Fair Maiden Protected or Abused?

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2015

The just-murdered Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was 55 when they shot him last Friday night, and as he made that fateful walk across Moscow’s Great Moskvoretsky Bridge he was in the company of his 23-year-old Ukrainian girlfriend (and fashion model), Anna Durytska. Although that great disparity in age will surely prompt tsk-tsk’s even in this day and age, surely any man who shows himself ready to face down the criminal Russian political establishment over many years must surely be vouchsafed certain sweet side-benefits. Even the sainted Václav Havel was said to be something of a womanizer – when he didn’t find himself in jail, of course – and in the eyes of many he lined up his second wife, a prominent Czech actress, rather too quickly after the death from cancer of his first wife, Olga. These must be classic alpha males we are dealing with here, after all.

But back to Ms. Durytska, who had to endure the horrible experience of seeing her lover, with whom she was holding hands during a romantic midnight stroll on a bridge, cruelly shot down and killed right before her. According to all accounts, the first thing she did was call the police, and then call her mother back in the Ukraine. The police naturally had to take her in for questioning, but, according to the on-line account at BBC News, she was then allowed to return to the Ukraine, and her lawyer stated that the police had been “acting correctly.” (That BBC site also – inevitably? – is topped by a glamor head-shot of Ms. Durytska, just in case anyone wanted to doubt her modeling credentials.)

Other reports, however, paint a picture that was much more unpleasant for Nemtsov’s girlfriend.

Nemtsov
She was retenue – “retained,” of course – in Russia, which hints of a certain freedom of movement denied. And in the actual linked news report, taken from Le Point, that is the case. “The investigators interrogated me and wouldn’t tell me when I would be free nor why they were detaining me [there],” Ms. Dyritska is quoted as complaining. “I have the right to leave Russia, I am not a suspect. I am a witness and I gave them all the information that I had, I did everything I could do to help the investigators.”

Inna Durytska, Anna’s mother, already figures in this tale through that midnight telephone call (she was also naturally Anna’s first destination when first arriving back in the Ukraine – Anna is 23, remember), and she became plenty worried. “I was afraid they would accuse her of murder, simply because they need some Ukrainian trail of clues.”

But again, I’m just a little concerned by this discrepancy between the BBC’s account and others’. And it is not just L’Actualité24/Le Figaro, either: this other piece in Germany’s FAZ – surely a source you can trust most of the time – also reports of Ms. Durytska having her departure from Russia “obstructed” (gehindert; it also has yet another shot of her fair countenance, for those who cannot get enough). And surely we all can intuit that a visit to the Russian police – under any circumstances, much less when one is associated with someone so much out of favor with the authorities – is likely to be quite unpleasant.

So what’s going on with the BBC? Or could it be (as ungentlemanly as it may seem) that the Moscow police authorities really gave her no harsher treatment – and detained her no longer – than any witness ordinarily has the right to expect, so that there is an element of personal hysteria here which the BBC was prudent – even gentlemanly – to ignore?

BTW I just heard on VRT, Flemish Radio, that Boris Nemtsov was buried today at the same cemetery that holds the grave of investigative journalist Anna Politovskaya, another figure whose mysterious street-murder (in 2006; well OK, in her apartment building’s elevator) was mighty convenient for Vladimir Putin.

UPDATE: Whatever the true nature of her treatment in Moscow, Die Welt reports that Anna Duritskaya has had to seek police protection in the Ukraine after receiving multiple threats to her life.

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Hand-Me-Down Arms to Ukraine

Saturday, February 14th, 2015

Here’s a good on-the-ground example of what the current Western skittishness about providing Ukraine with the means to defend itself actually means.

Szrot
Szrot for the Ukrainian army.” Szrot (pronounced simply as [shrot]) would be a fun Polish word in any other context: it means “scrap metal,” basically trash. But that’s basically what the Ukrainian army has to look forward to now, specifically to twenty “Saxon”-type armored personnel carriers coming fairly soon from United Kingdom stocks, to be eventually followed by fifty-five more.

This piece by Rzeczpospolita staff-writer Piotr Wożniak goes on to estimate that Ukraine will be paying the UK government about $51,000 for each such APC, which seems hardly a high amount for a military vehicle. The trouble is that this is hardly top-of-the-line equipment. A perusal of the Wikipedia page for the Saxon is valuable here, although Wożniak provides several related data-points of his own. Saxons went into service in the British Army in the early 1980s; they’re no longer actively used there because they’ve been replaced by more modern equipment. You’ll only find them still in use in backwater militaries like that of Hong Kong or Mozambique.

Even then, and even for that $51,000 apiece, none of the Saxons will come equipped with the armament that was standard for them in British service (namely a 7.62 mm MG medium machine gun, which itself is really no very big deal) – for no one wants to actually provide the Ukraine with “offensive weapons” as that would be too “offensive” to the sensibilities of Vladimir Putin. (Meanwhile, just go on-line for satellite photos to take a gander at the top-of-the-line Russian military equipment – and personnel, let us not forget – crossing the border to support the Separatists.)

Relevant to this point, Wożniak has a great paragraph:

What is interesting is that the lack of support for Kiev when it comes to weapons and military equipment cannot be rationally explained. Ukraine is not the object of any embargo, nor is it some terrorist-supporting state. There exist no legal obstacles.

Ah, but of course that is just a Pole talking, someone whose country knows all about invasions from the East from past experience, whose country is objectively next in line – just look at the map! – after Ukraine falls. That is, someone who doesn’t realize how Vladimir Putin can be a perfectly reasonable fellow, provided one simply doesn’t resist him.

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Lithuanian Survival By-The-Book

Monday, January 19th, 2015

Vladimir Putin’s apparent willingness to invade bits of land adjoining Mother Russia where he feels native Russian-speakers are feeling oppressed has understandably made many in the immediate neighborhood rather nervous. And while Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are all members of NATO, that still doesn’t necessarily allow them to sleep easily at night. The famed Article V of the NATO treaty does make an attack on any one member an attack on them all, which theoretically means that the Alliance’s nuclear powers – the US, foremost – would be willing to escalate all the way to Mutually Assured Destruction should Putin merely have his forces invade the Baltics and then refuse to back down. But how credible is that? For that matter, how effective were France and England in carrying out the guarantees of Poland’s territorial integrity that they issued just prior to the Second World War?

(By the way, the lesser-known Article IV provides for invoking consultation among Alliance members in the event of disquieting security developments. Lithuania and Latvia invoked that in March of last year in response to the Russian annexation of the Crimea.)

You can’t blame these nations for doing a little contingency planning based on a assumption of Putin’s worst behavior paired with maximum fecklessness on the part of their supposed allies. (Indeed, I hear there exists an NGO whose sole purpose is to steer the world’s surplus feck to NATO’s Brussels HQ.) Here’s what’s happening in Lithuania:

LitManual
Yes, that Baltic nation is shortly to publish a “survival manual” for all its citizens about what to do in case of a Russian invasion!

Now, I found out about this via the round-about path that you can see contained in that tweet. But it turns out that, within that Le HuffPost article, there was an additional link to a Reuters article, in English and datelined from the Lithuanian capital Vilnius, that lays everything out pretty well.

So you don’t need me to explain further. Just allow me, as a sort of enticing sweetener, to reproduce here a couple of the most-juicy paragraphs:

“The manual, which the Defence Ministry will send to libraries next week and also distribute at army events, says Lithuanians should resist foreign occupation with demonstrations and strikes, “or at least doing your job worse than usual”.

“[W]orse than usual” – love that!

In the event of invasion, the manual says Lithuanians should organise themselves through Twitter and Facebook and attempt cyber attacks against the enemy.

Mark Zuckerberg as future insurgent hero – who knew?

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Polar Role-Reversal

Thursday, December 18th, 2014

Among the world turmoil occupying us in this run-up to the 2014 Christmas period, one alarming development that you may well have missed was Denmark’s filing of a formal claim on Monday to the area of the North Pole. For some years – and particularly now that the melting of the Northern icecap is laying them bare – the considerable oil & gas natural resources said to be just under the Arctic Sea floor have piqued the interest of those countries lying along its periphery in trying to extend their sovereignties as far as possible into that area, consistent with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

You’re right, Denmark does not itself border the Arctic Ocean; what does is Greenland, whose foreign and defense policies Denmark still controls, even as it otherwise enjoys self-government. Indeed, it is an underwater ridge that extends from Greenland through the Arctic area that constitutes the legal basis for Denmark’s claim.

So now we have this self-reflective comment from the website of DR, or Danmarks Radio, the Danish government-owned national TV and radio network.

Forsker_Nordpol
You could say this is a bold, even audacious, move and those interests it challenges directly (aside from the well-known seasonal actors – Hello Santa!) are mainly Canada and Russia. Particularly Russia, as we realize from this quote in the linked DR piece from a Danish journalist who has written extensively about the Arctic:

This is a gigantic piece of the sea-floor that Denmark and Greenland are now claiming. This extends – and this is the surprising thing – the entire way over to Russia’s nautical border. Danish politicians have therefore chosen to use all means provided to them by the UN’s oceans commission.

It is a surprise; this is Denmark we are talking about here. Or, as the comedian Craig Ferguson just put it:

The Danes are causing a bit of trouble. The kingdom of Denmark claimed the North Pole as their own. Hey, you can’t just reach out and take something if you want it, Denmark. That’s Russia’s job.

Indeed. That DR Nyheder tweet literally reads “Russia as meek as a lamb in the Arctic – we are the aggressive ones.” How could this be? This is Putin’s Russia we are talking about, after all, and the Danes, whose neighbors haven’t had anything to complain about since Viking times.

Could it have something to do with the very recent drastic weakening of Putin’s geopolitical position brought about by the collapse of the oil price and the ruble? Is the lack (so far) of Russian reaction the first sign we have that these troubles will likely tone down Russia’s behavior after all? Not according to Jakob Busk Olsen, who wrote this DR piece; he instead reckons that Russian decision-makers are too aware how the region is so hostile to man that absolute lack of conflict is necessary for anyone to be able to safely make the substantial investments (in offshore drilling platforms, etc.) to exploit those resources. Better to not rock the boat.

And why is Denmark acting so aggressively to safeguard to itself access to those presumed oil and gas deposits, when that country is among the world’s pioneers in transitioning away from fossil fuels? The key thing to remember here is that the Kingdom is actually acting on behalf of its semi-ward Greenland; it clearly would like to be rid of its remaining obligations there, but Greenland will eventually be able to stand on its own feet economically mainly with its own trousseau of fossil-fuel assets.

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Take 2 Rocket-Launchers, Call In AM

Sunday, September 28th, 2014

“Something a bit like the flu” – does that phrase sum up for you the recent geopolitical struggle over the Eastern Ukraine? No? It doesn’t cut it for Polskie Radio, the Polish State radio & TV broadcaster, either.

PrezCzech
Translation: “Czech President is for lifting sanctions on Russia. He appeared at a conference organized by a colleague of Putin.”

That first individual mentioned would be President Miloš Zeman, the second is Vladimir Yakunin, president of the Russian railways. We all know that you don’t get that sort of high-profile executive job at a State agency in Russia without Vladimir Putin’s personal approval; in fact, Yakunin is originally from Leningrad, like the Russian dictator, and is a close neighbor at a restricted zone of country dachas fronting an idyllic lake just to the North of the city.

He is also President of something called “World Public Forum – Dialogue of Civilizations,” which provided the occasion – on the Mediterranean island of Rhodes, no less – for President Zeman’s disparaging remarks about the Ukraine confrontation. Zeman knew very well who was behind the conference, this article reports, as they happen yearly and he has attended them regularly – just not before as Czech President. What’s more, he delivered his remarks there in Russian. (But he is old-school enough to come from that period in Czechoslovak history when you had to learn Russian to get ahead.)

The Poles have quite a different evaluation of the situation in Ukraine; you can be sure that they are not pleased with this official Czech line, nor with Miloš Zeman’s choice of associates.

Swing Your Partner – If He’s There

In related news from Polskie Radio, Ukraine President Poroshenko recently announced an initial slate of 60 reforms to his country’s laws and legal practices designed to make it ready to become an EU member-state by the year 2020. “Without reform,” he declared, “we have only one road – to Russia.”

That’s very fine – and, Lord knows, the way business and government is run in the Ukraine is badly in need of such reform – but joining a club also depends on the willingness of that club to accept one as a new member. Is Poroshenko quite sure that the EU will be ready to admit the Ukraine in 2020, or ever? Has the EU offered the Ukraine any concrete indications or guidance on the question? (The European body-politic it purports to represent would surely like to know! There does exist an entire EU Commission DG/body of bureaucrats, named “Enlargement,” that is supposed to be on top of such matters.)

Or, having learned nothing from its 27-year-long Turkish tease (applied for full EU membership in 1987; still has no chance in Hell of getting it), is the EU about to embark upon another awkward, ultimately fruitless accession lap-dance with a geopolitically crucial country?

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Next in the Intimidation Line

Friday, September 26th, 2014

New bad news for the Ukraine:

Hunguk
“Hungary stops gas deliveries to Ukraine.” Would that have something to do with the visit by Gazprom chief Alexei Miller to Budapest on Monday of this week to speak with Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán?

Not if you ask the Hungarians. From the lede:

According to the government in Budapest and the State company responsible for the pipelines, FGSZ, the step was taken due to the rise in domestic demand for gas. Satisfying Hungarian demand has priority.

Yeah, right. Like the rest of us Europeans, Hungary has been enjoying the usual global warming-induced prolonged summer September weather, with temperatures dipping below 15ºC (59ºF) only at night. Demand for gas there – for heating – is due to rise maybe end November, beginning December, and not particularly now.

The real story here can be clearly seen from a couple weeks ago, when Gazprom similarly forced Poland to stop the “reverse supplies” of natural gas it was providing to the Ukraine by threatening to cut off the Poles’ supply they were diverting from. It’s just that the latter were willing to be rather more straightforward about what was happening than the Hungarians. Indeed, this Telegraaf piece speaks of a €10 billion Russian loan Orbán’s government is hoping to gain. How is such a thing even possible after the EU has collectively imposed repeated waves of sanctions – including of the financial kind – on Russia?

I’d like to derive two remarks from this data-point, which we can call “Major” and “Minor”:

  • Major: Putin really likes throwing Russia’s geopolitical weight around using the threat of energy cut-offs. I believe I read somewhere that the dissertation he wrote for whatever higher academic degree it was that he earned back in his KGB schooldays had precisely to do with that subject.The prevailing wisdom seems to be that, while the Ukraine has of course already been shoved out into the cold (literally) for the coming winter when it comes to Russian natural gas, Putin would not dare to do that to the rest of the EU because of the revenue loss that would entail. Then again, he seemed indifferent enough to the food-price inflation the Russian people have had to suffer resulting from his embargo on EU agricultural imports. Make no mistake: this coming winter is when the EU will be confronted in the bleakest and most direct way possible with the problem of how to do without Russian energy supplies.
  • Minor: Notice here as well the common thread of the involvement of Gazprom, which is supposed to be a private company. Well, at least it is a private company to the likes of FIFA, which allows it to pay the mega-price to be one of the commercial sponsors of the Champions League. (It is also the shirt-sponsor of the famous German football club Schalke 04.) Inevitably, those watching Champions League games at home have to put up with repeated commercials extolling Gazprom as a reliable energy-provider; if you watch closely, you’ll even notice how the characteristic Champions League graphic used when heading into and out of commercial breaks, in which spotlights come on in turn around a circular stadium, precisely recalls the pattern of gas-jets lighting up on a stove! How many of those looking on for the football actually realize that Gazprom will be glad to let them freeze next winter, if only Putin gives the order?
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Revealed: Ukraine’s Weapons-Sellers!

Monday, September 8th, 2014

This might be considered as the most important “secret” result of that NATO summit at the end of last week that was held at some golf resort in Wales, and the EU Beobachter (“EU Observer”) has picked it up.
5staaten

Yes, in the wake of that summit five states intend to start selling weapons to the Ukraine, and they are: the USA, Poland, France, Italy and Norway. The notable absence on this list is Germany, whose weapons, notably its small arms, are particularly good in comparison to most others, but whose Chancellor, Mrs. Merkel, made it clear at that summit that it was not ready to take that step. Understandable: the German government only in the past few weeks decided that it would break precedent and send arms to the Kurds fighting the Islamic State in Iraq, and that decision caused quite a bit of consternation on the German political scene. Merkel was not ready for the same again – not that that was the only reason for German reticence.

What’s really notable about these arms-sellers is just how hush-hush the whole subject is. None of these countries has been willing to announce these upcoming weapons-sales; indeed, all have officially denied they are ready to do so. So who knows? Against that we have – for what it is worth – an announcement yesterday by a close advisor to Ukraine President Poroshenko that these five countries would indeed be supplying his country militarily. That announcement notably appeared on the advisor’s Facebook page.

If we examine that roster, the sales from the US and from Poland are understandable: American weapons manufacturers are seemingly ready to sell anywhere, anytime, while Poland is the state leading the alarm over Ukraine developments. For France and Italy it is a bit harder to understand why they would want to be involved (indeed, the Italians have continually been suspect as too Russia-friendly) – until you realize, as this article states explicitly, that they mainly see this as an opportunity for their native arms industries to make some money. It’s only Norway whose involvement is totally mysterious: its economy doesn’t need the money, and to this point it has not seemed particularly alarmed about what is happening off to the East. Indeed, as a good Scandinavian land, it is supposed to have certain ethical pretensions of not selling war material into an active war-zone. (more…)

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Putin: Banish Smurfs into Exile!

Monday, May 5th, 2014

It’s the military clashes in eastern Ukraine that are deservedly getting all the media attention now, those between the Ukrainian “neo-fascist nazi’s” on the one hand and those pro-Russian “terrorists” on the other. But there is at the same time an undercurrent of reports about how Russian society itself has recently changed, and how it is changing as Vladimir Putin whips up war-fever to rally his citizens around his authoritarian rule.

It’s often very ugly, such as with the website that has been set up to list publicly the Russian Federations greatest “traitors” – check it out, the very URL (http://predatel.net) is the transliteration of the Russian word for “traitor” (предател). No surprise, at the top of the list you’ll find the anti-corruption blogger and Moscow mayor also-ran (but barely) Alexei Navalny, currently under house arrest and prohibited from communicating with anyone (including via Internet) other than his family.

But this can take a turn to the ludicrous as well:

Putin_noSmurfs
From the Czech Television website: “In the service of ideology. Putin wants to forbid the Smurfs.” (Šmouly – that’s “Smurfs” in Czech. I don’t know what their name is in Russian – reader tips are welcome! UPDATE: And they have arrived! It’s Смурфики.)

Of course, it’s not actually Putin himself. It’s rather the Russian Education Ministry which has proposed banning the Smurfs from Russian TV as “damaging to youth,” but Putin has given this his blessing. And that’s not all: other series such as South Park and the Simpsons are likely to be under similar review soon. (more…)

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East Gas? West Best!

Sunday, March 9th, 2014

It seems Russian troops – even though they (mostly) are not yet labeled as such – are in the Crimea to stay. Reclaiming that strategic peninsula for Ukraine would require the use of force, something no state outside of the Ukraine is willing to contemplate, and before which even Ukraine authorities themselves should hesitate due to the risk of thereby only losing more of their territory.

What the West is left with is proceeding with a deliberate worsening of relations with Vladimir Putin’s regime as punishment: denying him the chance to get yet more mileage out of his $51 billion Sochi reconstruction by staging a G8 summit there, for instance. But the unfortunate problem is that, to a great extent, this can turn out to be self-defeating as the West needs Russia just as Russia needs the West.

Anyone who follows international affairs regularly can name two vital areas right off the bat for which that is true: Iran and Syria. For the former, the West seems very close to achieving a remarkable deal that will safeguard against any nuclear weapons ambitions Iran might have – but one for which Iran’s willingness has been predicated upon united political and economic pressure from the West and from Russia. As for Syria, the regime there is already behind on the schedule for the elimination of its chemical weapons that Russia did quite a lot to help draw up.

(Now, this NYT piece claims that Syria is ready to try to speed things up to try to make up lost ground – but the article is dated March 4. Returning to Russia’s potential reluctance for any more international cooperation, there are always those inspections that Putin, in good times, ordinarily consents to undergo in relation to various arms-control treaties.)

Then there are the more tangible things – like natural gas. (OK, it’s a gas, but still slightly more tangible than a pure concept such as “arms control.”) Plenty of European countries are still dependent on gas supplies from Russia, piped through the Ukraine. And so we get this:

V4 Czech
I know, that must seem at first sight like some confused jumble. “V4,” for example: what’s “V4”?* That is shorthand for the “Visegrad 4,” itself a shorthand for the Central European countries Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary. And what the governments of those countries have done is think ahead a bit in light of this new geopolitical confrontation with Putin. (more…)

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Begging the Spying Question?

Wednesday, June 19th, 2013

The editors of Le Monde seem to have received advanced word on the content of President Obama’s big speech in Berlin later today. Let’s hope they’re wrong.

LeMonde_ObamaBerlin

“Obama will propose a reduction of the American and Russian nuclear arsenals.” Good news, right?

Well yes – but that’s really not the subject his audience is going to be interested in! You just might have heard of recent revelations of programs with names like “Prism” which involved massive spying by US authorities on the telephone and electronic communications of, basically, everyone, certainly including German citizens. As NYT columnist Roger Cohen quite clearly pointed out on Monday (“Obama’s German Storm”), due to their past the Germans are particularly sensitive about such abuses. They will certainly want to hear what Obama is going to do about this, and likely not about the latest warhead-number that will result if the President can get his way with whatever measure he wants to propose.

I know that preparation for such major speeches requires long lead-times, but nonetheless if his big Brandenburg Gate speech this evening does turn out to deal solely with nuclear armament matters, it will be the sorriest attempt at mass attention-diversion we will have seen for a long, long time. And you can bet it will not work on the Germans. I hope to be able to offer some after-the-fact coverage from the German press along those lines in this forum.

But so OK: Nukes

Still, for the sake of exercise let us take these reports at their word and consider the issue of nuclear arms reductions. The Le Monde article specifically declares that Obama’s proposal will include US “tactical” nuclear weapons still stored in Europe, where many are wondering why – given the current geopolitical situation there – they were not removed a long time ago. (more…)

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Gérard Among The Crazies

Monday, January 7th, 2013

You might have heard about the recent kerfluffle involving the Golden Globe-winning, Oscar-nominated (for Cyrano de Bergerac) French actor Gérard Depardieu. French President François Hollande recently carried out his pledge to increase the top marginal income tax rate in his country to75%, and Depardieu has become the point-man for resistance to that among the French wealthy. He has written vituperative public letters to the president, for example; but he has also asked for and received Russian citizenship (where income taxes are at only 13%, for everyone). He’s apparently good friends with Vladimir Putin, according to the French weekly L’Express (and numerous other publications):

Quand Gérard Depardieu fait la com’ de Vladimir Poutine http://t.co/5rWqHj33

@LEXPRESS

LEXPRESS


Yes, good buddies they are, интимные приятели . . . if you click through there to the article you can see a nice photo of the two men embarking on a bear-hug. “Did you see my latest film?” Gérard asks Vladimir, “I sent it to you.” (Depardieu’s latest project was a franco-russian co-production on the life of Rasputin, in which he took up the title role.) And Brigitte Bardot is threatening to follow him to Russia, although over a dispute involving two sick elephants (I kid you not! Click thru!) rather than taxes.

But here’s the punchline to all this, beyond the patronized pachyderms, which I provide as a public service to those (very few) of you who have not already figured it out for yourselves. Russia may impose only a 13% tax-rate, but it’s really not a very nice place to go and live; Depardieu’s praise of the state of democracy there, which formed part of his open letters, only shows how ignorant he is, for Russia has no rule of law and the rich there stay that way only through Vladimir Putin’s good graces (as shown by the counter-example of former oil company CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky).

There’s yet another L’Express article of note here, entitled Russia: Depardieu among the crazies? For the spot in Russia Depardieu has picked out for himself – should he really want to spend time there – is said to be the southern Moscow suburb of Белые Столбы (“White Posts”). But as journalist Alla Chevelkina (note the name) points out, Depardieu apparently is unaware that Russia’s most famous mental institution – which in the bad old days also housed numerous Russian dissidents as part of the Soviet regime’s employment of psychiatry as a weapon against such “troublemakers” – is in the same neighborhood and shares the “White Posts” name. Or that Russians use the expression “gone to the White Posts” to denote someone who has been packed away to the crazy-house.

UPDATE: And now the newspaper Libération tells us that Depardieu was greeted as a hero upon his arrival in Russia, and offered a house and the post of Minister of Culture! The thing is, all of those have to do with the Russian Republic of Mordovia, some who’s-ever-heard-of-it place apparently located somewhere to the east of the former Stalingrad.

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G20 Tit for Tat

Thursday, June 21st, 2012

From the reports coming out of the G20 conference which has now come to a close in Los Cabos, Mexico, you would think that the main kerfluffle occurred over the EU’s plans for getting itself out of its euro/sovereign debt problem, and that meanwhile President Obama and Russian president Vladimir Putin had time to get together for a nice chat. Maybe. But as far as the latter was concerned, there was also something else:


“Putin threatens America,” is what we get from Gazeta Wyborcza.

So what’s that all about, and is there really anything to it? Well: yes and no. It is true that there is a new irritant in Russo-American relations, and that is the Magnitsky Bill, now before the US Senate. Its purpose is to punish Russian “human rights violators” (mainly those involved in the 2009 death in prison of anti-corruption fighter Sergei Magnitsky, but also others) by denying them visas to the US and freezing any of their US-held assets. Vladimir Putin’s “threat,” according to the Gazeta article, is simply to come up with a Russian list of Americans to punish in a similar way, should that bill be passed into law.

Reasonable, no? Well, the US prison system may not be the world’s most humane, but at least things have not gotten to the point where prisoners “inconvenient” to the ruling administration are murdered there under flimsy pretexts. So that’s where the seeming symmetry in the diplomatic retaliation breaks down. Unfortunately, Putin found a sympathetic ear with President Obama, who has shown a distinct lack of enthusiasm for that “Magnitzky bill” as an interference in his administration’s policy towards Russia.

So in the end “Putin threatens America” is a bit overblown – one brave man’s death at the hands of his Russian jailers amounts to but an unwelcome irritant in Russo-American relations.

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Naked Ambition

Monday, March 5th, 2012

So Putin has been “elected” Russia’s president for a third time. Well, some remain unwilling just to accept this lying down – er, fully clothed. Yes, one of the world’s favorite protest groups swung into action yesterday in Moscow to protest Russia’s crooked election. The group calls itself Femen, and it’s a media-favorite mainly due to its attention-getting tactics – so time-tested and traditional, in a way, yet now employed for political ends: they are all comely young women, and they take their tops off.

The result is frequent intriguing headlines such as Women Go Topless Against Putin and the like. (Click if you will, but the photo-series is of course rated PG.) But there is another aspect to this group’s operations that is intriguing as well, if one can pull one’s eyes away from the fleshly dazzle. For Femen is a Ukrainian organization – so what are they doing in Moscow, and what do they care about Putin?

Actually, this Moscow altercation – which apparently earned its Femen protagonists several days in jail, and which took place at the very same polling-station where Putin himself was scheduled to come vote, naturally: this has emerged as a standard Femen tactic – was a romp in the park compared to the group’s protest action in Minsk last December against the dictator there, Aleksandr Lukashenko. The Belarussian KGB – they still call it that there – proved itself to be quite unimpressed with the charms on display; they not only rather roughly arrested the Femen protestors, but then took them off to the woods to terrorize them for a bit, including cutting off their hair. But of course they did not want to go too far, given the constant media attention these women enjoy, and which to some extent is their protective shield even as they otherwise leave themselves naked.

Still: Ukraine, Belarus, Moscow – OK, it was once all one country, and many cultural similarities remain. But Femen activists have also reportedly been spotted in Milan, protesting in some way or another against the fashion industry. I couldn’t find much material on that, but what I do have is recent reports about how the Austrian political scene is about to get a bit more interesting. Yes, a two-woman Femen delegation – that’s them in the picture up above – recently traveled to Vienna to give the Austrian Green Party political-action tips. According to the report in the authoritative Austrian newspaper Die Presse, that included a how-to session on “boob prints,” which have turned out to be the #1 money-raising article from their Femenshop. (Unfortunately, the text on that webpage is only in Cyrillic – probably Ukrainian – which likely means that those too far removed from Kiev could find it difficult to mail-order the goods on display here. Any enterprising Western Internet-business(wo)man interested in helping out?) The German newsmagazine Focus actually has a photo-series showing them at their press conference, making the aforesaid print; the rather more staid Die Presse limits itself to collecting juicy quotes from the Femen representatives, such as “We want to show how you do it: go out onto the streets, disrobe, and win!” and that they all still call their mothers every day, who invariably ask “whether we are dressing warmly enough.”

In the final analysis, though, Austria is another culture entirely, as is Milan, so it is a significant step outward into the world. Why would the girls of Femen want to stop there? What I’m suggesting is that we might be seeing here the beginnings of the next great transnational political movement. Yes, after the Occupy Wall Street protests, it’s time to take it from the top!

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Petition Factories

Monday, January 9th, 2012

The next Russian election, the one that will inevitably elevate Vladimir Putin back to the presidency, is not until next March, but from a Czech source we see the political machine is already hard at work.

tiscali.cz: Předvolební kampaň na ruského prezidenta má první skandál: http://t.co/QasPJgmv

@Zpravy

Zpravy


“Preliminary campaign for Russian president has its first scandal.” Yes, it’s scandalous, if not quite entirely straightforward, as explained in the accompanying article about the discovery made by opposition activists in Moscow of the wholesale fabrication of signature-petitions being perpetrated in local universities. (more…)

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Russian Lapdog Leaving Lap

Sunday, October 16th, 2011

BACK in the USSR! We’ve already been treated recently to some prime Soviet nostalgia, in the form of the Yulia Timoshenko show-trial in the Ukraine. Now from Le Monde we see how that’s been joined by the lock-step Kremlin solidarity of old: current Russian president Dmitri Medvedev has endorsed his own replacement by Vladimir Putin.

Many commentators – rightly, and including the Le Monde editorial board itself – had seen Putin’s end-of-September announcement that he would run for (and therefore win) re-instatement as president in 2012 as taking Russian political development back to the Brezhnev era, if not even back to the time of the Czars. Not so, said Medvedev yesterday on Russian television – it is “something else . . . a means to resolve the challenges we have set for ourselves.” So he’s fine with missing out on the chance to “run” for the second presidential term he himself is entitled to under the Russian constitution.

On the other hand – surprise! – he’s not happy with the current state of Russian government:

I’ve been a lawyer, and I thought that I knew very well how the state apparatus works. I was mistaken, things are much more difficult and in a certain way more frightening. That’s why we must think about how to change the system of managing the State.

Aha, so there at least is a note of dissension! But note that this comes after he admits that he has only around one year left as president, and hasn’t even indicated what political function – if any – he will fulfill after that. Medvedev’s term in office has been chock-full of ambitious pronouncements like this – that Russia must be more investment-friendly, more subject to the rule of law, etc. – that came to nothing. This is certainly just one more.

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Enjoy Novaya Gazeta While You Can

Saturday, October 23rd, 2010

The Berliner Zeitung tipped us off a few days ago: Last Warning for Novaya Gazeta. “Whazzat?” you may ask. Oh, it’s just about the only remaining Russian newspaper worth taking seriously. By this point Vladimir Putin has had 10 years to snuff out independent voices among the country’s government and media, so that now only a handful of outlets remain which still resist singing along with the party line. There are actually none such when it comes to TV broadcasters (naturally, the medium with the greatest reach by far); on the radio there is still Echo Moscow; and among newspapers the most prominent independent name has been Novaya Gazeta (“new newspaper”), which among other things had been the employer of Anna Politkovskaya, the investigative reporter murdered four years ago in a still-unsolved case.

At least up until now. But now BZ reporter Daria Afonina (definitely a Russian female name) tells us how the paper just received it’s “first warning” from the Ministry for Communication for allegedly spreading “fascist propaganda” through a piece it published back in January on extreme-right nationalists from an organization whose name translates to “The Russian Way.” A second warning means that the paper will have to shut down.

What Editor-in-Chief Sergey Sokolov thinks he sees in this development – if not sheer stupidity from a rogue bureaucrat, always a possibility – is an effort by the authorities to finish Putin’s work by rubbing out such independent media voices as remain. But he also vows to appeal any close-down order to “Strasbourg,” presumably meaning to the European Court of Human Rights located there (of which Russia is a member, not that that means there is much to hope for any such move).

Those still interested in the paper – while it is still a going concern – should realize that it does have an accompanying English-language version. Don’t expect a full-blown English translation of the Russian website, by any means, as the English material is much scarcer and generally out-of-date. When I visited today the left side of the homepage was dominated by an interview with Russian President Medvedev entitled “Medvedev’s declaration, 2009 year” which, yes, bore the dateline “18.04.2009.” But the tone of the questioning directed at the head-of-state was refreshingly challenging, and the rest of the slim pickings available on that homepage similarly showed why the state apparatus of which he is the head may not be too fond of the newspaper. There were namely two pieces on the Politovskaya murder case (“‘The State is showing a complete lack of interest in solving the murder of our mother,’ Vera and Ilya Politkovsky [yes, her children],” and “Second time around: The Politkovskaya murder case.”

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Beyond Tragedy: The Katyn Reconciliation

Monday, April 12th, 2010

One side-detail of the tragic plane-crash on Saturday that killed Polish President Lech Kaczynski along with much of that country’s political, military, and even financial elite was that the reason all these worthies were headed to a Russian provicincial backwater like Smolensk in the first place was to participate in a very solemn ceremony there. That was to have commemorated the mass-execution, which began exactly seventy years ago, of around 20,000 Polish officers and other prominent citizens by the Soviet secret police, who had had them fall into their hands as a result of the USSR’s invasion of Poland (coordinated with Hitler’s Germany) in September, 1939. This prompted some commentators to write ponderously of a doom-laden Katyn parallel: Poland’s intelligentsia wiped out there in 1940, and then once again in 2010.

Unfortunately, these grim events are now totally obscuring the remarkable progress represented by the very fact that such a delegation of eminent Poles, headed by the President, was being allowed to go there in the first place – and by the no-less remarkable fact that Russian premier Vladimir Putin and his Polish counterpart Donald Tusk had in fact participated in a commemoration ceremony there just last Wednesday. Looking back now at news coverage of these developments – that is, written before this past weekend’s tragedy – produces a very bittersweet feeling, especially from two articles on the Katyn legacy from among the elite of the German press, here the Süddeutsche Zeitung and Die Welt. In particular, the latter piece begins with the sentence “Seldom has the Polish public looked at Russia with so much hope as in these days” – on a webpage where, at the very same time, you can click over on the right-hand side (under “Current Videos”) to see a news-film of rescuers searching through the crash-site in the Russian forest!

(By the way, you could be sure that the German coverage of Katyn’s legacy was going to be thorough and high-quality, and not only because Germany’s sheer size of population and cultural inheritance ensures good journalism. Remember that, for decades, it was German soldiers who were alleged to have been at fault here, so you can be sure that German journalists will always be on top of this story to ensure the historic record remains set straight.) (more…)

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Festival of Seventy-Year Suffering at Westerplatte

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2009

I don’t cover the Polish press here that often; nevertheless, the overriding imperative of this weblog remains finding and discussing the most interesting goings-on within the wide ambit of my language-coverage, and these days that certainly has to lead us to the Polish front.

I use “Polish front” here deliberately, because yesterday’s headline event in Europe was without a doubt the convocation of several national heads-of-state at Gdansk, Poland for ceremonies marking the seventieth anniversary of the opening of that Polish front by Nazi Germany with the ground-attack that started the Second World War. This is understandably a sensitive historical matter for the host nation, and controversy was assured from the very beginning just by the list of attendees. That featured a few names who you would think simply did not belong at such a ceremony, for various reasons. Like James Jones, US National Security Advisor: why were the Americans sending such a relatively low-ranking official and not someone at least at the level of, say, Vice President Biden? There was also Russian premier Vladimir Putin, whose presence was sure to be controversial for more profound reasons, both contemporary (Putin has for years been engaged in an effort to glorify Russia’s past, particularly its involvement in the Second World War under Josef Stalin) and historical (that involvement notably involved the Red Army’s “stab-in-the-back” invasion of Poland on 17 September 1939, arranged according to the terms of the secret protocol to the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact negotiated only the month before).

“We can’t forget for a moment that what we have here is a great battle over memory,” preached Archbishop Henryk Muszyński of Gniezno at a Mass he held yesterday. “Preserving that memory and the entire truth about the Second World War is our obligation.” That is probably the wisest, most-reasoned remark made in connection with those ceremonies at Westerplatte, the specific spot on the coast at Gdansk where hostilities begain early in the morning of 1 September 1939, from among those cited in Rzeczpospolita’s main article covering the event, by Piotr Kubiak (After the war – the battle over memory). (more…)

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Putin for Obama

Thursday, October 23rd, 2008

The US presidential election is coming up soon, less than two weeks away. That means, among other things, that it’s endorsement season now, and lately those have taken somewhat of an international flavor. You might have already heard about al-Qaeda’s “endorsement” of McCain – perhaps I’ll have the opportunity to write more about that soon. As such, that nod of terroristic approval goes counter to pretty much the whole rest of the world, which prefers Obama as next US president by about a four-to-one margin. (But you’d sort of expect that Osama bin Laden and his henchmen would be inclined to go against the grain, now, wouldn’t you?) More conventional is Russia’s choice, or at least Russia’s seeming choice, as reported by Per Dalgård in the Danish opinion weekly Information (McCain asks Russia for help). (more…)

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Spicy Russo-Georgian Potpourri

Monday, September 1st, 2008

“Georgia – again?” Well, yes. What else would there be? The Republican National Convention? Coming up (we think). Sarah Palin? Not today, but definitely stay tuned on that one, it could turn spectacular. Hurricane Gustav? The European viewpoint there is probably not too interesting, even if we might be somewhat honored by the choice of that quintessentially (Central) European given name for bestowal on the storm. My best sense of the EU’s official position on Gustav – gathered from that extensive trawling through the various national presses that I do for you on a continual basis – is that it’s taken to be a bad thing, definitely.

Actually, developments on the Georgia story do keep on coming, especially if you take the unpleasantness there of last month (not at all unreasonably) as a proxy for the new Eurasian balance-of-power that conflict suddenly revealed to the world. Today is when the EU heads of government are due in Paris to meet on a European response (if any) to Russia’s recent behavior. Looking ahead last Friday, the Berlin correspondent for Poland’s Gazeta Wyborcza, Bartosz T. Wielinski, put forth a mostly pessimistic outlook on what could be accomplished (What the Union can do to Russia on Monday). (more…)

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Good-Bye Putin

Wednesday, August 20th, 2008

The hostilities in Georgia seem to be dying down now. Russian forces are withdrawing – or at least they are supposed to withdraw, under the terms of the cease-fire they signed, but there is considerable doubt as to whether they are actually fulfilling that obligation.

In the meantime, the countries of the NATO alliance struggle to come to terms with the new ruthless military face Russia has shown in this crisis. Germany now stands central in that military alliance, in the same way it has stood central for some time now within the European Union, again because of its sheer weight of population and economic power (and, who knows, maybe also its reputation for military ability in the past), which makes German commentary on these recent developments particularly interesting.

A very good contribution comes from Jochen Bittner, who writes a weblog, called Planet in Progress, that is carried off the Die Zeit webserver. (more…)

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IOC-for-Hire

Wednesday, August 6th, 2008

Back now to the upcoming Beijing Olympic Games. I mentioned before their rampant commercialism. That is certainly not a recent phenomenon by any means, but nonetheless an ever-growing annoyance, clearly at variance with the original “Olympic spirit” and quite possibly a major reason behind the awarding of the Games to Beijing in the first place (that huge Chinese market!), despite the country’s deficiencies in the area of human rights and free information that we have already seen, as well as Beijing’s own deficiencies in sheer clean air which we may be about to witness.

The guardian of the Games and their “Olympic spirit” is supposed to be the 110 members of the International Olympic Committee, lead by its president, the Belgian Jacques Rogge. For anyone who might have any confidence in that body as a defender of the Olympics against the seductions of money, the recent article by Evi Simeoni in the leading German daily the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (or FAZ) should provide a bracing corrective (The Rivalry of the Applicants). (more…)

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Coming: A New Cuban Missile Crisis?

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2008

“Is history about to repeat itself?” asks Clément Daniez of the French newsmagazine Le Point in his article published on-line today, Russians and Americans Replay the Cuban Missile Crisis. Vladimiar Putin has already explicitly spoken of such a thing: last October (2007) he warned that Washington’s plan to set up an anti-missile shield in Europe, with the radar in the Czech Republic and the interceptor missiles themselves in Poland, was setting the stage for a similar sort of serious confrontation between the two world powers as occurred in October, 1962. Of course, in the meantime the Bush administration has gone ahead anyway, as Condoleezza Rice was in Prague on July 8 to sign the agreement with the Czech government for setting up the radar. (more…)

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Deep Purple Funk

Friday, February 8th, 2008

Next Monday, 11 February, is promising to be quite an eventful day on the Gazprom front – that’s of course the gigantic Russan natural gas company, the largest extractor of natural gas in the world, of which the Russian government owns a majority stake. On the one hand, it’s the same-old same-old, what we’ve all seen before, for Monday is the day that Russia, speaking for Gazprom, will cut off all natural gas supplies to the Ukraine due to alleged non-payment by the latter of $1.5 billion. Curiously, Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko has been scheduled for some time to arrive in Moscow for a visit on Tuesday. At least he’ll be glad to be away from his native country and someplace instead where it’s actually warm inside the buildings, though one can imagine that the diplomatic talks he will engage in might still be rather frosty.

But that is all par for the course for a European winter; I can remember recently thinking to myself “Hmm, it’s already February – shouldn’t we have had the regularly-scheduled Russian energy cut-off crisis by now?” More interesting is that next Monday is also the evening of the going-away concert in honor of Dimitri Medvedev – Gazprom chairman now, but Vladimir Putin’s “recommended” candidate for president of the Russian Federation at the upcoming March 2 elections, and therefore also a shoo-in as the next Russian president. The concert will be headlined by the legendary English rock-n-roll band Deep Purple, and this was recently commented upon in the New York Time’s weblog “The Lede: Notes on the News,” by Mike Nizza, who notes that Putin himself will surely be present as well. (more…)

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No NATO for Ukraine

Saturday, December 11th, 2004

One of the key international figures involved in brokering the deal between the Ukrainian government and the opposition that finally led to the agreement for the election repeat on December 26 was Spain’s Javier Solana. But it’s vital here to stay up-to-date on Solana’s career path: he was NATO Secretary-General, but that was in the period 1995-1999. In 2004 in Kiev he has rather represented the European Union, as its High Representative for the Common Foreign & Security Policy (together with the presidents of Poland and Lithuania, who were also actively present there). Thus, it was the EU that was there on the scene, wielding influence from being not only Ukraine’s neighbor but also the club most Ukrainians wants to join. NATO, on the other hand, was not there; and, as Ole Bang Nielsen of Denmark’s Berlingske Tidende reminds us (NATO Puts Ukraine on Ice), the Ukraine cannot expect to find itself on NATO’s short-list of new-member candidates anytime soon. (more…)

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Europe’s Own Voting Mess

Thursday, October 21st, 2004

Uh oh: looks like some funny business with the counting of the ballots. And don’t you find it a little suspicious that all the local election officials, the ones in charge of recording and counting the votes, are all professed partisans of the incumbent?

Yes folks, it’s the old bait-and-switch tactic again. All of this has truly been going on, but not (yet?) in Florida. I’m referring here instead to the recent “elections” in Belarus, commonly known as “Europe’s last dictatorship,” where to no one’s great surprise President Alexander Lukashenko managed to get passed the amendment to the Belarussian constitution that allows him to keep on running for re-election as long as he is physically able.

The key, of course, is that now that the Belarussian constitution allows him to run, it’s overwhelmingly likely that he will always win. This is not due to any special place Lukashenko occupies in the hearts of his countrymen, but rather to his efficiency in finding ways to win, irrespective of what may be the voters’ preferences. Johnni Michelsen of the Danish commentary newspaper Information managed to infiltrate the country to observe the Belarussian election process himself and send back a report: Chaotic Election Day in Belarus. (more…)

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After Beslan: A Czech View

Monday, September 13th, 2004

It’s been a full week now since the bloodbath at Middle School #1 in Beslan, and what effects has that incident had so far? OK, there have been some firings of officials in charge of security in North Ossetia, and indeed of the entire North Ossetian regional government save the top guy, President Alexander Dzasokhov. (Here’s a good summary of those developments – from Australia no less!) And after first refusing any public inquiry into the affair, Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday relented, so that the Russian Senate will start its investigation later on this month.

Still, deeper questions remain, which even those Senators might be hesitant to broach. Like: What can Russia do to prevent such massacres happening again? What connection does it all have to the ongoing violence in Chechenya, and what implications does it have for that struggle? Josef Pazderka comes up with some interesting observations about this incident’s aftermath in his piece (What Changes After Breslan) in the Czech opinion-weekly Respekt. (more…)

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Beslan: Violence the Only Way Out

Monday, September 6th, 2004

The bloodshed that finally ended the two-day stand-off at Middle School #1 in Beslan, North Ossetia was reportedly started by accident: security forces’ reaction to shots being fired at hostages trying to escape and/or some explosives set by the terrorists going off accidentally. It should go without saying that that bloody conclusion to the crisis, which has claimed 335 lives and counting, was not supposed to happen. After all, the Russian authorities had made it plain that the safety of the hundreds of hostages being held captive on the school grounds had “absolute priority.”

Don’t believe it. Even if things came to the particular conclusion they did unintentionally – and even in view of the 25 people the authorities had persuaded the attackers to release unharmed the day before – a violent end to the drama was ultimately inevitable. Journalist Manfred Quiring makes this point well in his recent analysis for Die Welt (“Let It Cost What It Will). (more…)

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Going for Some R&R Down in Kiev-Town

Wednesday, February 11th, 2004

This story almost ran away from me – the big game of hide-and-seek came to an end yesterday when Russian presidential candidate Ivan Rybkin telephoned his family and campaign staff in Moscow to say that he was alive and well and in a hotel in Kiev. That’s what I get for allowing myself to be distracted by the current controversy over George W. Bush’s performance of duty (or lack thereof) for the Texas or Alabama National Guard back in 1972 and 1973. But is the mystery over what happened to Rybkin really cleared up yet?

It’s too bad that I don’t read Russian very well. On the other hand, while gaining that facility would enable me to read Tolstoi, Dostoyevsky, Gogol and the like in the original (something worth being able to do, and I’m certainly not being ironic), it wouldn’t do much towards helping me read independent political commentary in the Russian press, since there’s precious little of that to be found anymore under Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian regime. The Polish press is therefore a substitute that may very well be better than the original. Poland is close-by (much too close, in the historical sense, most Poles will tell you) and certainly has a free press. An additional advantage may be that that history brings forth a suspicious, even hostile attitude towards Russian motives that can’t help but foster an ultra-critical perspective towards any Russian government pronouncements.

(A disadvantage, though, is that, once again, really only Gazeta Wyborcza and Rzeczpospolita have anything to say on the Rybkin case. Isn’t there any other national newspaper out there, and on-line, that will deal with events beyond Poland’s borders? Sorry, Zycie Warszawy just doesn’t seem to cut it. Grzybek! Help!) (more…)

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Poles Very Nervous Over Russian Election Results

Tuesday, December 9th, 2003

The elections to the Russian Duma that took place last Sunday throughout the Russian Federation resulted in an overwhelming victory for the “Jedna Rosja” or “United Russia” party widely seen to be the vehicle of Russian president Vladimir Putin. But take a little closer look – you don’t need to go any further down than third place – and what else do you see? You see the “Liberal Democratic Party,” but don’t let that innocuous name fool you: that’s the right-wing nationalistic party of Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Remember him? He was one of those bizarre politicians whom the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 enabled to crawl out from underneath his rock to ride the crackpot vote to the Duma. Back in the early 1990s Zhirinovsky could be counted upon to utter the most amazing, and alarming statements – for example, I recall that he once threatened one of, or all, the Baltic states with invasion – that you would hope never to hear from a leading politician from the world’s second nuclear power. After providing a few years of that sort of bizarre comic relief, Zhirinovsky’s “Liberal Democrats” faded away in subsequent elections. But now they’re back – to a position in the legislature almost even with the Communists.

I’m no expert in Russia or Russian politics (and I don’t read Russian). But that’s not a problem in the EuroSavant context, which rather calls upon me to pass along the wisdom put forth on a given issue by some European country’s press. Today it’s time to look at the results of those recent Russian elections from the viewpoint of a country that knows Russia all too well: Poland. And there’s scarcely any good news to be found. (more…)

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