatory. Russian is offered as an optional second language, on a par with Turkish and Farsi.

Well, at least these Saakashvili supporters went home with free T-shirts. The President’s rally Friday night at the National Stadium seemed to be attended largely by people who arrived by government-chartered buses from the regions. VOA Photo: James Brooke

At concierge desks of new hotels in Tbilisi – the two Mariotts, the Radisson and the Holiday Inn – visitors will find any of five free local newspapers in English. Nothing in Russian.

Picking up the Financial newsweekly, visitors can study Tbilisi’s international flight schedule. This X-ray of modern Georgia’s world view lists direct flights to 22 foreign cities – from London to Urumqi, China. But no scheduled flights to any city in Russia. There is a daily flight to Moscow, but since there are no diplomatic relations, it is a considered a charter.

When I first visited Tbilisi, in Oct. 1991, every street sign in Russian had been spray painted out. This deep Georgian nationalism, coupled with Ivanishvili’s canny pragmatism, point to a future policy with Russia that will be less of an embrace, and more of a détente.

At his press conference on Tuesday, Mr. Ivanishvili told reporters: “If you ask me, ‘America or Russia?’—I say we need to have good relations with everybody.”

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.

Making the Kremlin Queasy: Massive American Aid Has Helped Russians Three Times in the Last Century

Posted September 25th, 2012 at 7:28 pm (UTC+0)

In Fairbanks, Alaska monument to the American and Russian pilots who ferried military aircraft and supplies from Alaska to Siberia during World War II. Photo: JK Brooks

As American officials struggle to meet an Oct. 1 deadline for closing the 20-year-old USAID office in Moscow, it is worth looking at America’s other great 20th century aid program to Russians.

In a corner of Public School 1262 in Moscow, there is a one-room, privately run museum, the Museum of the Allies and Lend-Lease. It celebrates a crucial act of American generosity largely unknown to Russians.

Under the bland title of the Lend-Lease Act, American taxpayers sent to the Soviet people, from 1941 to 1945, $11.3 billion worth of war supplies. That is $146 billion in contemporary dollars.

This steel river of jeeps, trucks and bombers was neither a loan nor a lease. Franklin Roosevelt chose that title in the hopes of deluding American isolationists who opposed what they saw (correctly) as an outright gift to Moscow.

What did this money buy for the USSR? 3,770 bombers, 11,594 fighter planes, 5,980 anti-aircraft guns, 2,000 railroad locomotives, 51,000 jeeps, 361,000 trucks, 56,445 field telephones, 600,000 kilometers of telephone wire, 22 million artillery shells, almost one billion rifle cartridges, and 15 million pairs of army boots.

Shipped through the North Atlantic, driven up through Persia, or flown in from Alaska, this ready-made war material also freed up 600,000 Soviet factory workers to directly fight the Nazi invaders.

What was the impact of this generosity?

Joseph Stalin, during the Tehran Conference in 1943, said publicly of the American Lend-Lease program: “Without American production the United Nations could never have won the war.” After the war, the aid became a taboo topic. A contemporary Russian school notebook cover depicts Soviet dictator in the uniform of a Soviet Marshall. Photo: AP/

Without it, Adolf Hitler might have enjoyed his planned victory banquet at the Hotel Astoria in St. Petersburg. Then, he might have proceeded with his plan to raze Moscow and turn Russia’s capital into a lake. As a rump Soviet government retreated to the Urals, Hitler might have pursued his grand plan to reduce “excess” Slav populations and convert the Black Soil belt into agricultural plantations devoted to feeding the Third Reich. (Note to Russian neo-Nazis: Sorry to break the news, but the real Nazis wanted your grandfathers dead).

Russian cynics will say the United States needed the Soviet Union to bolster the American war effort.

Au contraire.

Even after Dec. 7, 1941, one current of thought in the United States said, in effect: trade Britain for the Bolsheviks. In other words: Adolf, lay off London. Focus your energies on Moscow. An Anglo-American alliance could learn to live with a Nazi dominated Europe. Our fight is with the Japanese, who attacked Hawaii, and were killing and interning Americans in the Philippines and the Marianas.

Instead, a more generous and liberal American worldview prevailed: free the world from fascism.

It was toward this goal, that my mother worked at a factory building bomb sites outside of New York City, and my father drove a military ambulance in the North African campaign against the Nazis. They were just two of the millions of Americans who volunteered — were not drafted — in the war effort.

Today, American Lend-Lease aid is largely ignored in Russian history books.

It did not fit with Stalin’s self-aggrandizing victory narrative.

After the fall of communism, the Lend-Lease never recovered its place in Russian history books.

There was an earlier precedent.

American aid accounted for the bulk of aid that fed 10 million Russians at the height of the 1921-22 famine. The aid was coordinated by Fridtof Nansen, the Norwegian explorer, who was High Commissioner of the International Committee for Russian Relief. This photo, of two boys in fatal stages of hunger, was taken by Nansen in early 1922 and used in pamphlets to win donations in Europe and the United States for food aid to Russia.

In 1921-22, the United States Congress-funded American Relief Administration helped feed about 10 million starving Russians. Initially, Lenin had refused Western aid. But as the death toll mounted, he relented. American food aid continued through 1923. But American popular support dwindled when it became clear that the Soviet government was exporting its own grain to earn foreign currency, and then asking foreigners to feed Russian peasants.

Soviet textbooks ignored the American aid and glossed over the famine. Largely manmade, this hunger killed about five million people – 10 times higher than any late Czarist era famine.

I bring this up because a similar Kremlin official revisionism is now underway about American taxpayers’ third great aid project to Russia in the last century: the USAID project.

Over the last 20 years, the United States has given $2.7 billion in aid to post-communist Russia. Initially, the aid was designed to stave off severe food shortages. But the bulk was to ease Russia’s transition from a closed society and economy to an open one.

Much of the money went to such building block projects as drawing up a land code, a tax code, promoting small business and judicial reforms.

Over the last two decades, I have known many AID workers in Russia. They came in all shapes and sizes, but seemed to be motivated by a common goal: to see Russia progress from a state-controlled economy and society to an open one.

The program had American support. Year after year, it was approved by the U.S. Congress. Congress answers to the 138 million Americans who pay income tax. If aid to Russia was unpopular, it would have been thrown out years ago.

As Russia’s economy stabilized and grew, the aid shrank. This year, it is $49 million – less than 20 percent of the mid-1990s peak. It increasingly went into health issues – fighting tuberculosis, AIDS prevention, and reducing the abandonment of children.

On one level, the Putin Administration feels Russia has outgrown foreign aid. But, just as Russia seeks foreign investment in factories, foreign aid in health care brings in new techniques and experience. There is no point in reinventing the wheel in either sector. Should Russia throw out foreign car companies and go back to making its own world-beating cars?

On another level, Vladimir Putin feels that Washington is interfering in Russian politics by granting a total of $29 million this year to such civil society groups as Golos, a clean elections group, Memorial, a human rights group, and Transparency International, a corruption fighting group.

Hmm, what does that say about the Kremlin’s attitudes toward clean elections, human rights, and corruption fighting?

The USAID Russia civil society promotion budget is barely 1 percent of USAID’s total $23.8 billion budget this year.

And what does it say, when the Kremlin elephant stands on a stool, and cries ‘eek, eek’ at the sight of a $29 million American mouse?

Today, Russia’s finance minister, Andrei Belousov, announced that Russia’s net capital outflow for the first eight months of 2012 was $52 billion. At that rate, it took three hours to clock $29 million out the door. Presumably, private Russian donors can be found to pick up the slack. Of course that assumes that the Kremlin will allow non-governmental groups to take non-governmental donations.

Kremlin apologists try to persuade the public that Western money is the reason for the protest movement in Russia. But, in a recent Pew Global Attitudes survey, 58 percent of Russians believe the opposition protests were home-grown. Only 25 percent believe that foreign powers are behind the protests.

All the same, 20 years of USAID assistance to Russia is being sacrificed on the current altar of anti-Americanism.

American Napoleon — For the Sept. 2 reenactment of the 1812 Battle at Borodino between Russian troops and French troops, it seemed fitting for the times that the organizers passed up 11 French Napoleon reenactors to pick American actor Mark Schneider to play the role of French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. Here the American Napoleon gestures with a whip at the reenactment of the largest and bloodiest single-day action of the French invasion of Russia. Photo: AP/Alexander Zemlianichenko

In a sign of the times, an American, Marc Schneider, was chosen earlier this month to play the role of Napoleon in the Sept. 2 reenactment of the Battle of Borodino. This 1812 epic confrontation pitted the French dictator’s Grande Armee against the forces of Czar Alexander I.

Putin and former French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing met at the battlefield and talked to reporters about the eternal friendship between France and Russia.

“France has almost always been our close ally,” Putin said, as a pint-sized American Napoleon swaggered up and down the French lines, urging his troops to kill Russians.

An American Napoleon.

Now, THAT fits the Kremlin’s historical narrative.

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 Tibet’ Opens to the Outside World

Posted September 18th, 2012 at 9:09 am (UTC+0)

Looking for a tasty poacher? In reality snow leopards shun contact with humans. Photo: Bernard Landgraf.

Word of the killings of four American diplomats in Libya took 24 hours to reach me last week.

That was fitting as I was contemplating the silence of cedar forests, the grace of wild horses cantering through alpine meadows, and the beauty of glacier-fed rivers cutting through the rugged mountains of Russia’s remote Altai Republic.

Lost for centuries in a mountainous cleft between Kazakhstan, China and Mongolia, the Altai features Siberia’s tallest mountain, Mount Belukha. To some Buddhist visitors, Belukha’s twin, snow-capped peaks form the gateway to Shambhala, a mythical “Pure Land” of peace, tranquility and happiness.

In modern terms, Shambhala may simply mean the ultimate luxury: living for a few days without email or cell phone.

With its 4,500-meter high peaks and steep valleys, the Altai has always been the end of the road. Absorbed by Czarist Russia 250 years ago to define an imperial border with China, Altai’s mountain peoples were largely left alone. To this day, Altai Republic is one of only a handful of Russia’s 83 regions never penetrated by a railroad.

The isolation of “Russia’s Tibet” was cut this year when engineers finished doubling the runway at the airport of Gorno Altaisk, the republic’s capital of 60,000 people. In June, S7 Airlines started direct flights from Moscow.

Galina Toptigina, fox hat, runs Chui-Oozi, a crafts and cultural center, on the Chuiski Track, Altai. Here, she and a friend advise Moscow photographer Vera Undritsova on purchase of blue silk and wool scarf and white fox purse. VOA Photo: James Brooke

On the ground, workers completed paving the “Chuiski Track,” a 600-kilometer road. Now, a smooth ribbon of asphalt, the Chuiski runs from the capital to the international border with Mongolia. On crossing into Mongolia, it immediately reverts to a rough, dirt track.

The Republic’s main paved road threads its way through the rugged Altai-Sayan mountains. In Turkic and Mongolian languages, Al-tai means Golden Mountains. In mid-September, larch trees were exploding like bright yellow flares against a dark green backdrop of cedar trees.
The Golden Mountains are now one of Russia’s nine natural sites listed among UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

The higher elevations are home to the Argali sheep, the world’s largest mountain sheep. A ram can weigh up to 182 kg, including his two corkscrew horns which can weigh up to 28 kg.

Known for their corkscrew horns, Argali sheep, the world’s largest mountain sheep are the targets of trophy hunters and poachers. Photo: WWF/Ronald Petocz

Prowling at the very top of the food chain are the snow leopards.
Well adapted to their high altitude homes, the leopards have wide paws to walk in the snow, thick fur to cope with the cold, and fat, extra-long tails to warm their faces when they sleep.

Secretive and solitary creatures, the leopards are masters of camouflage. They usually only make their presence known when it is too late. They kill their prey with a single, decisive bite to the neck.

The Argali and snow leopards inhabit the top of the world — a high altitude universe that circles in a massive crescent — south from Altai and eventually east to the Himalayas and Tibet. Both of these large mammals are endangered species.

In the Altai, they may stand a fighting chance.

Parks protect about one quarter of the Republic, largely the mountainous forested parts. Altai Republic is the size of Hungary, but has only 206,000 people — 2 percent of Hungary’s population.

Face of the future: Togunai Savatova, with her mother Olga. Togunai, or Full Moon in Altai, speaks Altai at home and will learn Russian in kindergarten. VOA Photo: James Brooke

In January 2009, a group of Moscow and local politicians rented a helicopter and flew into the mountains to hunt Argali sheep from the air. One of the “hunters,” possibly intoxicated, fired a stray shot that hit the rotor.

The helicopter crashed – deep inside a wildlife reserve.

Rescuers found the carcasses of two freshly killed Argali sheep as well as the bodies of seven hunters. They included the Altai Chairman of the Committee on Protection of Fauna, the Kremlin’s envoy to the Duma, and another senior member of Russia’s Presidential Administration.

The three surviving passengers escaped prosecution for poaching endangered species by blaming all illegal activities on the dead men. Presumably, they were taken on board to provide moral ballast.

The hunting party’s behavior was so boorish, and the local, national and international furor so enormous, that it would now seem to be difficult for poaching parties to rent helicopters in the small world of the Altai.

Local outrage over the poaching highlighted a slow sea change underway in the Republic.

Ethnic Russians and ethnic Altai increasingly see their economic futures tied to up market eco-tourism. (On my return to Moscow, I was surprised to find that two affluent expat friends, neither of them Shambhala-seeking New Agers, had made nature trips to the Altai in recent weeks).

There is also a demographic change underway. As in many areas on the fringe of modern Russia’s Slavic heartland, the Altai’s native peoples seem to be on the reproductive path to regaining majority status in their ancestral homeland.

The tip of an iceberg of bilingualism: A regional school board sign, in Russian and Altai, a Turkic language, reflects the resurgence of Altai speakers in the Republic. VOA Photo: James Brooke

Under Stalin, the Altai, like many distant points of the Soviet empire, was a dumping place for internal exiles. Willing or unwilling, the transferred ethnic Russians took on the roles of colonists. By the 1939 census, Altai and other native peoples accounted for only 29 percent of the Republic’s population.

But the 2010 census shows that the size of the Republic’s ethnic Russian population has been constant since 1939 – 115,000. At the same time, Altai and other Turkic-speaking native groups now account for 44 percent of the population. By the 2020s, Altai and other natives will probably account for a majority, ending an anomalous century of minority status.

An Altai cultural renaissance can be seen in mountain villages. At two stops, my traveling party was entertained by throat singers, traditional bards of epic poetry. As in neighboring Mongolia, throat singers have regained popularity and social status in the post-Soviet era.

In programs supported by WWF, or World Wildlife Fund for Nature, and the Citi Foundation, villagers are opening their houses to tourists, greeting them with bowls of mare’s milk, offering horseback tours of the mountains, and selling souvenirs crafted from felt matted from the wool of local sheep. A big hit with our group were toy felt snow leopards.

Near a high mountain lake, Vera Undritsova pauses to hug a cedar tree. VOA Photo: James Brooke

On mountain roads, a resurgence can be seen of Ak Jang, the White Faith. Repressed first by the Czars, then by the Soviets, this shamanistic belief system was intertwined in the 20th century with Altai ethnic identity. Revolving around nature, mountains, water springs, the sky, fire, and ancestors, White Faith has spread in popularity in the 20 years since the collapse of the Soviet system.

Thursday afternoon, at a way station above one of the Republic’s 7,000 lakes, we came across a hilltop grove of cedar trees. It looked as if it had been hit by an early winter blizzard. Fluttering in the high mountain sun were thousands of white “good luck” strips of cloth tied to branches.

The good fortune was ours — to travel through Russia’s Shangri-La.

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.

Vlad in Vlad: Forging Russia’s First Hot City on the Pacific Rim

Posted September 11th, 2012 at 6:24 am (UTC+0)

The upside about an enlightened dictator is the enlightenment part.

With two pylons slightly taller than the Eiffel Tower, Vladivostok’s new $1 billion bridge to Russian Island is the longest cable stay bridge in the world. Opened last month, Vladivostok’s new bridge is already the city’s new symbol, comparable to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. Photo: AP

Five years ago, Vladimir Putin took a hard look at Vladivostok, the faraway city founded in 1860 by Czar Alexander II as Russia’s main port on the Pacific.

In 2007, President Putin evidently decided that in the era of Asian tigers, Vladivostok was the Pacific Rim’s ugly duckling.

In that year, the Russian leader lobbied and won the right to host the annual meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. With the most powerful leaders of Asia destined to converge on Vladivostok in September 2012, Russia’s five-year clock was set.

Since then, the Putin team put in place the pieces to make Vladivostok, seven time zones east of Moscow, the Pacific Rim’s new hot city.

And here is the fun part: most of the locals don’t get it yet.

Fireworks explode Saturday night over the city’s second new bridge, this one built over Golden Horn Bay. The $10 million fireworks display was designed to signal to gathered leaders from 21 Pacific Rim nations that Vladivostok is now open for business with Asia. Photo: Reuters

As Alexey Eremenko reported Friday for Ria, the government controlled news agency: “But not one of the dozen Vladivostok residents interviewed by RIA Novosti admitted to having high hopes for the region’s economic future.”

Some quick background.

In November, 1922, after American, Canadian and Japanese interventionist troops withdrew from Vladivostok, the Bolsheviks finally won control of this free-wheeling city on Russia’s eastern edge. The Communists closed Vladivostok to foreigners, a ban that lasted 70 years. In the 1930s, Stalin deported all ethnic Asians, and then closed the entire city to Soviets without permits.

In 1959, Nikita Khrushchev visited San Francisco. The Soviet leader flew home and decided to make Vladivostok, a hilly city overlooking Golden Horn Bay, a Soviet San Francisco.

Visionary: Vladimir Putin inspects airy new terminal for Vladivostok’s International Airport. Built to handle 10 million tourists, seven times last year’s volume, the airport is to handle business visitors and Asian tourists visiting a future mini-Macao of the North — gambling and golf complex to be built 15 kilometers away.Photo: Reuters

That turned out to mean cement box buildings overlooking the Soviet Pacific Fleet. The pearl of Russia’s Pacific remained a Cold War naval base, closed to foreigners. Through the 1980s, foreign tourists traveling on the Trans-Siberian Railway never saw the graceful Beaux Arts railroad station, opened in 1912 as the eastern terminus. Instead, Soviet era tourists were shunted to Nakhodka, an industrial port where passenger ferries to Japan competed with freighters stacked with raw logs or filled with dusty coal.

The rollicking, cosmopolitan port that gave the world Yul Brynner, the Russian-American actor, was, in Soviet times, was a paranoid place, closed to Asia.

In 1992, Vladivostok opened to outsiders. Four years later, in 1996, I made my first of what would be many visits. Vladivostok had molted from military city to depressed city, a place of monopolies and scams, a place suspicious of Asia, rather than embracing it.

Visitors arrive last week at Vladivostok’s new international airport. To go to the city, they now have the choice of a new 4-lane highway, or a new red and white painted Aeroexpress train to the 1912 Beaux Arts rail station downtown — also the Pacific terminus of Russia’s 9,289 kilometer long Trans-Siberian Railway. VOA Photo: James Brooke

Since my first visit to Vlad, I worked my way around the Pacific clock, visiting among others: Anchorage, Vancouver, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Sydney, Auckland, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Macao, Shanghai and Seoul.

Of the group, Vladivostok was unique. It was the Pacific Rim city that, as doctors gravely tell parents, was failing to thrive.

The population remained stable at 600,000 – but only because it drew in people from the countryside, replacing ambitious college educated city dwellers. They either migrated west to Moscow or left Russia entirely. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Vladivostok’s Primorye Region has lost 15 percent of its population. One day, I tracked down Stephanie, my bright and energetic translator from my 1996 reporting trip. She was happily married and working in Brisbane.

How do Putin & Co. plan to turn Vladivostok into a hot city?

For starters, by educating the new generation.

Russia’s California? No, the new campus of the Far Eastern Federal University, across a bay from Vladivostok. Starting next month, 11,000 students will live on the campus and 14,000 will commute from the city. The University will offer some courses in English and is recruiting foreign foreign faculty and students. VOA Photo: James Brooke

Next month, the APEC conference site on Russian Island becomes a campus for 25,000 students. Not only will this draw traffic out of Vladivostok’s clogged streets, but it will move education to what many visitors call the most beautiful university campus in Russia. Curving around Ajaks bay, dormitories and lecture halls look out on parks, trees, tennis courts, and the Sea of Japan.

Saturday evening, Emil Veliev, a smiling, Canadian-trained 29-year-old, told me how he defied skeptics and built the whole campus in 1,000 days.

At least 10 percent of the students are to be Asians, and many courses are to be offered in English. Stephanie Plant, an equally young, Harvard-trained American, told me how, from her office in Vladivostok, she is recruiting international faculty, for the university, Far Eastern Federal University.

Next, inspire the new generation.

From a top floor terrace of the university’s main building, the new park like campus stretches out to Ajaks Bay and the new cable stay bridge to the continent. VOA Photo: James Brooke

Pundits lampoon the new bridge to Russian Island, as “the billion bridge to nowhere.” That clever comment ignores the fact that the bridge now leads to a university built to educate 25,000 of the region’s best and brightest.

It also ignores the bridge’s inspirational power. One month after opening, the bridge, the longest cable stay bridge in the world, is Vladivostok’s new symbol. Postcards, TV reports, and refrigerator magnets are carrying its laser lit image the world over.

Then, make the city livable for the new generation.

The bridge is part of a massive series of construction projects: two other major bridges, a new airport terminal, a cube-shaped new opera and ballet theater, a huge aquarium, and a beautiful parkway that curves through mountains and around Vladivostok, further reducing traffic congestion.

At one end of the new highway system is the city’s new international airport, with a world class terminal. Next year, two new Hyatt hotels are to open with 450 rooms overlooking Golden Horn Bay. Hyatt is the first international chain to open in the Russian Far East. (For APEC, my first hotel reservation in Vladivostok was to be at the 2 star Granit, which offers suites with ‘fool-equipped kitchens.’ I upgraded to the new university campus.)

Less visible, the city is installing a piped gas line that will cut air pollution and a municipal sewage treatment system. After 150 years of dumping sewage into the sea, Vladivostok is now to have waters clean enough for swimming.

On campus: VOA video journalist Austin Malloy ignores the swimmers and zeroes in on The Big Bridge. VOA Photo: James Brooke

Finally, and, most important, create well-paying jobs for the future generation.

At the summit, preliminary agreements were signed with Japanese companies for the construction of a $13 billion liquefied natural gas plant and export terminal near Vladivostok.  Next year, the Russian oil company, Rosneft, starts construction on a $6 billion refinery and petrochemical complex in Nakhodka, currently a two-hour drive east of Vladivostok. At the same time, work is to start on a $500 million rebuilding of the highway to Nakhodka.

In addition to energy, Vladivostok is finally embracing its proximity to China, Japan and Korea for transportation. Billions of dollars are earmarked for upgrading rail and port facilities to allow the Trans-Siberian to carry the mounting volumes of freight from Asian shippers who want to use Russia as a rail bridge to Europe.

At the APEC conference, Salavat Rezbaev, chairman of New Age Capital Partners, walked me through his company’s plan to build a $1 billion port at Troitse, a Primorye port near the Chinese border. It would handle grain, coal, and containers for China. On adjacent land, there are plans for an industrial zone capable of employing 150,000 people.

With the new airport and runway capable of handling 10 million passengers a year, the city is embarking on two international tourism projects.

The new campus has its own artificial waterfall with a continuous, closed circuit flow of water. VOA’s Malloy, with his APEC badge, enjoys the September sun. VOA Photo: James Brooke

 This month, the first tender takes place for investment in Vladivostok’s “Integrated Entertainment Zone,” the only legalized gambling district in Russia’s Far East. With 300 million Asians living within a two hour flight of Vladivostok, the planned $2 billion casino, entertainment and golf complex could emerge as a mini-Macao of the north.

 Closer to the airport, plans are underway for PrimRing, a $200 million motor racing complex designed to draw car aficionados from around Northeast Asia. Already, 20 Asian cities have direct flights to Vladivostok.

Other projects are afoot: expansions of recently installed assembly plants of Japanese and South Korean cars, the construction of a fourth bridge, and the construction of “Sand Star”, a $30 billion satellite city.

Most promising for the future is a sea change in attitudes toward Chinese investment. During the APEC conference, Vladimir Miklushevskiy, the new regional governor appointed by Putin last spring, gave a special news conference for the international press. He gamely answered all my questions. But with one Chinese television reporter after another, he zeroed in again and again on his core message: transparency, clear and fair rules of the game, and a big welcome to Asian investment.

A Party to remember: fireworks light up Vladivostok’s port — and a portent of the future: a construction crane. Photo: Reuters

The young college students and recent graduates I talked to in Vladivostok get it. They plan to look for work in Vladivostok.

But the older, Soviet generation still struggles with the new world. Time and again, during the APEC conference, security guards tried to block VOA from filming – first, the new $200 million airport terminal, then the $1 billion bridge, and then, joggers on the new university campus.

While President Putin installs the hardware in Vladivostok for a hot Pacific Rim city, it will take time to install the software.

And that represents a core challenge for Vlad in Vlad: can an authoritarian leader erase a deeply ingrained ‘culture of nyet’?

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

Putin’s Palaces, Yachts, Cars and Watches: An Opposition Guide to Russia’s Rich and Famous

Posted September 4th, 2012 at 12:55 am (UTC+0)

“I have worked like a galley slave throughout these eight years, morning till night.” Vladimir Putin summing up his first two terms as president to Russian and foreign Press. Feb. 2008.

It’s a nice image for voters at election time.

No galley slaves below decks here. Teak and fine woods were used by French designer Jean Guy Vergès for the interior of the 54 meter yacht Sirius bought last year by Russia’s Presidential Administration. The Sirius is one of four yachts owned by the Administration, a fleet dominated by the 57 meter Olympia.

But below decks on the Sirius, a 54-meter yacht, Russia’s president is not chained to an oar. Instead, he can enjoy the designer interior, listening to a cascading waterfall, chill out in a spa pool, and enjoy a rare vintage from onboard wine cellar.

The Sirius is one of four yachts and part of an explosion of perks that now underpin President Putin’s extravagant lifestyle, according to a new opposition pamphlet, “Life of A Galley Slave.”

Even if you are part of the 97.5 percent of the world’s population that does not speak Russian, click this link, and go on a full color tour of the palaces, yachts, watches and automobiles of Russia’s 21st Century Czar. If you want to read the captions, use Google Translate.

According to “Galley Slave,” the palaces include 20 presidential residences – 10 more than when he came to power in 2000. The neo-classical styles of some stand as gold leaf echoes of the Czarist palaces that young Vladimir must have admired (coveted?) during his hard scrabble youth in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg.

The Constantine Palace, an 1807, Czarist-era structure, had suffered from decades of Soviet neglect and the abuse of German occupation during World War II. On becoming President, Vladimir Putin, a St. Petersburg native, restored the palace as a Presidential residence and conference center.

One, an alpine ski lodge in the Caucasus, nestles on a plateau just one mountain away from the site of the downhill ski races of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics.

As for timepieces, it appears that Russia’s president takes to heart the commercial appeal: Judge a man by his watch.

By studying hundreds of photos of Russia’s president, opposition researchers came up with a Putin collection of 11 luxury watches. The total worth of the collection is six times his annual declared income of $112,000.

For air travel, there is a fleet of 43 airplanes and 15 helicopters. The centerpiece is an Ilyushin presidential jet with a gold inlay interior created by artisans from Sergiyev Posad, a religious center.

An ikon, gold inlay and rare wood embellish the estimated $18 million interior of one of Russia’s 38 presidential jets, according to new opposition study of the lifestyle of Russia’s President.

The cars include a stretch Mercedes limousine with a 14-foot, gold trim interior.

By contrast, Russia’s President lists on his official statement of personal assets three vehicles, all antique Soviet cars, and a trailer hitch inherited from his father.

Dmitry Peskov, Mr. Putin’s long-serving press secretary, has dismissed the allegations of wealth, charging that “attempts at pseudo-revelations are associated with oppositionism here.” He said that all the palaces, cars and yachts belong to the Presidential Administration, the modern name for the Kremlin.

But many Russians fear their nation is stuck in the 18th century, where the richest man in a European country was, inevitably, the King.

Louis XIV was the French king who famously blurred the state with himself, saying: “L’etat, c’est moi” – or “The State, it is I.”

Few Russians think their country needs the kind of bicycle riding leader seen in neighboring Scandinavian democracies.

The draught beer may be proletarian, but the watch is a $25,000 A. Lange & Sohne 1815, confected from silver and white gold with a crocodile skin wrist band.

But a sizable portion of Russians think their president has gone way too far. They say he is surrounded by sycophants and favor seekers, men who shower baubles on the Czar, hoping to win lucrative business concessions.

“His lifestyle can be compared to that of a Persian Gulf monarch or a flamboyant oligarch,” write the authors of “Life of a Galley Slave,” Boris Nemtsov and Leonid Martynuk. Annual upkeep on the Sirius, they write is “the equivalent of the average annual pensions for 1,200 Russian retirees.”

Understandably, few Russian printers will touch the 32-page pamphlet.

After a limited print run of 5,000, the authors, both leaders of the Solidarity movement, have resorted to distribution by the internet. At last count, 2,778 people had clicked the Facebook “like” button on the pamphlet. That click of the mouse probably earned each Russian his or her very own intelligence service file.

From humble beginnings: graffiti on the passageway leading to the internal courtyard apartment where Vladimir Putin grew up in St. Petersburg in the 1960s. VOA Photo: James Brooke

Not only is the “Galley Slave” report racing around Russia’s internet, but it is racing around the world at a speed not seen since the Kremlin helped to make “Pussy Riot” a global brand. A quick Google check of the phrase “Putin galley slave” demolishes the Kremlin’s myth that only the Western press is skeptical of Mr. Putin.

A selection of newspapers that ran reports on Russia’s rich and famous leader: Indian Express, Dawn (Pakistan), Gulf Today (Arab Emirates), Malaysian Times, Chosun Ilbo (South Korea) and Shanghai Daily. And that is just a search of English language news media.

Yes, Louis XIV, the “Sun King,” was the longest reigning king in Europe’s history – 72 years.

No, there was no Facebook in the 17th century.

It will be interesting to see how long Russians keep doffing their caps for the passing Putin parade.

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.

From Lance Armstrong to Russian Arctic Oil: From Accountability to Impunity

Posted August 28th, 2012 at 1:40 pm (UTC+0)

Greenpeace activist near Gazprom’s only exploration platform in the Russian Arctic. Photo: Greenpeace/Denis Sinyakov

There is a golden thread that links Lance Armstrong, the disgraced American cyclist, to the Greenpeace climbers clambering about the Russian oil well rig in the Arctic.

That thread is called accountability.

In recent days, Greenpeace protesters briefly occupied Gazprom’s Prirazlomnaya platform, Russia’s first offshore exploration rig in the Arctic. Greenpeace opposes all oil exploration in the fragile Arctic environment. Public support for Arctic oil production, narrow in North America, is undermined in Russia by a culture of impunity.

Six Greenpeace activists displayed their climbing — and public relations — skills climbing up the steel wall of Gazprom’s Prirazlomnaya oil platform on Aug. 24. Photo: Greenpeace/Denis Sinyakov

In a bad sign for Russian offshore production, Greenpeace estimates that Russian on land oil producers already spill as much as 35 million barrels a year. Due to low fines and lack of criminal prosecutions, oil spills in Russia are simply a cost of doing business here.

The huge difference between impunity and accountability was highlighted to the world last week in the Lance Armstrong case.

In 1996, Armstrong, then a 25-year-old cyclist, was diagnosed with cancer.

Lance Armstrong, front, talks to reporters after his second-place finish in the Power of Four mountain bicycle race at the base of Aspen Mountain in Aspen, Colo., on Aug. 25. Race-winner Keegan Swirbul, 16, of Aspen, left, claps his hand. One day earlier, the U.S. Anti-Doping Association banned him for life from professional cycling. Photo: AP/David Zalubowski

It spread from his testicles to his lungs and brain.

Against high odds, Armstrong fought back and beat the cancer.

In 1998, he returned to competitive cycling. He went on to win a record seven consecutive Tours de France through 2005, when he retired. The United States Olympic Committee named him Athlete of the Year four times.

Then last week, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency concluded a doping investigation by banning Armstrong from cycling for life and recommended that he be stripped of his seven Tour de France titles.

Lance Armstrong laughs while preparing to take part in the Power of Four mountain bicycle race in Snowmass Village, Colo., on Aug. 25. Photo: AP/David Zalubowski

As an indicator of Americans’ shock over the case, The Washington Post story on the anti-doping decision drew 1,164 comments from readers.

Contrast that to Russia, where state oil company executives seem to be part of a protected class.

Last December, a Russian state oil exploration company, Arktigmorneftegazrazvedka, decided to tow a heavy rig across the Sea of Okhotsk. Company executives, based 6,000 kilometers away in the Arctic city of Murmansk, violated a basic rule that every Russian school child knows: Don’t cross the street against the light.

The Sea of Okhotsk shipping season had long closed for the winter. But company executives decided to jaywalk.

The rig was needed in Vietnam. To save money, they stacked the rig with 67 people – about 60 more than necessary. It was cheaper than chartering a plane to fly engineers and workers from Kamchatka to Vietnam.

Several employees made very specific objections based on safety. The company’s response: do it or get fired.

A passenger ship for 67 men well after the northern shipping season closed? No, a 26-year-old oil drilling rig heading into an Arctic storm in the Sea of Okhotsk. File photo taken 2010 in Murmansk, home of the rig’s owner, Arktikmorneftegasrazvedka. Photo: Reuters/Andrei Pronin

In reality, they got killed. In the worst disaster in the history of the Russian oil and gas sector, 53 men drowned December 18 when the platform encountered a winter storm and sank in the icy waters of the Sea of Okhotsk.

The next day, Russian television viewers were treated to the usual post-disaster video reports on heroic helicopter searches for survivors. In reality, they were searching for bodies. Human beings last about five minutes in 5 degree water.

What state television reporters did not do is bang on doors at the state company and ask executives why they sent the men to their deaths.

Eight months have rolled around. Here is the update.

In March, a company deputy director was fired and another reprimanded. At the June shareholders meeting, the general director was fired and the company’s chief engineer resigned.

A survivor of the Sea of Okhotsk oil platform sinking is airlifted from a rescue boat. Photo: AP

Prosecutors are still investigating the case. I have yet to hear of any criminal indictments.

In the only notable judicial development, a Murmansk court declared on August 1 that the 24 missing men are legally dead. This allows their survivors to collect the compensation from Arktigmorneftegazrazvedka.

What is the connection to Greenpeace activists displaying their mountaineering and public relations skills on Gazprom’s Arctic rig and supply vessel?

Greenpeace activists climbing Gazprom’s Arctic platform Friday, shortly before they were doused with water hoses from crew members above. Photo: Greenpeace/Denis Sinyakov

President Vladimir Putin has declared the Arctic be Russia’s new oil and gas frontier. Given concerns about the impact of oil spills in the Arctic, high north oil production is a hard sell to Western consumers and shareholders in Western oil companies.

It will be an even harder sell if the watchword for Russian Arctic industrial safety and pollution controls is impunity.

The tough justice meted out last week to Lance Armstrong is a reminder that no one should be above the law – not even state oil company executives.

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 x Pussy Riot: Girls Win!

Posted August 19th, 2012 at 3:38 pm (UTC+0)

The wearing of brightly colored balaclavas, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova told the court, “emphasizes the carnival-like and friendly nature of our performances. We are clowns and we engage in buffoonery. We are kind of crazy. But we do not convey any evil.” Photo: Igor Mukhin

“Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?” – Alexander Pope, 1735

This summer, Vladimir Putin tried to break three of Moscow’s butterflies on the creaking, iron wheel of Russia’s court system.

On Friday, the three Pussy Riot girls were sentenced to two years in jail for singing the wrong song in church.

Stalin’s show trials were scary.

Putin’s show trials are providing a show.

Day after day, the Moscow courtroom provided a stage for three attractive young women, sequestered in windowed box known as the “aquarium.”

As their international celebrity status grew day by day, you could hear the Kremlin’s PR and political strategies backfiring, day by day.

By the end of the trial, it had come to this: editors for Ukrainian Playboy angling for a centerfold photo session with Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, a 22-year-old defendant described by the Financial Times as having “Angelina Jolie lips.”

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, age 23, skyrocketed in recent days to international fame after she was unmasked as Pussy Riot girl in the recent trial. Despite protests, like this one in Moscow calling for her ‘Freedom,’ she and two other Pussy Riot defendants were sentenced to two years in jail for their protest inside Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral on Feb. 21. AP Photo:Ivan Sekretarev

Carried on the wings of the internet, the Pussy Riot brand – a brightly colored balaclava — had circled the globe. Solidarity demonstrations ranged from the Mayor of Reykjavik, Iceland dancing on a parade float in a Pussy Riot ski mask to a topless protester posing for photographers while she squirted red ink Thursday on a wall of the Russian Consulate in Sao Paulo.

The trial of three personable young women achieved what 100,000 protesters gathered in Moscow’s Arctic temperatures last February could not: focus world attention on Russia’s authoritarian government.

By Friday, reporters from an estimated 100 Russian and international media outlets gathered at the courthouse for the sentencing. (Since 99 percent of criminal cases in Moscow last year ended in convictions, there was no suspense about the verdict.)

Under this intense glare of international publicity, gleamed a court system that seemed like a lost chapter from Alice in Wonderland.

On their way to sentencing: Pussy Riot members, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, center, Maria Alekhina, front, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, are escorted to the court room “aquarium” on Friday to hear the Judge’s verdict and sentence. Photo: AP

First, there was a large police dog in the courtroom that seemed to be trained to bark when the defense lawyers raised objections.

Then there were the prosecutors who embellished the official charge – “hooliganism driven by religious hatred” – with phrases redolent of the Inquisition, such as “blasphemy” and “sacrilege.”

Then there were the court marshals who threw out members of the public for smirking or looking out an open window to where solidarity demonstrations were held. One day, court marshals refused admittance almost all defense witnesses. The judge then declared the witnesses “no shows” and struck them from the witness list.

Mikhail Khordokovsky, the former political rival to Mr. Putin, was tried in the same courtroom two years ago. From his jail cell, he wrote a support letter to the Pussy Riot women: “The word ‘tried’ can only be used here in the sense in which medieval Inquisition used it.”

Tolokonnikova agreed, saying in court: “I do not believe in this court. There is no court. It is an illusion.”

Pussy Riot band stages lightning punk performance on Red Square on January 20 to protest the prospect of six more years of Vladimir Putin leading Russia. Photo: Reuters: Denis Sinyakov

The written statements of several prosecution witnesses contained identical language and same errors of grammar and spelling, prompting the defense to charge that some of the testimony in the 1,800-page court case was “a cut and paste job.”

Lyubov Sokologorskaya, a candle seller at Christ the Savior Cathedral, gave the most gripping prosecution account of the offending punk performance.

“All that looked like a lot of demonic jerking,” she said of the Pussy Riot dance. “They were throwing their legs up, and everything below the waist was visible.”

In reality, as millions of internet viewers can attest, the girls were wearing bright tights below their short skirts. But that is a fashion crime inside a Russian Orthodox church, a contemplative space where women are to wear sober and dark attire, and are to cover their hair, but not their faces.

In one of dozens of Pussy Riot support actions around the globe in recent days, actors hold balloon lips marked “Free Pussy Riot” during recording of a music video by Peaches, a Canadian musician, in Berlin on Aug. 8 , 2012. Photo: AP/Adam Berry

Seven times, the defense asked Judge Marina Syrova to recuse herself. Seven times, she consulted with herself. (One can imagine the debate. Decisions, decisions: August at the dacha? Or August with the smart aleck feminists?) Each time, the judicial side of her brain prevailed, and she stayed on the case.

But stress surfaced at times. Once, when reading “Holy S**t,” the offending lyric the Pussy Riot girls sang in the Cathedral, the Judge interjected: “Shove culture up your (expletive)! We are going to the prosecutors!”

Then there were the defendants, giggling, smirking, and rolling their eyes, as they were guarded by hunky, T-bone shaped Spetsnaz – or Special Forces – police officers.

Security was so tight that when the courthouse was evacuated because of a bomb threat, the three young women were left behind in their courtroom box.

During the break, a man with a gray, Old Testament beard ran up and down the courthouse street, shouting: “Our women are free! Putin’s female slaves are not!”

Trial rules allowed the defendants to address the court. After each statement, the public — and many members of the “independent” press — burst into applause.

“This is not a theater,” Judge Syrova snapped two times. After the third time, she gave up.

When the three women were led out, court attendees jumped to their feet for a standing ovation. This prompted more dog barking.

Outside the courthouse, the trial provided more theatrics.

The Pussy Riot balaclava has circled the globe as a protest symbo. Here actors record the music video of Canadian musician and performance artist Peaches in support of members of the Russian feminist punk group in Berlin. Photo: AP/Adam Berry)

In Moscow, supporters staged readings at local theaters of the Pussy Riot members closing statements. On the day of the verdict, young men pulled Pussy Riot balaclavas over statues in Moscow, snapping photos for the Internet before irate citizens tore them off.

Support came in from a host of international music stars and Hollywood actors — Madonna, Bjork, Paul McCartney, the Pet Shop Boys and Elijah Wood, famous for his role of hobbit Frodo in the fantasy movie “The Lord of the Rings.”

“It’s still hard to believe this is not a dream,” Tolokonnikova wrote last week of the international and Russian support.

A touch of envy could be heard from Russian protesters and artists who for years labored in vain to break through to international recognition.

Valeria, a pop singer, who failed to make that breakthrough, complained: “What’s so great about Pussy Riot that all these international stars should support them?”

Edward Limonov, a veteran opposition leader with a Trotsky-style goatee, lamented Friday about the expected appeals: “The opposition will be moaning and groaning about the fate of the poor, young women. It is a good song, start again: Pussy, Pussy Riot. The dumbest conflict that one could ever think up.”

Way back in March, when snow and ice covered Moscow, Kirill I, the Russian Orthodox Patriarch, called the one-minute punk prayer “blasphemy” and called for prosecutions.

But two of the women have small children. During their five months in jail, they have not seen their children.

By summer, a new anti-clerical sentiment was rising in Russia, especially among younger people. By the time of the trial, 75 percent of Russians were telling pollsters that the church should stay out of politics.

Konstantin Sonin, a Vedemosti newspaper columnist, warned: “The last time the church tarnished its image so badly was when it excommunicated Leo Tolstoy in 1901.”

Georgy Bovt, a political analyst, agreed, arguing in newspaper essay: “By initiating a Middle Ages-style witch hunt against three young women, the Russian Orthodox Church has caused irreparable damage to its reputation in the eyes of the educated class.”

During the eight-day trial, church figures kept a low profile. On Friday, Patriarch Kirill was in Poland, meeting with Catholic leaders. In Moscow, the church asked the state to show mercy to the defendants. But the statement was released Friday evening, after Judge Syrova had sentenced the three women.

The women said they chose the Cathedral because they were angry that Kirill had endorsed Mr. Putin in the March presidential election. Mariya Alyokhina, one of the defendants, said in her pre-sentencing statement: “As representatives of our generation, we are bewildered by his actions and appeals. We wanted and we want a dialogue.”

Russian conservatives were caught snoozing by what initially seemed like a marginal group.

But by early August, Madonna was in Moscow donning a Pussy Riot balaclava and giving a sold out concert with the words “Pussy Riot” written on her back.

U.S. singer Madonna spoke out in favor of freeing the three jailed Pussy Riot performers during her Aug. 7 concert at the Olympic Stadium in Moscow, Russia’s largest enclosed concert venue. Photo: Reuters/Maxim Shemetov

Leaders of one conservative group, wearing black T-shirts inscribed “Orthodoxy or Death,” burned posters of Madonna and Pussy Riot for reporters. Their leader said: “We’re going to rip them up and burn them…just like in the Middle Ages.”

Dmitry Rogozin, a Russian Deputy Prime Minister, fired a tweet in Madonna’s direction: “Either take off the cross, or put on your panties.”

Maxim Shevchenko, a conservative TV host, charged that Madonna and other Westerners lie when they say that Pussy Riot is banned in Russia.

“How can the group be prohibited if there is nothing to prohibit in the first place?” he wrote in The Moscow Times. “The band doesn’t have any CDs. They aren’t even musicians. They are publicity-seeking ‘performance artists’ who make their living by creating scandals.”

Before the sentencing, Anastasia Volochkova, a ballerina, wrote on her LiveJournal blog that the three women should be sentenced to cleaning public bathrooms.

To dent the sweet, feminist-next-door image of the Pussy Rioters, conservatives are busy posting links to photos of a 2008 “performance art protest” where Tolokonnikova, then seven months pregnant, participated in an after hours group sex orgy among the stuffed mammals at Moscow’s Biology Museum.

The political message was a protest against official presidential candidate Dmitry Medvedev, whose name derives from the Russian word for ‘bear.’

But, as Pussy Riot defense lawyers prepare for a long series of appeals, in Russia, and at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, Moscow conservatives are making sure this series of “art” photos is going to have an equally long life on the Internet.

Next up for a trial: Garry Kasparov, the former chess champion and current Russian opposition leader.

Former Russian chess master Garry Kasparov was talking to reporters outside the Pussy Riot trial Friday afternoon, when riot police waded into the crowd and dragged him to police van. A policeman claims Kasparov bit his finger. Kasparov says it was probably a police dog. Will this be the pretext for the next Putin show trial? Photo: Reuters

On Friday, he was one of about 100 protesters and onlookers who were arrested outside the Pussy Riot courthouse. Within hours, police charged that he had bitten a police officer on the finger and that an assault inquiry was underway. Conviction could bring a five-year jail sentence.

Kasparov, who has been arrested many times, says he did not bite the policeman. He speculates that a police dog did.

Kasparov’s account of his arrest outside the courthouse ran Saturday in the Wall Street Journal: “When Putin’s Thugs Came for Me.” Last time, I checked it topped the website as “Most Popular” story. Gosh, I had no idea there are so many punks among the Journal’s 2.1 million readers. I thought they were just boring foreign investors.

Presumably that trial would include testimony from Kasparov’s dentist. It is unclear if the defense would call police dogs to the witness stand.

In 21st century Moscow, a Putin show trial is nothing like your grandfather’s show trial.

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 Wins Gold for Yachts, Palaces and Penthouses

Posted August 13th, 2012 at 6:39 am (UTC+0)

Perfect political timing: Judo black belt President Vladimir Putin was in the stands Aug. 2 when Russia won one of its first golds of the 2012 Summer Olympics. Here he congratulates Russia’s Tagir Khaibulaev after he took the gold in 100 kg judo. Photo: Reuters/Darren Staples

With London’s Summer Olympics over, the spotlight and the torch now shift to Russia, host of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics.

Before the torch starts moving from London, Russians are grumbling about their showing in the summer Olympic tally.

Third place, with 24 gold and a total of 82 medals was not bad.

Russians naturally see themselves as heirs to the Soviet Olympic machine. But over the last two decades, Russia has slid gradually down the medals roster – from second at Atlanta (1996) and Sydney (2000), to third in Athens (2004) and at Beijing (2008).

For decades, the Soviet Union dominated the Summer Olympics. But today’s Russia has a population that is half that of the USSR and less than half that of the United States (46 gold and 104 total). Russia has about one-tenth the population of this year’s second place nation, China (38 gold and 87 total). Britain, with 29 gold and 65 total, had home court advantage.

If the 80 medals won by the 14 other countries that were once Soviet Republics are added to the total of Russia, athletes from the former Soviet Union would have won 60 percent more medals than the United States, and twice as many as China.

Part of Russians’ grumbling comes from the first week, when Russia was stalled in 10thplace, between Kazakhstan and North Korea. First impressions are everything, and many Russians are reluctant to climb down from their initial impressions, when 70 percent of respondents told pollsters that they were disappointed with their national teams. Also many Russians put more value on the gold, which drops their national showing to fourth place.

To cheer up the whiners, I offer three cases where Russians sweep the superlatives, nailing down Gold Medals in the World Olympics of Ostentatious Consumption.

Sailing out of a James Bond fanstasy, Roman Abramovich’s yacht Eclipse has two helicopter pads, 24 guest cabins, two swimming pools, three launch boats, and a mini-submarine. For security, Eclipse has intruder detection systems, a German-built missile defense system, and armor plating and bullet proof windows protecting the bridge and the master suite. Photo: Keld Gydum

1) Biggest Boat – Yes, size is everything. Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich wins the Gold for the world’s largest private yacht. When ordering his sleek 162.5 meter Eclipse in 2009, he made sure that it would be 1.5 meters longer than the 161 meter Dubai, built three years earlier by the same company, Blohm +Voss of Germany. Construction cost estimates range from $500 million to $1 billion. The yacht sails with a crew of 70. According to Wikipedia, Abramovich, who grew up in landlocked Moscow, owns four other yachts – the Susurro, the Titan, the Umbra and the Luna.

Gold Medal for Gilded Exile: Fugitive Moscow banker bought Park Place last summer for $217 million, making it the most expensive residence in Britain. Once the property of the father of King George III, Park Place underwent a $150 million fixup in 2008-2010.

2) Britain’s Most Expensive House – Andrei Borodin, a fugitive Moscow banker, wins the Gold for his $217 million purchase of Park Place, an 18th century country house. Sited above the Thames River, near Henley, the 80-hectare estate includes two golf courses. The house was purchased a year ago, but the name of the buyer was kept secret. Borodin may not have wanted publicity. At the same time as the purchase, July 2011, the largest bank bailout in Russian history, $14 billion, was being extended to his former bank, the Bank of Moscow. Borodin served as president of the bank since its founding in 1995 until April 2011, when he sold his share to VTB, a state-controlled bank. The public story is that in the next two months, VTB discovered a $14 billion hole in the bank’s finances.

Best College Student Housing: Dmitry Rybolovlev, ranked 100 on Forbes’ Billionaires List, help his daughter, Ekaterina, transition to the life of an American college student with the $88 million purchase of a pied a terre in 15 Central Park West. Photo: Peter Bond

3) New York’s Most Expensive Apartment – Here, Ekaterina Rybolovleva, a 22-year-old college student, picks up another Gold for Russia! In February, she paid $88 million for a 10-room, 627 square meter Manhattan penthouse overlooking Central Park. Rybolovleva is the daughter of Dmitry Rybolovlev, an entrepreneur who won control in the 1990s of Uralkali, a state-owned Russian company that is the world’s largest producer of potassium for fertilizer.

Russia’s Golden Man? President Vladimir Putin speaks to reporters during his Aug. 2 visit to Britain to meet with Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron and to cheer on Russian athletes at the London Summer Olympics. Photo: AP

4) Some say Russia is also a contender a Olympic Gold in the field of Political Fortune. For starters, go to the Wikipedia site and type in List of Heads of State and Government by Net Worth. You will see, at the top of the page, a photo of You-Know-Who. But, mysteriously, his name is missing from the text and the list. Officially, President Vladimir Putin’s declared wealth is $150,000 in bank accounts and a 77-square meter apartment in St. Petersburg, his home town.
But some European newspapers, alleging secret ownership of Russian energy companies, have called Russia’s president “the richest man in Europe.” In February 2008, at the Kremlin’s annual, nationally televised press conference, Mr. Putin was asked about these newspaper stories. The Presidential response: “With regard to the various rumors about financial conditions, I looked at some of the reports on this subject. This is just talk, there is nothing to discuss, just nonsense. They have picked this from their noses and have smeared this across their pieces of paper.”

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.

Got A Date With Vladimir, the Tardy? Bring a Good Book

Posted August 8th, 2012 at 6:07 am (UTC+0)


While the President of Ukraine and much of his cabinet waited for four hours, Russian President Vladimir Putin caught up with “the Surgeon” (black leathers), formally known as Alexander Zaldostanov, leader of Russia’s Night Wolves biker group. On July 12, the Russian President broke up the drive from Sevastapol airport to Yalta on the Black Sea coast with a prolonged visit to the Night Wolves summer encampment in Crimea.Photo: AP/RIA-Novosti, Mikhail Klimentyev

On a sun splashed hillside overlooking the Black Sea, the President of Ukraine and half of his cabinet gathered July 12 for a summit meeting with Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin. The site was Livadia Palace, the Czarist-era estate that was the setting for the 1945 Yalta Conference, the meeting where Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin divided up post-war Europe.

But on that day last month, Ukraine’s leadership waited. And waited. And waited.

On his way in from the airport, President Putin had decided to stop for a drink with the Night Wolves, a Russian motorcycle club that gathers every summer in Crimea.

After drinks, Mr. Putin changed his black shirt and pants for a business suit. He then went to meet the Ukrainian President. He arrived four hours late.

Why rush to see the President of Ukraine? Russia’s President may have mused. He is just going to once again ask for discount on his gas bill, and then refuse to join my Customs Union. President Putin and Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych after the July 12 session of the Ukrainian-Russian state commission in the Livadia Palace, the Black Sea estate built in 1911 for Czar Nicholas II. Photo: for AP/RIA-Novosti, Mikhail Klimentyev

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych gamely welcomed him: “We are glad to welcome you to Crimean soil. It’s a little hot here, but I know that you had time on the way to chat with your friends, the bikers.”

To which, the Russian President replied: “They’re also waiting for you.”

The meeting went downhill from there.

The next day, Ukraine’s Foreign Minister, Volodymyr Ogryzko, told reporters in Kyiv: “Rather than rush to a meeting, a stop was made to drink a glass with bikers. In my opinion, it is a diplomatic slap in the face or just plain rudeness. This is a manifestation of abnormal relations.”

His colleague Viktor Baloga, Ukraine’s Minister of Emergency Situations, wrote on his Facebook page: “Yesterday I was at a commission with the Russians. Dreadful impressions. There was a great deal of bad manners, which shook the welcoming Ukrainians. President Putin exceeded the limits of lateness. He traveled to bikers and their war brides, this was his priority.”

The Ukrainians may go down in history for finally saying — in public: the Emperor is late.

Over the years Putin’s tardiness has grown from delays that can be blamed on the traffic – 15 minutes late in 2000 for an audience with Pope John Paul II, and 14 minutes late in 2003 for a meeting with Queen Elizabeth II.

Mr. Putin favors expensive Swiss watches. But, in the 90 days since he started his third term as president, he seems to use calculated lateness as a policy weapon.

If it is any comfort to the Ukrainians, they have good company.

Waiting for Vladimir 1 — First, President Barack Obama talks with Chief of Staff Jack Lew before the start of a bilateral meeting with President Vladimir Putin of Russia, June 18, 2012. Photo: White House/Pete Souza

In mid-June, Mr. Putin flew to Mexico for a meeting of the G-20. It was also to be the first time for Vladimir Putin and Barrack Obama to meet as presidents. In May, Mr. Putin had dropped out of a G-8 meeting that Mr. Obama hosted near Washington.

No one is talking on the record, but President Putin showed up late for his meeting with President Obama.

Golf cart gridlock inside La Esperanza Resort in Los Cabos? No one is saying.

How late? No one is saying. Sounds like 15-30 minutes late.

A sequence of photos taken by White House photographer Pete Souza on June 18 shows President Obama first pausing for a quick briefing by White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew. Then, a few minutes later and a few yards down the terrace, the American president can been seen having abandoned his suit jacket and settled down for a good chat with Michael McFaul, the U.S. Ambassador to Russia.

Waiting for Vladimir II – Then, President Obama chatted with Michael McFaul, US Ambassador to Russia, while waiting for President Putin to arrive. Photo: White House/Pete Souza

That snub was just a warm up for the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, four days later.

For months, Kremlin officials cajole foreign businessmen to fly to St. Petersburg for “Russia’s Davos.”

On June 22, the hundreds of foreign business executives assembled to learn about foreign investment opportunities. They had to wait 40 minutes for Mr. Putin to appear to give his address.

Then the real treatment came. About 10 executives of foreign energy companies were assembled to meet the Russian president separately. They were confined in a narrow, dark, poorly ventilated corridor. There were no chairs. Accounts vary. Some say they waited in the summer heat for three hours. Some say four hours. Assembled in the hallway were the chiefs of: Britain’s BP, France’s Total, Germany’s Eon, France’s GDF Suez, Norway’s Statoil, Italy’s Enel, the American General Electric, and several Russian energy majors.

Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses foreign and Russian business leaders at the opening of the St Petersburg International Economic Forum in St Petersburg on June 21. Putin was criticized for his lateness. Photo: Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin

“People are feeling insulted,” an oil company executive later told The Wall Street Journal. Another blurted out: “The combined per hour salary of all the CEOs here would match the budget of the forum for years.”

But energy company executives know that oil and gas reserves remain in the ground without cooperation from politicians above ground.

After the one hour meeting, Christophe de Margerie, CEO of Total, summoned French arts of diplomacy. He smoothly told reporters: “I feel more optimistic after leaving the room.”

Then Mr. Putin was off to Israel.

There, as Haaretz newspaper reported, the Russian president kept “the entire upper echelons of Israel’s government” waiting for 90 minutes before arriving to unveil a monument to the Soviet Red Army in World War II.

Some Putin watchers saw a ray of hope last week when he showed up on time for his meeting in London with British Prime Minister David Cameron. But other pointed out that the meeting was tied to watching judo events and the Olympic machinery would not grind to a halt to cater to the whims of one spectator.

Many in Moscow say the president’s tardiness is becoming a national liability.

The Moscow Times wrote in an editorial: “Obviously, foreign investors are not going to ignore Russia because Putin cannot make it to meetings on time. Russia offers tremendous opportunities, and Putin has made it easier to invest here. But his apparent inability to keep appointments does reveal a lack of respect for investors, for whom ‘time is money.’ Putin is overlooking a simple way to show investors that he values them. He should be on time.”

Right on time! A prompt Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Chinese President Hu Jintao at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on June 7, 2012. Was it the Russian leader’s cultural sensitivity to Asian punctuality — or tacit recognition that Russia is now the junior partner? Photo: AP/Mark Ralston

For other observers, the Russian president’s cavalier attitude toward others conjures up images of Mel Brooks playing French King Louis XVI in the hit 1981 movie, “History of World: Part 1.” Surrounded by fawning courtiers, the French king squeezes all women within reach, then drops a gold coin as a tip in a freshly filled chamber pot. Turning to the camera, he grins broadly and exclaims: “It’s good to be king!”

In real life, Louis XVI’s autocratic ways sparked the French Revolution. In 1793, he was guillotined. His son, Louis XVII, died in prison. The younger brother of the executed king, Louis XVIII, spent 23 years in exile, until finally becoming king in 1814.

Perhaps chastened by years of revolution and exile, Louis XVIII coined a phrase that has held up over two centuries. He said: “Punctuality is the courtesy of kings.”

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 Political Summer Olympics: Putin x Pussy Riot

Posted August 1st, 2012 at 5:48 am (UTC+0)

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (L) and Maria Alyokhina, members of female punk band “Pussy Riot”, look out from the defendent’s cell in a courtroom in Moscow on Tuesday. Three young women who staged a 1-minute irreverent punk-rock protest against Vladimir Putin on the altar of Russia’s main cathedral are trial for hooliganism, a charge that could bring jail sentences up to seven years. Photo: Retuers/Maxim Shemetov

In Moscow’s Political Summer Olympics, President Putin is on track this week to win the gold in a demanding event: Making Martyrs for the Opposition.

After Putin’s election in March and his inauguration in May, protest crowds dwindled and a feeling of hopelessness settled over Russia’s democratic movement.

But now, the biggest chants at rallies are: Svobodu Pussy Riot! Free Pussy Riot!

Protesters hold photos of three young women jailed for conducting a protest with this feminist punk group, a band virtually unknown six months ago.

The women, two of them mothers of small children, are putting very human – and very appealing faces – on the anti-Putin movement. Every morning this week, Russia’s new poster girls for dissent appear in court, looking a mite bewildered as they go on trial for hooliganism.

Maria Alyokhina, a member of female punk band “Pussy Riot”, smiles as she is escorted by police to a court in Moscow on July 31. Photo: Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin

Last Feb. 21, they donned colorful balaclavas and short jumpers and staged a raucous – some say profane — one-minute punk prayer against Putin near the central altar of Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral.

Public opinion, as tracked in polls, was overwhelmingly negative.

If the Kremlin had been clever, the women would have been fined and sentenced to 100 days labor – pulling weeds from the Kremlin lawns or scraping up candle wax in Orthodox Churches.

But, five months later, the three women — Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, and Yekaterina Samutsevich — are still in jail.

A judge has ordered them confined until next January. This week, they are on trial on charges that could bring sentences up to seven years. A guilty verdict is expected on Friday.

“Let the girls go!” chant their supporters outside a Moscow courthouse.

In their heyday, Pussy Riot performers truly annoyed the Kremlin. Here they staged a lightning punk performance on Red Square on January 20 to protest Vladimir Putin’s candidacy for a third term as president. He won the election March 4 and is to serve until 2018. Photo: Reuters/Denis Sinyakov

But to help President Putin lock down a gold medal for Opposition Martyr Making, Russian prosecutors brought charges Tuesday against Alexei Navalny, the ruggedly handsome 36-year-old opposition leader. If convicted on the embezzlement charges, as expected, Navalny could be sentenced to 10 years in jail.

Opposition leader Alexei Navalny talks to reporters July 31 after being charged with embezzlement. He had been cleared of charges in the same case earlier this year. A conviction could carry a sentence of up to 10 years in jail. Photo: Reuters

On one level, Mr. Putin, a longtime KGB officer, is trying to reassert authoritarian controls on Russia. Some say he is exploiting a wedge issue, hoping to divide his liberal and nationalist opponents. But, when a viewer watches this political drama with the sound off, the warfare looks generational. At outdoor concerts in Moscow this summer, thousands of young people have cheered as rock musicians have showed their support for Pussy Riot.

Mr. Putin, who turns 60 in October, seems to be trying to stop the march of time.

Pussy Riot Band members wear hand knitted balaclavas to submerge their identities into the group. They say they draw inspiration from the 1990s punk grrl music movement in the US. Photo: Igor Mukhin

Perhaps aware of this, Russia’s president apparently smoothed his facial lines last year with botox. On Tuesday, fresh from signing a new law allowing tighter internet controls, he spent the day surrounded by young people at Lake Seliger, an annual summer camp for ambitious pro-Kremlin youth. But the televised images were not all that convincing, especially of the president amiably fielding a lunch invitation from a beautiful young woman planted in the crowd.

It reminded me of Richard Nixon, the Vietnam War era U.S. president, showing his affection for college students by attending graduation ceremonies at West Point, the United States Military Academy.

Meanwhile, Mr. Putin’s martyr making machinery clanks forward.

A 22-year old woman spent almost an hour on a cross outside a central St. Petersburg church in mid-July to protest the prosecution of Pussy Riot. The self-crucifier was dressed in the kind of brightly colored ‘superhero’ outfit that Pussy Riot member say they wear to bolster their courage for public protests. This protester placed a collection box below her cross with a note reading: “For restoration of Russian Orthodox Church’s reputation.” The cross bore the warning: “Your democracy could be here.” She was detained and charged with violating city improvement laws, a violation that carries a fine. Photo:

Apparently, he seems to think the only supporters of the imprisoned punk feminists are the usual suspects: Amnesty International, the State Department, the British rocker Sting, The New York Times editorial writers, and demonstrators outside the Russian embassy in Washington.

But, more concerning to the Kremlin, the tide of Russian public opinion has shifted. People tell pollsters that the punishment does not fit the crime. Russia’s blogosphere talks about show trials.

In the latest Levada poll of Russians, 43 percent consider jail terms of two to seven years as disproportionate. Only 17 percent sympathize with the demands of top church leaders for harsh punishment against the Pussy Riot protesters.Mr. Putin’s KGB training may cloud his understanding of this next point. Jail time is often a stop along the way to an ultimately successful political career. Look around the world and you will see that today’s leaders were often yesterday’s rebels.

Before Mr. Putin pushes Russia into an ideological winter, he might want to ponder the political histories of some of the world leaders he rubs shoulders with.

To the south, Recep Erdogan, now prime minister of Turkey, spent six months in prison in 1999 for reciting an Islamist poem. Nearby, Mohamed Morsi, now prime minister of Egypt, spent eight months in jail in 2008 for supporting independent judges.

In Mr. Putin’s peer group – the BRICS nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – two of the five leaders have done jail time.

A supporter of female punk band “Pussy Riot” shouts slogans outside the Moscow court where three members of the band are on trial. Photo: Reuters/Maxim Shemetov

Jacob Zuma, South Africa’s president, spent 10 years in prison for anti-apartheid activity in the early 1960s.

Dilma Rousseff, Brazil’s president, was briefly, in today’s language, a terrorist. From 1968 to 1969, she led a cell of the Revolutionary Armed Vanguard Palmares, a Marxist urban guerrilla group. Rousseff was arrested while carrying a pistol. She was tortured and then jailed for three years. Carlos Minc, one of her comrades in arms from Revolutionary Armed Vanguard days, was, until recently, Brazil’s Minister of Environment.

So, to take the long view, it’s not inconceivable that 20 years from now, in 2032, one of my successors will be sitting in Moscow banging out a story about President Navalny, aged 56, naming Duma Deputy Tolokonnikova, aged 43, to be his Minister of Health.

With an eye to the future, Russia’s prosecutors and prison guards might read a little modern world history – and treat their new political prisoners with respect.

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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