Archive for November, 2010

Holy WikiLeaks, Batman!

Tuesday, November 30th, 2010

MOSCOW—Journalists here spent the weekend tensely awaiting the WikiLeaks data dump, having been tipped off that there would be a Russian bombshell in the mix. Would the documents finally reveal just how much of Gazprom Vladimir Putin owned, or how much money he really had? Would they shed light on his personal life? On who really killed Alexander Litvinenko, or all those journalists? Instead we found out that Putin is an “alpha dog”; that President Dmitry Medvedev is not an independent actor; that, by comparison, he is “pale” and “indecisive”; that he is Robin to Putin’s Batman; that the Russian state resembles the Soprano clan; that Putin is extremely close to Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. This was about as shocking as the attendant revelation that 9/11 still haunts American politics. Who didn’t already know that Putin is Batman?

What we learned, besides a few new shades and details, is that American diplomats in Moscow rely on a lot of the same sources Western journalists do in trying to decipher the Kremlin — sources like the Russian press, which is a lot more intrepid than the West gives it credit for. They also don’t seem to spend much time actually deciphering the Kremlin; mostly the cablers were preoccupied with the gossip coming from the bulldogs under the rug or the spiders in a jar or the “heads in a soup” or whatever metaphors such circles use. We discover, for instance, that Russian first lady Svetlana Medvedeva keeps a blacklist of bureaucrats who don’t respect her husband. Does that mean anything real, and do these chinovniki actually suffer for earning her wrath? Unclear. “I would ask whether there’s anything really sensational here, whether there’s anything here that isn’t already in the newspapers,” a Moscow source familiar with the situation but unable to comment officially on the leak, told me.

In fact, there seems little chance that the latest, biggest document vomit will derail America’s largely productive relationship with Moscow, an achievement that Barack Obama can justifiably flaunt as perhaps his sole untarnished triumph as president. The official response has ranged from strong condemnation to disdain — “imaginary Hollywood characters do not require comment,” Medvedev’s spokeswoman said, and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called the cables “amusing reading” — and this, given both sides’ interest in not rocking the reset boat, is also not a surprise.

In addition to the fact that much of the information in the cables — even the intertwining of the Russian police and organized crime — has been widely reported in the Russian press, officials on both sides say they weren’t really caught off guard. “When the U.S. found out what would be published, they got in touch, they warned the respective governments and asked not to make this into a big deal,” says Sergei Markov, a Russian parliamentarian who specializes in foreign policy. “The authors of these cables are not exactly policymakers. I think the Russians see and know the difference,” says a senior Obama administration official who was not authorized to speak to the press.

As for the potential for diplomatic awkwardness now that everyone knows America thinks Medvedev wears green tights, few Russia watchers seemed concerned. “In Russia, unlike in America, where optimism reigns, the views on politics are extremely cynical,” says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs. “No one is surprised that diplomats say these kinds of things.” (Lukyanov added that only Medvedev stood to be offended. “Putin is likely to be flattered,” he says. “He has built his whole political image on being the alpha dog.”) There is also a practical matter preventing any kind of real offense, the American side was quick to point out. “I personally don’t see what the big deal is,” the Obama official says. “They intercept our phones and emails enough to make this not surprising.” Besides, those Batman-Robin analogies, he adds, were the work of “Bushies.” “Obama doesn’t treat Medvedev as Robin,” he says.

And while Obama may face political repercussions at home for the leaked information, on the Russian side no one really cares, given how little new information was revealed — except, of course, the fact that Chechen president and deranged boy-warrior Ramzan Kadyrov gives gold bullion as wedding gifts. We did not learn, for instance, anything new or definitive about how power is distributed between Medvedev’s Kremlin and Putin’s White House, about how Medvedev feels about his role in the tandem, or about his future ambitions — or whether anyone who matters cares. Given the banality of the disclosures, the Russians are likely to respond the way they know best: purging. “We will draw internal conclusions,” says Markov. “Most likely, they’ll look at the cables to see who spoke a little too frankly with the Americans and a couple department heads or deputy ministers will be fired.”

In the meantime, the Americans await a new batch of data, one that could actually make a big impact. “To be honest, I was much more worried about what might have been in there,” the Obama official told me. “But this roller-coaster ride isn’t done yet.” And while the Wikicoaster climbs the next over-anticipated hill, the Russians, for once, radiate a bystander’s innocent pity. “We feel sympathy and awkwardness,” a Russian diplomat told the Interfax news agency, because “rooting around in diplomatic dirty laundry is not very pleasant.”

Holy WikiLeaks, Batman! [FP]

Oleg Kashin’s Horrible Truth

Saturday, November 6th, 2010

The paramedics reached 30-year-old journalist Oleg Kashin Saturday morning at 12:40 a.m. He was lying outside the door to his apartment building in central Moscow, his face bloodied, his legs mangled, the ground covered in blood. “He showed his hand to the doctor so he could see it was all broken,” a neighbor told TV reporters. The toll, tallied by various news sources, was chilling: two broken jaws, one broken leg, a fractured skull at the temple and a heavy concussion, blood in the lungs, fingers partially torn off at the joints, one of them later amputated. By the time Moscow woke up to the news on Saturday, Kashin was already in an artificially induced coma.

At Kommersant, the newspaper where Kashin works, no one doubted that the attack was related to his journalism. “The thing that bothers me is that at the moment of the beating, they broke his fingers,” the editor in chief said in a radio interview. “It is completely obvious that the people who did this did not like what he was saying and what he was writing.” Kashin’s iPhone, wallet, and other personal belongings remained on his person, untouched.

There was no shortage of theories about why Kashin was targeted. Many pointed instantly at United Russia’s youth wing, Molodaya Gvardia, which openly threatened Kashin in an August article on its website. It was titled, in the hyperbolic, hyphenated language of early Soviet propaganda, “Journalist-traitors need to be punished!” “They have betrayed their homeland, they have spit on their civic duty!” it blared, adding Kashin to a list of others needing to be punished. Kashin’s sin was daring to interview one of the radical anti-fascist protestors who attacked a local government building while protesting the cutting down of the Khimki forest this summer. That interview was not particularly inflammatory — in fact, Kashin took a stern line with the young hoodlum — but it brought the police to Kommersant’s offices, asking the paper to turn over Kashin’s email.

Russian journalists are usually killed or attacked because they threaten powerful financial or economic interests. The chopping down of the Khimki forest to make room for a highway between Moscow and St. Petersburg has exactly those interests behind it: It was being financed by Arkady Rotenberg, Vladimir Putin’s judo buddy, and Putin proclaimed this summer, amid growing protests, that “all decisions have been made.” That is, the road would be built as planned. (This remains the silent consensus in Moscow, despite Medvedev’s August moratorium.)

Moreover the attack on Kashin seems to fit a disturbing pattern. Only a few days ago, Khimki activist Konstantin Fetisov was attacked with a baseball bat when he got out of his car in front of his Moscow home. The left side of his head was bashed in. His wife later found a fragment of the bat that had splintered off from the force of the blow. Like Kashin, Fetisov remains in an artificially induced coma and in serious condition.

Kashin’s case most resembles a far earlier one, however. In the spring of 2008, Mikhail Beketov, a local journalist in Khimki who sought to expose the corruption behind the road, was beaten and left unconscious and bleeding in front of his house. He too slipped into a coma. There are eerie similarities between this attack and Kashin’s: Beketov’s legs were so brutally beaten that one had to be amputated, and he suffered such severe brain damage that he can now barely speak. But his hands were the most symbolic, chilling target. Three of Beketov’s mangled fingers had to be amputated. Whoever got Beketov, and whoever got Kashin, wanted to make sure they never wrote again.

But that’s as far as the theory goes. Kashin covered the subject of Khimki thoroughly and in his characteristically beautiful, at times acidic prose. But nothing he wrote was all that seditious; he didn’t really expose anything that threatened anyone’s financial interests. And, unlike the journalists who have been killed, attacked, or harrassed in Russia during the last decade, Kashin is not a fringe or opposition figure. When I first met him, in the winter of 2006, to interview him about the politics of young Russians — his specialty — he struck me as a Kremlin apologist. Kommersant is Russia’s most prominent daily, a mainstream paper owned by Medvedev buddy and mining mogul Alisher Usmanov.

I was, of course, wrong about Kashin. He is not an apologist but is, in the best traditions of his generation, simply hard to categorize. He covers youth movements for his paper, and he is equally unsparing in his coverage of both the pro-Kremlin organizations, like Nashi and Molodaya Gvadia, and the opposition ones, like the Yabloko and Antifa movements.

He is also a loud, profane, and well-loved member of the Russian web community, which is why most of the fallout has occurred in a parallel Twitter universe. Kashin’s handle, KSHN, was soon trending as hundreds of updates and hang-in-theres flooded the Russian-language part of the service. Most surprisingly, the pro-Kremlin wing of the Twittersphere, aside from the occasional outburst of “he had it coming,” was as horrified by the attack as everyone else. “This filth was harsh with Kashin,” tweeted Konstantin Rykov, a blogger who often writes of the “liberasts” — that is, liberals plus pederasts. “Broke his fingers so he can’t write. Damn.” Rykov spent the rest of the day tweeting frequent, distraught updates on Kashin’s condition and trying to remember what Kashin could have possibly said to have this happen. Kashin, however wrong in their view, was still a member of their community, and a physical attack, especially one of such savageness, was simply beyond the pale.

“Oleg never wrote flatteringly about Nashi,” said Robert Shlegel, a federal commissar of the movement and a tech-savvy young Duma deputy. “He spoke rather harshly about us. We’ve known Oleg for many years, and he criticized us a lot, but no one ever spoke of attacking him ever, in any way.” Kashin did sometimes defend Nashi, and the group, Shlegel said, plans on asking the prosecutor general to solve this case quickly. Shlegel also agreed that this was not a random attack, that Kashin was singled out because he was a journalist. “Hooligans don’t deliberately break fingers,” he said. Sounding unusually morose and rattled, Shlegel sighed and added, “To be honest, I’m in total shock.”

It wasn’t just bloggers who responded with alarm and empathy. Vesti, the leading news program on Russian state TV, led with a report about Kashin. Nashi and Molodaya Gvardia issued statements condemning the attack, though the latter chose to post it on its website with photographs of Kashin hugging two skimpily clad girls. Medvedev, whose press secretary had been woken in the middle of the night with the news, announced — on his Twitter feed, of course — that he had asked the Interior Ministry and prosecutor’s office to take control of the case. “The criminals must be found and punished,” He wrote. (Medvedev has also called Usmanov, the paper’s owner, to offer help. Usmanov is said to be paying Kashin’s medical bills, including his eventual transfer out of the country for further treatment.) Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika was reported to be personally overseeing the case, and Kashin’s friends said that the entire police force seemed to be on the case, calling them in for questioning. (“I am now being interrogated by a woman in a gold Rolex,” Kashin’s ex-wife and fellow Kommersant reporter wrote on her Facebook wall.)

It is all a striking contrast to when journalist Anna Politkovskaya was killed in 2006. Then-President Vladimir Putin took days to respond. When he did, he said that “her influence over political life in Russia was minimal.” Today’s emphatic response was, perhaps, due to the fact that Kashin was not a fringe figure, like Politkovskaya. Or it could have been because Kashin works for Usmanov. But it was also a tacit acknowledgment of how bad the attack looks abroad — and at home, too, during a period of relative openness. The question now is whether or not the Kremlin will follow through with an arrest and a conviction to send a strong signal to a culture used to a breathtaking impunity in such matters.

“The question isn’t whether they’ll find who did it — in fact, they probably already have their pictures over at the precinct,” says Oleg Mitvol, who, until a few weeks ago, was a local prefect opposed to the Khimki road and spoke often to Kashin on the subject. “The question is who ordered the attack, and whether, once they’re found — given how high up they probably are — the government can tell society about them.” Mitvol recalled that, when one of his deputies was attacked, the main hit man was found dead. “That’s what will probably happen here, too,” he said. “Considering the massive public resonance of this case, the people who ordered it will try to get rid of the people who carried it out.”

The explanation for the attack on Kashin, however, is probably far more banal than all the conspiratorial chatter would suggest. Kashin was attacked during a holiday weekend that was once intended to celebrate the anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, but is now called, inexplicably, National Unity Day. Every year, it is marked by the Russian March, a parade — easily granted by the authorities — of ultra-nationalists, skinheads, white supremacists, and other terrifying dregs. They’re generally not a peaceful, or a sober, group. Fetisov was beaten right after this year’s parade, Kashin a day later. Molodaya Gvardia may not have directly ordered the attack on Kashin, but its incendiary language, coupled with enough booze and nationalist celebratory spirit, may easily have pushed someone past the boundaries of mere talk.

Tellingly, toward Saturday evening, Moladaya Gvardia scrubbed the incendiary article about “journalist-traitors,” removing the pictures of journalists it had stamped with “WILL BE PUNISHED.” Atop the story, the movement added this statement: “Molodaya Gvardia is extremely outraged by the barbaric attack on journalist Kashin. There is civilized political struggle, and there is cold-blooded criminality. There are artistic images, and there is real life. We call on everyone to understand that.” It’s unclear what this hail-Mary addendum revealed: a craven need for self-protection, or, worse, an admission that the organization cannot control the nationalistic fires it ignites.

It’s common, when violence or death cleaves into the mundane, to remember the ordinary things that preceded the rupture. In retrospect, they can seem almost paranormal. Yesterday evening, before the thugs got to him, Kashin went to a dinner party at the home of his friend Max Avdeev, a photographer. He arrived around nine. “He certainly wasn’t expecting anything,” Avdeev told me. “He was in a cheerful mood.” On the way over, Kashin tripped on an exposed wire and scraped his knee. (“Fucking shit I busted my knee!” he tweeted.) Upstairs, in Avdeev’s apartment, just a few metro stops from Kashin’s, he complained that he was always unlucky.

Kashin left Avdeev’s around 11, apparently to meet a woman named Nastia, for whom the police are now searching. On the way there, he snapped a picture with his iPhone of a kiosk being demolished on the orders of the city’s new mayor. It was his last tweet before he lost consciousness a couple hours later.

The attack itself unfolded almost cinematically, something Kashin wouldn’t have failed to note, were he to write about it. He came home shortly after midnight to find two men waiting for him by the fence with a bouquet of flowers. Then they beat him with their fists and also with some metal objects. It was the yardman, witnessing this from the darkness, who called the ambulance.

Writing three days after journalist Anna Politkovskaya, laden with groceries, was gunned down in the elevator of her apartment building, Kashin was skeptical of her role as a journalist — she was, he said, “a newsmaker” rather than a reporter. “‘But how can that be!’ the reader-romantic will exclaim,” Kashin opined. “‘She wrote the horrible truth about Chechnya, about Ramzan Kadyrov, about the feds [the federal forces in Chechnya]. One can be killed for the truth, and so they killed her for the truth.’ I am going to disappoint the reader-romantic: There is no horrible truth for which a journalist can be killed.”

Oleg Kashin’s Horrible Truth [FP]

Divide and Conquer

Wednesday, November 3rd, 2010

Eduard Limonov has long been a black sheep in Moscow’s opposition circles. A louche, 67-year-old provocateur, he writes graphic paeans to anal sex in his novels and runs a fringe political party, the National Bolsheviks, whose ranks are stuffed with young’uns ready to brawl with the police and go to jail for it. So Limonov is generally avoided, or at least spoken ill of, by respectable Russian liberals.

Which is why, in July 2009, it was somewhat odd that Limonov, whose own politics are a combustible mix of old-school socialism, Russian nationalism, and anarchist street theater, approached the queen bee of Russian liberalism and head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, 83-year-old Lyudmila Alexeyeva. Alexeyeva is the idealistic child of the Khrushchev thaw and a decorated veteran of the Soviet dissident movement who has been waging a steady, dignified human rights campaign for the last four decades. Alexeyeva has become the doyenne of today’s opposition, which is why Limonov wanted her — and her cloak of legitimacy — on board.

His proposal: defending Article 31 of the Russian Constitution, which guarantees freedom of assembly but has been all but ignored by Putin-era authorities who crack down on opposition rallies with trucks of beefy, steely special forces, arrests, and beatings. Limonov’s plan was simple: organize a gathering at Triumfalnaya Square, in the center of Moscow, on the 31st of every month (or at least those that have a 31st day). If they squashed that, too, it would be a clear and embarrassing sign to the rest of the world: The Kremlin has no use for the constitution, or the rule of law.

Limonov asked Alexeyeva to join with him and bring legitimacy to his movement. “I thought it was a good idea,” Alexeyeva told me recently. “I liked it. And I said, ‘I’m ready.'” She was a little hesitant, though, as all her colleagues told her to stay away from Limonov, and she didn’t have such a high opinion of him herself. So Alexeyeva compromised: She could not attend the first meeting — she was away — but said she would attend the next one as an observer, to see whether it was something she could get behind. In July, she missed a crowd of 200 — labeled “the radical opposition” by the Russian media — turning out to protest, about a quarter of whom, including Limonov, were quickly and firmly rounded up. She didn’t miss much, though, as the same thing happened a month later, on Aug. 31. “I went and I was horrified by the number of special forces and by how they behaved toward citizens who were there totally peacefully.” So Alexeyeva joined, and, slowly, attendance from the mainstream opposition grew. “People started coming only when Alexeyeva started going,” says former energy minister turned opposition leader Vladimir Milov.

After a while, Strategy 31 became a staple of the liberal armory. As more and more banned protests were held, and as more and more people got rounded up, the differences between Alexeyeva’s camp of establishment, intelligentsia opposition and Limonov’s cult-of-personality and crew of ragamuffins seemed less prickly. They had a common enemy: Not a single official request to hold a protest on the 31st of the month was accepted by Moscow authorities. Ever. It became yet another one of the soothingly predictable events in the political life of the country: Alexeyeva and Limonov would file a request; the Moscow mayor’s office would say something along the lines of, “Sorry, it happens to be the exact time of the Winter Wonders Fair!”; Alexeyeva and Limonov would rail against the authorities and turn up anyway at Triumfalnaya on the evening of the 31st. Like clockwork, they and their supporters would be met by what seemed like a full division of special forces and police who would then round up a few dozen and cart them away in their scary-looking police buses. Once, a pro-Kremlin counterprotester even whacked Alexeyeva on the head.

Then in mid-October of this year, a funny thing happened: The Kremlin allowed the protest. Just like that. Presidential Chief of Staff Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin’s Karl Rove, explained the decision in a rare interview with a Moscow newspaper once allied with recently ousted Mayor Yuri Luzhkov. “If, in multimillion-person Moscow, 200 people want to gather only on the 31st, only on Triumfalnaya, and in such small numbers, let them gather,” Surkov said, as if all this time and by some meteorological coincidence someone else had been blocking the 31-ers. And so, after some wrangling over the numbers — organizers asked to be allowed 1,500 attendees; the Kremlin countered with 200 — Surkov and President Dmitry Medvedev’s chief of staff, Sergei Naryshkin, offered Alexeyeva a compromise: 800 protesters, 200 journalists (a flipping of the usual ratio at such events), in a specific part of the square, in a fenced-in area.

“I knew that area, and I knew it would hold more than 800 people,” Alexeyeva said. “So I asked if they would guarantee the safety of everyone that came to the meeting [even if it was over 800 people], and Surkov turned to me and whispered, ‘Yes, Lyudmila Mikhailovna'” — using the deferential patronymic — “‘we do.'”

So Alexeyeva agreed to the conditions. Limonov balked, and called the compromise “fucking rude.” (Or, if you want the literal translation, “whoring.”) He would not, he said, participate in the state-sanctioned protest, but would instead hold his own, right next to Alexeyeva’s. Which is exactly what happened on the evening of Oct. 31. Alexeyeva and more mainstream opposition leaders like former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov and Khimki forest defender Yevgenia Chirikova spoke to their crowd of up to 3,000. Limonov and his gang hovered on the periphery, agitating and throwing things, until the riot police violently broke up his little affair.

Limonov was thrice dragged by his hands and feet over to the legally sanctioned protest area. “My head nearly hit the pavement. You think that’s normal?” Limonov asked me. His gang was slowly squeezed back toward the police vans, and a few protesters were briefly detained.

The fragile coalition had been splintered, one half co-opted by the Kremlin, the other threatened and marginalized. In the days since the protest, Limonov has raged publicly against Alexeyeva for compromising with authorities, writing screed after fuming screed on his blog. In the media, he complained that Alexeyeva had usurped his “brand” and that “Strategy 31” was something he had “built for myself.”

“I want respect,” he told me. “I don’t think we should roll over and compromise. We want the right to have protests anywhere, anytime, with any amount of people. We don’t even have to apply for permission because it’s in the constitution.” In December, he plans to protest the protest. Again.

“I don’t understand this, really,” Alexeyeva told me, adding that no one disputes Limonov’s authorship of the so-called Strategy 31. “Any creator of a brand should be happy when his brand takes off. It would be like the composer of a Russian folk song complaining that his songs are being performed in Australia without attribution. He should be happy!”

Other opposition figures were less generous. “Oh, he can go to hell,” Milov said of Limonov in an interview, adding that he has been skeptical of the Strategy 31 movement to begin with, partly because it’s a distraction from bigger goals such as fighting corruption, advocating for free and fair elections, and getting representation in the government. “It’s kindergarten,” he said.

He also insists on the utility of government-approved protests, as they draw more people. “People are scared to get arrested and beaten,” Milov said. “And it’s hard to judge people for this. They have jobs and families. It’s not fair to force them onto the barricades.” He says that Strategy 31 “has done a lot of damage” to the cause of the opposition for this exact reason. “It took a lot of effort to convince people that our protests had been agreed to by the government,” he says.

But whomever Strategy 31 belongs to, the Kremlin’s authorization of the protests amounts to a deft declawing of the movement — the point of which is to be allowed to freely demonstrate. Now they’re allowed to rally in Moscow (with permission, of course), and, in a handful of other Russian cities, the local authorities readily allow these “meetings.” And the police, by all accounts, haven’t gotten too rough. So now what? Why have any more protests?

Alexeyeva says the war is not yet won: She still wants to eliminate the fences, remove limits on the number of protesters, and be allowed to march, rather than just stand in place waving flags. “When people are banned from gathering at Triumfalnaya, that’s easy to understand,” says Milov, exasperated. “But when you want 1,500 approved instead of 800, or you want to walk, that’s a lot harder to explain.”

But for now, the only clear winner is the Kremlin. “Surkov stole their thunder,” says political analyst Masha Lipman of the Moscow Carnegie Center. “There are no simple, truthful statements that can be made about this situation. Did they allow a protest? Not quite. Did they ban it? Not quite. And when you have a fuzzy situation like this, it always plays in the Kremlin’s favor because you, the journalist, can’t write a lede about the Kremlin suppressing freedoms.”

Alexeyeva, in the meantime, is happy that Limonov has splintered off. She will apply for a Dec. 31 protest, without him. She says his defection makes things easier for her and that there’s enough work to do in the fight for freedom of assembly in Russia to last her until the end of her life. And what of Limonov? “I’ve never said anything bad about him. He’s the one who says nasty things about me,” she says. “I don’t get it. I don’t get what he is trying to do. I have too many things to do to sort out his psychological problems. If he behaves this badly, it means his mother didn’t raise him well.”

Divide and Conquer [FP]