Widespread public support for Russia’s “Robin Hoods”

November 25, 2010

The story of a group of young men who took to the forest and declared war on corrupt police in the Russian Far East is told here http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-11829793. Some are dead, some are on trial … and repeated public opinion surveys have shown that the vast majority of Russians sympathise with them. I’m not always a fan of BBC reporting of Russia, but this piece tells the story pretty much as it has appeared in numerous Russian media.

Socialism in the 21st Century and the Russian Revolution

October 17, 2010

This article, published in the International Socialism journal here http://www.isj.org.uk//?id=687, together with some additional notes here http://www.revolutioninretreat.com/isjreply.pdf, responds to a negative review of my book The Russian Revolution in Retreat.

Disappearance of another Ukrainian journalist adds pathos to Gongadze anniversary

August 28, 2010

Journalists across Europe will on Thursday 16 September mark the tenth anniversary of the death of  Ukrainian internet journalist Gyorgy Gongadze – a classic example of the impunity of powerful people who instigate violence against journalists.

 (* Details of London event at the end.)

 The importance of the campaign to bring those who ordered Gongadze’s killing to justice was grimly underlined in recent weeks by the disappearance, and feared murder, of investigative reporter Vasily Klimentyev in Kharkov on 11 August.

The instigators of Gongadze’s murder were at the very top of the Ukrainian political pyramid. Former president Leonid Kuchma, current parliamentary speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn and some of their cronies discussed harming him – shortly before he was kidnapped, beaten, strangled and beheaded by a gang of policemen.

The gang leader, Aleksei Pukach, is now awaiting trial, and three of his accomplices are serving prison sentences – but the instigators of the crime have never been brought to justice.

The conversations in Kuchma’s office about harming Gongadze are known to the world, because Mykola Melnychenko, a former presidential bodyguard, released tape recordings of them two months after the murder.

But the chain of command that led from Kuchma’s office to those who killed Gongadze, founder of the Ukrainska Pravda web site, has – so far – been covered up.

Former home affairs minister Yuri Kravchenko – who was apparently assigned during those conversations to have someone sort Gongadze out – died in mysterious circumstances (shot himself in the head twice, allegedly). Two other key internal affairs ministry officials who were probably involved both fell into a mysterious coma and then died.

The Ukrainian general prosecutor’s office effectively sabotaged the investigation of how Gongadze’s killing was ordered and organised. It at first denied Gongadze was missing, then mishandled evidence, and for years failed either to follow basic policing procedures or to resist political pressure to cover up for the instigators.

After the “Orange revolution” of 2004, many Ukrainians hoped the case would be solved – but it wasn’t, and “Orange” president Viktor Yushchenko pinned medals on prosecutors who obstructed the investigation.  

The disappearance nearly three weeks ago of Vasily Klimentyev, 67, editor of Novy Stil (New Style), a muckraking local paper in Kharkov, is a sober reminder of the dangers facing journalists who try to expose corruption in high places.

Klimentyev disappeared on 11 August, while preparing to publish an article about Stanislav Denisiuk, a senior tax official whose wrongdoing he had previously scrutinised. Four days later Klimentyev’s mobile phone and door keys were found and a murder case opened.

The investigation was last week transferred to the internal affairs ministry’s national detective unit, after internal affairs minister Anatoly Mogilev said that “current and former representatives of the law enforcement services” were under suspicion.

In the ten years since Gongadze’s murder, Ukrainian media have grown to operate relatively freely – particularly on the internet, where Ukrainska Pravda, the site he founded, is leader among many high-quality news sites. Even TV has a greater variety of reporting than in Russia.

But physical threats to journalists, especially those who write about state corruption, are all too common. This weekend Valery Ivanovsky, editor of the Zhitomir-based newspaper Silske Zhittya newspaper, was teargassed and stabbed.

* A delegation from the National Union of Journalists of the UK and Irelandwill go to the Ukrainian embassy at 60 Holland Park, London W11 3SJ (nearest tube Holland Park) at 11.0 am on Thursday 16 September. In previous years the delegation has been received by the ambassador. The NUJ has actively participated in the international campaign to bring the instigators of Gongadze’s murder to justice, and in supporting trade union initiatives among Ukrainian journalists, over the last ten years. For more details contact NUJ General Secretary, Jeremy Dear, at the NUJ offices.

* The International Federation of Journalists, the Gongadze Foundation, the Institute of Mass Information and the NUJ have produced four reports on the Gongadze case, which can be downloaded here: http://www.ifj.org/en/articles/joint-statement-on-ninth-anniversary-of-gyorgy-gongadze-s-death

* A conference is being held in Kyiv on 16 September on the issue of impunity for attacks on journalists, involving Article 19, the IFJ and other press freedom organisations.

Modernization is easier said than done

May 17, 2010

Russia’s political leaders talk about modernization a great deal. But shifting the economy away from dependence on oil and gas revenues is proving very difficult. I gave an overview of the dilemmas they face in a recent article here: http://www.emergingmarkets.org/article.asp?PositionID=search&ArticleID=2487832

$9bn+ import bill could renew gas conflict

January 28, 2010

Ukraine’s troubles with Russian gas and Russia’s troubles with Ukrainian transit are not over yet, even though there was a truce this winter. Although the next Ukrainian president, to be elected in second-round voting on 7 February, will be less antagonistic towards Russia than outgoing head of state Viktor Yushchenko, the underlying causes of the “gas wars” remain. In 2009, the government underwrote $6 billion plus of import payments, and the International Monetary Fund underwrote the government. Who will pay the 2010 import bills, likely to total $9 billion plus? See my comment in the Moscow Times here. http://www.themoscowtimes.com/opinion/article/preventing-new-gas-wars/398420.html

Russian power nervous of social protest

January 13, 2010

Russia’s economic recovery, if it has begun at all, is fragile. The recession has pushed 6 million more people into poverty, and in 2010 the government remains wary of social protest. That’s the gist of a BBC World Today radio interview I gave, which you can listen to here:  World Today interview 10.1.10

Numbers 3, 42 and 43

January 11, 2010

The western press often alerts us to events in the Kremlin that suggest that president Dmitry Medvedev is asserting his own style of leadership, prioritising the rule of law, democracy, etc etc etc, against prime minister Vladimir Putin.

Typically such stories tell us that Medvedev, a lawyer by profession, is keen to distance himself from the law-unto-himself style of former KGB agent Putin. Much of this Putin-Medvedev battle is, in my view, a mirage in the eyes of the western chattering classes who just wish Russia’s rulers would be more like their own.

The recent sacking of Anatoly Bagmet, an official in the prosecutor’s office, gave rise to just such reports. The Financial Times wrote it up as a possible sign of Medvedevite action to assert the “rule of law” against Putinist legal nihilism.

The FT said that intra-Kremlin brouhaha around the case “threatens the delicate ruling tandem” of Medvedev and Putin.  http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/60f123fe-ee99-11de-944c-00144feab49a.html?nclick_check=1

Bagmet had worked on just the sort of cases that make western financiers trying to make money in Russia very nervous. He headed the inquiry into Sergei Storchak, the deputy finance minister charged with fraud and jailed in 2008, and was also involved in the savage official assault on lawyers acting for Hermitage Capital Management, the US-controlled investment firm whose boss, Bill Browder, has fallen out with the Russian authorities.

The most important point about Bagmet, however, is that he was reinstated three days after he was fired.

So even if the FT is right that Bagmet was dismissed in a law-upholding Medvedevite clear-out, the conclusion to be drawn is that this clear-out only lasted three days, until Bagmet was restored to his post by the general prosector, Yuri Chaika.

The supposed rift between Medvedev and Putin now seems as ephemeral and temporary as on previous occasions when eager western eyes were sure they had divined that it was opening up.  

Putin and Medvedev are members of a team that runs Russian government, in my view. Medvedev is not the senior member of this team and doesn’t seek to be. Of course as a lawyer he has a different way of looking at the world from his colleagues who come from the security services; so, notably, does finance minister Aleksei Kudrin, an economist.

But the idea that Medvedev is set to take Russian government in a fundamentally different direction, with more of the “rule of law” beloved by the western establishment, is over-hyped, I think.

Reviewing the Putin-Medvedev alliance in 2009, the Russian newspaper Vedomosti observed that spats such as that over Bagmet had more to do with members of the Putin and Medvedev teams battling it out for bureaucratic elbow-room than any deep-going rift between the guys at the top. The piece had one of their wonderful sarcastic headlines: “Almost pluralism”. http://www.vedomosti.ru/newspaper/article/2009/12/30/222456

Compared to the “nasty Putin nice Medvedev” school of Kremlinology, even Forbes’s recently-published list of the world’s most powerful leaders (yawn) seems accurate.

It has Putin at no. 3 behind Barack Obama and Hu Jintao. Medvedev is at no. 43, just behind Igor Sechin – deputy prime minister for industry, chairman of Rosneft oil company and the most powerful former KGB man in Moscow after Putin – at no. 42. They are the only Russians in the list of 67. That seems about right. http://www.forbes.com/2009/11/11/worlds-most-powerful-leadership-power-09-people_land.html%E2%80%9D