Linguistic Future: Ukrainians Who Do Not Speak Russian?

Posted July 26th, 2012 at 11:19 am (UTC+0)

Taking language politics to heart, a member Svoboda, a Ukrainian nationalist political party strong in Western Ukraine, sprays riot police with tear gas in Kyiv, Ukraine on July 4. Nationalists fought with police over a bill that would allow the use of Russian and other minority languages in official settings. Photo: AP/Efrem Lukatsky

LVIV — It’s a sunny summer evening here in Lviv, the café and cobblestones capital of Western Ukraine.

But a steady stream of young couples are ducking down a secret archway.

They rap once at a solid wooden door, then stand back.

The door opens half way to reveal a man in forest green uniform, an automatic weapon slung over his shoulder.

He shouts: “Slava Ukraini!”

Visitors call out the password in Ukrainian: “Heroyam Slava!” – Hail to Our Heroes!

And with that, they descend into the red brick vaulted cellars of Kryjivka – an underground restaurant in the theme of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army. This partisan group fought the Soviet Red Army for almost a decade, starting in 1944.

In that war, long hidden behind the Iron Curtain’s veil of secrecy, 35,000 Soviet officials and soldiers were killed — more than twice the number of Soviet troops killed in Afghanistan during the 1980s. In reprisal, about 600,000 Western Ukrainians were “repressed” – one third executed, one third imprisoned and one third deported to distant parts of the Soviet Union.

At Kryjivka, the cellar walls are festooned with ghosts from that guerrilla campaign long lost to history – handsome, sandy haired young men posing in the forest with vaguely familiar uniforms; copies of Ukrainian language posters and pamphlets from underground presses; and Russian language diagrams of forest encampments, probably from Soviet counter-insurgency manuals.

At the underground shooting range in Lviv’s Kryjivka restaurant, VOA video journalist Austin Malloy nailed Lavrentiy Beria, Stalin’s secret police chief who directed the Soviet Union’s post WWII counterinsurgency campaign in Western Ukraine. VOA Photo: James Brooke

At the entrance, my American-accented “Heroyam Slava” prompted the armed doorman to give me a shot – of local vodka. Maybe thanks for the assistance — too little, too late — that Washington sent to the Ukrainian guerrillas in the early 1950s?

But at a table down below, I soon commit a linguistic faux pas. I ask for a beer in Russian. A Ukrainian dining companion at my table almost whacks my hand. She chides me: “No Russian spoken here!”

The gap between Russia and Western Ukraine is more than linguistic. Russia television regularly airs old Soviet movies showing Ukrainian guerrillas as fascist puppets of the Nazis, fanatics who fought on long after the war, ambushing heroic Red Army units.

At Kryjivka, where it was hard to find an empty table on Monday night, there were two traits common to the 100 or so patrons packed underground. Whether it was the young man proudly posing for souvenir photos with a (decommissioned) automatic weapon, or the two young women waiting for their turn to shoot an air rifle at a paper target of Stalin’s secret police chief, they were all in their 20s and 30s, and they were all speaking in Ukrainian.

Above ground, the linguistic landscape is the same. Over the last two centuries, the name of this city has shifted according to tides of history: from Lemberg (German) to Lwow (Polish) to Lvov (Russian) and now Lviv (Ukrainian).

Russia’s influence fades as you move from east to west in Ukraine. For centuries, the western quarter was ruled by either Poland or Austria. This western orientation was cut short by Stalin’s annexation into the Soviet Union in 1939.

Before World War II, this was a Polish-speaking city. Later, as a western colony of the Soviet Union, it was heavily Russian-speaking. But the influence of Moscow faded with independence two decades ago. Lviv is now an overwhelmingly Ukrainian speaking city. On a national level, many linguists believe that Ukrainian language use is steadily spreading east.

Here, as in Central Asia, Georgia, the Baltics and in Eastern Europe, the collapse of the Soviet empire has meant a steadily shrinking footprint for spoken Russian. In Ukraine, where Ukrainian and Russian are linguistically so close, this subtle atrophying of Russian language skills has been overshadowed by fights over language policy in Kyiv, the nation’s capital. Once a Russian speaking city, Kyiv is now increasingly bilingual.

Outside Lviv’s World War II memorial, I stopped Andrei, a 23-year-old cook who was bicycling to work. Aiming to please, he strained hard to understand my questions in Russian. He then replied in Ukrainian. It was not a political statement. Here was a young Ukrainian who could not speak Russian.

Inside the memorial, Austin Malloy, VOA’s Moscow-based video journalist, asked a gardener – in Russian – if he could shut off his lawnmower in order to film. Standing 10 paces from a Red Army statue, the gardener barked back: “What’s your nationality?”

When he learned the request was not coming from a Russian, he shut off his lawnmower, and wanted to chat, at length.

Across town, at another World War II memorial, I stopped Sergiy, a 70-year-old retired engineer. A veteran of the Soviet Army, he spoke Russian well. He said he had used it every day at the factory where he worked. As we stood under a massive Soviet-era statue of a Red Army soldier holding a sword, I asked him when was the last time he spoke Russian.

He mulled. He answered: “It must have been one year ago.”

Linguistic Field Research: Marina, an architecture student from Odessa, Ukraine’s port on the Black Sea, tells James Brooke she feels uncomfortable speaking Russian in Lviv. Although she studied Ukrainian in school, she uses it rarely in Russian-speaking Odessa. VOA Photo: Austin Malloy

On a park bench, near a 17th century chapel, I talked with Marina, an architecture student from Odessa, Ukraine’s Russian-speaking seaport on the Black Sea. Embarrassed about making grammatical mistakes, she was using Russian in Lviv. She said that put her on the defensive here.

Part of that is geography. Eastern Ukraine has a 1,576 kilometer border with Russia. Central Ukraine has a 891 kilometer border with Russian-speaking Belarus. And Western Ukraine has a total of 2,200 kilometers of borders with Hungary, Moldova, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia.

With the Polish border a one-hour drive from here, Lviv, Western Ukraine’s largest city, is closer to Warsaw or Budapest than to Kyiv. At Lviv’s International Airport’s new $200 million terminal, the daily flight to Moscow is lost among a long list of alternate destinations – Vienna, Munich, Prague, Warsaw, Krakow and Milan.

In town, the roll call of 16 foreign consulates includes the standard list of neighboring nations. But, there also are two unexpected ones, both legacies of Western Ukraine’s diaspora of the last century: Brazil and Canada.

Poland’s new steel and glass consulate – and the lines of visa applicants outside – testify to the fact that on May 1, 2004, Ukrainians woke up to discover that they needed visas to visit old friends and neighbors in Poland, Hungary and Slovakia — all members of the expanded Schengen visa zone.

But, for almost 150 years, Western Ukraine was administered by Vienna. Today, Lviv’s younger generation sees visas to the West as obstacles that will pass with time. When selecting a foreign language for study, Lviv high school students choose Polish, German or English, over Russian.

On Lviv’s Boulevard Dzhokhar Dudayev (named after the first president of secessionist Chechnya), I stopped by Oculus, an optometrist. I asked the receptionist in Russian, if she sold eyewash.

The 20-something woman struggled for a moment. Then, she asked hopefully: “Do you speak English?”

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.

Why Does the Kremlin Defend the Suspects in the Magnitsky Case?

Posted July 20th, 2012 at 7:41 am (UTC+0)
1 comment

Nataliya Magnitskaya holds a portrait of her son, Moscow lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died in a central Moscow jail in 2009. Hermitage Capital investigators charge that during his one year in jail, Magnitsky was repeatedly beaten and denied medical attention in an effort to force him to change his testimony against a criminal gang that allegedly stole hundreds of millions of dollars with the assistance of corrupt government officials. Photo: AP/Alexander Zemlianichenko

Many countries have mafias.

I’ve reported on gangsters in Colombia, Mexico, and Brazil. I’ve spent time mulling the human landscapes in Sicily and in the United States.

In those countries, if credible, outside investigators produce an exhaustive report alleging the theft of nearly $1 billion in government money and the murders of five people, the governments would respond in two ways.

One: Say, “Thank you very much” and find an honest prosecutor and give the political and financial backing to take the cases to trial.

Two: Say, “Thank you very much” and then quietly do nothing.

Russia is taking a radically new strategy.

Here’s what’s going on:

Over the course of the last two years, investigators with Hermitage Capital have compiled highly detailed reports on the alleged theft of $800 million in Russian tax money and the cover-up murders of five people, including Hermitage lawyer Sergei Magnitsky. The most recent report drills down to the detail of showing receipts for vacations that alleged gang leaders and Russian government accomplices took together in Cyprus and Dubai.

Hermitage recently released a powerful 18-minute video that is now moving minds across the world. Posted on YouTube, it’s called: “The Magnitsky Files: Organized Crime Inside the Russian Government.”

At last count, about 20 parliaments, starting with the United States Congress and the British Parliament, are drawing up legislation to ban visas and freeze assets of suspects in the Magnitsky case.

Facing this international PR disaster, what is Russia doing?
It is painting the attack on about 44 suspected Russian criminals and corrupt government officials as an attack on Russia’s 144 million people.

It has assigned a deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, to attack the U.S. Congress full time on the issue. In almost daily comments to the press, he has expressed the Russian government’s “outrage” at the “Magnitsky Act” under consideration in the U.S. Congress and has promised “a symmetrical response” if legislation is approved. Alexei Pushkov, chairman of the Duma’s International Affairs Committee has told Interfax: “We will certainly react to this and the American Administration will feel the consequences.”

Last trip to Monaco? Dmitry Klyuyev, black suit on right, attends meeting in Monaco in early July of parlamentarians from 56 nations in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The delegates voted overwhelmingly for a resolution calling on parliaments to draw up visa bans on suspects in the Magnitsky case. According to Hermitage Capital, Klyuyev led the criminal ring that stole Russian taxpayer money and had Sergei Magnitsky killed in jail. Photo: Hermitage Capital

It sent a delegation that included Dmitry Klyuyev, alleged ring leader of the criminal gang, to a meeting two weeks ago in Monaco where legislators from 56 Western and Eurasian nations debated adopting visa bans and asset freezes on the Russian gang members and government accomplices.

It sent to the United States Senate a delegation led by a Russian senator, Vitaly Malkin. A billionaire, Malkin has been denied visas to Canada and was cited by the Canadian government in court proceedings as “a member of a group engaging in organized or transnational crime.”

Moscow apparently believes the best defense is a strong offense.

But in Europe and the United States, legislators are finding the Russian offensive, well, offensive.

At the end of the Monaco meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation, 90 percent of the 320 parliamentarians present voted to call “on national parliaments to take action to impose visa sanctions and freezes on persons responsible for the false arrest, torture denial of medical care and death of Sergei Magnitsky.”

In Washington, Russia’s Senator Malkin alleged that Magnitsky was a drunk, out of shape, who probably fatally injured himself in jail. In response, Natalia Magnitskaya, mother of the dead lawyer, wrote an open letter to Malkin: “I believe that an attempt to slander the good name of my son posthumously looks shameful and not deserving of the honorable title of people’s representative.”

On Wednesday, a U.S. Senate committee voted unanimously in favor of the ‘Magnitsky Act” – the third American congressional committee to do so in six weeks. Passage of the bill is expected in coming months.

Clearly, the Kremlin is losing big time in the international court of opinion.

But it may also be losing a more important audience.

Russia’s state-run television constantly hammers on the “anti-Russia” nature of the American bill. In a sign of the times, Vladimir Kara-Murza, Washington bureau chief for the last seven years for RTVi, a private Russian channel, was summarily fired for writing in support of the Magnitsky bill.

Kara-Murza wrote himself out of job by writing in Spotlight on Russia, his weekly blog: “Russia’s national interests have been defined in many ways, but the ability of crooks and murderers to vacation and keep their money abroad has, until now, never been one of them.”

William Browder, CEO of Hermitage Capital Management, speaks with reporters last year at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Browder leads the campaign in Europe and the United States to ban visas and freeze overseas assets of a group of Russians suspected in carrying out and covering up the murder of Hermitage lawyer Magnitsky. Photo: AP/Virginia Mayo

In addition to painting visa bans for a few millionaire criminal suspects as an attack on all Russians, the Kremlin also frames the campaign as an American attack on Russia.

This ignores the fine point that the leader of the Magnitsky campaign, William Browder, is actually a British citizen. But, more importantly the Kremlin’s complaint overlooks the fact that dozens of other parliaments – from the Swedish Riksdag to Italian Parlamento to the French Assemblee Nationale – are preparing to pass similar legislation.

With flights from Moscow to New York running at full capacity this summer, some Russians seem aware of a different reality. According to the U.S. State Department, the 90 percent of American visa applications by Russians are now being granted. That is the second highest acceptance rate of the 12 former Soviet Republics outside the European Union. Only Kazakhstan has a higher acceptance rate – 92 percent.

The new, liberalized US-Russia visa law, which won final approval on Wednesday, will allow Russian tourists multiple entry visas, with the right to stay in the United States for up to six months for each visit.

Indeed, despite the anti-American barrage on state television, many Russians see what the real issue is in the Magnitsky case: impunity for corruption.

In an open, democratic system, elected leaders would not touch the Magnitsky case with a three meter pole.

The Levada Center, a respected independent polling group, surveyed Russians about the visa ban laws. About half, 46 percent, said they did not know about the case, or did not have a strong opinion.

Of those who would give their opinion to a total stranger, 18 percent said they opposed such laws.

The rest, 36 percent, said they supported foreign visa bans. That is, twice as many in favor as opposed.

It sounds like a lot of Russians are saying: the Emperor Has No Clothes.

So as many Russians see it, Magnitsky legislation is not an attack on 144 million Russians.

It is on attack on 44 Russians who should be put on 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.

Moscow’s Friday the Thirteenth: Just a Mid-Summer Horror Movie?

Posted July 15th, 2012 at 6:11 am (UTC+0)

Russia’s democratic opposition leaders wait for President Putin? Of course not! This poster was created over three decades ago, for the original 1980 Friday the 13th slasher movie. Photo: New Line Cinema.

While many Russians were relaxing at the dacha or lolling on beaches overseas, back home in Moscow the air conditioning was humming around the clock in the Duma building.
After eight weeks of hard work, the parliamentary session ended on Friday — Friday the13th.

Indeed, as regards to political freedom, the Duma session looks like a Moscow sequel to Hollywood’s notorious slasher movies.
Russia’s lower house passed bills that:
– Force private groups that receive foreign donations to declare themselves “foreign agents.”

– Set up an internet control system for bureaucrats to shut down “offensive” websites.

— Re-criminalizes slander laws, setting big fines and jail sentences.

– Dramatically hike 15-fold the fines for organizing ‘illegal’ rallies.
But Moscow’s slashing at freedom is not a Hollywood import.
This summer, the Kremlin’s political strategy, it seems, is to bring back the fear.
In concert with the legislative crackdown, Russian police and courts are implementing parallel crackdowns.
Starting with the protests that surrounded the May 7 inauguration of Vladimir Putin to a third term as President, police have jailed a dozen protesters and have raided homes and offices of top opposition leaders, often seizing computers and cash. Two activists whose apartments were raided have applied for political asylum in Western Europe, one in Germany and one in the Netherlands.

Members of clandestine punk group Pussy Riot appear at July 2 concert in Moscow by US rock group Faith No More. More than 100 Russian artists and musicians have petitioned state authorities to free group three members, who face up to seven years in jail for performing an anti-Putin punk prayer in Moscow’s central cathedral. On July 20, the trial starts in Moscow. Photo: Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin

Email accounts have been hacked, apparently in attempts to find evidence of wrong-doing. As interrogation of opposition leaders stretch through the summer, analysts predict ‘show trials’ this fall.
Separately, prosecutors plan to try on July 20 three young women who conducted a lightning anti-Putin protest at Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral last February. The women, who have been in jail since March, have been adopted by Amnesty International as prisoners of conscience. Members of a punk band known as Pussy Riot, the women are drawing international attention to the tightening alliance between the Kremlin and Russian Orthodox Church hierarchy.
Targeting opposition members of the Duma, government harassment forced one opposition Duma deputy to sell his family business at a fire sale price.  Another member of parliament has lost his parliamentary immunity over a shoving incident at a protest.

Mike Patton, lead singer of Faith No More, performs in a Pussy Riot’s trademark balaclava in solidarity with jailed members of the feminist group. Support concerts have been held in New York and court appearances of the women in Moscow draw protesters and wide coverage by Russia’s alternative, internet media. Photo: Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin.

As many here see it, Russia’s new, conservative legislation was approved by a parliament that is handicapped by a shaky mandate. The conduct of parliamentary elections last December prompted widespread allegations of fraud and triggered the start of massive street demonstrations.
Since then, the Kremlin has targeted Golos, a clean elections groups supported largely by European and American donations. Because of this support, Golos will now have to declare itself a ‘foreign agent,’ a phrase that in Russia is virtually synonymous with “spy.”
In open societies, citizens fund their own non-governmental organizations.

But Russian businessmen know that if they give money to groups unpopular with the Kremlin, they run very real risks of government reprisals. Last winter, a Russian financier pioneered an internet system of paying for protest equipment – loudspeakers and platforms – through thousands of micro donations. Within weeks, he was tried on an old, unrelated charge, quickly convicted, and jailed.
The attacks on non-governmental groups prompted, Boris Nemtsov, an opposition leader, to write on his LiveJournal blog: “Putin’s main goal is to create an atmosphere of spy mania and hatred and to start with witch hunts.”

Funny in Berlin, verboten in Moskau. At last month’s Christopher Street Day parade in Berlin, Russian gay-rights activists carried a poster satirizing their nation’s ruling tandem, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. The parade, which drew 700,000 participants and onlookers, paused briefly in front of the Russian Embassy to fire a cannon loaded with rainbow colored confetti. After St. Petersburg banned in March all public displays of “gay propaganda,” Russia’s Duma is mulling enacting a nationwide ban this fall. Photo: Reuters/Thomas Peters.

“Most of all,” Nemtsov wrote, “the regime wants to silence people who threaten the pillars of Putinism: falsification, corruption and police tyranny. That’s why it especially hates the association Golos, which caught it stealing our votes red-handed; Amnesty International, which has exposed unjust rulings; and Transparency International, which has rated corruption in Putin’s Russia at the level of an African country.”
Vladimir Ryzhkov, another opposition leader, wrote last week, “This is the most ruthless attack the authorities here have waged against NGOs in the 20 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union.”
With muscular, authoritarian laws in place, the question is: will Mr. Putin use them?
Chris Weafer, a political analyst with Troika, tells me he believes the Russian president is moving proactively, storing up legal weapons to use when the oil price drops and the next economic downturn hits.
But the government’s scary, Friday the 13th moves seem out of step with Moscow’s mood this summer.
Civic engagement is the trend.
In the aftermath of terrible floods that killed more than 170 people in Southern Russia last week, hundreds of young Muscovites spontaneously gathered near Moscow State University to pack trucks donated relief goods. Governmental involvement seemed minimal.
Similarly, on Saturdays and Sundays, as many as 100,000 Muscovites crowd the newly-renovated Gorky Park, taking yoga classes, listening to lectures, dancing to salsa music, and watching outdoor movies. The scene could be Berlin, Paris or London.
Indeed, public opinion polls indicate that most Muscovites are not on the same wave length as their president. An Associated Press-Gfk poll released this month found that 60 percent of Russians favor President Putin. In Moscow, that number falls to 38 percent.
To shore up defenses, the city government is giving $9 million in bonuses to police who controlled the May crowds protesting Mr. Putin’s inauguration. The dozen policemen who were injured are to receive free apartments.
It remains to be seen if Moscow’s Friday the 13th is just another bad summer movie. Or if it sets the stage for real horrors to come.

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

Summer Travelers: Your Cell Phone Could be a Financial Hand Grenade!

Posted July 11th, 2012 at 5:41 am (UTC+0)

If you travel overseas this summer, you may board the plane carrying a financial hand grenade in your pocket – your cell phone.

This could be you. Beeline, a major Russian mobile phone company, charged $1,846 for one week of data roaming in the U.S. No downloading of movies. Just an i-Phone running silently on auto pilot. VOA Photo: Austin Malloy

Airport security will not detect its explosive power. But you will, when you get home and see your mobile phone bill.

On May 2, I flew from Moscow to New York for 5-week home leave/vacation. That ticket costs about $900. When I got back, I found that my monthly Moscow mobile phone bill was not the usual $100.

For May, it was $1,824. That is the cost of two, round trip air tickets to New York.

In June, my Moscow bill was back down to 2,484 rubles – or $80.

Before flying to New York, I researched the U.S. roaming charges for my mobile provider, Moscow-based Beeline. It is 3 rubles or 10 cents a minute. Indeed on arriving at John F. Kennedy Airport, I received the standard SMS Beeline welcoming me to roaming.

No, I did not talk on the phone for 18,240 minutes. That would have been 304 hours, or almost two weeks, nonstop. In fact, phone service, providentially, shut down May 9, after only one week in the United States.

Beeline’s little welcome-to-roaming SMS did not warn me about data roaming charges. As I slept in New York, as I drove across Pennsylvania, as I attended my oldest son’s college graduation in Ohio, my Moscow mobile was silently whirring in my pocket, checking email accounts and updating software.

I am not alone in getting fleeced.

Paul Collison, a hedge fund manager based in Moscow, told me similar horror stories with his Beeline bills. He made several 4-day trips to London, where his mobile phone quietly whirred away in his pocket, running up data roaming charges of $1,000 a trip.

Beeline’s website does not offer straight talk about what data roaming charges really are. After two colleagues and I explored the site, none of us could say with any certainty what the rates are. A quick internet survey found fairly reasonable – and clearly published rates – for data roaming with U.S. and U.K.-based providers.

The data roaming scam is not limited to Russia.

Dan Schearf, my VOA colleague in Bangkok, tells me of traveling to Cambodia for a five day reporting trip and racking up $1,000 in data roaming charges on his Thai mobile.

Complaints by my office yielded no concession from Beeline on the bill.

From their point of view, why should they?
Until consumer legislation catches up with them, data roaming is a gold mine. It is far more lucrative than collecting zillions of one ruble SMS charges.

I spent 90 minutes at the Beeline office at Park Kulturi. The tightlipped clerk did let slip one nugget of information. She asked if I had an i-Phone. (Aha! I thought, am I the fifth i-Phone international traveler of the day?)

With an i-Phone, it is up to the user to manually turn off data roaming. You go through a 4-step digital obstacle course – Settings, General, Network and Data Roaming.

Presumably, consumer legislation will eventually shut down this enormously profitable scam. Until then, the choices when traveling are: shut off data roaming, or buy and use a local prepaid SIM card.

My visit to Beeline yielded a 2-week restoration of mobile phone service, the promise of an investigation, and a letter. The letter never came, and service was cut off again. Friends suggested that I walk away from the bill and get a new mobile number.

Instead, I decided to pay. That turned into another surreal experience. American Express refused to make any size payment to Beeline, Russia’s second largest telecom company. Visa would only cover half the charge. After I went to Citibank to get $500 in cash from a nearby Citibank ATM, Citibank immediately reduced my cash withdrawal limit from $2,000 to $200.

Amex informed me gravely: “There is a high fraud alert over Russia.” So, after paying a bill I consider to be fraudulent, I had to make skype calls to Amex, to Visa, and to Citibank to assure them that there had been no fraudulent usage of my cards.

It could be the makings of an absurdist play.

But this costly cellphone saga is too much part of the reality of post-Soviet Russia’s consumer beware culture.

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

Moscow: Turning Europe’s Largest City into Eurasia’s World Class City

Posted July 3rd, 2012 at 6:01 am (UTC+0)

Moscow is easily at its best in the summer – lots of green, less traffic, stylish clothes, plenty of energy, and constant cultural stimulation

Last week, I attended a Moscow News round table on how to make Moscow a global city.

Traffic inches toward ‘Moskva City,” a cluster of highrises designed to be Russia’s new financial center. Last year, Goldman Sachs Group Inc. Chief Executive Officer Lloyd Blankfein said Moscow’s traffic jams are the biggest obstacle to turning the capital into a financial hub. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

Judging by my Sunday, Moscow is already there.

The afternoon started with Canada Day reception in the embassy garden; then over to Red October for a Russian photo show at Lumiere Brothers, followed by sushi and expresso with the bilingual curator; then around the corner to a photo show of Sergey Bratkov, a cutting edge Ukrainian photographer; then to the Arbat to pick my way through Russian and Italian tourists in search of a rumored protest; then to the Dome Theater for a French movie, Intouchables, with Russian subtitles up top and English subtitles down below; and finally two hours in front of a big screen, watching the Spain-Italy final of the Euro 2012 football cup, broadcast live from Kyiv. All stops connected by a Russian friend’s German-made BMW. During down time, skype calls to US and Brazil.

Sounds pretty international to me.
But, after living in Moscow for six years, I offer five quick tips on how to make it Moscow world class.

ENGLISH – Like it or not, for the foreseeable future, English is the world language.
To visitors, Moscow is a challenging landscape. And all the clues are written in Cyrillic.
The joke goes: after the 1980 Summer Olympics were over, all English signs were pulled out of the Metro so the spies would get lost.

Some Russians carry an allergy to English across the Atlantic. This sign advertises legal services in the Brighton Beach section of New York City. It would not pass the bilingual test in Quebec. Photo: Royston Rascals

Now it is the 5 million foreign tourists and business visitors who come to Moscow every year who get lost. They count out stations by number, praying they will reach their destinations.
Russians are not the only people in the world who are uneasy about public signs in English.
Quebec, the majority French-speaking province of Canada, has adopted rules for signs that just might work in Russia. In Quebec, by provincial law, all the letters in French words on commercial signs have to be twice as large as the letters for English words.
This law provides endless groaning among Quebec’s anglophones.
Language Police — “tongue troopers” to some — actually drive around with tape measures, measuring letters, photographing offending signs, and fining offenders.
Bottom line: the sign law keeps a French face on Quebec, but gives enough information to visiting Americans to keep the tourist dollars flowing.

METRO – At one stage in my life, I was the Mass Transportation Correspondent for The New York Times – a fancy job description for spending my days in New York subways and buses, bridges and tunnels. Having lived in New York and Tokyo and having visited London, Seoul and Paris, I confidently state that Moscow’s Metro is the best in the world.
The busiest in Europe, the Moscow metro carried 2.4 billion riders last year, almost 50 percent more than New York’s subway system.
But Moscow’s Metro has to get better.

Moscow metro last year carried almost as many passengers as London and Paris systems combined. Trains come every 90 seconds, but passengers still stack up. Photo: Christophe Meneboeuf

On weekdays, automobile congestion above ground is matched by people congestion below ground.
The metro system carries 7 million passengers every weekday, roughly twice its design capacity.
Headways – shoptalk for the time between trains – can be tightened from the current 90 seconds to 1 minute. More trains = more people moved through the same tunnels.
When crowds pool up in stations, attendants should encourage doubling up on the escalators. Health fanatics who want climbing lanes can go to yoga studios.
Embrace the middle class. Create convenient, low-priced car parks near suburban stations. Promote and advertise to middle class commuters — they are the drivers who clog city streets.
In Soviet Moscow, the red M stood out against a gray, dull landscape. Now it is lost, competing with a clutter of signs from pharmacies and fast food stores.
In Moscow of the future, the crimson M for Metro should be bigger than golden M for McDonald’s!

PARKING – Parking on sidewalks inside the Third Ring is Third World.
Sorry, but people in London, Paris, New York and Berlin do not park their cars on sidewalks.

25 empty parking spaces behind a new fence at Kutuzovsky Prospect 11 — could be a rational solution for the 25 cars parked on the sidewalk out front. VOA Photo: James Brooke

Inside the Third Ring is Moscow’s historic center. It should be a pleasant place to walk.
Cities change. People change.
Last year, I was back in Rio de Janeiro after a 15-year absence. A friend was driving me to lunch, searching in vain for a Sunday afternoon parking space near Copacabana Beach. The Moscow gremlin inside me piped up and said: “Park on the sidewalk, park on the sidewalk.”
My Brazilian friend sighed: “We stopped doing that 10 years ago. Big fines.”
In Moscow, it will take time for underground parking to be built.
Meanwhile, an inventory of free spaces can be made. We all know where they are. To encourage their use, make surface parking a tax free business. Penalize people like my Kutuzovsky Prospect neighbors who flaunt their 20 empty spaces as some sort of weird status symbol, while pedestrians thread their way among cars covering the sidewalk.

DECENTRALIZE – OK, my recent proposal to move Russia’s capital to Novosibirsk went over like a lead balloon. But high speed internet and skype conference calling allows for decentralization – a euphemism for moving ministries out of Moscow.
President Putin’s plan to move the Russian Navy’s headquarters to St. Petersburg this year is a great, first step.
Why not move Russian Railroads (the nation’s largest employer) to Khabarovsk?
Or the Asia departments of the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and of Industry and Trade to Vladivostok?
Or Education and Science to Novosibirsk?
Or Energy to Khanty-Mansiysk, center for half of Russia’s oil production?
The population of Russia east of the Urals is aging and shrinking. Spreading the federal payroll would be win-win for bloated Moscow and cash-starved regions.

APPRECIATE – Take a deep breath — and thank your local Tajik.
Thanks to immigrant labor from Central Asia, Moscow streets, parks and courtyards are probably cleaner now than any time since that fabled day in 1147 when Yuri Dolgorukiy, founder of Moscow, dropped his first apple core on the ground.
Moscow is certainly far cleaner and brighter than when I first worked here in 1991, that ‘golden’ era of Socialist morality and Saturday voluntary cleanups.
Over the next 7 years, Russia’s working age population is to shrink by 7 million people. Unless Muscovites suddenly develop a passion for menial jobs (unlikely) or learn to stop littering (possible), the city will only stay clean thanks to Central Asia guest workers.
Bob Broadis, the Sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado, once told me that, were it not for the army of Central American workers changing sheets, washing dishes, and cleaning toilets in the ski town of Aspen, you would smell that chic fashionista resort 50 miles down the valley.
Give appreciation to the people who do the work you do not want to do.

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 The Permissive and Russian Football Hooligans

Posted June 26th, 2012 at 6:09 pm (UTC+0)

A Russian soccer fan (white T-shirt) learns history the hard way as he spars with a Polish fan (hood) in Warsaw on June 12, just before the Russia-Poland game in the Euro 2012 soccer tournament. Photo: Reuters/Peter Andrews

The world may indeed be flat.

Several thousand Russians recently traveled to the western edge of their country – and fell off.

They fell into a largely invisible history chasm that cuts Russia from its Western and Southern neighbors.
This mental moat is on full display at Euro 2012, the once every four years European Football Championship which has its finale this Sunday.

The Russians may look like tough guys – they were beefy, football fans, some prepared with mouth guards and brass knuckles. But handicapped by their Moscow-centric view of history, they wandered into Poland as innocents abroad.

First, a little background.

From 500 years of interaction with Poland, Russian historians have cherry picked two feel good moments for public consumption.

First, there is the moment of Russia, the Victim.

In 2005, the Kremlin rebranded a November national holiday long used to mark the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. Today, Nov. 4 is National Unity Day, marking the month when Polish occupiers were expelled from Moscow. That happened in 1612.

If you ask the average American what the British did in Washington in August 1814, the reply would probably be: Huh? (Correct answer: The Brits burned the White House, the Capitol and the United States Treasury.)

A second, more modern, moment dominates Russians’ view of Poland: Russia, the Liberator.

Indeed, in early 1945, the Red Army liberated Poland from the Nazis.

Ignored is the fine print of the larger historical context. In 1939, Hitler and Stalin carved up Poland. In late 1944, the Red Army waited for two months across the Vistula River from Warsaw, until the Nazis had crushed the Warsaw Uprising, largely fought by non-Communist Poles. And then, after the Soviets rolled through the German army to reach Berlin, they controlled Poland for the next 45 years.

In fact, since the early 1700s, there are only about 40 years when Poland was not – directly or indirectly — under Russia’s thumb.

You don’t need a Phd in psychiatry to figure out the sexual message here. Russian fans greet Poland’s national team with a half-ton banner they lugged all way from Moscow. Scene at the start of the Russia-Poland game, in Warsaw’s brand new National Stadium, on June 12, 2012. Photo: Reuters/Pascal Lauener

Into this chasm of history, 5,500 Russian fans prepared to march June 12 to the Russia-Poland match in Warsaw’s National Stadium. Since it was Russia Day, they had brought along Russian flags and a fair number of communist symbols for their march through the heart of Poland’s capital.

While hammer and sickle symbols are commonplace in Russia, they have been banned in recent years in Poland, Lithuania, Hungary and Georgia. Five countries formerly under Soviet rule have asked the EU to institute a an EU ban on displaying the hammer and sickle.

Minutes before the June 12 march started, Alexander Shrpygin, leader of the All-Russia Fans’ Union, got angry when journalists suggested the march might be seen in Poland as provocative.

Protected by phalanxes of helmeted riot police, the Russians made it safely past a memorial to the 2010 air crash that killed Poland’s president and dozens of Polish notables in western Russia.

But, then the Polish riot police lost control.

Some Russian men broke through police lines and attacked Polish men who were taunting them. Then Polish men attacked the column.

When the tear gas had lifted, the flares had burned out, and the rubber bullets and broken bottles had been swept up, Warsaw jails held 153 Poles and 24 Russians. Medics treated 150 fans. Seven Poles and one Russian were hospitalized overnight.

The majority of the Russian fans made it safe and sound to the stadium and settled into their seats for the Russia – Poland football match.

The Poles struck up their national anthem, a lively 18th century mazurka that opens with the optimistic line: “Poland has not yet perished.”

As the host nation’s anthem played, Russian fans booed, jeered and whistled. They waved their massive, half ton banner. Announcing “This is Russia,” the banner depicted a medieval Russian warrior brandishing a massive sword.

Fortunately, the game ended with a diplomatic 1-1 tie.

Poland’s Jakub Blaszczykowski celebrates after he scored the tying goal in the second half of the Russia Poland game. Photo AP/Matt Dunham

Post-game aggression was largely limited to gangs of Polish young men roaming Warsaw and chanting: “Smash the red trash, with a hammer, with a sickle.”

In the late 1980s, Margaret Thatcher faced hooligan violence from traveling British fans. The British Prime Minister publicly called for ‘stiff’ jail sentences and a temporary ban on British teams playing on the Continent.

In contrast to the Iron Lady, Russia’s President comes off looking like “Putin the Permissive.”

The morning after the hooligan violence, Putin telephoned Poland’s President to express his “concern” about the safety of Russian fans. He immediately dispatched the head of the presidential Council for Human Rights Advisor to Warsaw to monitor the status of the jailed Russians. Russian diplomats at the Russian embassy in Warsaw assured Russian television viewers that their jailed countrymen would get prison visits and good, bilingual lawyers.

“Where has all this aggression against Russians come from?” Russia’s bewildered Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko asked reporters the day after the street fighting. Referring to Russian fans in Poland, he said: “People don’t feel safe at all.”

Three days later, Russian fans were hit with another blow: a $150,000 fine for disorder surrounding the Russia’s first game in the European Cup. In that game, against the Czech Republic, fans threw a flare on the pitch, chanted nationalist slogans, waved Czarist imperial flags, beat up Polish stadium stewards, and shouted racist taunts at Theodor Gebre Selassie, a Czech player whose father is from Ethiopia.

Sergei Fursenko, president of the Russian Football Federation, complained that the fine was unfair because one of the stewards seemed to deserve a beating.

“It’s especially harsh after the fans commented that he deserved it,” Fursenko told reporters. Click on the link, and you be the judge:

By the time the third game rolled around, on June 17, Polish police took preemptive action. They preventively detained 72 Russian fans who apparently were preparing a revenge attack on Polish fans. That game ended poorly, with Russia losing 0-1 to Greece, a country with one tenth the population of Russia. And so ended Russia’s Europe Cup ambitions. The final will be played this Sunday in Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv.

In total, the Euro 2012’s organizing body has fined the Russian Football Federation $235,000 for the behavior of Russian fans in Poland. On June 25, Fursenko resigned as head of the Federation. He apologized to Putin and to fans for…the national team’s poor performance.

Meanwhile, Russian diplomats continue to work overtime on the plight of the seven Russian fans still under arrest. On June 22, a Russian deputy foreign minister met his Polish counterpart in Moscow and demanded “the earliest possible repatriation” from Poland of all jailed Russian fans.

Although seven times as many Poles were jailed or hospitalized than Russians, the Russian media coverage largely followed the theme of “Russians as victims.”

Paula Bogutyn, a Polish student from Middlebury College, watched the Poland-Russia game in a Moscow café. Her brother was at the stadium in Warsaw.

Paula emailed me: “The problem is that media in both countries seem to not have truthfully portrayed the actual events. Russian side raved about mean Polish nationalists attacking innocent peaceful Russian supporters. The other side criticized violent marching Russians, apparently waving hammer and sickle and shouting communist slogans around the center of Warsaw.”

Poland soccer fans mass before crucial soccer match with Russia in Warsaw. Photo: Reuters/Pawel Ulatowski

Many Poles have noted that in 2012 it would be unthinkable for soccer fans from their Western neighbor, Germany, to parade through central Warsaw chanting nationalist slogans and waving symbols of a discredited totalitarian regime. The difference is that mainstream Germans and mainstream Poles share a view of 20th century history that is not so far apart.

Juliusz Kłosowski, an editor friend at the Warsaw Voice newspaper, emailed his view of Russia’s innocents abroad.

“Yeah, poor them! Nice little boys from Russia came to big bad Poland with the flags and symbols we all just love here. His Excellency Mr.P. had to heat up the red line with Warszawa to defend them. Thanks God he has so big a heart!”

Behind the Russian reaction, there seem to be two forces.

There was the psychological level where the former colonial power was outraged to see that the ex-colonials had gotten so uppity.

In terms of Russia’s foreign relations with its neighbors, this history gap may increasingly threaten peaceful relations.

Mark Beissinger, a visiting Princeton professor of politics told me after lunch in Moscow: “In terms of their understanding of the past, Poles and Russians–particularly nationalist-minded Poles and Russians–might as well have come from different planets.”

Poland’s fears of its eastern neighbor are not eased by recent Russian military war games acting out invasions of Poland or by recent declarations from Russian leaders that Poland is a legitimate military target if Warsaw joins NATO’s missile defense program.

There is also a domestic political element to the Kremlin’s indulgence of Russia’s football hooligans.

Since December, Moscow’s streets have become a factor in Russia’s political equation. But the ‘Putin Youth” groups that the Kremlin formed in the mid-2000s proved useless as counterweights to the large anti-Putin street marches.

At a minimum, Vladimir Putin does not want to antagonize football fans, many of whom are fervent nationalists.
At a maximum, if he one days feels that his back is against the wall, Russia’s President could well turn to the bully boys for street muscle.

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.

The Putin Pendulum: Anti-White House – Pro American Investment

Posted June 21st, 2012 at 8:33 pm (UTC+0)

On Monday in Mexico, Vladimir Putin and Barrack Obama appeared together before the press. The Russian President leaned diagonally away from the American President, as if Mr. Obama had a contagious disease.

'Let's not get too close,' Russian President Putin seems to be thinking Monday in Mexico as he has his first substantive meeting with President Obama in three years. Photo: Reuters/Jason Reed

At a press conference the next day, Mr. Putin belittled American Treasury bonds as untrustworthy, derided US-Russian trade as “peanuts,” and then threatened to limit visas issued to Americans if the US Congress passes legislation to deny entry to Russians suspected of human rights violations.

On Thursday in St. Petersburg, Mr. Putin leaned the other way. Speaking at the annual St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, he extended a warm welcome to American and European company executives, saying Russia wants to dramatically increase foreign investment.

Mr. Putin has declared a goal of doubling Russia’s economy in this decade. And he says he wants foreign smarts and foreign dollars to play key roles.

This is not a new approach. In June 2007, when I was Bloomberg bureau chief for Russia, the Kremlin gave special badge access to Bloomberg reporters on the assumption they would flash economic news bulletins to investors — not political criticism. Indeed, dollar signs prevailed in the reports.

But this time, the Putin Pendulum neatly fits within the brackets of a single work week. It sounds like a sanitized and far milder outgrowth of Bolshevik think: “The capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them.”

Will it work in 2012?

Will American investors march into Russia, resigned to a wide disconnect between the Kremlin’s foreign policy and its foreign investment policy?

In today’s arid economic landscape, Russia is a juicy and tempting fruit.

It now enjoys “The Four Fives” – five percent unemployment, five percent inflation, a five percent current account surplus, and a five percent economic growth forecast for 2012,

In addition, it enjoys foreign currency reserves of $500 billion. (These may have shrink a bit in value after Russia’s President trash-talked a key component: US Treasuries.)

Compared to last year, real incomes for Russians are up 11 percent and retail sales are up 7 percent.

Viewed from the financial flatlands of the European Union, Moscow looks like a shining city on a hill. No longer “the sick BRIC” – Russia will probably grow more this year than Brazil and India. Russia’s growth could approach that of China.

Now here's a friend! President Putin shakes hands with Chinese President Hu Jintao during a signing ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on June 5. Photo: Reuters/ Mark Ralston

And that may be Russia’s Achilles heel. Russia fortunes are increasingly tied to the fortunes of China, now its largest trading partner. If China catches a cold, Russia could catch pneumonia.

A Chinese slowdown could keep pulling oil prices down into Russia’s red zone. Setting aside Mr. Putin’s lavish pre-election spending promises, Russia’s budget balances at an oil sales price of $120 a barrel. After one year over $100 a barrel, oil prices dipped this month into the low $90s.

And then, American investors should consider the political risk.

It ratchets up the discomfort level to know that you are investing in a country ruled by a former KGB officer proud of his service in East Germany, who, like a Moscow mirror of Mitt Romney, seems to consider the United States his “number one geopolitical foe.”

President Putin’s May 7 inauguration to a third term has released his real foreign policy from the closet.

The tone was set from the start when the Russian President said he was too busy to attend the G-8, held outside of Washington at Camp David.

This decision was interesting for two reasons.

First, it was a clear whack at the US President.

President Putin shakes hands with Chinese parliamentary Chairman Wu Bangguo at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on June 6, prior to the start of a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a loose military grouping sometimes called 'the anti-NATO.' Photo: AP/Mark Ralston

Originally, the G-8 was to be in Chicago, Obama’s home town. Mr. Obama faces reelection in November. Hosting a G-8 in your home town puts a feather in your cap. Vladimir Putin knows this well. He invested millions of dollars in sprucing up his hometown, St. Petersburg, prior to hosting the G-8 there in 2006.

Three months ago, the White House decided to get relations off on the right foot with Vladimir Putin, who had not had a substantive meeting with President Obama in three years. As a gesture to the President-elect of Russia, the White House separated the G-8 from a NATO meeting in Chicago, and then moved the G-8 to Camp David. There, in a controlled setting, Mr. Putin would not have to face two forces he dislikes: NATO and street protesters.

So, the G-8 was moved to Camp David in March. Mr. Putin’s aides said he would attend. Then, 10 days before the G-8, the Russian leader pulled out. The timing made it too late to move the G-8 back to Chicago.

Aside for giving the Obama Administration a gratuitous poke with a sharp stick, Mr. Putin apparently had another reason for his pullout.

Russia’s new President firmly believes that in this decade the Kremlin will reemerge as a key pole in a new, multi-polar world.

It would send the world the wrong message if the images of first foreign policy foray of the Russian President showed him, flying to Washington, then sitting in a Western family photo, lost among the likes of the Prime Ministers of Canada and Italy.

Instead, Mr. Putin made his first trip to Minsk, capital of Belarus, Russia’s most economically and politically dependent ally. Then following Moscow’s longstanding divide and conquer approach to Europe, he flew to Berlin, and then to Paris, skipping Brussels, headquarters of the loathed European Union and NATO.

Then, he flew to China and back, with stopovers in Central Asia’s two most important nations: Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. In Beijing, he enjoyed warm public meetings with leaders who privately are said to see Russia as a junior partner.

Although Russia accounts for only 2 percent of China’s foreign trade, Chinese leaders are far too diplomatic to describe their trade with Russia as ‘peanuts.’ Similarly, Chinese leaders largely leave blunt critiques of US Treasury policy to the opinion columns of The Financial Times.

This week, the quickie meeting with the American President came on the sidelines of Mr. Putin’s participation in the G-20 in Mexico. Next up: a trip to Israel, undoubtedly to discuss Syria and Iran.

Parallel to the Russian president’s six weeks of globetrotting, there have been threats to send warships to Syria, threats to bomb future NATO missile defense installations in Europe, and appeals to teach tolerance of Tehran’s leaders.

At the end of the day, the Western investors gathered in St. Petersburg this weekend will make their own risk assessments of the Putin pendulum.

Does a hot economic relationship outweigh a cold political relationship?

Come on in and invest! President Putin beckons Thursday to a hall full of American, European and Japanese company executives gathered for the opening of the annual St. Petersburg International Economic Forum. Photo: Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin

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 Fails to Scare Moscow’s Middle Class

Posted June 15th, 2012 at 10:05 am (UTC+0)

Despite thunder bolts from the Kremlin and lightning bolts from the skies, the anti-Putin protest crowd on Moscow's Boulevard Ring stretched as far as my I-Phone could see. VOA Photo: James Brooke

The young protester handing out fake “Go Straight to Jail” tickets just didn’t get it.

In advance of Tuesday’s protest demonstrations, President Putin signed into law a bill raising individual fines for illegal protest 100-fold.

On the eve of the protest, his police raided the homes and apartments of the best known opposition leaders. At the time of Tuesday’s protest, most of these leaders were stuck in lengthy police interrogations.

Then, an hour before marching time, massive and mysterious “denial of service,” or DNS, attacks knocked off the internet Dozhd, Russia’s only news outlets to provide live and sympathetic coverage of the protests.

The idea, apparently, was that Moscow’s middle class was supposed to find all of this really scary.

Instead, a river of humanity turned out – stretching one kilometer down Moscow’s leafy Boulevard Ring Road. Aware of the new fines, protesters were careful not to step on the grass. That would have violated their protest permit.

The scariest thing was the weather – crashing thunder, lightning bolts and then buckets of rain. Across town, a lightning bolt hit five students drinking beer in park. One was knocked into a pond.

Undoubtedly, some protesters wondered if Czar Putin was manipulating the weather.
Last February, 100,000 protesters bundled in parkas and mittens turned out in minus 20 degree Celsius weather to protest Russia’s authoritarian government.

This protester does not think that Vladimir Putin's new 6-year term as President is constitutional. VOA Photo: James Brooke

Four months later, a comparable number gave up a summer afternoon at the dacha to march in T-shirts and shorts, walking through rain, blazing sun and then again pouring rain. Unfazed by the results of the March 4 presidential election, they again called for Russia to evolve toward a more open and democratic system.

Separated by only 10 city blocks, the demonstrators in Moscow’s streets and the administrators in the Kremlin compound seemed to inhabit parallel, diametrically opposed universes.
“The Thieves are in the Kremlin; The Girls are in jail,” read one poster, referring to the now three month long detention of three rockers who sang a brief, anti-Putin punk prayer in Moscow’s main cathedral.

Two girls toted orange Styrofoam letters to spell out their personal message to President Putin: “Shoo!”

Standing a few steps from a police line, the young man hawked his “police van tickets.” One side read: “People against crooks and thieves.” The other had a picture of the kind of police trucks that carried away more than 400 people from a protest last month.

At that protest, protesters, some wearing Guy Fawkes masks, battled police.

Last month's mask: On May 1, a Russian anarchist wears a Guy Fawkes mask carries a placard that reads: 'Putin on a prison bunk.' After masked protesters fought with police before Vladimir Putin's May 7 inauguration, the Duma passed a law drastically raising penalties for wearing masks at protests. Photo: Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin

This week, it was the police’s turn to play dress up with masks.

In Monday’s early morning raids on the opposition, police wearing black balaclavas and carrying automatic weapons battered down apartment doors. By simulating raids on Colombian drug lords, the Kremlin’s political choreographers apparently wanted to show that Moscow’s middle class opposition leaders are truly dangerous people.

This month's mask: An investigator guarded by Russian police officers carries a box after a police search in Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny's apartment in Moscow, Russia, June 11, 2012. The next day, a police interrogation prevented Navalny from participating in the mass, anti-Putin rally. Photo: AP/Leonid Lebedev, an internet news site that gets a lot of leaks from the police, breathlessly reported that one protest leader, Ksenia Sobchak – often called “Russia’s Paris Hilton” — was rousted from her bed wearing only a negligee. (Drool, drool).

Since it was 8 a.m. in the middle of a 3-day holiday weekend, that sounds like normal bedroom attire. Style question: In the Russia of Putin’s third term, should political activists now go to bed in combat boots? Or in running shoes? How should they prepare for that midnight knock on the apartment door? also published photos of envelopes of cash found in the apartments of Ms. Sobchak and Alexei Navalny. It appeared that each leader kept hundreds of thousands of dollars at home.

“Boy was that stupid,” Alex, a Russian-American friend told me over lunch the next day. “Everyone knows that a good locksmith can open those combination home safes in two minutes.”

Alex was in Moscow meeting Russian businessmen who want to invest some of their savings in the United States – a growth business here.

While Sobchak and Navalny laboriously explain to police investigators why they keep cash at home, every adult in Moscow already knows the answer: they don’t trust the system. Either the banks could fail, as in 1998. Or, more likely, the Kremlin could order banks to freeze accounts of people on their enemies list.

In the summer of 2012, a few Russian protesters seem to wish it was 1912 as they raise high the red banner of Lenin. VOA Photo: James Brooke

Sobchak and Navalny are merely grains of sand in a broad layer of Russian distrust of banks and the ability of the Russian judicial system to protect property rights.

Ever wonder why tiny Cyprus routinely ranks as Russia’s second largest foreign investing nation? Because Russians park billions of dollars there, using that island in the Mediterranean as a safe haven from government seizures and corrupt court rulings. So far this year, Russia is hemorrhaging $10 billion a month in net capital flight.

Ever wonder why three of the five richest people residing in Britain today are Russians? It can’t be the weather. (Hint: try rule of law and property rights).

According to the Sunday Times Rich List 2012, they are, in descending
order: Alisher Usmanov, Roman Abramovich, and Leonard Blavatnik.

Moscow’s masked police raids, the photos of wads of foreign currency, the threats of massive fines on protesters may add up to more than political theater.

Maybe they reflect the insecurity of a president who rules from behind the Kremlin walls, uncomfortably surrounded by a city that on March 4 voted for the opposition.

After a summer break, the next demos will be Sept. 15 and on Oct. 7. The October date is Vladimir’s Putin’s 60th birthday.

Tuesday was a slow day for Russia's 'cosmonauts,' as the armored, bubble-helmeted riot police are known. VOA Photo: James Brooke

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

Move Russia’s Capital from Moscow to Siberia?

Posted May 6th, 2012 at 12:47 pm (UTC+0)

Heavy traffic routinely clogs traffic around the Kremlin in Moscow's central core. Photo: Reuters/Anton Golubev

Sergei Shoigu, the newly appointed governor of the Moscow Region, recently proposed that Russia move its capital to Siberia.

Shoigu, a native of the Buddhist majority republic of Tuva, just north Mongolia, may have been playing to his home audience.

The idea was immediately squelched, and the Moscow regional assembly dutifully approved Shoigu’s appointment to run Russia’s richest region.

On Monday, Vladimir Putin returns to the Kremlin to rule Russia from Moscow, an ancient capital now under siege by about four million cars.

I have visited planned capitals on four continents. The idea of taking a capital out of an old city is a good one – and it works!

I first visited Brasilia in 1976 when red dust marked the walls of Oscar Niemeyer’s futuristic government buildings. Brasilia was a bold statement by the leaders of a people who had clung to the Atlantic coast for five centuries. By moving the capital 1,200 kilometers into the interior, Brazil’s leaders refocused the nation toward its western frontier. Half a century after the move, Rio de Janeiro has recovered from the loss of its capital status – and is far better off without it.

Similarly, the construction of Islambad in the 1960s drew Pakistan’s focus away from the coast, where the first capital was located, in Karachi. Ditto Abuja. By creating a new capital in Nigeria’s interior, Africa’s largest nation has drawn economic activity out of Lagos, on the coast. Both are reasonably functional capitals in fairly chaotic countries.

By moving Russia’s federal capital to Novosibirsk, Russians would finally take their eastern vocation seriously. A few years ago, China displaced Germany as Russia’s biggest trading partner. If Peter the Great founded St. Petersburg as Russia’s “Window on the West”, Vladimir Putin could elevate Novosibirsk to Russia’s “Window on the East.”

Founded in 1893 at the site of the Trans-Siberian railroad crossing of the River Ob, Novosibirsk has grown from wilderness settlement to major scientific center with 1.4 million inhabitants, Russia’s third largest urban population.

Moscow State University looms over stalled traffic on Moscow “Garden” Ring Road in this 2003 photo. Since then, the banner ads have been taken down in favor of digital billboards which beam advertising messages to a captive audience of thousands of trapped drivers. Photo: Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin

Around the world, three other successful capitals were built to defuse rivalries among existing big cities.

Washington was established defuse the rivalry among New York, Philadelphia and Boston. In Canada, Ottawa was developed as a linguistic neutral capital, midway between English-speaking Toronto and French-speaking Quebec City. In Australia, Canberra was built a century ago as an alternative to favoring Sydney or Melbourne. It’s a pleasant, livable city where kangaroos actually jump around on lawns.

By moving its capital to a third city, Russia would lessen the huge imbalance between Moscow, now a virtual city state, and St. Petersburg, the neo-classical planned capital spurned by the Soviets.

Moving Russia’s capital to Novosibirsk, would have another fringe benefit – easily half of federal employees would refuse to move to Siberia, helping Vladimir Putin meet his stated goal of cutting bloated federal payrolls.

But the main reason for moving the federal government out of Moscow is the capital’s creeping traffic paralysis.

With 800,000 new cars hitting the streets of Moscow every year, streets are slowly seizing up. Last year, average speeds slowed by 15 percent inside the Garden Ring, which defines the city center.

Today, the average Muscovite spends three hours commuting to and from work each day. One snow day last winter, 3,000 kilometers of Moscow streets and “highways” were locked in a massive traffic jam.

It took a visitor, Lloyd Blankfein, chief executive officer of the Goldman Sachs Group, to state the obvious: Moscow’s traffic jams are a big obstacle to turning the capital into a financial hub.

Below ground, in the Moscow metro, things are not much better.

Last year, about 4 million people rode the Moscow subway system every workday – about 20 percent over capacity.

Now at rush hour, there 5.6 people per square meter of metro floor space. Sardines get more space in their cans – and they’re packed in oil!

Moscow’s government is responding by building 70 new stations and increasing the track network by 50 percent, to 450 kilometers by 2020. But it’s unclear if the city has the engineering capacity to meet these goals. Last week saw the reopening of a key line transfer point, at Park Kulturii. It took city workers 15 months to install new escalators and turnstiles with plastic glass doors.

Having fun yet? The best way to enjoy a Moscow traffic jam is to take an elevator to the top of the Swissotel (gray tower on the right). A lounge chair in City Space Bar offers a pleasant view of an endless red smear of red tail lights on Moscow's “Garden” Ring Road.

In another effort to curb the use of cars, Moscow has announced that free street parking in the city center will end in September. Rates will be light – 50 rubles an hour – or $1.70. By comparison, midtown Manhattan garages often charge $8 for the first hour.

To save 50 rubles, I can see oligarch shoppers ordering their drivers to cruise the Bentleys, further contributing to limo-gridlock.

The next step should be to defend pedestrians with an updated version of the technology used 70 years ago to keep Nazi tanks. To protect sidewalks from parked cars, all central Moscow sidewalks should be defended with steel poles, the contemporary equivalent of anti-tank traps.

But the core problem remains: half of Moscow’s jobs are in the city core.

Rather than taking the bold leaps followed by leaders of nations as diverse as Australia, Brazil, Pakistan and Nigeria, the Kremlin is settling for a half step.

In April, as outgoing President Dmitry Medvedev pushed hard to polish his legacy, he announced that a series of federal agencies will move out of central Moscow.

Their destination: to new territories created by expanding Moscow’s border to the southwest.

In case this move is seen as too bold, he said that a priority project will be to upgrade Kaluzhskoye Shosse. This highway will be redesigned so drivers can speed down the 25 kilometer stretch from new government ministries to the Kremlin – without traffic lights.

Traffic moves smoothly in these photos of Novosibirsk Photo: Texmon

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.

Join Russia and USA by Rail Tunnels under the Bering Strait?

Posted April 28th, 2012 at 11:18 am (UTC+0)

By rail, from New York to Moscow, and on to London! Only a 10,000 kilometer gap to fill in this bird's eye view of a trans Bering rail link. Map: Victor Razbegin

Russia’s Urals oil has been over $100 a barrel for a year now.
The country’s budgets are balanced. Debt is low. Savings are piling up. Russians are getting their pre-recession mojo back.
On the consumer end, sales of foreign cars made in Russia jumped 90 percent during the first quarter of 2012 over last year.
In the Kremlin, leaders are thinking big again.
In rapid succession, the government leaked a plan to create a “super agency” to develop the Russian Far East; President-elect Vladimir Putin vowed to spend $17 billion a year for new and improved railroads, and Vladimir Yakunin, president of Russian Railways, promoted a think big plan — a rail and tunnel link connecting Russia and the United States.
“It is not a dream,” Yakunin, a close ally of Mr. Putin, told reporters last week. “I am convinced that Russia needs the development of areas of the Far East, Kamchatka. I think that the decision to build must be made within the next three-five years.”
Next year, Russia’s railroad czar will open one big leg on the trip toward the Bering Strait – an 800 kilometer rail line to Yakutsk, capital of Sakha Republic, a mineral rich area larger than Argentina.

Moscow-born Fyodor Soloview lives in Anchorage, Alaska, where he lobbies for uniting his two homelands, Russia and the United States, with rail tunnels under the Bering Strait. Photo: Soloview

But the 270,000 residents of Yakutsk do not want to live at the dead end of a spur line. They dream of five kilometer long freight trains rolling past their city, carrying Chinese goods to North America, and North American coal and manufactured products to Russia and China.

From their city, 450 kilometers south of the Arctic Circle, passenger tickets could be sold west to London, and east to New York.

With the West’s swelling population of aging affluent retirees, what better gift for Mom and Dad than a one-month train trip, rolling across the International Dateline, traveling by rail three quarters of the way around the world? A TransBering rail voyage would make the TransSiberian and the TransCanada look like short hops.
To push thinking along, Yakutsk hosted a trans Bering rail conference last August. Engineers showed charts indicating that the tunnels under the Bering Strait would be 103 kilometers long, about twice the length of the tunnel under the English Channel. Unlike Europe’s “Chunnel,” there are two islands along the Bering route – geographical factors that would ease construction and allow for ventilation and emergency access.

For now, the only trains in Alaska run from Seward on the coast 760 kilometers into the interior, carrying tourists to Denali National Park and freight to two military bases. Photo: Fyodor Soloview

A trans Bering rail link was first seriously proposed by Czar Nicholas II in 1905. One century later, with the rise of China and the explosion of Asian manufacturing, some Russian economists believe that the day is near when a rail link to North America up would be economically viable.
The current price tag for the missing 10,000 kilometers, tunnel included: $100 billion. Freight fees are estimated at $11 billion a year.
Russian Railways estimates that a Bering Strait tunnel could eventually handle 3 percent of the world’s freight cargo. Yakunin says that China is interested in the project. At a railway meeting in Moscow Thursday, Mr. Putin said that freight traffic on a main Siberian line, the Baikal-Amur Mainline, is expected to nearly triple by 2020.

To critics who worry about harsh winter weather, Russian Railways notes that since 1915, the company has been running passenger and freight trains year round to Murmansk, located 300 miles north of the Arctic Circle. The proposed route for a tunnel under the Bering Strait would pass 50 kilometers south of the Arctic Circle.

Trans Bering rail promoters envisage building feeder lines to connect 'stranded' mineral deposits and to allow shipment of freight between North American and Russia, China, Japan and the Korean peninsula. Map: InterBering

For a tunnel linking two continents, support has to be generated on the North American side. In Alaska, Fyodor Soloview, a native of Moscow, recently formed InterBering, a private group to lobby for rail construction to the Bering Strait.
“We can ship cargo between two the continents by rail,” Soloview said by telephone Thursday from his office in Anchorage. “Once the Bering tunnel is built, it will convert the entire world to different thinking.”
Yakunin estimates that the Russian side of a trans Bering railroad would take 10 to 15 years to build. That could fit into the political calendar of his friend Mr. Putin. On May 7, Mr. Putin will be inaugurated for a new six year term. He has left open the possibility of running in 2018 for another six year term.
So Russian Railways may have the political cover for another 12 years.
The question is whether oil prices will stay high enough to build a tunnel linking America and Asia.
If so, Washington’s diplomatic reset with Moscow could be welded in steel.

To reconnect Asia and North America -- after a 15,000-year separation -- engineers would dig two 103-kilometer long tunnels, each about twice as long as the rail tunnels opened under the English Channel in 1994. Diagrams: Victor Razbegin

On the North American side, almost 5,000 kilometer to track would have to be laid to connect with the existing North American freight network: east from the Bering Strait to Fairbanks, Alaska, and then southeast to Fort Nelson, British Columbia, Canada. Map: InterBering

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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